Drum lesson: Wilco’s Glenn Kotche on found sounds


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Drum aficionados, this is a good month to be in Los Angeles. This Saturday, Guitar Center will stage its annual ‘Drum Off’ finals at Club Nokia, with a host of session-aces and band members performing mini rhythmic flights of fancy.

Some heavy hitters will be on hand as judges, including Peter Criss from Kiss and the Mars Volta’s Dave Elitch, while drummers including Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa), Mike Portnoy (Avenged Sevenfold), Dennis Chambers (Santana), Brooks Wackerman (Bad Religion) and Jabo Starks (James Brown) are scheduled to play short sets with other musicians.


But drum geeks have another reason to rejoice: Wilco’s string of shows in Los Angeles. The Chicago band plays the Palladium Jan. 24, the Wiltern Jan 25 and the Los Angeles Theatre Jan. 27, which means their stellar drummer Glenn Kotche will be there too. The former drum teacher -- himself once a classical percussion student at the University of Kentucky -- has a wide-open view of the instrument. ‘When I am playing solo, there’s a mission. I am out to prove that this can be music,’ he said.

With so much drum expertise on the horizon, Pop & Hiss thought it a fine time to dedicate a post to the craft-- or at least to Kotche and his wildly inventive approach to the instrument. It follows yesterday’s talk with Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy.

In Kotche’s solo atmospheric work with On Fillmore, the drum set becomes an orchestra, bits and pieces of which have been explored throughout Kotche’s decade-plus with Wilco, be it the aggressive, double-timed rock of ‘Art of Almost,’ the spacious, redemptive groove of ‘i Am Trying to Break Your Heart,’ or the found sounds, shuffling toys and back massagers that permeate parts of new album ‘The Whole Love.’

Explain your approach to the instrument. ‘I think there’s a future in percussion. It’s been codified. ‘This is what it is. This is what its role is.’ I see percussion as a wide-open world. It’s like the last frontier in musical instruments, especially in classical music. It encompasses everything that isn’t a string or a wind instrument. It’s kind of limitless. So when I play solo, or any of the compositions I do, I’m trying to assert that this is an instrument capable of making music. I try not to make it too heady and I try not to make it too low-brow, like the traditional drum solo is the traditional time for the bathroom break. I try to make music.’

There’s a repetitive roll call in new song ‘Capital City.’ This was a field recording? ‘I made demos for Jeff [Tweedy] last year. He asked for material, so I threw him some drum beats and a collage of field recordings. I know it will never be on the record, but I send it to him. Maybe it will spark an idea? One of those Jeff remembered. It was a field recording we made on tour. We were on tour in Leeds, and there was a fire drill that went off in the middle of the night, and they had a roll call. They evacuated everyone. I recorded it. I record constantly. I have a digital recorder with me all the time. If I go on a walk, it’ll be with me. Anywhere I go, if there’s an interesting sound, I hit record. I’m always cataloguing sound. It’s all percussion, whether it’s a baby crying in an airplane, or an amazing escalator vibrating thing.’

Explain the back massagers.‘Some of that stuff I laid on ‘Sunloathe.’ Most of the band weren’t even in the studio. I had my back massagers and hand fans on all the drums, just vibrating and moving around, buzzing. That’s still in the mix. You put them on the drums, and then put some chains and bells on the drums, and you can get a weird drone. If people knew what I was doing, they’d be like, ‘That’s lame. Get out of here.’ But then they hear it and it works.’


Talk about the experience of replacing Wilco’s original drummer, Ken Coomer, in 2001. ‘Those guys at that point would be in the studio at 5 a.m., and then I had my first drum lesson at 7 a.m. out in the suburbs, so I was getting no sleep. When they asked me to join, I had no expectations of anything. I thought, ‘Here’s this band, and I don’t even know if I’m the right fit.’ I was wary of touring that much, and I thought the fans would hate me because I replaced Ken. Then the label dropped us. The future was pretty uncertain. People always say, ‘That must have been so crazy,’ but you know what? Not really. It was a functional situation. It was business as usual. This is how bands are. There’s usually a couple freaks and there’s a lot of drama and things don’t always go the way you want them to go. Worst-case scenario, we would have been on an indie label.’

How closely did you adhere to what Coomer had done on Wilco’s first three albums? ‘I had a lot of reverence. Ken was the right fit for those records. He sounds great on those records, and I wanted to honor that. So I played what he played. But I’m a fairly different player than him, and my own style would eventually come through. Once we started playing live, what was learned and studied would be left behind.’

Rhythm plays a huge part on ‘The Whole Love.’ Wilco, for instance, has never sounded as funky as it does on parts of ‘Art of Almost’ and ‘I Might.’ ‘There was a lot more freedom. There was a lot less micro-management. Look, the drums go first. People are always chiming in. ‘Can you go to the rise instead of the hi-hat?’ For ‘Sky Blue Sky,’ it was largely drums-by-committee. I would have my part but it may not work with what [multi-instrumentalist] Pat [Sansone] was doing, so I’d change this little thing, and Jeff would have me change that little thing. But with this? This was our own label, no time line, our own studio. Jeff doesn’t hold tight reins in the studio. He’s always open-minded and generous. But this one he was very clear: ‘Any ideas get explored.’ If someone had an idea, we did it.’


Wilco’s riveting ‘Art of Almost,’ an oral history

Wilco’s Nels Cline: ‘L.A. gets no respect as far as culture’


The secret production weapon on Wilco’s ‘The Whole Love’

-- Todd Martens

Images: Nels Cline, left, Mikael Jorgensen, Jeff Tweedy, Pat Sansone, John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)