Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche steps outside of a rock band context on his new Nonesuch solo album, "Mobile." As he writes in the liner notes, the eight-track project investigates "the idea of negative or
Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche steps outside of a rock band context on his new Nonesuch solo album, "Mobile." As he writes in the liner notes, the eight-track project investigates "the idea of negative or opposite rhythms by utilizing the intrinsic spaces -- or rests -- of rhythms." Among the pieces is a variation on Steve Reich's 1972 duet for hand-clapping, "Clapping Music," as well as the 11-minute "Monkey Chant for Solo Drum Kit," which is loosely based on the Hindu epic Ramayana tale.
Kotche chatted with Billboard.com about his creative process, his inspiration and how indulging in the project has made him a better drummer in Wilco.
How long did you spend working on this? Was it hard to find time based on Wilco's busy schedule?
It was definitely piece meal. Besides the rhythmic ideas I set out to explore, that's why this record is composed. It's written down on paper. I did a lot of it on the computer too. I was touring with Wilco pretty heavily, so this was done a lot in hotel rooms or on the tour bus. I had a pretty good work ethic on the road, so when Wilco would take a break, I'd sneak away in the studio for a couple of days. It was probably [done] over the course of a full year, or maybe 10 months. [But the] total time was probably a week and a half or two weeks.
What does writing on the road mean exactly? Is that you by yourself on the drum kit during soundcheck?
I write a lot on graph paper, so it's me with my notebooks coming up with different ideas and notating the music. In the hotel room, I have a practice pad with sticks, or a little bitty xylophone. The title track I started writing on thumb piano in my hotel room. I would record ideas on Minidisc or the computer. Even though it's all steeped in rhythm, more of it was done on paper than on drum kit. Some of the stuff had to be fleshed out later on kit, especially "Monkey Chant."
Did any of this stuff ever get kicked around in more of a Wilco context, or were you keeping it all separate?
I was kind of separating it. I make the solo records to explore these more difficult rhythmic concepts and things that probably wouldn't be appropriate for me to do within Wilco. For me, that was a way to be in a place where instead of being a part of an ensemble where I do have responsibilities to the lyrics and the musicians, my only responsibility is to myself and being able to really explore these ideas and concepts. Overall, some of the things I learned from doing the solo stuff opened up my eyes and made me a better drummer in Wilco. For instance, "Monkey Chant." I have to think, which limb is the main voice? Which is the supporting voice? Am I able to convey that narrative through the sounds? So, I'm thinking of the drums and my body even as an ensemble. I can take that back to Wilco and think, in this song, am I trying to illustrate that lyric? Am I just laying down a canvas for everything else? Am I providing contrast? Am I setting up the next section? What part am I playing? That was something I think I became a lot more aware of after doing the solo music. Take "Monkey Chant" again. It has hills and valleys where there are sad, very sparse parts, but also some really intense drum-istic parts. How can I help each Wilco song evolve? How can the drumming play into that as opposed to just providing the beat?
What a cool and useful outcome!
I hope so. That's the reason I do it, to grow as a musician and ultimately as a person. So as long as I'm doing that, I'll keep making them.
Well, further to that, what are some of the most fun aspects of working on this stuff?
In the process itself, it's a lot of responsibility. It's nice being the studio in a rock band, where you have this sounding board with all these other musicians you have a tremendous amount of respect for. When I'm doing the solo music, it's just me. But actually, [Wilco keyboardist] Mikael Jorgensen was key for this record for me. He engineered the whole thing. He was my only other sounding board, really. Him and my wife, who is a bio-engineer. The joy and the pleasure comes at the end, when it's actually done and it's at a point where I know I accomplished what I set out to do.
Did you record any other material for this?
There was one song that I didn't include that I'd written previous to this point. I wanted to keep the record, just for my own hang-ups, really conceptually sound in dealing with three or four specific rhythmic concepts that dealt with the word "mobile." Even though the record stylistically is kind of all over the place -- there's elements of electronic, just drumming, more of a world thing or modern classical -- for me, it's really cohesive under the surface. That extra tune didn't really fit in with that concept as much. The length of the record is perfect. Too many records are far too long these days.
Steve Reich is such a towering figure for music of this ilk. Can you talk about what he means to you as an influence or an artist?
I really love the process of it all and the way he incorporates space. For me, it's just really beautiful music. I'm a fan of what is termed minimalism, but in particular his music has an emotional quality to it that I really respond to. Also, he's a percussionist, so he's interested in a lot of the same things I'm interested in, like Balinese music, gamelan and African drumming. He's using a lot of keyboard percussion, glockenspiel, vibraphone and marimba. That's another thing that really makes me gravitate toward his music. Once, Robert Hurwitz, the president of Nonesuch, was the principal for a day at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in New York. He put on an assembly and he had me come out and play [Reich's] "Clapping Music" for the kids. But Steve was also there and played it right before me [laughs]. I had to follow it with my version.
Have you been performing your solo music lately?
Yes, but not all of it is possible. I did two tours opening for Jeff Tweedy, and those were theaters. I've opened shows here in New York for Mike Patton and Rahzel. I just did some with Teddy Thompson on the East Coast. Some things translate very easily, like "Monkey Chant" and "Fantasy on a Shona Theme." Those are written for solo performances. Some of the other stuff I have to alter. Instead of "Clapping Music," which is written for 12 people, I play Reich's "Music for Pieces of Wood," which is for quintet. I loop one part and each of my limbs plays one of the other parts. I've also played some new songs I've written which are just on the drum set. Coming up, I'm playing with  David Cossin from Bang On A Can All-Stars in Cincinnati. We'll be doing some adaptations of other pieces and some of our own stuff. I've also got some solo shows coming up, like this jam band festival in Illinois. So, it's from museums to jam bands to rock audiences!
You also did a drum clinic recently. How often do you have time for things like this?
Not often. I see that more as one of my only outlets to teach now. When I joined Wilco, I was teaching percussion at three high schools. I had 50 private students a week and my schedule right now really doesn't allow for that. Maybe one week a year, I have time to teach private lessons in the Chicago area. This is my way to get back out there and communicate with people. I always learn when I do that stuff.
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