Way back before a new job and a beach vacation, Soundproof had the extreme privilege to get Wilco drummer and percussionist extraordinaire Glenn Kotche on the phone to talk a little bit about the Solid Sound Festival, touring, and life and stuff. I'll give you lazy readers the highlights first, but we'll post the interview in its entirety after the jump.
What we learned from Glenn:
- He's an amazing musician (not just rock drummer) that is passionate about percussion.
- He's also incredibly busy.
- Solid Sound was actually curated by Wilco members; they didn't just pass it off to promoters and managers. Cool.
- The drum installation sounds awesome. You should definitely carve out some time to make some noise for yourself.
- Mikael Jorgensen likes funny stuff.
- This could be an annual thing so come out and ensure that they make it so.
- No new Wilco stuff expected until early/mid 2011. That's okay because there's enough side project material to keep all of us busy. Phew.
And now for the rest of the story...
SPB - Can you tell us a little bit about how Solid Sound came to be and the original vision?
GK - The origin of the festival is a bit ambiguous. It was a confluence of a lot of things. We had talked in years past about doing some sort of festival or traveling tour or something where we curated more of a weekend with bands and other things. And that kind of came together at the same time with our management company moving out to Massachusetts and hooking up with the promoter Alex Crothers and I think then the idea was more fully explored, like, "Hey maybe we could do this and this would be a good place to do it out here." And then hooking up with Mass MoCA I think it all just clicked and they had the right personalities involved and it seemed like this was the year to try doing it.
SPB - Did you have connections with Mass MoCA or how did Mass MoCA end up being the site?
GK - I'm not really sure other than that it was in the area that was being talked about, and obviously it's an amazing place. My friends who I've worked with in Bang on a Can, they have their summer institute there every year and have nothing but great things to say about it. It's just a great place and I think that the people who work there and run it were really into the idea and really support and open to try it. So I think that it was just the right personalities involved.
SPB - So how much has the band been hands-on with the curation of the festival and hand selecting some of the artists? Or have the promoters been the driving force?
GK - No, it's pretty much just been the band as far as suggestions. A few of us are doing exhibits or presentations, and that all came from us; the other acts that are playing, that all came from us; the comedians that were selected, that all came from us; the movies that will be played, everything is coming from the band.
SPB - Your exhibit is listed as "drum installation". Do you have a name for this performance art, and can you tell us a little bit more about the design and original vision of the installation?
GK - Well it's not really performance art - it's more of a hands-on exhibit of my prepared drum heads. So when I play solo percussion shows, one of the instruments I use are prepared drum heads. These are basically taking the principal of a prepared piano and translating that to drums. So I take normal drums that you can hit and put a bunch of materials through the heads - different wires, cables, and springs and things - so the drum acts as a resonator as well. Which kind of ties in my whole philosophy about percussion, from my background in classical percussion. It's more than just rhythm; it's also about providing color and texture. And that's something I've always done in Wilco, and with these prepared drum heads, I'm able to get a lot of different unique sounds. And since they're amplified, I'm able to get these microscopic small sounds and get them to compete with the rest of the drums. For me, using these on my setup, it's really broadened the palette that I have to work with, the different sounds and instruments capable of being produced from a drum kit. So I use those and they're unusual and different, and people ask me about them all the time - 'What are they? How do you make them? How do you play them?' All those kinds of questions. It just seemed like a good opportunity for me to make many of them and have them in an exhibit where people can come in and play them themselves and explore and try to get different sounds. Since this is the first year we're doing it, and the first time I'm doing the exhibit, we're just going to keep it on a basic level like that. A hands-on interaction with the prepared drum heads. I have a bunch of ideas to do with it in future years to maybe broaden it and expand it, but for right now it's pretty much just come on in and make some noise.
SPB - You make mention towards maybe doing this again in the future. Is that the plan - to make this an annual event?
GK - You know, nothing has been talked about concretely, but I definitely think that's everyone's desire. Hopefully its successful enough on all fronts that we can justify doing it again. And that people enjoy it enough that they would come back. But yeah, I think it would be something really cool to do once a year; have us swoop in on Mass MoCA for a weekend and take over and curate and try different things. We all have lots of ideas, but with time constraints in the first year, and we're keeping it a lot more Wilco-centric this year. Which I think is great for the fans because they get to see all the side projects and all our individual personalities and how those come together to make what Wilco is. It would be nice to expand upon that idea in future years.
SPB - Do you have anything in particular that you are looking forward to especially for the festival?
GK - For me, just getting there and seeing the building, seeing the exhibits is one thing I'm really excited about because I've actually never been there. But also some of the other bands. I really want to see The Books, The Baseball Project, Mavis Staples, basically all the bands sound really interesting to me. But also being able to check out all my bandmates' side projects in the same place. I've played with Nels in a lot of different settings; we've played duo several times and he played with my duo the other night in Chicago, but I've never full on seen the Nels Cline Singers. I just saw Under the Fence play last month and it was amazing show so I'm can't wait to seeing them again, and I've not seen a full band lineup of Pronto play yet, so yeah, I'm looking forward to everything really. Comedy too.
SPB - So how did the comedy get added to the bill? It seems like there's a lot of art and a lot of music, and the comedy seems like a third piece. Was that originally a part of the design, like, "We want a comedy stage," or was something that organically came about during the process?
GK - I think when we were first talking about it, a lot of ideas were thrown out, like some of us doing exhibits or having movies or having comedy. There are certainly other festivals that we're played at that have a comedy stage - quite a few. And we thought, 'Well we know a good handful of comedians who come out to shows that we're friendly with and it might be something really cool for the people who come to this thing to have the option of seeing music (not too many bands), see the installations, see what's normally housed at Mass MoCA and experience that whole thing.' It's just a really nice variety. More specifically, Mikael Jorgensen, our keyboard player in Wilco, he kind of spearheaded the comedy things and lined up the people, or at least it started with him.
SPB - It certainly sounds like a great mix. Speaking of the side projects, can you tell us a little more about On Fillmore? Maybe how long you've been together and how did you guys get together?
GK - Well we've been together for, God... well if I've been in Wilco for ten years, then it's probably been twelve years for On Fillmore. It started when Darin Gray, who lived in St. Louis, and I, who lived in Chicago, and we were both playing in Jim O'Rourke's band. I think we just got the idea of a project to do on a cancelled flight somewhere coming back from Europe playing with Jim. The idea was hatched, and we always wanted to have it be an exploration of what we would do as a rhythm section. So we purposefully keep it away from getting a guitar or a lead voice like that. We just want to explore music about places. Through our records, we've had three or four records, we make up music for imaginary places. And us living in two locations and having to travel to collaborate and going long times between getting to work on music because my schedule with Wilco and the distance, space and place become a big part of the whole concept. We do a lot of things like incorporate scaled recordings that both of us make; I record sounds all over when I tour with Wilco. That and incorporating all sorts of different percussion instruments and ideas thrown together in repetition. Its always been a really fun outlet. Maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but it definitely is its own thing. Not too many people can say this sounds like such-and-such; that's a win in my book.
SPB - So just listening to some of the music from On Fillmore, it's sounds like you use a lot of vibes and melodic percussion. Does that come from your classical training in percussion and percussive arts?
GK - Yeah, basically. I've been playing all aspects of percussion my whole life, and just the logistics of it all - marimbas are incredibly expensive, more wood and mallet percussion instruments. And when I do my solo projects and even when I joined Wilco, I used a lot of vibraphone and crotales. I've just been more drawn to the metallic percussion - not to get too geeked-out-drummer on you here - but because of all the uncontrollable overtones. Wood percussion instruments have a much shorter life, the sound has a shorter span, so when you have all these ringing overtones, a whole new set of rhythms are created just by the oscillations of the overtones, and that was something that always intrigued me. AND I had a vibraphone that I got for super cheap, and had crotales which are really portable and glockenspiels, so logistically it was a lot easier. And that's something I've always incorporated whether I'm doing my solo tours or On Fillmore or with Wilco, I've always used crotales. It's always been a part of my drumset, but its nice be able to play pitches and melodies too.
SPB - Not to get off on too much of a tangent, but I read somewhere that you attended the University of Kentucky. I went to Centre College just down the road, so I wanted to ask if you keep up with your alma mater at all?
GK - Oh yeah, I know where Centre is. Yeah sometimes. When I'm on tour abroad sometimes it's a little more difficult or when I'm super busy doing my own projects. But yeah, my college professor from Kentucky was in town last week and we had dinner, and I'll be playing down at UK in January with Bang on a Can, and maybe doing some solo things the following season. So I still try to make it when I can - that's where I cut my teeth playing in rock bands and joined a band from there and tour Europe. And learn to travel and appreciate my situation in Wilco now.
SPB - I'm sure. So you've mention Bang on a Can twice now. Can you tell us a little more about that organization?
GK - Bang on a Can All-Stars, it's a modern classical group out of New York. It's kind of a lot of things - a label, an organization. It was founded by three composers: Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang - who won the Pulitzer last year or the year before. They have a group that they started to play and commission music from new composers. They've played with everyone from Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor to Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and a few years ago they commissioned me to write a piece for them. You know, I've been doing that for the last couple of years - written for Kronos Quartet and eighth blackbird, Bang on a Can and the Gamaler Ensemble at MIT. So that's my composing side thing, and every year I'll do a few shows with a few of those groups. Kronos is actually coming in a few days to record my piece. But that's just one of my little classical side projects that I collaborate with those guys, but they play with hundreds of artists and composers.
SPB - It sounds like you have a very full schedule.
GK - And baby number two is coming in August so...
SPB - Wow, congrats!
GK - Thanks, so yeah, it's going to be really busy here. This solo record, a little On Fillmore tour in July, the Wilco dates, new Wilco recording, and I've got two other commissions I'm working on this year. So it's gonna be a busy year.
SPB - I wish you guys were coming a little closer to us; you're going to be up in Philly and New York but just going to miss DC. Sometime you'll have to put us on your map.
GK - Yeah I Know Wilco came through DC in the fall or in Maryland. In On Fillmore, it's us getting the time to break away. We can only manage to get away for a few days and the right shows came up and we able to work them together. No, I'd love to come back. I haven't played solo in DC in a few years.
SPB - Well we will definitely keep an eye out for you. Just couple more general questions about your time with Wilco. You've always been a great live band, playing 23, 23, 24 song setlists. On the Spring tour, you guys were up to 35, 36, 37 songs night. How much harder on you was that physically and mentally to play that much music every night?
GK - You know, it was harder than I think we thought it would be just because we didn't have any breaks. That came in the middle of four months of touring, or we had done a whole month in Canada, then jumped right into that tour, and then went Japan, New Zealand, and Australia and then to Europe. If it had just been a three-week tour like that, I think it would have been absolutely fine. And it still was fine, you know, breaking it up and doing the acoustic set up front was a lot of fun. That was great and really energizing for all of us just to approach those songs in a fresh way and play some songs that normally we never would have played otherwise. But playing that long is something you have to get used to doing. Obviously it's the most difficult for Jeff having to sing that many songs, and maybe some of the guys wanting to take bathroom breaks, but hey that's fine.
SPB - Rock and roll right?
GK - We got through and I think we did a great job and I think that its something we'd like to do again in the future.
SPB - Well from the fans perspective, it was just incredible. There was nothing but stellar reviews from the crowd side, so please, keep playing 30 song sets.
GK - Okay, that's good to hear.
SPB - Just to wrap up, you mentioned a new Wilco album. Can you tell us any details? Nothing super specific, but maybe just a general idea of timing or sounds you might be migrating to on the new album?
GK - Well there's absolutely nothing to be specific about.
SPB - Well that's easy.
GK - We haven't really started the whole thing yet. We're all very happy with the last few records. This lineup is the definitive lineup of Wilco, but I think there's a general feeling amongst us that we want to try some different things. And we're in no hurry - we've got sessions scheduled this summer, throughout the fall, next year. Ideally, it'd be great to have another record out by late next spring, but I know that we want to try a lot of different things, and we'll see how quickly it comes together. Sometimes that means it clicks right away, and sometimes that means we try different things every session. At this point, its just too early to tell. Other than we'll get together in a few weeks at our space in Chicago and take it from there.
SPB - Well thanks for your time and we're looking forward to Solid Sound!