As anyone who’s ever seen him live can attest, Glenn Kotche is an inventive player, not beholden to typical rock & roll tropes and unafraid to interject left of center approaches on stage. The Wilco/On Fillmore drummer seems to have an innate ability to seize a musical opportunity when one presents itself. So when the staff at the NYU Percussion Ensemble, under the direction of Sean Statser and Jonathan Haas, reached out to Kotche about recording in the ensemble’s new recording studio, he recognized it as a chance to document more than a decade’s worth of solo compositions.
Released last October, Sticks, Skins, Metal and Stone: NYU Plays the Percussion Music of Glenn Kotche, serves almost like a “greatest hits” collection of the composer’s varied works, even if eight of the record’s ten songs had never been properly recorded. Encompassing pieces like the fourth part of his multi-media suite “Wild Sound,” a piece originally commissioned Third Coast Percussion, “Anomaly,” and “Ping Pong Fumble Thaw,” two percussion-based reinventions of pieces originally commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and Brooklyn Rider, the digital-only album offers a retrospective look at the experimental music Kotche has made outside of his main band.
In advance of the 2019 Wilco’s Solid Sound festival later this year, Kotche joined Aquarium Drunkard to discuss the record’s genesis, the adventurousness of Wilco’s fanbase, and the value of listening for music in unexpected places.
Aquarium Drunkard: You wrote the compositions featured on Sticks, Skins, Metal and Stone over the course of last decade. When you listen to this record, do you hear traces of the last ten years for you?
Glenn Kotche: Definitely. I think one of the important things for me is to make records [documenting] a phase of my musical life, because I often move on, and if I don’t capture those, they are kind of lost. There are certain records that I have made that I would never make again; if I hadn’t made them at that time, they just wouldn’t
AD: Is that sort of your natural artistic temperament, to keep moving and not look back too often?
Glenn Kotche: I don’t know if it is me, or if it’s outside forces. Due to my involvement in Wilco, you know, a lot of cool opportunities come across my plate. Interesting opportunities present themselves and it’s in my personality to kind of push myself and to keep growing…to stay interested. I’m very glad I have done that the last ten years basically, 12 years, but I think I am at a point now where I want to focus more on fewer things, [and try] to dig a little deeper into those.
AD: Because of your work in Wilco, and on other rock and folk records, do you get the sense that you’re often the first percussion composer people listen to? Do you hear from people letting you know that they started approaching this kind of music through your work?
Glenn Kotche: I’ve definitely gotten that feedback before, especially at Wilco shows. Someone will be like, “Hey! I caught your performance of ‘Wild Sound’ with Third Coast Percussion, it was really cool.” Or they caught me playing with the Chicago Youth Symphony or something like that. People mention stuff to me at shows, and it always catches me off guard, even though I know Wilco fans are pretty adventurous listeners. That’s why they have stayed with us all these years.
AD: They know that if they go to a Nels Cline show, or one of your shows with On Fillmore, they aren’t going to hear a bunch of Wilco songs.
Glenn Kotche: I think they know it is not going to sound like Wilco, you know? It’s not folk-based rock & roll. But I do get that feedback, and that is a great feeling: “Oh! Cool. These open-minded people found something new that they like.” Hopefully, that’s the starting point, and they check out other composers or other percussion music from there.
AD: A couple years ago I was talking with the author Jesse Jarnow and he mentioned that Wilco is something like the Grateful Dead, in that the band is like a musical eco-system, kind of rooted in folk and rock, but expanding out into minimalism and jazz and other sounds. Every member of Wilco is very busy doing stuff in addition to Wilco. Is there a relational aspect to all your projects? Do these various projects inform each other in your mind?
Glenn Kotche: When I do a solo show, it’s musically quite different, but little techniques and little ideas present themselves, different ways of approaching things. I discover new sounds that I bring to Wilco. There are different rhythmic concepts and different things I bring to the band, keeping in mind that it’s still Wilco, it’s focused around Jeff’s lyrics, we are a vehicle for that. My solo work definitely informs Wilco, and the same is true the other way. Working in an ensemble with five other amazing musicians in Wilco, or when I go back and work with [bassist] Darin Gray, I learn things working with those people—how they approach music and think about music—and I bring that together when I am composing by myself. Composing is such a solitary exercise, it’s nice to have these long-term relationships. I think that’s why, since day one, everyone in the Wilco camp has been so supportive of everyone’s outside projects. They know that it is only going to make the band stronger.
AD: This record is named for the elements that make up the music on the album Sticks, Skins, Metal and Stone. Why were you drawn to name the record after the materials used?
Glenn Kotche: You know, the term “percussion” covers such a vast array of instruments, that I think getting down to materials is almost more accurate than trying to say “keyboard percussion,” “skin drums,” “noisemakers,” and “idiophones,” and “metallics.”
AD: This record features part of your “Wild Sound” multi-media project. With that piece, was your goal to echo back the sounds of nature?
Glenn Kotche: Well, it was more environmental, not necessarily “nature sounds,” but “natural sound.” The world of percussion encompasses anything that isn’t a traditional wind, string, woodwind, or brass instrument, or voice. When composers started writing for oddball instruments—wind machines, starter pistols, cannons, belts— these things would end up in the percussion section. They didn’t know where else to put them. Walking around, I hear all of these different sounds and they sound like great compositions sometimes. One of the most famous percussion compositions of all time, “Ionisation” by Edgar Varese is kind of based on that. The idea with “Wild Sound” was to have these ambient sounds that kind of coalesce into pieces, but also, to have the performers assembling or building every instrument on stage, so their construction sounds were scripted as well.
AD: Are you consciously aware of the things you hear—city sounds, automation, natural sound—as you walk through your daily life?
Glenn Kotche: I’m always consciously listening. I catalog a lot of it with notes. I make a lot of recordings on my phone walking various places when I travel, noting interesting sound environments I find myself in. A lot of those things show up in pieces. My natural mode is being an attentive listener. My wife and I actually talk about this. I can drive the same way taking my kids to school and miss about 80% of what’s around me. She’ll bring up, “Hey, did you see that restaurant there? Did you see that store over here?” I’m like, “No…” She notices everything visually driving that same route, and I’m kind of clueless on stuff like that. But I notice very minute details about sounds. I’m just more attuned that way than visually, I guess.
AD: I love the idea that any sound you hear might inspire you creatively. It must be fascinating to interact with the world on those terms.
Glenn Kotche: Yeah I don’t know if I was always that way, or if it was being introduced to John Cage in my formative years. But if you listen, you’ll hear some pretty amazing things that might be unintentional, but are just as cool as most of the intentional things you listen to. interview/j woodbury
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