Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche explores percussive byways
While touring with Wilco in 2009, Glenn Kotche, the band’s inexhaustibly versatile drummer, set up a game to catalyze his creativity. Eschewing sightseeing and sleeping in, he would wake up, grab coffee, set out through whatever city he was in, and start composing. Every day.
Kotche, who has roots in avant-garde composition, experimental improvisation, and rock, had recently finished a string of commissions for various performers and ensembles. Now, he wanted to go back to percussion writing, and he wanted as broad a source of ideas as possible.
Usually he composes at his drumset, working out ideas that later get transferred to other instruments. This time, though, “composing” sometimes meant sitting in a cafe with a laptop or a pencil and staff paper, converting the surrounding conversation into notes and rhythms. Sometimes it meant singing melodies into his phone. Sometimes it meant making field recordings on city streets. Sometimes it was just jotting down a conceptual framework.
By late spring of 2010 he’d sketched out more than 50 of these pieces. Some hit dead-ends, some were left as fragments. But when a commission came in from the intrepid foursome So Percussion, Kotche forged half a dozen of them into a suite of what he called “Drumkit Quartets.” A recording, to be released next month on Bang on a Can imprint Cantaloupe Music, reveals them to be works of vast imagination, not just for their crazy-quilt instrumentation — marimbas, hi-hats, hand-cranked sirens — but also for the often novel compositional structures that underpin them. Throughout, you get the sense of a composer delighting in the possibilities his milieu offers.
“I wish it was more like I had a foolproof method to go to every time,” Kotche said recently of the multifaceted composing methods he employed for “Drumkit Quartets.” He was speaking by phone just before Wilco set out on a tour that includes two sold-out shows at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday and Saturday. “But for me, the act of composing — there’s so much freedom to it. Because it is new, it’s fresh, it’s kind of limitless, I guess I’m still playing around with it. I’m following my gut a lot.”
Kotche has also enlarged the percussion repertoire as a performer, most notably by commissioning “Ilimaq” from composer John Luther Adams, many of whose works were inspired by the Alaskan wilderness that was his home for decades.
“I didn’t understand [them],” Kotche said. “This was music that was like, not only do I love this and it’s resonating with me, it seems like this incredible, mysterious world. How did he keep this together? How did he notate these rhythms? How is this happening?”
He e-mailed Adams in advance of Wilco’s only shows in Alaska, in 2008. The composer, a rock drummer in his youth, stopped by the band’s soundcheck, and the two later had dinner. By the end of the evening, composer had committed to writing for drummer. In his brief liner note, Adams says of Kotche, “I’ve found the drummer I always imagined I could be.”
“Ilimaq,” which means “spirit journey” in Inuit, is a five-movement, 45-minute work requiring the drummer to switch between three percussion stations. It begins with a long, hypnotic bass drum roll and builds to some raucous shredding on the drumkit. Indeed, its sheer virtuosity is not only its most notable feature but, Kotche says, essential to the piece itself.
“It ended up being about the endurance, which is incredibly challenging to a percussionist in his 40s,” he laughed. “It was a physical feat, which ended up helping musically because the whole piece is based on a shamanistic experience, of going into a different world, a trancelike state. To pull it off, I have to get to such a deep concentration state that to me, it’s as close as I can get to what the piece is about.”
Wilco arrives in Boston on the strength of its superb 2015 album, “Star Wars,” notable for the fact that it was made without its six members all playing in the studio at the same time. It seemed, at first, like an odd way to make a record, Kotche said. “But it’s like, we’ve done that,” he realized. “‘The Whole Love,’ ‘Sky Blue Sky’ were written by all of us in a room together. So let’s try something different, let’s keep exploring. And it worked out. It’s a great record.”
That urge to keep exploring new territory is essential for Kotche, who will return in March for a joint show with Sam Amidon in Celebrity Series of Boston’s Stave Sessions. It helps keep the Wilco experience fresh, even after 15 years and songs he’s now played hundreds of times. “So far the balance aspect of it has worked out,” he said of his multifarious activities. “I think if I did any one thing I’d go crazy.
“I can honestly say that I do still get an adrenaline rush, that when there’s thousands of people out there and I’m on stage, I just get into it,” he continued. “Maybe it’s a competitiveness. It’s kind of like a refusal to have a bad night or a bad show. This is a privilege, to be able to play music for people. Treat it as such. It’s a chance to express yourself and share something with the audience, and I choose not to squander that opportunity.”