"Reservations," the parting plea of Wilco's artistic breakthrough album, 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, doesn't have a drumbeat. Sure, just two songs earlier, the band's drummer, Glenn Kotche, bounds behind an acoustic strum, his beat economical, his movements round. But "Reservations" is a grievance, a sinkhole of self-pity. Frontman Jeff Tweedy admits that he's the one that keeps ruining things.
Wilco responds with one of the most defining instrumental moments of its career, bending pained textures beneath Tweedy's narcotic creak. Strings groan in the distance, and a keyboard rises and falls, as if crippled by disgust. But Kotche's contributions might be the most essential: He bows his cymbals, sending shivers of tone through the speaker. His half-hearted circular passes on his snares stop before he can finish a roll, reaffirming the frontman's despair. If you're looking to paint Kotche as a drumming dynamo, you can probably do better than "Reservations." But the sounds he pours into the song's seven minutes show both selflessness and brilliance, rendering Kotche as the rare drummer who not only gets the possibilties of his instrument but also the possibilities of his band.
Kotche visits Durham this week to play with America's leading syndicate of contemporary classical music, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. As it turns out, that's the sort of music that helped him think of drumming as more than meter and helped him to create those glistening textures that are so integral to "Reservations" and, really, Wilco itself.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You play three Steve Reich pieces in Durham this week, including a new one, "2x5." What was your first exposure to Reich, and how did his music strike you from the start?
GLENN KOTCHE: I think college was the first time I was really exposed to it. When Wilco was on Nonesuch Records, since Steve was on Nonesuch, I had access to all his music and unearthed some pieces, like "Clapping Music," that I hadn't heard. I arranged that on my record and wrote variations of it.
For a lot of drummers and percussionists, rhythmically, it's very interesting music. He incorporates a lot of percussion. "Drumming," obviously, is a landmark piece for four sets of bongos. Being really creative and making these monumental pieces off of percussion, I think that's just really empowering for a lot of drummers.
Of all four major American minimalists, Reich gets the most credit for an influence on popular music—rock, electronic, even hip-hop. What's been his major influence for your playing, both in Wilco and On Fillmore?
A lot of the classical world considered his music more rock than classical in the first place, in the '60s and '70s, which obviously isn't the case. But it was such a departure, a lot of people had a hard time swallowing it or including it. "2x5" is actually his intentional rock piece. The instrumentation is for bass, electric guitars, drum kits and keyboards. It's come full circle from the way his critics have described him in the first place.
As far as what Wilco or On Fillmore takes from that, I don't think it's anything direct. We all listen to a lot of stuff. Other than learning a lot from his music and it empowering me to say, "Hey, percussion can be music! You don't need other instruments, necessarily. You can do really interesting and complex things just using percussion," there's not a lot of direct influence, as far as we take this concept or his composing idea for this or that. For me, personally, I think a lot of his pieces are process-driven, and that's a way I like to work sometimes. But he's one of many, many composers of the last hundred years who are process-driven. It's the influence of all the stuff you hear and ingest. They come out in different ways in your music, more than any direct link.
Who are others that influenced your perception of that idea, that allowed you to be more than a drummer behind a kit?
Without a doubt, for composers, the big one would be John Luther Adams. He composes for all sorts of instrumentation, like Steve does, but his percussion pieces are really interesting. They delve a lot more into, beside the rhythmic aspects, the sonic aspects of the instrument. There's this whole other end of drawing on these sound textures and timbres that no one else has really done for percussion. He's the big one for me right now, and he's actually written a piece for me that I'll be premiering in 2012.
As far as drum set players go, there are a lot of musical drummers, but the big one would be Max Roach. His solo drum compositions were just that—they were compositions. Before that, a lot of drum solos were solos, which are a display of technique. Basically, that's it; you show what your facilities are on the kit. People play musical solos, but a lot of times, it's more chops-based and fireworks. Max really set out to show you can set an ostinato with a couple of limbs and use your other limbs to play rhythmic ideas over it, and play melodic ideas on the drum kit.
Instrumentalists sometime talk about learning first to play, to master technique, and then working to unlearn or at least manipulate what they've mastered so they can do more with technique than emulate old styles and ideas. When did that transition happen for you, when you went from simply playing the drums to making music?
I didn't consciously start concentrating on that until much later, but really, it was kind of early on. When I listen back to some stuff I did when I was in high school or before that, I was in concert band and marching band and percussion ensemble and rock bands—basically, everything since I was 10 years old. I just never thought of them as being separate, and that's always been an asset. I understood that, in band, I might just play this triangle roll for a little while, and it's got no rhythm. But it adds something to the whole, a splash of color. It's always been a part of my playing just because I've had that exposure to percussion in different contexts.
You've mentioned being the "rock guy" when you play with Bang on a Can. Certainly Bang on a Can has made new fans through its rock star collaborators, like you or Thurston Moore or Dave Longstreth. Is that gratifying, to be the drummer in a popular rock band who's pulling in listeners to this sort of music simply by association?
It is when it happens. I don't expect that, but inevitably at these shows, I do see Wilco fans there, a lot of people that wouldn't come for other reasons. I get excited because it's great music that these other groups are making, and they need more exposure.
Sometimes, people—unless they're familiar with it or unless it's in their safety zone—they won't check it out. That's the cool thing about Wilco fans; a lot of them don't want that. They appreciate all sorts of music, and they like it when we take chances. They'll come out and see Nels Cline do free jazz or they'll come out and see me play with Bang on a Can or with Kronos Quartet. It gives them an appreciation for what Wilco is and what we bring—the possibilities of everything.