Glenn Kotche is a busy man, as you might expect from the 41st best drummer of all time, as decided by Gigwise in 2008. If he isn’t jugging drumsticks and tambourines, it’s a three-year-old and a one-year-old. (“Either way, my hands are always full…”) When The Line of Best Fit calls him at his Chicago home, he’s buzzing. Wilco, the band he’s been a member of for a decade, are about to release their eighth album, and their fifth with Kotche at the helm. The Whole Lovewas recorded in Wilco’s own studio, on Wilco’s own label. Things have come a long way since he joined in January 2001.
What unraveled shortly after he replaced Ken Coomer as Wilco’s drummer is a part of rock and roll folklore. Kotche had recently played alongside frontman Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist and producer Jim O’Rourke in Loose Fur. Tweedy encouraged both to join his band, hoping to replicate the sound of his side project, and allowed O’Rourke to have free reign over the production of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the follow up to Summerteeth. O’Rourke’s inclusion led to a series of rows between Tweedy and Jay Bennett, the late, former guitarist, who was dismissed after the album was recorded. The band’s record label, Reprise, rejected the LP. Wilco were dropped, but retained the rights to the album, which they released through Nonesuch (ironically, like Reprise – a subsidiary of Warner Bros). The album’s recording was documented in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, one of the greatest rock and roll movies ever made. The album, Wilco’s most successful, has gone on to become one of the most critically acclaimed of our lifetime.
Kotche’s memories are clear, if understated. “Yeah, it was definitely chaotic. The membership changes, the record label, the friction: it was pretty crazy, but in some respects, it was business as usual for me in that a lot of the bands I’d worked with at that point were troubled. Rarely do you find a perfectly healthy band that works really well together and all get along all the time. I remember just thinking that I would do my best and get the job done and hope things would turn out all right. Eventually, they did.”
“When I joined, they’d already recorded the record. I was brought in and redid all the drum parts, which made all the other parts a little different, so they were retracked and reconfigured. When Jim came in to mix it, though, he really turned things around. He stripped away layers and layers and layers. Man, did he do a job. People always say to me: ‘that must have been a crazy time?’ and I guess in some ways it was. Thankfully we’re in a better place now, though.”
Wilco have had the same line-up for six years; an unprecedented period of harmony. The band are growing old together, gracefully. Kotche thinks they’ve come to appreciate each other and to treasure their individual talents. “We have different musical personalities, for sure. Some of us are coming more from the left, some of us from a more traditional angle, but we all respect each other, meet in the middle and bring it to the band. We all have different side projects, so anytime we have a break, we go off and do our own things and when we reconvene we bring something from those experiences to the table.”
The dynamics of the band have changed, too. So much so, that they’re unrecognisable from the anxious figures portrayed in Sam Jones’ documentary. “Things have changed drastically since I joined the band,” Kotche says. “We’ve had membership changes and every time you have that, you have a completely different dynamic. This is the longest line-up we’ve had and there’s a certain comfort, but also trust that comes with that. There’s no asshole in the band. We all get along and really trust each other musically. This was the first record that I‘ve been a part of that there’s been no huge drama. There was no major event and we’re all the happier for that.”
The latest album, The Whole Love, is Wilco’s most challenging for a while. After the soothing, AM-friendly Sky Blue Skyand disappointment of the self-titled follow up, it’s good to have them back on form and Kotche says the recording of the album was the most enjoyable to date. “On this record,” he explains, “I get to hear a little better what I already knew about the guys in the band. I think there was a little more ambiguity or openness on this record. Jeff’s very generous and it’s obviously his band, but he listens to everyone and that’s how the songs have developed on this record.
“It’s different every time we get to the studio. On Sky Blue Sky, for example, we all made it together. The last time, a lot of the songs were finished when Jeff brought them in. We just fleshed out the arrangement. With this one, there’s a good balance. For certain tunes, Jeff had written lyrics and chord changes. We recorded it and then someone else had an idea, they wanted to try something different. Then I weighed in with a different drum pattern and the song was getting pulled all over the place. We just started over and redid the whole tune. There were a few tunes like that, where we flipped them upside down until we had something that resonated with us. We’re all super excited and happy with this one.”
If he isn’t recording or touring with Wilco, you might find Glenn popping up on an album by Phil Selway (Radiohead), Andrew Bird or Seven Worlds Collide (with the members of Crowded House and Split Enz). On the off chance, when he’s not performing as a member of Loose Fur or On Fillmore (another Wilco spin-off), he just might be composing jazz or classical music with Kronos Quartet or John Luther Adams, or penning essays on Steve Reich for Do It Yourself Percussion. He’s a chameleon of a percussionist, constantly flitting between projects. But Glenn Kotche, the conversationalist, is polite, measured and articulate. He’s happy to talk about any one of his endeavours and grateful that The Line Of Best Fit is able to hold its own in dialogue about them each.
Classically trained and intellectually motivated, he’s an anomaly in the hedonistic world of rock and roll tub-thumpers. He’s big enough to laugh at the irony of being sandwiched between Tommy Lee, from Mötley Crüe and D.J. Fontana, Elvis Presley’s sticksman, the world’s 40th and42nd best drummers, respectively. But right now, he has more important things to occupy his thoughts. Those nappies aren’t going to change themselves, you know.
The Whole Love is available now through dBpm Records.