Wilco’s Beating Heart

In the late 90s Glenn Kotche was one of the busiest drummers in Chicago–a town with a lot of busy drummers. He could be heard, live and on record, keeping the beat behind everyone from Jon Langford to Edith Frost to Jim O’Rourke. But in nearly every situation, he felt like a mere role player. “I was backing up a lot of people, and I was enjoying it, but I wanted to do my own stuff,” says Kotche, now 31. “I never had it in mind to be a session guy.”

So in the spring of 2000 he swallowed hard and eliminated most of his pickup jobs–with the notable exception of O’Rourke, who demanded little of his time anyway–to look for something that offered him greater creative input. The gamble paid off royally: he’s now the drummer for Wilco, one of the world’s best and most interesting rock bands, and on his own this summer he’s releasing several experimental percussion albums.

Kotche had wanted to be a rock drummer since he was a kid, growing up in suburban Roselle. He started studying drums at nine, eventually joining the high school orchestra and drum corps and playing in heavy metal and classic rock outfits when the school day was done. He won a scholarship to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he dabbled in folk and country, and after graduating he moved to Chicago, where he made a living giving private lessons at suburban high schools. He also toured sporadically with Beat-inspired Lexington singer-songwriter Paul K., ending up on two of his records, and the association led to membership in the Portland-based band Birddog, whose first album for the local Sugar Free label was produced by K.

But the gig that really opened doors for Kotche was playing with Frost, whom he met through a mutual friend from New York in 1997. In her band he got to know guitarist Michael Krassner and bassist Joe Ferguson, two of the prime movers at Truckstop, the South Loop recording studio and record label that was developing a sort of avant-roots house band. Kotche became a part of the crew, and over the next few years recorded with Simon Joyner, Krassner’s Lofty Pillars, Chris Mills, Matt Marque, and Bobby Conn, among others. O’Rourke met Kotche through Frost (both record for Drag City), and soon after invited the drummer to work on his breakthrough 1999 solo album, Eureka; since then Kotche’s been a regular on O’Rourke’s solo recordings and in his rare live performances.

The O’Rourke gig was Kotche’s ticket into the improvised music scene. “I didn’t know many people [in that scene],” he says, “and I think most of the people I did didn’t know I was interested in that stuff,” he says. But he found kindred spirits in New York drummer Tim Barnes and Saint Louis bassist Darin Gray, both fixtures in O’Rourke’s ensembles, and in early 2000 he formed an improvisational drum duo with the former and a loose drum and bass duo with the latter called On Fillmore. Soon enough he was performing with local improv linchpin Fred Lonberg-Holm (at the Empty Bottle’s annual jazz and improv festival, no less) and improvising with New Zealand guitarist Dean Roberts.

In the spring of 2000 O’Rourke collaborated with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in a one-off for the Noise Pop festival, bringing Kotche along on drums. The experience was so positive that the trio decided to make a record (Drag City will release the album, entitled Nuts, this fall), and by the time they finished it, late that summer, Kotche and Tweedy had developed their own bond. Kotche accompanied Tweedy for a solo show at the Abbey Pub, and “it felt like we’d been playing together for ten years,” says Tweedy. “It was effortless, the way music should be.”

Not long after that Tweedy asked him to come to New York to help record the sound track to the Ethan Hawke film Chelsea Walls (available on Rykodisc), and in early 2001 Wilco invited him to their loft, where they were recording Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to lay down some percussion overdubs. “[Drummer] Ken [Coomer] couldn’t be here, and we wanted to keep working, so on a whim we had Glenn play on some tracks we were working on,” says Tweedy. He says he was having trouble communicating with Coomer, who’d been with him since the Uncle Tupelo days but was living in Nashville. “Things were much more strenuous than they needed to be to get to a simple idea. I found myself programming drum machines to illustrate an idea of what a song would be. It wasn’t happening intuitively.”

Within a couple days the band had asked Kotche to join permanently–and manager Tony Margherita had broken the bad news to Coomer. Kotche’s fingerprints are hard to miss on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot–his flexibility helps Tweedy’s new songs to both breathe and glide. He can rock out, but more importantly, he can also clear space, play tricky rhythms, and create percussive colors in a way Coomer couldn’t. Because the album was made in Wilco’s own studio, the pace was fairly relaxed, and he took the extra time to double- and sometimes triple-track parts, adding to the impressive textural complexity of the album.

Kotche took advantage of a break in Wilco’s schedule early this year to finish some solo projects. Next (due on Barnes’s Quakebasket label later this summer) is an all-improvised percussion album for which he did his best to “detach the limbs from my head.” The more melodic Introducing (Locust Music/Quakebasket), on which he plays vibes and tuned discs, explores the idea of “coincidental rhythms,” as he calls them. He got the idea on a trip to South Korea: “There were different things happening at the same time, like an airplane flying overhead while I was listening to a gamelan band, and then there’s disco coming out of a bar, and there’s people talking. It’s something I wanted to explore.”

On Fillmore has also recorded a full-length, On Fillmore, which comes out this month on Locust; it places Gray’s woody solos and sturdy ostinatos amid Kotche’s alternately propulsive and funereal grooves and expansive, free-floating metallic percussion. The duo performs this Sunday, June 23, at the Hideout as part of a Quakebasket showcase; Barnes will also play (with bassist Josh Abrams), and the superb Japanese experimental group Minamo will make its Chicago debut.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.