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Wilco shares the love on new LP

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'We'd go crazy trying to please all of the fans'
Glenn Kotche of Wilco

BANGOR - There is a sense of urgency within the grooves of Wilco's new album, 'The Whole Love.' This time out, the band offers 12 new Jeff Tweedy songs (16 on the deluxe version) that leave the listener with a feeling of contentment accompanied by the realization that time is short so make it count.

'The Whole Love' is Wilco's eighth studio album and was recorded in an atmosphere of total freedom and collaboration. Drummer and percussionist Glenn Kotche says every idea was explored in the studio when approaching these new songs. 'There was a sense of we know we can do all of these other things, let's just see what happens,'' Kotche said last week from his hotel room in Nashville, where Wilco had just arrived to play two shows at the Ryman Auditorium. 'When anyone had an idea, it was entertained. Nothing was really shut down.'


Everything fans already love about Wilco's music is evident on the new album. These are timeless, surreally beautiful songs that sound like they could have been recorded 20 years ago, this morning or in 2031. As Glenn Kotche explains, timelessness is a vital Wilco element: 'We want to make records that we can stand by and not be embarrassed about in 20 years.'

Dow: On the new record, 'The Whole Love,' it sounds like Wilco made a conscious effort to experiment with the songs more than on any record since 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.'

Kotche: That's right. There was definitely a freedom in the studio that I haven't felt in the past. We set up our new label (dBpm Records), we were off the road, there were no time constraints and we were at our home studio (The Loft in Chicago). A lot of things that you hear are a result of that open-mindedness.

Dow: I read that Jeff had approximately 60 songs for consideration for 'The Whole Love.' You ultimately recorded 20. How did the band decide which songs you were going to record? 

Kotche: I'm actually surprised to hear that he had 60 songs ready to go. He has a lot of songs from the past that have never seen the light of day or haven't ever been tried out in the studio. He has a lot of little nuggets and ideas for songs. As for the process, it comes down to finding songs that we really get excited about, that we think are cool, new and original and are something that will make a record better. Sometimes, you have a great song but it just doesn't fit with the other ones on the record. It's a collective experience, but Jeff has the final say. If he's really into the song, we're going to keep trying it to see if we can get something out of it.

Dow: You have two young children. How has your life changed since you've had kids?

Kotche: Anyone who has kids knows that it's mayhem and chaos all the time, but it's a very gratifying exhaustion. I've said this before in regards to the whole 'Dad Rock' tag. Being a parent is chaotic. No sleep, rushing around, forgetting things. Not knowing whether you're coming or going just hit the ground running. Collapsing at the end of the night. It's actually much more of a rock and roll lifestyle than what existed for me before. Things were relatively easy and relaxed then. (laughing)

Dow: Do your kids understand what you do for a living?

Kotche: I think my 3-year-old understands. She's been to 10 countries with us. She's played my kit onstage before and has seen Wilco on TV. She'll always ask, 'How was work, Daddy? How was your concert?' But she doesn't know the difference between that and if I was playing at the neighborhood pub every night. (laughing)

Dow: Maine has played a part in Wilco's story. Your records are mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway in Portland and you've played some amazing shows here over the years. What are some of your memories of Maine?

Kotche: I've been coming to Maine for years, even before Wilco. I've always loved Maine. There's a great vibe to it. It's a little edgy, but it's also extremely beautiful. I spent a week and a half in Maine with my family this summer after our Solid Sound Festival (a two-day music and art festival created by Wilco) and stayed at a place I've never been before. Our bass player, John Stirratt, has in-laws up there (Damariscotta area) right on the water. There's just something about pine trees and salt water. It was great being in a boat with the kids and suddenly, 'Oh my God, there's a seal!' My 3-year-old would reach into the water, pull up seaweed and chomp on it. (laughing) We really dig it.

Dow: 'Art of Almost,' the opening track on 'The Whole Love,' just grabs you from the beginning. It has a vibe of 'Broken Arrow' (Buffalo Springfield) meets 'A Day in the Life' a huge sonic buildup that gives way to Jeff's voice. He's just floating there at the top before you come grooving in with that crazy 'mad scientist' drum pattern. It's a perfect opening to the record.

Kotche: (Laughs) That's great. We covered 'Broken Arrow' a few times. We played it for Neil Young at the MusiCares tribute two years ago and some people have suggested that us learning that song might have had an impact on things like 'Art of Almost' or 'Capitol City' especially with my field recordings on there. I never made the connection, but everything you do and experience filters down to who you are in your playing. To some degree, I'm sure that's where it comes from. That song was a completely different tune when we started.

Dow: What did it sound like when Jeff brought it to the band?

Kotche: It was a chord progression and he had some of the words there. We just laid it out as a kind of soulful, steady going thing. The reaction happened from there. Mike (Mikael Jorgensen pianist, keyboardist) added interesting electronic elements while I was adding an overdub at the same time. At the end, I just started playing this messed up drum beat. Jeff said, 'That! Wait. Would that work in the verse?' That triggered a lot more of what John and Mike did. John took that drum beat and added this funky, soulful Jackson 5-type bass line underneath it. I never would have predicted a funky bass line working with that groove, but it works. It's great. It turned into this massive punk-raga thing. (laughing)

Dow: How do you approach a song when you hear it for the first time? Do you try many different approaches, or do you sometimes hear a song for the first time and say, 'I know exactly what this needs?'

Kotche: I do try a lot of different things. It takes a little trial and error to see what is going to feel right for everyone else. For any given song, I could do a thousand different beats. There's no shortage of different takes on it, but it's finding the right one one that works with the lyrics, one that won't throw Jeff off while he's singing and one that works with the other guys and the overall mood of the song. A lot of times, I'm moving things, taping things to the drum and shuffling around. There's still some of that on the new record. On 'One Sunday Morning,' there's some of that left. You can hear me taping and un-taping things in there. It got left in the final mix.

Dow: Is that what I hear in the right channel of 'One Sunday Morning?' The first time I heard it, I was in the car with my dog and I turned to look at him because I thought it was the sound of the tags on his collar.

Kotche: If it sounds like a dog's collar, it's definitely me. (laughing) It's either a massive sleigh bell or a chicken paddle that I put a finger cymbal on or me moving chains on and off the drums. It was an element of surprise that Jeff or maybe Pat liked and kept it in the mix. On our last one, 'Wilco (the album)' (2009), a lot of the songs were more fleshed out when Jeff brought them to us. When it's like that, sometimes it's like 'Oh, well this is the beat. On a song like 'You'll Never Know', that was a first take. We learned the song 10 minutes before we recorded it. Sometimes it's obvious. I just played the beat and that was it. That wasn't so much the case with this new record.

Dow: You mentioned the chicken paddle. I think this would be a good place to let our readers know that you are the pioneer of the chicken paddle. Do you feel that you are blazing the trail when it comes to poultry-related percussion

Kotche: (mock seriousness) I feel a tremendous responsibility. Um (laughing) The paddle (a modified children's toy) doesn't have anything to do with real chickens, but it has little wooden chickens on it. (When Glenn shakes it, the chickens peck a metal finger cymbal with their beaks.) If it makes a cool sound, it's up for grabs. I've used fruit baskets, ceramic tiles, hubcaps, children's toys and all sorts of crazy things. I used some kid's toys on a lot of the tracks on the new album.

Dow: Jan. 2012 will mark 11 years for you as a member of Wilco. At the time you joined, things were a little crazy as we know from the movie ('I Am Trying To Break Your Heart' 2002 documentary on the sometimes fractious but ultimately winning 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' recording sessions). There seems to be a much smoother, happier vibe in the band now.

Kotche: Oh yeah. By far. You know, I never thought of those times as being that unhappy or that miserable just because there is dysfunction in a lot of bands. That was the norm when I walked into that situation. I said, 'Oh, this is like all the other bands I've been in. There are fights and creative differences, people getting messed up. It was business as usual. Compared to where we are now, I think this lineup really gels. We really respect each other. Personally and musically, we get along. We have each other's backs. It's a much healthier situation. There are no wild cards in the band. Everyone has their act together. We're fairly responsible. Five of us are married and well grounded, I think.

Dow: When I hear a great Wilco song and let's be real; there are so many Wilco songs that have become classic songs. Lots of goosebump moments in that song catalog. A perfect synthesis of melody and poetry. Sometimes, when I listen, I think 'Man, I wish I had written that song.' Is that a thought that only occurs to fans or does it also happen to the members of the band?

Kotche: I'm not really a songwriter. The material I've written recently is classical music. I wrote a 25-minute piece for Kronos Quartet. I wrote a 10-minute piece for Eighth Blackbird. I'm working on a piece now for Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. I wrote a 45-minute piece for So Percussion earlier this year. There are other great songwriters in the band. John, Pat and Mike are songwriters in their own right and they have all contributed to past Wilco records. I'm sure they have that feeling. There are Wilco things that I marvel at, like, 'Wow. I play on this? That's pretty cool. How did we do this?' Songs like 'Poor Places' or 'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart' or 'Radio Cure' or 'Art of Almost.' My taste goes that way a little bit more. What are some of the Wilco songs that made you say 'I wish I had written that?'

Dow: You mentioned 'Radio Cure.' Definitely that one. 'Wishful Thinking,' 'Theologians,' 'Late Greats,' 'The Lonely 1,' 'Either Way' there are so many. Some from the new record too. After listening once, I read the lyrics in the booklet and had that thought again I wish I had written that! I'm drawn to strong songwriting and some of Wilco's songs, at least in my mind, are standards songs that will live forever.

Kotche: Well, I think they have to be a little more popular in order to be standards (laughing) but thank you. I agree with you; I think some of them are classic songs.

Dow: Wilco has fans who feel a very deep, personal connection with the music, and some of them are not shy about voicing their objections if they feel you've ventured into a direction that is contrary to what they want to hear. Do they play any role in the direction of the band's records?

Kotche: The contrarians. I have to say in all honesty that we can't make a record trying to please other people. I think Wilco learned a lesson during the making of the record 'Summerteeth' (1999), when the label wasn't 100 percent satisfied, so the band altered mixes and recut some things. Wilco said, 'Fine. We'll play ball.' And I think it ended up being a great record, but it ended up being one of the least commercially successful Wilco records. I think they learned that you have to be honest about it and make music for yourself. Since I've been in the band, that's been the M.O. We want to make records that aren't going to sound dated. It's a big thing for us that we're not re-treading. We're not making the same record over and over. We'd go crazy trying to please all of the fans.

Dow: Do you or any of the other band members read the Wilco message boards, such as Via Chicago? (forms.viachicago.org)

Kotche: I don't. (laughing) I doubt the other guys do. I'm sure I've seen other guys on it in the past, but this was years and years ago. I think it's better for one's mental health not to read them. Sure you're going to get some great compliments, but inevitably you're going to have people who are just mean. Also, there's enough Wilco in my life. I think it's important to have a balance. I don't want to get burned out or so consumed that when I walk onstage, I'm like, 'Oh, I'm sick of this.' I want to be excited and foaming at the mouth to play Wilco shows.

Dow: When you play, you put so much into it. Does it take a while to recover after a show?

Kotche: No, it works out actually. (laughing) I usually have such an adrenaline rush that I'm completely 'up' after a show. I usually have to shower because I sweat like a pig. It's such a great workout, I'll usually have something to eat because I've burned a couple of thousand calories. After that, it catches up with me and the actual physical exhaustion kicks in and then I can fall asleep right away.

Dow: I have a dream that Wilco will one day record an album of all new songs in a live setting. It occurred to me while I was watching the 'Ashes of American Flags' DVD (the film chronicles Wilco's 2008 tour and features the band rolling across the country and performing in five uniquely American venues). There is something magical about the scenes filmed at soundcheck before the audience arrived. The band interaction, the vibe and the sound quality are incredible. The Beatles tried it with the 'Let It Be' album but it didn't quite work out. I would love to see Wilco give it a shot some day.

Kotche: That's a good idea. We've tossed around the idea of doing a stripped down thing in the past which we do sometimes in rehearsals. We'll listen back to them and say, 'Wow, this is actually good.' To do a full show like that of new material is a bold move, but I would totally be up for it. Also, there are so many songs we've played that have never been part of a record. Maybe they were a European B-side or something that we'll occasionally pull out live. I'll suggest it to the guys. We own our own label (dBpm Records), we can do anything. (laughing)

Mike Dow is part of The Mike and Mike Show,' airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Check him out at www.facebook.com/mikeandmike and www.mikedow.net.

Last modified on Monday, 24 October 2011 08:24

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