Album Premiere: Glenn Kotche's 'Drumkit Quartets'

Listen to the Wilco drummer's new album with So Percussion for Bang on a Can's Cantaloupe label.

Glenn Kotche
Glenn Kotche© Zoran Orlic

You know Glenn Kotche's drumming even if you don't know Glenn Kotche's name. How? Because you know Wilco, one of the biggest rock bands around today, and Glenn Kotche is the drummer of Wilco.

When Kotche is not making music with Wilco, he tends to be busy crafting much stranger, more avant-garde sounds, which isn't to say Wilco albums like "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and the Grammy Award-winning "A Ghost Is Born" didn't have their much stranger, more avant-garde moments. But the music Kotche makes under his name tends to be more John Cage than Joe Cocker, more Steve Reich than Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Kotche, outside of Wilco, has worked with artists and groups like Sonic Youth veteran Jim O'Rourke, free drummer Chris Corsano, the long-running Kronos Quartet, the boundary-pushing Eighth Blackbird, the new music institution Bang on a Can All-Stars and Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams. The list is forever expanding.

Today we're excited to premiere Kotche's new album, "Drumkit Quartets," which is officially out Feb. 26 through Bang on a Can's Cantaloupe Music label. The album contains nine pieces composed by Kotche and performed by So Percussion — the award-winning Brooklyn-based percussion quartet of Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting — one of which features a haiku read by Cibo Matto co-founder Yuka Honda.

"The inspiration for each quartet came from a cocktail of elements: geographical location, cultural considerations (such as language), my mindset on any given day and just the act of forcing myself to produce something daily," says Kotche about these new works, which were inspired by his time on the road, touring the world with Wilco.

"There’s no question that the sounds I heard and recorded while walking around had an impact," he explains about the connection between composing and his changing environments. "Some of those recordings ended up in the quartets as a sound design element. But also, the musicality of the language of where I was would affect me as well. The rhythm of my footsteps when walking around various locales usually induces ideas as well... I’ve noticed that just the act of composing or creating every day tends to wire a person to let those ideas flow more easily, and that may have even been the biggest factor."

Kotche knew he wanted to work with So Percussion and only So Percussion on this project. The two parties had been wanting to collaborate for years and it finally happened.

"I knew they’d be able to handle anything I threw at them, so that was very liberating, and that they could deliver on both the keyboard mallet playing and the drumming," Kotche says. "I also knew that they’d help me flesh out the more ambiguous sections and that in leaving some formal choices up to them, I could feel confident they would make good choices. That’s about all you can ask for as a composer."

So Percussion's Adam Sliwinski says each day in the studio working on this material presented a new challenge: "On any given day, we could be playing on blocks of wood, string instruments, pianos, or who knows what else. Strangely enough, the greatest challenge in Glenn’s pieces was that he wanted us to play drums! Actually, it’s that he wanted us to play four drumsets. In our group, only Jason is a world class drumset player. The rest of us are solid, but Glenn’s two true 'drumkit quartets' in this set of music call for truly virtuosic playing, especially the continuous kick drum beats in '#54' that are reminiscent of 'In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida' or countless other rock drum solos."

"Glenn is one of the best rock drummers in the world, so these techniques are right in his wheelhouse," Sliwinski says. "For a few of us, we needed to spend some time in the shed with our right foot!"

So Percussion
So Percussion© LiveWellPhoto

"Drumkit Quartets" is a wild ride. It's certainly less structured and demanding and weird than the ride Wilco diehards might expect from Kotche. The pieces are captivating and unpredictable, unexpectedly shifting from serene, pretty moments to clanging chaos and then back again, creating an enjoyable place to find yourself lost.

"The biggest thing would be to not expect lyrics," jokes Kotche about what people should not expect when they push play. "These pieces don’t follow traditional song form either... some of them do definitely rock, and some are quiet and beautiful, while others explore random rhythms and might remind some people of ambient sound; there’s also a dose of pure noise in there. They should just expect to go to unique and unexpected musical places; every person may not like every one of those places, but they may come away being more attuned to the sounds in their environment and more open-minded to music that’s outside of the canon of folk and blues based music."

"But, keep in mind, I’m rhythm obsessed," Kotche says. "That’s what fuels me as a drummer and as a composer. So these two sides aren’t that far apart. I explore aspects of rhythm and sound when I compose, and that’s what I do as a rock drummer too, just with a different set of parameters."

Listen to Glenn Kotche and So Percussion's "Drumkit Quartets" above; pre-order it on Bandcamp now.

By Elliott Sharp