The many surprises of Wilco

Annabel Mehren

Glenn Kotche is supposed to be on a plane headed to rehearsals when we catch up by phone. But he’s back at home after mechanical issues, found only after boarding, grounded the flight. Reuniting with his bandmates after 18 months apart will have to wait until tomorrow. 

“Everyone’s so eager to get back on the road that it’s probably the right time for something awful to go like that, rather than at the end of the tour when everyone’s exhausted,” says the decades-long drummer of the alt-rock outfit Wilco. “Just trying to put a positive spin on it. It could have been worse. It could have taken off with mechanical issues, so…” 

Wilco is a band with longevity, consistently producing music since the mid-1990s. In the early days, the band went through several iterations, invariably helmed by guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Jeff Tweedy. Kotche joined in 2001 and the lineup stabilized soon after, settling into its six-member cast of bassist John Stirratt (the only other original member), guitarist Nels Cline, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, along with Tweedy and Kotche. The Chicago band has recorded almost a dozen records, won multiple Grammys, started their own record label, and founded their own festival. Between the six of them, there are also multiple side projects and solo projects. But they always seem to come back to each other and Wilco. 

“I think we just got the right mix of personalities and the right musical sensibilities. And I think we all just really appreciate each other as people first and foremost, as friends and then as musicians as well,” Kotche says. “And I think we have common goals. We all want to bring it. We all want to discover new territory and not just repeat ourselves. And we all have a deep love for the music, and we want to keep playing it.”

In preparation for their upcoming tour (headlining with Sleater-Kinney — also a product of the 1990s indie-rock scene, although with more of a feminist-punk bent), Kotche admits he’s been listening to more of Wilco’s past work than normal, finding a few surprises in the band’s repertoire. 

“Maybe it’s because we tour live and play live that I don’t go back and listen to the records a lot. I’ve had the songs in my life and I play them every night. It’s not like I get home from tour and put on Wilco right away,” he says. “I even listened to [2001’s] Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a few weeks ago just to kind of remind myself of the tour and stuff. And I was still getting surprises just because I haven’t over-listened to that.”

The records often represent work in its infancy, he continues, a song evolving over time, especially the more and more it’s played live. 

“And so I’m used to [the live] arrangements in my head and when I hear the recorded version, it’s like, whoa, whoa, what is that? I forgot about that.”

Even more recent albums, those that haven’t gotten as much live attention, can be a revelation. Take, for example, 2019’s Ode to Joy, the tour that was cut short like everything else by the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.  

“I like all the Wilco records, but a couple of them are a little closer to my heart or I listen to them and I’m still just like, oh my God, this is right up my alley,” he says. “Like, I still get surprised from them, and that’s one of them.”

Ode to Joy is a sparse record, Kotche’s percussion steadily marching on through each song — as he says, “The drums really are right there for you.” 

Classically trained Kotche forwent a drum kit while composing his part on Ode to Joy, choosing instead to use the more orchestral method of playing each instrument separately, then stringing them together in production. 

“I did use a lot of unconventional instruments too. Like the marching machine, which is a classical instrument that gets that kind of big, loud sound. And I used it on bass drums and piano benches and stuff. So it kind of created these different textures that I think played really well with some of the decreased acoustic guitar sounds that Jeff was getting and, you know, some of the other sounds we were getting,” he says. “So it was certainly a different approach for us. I think it was really exciting to make it that way, and also really exciting to try and figure out how we would do that live.”

Kotche and Tweedy really took the lead on Ode to Joy, whereas the material Wilco is working on now is much more collaborative, he says. It isn’t something they’ve done since 2011’s The Whole Love, he says, or maybe even 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. And the pandemic has made it a unique collaboration in and of itself. Although they all started recording together in January 2020, that was quickly put on hold as of March, and the entire band has not been together since. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been writing. 

“Jeff came up with a whole new batch of songs that he was sending us one a day for 50 some days and everyone was commenting on and adding little parts to the demos,” Kotche says. 

Fifty new songs? One a day? 

“He’s definitely prolific,” Kotche laughs. “And they’re great. They’re all over the place. It’s been a lot of fun to start decoding them and constructing them.” 

Inevitably, there will be another Wilco album from all this material, the entire sextet recording together again in the studio. And there will be more tours, too. After almost 25 years, Wilco still has some surprises to share. Although Tweedy has said, “No one needs more Wilco music,” Kotche clarifies:   

“I wouldn’t say no one needs it; No one is asking for it,” he says. “We could not put out another record and we could still tour and play the same size places and still maintain the band strictly as a live entity. But we just don’t have interest in that. We all like making records, making records together.” 

ON THE BILL: Wilco & Sleater-Kinney. 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 W. Alameda Parkway, Morrison. Tickets: $60-$99.50. 


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