After more than ten years in the upper reaches of US alt. rock pecking order, it’s temptingly easy to call Wilco an institution. But institutions are reliable, stable, unchanging: a new album every four years, identifiable from the one before only by the title, followed by another dash through the greatest hits across the world’s stadia. Which is the exact opposite to how the Chicago six-piece operate. Balancing a heartfelt respect for the great American music tradition with a keen, fearless interest in pushing boundaries, Wilco’s sound continues to mutate, even if the band’s line-up has remained stable after several changes in personnel throughout the 90’s and early 00’s.
They’ve stayed constantly on the move from the alt. country key text ‘Being There’ (1996) to the tension-filled creative high points of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2002) and ‘A Ghost is Born’ (2004) and the stylistically diverse new ‘Wilco (The Album)’s mixture of the smooth and the spiky, resulting in an output that tackles straightforward folk, country ballads, atonal drones, fuzz-driven aggression and Krautrock freak-outs with equal aplomb. Gigwise chatted to drummer Glenn Kotche on the eve of the band’s brief UK tour next week.
Gigwise: Wilco’s past records have been markedly different from one another, whereas ‘Sky Blue Sky’ and ‘Wilco (The Album)’ present a fairly unified sound. Has Wilco “arrived” at an ideal sound or do you expect the band’s music to continue to evolve?
Glenn Kotche: I actually think the last two records have a very different sound from each other. They were written and recorded completely differently. SBS was done live in the studio with no isolation - hence it's very intimate and more soulful than any other Wilco record. The new record utilized the studio much more in many capacities and is more of an overview of our live sound - including some pretty loud and abrasive moments. I do however feel that we have not arrived at a particular sound and will keep exploring new directions - we're all just too restless and curious not too.
Both ‘Sky Blue Sky’ and ‘Wilco (The Album)’ are smoother, more mellow offerings than tension-filled past albums such as ‘A Ghost is Born’. Was the more approachable, less spiky approach a conscious decision?
I definitely agree with your statement regarding SBS - but I don't think you can listen to a song like Bull black Nova off of ‘Wilco (the Album)’ and say that. I think both the new record and ‘...Ghost...’ have a lot of stylistically disparate songs on them. But maybe the impression you're getting is mostly from the lyrical content. In that case, the time of ‘...Ghost...’ was a much more turbulent time for Jeff. The songs dictate the direction of the record ultimately. It seems that any specific premeditated approach to a new record will end up being forced - the songs and how they are best served dictate the nature of a record for the most part. We realize and respect that.
How would you describe the band’s current sound?
Still eclectic, since we stylistically jump around the band's catalogue at live shows. We just played the last two nights in Chicago and the shows had moments of pure pop, county waltzes, extreme noise and chaos, and all out rock - I guess we cover a lot of ground but it all still sounds like Wilco somehow.
After some turbulent times, Wilco’s line-up has remained stable for a number of years. What is life like in the band like at the moment?
Pretty much a joy. We all get along really well and trust each other musically. I think most of the criticism is self criticism for any of us, and we're all happy with the level that we've been performing at. I keep hearing from other people in the music industry that we're one of the most functional bands around - I chalk it up to a whole lot of respect for one another.
How would you describe the band’s journey from the rootsy ‘A.M’ (1994) to the current album?
I can only comment knowledgeably about the last 9 years since I've been in the band. But I think there was a lot of searching for creative energy which led to some drastic stylistic changes of direction in the music and several different personnel changes. We're at a place now with a solid, definitive line-up and a whole range of options as to where we want to go next. I still see a large part of the wilco story as yet to come. Although we're happy and functional as a band, I don't think we're anywhere near being complacent.
Wilco has a reputation as one of the more politically aware bands around, with some members of the band playing at pre-election ‘Rock the Vote’ events in support of Barack Obama. To what extent has Obama’s election changed the US?
I think most of the country is relieved that we're no longer being represented by an administration that represents a small fraction of the country - and quite frankly prioritized helping industry and their supporters more than the general welfare and well being of most Americans and the rest of the world's people. They really set us back. I think the Obama administration has a tremendous amount of bad policy to undo - this takes time and it's getting done. We're on the right track for sure.
Having had your well-documented problems with record labels around the time of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’, how do you feel about the crisis of the recording industry?
The whole dynamic is changing, that's obvious. The old mentality of labels doesn't work with modern technology. Ultimately, it will be better for bands - they'll get more control and money. However, bands will have to work a lot harder, staying on the road and promoting the music. That's not a problem for Wilco - we've always had to tour constantly to make a living. But the days of putting a record out and kicking back while the royalty checks roll in are probably over for a lot of artists.
Apart from Wilco, what should we be listening to at the moment?
It's not rock - but the composer John Luther Adams from Alaska is making ground breaking music that's really great and accessible too. Jim O'Rourke's new record, ‘The Visitor’ is incredible - he plays every instrument on it without editing takes together! Quite an achievement in its own right - but musically it's astonishing. Also, the "Dark Was The Night" Red Hot compilation, put together by Bryce and Aaron Dessner is a great picture of what's happening musically in the US now.
Your background is in experimental music. What attracted you to Wilco? To what extent do you have to rein in your improvisational instincts to match the band’s more conventional moments?
I joined Wilco during the recording of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and was encouraged to incorporate all of my improv extended techniques and sounds. I still incorporate that side of my playing when it's appropriate, but in Wilco the lyrical content comes first. That means sometimes I completely rein in that side of my playing, but that's only one side of my playing. I love just laying down a groove and exploring different nuances of feels or coming up with parts that are creative in subtle ways. Basically, exploration can be done in many ways - not just in improv settings.