Drum Heads: Wilco's Glenn Kotche Details His Handmade Drum Approach

Like all the best superheroes, Glenn Kotche leads something of a double life. The Chicago-based percussionist has been working with Wilco since 2001—after post-rock guru Jim O’ Rourke introduced him to the band— contributing to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and A Ghost Is Born. Kotche is also a well-respected composer, recently writing for the likes of the Kronos Quartet and the Bang on a Can All-stars.
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“I’ve been playing in rock bands since I was 12,” he says, “and I love creating music with other people. I’d really miss that if I wasn’t playing with Wilco, as composing can be a very solitary process.”

Kotche’s kit is by no means your usual “rawk” drum set. His conventional Sonor kit is tricked out with orchestra bells, high and low Crotales, an Almgloken, a gong sheet, the occasional congo, and even a fruit basket. Further idiosyncratic modifications include his “hi-hat shaker” and the “Mani tom”—which is named after Mani Neumeier, the influential drummer with jazz-tinged Krautrockers Guru Guru.

“I’ll envision a particular sound, and if I can’t find just the fight thing on the market, I set about building my own,” says Kotche. “The hi-hat shaker is essentially some egg shakers placed inside a bracket attached to a hi-hat. It’s a fairly subtle heightening of the sound, so it works best in the studio. The Mani has a plastic tube placed into the vent hole of the tom that I blow into to increase air pressure within the shell, which results in pitch changes. The effect is not unlike a timpani glissando.”

When it comes to miking his drums, Kotche doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to get everything to sound clean and pristine.

“I’m more concerned with color, timbre, and capturing the idea,” he says. “When I do my solo work, I’ll literally record with anything that’s around—old analog 4-tracks, MiniDisc recorders, iPods, and whatever. However, Wilco records live, so we use close mics and a couple of overheads to capture the drum sound. But I began experimenting with some homemade contact mics that I positioned right on the drums. This resulted in a big, distorted, almost industrial sound. I started controlling the blend of the contact mics with a foot pedal, which gives me more tonal options. I can start with a clean acoustic-sounding kit, and then suddenly shift into this big, distorted kit.”

Wilco’s Loft Studio—which is a tenminute walk from Kotche’s house— also allows experimentation. “It’s on the third floor of a building with this amazing set of concrete stairs,” he explains. “You can play instruments— percussion or otherwise—at the top, and place a mic at the bottom to get really amazing sounds.”

When it came to recording his third solo outing Mobile, Kotche turned to Wilco band mate Mikael Jorgenson to engineer and produce. Jorgenson—a talented engineer in his own right before he joined Wilco— was drafted to manipulate live sound for Wilco, before the band discovered his talents as a keyboardist.

“The sessions for the new Wilco album were brief, intense bursts of creativity, punctuated by people having babies,” says Jorgenson. “It was kind of the same working with Glenn, because we’d do a few days, and then go away for three weeks before we came back to the studio. During the sessions, the Loft was a lot more—let’s say ‘basic’—than it is now, so making the album was quite an experience. For example, we were recording to Pro Tools|HD, but the monitor speakers were in the same room as Glenn, so we had to turn them down when he was playing, and then back up to hear what he did. We were also quite limited regarding mics, because most of the band’s recording equipment was in storage. We relied on a few Shure mics for the kick, snare, and overheads, but that ended up being good, because I wanted the setup to be pretty basic. You see, when you make a straightforward rock album, there are thousands of records to compare it to. But when you make an experimental percussion record such as Mobile, where is your touchstone? So my strategy was to keep things as simple as possible. We didn’t do too much in the way of effects, as what Glenn does is so layered and so dense, that too many effects would have compromised something. Basically, I listened to what he was playing, and I just asked him if there was anything he wanted more detail on.”