Wilco are one of the world’s biggest alternative groups, with critically and commercially successful albums such as Being There, Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born. SIMON SWEETMAN catches up with drummer Glen Kotche, as the band play their first shows in the country since 2003’s Big Day Out.

*   *   *

THIS WEEKEND Wilco play Auckland, Whitianga and Wellington. Very exciting. The band has only ever played once before in New Zealand – as part of the Big Day Out – so to see them doing full sets, their own shows, is heaven for fans.

Sometimes doing your job as a music-journalist can be less than exciting. One of the first interviews I ever did was with Shaznay Lewis, from the All Saints. She was nice to talk to, sure, but the album that she was promoting – her debut solo record – was just awful. So it was hard to be enthusiastic, hard to stay excited.

Recently I was given the chance to talk to the drummer from Wilco. Glenn Kotche. A dream gig for me – because A) I love Wilco. B) I think Kotche is amazing – he’s one of my favourite drummers and C) read A) and B) again!

So, here’s a glimpse in to my phone call with Mr Kotche. He was friendly, but very serious. The guy’s an academic musician – while currently on tour with Wilco he is using his day-time down-time to compose a piece for the Kronos Quartet. So, yeah, he’s that kind of serious. Nice guy though, from what I could tell.

“I’m there to serve the songs”, Kotche immediately tells me. But this is a guy with serious chops. He gets to showcase those on the Wilco records but has other outlets too. “My solo albums – and I’m up to my third now – allow me to indulge the writing side of my musical personality and to work on composition and flow. To use different ideas. When I’m with Wilco, a band I’ve been with for six or seven years now, I am there to serve Jeff’s songs”.

So is Jeff Tweedy the leader then?

“Well, he’s the frontman. He’s the main guy – in the sense that he’s up there singing and playing and he’s a focal point. He also writes the songs. And they’re great songs – amazing lyrics, awesome melodies. So, I see myself as a backline guy; there to make the songs sound good. And hopefully they do”, he adds a chuckle as that line ends.

Kotche is full of beans when talking about Sky Blue Sky – my least favourite Wilco album, but one that I am warming to more and more with each listen. I think I’ve finally cracked it. He tells me that fans should not panic – “we’ll be doing a range of material. But, I must say, and not just as rhetoric, we all really like the new album, I personally think it’s amazing and there is so much going on. And live we really bring the songs out – we funk them up, we make them come alive, I think people will have a whole new appreciation for the songs off Sky when they hear them live”.

Kotche has been with Wilco since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – very much the turning point for the band. There was the whole debacle of the album being rejected then purchased by a separate wing of the same parent company. And this was all caught on film as part of the revealing documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.

Glenn reckons that he didn’t think too much of the documentary at the time and hasn’t sat down to watch it through now but can see how important it is and how fans might cling to it and respect the tension involved. “But to us, it was just life at that time, we soldiered on through it and came out looking and sounding fine – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – that kind of thing…”

Kotche backs up Jeff Tweedy’s comments that this current version of Wilco is the best. “Absolutely, 100%, we’re a sharp unit and there is so much colour in what we do. Where we’re able to go with these songs. It’s a great live show”.

The band will even dip in to material from the two albums with Billy Bragg (Mermaid Avenue, Vol 1 & II).

“We have a very varied back-catalogue to draw from now – and in New Zealand I can promise that we’ll be doing a very wide range of material, we’re all very excited to be coming down there”.

So – that’s a few of the highlights from my chat with Glenn Kotche. All good standard interview fare – but he was very believable in the things he said; not just saying them for the sake of boredom on his part or good press for the band.

Kotche’s drumming is worth hearing – even if you’re not a fan of Wilco. He and Tweedy also play together in Loose Fur – their two albums are worth hearing. The cutesy-pop of The Minus 5 benefits from Kotche’s approach – especially on the Down With Wilco album. And then there’s his more challenging, but thoroughly interesting, solo works and his free-jazz duo, On Fillmore.