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Talking Drums: Glenn Kotche and Martin Dosh

By Doug Benidt

Swapping roles as interviewer and interviewed, percussionists Glenn Kotche (Wilco) and Martin Dosh (Dosh, Andrew Bird) share a bit of common time to ruminate on influences, matters of style, and “Ah-ha!” moments while opening an insider’s window into the world of the professional drummer. Both artists have played the Walker—Kotche with Wilco at Rock the Garden 2003 and Dosh on several occasions, including 2008’s two-nighter The World of Dosh—but on February 16, they’ll share the McGuire stage. Kotche will present his Walker-commissioned work Ilimaq along with a new collaboration with Dosh.

Martin Dosh

How much does improvisation figure into your compositional process?

Glenn Kotche

For composing, I’d have to say not too much. There is a huge amount of trial and error to see what ends up working and resonating with me. I like to entertain any idea to see if it’s viable and fresh, but I’d say I leave the improvising to the live show. For some pieces that I write for myself, I do build in areas that are fluid and can be very different every night. And sometimes when I’m writing for another group, I leave plenty of room for interpretation so they can make it their own. But I guess I’m more of a classically-minded rather than jazz-minded composer.

Dosh

Can you recall the first time you heard a recording of yourself playing drums? How did this affect you?

Kotche

Yes, the local music store, Roselle Music [in Roselle, Illinois], had a weekly drum workshop for a little while when Ross Salomone was running the department. One week, when I was probably in 5th grade, he brought everyone to a real recording studio to check it out, and we each got to record a three-minute drum solo. I think I still have the cassette somewhere. But it was amazing to hear myself. I remember feeling 1.) shocked that every little time hiccup or accidental rim click or any mistake was magnified so clearly, and 2.) that it was really inspiring and got me thinking that “I can do this” and “I love this!” So ultimately, I think it was extremely valuable and encouraging for me.

Dosh

When you first began playing drum set, which, if any, drummers did you try to emulate?

Kotche

When I first started, I was still way into John Philip Sousa! I was much more about concert and marching drumming. But after I realized how much fun it was playing drum set, I went full-on. My very first exposures were what I heard my older siblings playing: Ringo, Alan Gratzer from REO, and probably Nigel Olsson from Elton John’s band. But I soon discovered Gene Krupa, who I got heavily into, and John Bonham, Neil Peart, Stuart Copeland, etc. This is still around 4th to 6th grade. I’m sure all of those guys factor into my playing somehow.

Dosh

In interviews, you’ve talked about your lifelong obsession with rhythm. Are there a few “Ah-ha!” moments you could discuss?

Kotche

Too many to discuss! But yes, so many. The first time I heard a marching band as a toddler; the first (and only) drum I destroyed at age three or four; the first solo contest I went to in grade school; the first few times I performed live; learning brushes; reading John Cage; studying Reich and Riley; hearing African drumming for the first time; learning to play Afrobeat and big band and multiple percussion; double drumming with Mo Tucker, Jim White, Levon Helm, and Phil Selway; putting crotales on my kit; going to Brazil for the first time; hearing Korean drumming for the first time; hearing Jim O’Rourke’s music; even finally unlocking some level of new and deeper understanding about the subtlety of playing a Wilco song for the umpteenth time—the list goes on and on and on. But I can clearly remember all of these instances and can say without a doubt that I was a changed musician (if not person, in some circumstances) after each one of these experiences.

Dosh

At what point did you begin to incorporate electronic elements into your setup? And how has that evolution progressed?

Kotche

When I was doing a lot of free improvising before joining Wilco, I used contact mics and ran them through effects pedals to conjure up new sounds. I still do that but also employ lots of other stuff too now. In fact, my next big solo project will rely heavily on mixing drums and electronics.

Okay, now some questions for you. How important do you feel it is for drummers to be able to play other instruments? And to what degree of proficiency?

Dosh

I don’t feel that it is really necessary at all, though as someone who studied piano before picking up the drums, I feel it has had an indelible influence on my approach to drumming. The level of proficiency issue is another thing altogether. Let me state here that I am not a great pianist: I can’t sight-read, my independence is terrible, and I haven’t practiced since I was 11. I have also played, and recorded myself playing, many other instruments of which I have no business playing. I try to approach any given instrument or piece of gear as a child would—with a sense of wonder. I read the manuals later. …

Kotche

What other styles of drumming or music have had a big effect on your drumming? My instincts tell me primarily jazz and world, but I honestly don’t know.

Dosh

In chronological order—for example, from when I started playing drums at 15 until today—the drummers I have obsessed over are: John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Elvin Jones, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, Michael Shrieve, Bill Bruford, Jon Fishman, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Martin, Dave King, JT Bates, and Levon Helm. But by far the two most important on that list are Billy Martin and Dave King, probably because I saw them each play live so many times, but also because they are both so different (from each other) and modern. Both guys incorporate myriad influences in their own styles, and so by osmosis, I guess, I figured out whatever “style” I was going to arrive at would be an amalgam of all that came before. I really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, it is what it is.

Kotche

When and why did you start to use looping and sequencing technology in your music?

Dosh

The looping thing was the earliest; I was writing songs on the Rhodes to play in a trio, but then in the band I would play drums. I borrowed a loop pedal from my friend John, and ran the Rhodes into it. Once I realized I could make something on an instrument and then play drums live with that just-made loop, I was hooked. Of course, sampling technology has been around a lot longer than 1999, but I didn’t know a thing about it! I had already amassed a massive library of recordings that I had done over the previous four years (on a 4-track) and once I figured out how to make a good loop, I was able to “raid” those old tapes and find the best drum parts to use as building blocks for new songs. As far as sequencing, I still have no idea what I’m doing. I love my old Korg EX-800; it’s the only sequencer I’ve ever used. I can compose a melody on the piano, and then program it into the sequencer, slow it down, speed it up, tweak tones, whatever. And all the tones on it are so ancient! The 1980s are alive and well …

Kotche

How much formal musical training do you have? Teachers? School?

Dosh

When I started playing drums at 15, I would play along to Zeppelin, Rush, Yes, and Pink Floyd. That’s basically how I taught myself. I went to college at 17 and studied in the undergrad jazz program for two years. I took a few lessons from Randy Kaye, but was too young and full of myself to realize the importance of what I was learning. I kept teaching myself, listening to records and reading on my own for seven years—and then hit a wall. I realized I needed a teacher. After I moved back to the Twin Cities, I studied with Dave King [The Bad Plus, Happy Apple] for two rather intense years and that was the breakthrough—not because Dave taught me how to be the best drummer in town, but because he encouraged my own approach to sound and composing as well as getting me out of my comfort zone with how I approached the drum set.

Kotche

When playing with Andrew Bird, do you view yourself as the drummer or more as a multi-instrumentalist? Or restated: are you thinking as a drummer who is incorporating a lot of other elements or as a musician whose role also includes keeping the rhythm and time going?

Dosh

I don’t really view myself in any different way, though the situation in the Bird band has changed in the seven years I’ve been playing with him. When we first started playing together, we had a very good understanding of what we could pull off as a two-piece band, doing a lot of looping and getting the stuff to sync up pretty well. And we still do, it’s just that as time has moved on, more guys have joined the band, and with the last two releases, especially the most recent, we’re really focused on just being a band playing a song. This last year I saw myself mostly as a drummer, and it felt really good. I still have this world of looping opportunity at my fingertips at all times, but only use it on a few songs a night. Four years ago, it was the opposite.

Kotche

What musicians have given you a “Eureka!” moment?

Dosh

Going to see a band you’ve never seen before is still one of my favorite things in the world; I’ve drawn much inspiration from all of the music I have seen over the years. Here’s the shows that made me go home and re-evaluate my life:

• Pink Floyd at the Metrodome in 1988
• Grateful Dead at the old Boston Garden in 1991
• Medeski, Martin and Wood at the Fox Theatre in Boulder in 1995
• Radiohead at the State Theater in Minny in 1997
• Tortoise at First Avenue in 1999

Kotche

I’ll ask you the same question that I asked REM drummer Bill Rieflin [Modern Drummer, July 2010, pdf]. I’ve noticed that most great musicians are their own worst critics. How do you balance your self-criticism so it’s productive instead of being destructive?

Dosh

That question could have been my senior thesis had I majored in composition. I think my general approach of naïveté to all things musical has kept me from being over-the-top self-critical. I record all the time and have hours and hours of stuff that will never see the light of day, but I have a good editing sense, and I can tell when a piece rises above the rest and presents itself as worthy of being heard by someone other than me! The self-criticism never really goes away, but I think the most important thing as an artist is to make something that you actually enjoy.

Kotche

What impact do you think living in the Twin Cities has had on you as a musician and artist? What aspects do you think you would have missed out on if you lived elsewhere?

Dosh

Living here has been everything to me. I cannot imagine having played and recorded all the things I have anywhere else. It simply wouldn’t have happened. Living in an environment where being an artist is universally (more or less) accepted as normal is pretty awesome.

Dosh at Le Botanique in Brussels, October 2010

Glenn Kotche

Photo: Michael Wilson

Glenn Kotche

Photo: Ed Luna

Martin Dosh

Photo: Cameron Wittig

Dosh

Photo: Cameron Wittig