Thursday, July 15, 2010

Glenn Kotche of On Fillmore: The HAD Interview

As previously mentioned, Glenn Kotche and Darin Gray will be bringing their two-man act On Fillmore to Le Poisson Rouge tonight as part of a small East Coast tour. As they drove out for the shows, Glenn and Darin were kind enough to give us a call from the road and bring us up to date on what to expect from the band, as well as some insights on where they're going with their distinctive sound. With Darin backing him up from the driver's seat, this is our conversation with Glenn. Enjoy!

Hippies Are Dead: So I know that you and Darin met through Jim O’Rourke, your collaboration. And I was wondering about when you guys go into the studio, a lot of the compositions seem to have an atmospheric feel to them and I was wondering how the creative process works compositionally for On Fillmore. Do you guys spend a lot of time experimenting and grabbing the pieces you like best, or do you come in with compositions already scored, does that work?

Glenn Kotche: Kind of a bunch of different ways, but I guess we usually come up with ideas on our own, you know little melody snippets, things like that. Generally we’ll have an idea of what we want to do with the record before we get into it, and then we’ll get into the studio and work on ideas and arrangements and form and other parts. It’s usually just trial and error, we’ll use different field recordings we made, or on this last record we made our own field recordings in the studio as well. You know, different combinations of sounds. We go through a lot of different options and see what resonates with us, and that’s how we kind of form it. But the reality of living apart in two different cities, and my touring schedule, and Darin’s schedule, we don’t get a whole lot of time to just get together and work out ideas, so that’s why maybe some of the initial preparation’s done separately, and then we come together.

HAD: So when you do that, if one of you comes to the table with an idea, do you build out the parts and arrangements from there?

GK: Yeah....

HAD: Yeah?

GK: Sorry, we’re in a van, we’re kind of lost, I’m just trying to help. Okay, no, Darin’s got it now. Yeah, that’s basically how it works: we’ll flesh it out. I guess we’re both a little hesitant of getting anything a little too fully formed on our own. Because it is a duo, and we definitely both chime in on every decision that happens, you know, we try and bring things in a little rawer state. Even if it’s a song, there are some examples on the last record, where even if Darin already had the melody and chords written, I’d come in and suggest different field recordings and we’d choose it that way, or sometimes it’s the opposite. We basically try to collaborate on every aspect of it.

HAD: I was wondering about the field recordings: there’s a lot of bird noises and animal noises on the record, but there’s also a lot of human noises. Grunts, and coughs, and that sort of thing. When you add those to the composition, do you feel like you have an academic message behind it, or is it more of an aesthetic noise based addition to the piece? Do you see it as being noise, or adding structure, or what do those additions mean to you?

GK: Those are all really great questions, and I think one way to answer it would be that we think in terms of place. The way that it’s composed, we’re trying to create places with with music. That’s kind of the idea behind this band from the beginning. Even the name, On Fillmore, it’s a place more than a thing. And the idea of us living in different cities, our past records have dealt with that, and the distance between us. This last record, because we had some time off, we basically with Extended Vacation wanted to create these sort of mystery places, that maybe feel a little familiar, but then also you can’t put your finger on what they are. Some of those elements, some of the elements you’re talking about, and field recordings, some of it is Darin, he just makes sounds when he’s playing bass. You’ll hear his actual vocal grunts, and others are me recording, there was this church group meeting going on at a hotel I stayed at, and just stuck the recorder next to the door and recorded them through the wall. They were having conversations, and laughter, and just sort of all these elements that seem either....we decide the element works when it makes us a little puzzled. When it seems something comforting, but at the same time opens a whole new set of questions. “What is this? I think I’m getting it, but at the same time, this feels comfortable, but I’m kind of afraid at the same time.” I know this all seems a little ambiguous the way I’m explaining it, but I think that’s when we know something’s right. It’s not, “Oh! We need this and this and this”, and it’s premeditated, that we want, you know, a dog snoring on the record, or bird calls. It’s just that, these are the elements that really help create a sense of place that we’re trying to create for the listener. Essentially, as lame as it sounds, for them to take a journey with us, and with Extended Vacation, it was basically “Here’s a tour of these imaginary places we’ve been since you were with us last”.

HAD: It’s interesting that you should say that, in terms of ambiguity and creating a sense of place. There was one interview I read where the interviewer was saying they had used the record to decorate their Christmas tree to. That was the sense of place for them, but for me listening to the record it was a totally different place, so I guess it accomplishes that goal. In terms of that sense of place, it’s kind of an interesting contrast how the record has this human element where you can hear instruments playing, and grunts, and the human side of it. Do you think that when you were in the studio recording, you know, today so many recordings are so clean and sterile, and very much like “Let’s get the recording perfect”. What kind of recording setup do you guys use? Because it feels very organic.

GK: Exactly. You nailed it - that’s one of the principal things of this band. We don’t want anything on the records that sounds like it’s store bought, if that makes sense. The percussion, or, we’ll both just prepare different things, or combine different instruments in different ways to make new sounds out of them. You know, even with vibes, vibes are a very common set of sounds, but maybe we’ll play two sets of vibes with motors on different speeds, and different mallets, and then use the ring from crotalis over it. Just combining different sounds to create something different. To get that organic sound, to get it to sound like, I don’t know, we’re both just big fans of field recordings. It goes back to even all the old Explorer series, and field recordings of indigenous music from Asia and Africa where it’s just a microphone out in a field, and you hear all kinds of sounds along with the music. You hear dancing, you hear cooking, and whatever else. You hear the place, and I think that’s something that inspires us. We try to keep away from anything that’s too clean and obvious. There are bird sounds all over this record, but they’re all manmade. They’re all whistles. We didn’t just download a bunch of bird sounds and pick the one the felt good - that was too obvious. We want them to sound like birds, but have them raise an eyebrow too, if that makes sense. Something that creates this place that’s a little more special and unique.

HAD: When you guys were doing the recordings, how did they fall in terms of live performance versus overdubs? Was everything simultaneous, or how did that work?

GK: Usually anything that’s playing, we’ll play together. If it’s bass and drums, that’s together, or bass and vibes, that’s together. And then, you know, if I’m doubling crotalis with vibes or something, then that’s an overdub. Same thing with field recordings. Some of those are recorded separately and we’ll fly them in the fact. Then in the studio, we’ll just set up a mic, and get on the floor surrounded by stuff and make our own field recordings. And play together, and put that on top. We try to keep it as simple as possible, not get caught up in a lot of different effects and things, we try to do it ourselves. There’s an example of “Daydreaming So Early”, there’s a weird part where the vibes sound all crackly and broken up. Instead of messing with plugins and everything to get this weird distorted vibe sound, Darin went to the back of the Wilco loft, and called me on his cell phone, and I put my cell phone next to the vibes, and then we recorded through his cell phone. You just get that natural static. It gave us this sense of “you’re trying to call this remote place, that’s kind of there, you’re getting a glimpse, but you’re not really...” I don’t know, it creates a little more mystery I think.

HAD: I know you guys said you have pretty hectic schedules, how long did you spend in the studio recording this record?

GK: (To Darin) How long did we spend recording this one? (To HAD) Yeah, it was probably about two weeks time recording this one from start to finish.

HAD: Maybe I’m wrong, not knowing the context, but it seems like for you that you’re playing a more diverse group of instruments than you would be on a Wilco record. Is that accurate, or are they just more up front on this record.

GK: Oh yeah, that’s accurate. On this record there’s two of us playing, and when I make solo records, I play even more! But with a duo, we’re both playing a lot of different instruments. You know, on this record Darin’s playing guitar, and all sorts of percussion, and same with me. With Wilco, there’s six guys, so you have to be a little more refined in terms of what you choose to play.

HAD: When you and Darin play is it a free for all? Do you pick up whatever you want to play, and there’s no boundaries in terms of who’s playing what?

GK: I wouldn’t say there’s any boundaries really, because we resisted it. Part of the reason for our duo is to not have any lead instrument, no guitars. And we resisted that, and yet, guitar ended up on this record. It’s not that we just pick up whatever and go for it. We’re really careful and discuss and really think about the sounds that we choose. If I’m going to play vibes as opposed to glockenspiel or crotalis. It’s not like “oh, I feel like playing vibes”. We really think about which sound is going to blend best with what’s going on, and what we’re trying to convey. So all the sounds were chosen really carefully, but we also know we have a really broad range of what we can choose from.

HAD: So when you were approaching this from the angle of creating and atmosphere and a place, as opposed to laying down melodies - despite the fact that it’s a very ambient and atmospheric record, but there’s also a lot of strong melody going on, particularly with the bass and with the vibes. Do you feel like the compositions, that you restrained melody so that it wouldn’t overwhelm the sense of place?

GK: I think we view melody in a broader sense with this band, in that there’s definitely pitched melodies on bass or pitched tuned percussion, but maybe sometimes we’ll get into a long repetition of those things happening over and over. It’s not just a short, simple melody being repeated over and over, but that now there’s a melody that happens to be in bird calls. The melody in our mind is the evolution of what’s happening in the relationship between a field recording of a fly and random wood block kit,m or whatever the example might be. We’re trying to think of melody as a sequence of events, and opposed to an arrangement of pitches.

HAD: I know you’ve done some New Music stuff with “Clapping Music” and “In C”, how do you as a musician get the listener engaged in these new definitions of music, when maybe they might not be familiar with them?

GK: Haha, well that’s the million dollar question. If I understand correctly, we’re pushing our own definitions of music, and you’re asking how it is that we can get the audience to grasp on to that?

HAD: Well it seems to the Western pop music ear, people are usually pursuing that more conventional definition of melody, with a pitch based hook. I guess a different way of saying it would be how you find yourself engaged in these new definitions. Is it through repeated listening, or training your ear, or an academic pursuit? What is it that engages you in those new definitions of melody?

GK: Well, it’s definitely not a more academic underdstanding, and it’s not even ear training or repetitive listening. It’s more just active listening, instead of passive listening. If you really just open your ears and listen to what’s happening around you, the sound environments that happen. I think if you listen to this music, you’re going to get it if you open your ears and listen to all the sounds, and the combinations of sounds. I understand what you’re saying, that for most people who listen to Western pop music, it might be a little more challenging for them. But you’ve gotta understand, John Cage was one of the most popular people to introduce ideas like this in the 1930’s. That’s a long time ago, and music’s gone a lot of places. For Darin and I, who both really listen to a lot of different types of music, and play a lot of different types of music, what really keeps us engaged is to explore new ways to make music, and make sound combinations that resonate with with us, and have meaning for us. Sometimes that is traditional melody, and sometimes it’s collage. Some of the more challenging aspects of the music, like when you stay on something and repeat it for five minutes, what do expect the audience to do? Well, we’re talking about places here, and we’re talking about going on a little trip together, and sometimes it takes a long time to get to a place. Sometimes we just want to draw the listener in, and bring them with us, so they just have to buckle up and go along on the ride. When you come out on the other side, you get it and you understand it, and you have the payoff and the relief. It’s what feels right for us, and hopefully feels right to other people.

HAD: Along those lines, speaking to different music, what’s some stuff that you and Darin listen to that you feel like people maybe wouldn’t have heard of, and is maybe a little off the beaten path?

GK: I’ll open this question up to Darin too, since he’s sitting next to me. I’ve been in a really intense period of work on commisions, and with Kronos Quartet, a remix project, so any free time I’ve had with music in the past few months has been to meet my own deadlines. Unfortunately, I haven’t been doing a ton of listening for enjoyment.

(Repeats question to Darin)

It’s a great question. I always Mauricio Kagel is one person who jumps into my mind when you’re talking about sound environments, and everything being music, that’d be a great starting point. I listen a lot to the composer John Luther Adams, because his music to me is a lot more about, sometimes about place, but it’s not about a linear sequence of events. It’s more about the moment, and it is it’s own thing. Cage, obviously. Darin mentions we do listen to every day stuff too, but is that what you’re talking about?

HAD: I guess it goes both ways: the every day can inspire the avant garde, and vice versa, so whatever you think suits that definition.

GK: Well Darin just mentioned Levon Helm, I saw him play last week. Bill Fay, J Dilla, we just listened to Bill Dixon, Milford Graves, there’s just so many. Darin said he’s been listening to a lot of Fred Anderson, who just passed a few weeks ago. It goes across the board, both of us have played a lot of music with Jim O’Rourke, and I always come back to that. Anything he does is pretty inspiring to both of us.

HAD: One thing that I’ve been wondering about, is something you mentioned in the commentary track of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, and it caught my ear....

GK: (Laughing) I’ve never actually listened to that, so you may be throwing me a curve ball here...

HAD: No, no, not a curve ball! It’s more of a point of context for a question about you and Darin. In the scene with “I’m Always In Love”, you mention in the commentary that it’s the first day you ever played with Wilco. Given that, in a broader sense, how do feel about the role of spontaneity in performance? That idea that the “first take is the best take”. When you and Darin were in the studio recording this record, especially given how brief the recording was, was it a feeling of a lot of rehearsal culminating in a final recording, or just let’s give it a go, and see what’s there? How much of the performance was intuition versus calculated?

GK: Almost all of it was intuition. Where you say was it well rehearsed, or should we just lay it down and see what happens, we had an idea of what we want the record to be about. But once we get the basic melody or rhythm down, we don’t spend a ton of time doing that. We’re not about perfection. We’re about getting something has some soul and some ass to it. You know, these tunes groove to us. As long as we get something that feels right or wrong. After that it’s all spontaneous, really. It’s just ideas, like “What if we do this?”, or “Let’s try this!”, and if something falls over in a take, or there’s sirens outside, or coughs in the middle of a take, usually it’s like: “that happened in the right spot, let’s keep that”. In the live shows, it’s something that we’re doing more now than we ever used to. Before we used to represent our music and play it. Now, for us, it’s definitely about trying to go somewhere else with the performace. We’re going to play the melodies and harmonies that are on the tunes, but there’s a lot of room for interaction between us and the audience, and let the audience into the performance. Instead of say, just performing our music for the audience. We want to create an event, and a place, and a time-place at the show, if that makes any sense. We want to draw the audience in, instead of just presenting something.

HAD: Along those lines, I know you’ve recently scored some of the other stuff you’ve worked on. Did you guys have any scores for On Fillmore?

GK: No scores. Sometimes Darin will have a melody on guitar, and I’ll have to write it out in order to learn it on vibes, and sometimes we’ll discuss parts, but no, no scores whatsoever.

HAD: I know here in New York there was an exhibition of some Xenakis scores, and a bunch of his scores are very abstract. There’s nothing on the score involving notes, they’re far more just drawings describing the feeling of a piece. Have either of you ever gotten into that kind of alternative scoring of a piece?

GK: I haven’t dealt into graphic scores much, I’m sure I made some when I was younger, but not recently. Darin says a little bit, but if we had a scoring method for this, it’d be more like an idea for a place, so the score would be a place that we descrivbe to each other. Then we make how it sounds, if that makes sense. So it’s more verbal, about adjectives and feelings and about what you feel like when you’re in this place, and what it feels like, and what you went through getting to that place. And then we try to create that experience. I guess that’s a might be more of a guideline or a synopsis. I don’t know what you’d call it. It’s more something you’d talk about and a vision of what we want it to be like.

HAD: Well, I guess that place will be Le Poisson Rouge on Thursday, so we’ll get to see it!

GK: Yeah! Last time I was there I actually saw the Xenakis string quartets, and it’s funny you brought him up, because that’s someone we both listen to a hell of a lot. But yeah, Thursday will definitely be a good time!

HAD: See you there!

On Fillmore play Le Poisson Rouge tonight at 7, Rachel Grimes opens.