- 11 Oct 23
As they prepare to release Cousin, their 13th studio album, Wilco's Glenn Kotche talks about the record's creation, collaborating with red-hot producer Cate le Bon and achieving that good old Ringo sound.
Wilco’s hugely affable drummer, Glenn Kotche, joins me on the blower from the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, 25 minutes before the band’s soundcheck for this evening’s show. Precise? You better believe it. You don’t mess about in Wilco world.
One of the most critically acclaimed indie bands this century (even the phone call sounds as crystal clear as the BBC philharmonic) release their thirteenth studio album at the end of the month - the succinctly titled Cousin. Meanwhile, they’ll also be playing three sold out dates in Belfast, Dublin and Cork in support of their last album, Cruel Country. It’s safe to say Wilco like to keep busy and theclock is ticking, so let’s roll…
Cousin excitingly finds Cate Le Bon, on a red-hot run of helming fantastic albums - John Grant, H. Hawkline, Kurt Vile- in the production chair.
”We haven’t worked with an outside producer since maybe Jim Scott on Wilco (The Album)”, Glenn explains. “It’s nice to get some new blood in, to get new ideas going and luckily Cate likes percussion, a lot, and gave me free rein to try a lot of different ideas which was super cool.”
Man, the percussive salvo which opens Cousin is really something.
“Those are some old vintage concert tom toms,” Glenn chuckles. “They basically don’t have a bottom head, so they’re extra dead. And we had the ‘60s, ‘70s treatment, the Ringo treatment, with towels over the head. There’s a lot of multiple passes on some of the tunes - we took percussion and put it through filters and drum machines to give it a different sound. But yeah, that’s the good old Ringo sound.
”I have to say working with Cate was really nice. She came in and basically knew every lyric, knew all the songs and so was able to pick and choose which ones she wanted to work on. She had a lot of ideas - for guitars, vocals, keyboards, overdubs, drum parts, everything. She really knew what she wanted, and she stuck to her guns too. To everyone in the band’s credit, they let her do her thing and followed her vision for the record. I’m psyched the way it turned out.”
“We’d done several albums - Schmilko, Star Wars, Ode To Joy and Cruel Country - just ourselves at our studio space in Chicago, The Loft. We try and mix it up, record to record, stylistically, just to make it more interesting for ourselves and keep exploring as a band. I think the general attitude was let’s bring in someone that we trust. We knew Kate. She played our festival. And she also had recorded at The Loft when she played on a Wilco cover record. So, she was familiar with the space, had a good rapport with the band and we’ve really liked her records.”
Glenn is on a roll, best to stand out of the way and leave him go.
“Also, you have to remember this record started before Cruel Country. Back during the pandemic, Jeff sent us a new song every day for 50 days, some were just 30 seconds long, some were flushed out with lyrics and then people would just overdub on them. In the middle of that, we started playing songs that were more folk oriented, ones that were coming so easily, which opened the door for the idea of Cruel Country.
”Instead of belabouring over the arrangements, dressing them up and turning them into something different, which we’ve done on a lot of records, we just kept them simple, played them live with minimal overdubs.”
”But there was still that handful of songs left over and the rest of those demos that ended up being Cousin. It was like, ‘How do we finish this? What do we do with this now?’ It wasn’t clear cut. We thought, ‘Let’s bring them out. And see what they think about it.’ And that turned out to be a very good idea.”
As Glenn notes, the band took a contrasting creative approach to their previous record.
“Cousin was pretty much recorded the opposite way to Cruel Country,” he says. “Most of my tracking was on my own, to either scratch guitar or drum machines. There were a lot of percussion days where I just went in with Cate and we did a lot of stuff. I think we tried recording with the entire band for a few days at first, but the way Cate envisioned the songs, having six people set up at the same time, it was just not going to work that way. So, people would come in for, you know, a week or a few days here and there and blast out a bunch of parts.”
And that ladies and gentlemen is how you describe the inner workings of recording an album. None of your monosyllabic meandering. This is Wilco and they know what they are at. Take notice. Glenn has swathed away half-a-dozen of my pesky questions in one foul swoop, so I meekly wonder what was playing on the Wilco turntable at The Loft during recording?
“I hate to use any references that the other guys might not agree with,” he says. “But percussion wise, I was definitely thinking Joy Division, maybe a little New Order and Gang Of Four. At least that’s what Cate and I spoke about, or Faust IV or John Cale Fear, things like that. I don’t think Bowie’s ever too far from Kate’s influence either. Just a lot of great music, not trying to rip off anything, just gathering some inspiration.”
”Again, this is something I haven’t spoken to the other guys about, but for me, I find the songs fit into three categories. Those that are sonically experimental, and more collage oriented like ‘Infinite Surprise’; those that are folk influenced like ‘A Bowl And A Pudding’ or ‘Ten Dead’; and the more punk stuff like ‘Evicted’, ‘Levee’ and ‘Soldier Child’. I think it’s got a nice balance. They all work together. For me, it’s a nice evolution of going through these different worlds.”
How are the new songs working live?
”We’re still technically supporting Cruel Country because Cousin doesn’t come out until the end of September,” Glenn explains. “There are so many songs on Cruel Country, it’s more difficult to decide which ones to play. But we’ve narrowed it down to a handful of ones that seem to work well live.
”I’m really excited about playing some of the songs on Cousin. But I’ve only got a couple of weeks to figure out how to play them. We usually have a little backstage area, just a minimal setup where we can run through things before the show - songs that we haven’t played in forever, or new material or whatever. We don’t have that for fiscal reasons in Europe. So, I’m really wondering how I’m going play some of these songs because they contain a lot of percussion and drum overdubs.
”It’s almost like when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out and I had to figure out how to play, this five-section drum part and make it into one live composite. I’m going to have to do that with several of the songs on the new record too. Unfortunately, I won’t have a kit until about a week-and-a-half before we play them, so it’s gonna be crunch time for me, but that’s all good. To be honest, it’s a lot of fun figuring out what works.
With two minutes until soundcheck, we swap book recommendations. Glenn wins out, recommending Knausgård’s Seasons Quartet, and trumps me completely by informing that the Norwegian writer is a personal friend. And then he’s gone, back into the Wilcoverse, to prepare for this evening’s show.
Cousin is out now.
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