In discussing his preparation for the brief winter tour with the Bang on a Can All-Stars that brings him back to Lexington, Glenn Kotche outlined the inspiration he finds in collaborating with an ensemble that has, in turn, worked with such diverse artists as Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman and Thurston Moore.
"Every time I play with them, I have to be on top of my game," Kotche said.
Come again? Has there been an instance when the world-class drummer has returned to his alma mater — the University of Kentucky and the stages of the Singletary Center for the Arts, where he gave his student recitals — and not been anything less than in peak creative form?
Take his last outing here, a 2006 program of solo percussion presented on a split bill with guitarist Nels Cline, who just happens to be a bandmate of Kotche's in an industrious Chicago-based pop unit called Wilco. For that performance, he used drum sets jury-rigged with springs and strings and an orchestra of "cricket boxes" to bring the Hindu Monkey Chant to life.
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A few years before that was a Singletary evening with Wilco itself, then in the final stages of recording A Ghost Is Born. That night, we heard Kotche bashing merrily about on then-new works including the Neil Young-ish At Least That's What You Said and coloring the now-classic I Am Trying to Break Your Heart with devilish percussion color.
Back up two months before that, and Kotche was at the Singletary again, teaming again with UK professor James Campbell, for the school's annual Day of Percussion. The culmination was a display for eager students of how complete and compelling the sounds of a solo drum set could be when removed from the usual arena of rock clichés.
"It's very comfortable coming back again," Kotche said of playing at UK on Sunday with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. "I know the stage. I know the people. I know the town. So all of that is really nice. But for me, it is also a little bit of a homecoming that puts things in perspective.
"When I get onstage there, I can't help but think of the Percussion Ensemble concerts there, my senior recital and what my frame of mind was like then. The world was wide open. It was like, 'What am I going to do? How am I going to make a living in music when I graduate in two months?' These are the same insecurities any music major would go through.
"Now it's comforting to come back and go, 'I'm doing OK. Just keep it up, keep doing what I'm doing.' It's nice to check in and get back to that feeling and just take stock of everything."
"Everything" these days amounts to a full artistic plate. Once his concert run with Bang on a Can ends, he will be back in the studio with Wilco. Then comes a March tour of Japan with On Fillmore, the duo he fronts with bassist Darin Gray that released one of 2009's true sleeper albums, the wonderfully atmospheric Extended Vacation. He also might squeeze in some recording work of his own on a follow-up to his 2006 solo album, Mobile, before roadwork with Wilco commences in May.
The Bang on a Can collaboration dates back roughly three years, when Kotche met ensemble co-founder Michael Gordon. That led to more direct work with Bang on a Can percussionist David Cossin and, eventually, the commission of a Kotche composition for the group's progressive chamber-meets-rock sound.
"This is an amazing ensemble that has been all over the board as far as collaborators go," Kotche said of Bang on a Can. "Everybody from composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley to jazz artists, noise artists, you name it. These are all world-class players as well."
The All-Stars will go it alone during the first half of Sunday's concert, performing works by Eno (a daring ensemble variation of his groundbreaking ambient work Music for Airports) and music by Gordon and Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.
Kotche will join the ensemble — especially percussionist Ian Dinge, who is subbing for Cossin on this abbreviated tour — for the title work from Mobile, two Reich works (Clapping Music, which is featured on Mobile; and Music for Pieces of Wood, arranged, of course, for two drum sets) and his original composition for Bang on a Can (Snap).
As if juggling the Bang on a Can Tour with Wilco duties and his myriad other projects wasn't enough, Kotche also became a dad for the second time, earlier this winter.
"It's a lot of disparate things, for sure. But they're all really challenging, which is what I like. It is sometimes difficult. Like last week, I was in the studio with Wilco until Friday. Then I'd come home, feed the kids, get them to bed and practice three to four hours to get ready for the Bang on a Can program. So I just have to budget my time well to find that balance between work and home life.
The four-hour practice sessions were requirements, Kotche said, for him to remain "on top of my game." When it was suggested that being anything less than on top was unlikely, given his work ethnic and love of performance, Kotche broke into a laugh and politely dismissed the compliment.
"No, really. ... I have to make sure."