A conversation with Leo Kottke
Leo Kottke is a giant in the guitar world. While his work rarely veers into the rock idiom, even rock guitarists appreciate the creativity and fingerpicking dexterity Kottke applies to the acoustic six-string and 12-string guitar.
His first album, 1969’s 6- and 12-string Guitar, established him as a force to be reckoned with. Much of his work since then has been as a solo artist, though he sometimes works within the band context. He has collaborated with Phish’s Mike Gordon on at least two album-making occasions, and promises more on that front (see story).
Though he still tours widely, Kottke admits that he has slowed down in other areas, namely making albums and doing phone interviews like this one. “I’ll go on for a year and a half about something nobody gives a shit about,” he warned me when we began. And he followed that caution with some advice: “Just interrupt, stop me, scream – anything you want – and it will probably bring a halt to whatever soliloquy I’m indulging in.”
He needn’t have worried. We got a little technical, a little “inside baseball” here and there, but for the most part Kottke and I just flowed the conversation where it led us.
This morning, I was spinning my vinyl copy of 6 and 12 String Guitars, which got me thinking. There’s this sort of idea which is counter-intuitive: many artists don’t even own their back catalog. Sometimes it’s owned by a whole bunch of different entities, and ownership changes hands all the time. Is that the case with your first record?
Yeah, very true. I had a chance to buy back the master for this record, but I have no idea even what the master is after this much time. I should have done it anyhow, but I did not. I think people these days – if they even have a record contract – are demanding that the masters be returned to them after something like a couple years or something.
What first attracted you to the 12-string guitar?
It was probably Pete Seeger’s playing, and especially a tune called “Living in the Country,” which I heard on an LP. The Bitter and the Sweet, I think was the name of it. It was a live recording, and more than the 12-string itself was the melody … but definitely the 12 was there. There was [also] Leadbelly, who had an entirely different approach.
You’ve mentioned that amplifying a 12-string is a challenge. Is that because of the wide range of the instrument, or something else?
No, it’s purely mechanical. It depends what type of approach you’re taking. If you just mic the guitar, that will work fine. But you can’t get away with that in concert … some people do, but the only guitar that really works well on a microphone is the classical guitar. Those were made to project; flat tops were not made to project. Who knows what anyone had in mind, but they don’t project. The sound just sort of oozes off the top, and it’s fine, again, playing in a little string band or small room, but it gets to be a problem after that. Also, the octaves on a 12 string are going to be a lot more ferromagnetic than the fundamental [strings], so magnetically, they’re really impossible. With transducers, you run into these kind of “humps.” Nobody has figured this stuff out. I think it will never be figured out. The flat top just isn’t amenable to broadcast.
So, I’m very close, myself, to going back to where I started, which is just playing on a mic. I’ve done it when I played gigs where the airline destroys the guitar or sends them to Hong Kong or someplace. You borrow a guitar, and you play on a microphone, and the crowds are fine with it. [Because] they know why you’re on the mic.
Still, somebody with more balls than I’ve got could train the audience to hear the microphone again. It works fine; it just isn’t hitting you over the head.
I read your trombone essay on leokottke.com I thought it was really amusing, but it doesn’t address the ways – if any – in which your studies on trombone and violin might have informed your approach to – or your understanding of – the guitar.
That’s a great question. You’re the only person to ever ask about that, and I appreciate it. Because although it took me awhile to notice, it had a profound effect. I got real immersion in a lot of theory and harmony within music, but it was almost unconscious, so that when I started on the guitar, that kind of [mitigated] any dead ends that tend to develop for self-taught people. Nowadays, I have tried to go back and pick up where I left off – which admittedly, was very early on – with harmony and theory, but I’m a slob. I’m very lazy and I kind of just avoid the homework. So, yeah, it meant a lot to me.
But it actually didn’t work out too well as a recording. I always wanted to hear a trombone quartet or something just playing behind the guitar, and I brought in a guy named Steve Paulsen, who was ridiculed as the last rich trombone player. He played in the Tonight Show band, and I handed him my trombone from the seventh, eighth, ninth grade and asked him, “Would you mind? I’d just love to hear this.” He ended up recording with it and his horn, something like a six-voice layer of choral shit behind this piece, which is quite a feat in and of itself. And I got to hear the difference between old brass and new brass; it’s just like a vintage guitar. The old brass really does age well. He switched out my slide for his slide because he said that on my horn – which had a good brand name; it was a Bach #10 – “They changed the diameter of one of the tubes on the slide because they thought it would make the slide work faster, ignoring the fact that if you restrict part of the tube on the way out the bell, you’re going to mess up the sound.” And it explained all kinds of things. It gave me a perfect excuse for my miserable embouchure, and it was just fascinating to hear about it, and to see him interchange his slide from a King, I think it was, with that horn. That looked like magic to me. So I got to hear what could have been, really.
I know that you busked for a time, early on in your career. Did that have an influence at all on your performance style?
Probably. People either take pity on your, or in my case, they see this child doing this, and give you a couple bucks. I don’t even know anymore how much the money was.
Later on, after I’d recorded, I was running around Colorado with my brother in law. He didn’t ask me about this, [but] he told the motel that I’d play in their sort of breakfast pit that night. And then he told me. I wanted to throw him down the stairs and jump up and down on what was left! So, I did that, and then he passed the hat. It’s great training for performing … not in how to ham it up, but in the license you can give yourself for even presuming to face a bunch of people and play at them.
You were fairly early on in your professional career when you cut the “armadillo” album. I know you said you cut it in just a single session; when you finished making it, did you have a sense that you had created something special?
I had no sense that it would do anything or was anything. This doesn’t sound very reasonable, but at the time, I just wanted to get all of those tunes located in one place. Because I knew I’d start losing them, and I had this idea that I would teach. I wanted to be an English teacher. I’m so glad that didn’t happen. Those poor people would really suffer. But it was the guitar that I really wanted to do.
I was very nervous because I’d never had to live with what I was doing. So we recorded in about three hours and that was it. I wasn’t sure it would even be released, and it wasn’t … for over a year.
You tour a good bit, but you slowed down – or possibly even stopped – releasing albums some time ago. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I didn’t stop. I’ve interrupted it, but it’s just pure disinterest. I have material, I’ve got stuff that I can record, but I left my label, which is “RCA/BMG/Sony/Private Music/your uncle’s name/my grandmother’s maiden name.” Among other things, I looked at that masthead one day and I knew I owed them two more, and I knew that they no more knew what they wanted from me than I fit in the collapse of the record industry.
[They let me out of my contract.] They can make a lot of trouble for you, and – very kindly – they did not. And I just have been enjoying not having to make a record. My first contract, I had to turn one in every six months with Capitol. And I’m not a cover band: I like to try to write as much of it as I can. I did them in a real hurry without much help in the production.
I’ve always resented the idea that any player had to go in and record an album. Why do we go in and record a pile of stuff? I much prefer the old singles approach; then later those are collected into an album. I am working on stuff with Mike Gordon again. I’m also playing a lot with David Balakrishnan, offstage, and we’d love to do some things. In the interim, I think I’m going to make some singles. In other words, I’m going to give them away.
I don’t know anything about how to do this. So, my management will get this set up, and give them away on YouTube with better production than you get from a fan with a cellphone in the wrong seat where it just sounds dreadful.
It’s worse than bad sound. That’s the thing that the other musicians can understand, but that does something to the very character of the playing and of the music. It’s just really ghastly. It’s like turning a ten year old child into Dracula after five thousand years when he has the flu and he has a bad day. It just does something. You can’t imagine that that is you, and we’ve heard it happen.
The Beatles are a good example. When they first transferred their shit digitally, it ruined it. I remember an interview that Paul McCartney did – out of the several that he has done – where he really liked the mix and the mastering of Cirque Du Soleil’s run at the masters for that production they did called Love. I heard some of those, and those are the only digital remasters of the Beatles’ stuff that sounded like them. The others just sound like a bad lounge band. That’s a really critically awful thing to do to music like that.
I’ve raved on until I forget what we’re even talking about!
That’s perfectly okay. Playing as a solo artist is obviously a very, very different situation from playing in a band because, obviously, it’s all on you to get and hold the audience’s attention. In what ways does the audience’s reaction color your performance?
It doesn’t. Though, there is one instance where it does, and what it does is it takes all the fun out of it, and that’s an indifferent crowd. A hostile crowd, you can have fun with. You are in concert with a hostile crowd. You’re in concert with a crowd that enjoys it.
You’re nowhere with a crowd that’s indifferent, and I’ve had that happen twice. Once in Ottawa when I was opening for Lyle Lovett and once in Dusseldorf on my own show. And who knows why that happens? But that’s when you really notice the crowd.
Arthur Rubinstein talked about this. I bring him up a lot because he mentioned this. He said that there is a current that happens in a room … (Which by the way, the perfect sized room for him was 3,000 seats, and I agree with that. That is the perfect size. Smaller than that, you’re playing for a bunch of people. Bigger than that, you’re playing for kind of like a lawn or something. There’s so many people you’re not there, or they aren’t, really.) … But he said there is this current, and he gave it a terrible name: the Secret Current. But he’s dead on about that, and all that is, is everybody is there for the same reason.
You can feel that same thing in a purpose-built empty hall. You can feel it. Yyou can almost push on it. It will push back a little, and you just follow that. You’re not reacting or responding to what the crowd is doing because you really are in concert. The crowd is as much on the stage as the act is. It’s unspoken. It doesn’t carry.
You can’t talk about it too much because it starts to sound really ridiculous. We are all in that thing, and the crowd knows it. When I’m sitting in the crowd, we’re waiting, we can feel that thing and then the act is sort of like the switch. The act isn’t really running things. It’s a mutuality that I don’t see anywhere else. It’s what makes music so mysterious.
When you’re playing a song that’s written by someone else, do you feel a responsibility to deliver it in a recognizable style, or do you take more of a jazz approach and view a tune as a canvas upon which you can paint your own picture?
Well, I’ve tried with kind of both approaches, but the approach will be dictated by the material. The first thing that is just obvious is whether I even have a chance with it. It’s like a hat. There’s some hats that look great, but not on your head. Or they won’t fit. And you know right away.
There are plenty of pieces I’d love to cover, but I just can’t. It won’t fit. I don’t cover a lot of them, but there are some that fall right into place. I did try with a tune I’ve always loved called “Twilight Time.” I did try to stick as closely as I could to the original composition. I had a real surprise talking to one of my favorite musicians, Joe Pass. I mentioned “Twilight Time” and I said, “I heard the original recording of that,” and I was about to say how goddamn silly it sounded by The Three Suns. I’ve forgotten now exactly, but it’s something like accordion, saxophone, and some other thing. Very odd sound. But Joe said, “Oh, The Three Suns,” and he listened to them a lot.
So, somebody as developed as Joe had no problem with The Three Suns. Someone as ignorant as me thought it sounded weird, but they wrote it and they did it right. So, I fucked it up. I haven’t heard my version in awhile, but I’m trying to get it back in my hands and maybe improve on it a little.
When you’re writing an instrumental tune, do you start with a non-musical idea or a mental image, or would you say that your instrumental work is purely musical?
There’s this kind of stream of something that’s running through me all the time. It’s just kind of like a sensation, and the guitar fit that when I first picked it up, unlike the trombone or the violin, and so I just picked the guitar up and fiddle within that. It just kind of reaches that part of what it feels like for me to be alive, and every now and then I just stumble across something and if I like it, I’ll keep playing it until I’ve driven it into the ground. And more of it will come in so that I have an excuse to play what I’ve already driven into the ground, and that’s how these things get written.
Once, on a movie score – it’s kind of grandiose to call it a score – I had to come up with kind of a love scene for Margot Kidder and Ted Danson in a truck, and I was there when the scene was shot and the truck was parked by a stream, and it’s supposed to be very romantic. The truck interfered with that, but I knew what the stream smelled like! I just couldn’t think of … sometimes, with that movie stuff, you have to actually try to play to an idea, which is kind of ridiculous, but I gave up.
So, the only time I’ve done it: I just notated a guitar thing without hearing it or without a guitar (I’m pretty illiterate. I have to go back to the old bass clef in junior high to write). But I wrote something and when I played it, I liked it. It worked, too, for the scene. It lifted me out of the sewage that’s in the stream. What I came up with, really, is what sounds like a terrible, terrible, almost-parody of Bach. But it was simple enough – I think I did it on the 12 – that the guitar could make it kind of real. It was an interesting exercise for me.
I know that two forms are very different, but to my ears, your folk playing – especially on the 12 string – has kind of a hypnotic ambience. It’s the same feeling that I get when I listen to Indian ragas. Do you see any connection at all between what you do and those styles of music?
I do, and for me, it’s just that sensibility that floats up in those things. It’s true, also, for calypso, and for German baroque lute. When these things take off, they have this [quality that] you’re talking about; you could just treat it as a little motor and let it run all by itself.
I’ve had the experience. One that stuck in my mind … in the ‘60s, I was at a party – a very loud party – and I walked past some little room in this house and I heard [on a television] this shehnai, the Indian horn that looks like an oboe. It was playing whatever raga this guy was into. So, it was a Pakistani player named Bismillah Khan; I found that out later.
But as I walked by, he hit a phrase of about six notes that floated up out of that stream – and I’d only just got plugged into that stream as I walked by – and the phrase stopped me. It was as clear as a bell in all of the noise, and just shatteringly beautiful. Just five more notes and the world’s infinitely stuffed with notes, and I stopped and stared at this tiny portable TV screen. And at the end of that phrase, the camera cuts to several women in their saris who are in tears. It looked like a private concert. And clearly, it hit everybody.
It’s worth a tear because it’s so goddamn beautiful. There’s these weird things that happen where people know what they’re doing and set up harmonies as they move that generate sounds that aren’t being played, but are generated. The overtones … it can happen with the way the rhythm of more than one instrument meets the instrument of the other, and the third part appears out of pure air. And that happens on all kinds of levels. It’s rare, and when it happens, that’s it. That’s the great stuff.
I’ve heard that described as phantom tones.
Oh, I love that.
You’ve been performing now for some 50 years now. What keeps it fresh and interesting for you?
The guitar itself. The guitar saved my life as a kid, and that’s not an exaggeration. And it has stayed with me ever since. It’s the center for me, and it’s really endlessly interesting to me. I’m just fascinated with it. I enjoy just picking one up and holding onto it. I don’t have to come up with anything to get met by that thing. It’s just a box of wood, but it fits some kind of combination in me that has never gone out. And that fit is never going to go away.