Some fans still think of Glenn Kotche as the new guy in Wilco, the quiet, prodigal drummer who was invited to join the band on the same day in 2001 when filmmakers showed up to begin capturing the dysfunctional creation of the masterpiece album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
Now Kotche is a veteran in the revolving-door lineup of the band, the inventive percussionist who dapples jazz flourishes into his sniper-steady rock rhythms.
Kotche chatted by phone from Fairbanks, Alaska, where Wilco is kicking off the latest leg of its tour in support of 2007′s soulful “Sky Blue Sky.” He gushes about the beauty of the landscape and marvels about the 1:30 a.m. sunset. In the short break between tour jaunts, he became a father and is seeing the world in a new light.
New lights are what Wilco is all about. In its 13 years, the band has become a shape-shifting musical animal that regularly deconstructs rock ‘n’ roll and puts it back together. They’ve explored alt-country, baroque pop, electronic and noise, and have now have taken a turn at soul, while retaining its rock edge and keeping centered around band leader Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics dripping with affectation and vulnerability.
When Wilco hits the stage Tuesday night at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., it will most likely play numbers from throughout its history, ranging all the way back to 1995′s “A.M.”
“When we played a five-night stand in Chicago earlier this year, we played our entire catalog,” said Kotche. “So we had to learn all those songs, and it’s really infused a lot of material into the live show.”
The band perpetually tours in short stints, taking turns between the road and spending time with their families. They write and record as they travel the world.
“We never do the typical cycle of take a year to record and then tour and then go through the cycle all over again,” said Kotche. “We’re always on the road, hitting towns that other bands ignore.”
As they tour, the slate of crack musicians often turns their compositions inside out as they groove off each other night after night.
“The songs keep evolving,” said Kotche. “You do something different that triggers someone else to do something different.”
Kotche revealed that, while on tour, the band has huddled in the studio for a few preliminary sessions for their next album. So far, it’s still too new to tell which direction the album will take. But if the band’s history is any indication, it will involve a fresh approach in both the songwriting and recording.
“With ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,’ we created a lot of layers of sound. For ‘A Ghost is Born,’ we spent months experimenting with reels of tape,” said Kotche. ‘Sky Blue Sky’ was made sitting in a circle and playing live.”
The band didn’t consciously vary recording techniques to come up with distinctly different sounding albums, but rather as a way to keep the recording process fresh. Yet the results are pretty clear, with each album reading as a distinct chapter in the band’s history.
“We are pretty curious people and don’t like to do the same thing over and over. Every time we reconvene, we try things a little different,” said Kotche. “So far, this lineup has only recorded live. We’re writing and demoing a lot of songs.”
Kotche is a percussion scholar who often makes his own musical instruments and embraces side projects featuring minimalist and avant-garde compositions.
“I do a lot of composing. I’ve played jazz since I was a little kid. For me, it’s a natural balance,” he said. “If I get too much of one and not enough of another, it gets uncomfortable.”
In a way, adding musicians with resumes filled with extreme sonic experimentation to the band’s lineup helped them get to the stripped down sound of “Sky Blue Sky.”
“We all listen to a tremendous amount of music and love bands like the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield,” said Kotche. “People think of (guitarist Nels Cline) as avant-garde, but he loves playing that kind of rock. And have Jeff singing four feet away from me while we were making the album was more conductive to what we ended up with.”
So what’s next? Not even Kotche knows for sure.
“There are other sides of this lineup that remain to be seen.”