by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1999 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Guitarist Leo Kottke is a master storyteller on multiple fronts. His virtuoso, acoustic steel-string, fingerstyle guitar pieces communicate a broad range of emotions via a singular blend of tonal colors, percussive elements and infectious rhythms. Kottke’s singer-songwriter output, delivered with his trademark rumbling, baritone voice, has also yielded dozens of idiosyncratic and endearing songs. In addition, his hilarious between-song concert banter is legendary, holding audiences spellbound with intricate and illuminating tales.
Kottke’s career took flight during the late '60s when he signed to John Fahey’s Takoma Records label and went on to make 6 and 12 String Guitar, possibly the single most influential solo acoustic guitar album ever released. With hundreds of thousands of copies sold, the 1969 disc propelled Kottke into the spotlight. He went on to record for Capitol and Chrysalis during the '70s and early '80s—stints that found him showing up in the Billboard charts and mainstream media outlets worldwide. Kottke refused to let fame betray his muse and ensured his rootsy approach that explores the intersections between folk, jazz and classical music remained intact.
Even with more than 30 albums to his name, Kottke continues to blaze his own trail. Though still predominantly known as a solo live performer, the '80s and '90s saw him focus mostly on collaborative releases such as 1994’s Peculiaroso. Produced by Rickie Lee Jones, the disc features electric guitarist Dean Parks, accordionist Van Dyke Parks, bassist John Leftwich, drummer Bill Berg, and Jones and Syd Straw on vocals. His band-related records find his rollicking instrumentals, meditative tunes and engaging songs situated in contexts as diverse as chamber music, pop, funk, and occasionally even hip-hop. In 1999, he went back to his roots with the release of the straightforwardly-titled One Guitar, No Vocals.
Kottke’s artistic and commercial success has inspired generations of players to pick up the steel-string guitar and follow in his footsteps. Perhaps the most important musician he spurred to action was fellow guitar visionary Michael Hedges. While many compared and contrasted the two, the fact is they were great friends and collaborators.
“Leo is a true example of a composer writing on the guitar,” said Hedges, who passed away in a 1997 car accident. “He’s got so much soul, but he’s also got so much rhythmic drive. He’s a real groovemaster. You just can’t beat him and you’d never want to. You just want to listen. He’s got so much integrity and depth, and he’s truly a sweet man.”
Tell me what the album title Peculiaroso means to you.
As my first manager would say about all my titles, “It doesn’t mean anything.” On the other hand, it does have a lot of resonance for me. I think it’s true as a one-word description of what we see when we open our eyes. Things are pretty peculiar out there. No matter how wise we think we are, things are always contrary to expectations. What’s really peculiar is the fact that we’re continually surprised by the way things are. I go around saying “Huh?” and “Wow!” and “I think I’ll go hang myself in the closet.” That feeling doesn’t happen very often, but that surprise comes along too. It’s just a bad day when it’s all a mess and you’d rather be dead. I’ve met people who claim to have never had that thought or got that down and they worry me. If you never feel that way, you’re going to sooner or later. If you’ve had no experience with it, you might think that’s what you should actually do as opposed to something you might want to do. During his early twenties, the pianist Arthur Rubinstein was having a hard time getting gigs and during the gigs he could get at that time, he’d forget his repertoire. He hit a real low point and went into his closet and hung himself with his necktie. The necktie broke and he hit the floor and started to laugh and that guy didn’t stop laughing. But he knew it wasn’t a joke. He was happy to be alive. You can hear it when he plays.
“World Made to Order” from Peculiaroso reflects on your Navy stint in 1964 serving on a submarine with an engineman whose nickname was “Evil.” Tell me about those days.
Evil’s nickname wasn’t so much for being a bad guy, although I did see him stab a guy in the neck with a fork once. It was for the way he looked. He just looked evil. Engine rooms were pretty dark and they smell like diesel oil and Evil looked like he’d been born there. He was a grim sight. He drank torpedo fuel. It wasn’t an uncommon practice. There’s a lot of things that have more alcohol content than booze. Torpedo fuel didn’t have more content, but it wasn’t illegal to have on the submarine. So, Evil would smuggle a few loaves of French bread to use as filters and have a cocktail now and then. For those people who did drink it—I was not one of them—they called it a “Pink Lady.” It was horrible. No-one ever accused the Navy of having a gift for metaphor.
My Navy days were short. I was only in it for seven months. I went to sub school in New London and then was put on a boat called the USS Halfbeak. We mainly cruised up and down the Northeast, around Newfoundland. I hated the Navy. I didn’t function well in that environment. I put our sub out of control once on a dive. I nearly killed us all. I was on the stern planes and I didn’t know what I was doing and I put the boat into a 20-degree angle on the dive—10 degrees is out of control. We were plummeting below crush depth. They did something called “blowing the saddle tank” which is a last-minute, desperate measure, because lots of times when you blow the saddle tank, the boat flips upside down and you sink like a stone anyhow. But we lucked out. On the mental stability questionnaire you fill out to see if you’re fit for service, they didn’t ask “Have you ever wanted to hang yourself in the closet with a necktie?” If they did, maybe they wouldn’t have let me in.
How do you go about channeling tales like those into instrumental pieces?
Ninety percent of the time, the tune just comes along as you’re writing it. An idea or a memory will pop into your head and they don’t come from nowhere. They really are introduced by the piece you’re working on. That’s what the tune is. It’s something that has an analog in whatever it is that crossed your mind, like these little sketches that my brain registers. You just kind of segment your timestream and there it is. I think our brains do it automatically. People have different triggers for that. For me, it’s guitar tunes. For others, it’s things like scotch or friendship.
Does that hold true for when you’re writing lyrics too?
The same thing happens. Your brain is off, but you’re paying attention. You don’t get to direct how it happens. In that sense, it is stream-of-consciousness, but it’s not just about transcribing the noise in your head. I’m pretty deliberate about it. Every now and then, something comes along that has a beginning to it and you can feel it kind of coming up the back of your neck. If you’re quick enough, you can keep it going just by paying attention to it. After you’ve got as much of that as it’s going to give you, you maybe refine it. I think stories are just putting a front end and a back end on what’s going on all the time in your head. So there is a narrative structure to it for me. It’s not just a string of images or words.
How successful have you been at translating those thoughts and ideas into studio recordings?
A record is a picture of what you’re writing at the time. I don’t have a plan. I don’t decide what sort of record I’ll make in advance. I’ll find out how I feel about it when I’m done with it. It takes me a very long time—sometimes, several years—to begin to qualify it and say what kind of record it is. With some of them, I never really know. You have an impression of it that’s good or bad, melancholic or vivid and that’s about as specific as I can get. The short answer is I really don’t know. The short answer subtext is it’s always the same old shit because I’m the one doing it. Whatever it is, it’s mainly made up of my limitations which are just as important as my abilities. I hesitate to say that because you’d like people to go out and buy your record. If you go out there and say “Would you like to buy the same old shit?” you might be turning off a couple of potential buyers. [laughs]
Having said all of that, some records you really like when you’re done with them. They’re in the minority. You really hate more of them when you’re done. I can speak in plurals because I’ve made too many records. The majority I have mixed feelings about. A mistake I’ve made consistently is that I record too often. My first contract with Capitol required a record every six months. It’s pretty tough to make records with those kinds of deadlines since I write most of the stuff and don’t play with the same rhythm section all the time—and never play with one onstage. But I got into the habit of it. The industry likes it if you churn a lot of them out. I’m definitely trying to slow that down.
What first attracted you to the acoustic guitar?
It was and still is about the tone and the nature of the instrument in that a chord on a guitar is a real chord. It’s something people can get around. You can’t say that about a chord on a piano. I think you internalize the sound of a guitar as a listener and a player. With the piano, you don’t internalize it. It internalizes you. I will always be a tone player. I think most of us are, but some of us really zero in on tone as the heart of the matter.
For a long time, the guitar has been my primary interest. I see everything through the guitar. My day is almost always built around it. The guitar is almost always beside me, wherever I am. Playing the guitar is generally the first thing I do in the morning. Before I’m out of bed, I’ll reach out and grab it and play it for a few minutes. That happens on and off all day long, not for any great length of time, although sometimes I get an idea and want to work on something. Then I might spend a couple of hours on it in a stretch. It’s really the guitar and what I can write on it that I spend all my time doing.
Have you ever become bored with your instrument?
I did, but it wasn’t the instrument that made it happen. It was me. It was in the early '80s. It didn’t last long, maybe a year or so. It wasn’t that I lost interest in the guitar, but I couldn’t find my connection with it. I’d sit down to play and literally played the same stuff every time. I wasn’t getting any ideas and it scared me to death because I depend on the guitar. It really is my life. I couldn’t understand it. I thought it was me or the job, but I was dead wrong. I was taking everything too seriously. I was wearing myself out and not getting any sleep. I was screwed up most of the time and you just can’t be that way. The reason you start getting more sleep and stop getting screwed up is so you don’t lose the playing. Dizzy Gillespie once wrote a great biography called To Be or Not to Bop and he made it really clear that sooner or later you have to focus on staying intact or you’re not gonna be able to play. When I met Dizzy in Italy once, we talked about how you’ll give up a lot of stuff—mainly bad habits you don’t mind losing—so you can keep playing. Well, you do mind, but maybe they’re worth losing.
You once said “I’ve developed some respect for my own blindness.” Tell me what you meant.
If you play guitar and you’re crazy about it, it’ll reflect everything. It takes you awhile to put that together. The guitar reflected that I wasn’t together and after awhile I realized that. It wasn’t that I had lost it for the guitar. The guitar is great that way. It’s like The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s always just fine and always will be. The painting was always functioning, alive, working, and doing its job and the guitar is like that. The guitar shows you who you are and that picture got uglier and uglier.
One of the ways you screw yourself up is by trying to see everything straight and clear, attempting to answer all the questions before you, and knowing everything about what you’re doing. You can’t. The way to get a little bit of self-knowledge is to accept that and know that some nights every now and then, you’re gonna go out there and just stink. You’re gonna be horrible and that’s the night it’s time to be horrible. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you hope that will never happen, you’re way out of line. If you can accept it, that’ll really help you get happy. It’ll especially help you write. You’ll find out everything is fine. Once I accepted that, there was more of me.
Do you believe artists must suffer to make great art?
I think if you really examine it, it doesn’t apply, period. All a starving artist does is starve. You can use misery and unpleasantness in whatever you do, music or otherwise, because it can sometimes inform why you’re doing something. It can keep things dimensional instead of flat. We all have the same problems. It’s what we really have in common. But there are lots of really miserable people that have really been hit hard by something. That doesn’t make them artists. It doesn’t work that way. There’s nothing about being happy or having peace of mind that will kill imagination. I think it really helps. You do have to leave room for despair now and then. I really do think it’s inevitable, necessary and human. It will always come to the party sooner or later. But all in all, I’m basically a happy guy.
After a string of ensemble albums, you returned to the solo guitar format for One Guitar, No Vocals. Tell me about that decision.
The main reason is the head of A&R at the label wanted it. They told me to do it. But I’ve asked every record label “Can I just do a solo guitar record?” because it’s really how I first showed up in the marketplace. What I’m always trying to do is write a guitar tune. It’s my big thrill. So the chance to do the record was really welcome to me. Fortunately, I had a fair amount of material, so away we went.
What input do record labels typically provide when you’re making an album?
What has tended to be the story almost every time is “Do what you want, but talk to us about who the producer is, where you’re gonna do it and how we can get ahold of you while you’re doing it.” The other things I’ve run into are “You’ve gotta have other instruments” and “We’d really like you to have a ‘chick’ singer.” I’ve managed to avoid that. The fact that people like Rickie Lee Jones and Emmylou Harris have sung on some of my stuff has nothing to do with them being “chicks.” Another theme of my career is the idea that I should make a Christmas album. I used to suspect it, but because I’ve kind of canvassed audiences, I know that one of the reasons they keep coming to hear me is because I haven’t made a Christmas album or done a record with a “chick singer.” I mentioned that in Boulder, Colorado once and Michael Murphey came backstage and said “You know, Leo, I made a Christmas record with a ‘chick’ singer.” [laughs] He made millions off it. So, that’s it. They’ve never said “You’ve got to do this tune or make a record this way.” They’ve always left me pretty free to do stuff.
Compare the collaborative approach you’ve taken in recent years to working solo.
The kick you get when you hear something you like when you’re in the audience is what it’s like to bring other people in to play with you in the studio. I’ve had people in the studio because I like hanging out with them more than I’ve given any thought to how they play. Ideally, both happen and that’s great fun. After all the years of playing and performing by myself, it’s a huge thrill to hear this other stuff. I think it can also be a problem sometimes because you’ll fall in love with everything you hear because you’ve got no experience with it. You might not exercise a lot of judgment. It’s nice to have a good producer in that case. When you play solo, you have to know how to relax and get in and out as quickly as you can and not try to get it exactly right. I’m getting better at that. It applies to anything but it seems to be more true of solo stuff, because with solo stuff, you can’t fudge the pocket. It has to be there on its own. It’s a matter of relaxing into it, no matter what kind of tune it is, and as Chet Atkins once told me, “waiting for the beat.”
“Chamber of Commerce” from One Guitar, No Vocals was originally titled “Goddammit!” and served as a tribute to Michael Hedges. But onstage, you introduce it with a story about reacting to a fellow motel resident complaining about you making too much noise. Why did you revise the track’s name and the story behind it?
I decided that the people who know me would know that I wrote it with Michael in mind. It seemed a little presumptuous of me to title a tune as a memorial to a friend.
Was the original title designed to suggest the idea of “Goddammit, he’s gone?”
Yeah, and “Goddammit God!” There’s this Jewish tradition, a prayer for the dead called the Kaddish. I used to think the prayer involved walking out on a storm-swept hill in the middle of the night and shaking your fist at God while saying “What the hell do you think you’re doing to us? Quit it!” According to one of my manager’s daughters, the Kaddish is just a prayer for the dead. You don’t go out and yell at God. But I’ve never reacted that way to the death of someone before. It was everything you would expect. He was a good friend of mine and I was just very, very angry about it. It really just pissed me off. So sometimes you take out those moods on the guitar.
A long time ago, I had written and recorded a song on Burnt Lips called “Low Thud.” It was on a 12-string and the low E was tuned to a low A. Hedges and I were doing a tour somewhere and he said “Remember ‘Low Thud’ and you had that E tuned down?” I said “Yeah.” And he said “I do that now” and he did. He had some tunes that way. So I went in that direction because it was a familiar place to both of us and just started fooling around. I was in a motel room in Pawling, New York. I got the call about Michael a couple of days before that. I had been trying to play through that kind of feeling I had and I remembered he liked that bit on “Low Thud.” Then I got a call telling me to be quiet. It’s the wrong thing to say to a guy who’s already pissed off. So it’s a part of the experience of that thing and it gave me another way to introduce the tune without having to go through Michael’s intimate story.
What goes through your mind when you reflect on your own mortality?
I don’t think of it in terms of being dead, but I think about it in terms of “You have a curve as an organism—if not a soul—and what do you do with it?” I think early on, you just figure out that it’ll come to you. But at a certain point, I started feeling you have to choose it. It doesn’t come to you.
So, you have to choose what happens to your soul?
Yeah. If you do nothing at all, that’s a choice. That tends to be my favorite choice and I now know it’s one of the worst choices you can make. The choice not to choose—that’s a bad choice.
What choice do you make now?
That it’s better to act it than to think it. I’m trying to do that more. That means you should make your mistakes out front, rather than premeditate them. You’re gonna tend to get to the same place given a certain degree of participation in your own life. You might as well get there by choosing, period. Doesn’t really matter what you choose. But by choosing, rather than by not choosing, you’ll find that it’s better to act than to be acted upon or that it’s better to act than it is to react. I didn’t know that earlier. It takes a little bit of the other kind of mortality thoughts like “I’ll be dead in awhile” before you get that—before I did.
Is your outlook based on any spiritual beliefs?
The guitar has probably been my spiritual connection. I know when I started playing, it definitely was. It got me out of bed. I was in bed for two months once and it cured me. I’ve been playing since I was five, but it was the guitar when I was 12 that took me apart and gave me a life. I knew instantly that I’d be playing for the rest of my life and that it was all I wanted to do. I didn’t have to think about a job. I could just go with it. It was a spiritual experience and remains one.