Innerviews, music without borders

Leo Kottke
Tuned by Circumstance
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2021 Anil Prasad.

Leo KottkePhoto: Amy Kerwin

Storytelling runs deep through Leo Kottke’s veins. The renowned, influential acoustic guitarist possesses a boundless muse that resonates across 55 years of virtuoso recordings and performances, as well as during his witty, idiosyncratic stage banter. When Kottke plays live, he transports audiences far beyond day-to-day concerns and into deeply personal narratives that alternate between the profound and hilarious.

Kottke was once a prolific recording artist that sometimes released two albums a year during the ‘60s and ‘70s. His enthusiam for studio work has waned in the last two decades, choosing instead to focus on live performances. But singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Gordon, best known as a founding member of Phish, has served as a catalyst for Kottke to record and release new work. They recently collaborated on Noon, their third release and Kottke’s first album in 15 years.

Noon builds on the collaborative framework they established on  2002’s Clone and 2005's Sixty Six Steps. The process was more extended than usual, stretching out over several years and into the COVID-19 pandemic. It was put together in multiple ways, including face-to-face studio work, file swapping, sheet music exchanges, and in one case, Gordon shipping a boombox pre-loaded with recordings for Kottke to review in a novel attempt to combat inertia. Noon also features guest performers, such as Phish drummer Jon Fishman, cellist Zoë Keating, and pedal street guitarist Brett Lanier.

The album includes the recorded debut of “Ants,” one of Kottke’s most creative, expansive and road-tested instrumentals. The Noon version finds Gordon sympathetically aligning his bass playing with Kottke’s kinetic rhythms to impressive effect. Another highlight is Gordon’s eclectic, occasionally discordant, “I Am Random” which speaks to both musicians’ quirky societal observations. The duo also revisit one of Kottke’s signature tunes, The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” In addition, the album offers up a playful reimagining of Prince’s “Alphabet Street.”

Kottke explores the making of Noon, how he’s able to maintain incredibly high performance standards at age 75, and several rarely-discussed recordings and projects during this conversation. Kottke also contemplates how the guitar saved his life and its ceaseless capacity for propelling him forward.

How has COVID-19 affected you?

It's given me a chance to be in one place longer than two months, which is the longest I've been in one place in 52 years. I love not traveling. It opens up a lot of room for the guitar that was crowded out by travel and by playing live all the time, because the playing naturally keeps you in a certain frame—the performance frame. Without it, other things happen, so it's really nice. I'm really enjoying a lot of it. The people I know who've gotten sick from COVID-19 have recovered, so I am a lot more fortunate than many people.

All I need is an empty room and I can get along pretty well. I don't run around in my head. I step out of it, basically. Or I pick up the guitar or I write words.

I will play live again in the future. Nobody knows when it’s going to happen, but concerts will come back. The agents, venue owners and promoters are all still talking to one another and planning for the future. It’s really good to hear that communication is happening.

Do you believe music has more value to society in this extraordinary period we’re living in?

No. Society doesn't have anything to do with music. Music is beyond human and that's why I think it does us so much good. Music saved my life when I was a kid. So for me, it's just an essential element of life. Anything else is ancillary to that. That's why I don't do benefits any longer, because I feel like I'm being rude. But as far as people needing music any more or less, I don’t believe so. Whatever this is that I do never changes.

Leo Kottke Mike GordonMike Gordon and Leo Kottke recording Noon, 2020 | Photo: Jared Slomoff

What made you want to rekindle your recording activities with Mike Gordon after so long?

It’s a friendship and we happened to play. Also, I didn’t want to see another studio for a long time. I got really tired of recording. It's never been my favorite thing to do, but recordings do happen. Now and then something comes up, we fuss around and sometimes it gains momentum. There’s no deliberation. There’s no plan. There's no choice. It's just something that grows and takes root.

I can only point at the music. What does ice cream mean to you? What do you enjoy about ice cream? Did you plan to eat some ice cream today? Now, take “ice cream” and replace it with “music” and the answers to those questions are the same.

You don’t collaborate with a lot of other musicians these days. What makes Mike a person you want to keep teaming up with?

Yeah, that's true. I am tuned by circumstance. I started out being in isolation, playing by myself. It was a process of trial and error, in which I would work on one note at a time.

I did a tour with the Turtle Island String Quartet. I think we did nine jobs about five years ago. I’ve known David Balkrishnan from the quartet for decades. Working with them is one of the greatest experiences for me because our transients are completely different. With Mike, the transients are the same. It’s a plucked string. That creates problems. If you play with a bowed instrument, it’s a much more fluid experience with an entirely different kind of attention.

With my work with Turtle Island, Iris DeMent and Mike, everything started out as people getting along. If people get along, sometimes they start to play bridge. But if you’re getting along with a musician, you’re going to play sooner or later.

There are musicians and there are composers. We can call them writers. Sometimes great musicians don’t make very good records. Grady Martin is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. I’ve only found two records of his own that he made and I don’t enjoy them at all. They’re competent and by no means missing anything, but they don’t measure up to what I know Grady Martin for. With Grady, you have a musician, who to my ear, was not a composer. And then you have Iris, who is a great writer and a great singer.

Now, Mike is a great musician and fully fluent. He’s done all his homework and he’s knowledgeable. He can play what he thinks. That’s part of the experience. But at the heart of it is the friendship and the feel. When we’re playing together, our hearts are on our sleeves. We’re very vulnerable. It’s rare for musicians to be total assholes. They’re not people you want to play with, no matter what you think of their music.

So, it’s the ordinary stuff that we all live with and go by. Proprioception is the sense of how close you are physically to another person. It’s what allows you to walk through a crowd without bumping into everyone. Proprioception extends to something we could also call our crap detector. If your crap detector goes off, you’re not going to play with that person. There’s also something else in you that goes “Oh, this is cool.” And if you happen to be musicians, songwriters or composers, you may do something together. That’s where Mike and I are at. Sometimes we’re doing something and it rises up. We don’t sit down and agree to do something. Whatever is going to happen is there before we have that sort of agreement. You don’t know when it’s coming.

Let’s explore the backstory behind a few tracks on the record, starting with “I Am Random.”

It’s Mike’s tune and I learned after the fact that Mike played it with his band. We were winding up with a pile material and we started to see the shape of it. “I Am Random” probably has the best hook on the record. Mike thinks “Ants” has the best hook. So, I think the tune he wrote has the best hook, and he thinks the tune I wrote does. That’s neat. I think “I Am Random” is one of the best songs he’s written.

Leo KottkePhoto: David Barnum

You played “Ants” for years live, before it made its recording debut on the new album.

I quit playing it for a long time because it went up on too many iPhones. I hadn't worked it out yet. It's the kind of tune I play in front of people with an empty head and even though it’s not finished, I might finally see how to resolve it by playing it live. Unfortunately, it showed up on people’s iPhones before it had finally taken its proper form. There’s a lot of composition there. I do like the tune.

Describe how you workshop a piece like “Ants.”

There’s the tune and then there’s the writing that has been going on in my head since I first made up an E chord. Immediately, I was doing what I’m doing now. In the beginning, I was just trying to make sounds. That’s all I’m still really doing now, but I’ve learned a lot. This arc continues and I fill it out more. I have a bigger appetite. My curiosity keeps growing as well, as does my technique and execution. Curiosity is the engine for just about everything with me. Someone who’s like Donald Trump is out of luck on that front.

Since I was 11, I recapitulate every time a tune starts showing up. It would show up as a figure, progression or a verse. It could also be as simple as hitting early on the overtones and fretting afterwards. Michael Hedges told me what got him going was when he heard me doing that. But what he did was a universe away from that.

When you play something you like, you want to hear it again. So, you keep playing it over and over and over again, because now you’re happy. You know something else has happened.

Eventually, it might become a tune. There’s a phrase that goes “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” That’s the best way of describing it.

We crawled out of the slime. First we were unicellular creatures, if you could even call us creatures. At one point, we were fish. You can see a fish in a human embryo early, at the right time. Over time, as the fetus grows, it eventually becomes what we are today. Tunes also happen that way. Each one you write happens the same way.

Going back to “Ants,” it now appears in totality when I play it. There’s nothing that’s recapitulated. Now, this is different from what happened with “Gewerbegebiet.” That whole tune appeared in my head. I hadn’t experienced that until the last 10-15 years or so, where the whole tune is there. I really don’t know what the tune is at first, usually. I don’t know what key it’s in. I don’t know if it’s fast or slow. I don’t know the tempo, meter, time signature, or key signature. But I can see the tune as clearly as I can see my own leg. It drives me crazy how “Gewerbegebiet” got written. How did I do that? I have no idea. It’s really weird.

I can doubt my own sanity sometimes. I’m always goofing around on the guitar and something will happen and I’ll know. I’ll think “Oh, there it is.” And the next question becomes “Yeah, that’s it. But is it the beginning? The middle? The end? Is it just the key? Is it the rhythm?” I usually don’t know at first, so I keep poking around. I’ll find something else and then I’ll go “Oh, that’s it” and it may not have any relationship to the other thing I said “Oh, there it is” about. It’s a nightmare when you’re keeping all these things in memory, without knowing how they fit together.

“Ants” and “Gewerbegebiet” find me in a new world. It’s a better place. It’s also a more difficult place. These things require execution. On my early stuff, I could get sloppy if I felt like it. It didn’t hurt the tune, because a lot of the early stuff rode like a bicycle.

You cover Prince’s “Alphabet Street” on Noon. You used to run into Prince during your ‘70s studio days. What do you recall about that period?

I tried to say hello a few times to Prince, but we never said more than two words to each other. He was working with David Z, which is probably how Prince was brought into the studio in the first place. All anybody could think was that Prince was just extremely shy. He’d hide if he saw you coming down the hall. He worked alone in the studio at Sound 80 in Minneapolis. He was 17 at the time in 1975. Prince grew up with the brother of my best friend, who died last year, Don Govan. I may have crossed paths with Prince when he was really a squirt, because I’d be at Don’s house now and then.

Sound 80 had three studios and Prince was working at the mid-size studio. He’d be in there all day long, every day. Nobody could understand where the money was coming from. It was a lot of money. I don’t think anybody ever knew.

At that studio, it was difficult to know what kind of bottom end you were getting. You’d always have a question about it. I remember David Z would go down to Gay 90s with Prince, a gay bar, and they’d play mixes through their sound system, because it had good bottom. They’d also check their mixes in David Z’s Honda. I saw that Honda again in Nashville many years later, because David Z and I wanted to make a record together. We’ve done two since. Cassette rough mixes were always checked in that Honda. It was just a wreck, with bad bearings. It made an incredible racket, especially when they turned up the air conditioning full blast. But he’d put the tape in the car and he’d hear something about the way the sound worked. And it did work. It was really weird. I know the first Prince records went through that Honda. David Z would say “When I lose this car, I’m going to lose my job.” [laughs] I bet to this day, he’s still using that Honda.

Another thing I remember is David Z using one of the early drum machines with Prince. It was analog and sounded good. It didn’t sound like a clock. He would build these elaborate, large loops and Prince would improvise on them. I’ve heard that music myself. It’s the best shit Prince ever did, no question. It was the greatest and so funky.

I asked David Z “Why didn’t Prince release this stuff? It was really, really good.” He said he didn’t know, but Prince never wanted it released. David Z’s place in Nashville burned down and those Prince tapes went with it. David Z thinks he knows who did it, but it wasn’t Prince. [laughs]

Why do you dislike recording so much?

I mostly hate it, but it doesn't mean that I'm immune to it when it does work. I hate the artificiality of the environment. I learned Joe Pass also hated the red light. He was an improviser. If you want to obviate the red light and the whole studio, you improvise. Bill Evans hated recording, too. You wonder how that could be given how great some of those records are, but he apparently was always choking when he recorded.

Leo Kottke, 1972 | Photo: Capitol Records

Did the decay of the music industry have something to do with your lack of recent recordings, too?

It did have to do with why I left my label, which became RCA Victor. They lost steerage after Private Music moved into that label. Nobody knew what to do. Either the label wasn’t ready for me to record or I wasn’t ready for them. They always won, previously. Every record I made for them was done at the wrong time, with the wrong material, and not enough of it.

I just got tired of that and needed to get out. I could have been stuck with them, but they let me go. I owed them two records, but I wasn’t a great loss. They made their money back with me, because my records never cost that much.

It wasn't a real big decision or anything. There are tracks I made with them that I’m very happy with and there’s four or five that were lost in the studio that just killed me. I’ve heard other people say this and it’s true—the best shit never made it out of the studio. It’s always the fish that got away. Somehow it just gets crushed.

I also got tired of the clock. They’d always say “You’ve got this much time.” Twice, the label demanded the record and I would say “It’s not even nearly finished.” They’d respond “No, you’re done.” This happened first with Balance and it happened next with Great Big Boy.

With Balance, I gave the label what I had and that’s why it sounds a little weird at times. It wasn’t even close to what I wanted to do. They weren’t even demos, really. There’s maybe one or two tracks on there that might be up to demo status.

Great Big Boy is an album I’m very fond of. Steve Berlin produced it and he’s the best producer I’ve had. He’s really, really good in the studio. So, I was surprised when it happened again and the label said “You’re done” and wouldn’t say why. That’s when I learned my manager at the time, Chuck Morris, was really good. He can scare people. He had a lot of power and that’s why you need a manager. Chuck called the label and said “You can’t do that.” The next day, they reneged and we got to finish Great Big Boy.

That was a fun record and one they put out singles for. They seemed to think I could have some kind of breakthrough, but I ruined that. The executive at Private Music really liked the record. He rented a tent for the album launch that covered the whole parking lot at the label. He invited people, had a wet bar with all kinds of food, and a lot of people came. I played for them.

The executive walked up to me afterwards and said “What did you think?” I said, “Oh, great. Look at all the food. This is really something.” Then he said, “Yeah, we put about 60 grand into this.” I replied “You got a tent. It sounded good. Usually, tents sound horrible. Thanks. This was really neat.” Next, he said “Well, you didn’t play one song off the new record.” I laughed because I thought “Isn’t that ridiculous? How could I do that?” But he didn’t find anything funny in that. The label made a magnificent gesture towards the record and I really fucked it up.

Later, the label got a call from a big radio station in Boulder. They said “We’re getting a lot of calls in reaction to ‘Pepe Hush.’ We want to put it into heavy rotation, but we’ve got to make sure you have the records in the stores, because we look bad if people go to buy them and can’t find them.” But the label told the station they picked the wrong single. They wanted to push my cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone.”

Jackie DeShannon once explained to me in the back seat of a car on a long trip how distribution works, in terms of how stations can say “We’ll make this a hit.” But even that’s gone now, though. Clear Channel came in and ruined things. Now Spotify and Pandora are ruining things further. The business is always ruining everything.

Leo Kottke, 1973 | Photo: Capitol Records

You were working with engineer Paul DuGre on a solo acoustic album prior to Noon that you abandoned. Why didn’t you complete it?

A little bit of that stuff ended up on the track “Noon to Noon” on the new record. That was recorded at Paul’s studio with a mic set up we were exploring for an analog record we wanted to make. We recorded to analog multi-track and mixed down to analog two-track.

Paul and I were shocked at the lack of availability of analog tape. Both us had decades of experience with analog. Hearing the difference between analog and state-of-the-art digital was horrifying. It wasn’t just that analog was better, but that it was horrifyingly different. We forgot. We’ve been fooled by digital. I became pissed off at the universe and self-replicating code. The first glimpse I got was digital sound. We both think digital recording got better, but it’s like polishing a turd. You can polish a turd all day long, but you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that one turd is better than the next.

The problem was the multitrack tape we liked was losing high end just sitting on the shelf. It would actually lose high end, overnight. At that point, I decided I wasn’t happy with my performances or the material. Now, I point towards improvisation as something that makes me happy. If I ever go into the studio again, it’s going to be to improvise. It really lets you do away with the studio and technology.

Despite your lack of interest in recording, the guitar still remains a driving force for you.

Oh yeah. There's always a guitar in me. It didn't just save my life, I think it might be my life. If I stopped playing, I think I'd probably die. I have this superstition that I don’t want to elevate in any way, but it’s like The Red Shoes in a way. The guitar really is my whole life.

How did the guitar save your life?

My sister had died when she was 10 and I was following her into the grave. It’s a syndrome I read about and I knew that was me. Siblings can do that. I started with ordinary diseases. I got everything under the sun as a kid. When my sister died, my folks moved me into her deathbed and I got the message. They couldn’t bear to think that room was now empty.

I’m suspicious of what I just said, but it’s the only way I can read it. I got chickenpox, mumps, measles, and mono. This shit went on and on. Then finally, it was my heart. They didn’t want me to sit up.

I’d been laying down for two months, when my mom heard me sing along with the radio. She brought me a toy guitar. It had no sound. It really wasn’t even a toy. It was a kind of wall decoration, but somebody had tuned it. My mom knew I couldn’t play trombone on my back, so she gave me this toy. You know the sound you hear when you shuffle a deck of cards? That’s what that guitar sounded like.

I made up an E chord. I sat up and looked out the window. It was like somebody threw a switch and I went from off to on. I was out of bed in a week. I’d been on my back for almost two months and had been sick for much longer than that. And it all ended in a week when I found the E chord. I played that chord for at least a week and probably another week.

I was 11 in 1956. It was my first existential crisis. I thought “Well, what else is there? What do I do now?” And what I’m still doing is answering that those questions.

Leo Kottke, 1988 | Photo: Private Music

I’d like to name some albums and projects from across your history and have you tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Let’s start with Mudlark (1971).

I don’t know who the mudlark was. It was some heavyweight, which is a contradiction in terms when we’re talking about a Buddhist or Tibetan monk who flew up and down mountain sides. This monk was asked once, “Do you still meditate?” And he said "No, that's like a dog going back to its own vomit." We know that meditation was not vomit for this guy. We know mudlark was not violent. It’s hard to characterize this record.

I recorded it in Wayne Moss’ mom’s garage that had been turned into a studio, but a garage is always a garage. It was where the Area Code 615 recorded. They put out their own records and they weren’t bad. Later, I recorded one of their songs “Why Ask Why?” for Dreams and All That Stuff.

Cal Hand’s The Wylie Butler, which you produced and play on. (1977)

Oh, that was a ball. I did play a little bit and it was fun being on the other side of the glass. We did it quickly. Cal had it covered. I wanted to spell The Wylie Butler properly, as in “wily,” but that's the actual guy's name. That was our only dispute.

I haven't heard it in a long time, but I wouldn't do it any differently. It is, of course, kind of dated by development since.

I bought Cal’s three-pedal Sho-Bud guitar. I put it in my basement. I realized one night that if I didn’t get rid of it, I’d never play regular guitar again. I loved playing that Sho-Bud, but it’ll come and get you. Every now and then, I think about it, just like I think about getting a motorcycle. It’ll kill me. So will a Sho-Bud. The Sho-Bud was stained brown by nicotine in the air. It was this beautiful yellow-brown. That was cool. He played it at his gigs. Cal had a bass player who painted his Pinto with a broom. It was a great band. I got to play in it, too.

One night, at a VFW bar, there were a lot of people dancing. We were having a great time and somebody opened the door to my right. Heads turned. This guy walked in who was sort of an Adonis. Most of the heads that turned were women. The guy went and sat down at the bar. There was a woman in the crowd who had been dancing with her woman friend. She was about 40 years old than the guy. She started heading his way. She pointed right at him and he knew it. He turned around and made eye contact. The guy sat there until she approached him and asked him to dance. And he danced with her. I loved it. He waited for her. He didn’t avoid her. It was cool. And I got to play for them—the happy couple. They didn’t know each other. She was older than I am now, I think.

So, that’s Cal Hand and that’s The Wylie Butler.

Violent Femmes’ The Blind Leading The Naked, which you guest on (1986).

I knew those guys previously. They’re from Milwaukee and I’m familiar with that city. I had opened for them. I was in town and went in and did it. The producer was Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads. The session started at 7:30am and I wasn’t ready for that, but I was happy to do it. They’re good guys and I enjoyed playing on it. It wasn’t way beyond my reach. It was just fun. That’s what you hope for. If you’re not having fun, usually things don’t sound good.

The Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid soundtrack (1986).

That was my first movie score. The music often ends abruptly or turns into something else abruptly. John and Roger Golden made the movie. It’s built around the life of one of the brothers. They realized after they made it that if their mom saw it, she’d realize what they’d done and they didn’t want that to happen. So, they edited the movie again, so it didn't look like his life, which meant what they cut bore no relation to what the music was doing. So, the soundtrack was cut up at random. I got a kick out of that.

The movie had a brief run, but it had one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen in a movie, which is the chess match scene. But it didn’t have any other scenes as good, but there was something to the movie in some perverse way. But it stiffed and was bought by Troma Productions who specialized in putting out crappy movies like The Toxic Avenger.

I remember the Golden brothers had a showing of Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid somewhere. One of the brothers said “This 14-year old kid came up to us and congratulated us on making the worst movie he’d ever seen.” He really loved it because of how godawful it was. That kid was Keanu Reeves.

Creating that score was a standout moment for me and I had fun doing it.

Leo KottkeA Shout Toward Noon photo shoot, 1986 | Photo: Tom Berthiaume

A Shout Toward Noon (1986).

I wasn’t all there, then. Sooner or later, if you want to get it right, you have to get as wrong as you can. You have to go through it and you can’t turn away anymore. That’s where I was.

It was my first record for Private Music. They insisted I work with a synthesizer. I didn’t want to do that. But my favorite track on that record is “Three Quarter North” which was produced by Buell Neidlinger. That was a lot of fun for me

Buell was a great man. He got into it with the synthesizer guy Randy Kerber. Buell hated that plinkity sound he does at the beginning. But the guy said “No, that’s it. I’m not changing that.” I’ve never seen a ringer do that. It’s not their job to refuse. If it’s within their capabilities, they’re supposed to do what they’re asked. But the synthesizer guy won.

During the session, all I had was a phrase or two and then I would start making shit up and it wasn't working. Buell gave me some advice. I can’t remember what it was, but I took it and immediately, I was playing the piano. I call it a piano, but by piano, I mean I was actually playing my guitar. That was the fact of it. It was like I didn’t have to do anything other than play my piano. It was the weirdest thing and it was an uncanny experience. I haven’t had that experience since. I’ve asked a lot of improvisers about that. They say “Oh yeah, that happens. When you’re happy, you’re listening so well that you’re actually playing the other instrument.” That was a really neat thing.

I like what came out of the “Three Quarter North” session, except for those chords that Buell hated at the front end.  

“Ice Fields,” your orchestral suite (1990).

It was recorded twice, with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and the Kansas City Orchestra. The Kansas City Orchestra had Bill McGlaughlin conducting, who is great.

It was absolutely horrifying to have 62 pieces behind me. I had to play exactly what I had written and that sucks. I try to do that, but I almost never do. So, that was really hard. One of the ways I write, and I don’t do it deliberately, is by following my nose. And what happens often is I change time signatures, which also happens in this suite. And sometimes those changes were missed by the orchestrator, whose name I’ve blocked. I asked him to correct them, and he would not do it. He wouldn’t allow it and I’ll never know why. He said there were all kinds of protocols, rules and ways of behaving.

It’s also very hard to hear in these situations. The sound is a big problem. There’s a delay from the back end of the orchestra as the sound hits the front. That’s why you have a conductor. The percussion is at the back, so more than half of the orchestra hears it late. If you’re out front even further than the conductor, like I’d be, it’s beyond weird. But I would begin to settle in and then I’d get lost again.

I learned after one of the performances, from someone who knew the score and tunes, that the time signatures were an issue. It would have been better if those had been corrected. In the classical and orchestral world, everyone is part of the musicians union. There are things they do and don’t do. One of them is they don’t rehearse. If you’ve never played with an orchestra and you don’t rehearse, it’s pretty unnerving.

I’d happily do it again. But I know I’d do it differently. I’d do it with a smaller orchestra and make sure we have all our time signatures correct. Then, I think it would work. There was a ballad in that suite called “Summers Growing Old” and it did work, both in Fort Wayne and Kansas City. It was wonderful to hear that.

Paul Bunyan, the Rabbit Ears children’s audiobook and video soundtrack you recorded with Jonathan Winters (1990).

I did it entirely because Paul Bunyan was a big deal for me when I was little. So, the idea of playing behind Paul Bunyan for kids was irresistible. Paul’s a great guy. He holds his head up to the sky. I loved doing that.

There was one thing at the end of the animation I had changed. Paul looks out over the trees he’s cut and bursts into tears. I said “That’s awful.” He’s hard struck because he’s damaged trees. I said “This is a children’s story. This is damaging. Don’t do this.” And they changed it. They got rid of a whole scene. I was astounded they were willing to do that because it’s so expensive.
They worked hard and finished it and then this guitar player tells them he won’t touch that. I almost feel guilty about it. But you should have seen it. Paul was bawling and I was supposed to play some minor key, I suppose, to this scene with nothing but stumps of tree trunks. I do like that they cut it out.


That’s What (1990).

That was produced by Willard Oliver, who I’ve known for years. We fooled around a lot on that record and had a lot of fun with it. We made it at a jingle studio. There are things on that record I like a lot.

Willard was the best fart-on-command guy I ever met. He can fart and burp at will. So, we were trying to outdo each other. I’m not very good at farting on command, but I can burp. We’re grown men here. And in the middle of our burping and farting, the engineer Paul Martinson says “Leo, do you want to meet Margot Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies?” She’d been sitting there. The band was in town. How can you recover from that? You can’t even apologize. Burping and farting is not the way you want to meet anyone for the first time. So, that’s how I met Margot and she ended up singing on Great Big Boy which we did the next year.

That album has “Husbandry” on it about an old woman who lives in a bus. I didn’t think the track had enough, so I thought “Well, I’ll just talk some shit on top of it.” So, I put in the parts about the cigarette butts, the dust, the pecan trees, and guy putting out his cigar on the dog’s head, who then bursts into flames, hours later. I thought it was perfectly hilarious at the time, but it’s not. It’s gratuitous. I don’t care about the dog in the song and it doesn’t work.

I once played “Husbandry” at Humphrey’s in San Diego. Barney Kessel was in the crowd. He’s a real pioneer of guitar. He had a cane. He never took blood pressure meds, because it fucked up his sex life. He had a stroke, but he was pretty old when it happened, so maybe it was worth it. Anyway, I walked up to him an said “Are you Barney Kessel?” He said “Yeah. Did you grow up in Muskogee?” That shocked me. How did Barney know anything about me and Muskogee? I said “I didn’t grow up there, but I lived there for almost four years.” He said, “I did, too. I learned to play guitar there from a Hawaiian lap steel player from a WPA program during The Great Depression.” So, thank you FDR, for creating Barney Kessel.

So, I’m standing there with Barney and a woman, who I think was his helper or nurse. We were having a good time talking, and I realized this little girl had been standing down by my right knee the whole time. She was really young, maybe seven or eight. I stopped myself, looked at her and said “Well, hello.” She looks up at me and said “Why did the dog have to burn?” That crushed me. I then told her “Oh, I’m sorry. The dog really didn’t burn. He had really long hair. He counts on the cigar as a way to get rid of the fleas and bugs.” I had to give her something. She was a real listener. And then I said to the girl “This is Barney Kessel. Do you know him?” She said “No” and walked off. I don’t even know who she came with. There wasn’t anybody around her. Maybe she came on her own in a cab. [laughs]

Try and Stop Me (2004).

It’s got a little bit of Los Lobos, who appear on “Banks of Marble.” They had just come off a two-month tour and before they went home, they came into Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood to work on it with me. Dave Hidalgo is such a great drummer. He had had a big bag of drum keys. He squatted by the bag of drum keys and just punched them. You can hear that in the mix, along with his drumming.

Somehow, I seem to have known the Los Lobos guys for a long time. Dave recorded with me on a couple of other records, too. When you work with musicians, they’re either mute or gold mines. Los Lobos were a gold mine. I just really wanted to talk to them to hear what’s going on. Those guys are terrific. Louis Pérez is a really great writer. I love their whole trajectory.

Dave told me that he and Louis used to come and see me live when they weren’t really a band, yet. They were living in East LA and would come to my jobs at The Troubadour. That’ll knock you on your ass, when you hear something like that. I love the band, how they sing and working with them. Again, there’s this friendship stuff. There’s this sense of the history of music. Some people are really aware of it. Los Lobos knows what they’re doing.

Leo KottkePhoto: Amy Kerwin

You turned 75 last year and continue playing at a very high level. My sense is you still love every moment you spend on stage.

I do. I enjoy playing more than I ever did. I didn’t expect that to be the case. I’m also playing better than I ever have. I’m getting better. My hands are fucking up, but they’re not so fucked up that they actually interfere with what I do. The issues aren’t from playing. They’re from slamming doors, falling off a bicycle, and bellhops with suitcases.

You did an interview with Joe Zawinul. He’s an example of someone who got better and better as he got older. He’s someone I admired as a human  because of his playing and his personal history. We crossed paths once at an airport. He said “Hey Leo” and told me he really likes what I do. When a player like that says that, it’s a daydream. It’s a big deal.

Joe was an example of someone who played until the moment he couldn’t play any longer. Do you see yourself going down that path?

Yeah. I don’t really see why not. This imposed time off is interesting, because I really do miss playing. I’m playing a lot at home, but I miss playing for people. If you’re allowed to play, you’re bound to play. One of the things I like about Paul McCartney is the fact he said “We should keep touring. That’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s our job.” He’s right. If you’re given the privilege, you keep it up. It’s such an honor. That alone keeps me going. It’s really about how it feels to walk out there and have a good night or an almost good night. That feeling doesn’t happen anywhere else. And what happens only happens that night. It’s pretty special.

It’s really about the instrument itself. It took me most of my life to realize I could always count on the guitar and that I can do this. It doesn’t matter how I’m feeling. I can be on the moon with glee and just ecstatic. I could be down in the pit or enraged. Whatever mood I’m in, if I pick up the guitar, within a minute or two, I’m back to center. It just happens. The guitar is the place I belong to.