Leo Kottke: "I just never thought it would be a job but it turned into one"
Photo courtesy Jan Martin
Leo Kottke (due tonight at the Boulder Theater) is a legendary and beloved master of finger picking guitar and a gifted raconteur. He got his start with John Fahey's Takoma Records in the late '60s, and he's been releasing noteworthy albums of some of the most inventive and interesting acoustic music ever recorded. Whether playing intricate folk leads or jazz inflected blues, Kottke is ever the master craftsman with a creative imagination to match.
Kottke has overcome physically debilitating damage to his hearing and his tendons that nearly ended his career by switching up his playing style, and he continues strong to this day. A longtime regular guest on A Prairie Home Companion, Kottke, a resident of the Twin Cities, was also awarded an honorary PhD in Music Performance from the University of Wisconsin in 2008.
We recently spoke with the typically gregarious Kottke and asked him about A Prairie Home Companion and his first movie. All of these questions were partly formulated in conjunction with Kottke super fan, former Wind-Up Merchants bassist, Danny Huber.
Westword: You've told stories about the Lithographer from Lubliana, the parades in Cheyenne and so many others. I've never heard a story about the Fisherman other than you saying "I'm gonna drive this into the ground"?
Leo Kottke: Yeah, I do. the Fisherman, I don't know where the name came from. And I am certainly not the Fisherman. I suppose I wanted to be one at one time. Most of all things come into my head when I finish a tune, and sometimes, it sounds like it might be the title. So I suppose, you know, the screen on the septum pellucidum just said "Fisherman," and that's about it with that one. It does sound a little like what I remember about fishing, that looping quality it has. But I'm never anywhere remotely that literal with the title so...It just seemed to suit it, you know.
Who is Furry Jane?
That's a good question. The song was Robbie Basho's favorite song of mine and Robbie was a guy who was entirely unknown to himself. And I mean that in the most absolute sense 'cause I met him when I was a kid in high school and I'd follow him around. He was not the guy that...well he remains obscure but he did make a few records on the label I wound up on briefly. He was an entirely different guy when I knew him. He was a cowboy that was into Japanese movies, and he was drunk all the time, and he sang all the time, and he didn't go anywhere near all the stuff that he became later.
When I talked to him on the phone and he told me about Furry Jane, I said, "I remember you from high school. Remember me? I used to bug you and drive you crazy asking you questions about your twelve string." He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "When you were playing around DC and Maryland." And he said, "Uh, that wasn't me. I didn't play around there." I said, "Well you were a cowboy, and you were always wearing boots and all that garbage." He said, "No!" "You're into Japanese movies." "No! No, that wasn't me." It was him.
That's all I can tell you about Furry Jane. I don't remember writing it, but I like the song, and I heard it maybe a year ago after a long stretch. That was recorded in maybe '68. I don't know, but I can kind of see her. I don't know why she's furry. I hope it was a nickname.
How did you become familiar with the music of John Fahey and then come to work with him?
I had played a job at a club called the Twelfth of Never in Chicago. A girlfriend of mine had married a guy in town there, and I was staying at their house. I came back from that job, and he said, "Have you ever heard this guy?" Then he put Fahey's first record on the turntable, and that was the time I first heard it. The guy that put the record on was Rod Owen, and he had hung around with John a lot before John was recording and out doing field work trying to find people like Skip James, for example.
After a while I sent him a tape, and he was the only response I got, and I got a response also from John Hammond Sr., after I sent him a tape. But John...that was a really lucky break for me. He gave me my whole career, really. Or "careen" or whatever it is.
After you left St. Cloud State University you spent a bit of time hitchhiking and busking. What about the Twin Cities made you want to settle down there?
It was mainly...I wonder. The easy answer is that I had relatives here, but they were gone by the time I got here. That isn't quite it. I had a grandfather that worked here as a dean at a college in St. Cloud, Minnesota. I tended to see him every year or two for about a week because my folks would come up here on a vacation, and it was the one place that was a constant as I was growing up because we moved all the time.
I had gotten out of the Navy. I had quit the University of Missouri and thought that I might have an in in St. Cloud because my record in Missouri wasn't that stellar. I really wasn't that interested in going to school, I just didn't know what else to do. But I was always playing, I just never thought it would be a job but it turned into one.
How did anyone convince you to write music for Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid?
Well it was my first movie, and you aren't too picky with your first movie. Also, it had a different title; it was called Zeisters. I had a ball doing that. They put me up in the Village in New York for about three months, and we worked on this thing. It was not a bad movie, but by the time it was edited and released and picked up by Troma Productions, which specialized in crap, it was seen by Keanu Reeves, who was fourteen at the time. And he walked up to one of the two brothers that made the movie, John Golden, ecstatic to congratulate them on the movie. He told them how much he loved it and said, "It's the worst movie I have ever seen." So it has some distinction.
You probably haven't seen the movie, like the entire human race, but it's a true story that was built around one of the Golden brothers, and they decided that when they were done with the movie and the music was on, that their mother would recognize her son in this story. It revealed the fact that he was having a checkered career, so they didn't want to embarrass her.
So they re-edited the movie, and they would cut in the middle of scenes, meaning that the music does the strangest stuff. It's really weird. I have seen the movie, and it's like having someone adding a third leg to you or removing the two you thought you had. I could tell you a lot about that guy but he probably wouldn't appreciate it. I can say that he's prison right now, but that's about all I could say.
Have you ever found any treasure at the bottom of Lake Superior? Or in the lake behind your house?
Well I'm not in that house anymore, and I never found anything there. And Lake Superior, I have no dived in. I have seen a fish sleeping in a tree. There are open pit iron mines abandoned forever ago filled up with spring water, so they're great places to dive, because you have about eighty feet of visibility. In the time it takes for these things to fill up, whole forests take root on the sides. Eventually, the water covers the forests, denudes the forests, and, of course, there's no air so trunks and branches stay intact. It's like being in a Cocteau movie swimming through that stuff.
How did the fish get in there? There are all kinds of things in there! It was draped over two limbs, like the letter "M" just dropping there. There's a lot of light. I thought it was dead, and I went up to touch it and it took off. Those things are really deep, and they run to, like, four hundred feet depths. There have been a couple of deaths in that particular mine. Doesn't really add to the dive experience.
A friend asked how long it would take you to find a left-handed bacon stretcher?
Unless he has seen me get lost in non-sequiturs I don't know what the answer to that would be.
Whatever happened to the Ice Fields recordings with the orchestra?
Yeah, those, none of that stuff can be released because of union problems. They weren't recorded officially, so they can't be released, because the orchestra wasn't paid for recording. They were paid for their usual pay. That was a suite I did with a guy named Stephen Paulus. We performed with the Ft. Wayne Philharmonic, which is my candidate for an oxymoron, and the Kansas City Orchestra, which is a great orchestra. Actually, so is the Ft. Wayne Philharmonic. There was one violin player that was really not helping the team effort, but other than that, it was a great orchestra.
Have you ever invented something?
Yeah. Well, it would be better to say "designed." So maybe the answer is, "No." I thought, when I was in the sixth grade, that I had invented bicycle that ran on compressed air. But really, what it would have run on, was the same old pedal power. But applying that force to the wheel was much more inefficient with my invention, so it never happened. There is a guitar slide I designed and the alloy took a long time to find and then the EPA outlawed the alloy so there's that. But after that, nothing.
When are you going electric?
Well I went! A long time ago. But only in the studio. I've taken electric guitars on stage, but the density shift is just too much. You can also say I've always been electric because the signal is the same from me as it is from Eric Clapton. It's a magnet, and you interrupt its field, and that makes the sounds. It's an electric guita,r except in this case, the pickup is a flat top instead of a solid piece of alder or whatever Strats are made of now. To my ear, it just sounds better. As long as you pay attention and get the right pre-amp, I like it better.
What is your process in choosing covers?
The first run with Capitol, those were all done by Chad Van Hamersveld, and some of those are really nice. We'd just give him a title and he'd take off. The rest of them, there's only one cover I was really involved with, and it was just a print on a paper bag called One Guitar, No Vocals. Oh, but the record that Fahey released on his line was just my name and 6-and12-String Guitar, but it had an enormous armadillo on it that I requested from a woman named Annie Elliot. I'll just stop there because nobody cares about this one, unless they're in their basement listening to Kottke records and wondering what I had for breakfast. So I'll spare you.
How did you become a bit of a regular on Prairie Home Companion?
By living in the same town as Garrison [Keillor]. We knew each other from way back. As a matter of fact, I did the show a couple of days ago, and he talked about when we met. There was a woman in town here named Sue Wild. She went on to work with Baryshnikov's dance troupe in New York. She was responsible for really jump-starting Prairie Home Companion and my career and some other people. Bonnie Raitt, I believe, is what she's been involved in. Willie Murphy, who isn't known much outside the Twin Cities. She booked the Walker Arts Center.
Anyhow, we met at her house, and I was sawing through a piece of her pie crust, which was tougher than my guitar neck. The thing, you know, that I wish he was still doing was the show that he had starting in, maybe, '69, where he would do an interview with somebody at seven in the morning on Sundays. Obviously, nobody knew it existed. I did it one day, and I've never had the experience with an interview that I had with him as an interviewer. He is a genius at radio interviewing. He does not do that on Prairie Home -- he talks to the acts.
There's something unique about him. It was only half an hour, and it was him and Tom Keefe, who died this year, who was doing the sound effects even then. Maybe someday that'll come back. I wish it would. If I were going to edit Prairie Home Companion, I would throw out all the music--me and all of us. Maybe shorten it and take it back there and have him interview somebody as well and talk to people. I'd love that. I like the show as it is but boy I'd love to hear more of that side of what he can do.
Thanks for taking the time out of your day with us today, Leo.
Sorry to hang you up the other day. I had a meeting across the street and got up about fifteen minutes before one, when I was going to give you a call, and I stood up and realized I had not turned off the water in the bathtub. The overflow drain, no matter where I am, is always taped over or plugged up, so that I can sit in there like a manatee and be happy.
I panicked and took off at a run, and I got up there, and I had turned it off. But I have flooded -- I'm at home, and I've flooded this place four times in the last ten years. So I'm a threat to dwellings everywhere. I've flooded rooms in Sydney, Australia and in Canada and, oh, three or four places in the lower 48. I've flooded a room in Hawaii. I just forget, and other people pay the price. When I realized I hadn't flooded the place, the relief erased everything from my mind, including the one o'clock appointment to give you a call so that's my excuse.
Leo Kottke, 6:30 p.m. Friday, January 27, Boulder Theater, Sold Out, 303-786-7030, All Ages