|Fat Angel, 1973|
by Andy (last name not specified)
A couple of months ago, American guitarist Leo Kottke made a visit to this country to play selected dates as part of a British and European tour. As usual, most of the pop papers interviewed him, but it became quite obvious that none of them felt involved with his music, and only saw him simply because they were told to by an editor who probably felt obliged to carry a piece on him or something. I went along in the hope of finding out a lot more about the man, and he turned out to be quite a character, and a very interesting one at that. The night before, he played at excellent concert at the Rainbow, that was further enhanced by the performance of Country Gazette, but marred by the tasteless excesses of Jo Jo Gunne. The part that followed the concert provided to be an opportunity for Leo to have a 'few too many', and when I spoke to him, he'd only just recovered.
Can we start by going as far back as you can? How you come from Minneapolis?
Yeah, well that's where I live now. I was born in Athens, Georgia. My dad works with the Veterans Administration Hospital Network. So we moved about every four or five years. I went back to Minneapolis because that's where everybody's relatives are. And that's a good place to be when I'm on the road, 'cause Mary [his wife] is just stuck there with the kids, she can't get out.
And what about your musical background? You didn't start with the guitar did you?
No, I started playing the violin. Well every instrument I could play was violin, flute, and trombone, but any interest in it was drummed out of me by the teaching that I got. It was real pedantic. There's a whole, like I would imagine there is here, a whole state system of competitions. When I was really good enough to be going to them I was in Oklahoma, in Tahlequah, and I had to play...the top of the line as far as the repertoire that was available to a trombone player who was taking lessons was a thing called "The Blue Bells of Scotland" -- and it was the most melodic thing there was. I had to play Tahlequah the last time I did it, I had to play a tune called "Down Home On The Farm" which starts out with whole notes, repeated quarter notes, repeated eighth notes, sixteenth, etc.....so I finally picked up the guitar about the same time, and since I never had any training on that thing I could do what I wanted to. I never had the initiative or the invention to do what I wanted to on the trombone because I could never, and I still can't , think very well on single note sort of terms. I'm not that sophisticated.
I read somewhere that the winters in Minneapolis were such that you were snowed in for so many months of the year and sort of cut off.
No, not really. It just snows a lot...really cold. Things just come to a halt mainly.
Well, I had this picture of you snowed in and practising on the guitar for months on end.
I don't play the guitar as much as I used to. I used to, well now I play it less but I play more music when I do. When I was learning I would sit and play must one chord and let it ring out and strum it again, and I'd do that all day long. Which when I think about that amazes me because I would literally listen to one chord all day long. And I was ecstatic.
So you didn't have any tuition on guitar, it was all self-taught was it?
Yeah, I'm gonna study now. I've sort of arrived at a spot where I'm not gonna get any better or any more imaginative without learning the real theory behind it and learning to read again. I can read now but awful slow. That was one of the things my trombone teachers gave me...lots of crap about my sight reading. So I'm about the position were you are with the Suzuki method when you learn to play and then you go and study. I don't know if you know about the method, but they bring kids up on say violin, and stick thirty of them in a room with three good players who will play the same thing simultaneously and the kids just play along. And they don't play crap like "Down Home On The Farm", they start right out with Beethoven, and anything you want. But the problem is time, I don't know if I can find a way to do it without teaching myself, and I'm too given to things like getting drunk last night to be able to sustain that kind of an initiative for over a couple of years, which is I imagine, or I hope is how long it would take to pick it up again.
But presumably your style didn't develop independently. I mean you're classed as coming from the same school as John Fahey and Robbie Basho.
Yeah, I know. I guess we are. The thing about American guitar playing...and this is the first chance I've ever had to call it that, it's always been just guitar playing...it's got roots. I mean American self -taught guitar that everybody plays has roots but nobody knows what they are unless they really dig around for them. And I didn't do that, as a matter of fact I found it real unappealing to listen to old blues records or old blues singers -- it just didn't ring my bell. That's what was, or is available when I started. There wasn't anything but Burl Ives or Theodore Bikel, this was in Oklahoma. There was no guitar music and there wasn't anybody around playing it. If I'd gotten up into the Ozarks I might have heard a bit. At that time real hill music didn't appeal to me either.
So I arrived at the kind of guitar that I play by playing the banjo, and Fahey arrived at the way he plays by listening to old blues people, and Basho...I don't know anything about Robbie, so I can't say. I n that sense we're not at all alike. There was a guy who reviewed me for a magazine in America who was with my manager during the performance, and when it was over he was talking with my manager Denny [Bruce], and he told him all of the old blues guys that I was obviously influenced by. I just never have been. So it was a surprise to me the first time I heard a Fahey record, because it was the way I had been playing and I had been wandering around wondering why I couldn't find any music to listen to that was done that way. Because like I said I don't have the right kind of ear to listen to single note stuff and really enjoy it.
There is a superficial similarity. but from then on you've got a style of your own which I think is a lot different from Fahey. I mean I can tell the difference.
John told me once he thought I was a very dramatic guitar player. I said 'what do you mean?', and he pointed out the way I end "Cripple Creek" as an example. And I sorted out what he was talking about. John goes more for depth and syncopation and it seems the stuff that I do has got a sort of roller-coaster attitude -- all ups and downs.
I often find that with guitar playing of that technical expertise, that sterility creeps in and it becomes all flash and little feeling. But in your work it seems that there is a lot of feeling in it, and what Fahey says about you being a dramatic player in that sense I think is true. There is a lot of feeling there allied with technical ability.
You're right. I'm glad to hear you say that because it's something that I'm always a little afraid of because I have done a job where I found myself unable to get at the heard of the matter, and it's always because I'm playing too fast when that happens. It's real easy to lose your own centre when you're playing that way.
How did you get involved with Takoma Records?
I just sent them a tape and after a long time they answered it, and then it was another long time when I made the record. Then after the record I went out to California and met John and his ex- wife, then his wife Jann, who are the owners of Takoma. For awhile I was sort of one of the delivery boys at Takoma. I guess at the time it looked like it but there was only five people working at Takoma: John, Jann, and myself and Mary, and a guy named Carey Fahey. Carey and I would ship the records out, take them to the airport, dodge the turtle shit on the way up and down the stairs with arm-loads of records.
Comments or questions about Leo's web site? Send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.