Grand Forks Herald (January 29, 1999)


By Kris Jensen

      If you're really happy or you're really down, the last thing you need is an answer.  

      So says Leo Kottke, who brings his six- and 12-string guitars, his hundreds of songs, his unequaled talent and his way-off-the-beaten-path attitude to the Empire on Thursday.  

      We talked with Kottke during one of his brief respites at home in Minneapolis.   Here's an edited listen at our conversation.

      Is it true your mom bought you your first guitar? How did that come about?

     I was a sick little bastard, and she heard me singing along with the radio and she brought this thing home.   At the time, I was a trombone player.   It's a difficult instrument to play flat on your back.   She was really dismayed and horrified; I might have been 11.

     Your music is so complex, so layered -- how do you write it down?

     I let other people write it down.   I can't -- I used to be able to read the bass clef, but I've completely forgotten all that stuff.   The funny thing about it is that it really -- in some cases, not in all, -- only approximates the music.   I used to think it was the music -- far from it.   Unless what you're writing was written for a nonchordal instrument.   Probably the most approximate form of music notation is guitar.   I have a tune called "Mona Ray" -- and something as simple as deciding where the "one" is -- it's an impossible job.

     With 25 or so albums done, you must have written more than 200 songs.   Do you remember every song you've ever written? Do audiences make requests for them?

     I remember most of them.   And no, I think in some cases they're embarrassed to call out the tune they want to hear because I get too cute with some of the titles.   But they ask for more vocals than I could expect.

     The Empire is a smaller venue -- about 400 seats.   Do people in a smaller venue see a different show -- do you connect more to them somehow?

     Actually no, it's harder.   The perfect size is 3,000 seats because regardless of what anybody thinks, the audience is there to merge, to be in concert, and that happens quickest at 3,000 people.   You tend to feel less of that in a bigger place.   It's part of the whole psychology of performance, and it will happen automatically.

     When you're at home in the Twin Cities, what do you do there?

     Well, I like the Minneapolis Institute of Art because they're willing to be a little flakier there.   But when I'm home, which is 20 percent of the year, I don't do anything.   Sit and read.

     Let's talk about "Jack Gets Up." Can you clue us in on the "modified snow peas?"

     My favorite poetry is inexplicable.   Now I'm not implying that that lyric is poetry.   It uses a very old and strict form.   One of my favorite poets is Georg Trakl -- he was really the inventor of modern poetry and probably right now has more of an influence on contemporary poets.   You cannot begin to explicate his poetry -- it's as true as the moon.  

      If you had to turn around and say what's true -- there's no sophistry and I'm not trying to be lofty, either -- the function of all art is to say what you can't say, to make what can't be explained.   Those are the things that bug people all their lives, and what you have is religion and the arts, and religion loses in my book.   Art, that's where you can go when you're completely out of luck, to get your life saved.   It happened to me with the guitar.  

      It has nothing whatever to do with a message or a law or anything else unless you look for that in the really good stuff.   You can tell a bad piece of music, a story, a painting -- if it tells you something, it sucks.   If I gave myself some time, there'd be exceptions to that.  

      (Russian novelist Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn tells you stuff, and it's pushing it to call what he's written art.   It's got this obscure, scary sort of moral authority, and that lifts his stuff into the realm of art -- the good stuff, you don't know what the hell they're talking about.

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