Minneapolis Tribune (circa 1977)

Leo Kottke: self-taught, solo, eccentric musician

By Tim Carr, Staff Writer

      He was clean-cut, perhaps too square to be the pop musician he professed to be, and he was obviously a foreigner. Besides, what was he doing racing around the streets of Bonn in a rented Mercedes at 2 in the morning?

      Which is why Leo Kottke, the Minneapolis diplomat of acoustic guitar, found himself early last October in a police station being interrogated by platoons of the local polize on suspicion of being a terrorist (as all are foreigners in Germany are these days). Then one of his new interrogators recognized the Amerikanischer guitarist who had performed there the previous evening, offered him an apology and asked for his autograph.

      "That's when I knew I was in the clear, but up until then I was pretty scared," Kottke said. It was two months later and he was back on his home turf, even though that turf was frozen, priming himself with a cup of coffee and waiting to begin the recording of his 11th album.

      Midway through the long, tedious recording process, he stopped to study the off-white early winter panorama through a window in the control booth of the Bloomington studio and listened to the playback of a guitar and vocal track he had just performed for the umpteenth time. He seemed concerned; he was just wasn't getting the sound he was hoping for.

      Progress, however, was being made. It sounded better this time than it had the time before, which was at least something. Different taping techniques were employed and various microphones, each with certain nebulous attributes, were rearranged into new and hopefully better combinations.

      Dressed in basic collegiate - a sports shirt, a green V-neck sweater and beige corduroys - Kottke wandered between the booth and the studio, occasionally partook of herbal refreshments and listened to the tapes, his guitar and the suggestions of his two soundmen.

      Five hours had passed and the difference between take one and take umpteen was almost indistinguishable to the layman. What was Kottke looking for? A live sound, one that would reproduce well on both a car radio and an expensive stereo system. He wanted to wipe the nasal sound from his voice without tampering with its natural tone and make his old Gibson 12-string guitar sound like another Gibson 12-string, one that was stolen seven years before.

      "The way albums are done these days," Kottke said in an interview afterward, "you have to spend between nine months and a year on them. That's part of what the punkers are all about. They see that stuff, know they can't handle it and say 'forget it.' Some other people who've been in the business a little longer know that they have to handle it."

      At 32, Kottke is hardly an old man of the music business - he's only been connected with recordings since about 1970. Yet he's been the most influential performer on the local scene since Bob Dylan moved to Greenwich Village. His acoustic music on the 6- and 12-string guitars has inspired countless coffeehouse hopefuls to emulate his finger-picking techniques and try to figure out his bizzare tunings by listening to his records or watching him perform at his annual Christmas concert. This year, to meet the demand for tickets, he will perform two concerts, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the State Theater.

      Kottke was once a coffeehouse hopeful himself. After coming to Minnesota from Muskogee, Okla., at the turn of the decade, he ended up playing at Mike Justin's Scholar Coffeehouse and touring the colleges and clubs of the five-state area.

      He made two locally produced albums that he'd rather forget and apprenticed himself to John Fahey, another guitarist who played "primitive American" guitar music and recorded Kottke on his Takoma label. After that, Kottke recorded six albums for Capitol and moved from being a coffeehouse attraction and an opening act to an international concert headliner.

      When he's not on the road, he resides with his wife, Mary, and his two children, 7-year old Sarah and 4-year old Joe, in a comfortable home in the Western suburbs. He does all his recording locally at Sound 80 Studios and Creation Audio Recording.

      For an acoustic guitar player, who doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve but puts it into his instrumental music, he's had a preternatural rise to acclaim - been reviewed in most of the major fan magazines, been featured in the pop music section of People Magazine and listed as a rocker in the British "New Music Express Encyclopedia of Rock." But, he says, "I'm not part of the pop record world and they (the recording industry) don't think of me as part of it.

      "I'm an oddity. No one has ever known what to call me. It bothers some people in the business. There's no way to peddle me. If they try they always come up with 'this fellow' or 'this guy' or the last one was 'He has the unassuming look of a Minneapolis family man in his early 30s but he plays guitar.' It's like trying to describe the guy who works behind the drugstore counter. I'm afraid my music is all there is of me.

      "I have to admit to myself that I am a folk musician. I am not a trained musician, and there is no way to avoid that fact. I'm very eccentric because I'm self taught. I've got that sort of tunnel vision that you get from not being very educated. I'm strictly a solo, eccentric musician."

      "I was playing an instrument when I was 5 (the violin) and I always wanted to play something. I found it when I found the guitar. I had tried to play the flute, I got preety good on the trombone, but the guitar does things to me that I can't get anyway else

      "I think I'm much more here than I was a few years ago, speaking as a person other than a guitar player. If I don't become a junkie or a drunk or some other type of loss to myself, I know I'll always get better."

      His long-range pans include collaborating on an orchestral work with Jack Nitzche (of Phil Spector, Rolling Stones ans "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" fame) and some film scoring for a Jack Nicholson movie.

      "The bulk of this next album will be vocal stuff. It's not like my old stuff; it's peculiar stuff. The vocals are puzzling to me. When I used to write with lyrics, the words I used were okay for what they were, but now I need to hear something in the lyrics. Words always seemed superfluous to me. They never needed to be more than a chant or a steady noise or something to give the mouth to do while the song was going on. But now I'm coming up with lyrics I'm nuts about. Like I say, it puzzles me."

      About the concert at the State he said, "Minneapolis is the most important concert there is for me. This is where I come from. This is where I started working. This is where I work the most. This is where I record. I feel it all more here.

      "For a lot of the past concerts here, I've had the flu. Winters coming on, I'm always coming off a tour somewhere and feel I should take it easy for a while. But I'm home so I go out, run around and kill myself.

      "This year I don't have to worry about that. Somehow I'm turning into Charles Atlas. I'm so healthy it's sickening, and it's something I'm not responsible for really. I think my pancreas is taking contol."

Interviews & Reviews | Recordings | Concerts | Tour Schedule | Songs & Lyrics | Guitar Tab
Audio & Video | Photo Gallery | Kottke Network | Links | Search | Credits

Home (Frames) | Home (No Frames)

Comments or questions about Leo's web site? Send mail to webmaster@guitarmusic.org.