|The Performing Songwriter, May-June 1994|
"In Concert" With Leo Kottke
by James Jensen
A lot of guitarists get tired of the sameness of standard tuning and look toward alternate tunings to develop new sounds, while you started with a lot of alternate tunings and then moved to standard tuning and more of an academic approach.
Yeah, and I'm glad you brought that up because it's important to me. I think that open tuning are really a trap because it's really hard not to sound like an open tuning when you're using one, and that gets old. Also, what you learn in one open tuning is going to stay there. I've done a few concerts with Chet Atkins and I remember at a seminar in North Carolina where someone in the audience asked Chet what he though of open tunings and he replied, "I despise them." And he's not the kind of guy to use that word lightly.
With an instrumental or vocal compostiion, how do you know when you are finished?
Sometimes it's obvious and the more obvious it is the better your chances are that it's a good tune. There is a line from "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" when the alcoholic is asked by his wife why he drinks and he says he "drinks for the click." It's both how you know when you've got something worth working on and when you're done. There's a "click," kind of like throwing a switch or something.
How do you keep things fresh as a solo performer?
There are nights when you can feel stale becaues you've fallen into a patttern by touring too much, but it's easy to get out of it by deliberately getting in trouble and playing yourself into a corner to then see if you can get out of it. The principle [sic] element in a performance is risk, and if you're losing interest then by scaring yourself to death, the audience will feel it and boy it'll wake them up. it is a lot easier to perfrom solo in the terms of "crowd control" as Steve Goodman used to put it. Stever toured with a band for about a year and a half and he was truly a great perfromer. But he had to quite with ht eban because although there was more sound and company on the road and he go to amplify the experience socially on stage, he couldn't work the crow and it became the same show night after night.
Do you mix your show depending on how the audience is receiving the material, or do you have a set list that you stick to?
What "in concert " is about is that you're in there together and the audience doesn't run things and neither does the performer. You all want to be "in concert," and when that happens you have a good night. And it can happen when the playing is awful or terrific. When the audience is awful you can still have a great night, and people will walk out thinking they had a great time even though there [were] loads of loudmouths and the sound was terrible. It is not a mystical thing; however, it is obvious and practical. I think that performer does is to try to get to that point with every choice you make from the phrasing in a tune to the choice of tunes. It is just your sense of where that "in concert" is and how to get more of it. In a sense you are just satisfying yourself, but you are in the audience as much as they are. But it's definitely not "I can tell they want more vocals" or "I can tell they want me to shut up." You can't really tell what the audience wants but you can tell what will keep everybody's attention in the same place.
Anybody that has seen you live would find it hard to believe that when you began as a performer you rarely communicated to the audience verbally. What brought you out from behind your guitar?
That's an interesting question. I was sitting on a stage and I had two gooseneck mic stands, one for the vocal and one for the guitar, and every time I started to play they would start to move. Now I hadn't looked up for three years at that point and looked up and I'd said almost nothing, but one of the goosenecks took off and I'd been yanking these things around and getting really pissed. And I had remembered trying to kill a chicken as a kid in Oklahoma, so I said "Has anybody ever tried to kill a chicken?" and the audience laughed. That was a new experience for me and I just kind of recalled that event while cracking myself up, and I was falling apart remembering this debacle with the chicken and the audience was right there with me. That was when I found out that you could talk to them, and it was a whole other way to blow your stack, and it's so much fun to perform that you want to do it again and the more you get out it the better. The bulk of my set is instrumental and you have to give yourself and the audience some relief because a performance is not about great guitar playing. It's really about entertainment.
The humorous stories that you tell, are they a choreographed part of the show?
It's an important part of what I do now and sometimes I wish it wasn't because there are nights when I would rather not open my mouth. I would say that if you don't feel like talking to the crowd something is wrong, and if you force yourself to talk to them things will happen. And to that extent things aren't choreographed. I will literally open my mouth not knowing what is coming out. I do have a library of events I can talk about and I always expect to find a different point of view on it so even if I talk about the same event in the same town it's fresh. I seem to find different material every four to six months, and I frequently forget it which is a shame because it would be nice to have a bigger library.
Do you have any performance tips for people who are going to be performing as a solo?
Yeah, the first thing that comes to mind is not to try too hard. A lot of people from seasoned professionals to beginners just try too hard and it's embarrassing for them and the audience. It can work, which is the insidious thing about it, but I try to relax, which is also the best way to play. Another piece of advice is to pay attention and not think of it as a set that is going to end in another hour, but as a note or a verb or breath that you're in the middle of. It's important to stop the clock in that sense and really narrow your perspective. That way everything happens in its own time and things tend to have their own values note-wise, and you have variety and an automatic depth to the set. And none of it has to do with producing anything dramatic -- it just has to do with paying attention. That's what Steve Goodman was a genius at -- he had all the larger stuff like how to structure a set, but be was a real genius at being so attentive that the audience was just riveted. I always hated following him.
You've had a career that's survived everything from Disco to New Age. What do you attribute your longevity to?
Well, I think part of it is my drawbacks or limitations. When a record company looks at me, I'm very hard to market. I don't really fit anywhere. It's hard to get me on the air, and I'm hard to demography. But, because of that, I'm not subject to trends like you pointed out. I'm not subject to their rise and fall because I'm not accepted by them, so I have my own little curve going on. A lot of it is because of how much I play. I am evidence that you don't have to sell a lot of records or succeed in the usual way to have a big audience and a job. I have always thought of myself as a performer first and way down the line as a recording artist.
How much of it do you think has to do with the fact that some thirty odd years later on your day off you spend the whole day playing guitar?
Yeah...you're right on the money. I enjoy it more than I did when I started, and I thought the opposite would happen. It's true that the more you put in the more you get out, and that has to be there I think. If you aren't really hooked on your instrument this job would be a hell on earth. But if you are, it's the best. [The End]
Comments or questions about Leo's web site? Send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.