How Playing the Guitar Saved Leo Kottke's Life

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It would be nice to say that our July 19 profile of acoustic guitar wizard Leo Kottke was filled with the endless, witty and off-kilter diatribes that act as between-song banter during his concerts. But that’s the trouble with email interviews; the interviewee is less compelled to ramble. Still, as noted in the complete transcript below, Kottke managed to work his quirky persona into each answer. He meandered at times, much like his highly stylized playing where Mississippi country blues meets Appalachian folk with a jazz chaser, yet (mostly) found his way back to the question core. This includes discussing how the guitar saved his life; collaborating with musicians like Phish’s Mike Gordon or Rickie Lee Jones; developing his unique finger picking style; suffering hearing loss during a Navy tour; how tendonitis almost ended his career, and how he would starve if it did; his dislike of being called a singer-songwriter, re-working old songs on new albums; and falling off the stage in Dusseldorf, Germany. Welcome to the wacky world of Leo Kottke.

Westword: What is the joy you find in playing the guitar?

Leo Kottke: It saved my life when I was a kid. I’d been sick. Now it is my life. I wouldn’t call it joy, but that’s in there. It’s more than joy -- and it gives me the creeps just saying that -- but it’s true.

By and large your career has been that of solo performances and albums. You have, however, performed with Rickie Lee Jones, and also recently did an album with Mike Gordon of Phish. Why leave the solo world? What’s to be gained by such collaborations?

It’s more of a social event than anything else, but being musicians we do it this way. Sort of. I’m kind of making that up, even though it’s true. So, let’s see ... well, musically, it stretches me. You get a little desiccated playing by yourself all the time, sort of like being locked in a closet ... but it’s a great closet. I never intended leaving solo performance, and haven’t, I just got involved.

I read that Mississippi John Hurt was an early inspiration. What other musicians did you look to in developing your playing style, or is your style simply of your own creation?

Nothing of it is deliberate. It’s more like being hungry and getting fed. If you’re hungry enough you’ll eat anything. If I can’t find anything to read I’ll read a cereal box. I was shoplifting a BB gun (I think I was in the fourth grade) when I heard Kim Fowley and the Hollywood Argyles doing “Alley Oop” on a sound system in a store in Cheyenne. Years later, he walked by the studio where I was recording my first record for Capitol and we put him on the record. I don’t know if that’s influence, but it’s something other than joy.

Has your hearing damage affected how you play, or approach playing with other musicians?

It’s a common kind of loss, and many people who’ve fired guns have some degree of it. In Germany it’s called “machine-gun trauma,” which is right on. We here in the home of marketing call it “noise trauma.” My favorite line about this comes from Charles Ives: ”What’s sound got to do with music?” It’s kind of an empty question but it gets me off the hook. Or I could say something concrete, which is that over 80 percent of music is in the fundamental. In other words, you can be a lot deafer than I am and still play. Violinists often lose a lot of hearing in their left ear: a violin can throw 105 decibels into the front rows. I chose a submachine gun on a submarine. I was throwing hot lead at light bulbs the O.D. had thrown into the Atlantic Ocean.

You had tendon damage that slowed you career a touch in the 1980s. Did you ever worry that you might have to stop playing music?

Sure did. Touch and go, and a lot of bad concerts, for about three years. Then, voila, I changed my technique and found home. I was very lucky.

If you did have to stop, what might you do instead?

The only other actual job I’ve had, not counting the Navy, was fiberglassing somebody’s boat. I should have been fired and was saved by some other kindhearted guys working in the boatyard. Well, I also picked beans for a short while but that wasn’t a job, it was slavery. If I couldn’t play I would probably starve. First I’d go back to school and get a teaching degree ... then I’d starve, just like most of our teachers do.

I read somewhere that you don’t like being called a singer-songwriter. What do you prefer to be called?

The Nutmeg of Consolation, King of Minnesota, and so on. I can’t label anything, especially myself, without feeling like a Nazi. Marketing has left us with something resembling urban sprawl, but with language. Therefore, say I: no labels, freedom from the marketplace, more corn, more pinto beans, more dancing.

On some of your more recent solo albums, you’ve re-worked older pieces. Why? Were you unsatisfied with the original versions?

The trigger is finding out you don’t have enough material to fulfill your contract. But it’s a great chance to fix or improve on something you’ve written ... or performed. Some pieces just keep morphing, “Ojo” being one example, and some sort of grow up. Peter Pan had the wrong idea, it pretty much sucks to be a child. No respect, no place, no experience, no knowledge; if you get old enough, those things start coming and you learn to be a child again. I’ve completely exited the question.

You’ve played in prisons and numerous festivals and venues around the world. Is there any one event or incident that stands out as being just plain weird?

I don’t know about weird but falling off the stage in Dusseldorf (Germany) was the most painful. And it was the only thing the audience seemed to like that night. These days in Dusseldorf I generate more interest with the guitar playing.

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