Melancholy Gone

Master guitarist Leo Kottke discusses his eccentric acoustic world.

"I've never really had any kind of defined goal or ambition," Leo Kottke claims. "For me it's just that next tune. That's what has to happen. I'm really gonna be up the creek when it goes away." He pauses and chuckles. "If it goes away, I'd better say."

Despite his lack of a plan, after 26 albums, Kottke has become a beloved, if quirky, musical institution. His complex fingerstyle guitar playing over the past 35 years has earned him a place in Guitar Player magazine's Hall of Fame and spawned a generation of technique imitators from Adrian Legg to Keller Williams. No one, however, has been able to match Kottke's eccentric Spike Jones-influenced humor or wicked self-deprecating comments, best in evidence during his live performances. He described his trademark gravelly vocals as "a goose fart" early in his career. His dadaistic instrumental titles include "Vaseline Machine Gun" and "The Brain of the Purple Mountain." Even simple titles like "Bean Time" or "Peckerwood" imbue his tunes with extra-musical meanings.

Kottke first emerged with his 1968 album, 12 String Blues, but the following year's 6 & 12 String Guitar on the late John Fahey's Takoma label really kicked things off. It was the kind of virtuoso playing--fast, complex, nuanced--that turned heads. His crisp style was a cerebral, acoustic counterpoint to electric guitar gods like Page, Hendrix and Clapton. Kottke's style owes a debt to earlier guitarists from Fahey and Robbie Basho to Rev. Gary Davis, but it was his humor, odd even by hippie-era standards, that gave Kottke's music enduring context.

The stage patter, according to Kottke, was a way to keep the audience entertained while he figured out what to play next.

"The only way I've found to know where to go is by talking to the audience," he says. "It will usually show me what to do. It's not as simple as finding out what they want to hear. What follows one night won't the next. You have to get it by instinct. You can't if you ignore the crowd; at least I can't."

Although he's known as a solo artist in the starkest sense, taking pride in his one-man/one guitar approach, Kottke's career has been dotted with collaborations. An association with Rickie Lee Jones led to her producing his 1994 album, Peculiaroso. He's performed and recorded with diverse artists from Lyle Lovett and the late Chet Atkins to the Violent Femmes. His latest project is with Mike Gordon, bass player from Phish.

"We're sort of backing into it," he admits. "We've just bumped into each other here and there the last couple of years and started playing. It seems to be working out. Mike is on a different label and it's always a little shaky until the labels are happy. If they are, I suppose that will be the next thing that comes out recording-wise."

He's set to spend a week in April in Los Angeles with Gordon on the project.

"We thought it would be instrumental, but the vocals are turning out to be a lot of fun," Kottke notes. "We're both throwing stuff in. So far it appears to be a deal where he'll write a lyric, I'll write a lyric and not a whole lot of collaborating, but that's changing too. We found we have to do it face-to-face, which is annoying given that we're in different parts of the country and we're both working."

A new mainstream audience has discovered Kottke in the last few years through his one-hour PBS special, Home and Away. The show features his wacky antics around the house, along with his prodigious musical technique.

"That thing has had a pretty good life," he concedes. "The one thing I learned from that is you never do it with just one camera, because then you have to be spontaneous two times in a row. That is deeply awful. It's embarrassing and weird."

Asked if he's ready for his music to be taken more seriously, he responds quickly, "Oh God, no! I've been convinced since I was a little boy that music is non-human, though of course, not inhuman. It's just something that we get to enjoy or live in and that's all I need to know about it. I don't spend time wondering how it should be presented or how it should be accepted or what I think it is. It's just something that I have to have. Since I was very small, I've got to be playing something. It's real good for me."

He adds, "Frequently you can stand in the wings before you go out and you can feel all of those people before, whether they actually played there or someplace else. It's a kind of commitment that I think is pretty profound, but it's one that happens almost without your knowing it. Then you just notice that not only have you made the commitment, but you're following in the footsteps of a lot of other people. It's kind of fulfilling and melancholy at the same time. Then you walk onstage and the melancholy is gone. You just have a great time."