A visit with
publicity photo of Leo
On February 19, 1999, Leo Kottke performed at the State Theatre in Easton, PA. Before his performance that evening, he took the time to speak with Otto Bost of WDIY-FM. The interview was edited together with selections from Leo's recordings, and broadcast on March 1, 1999, on Otto's weekly radio program, "Acoustic Eclectic". What follows is a transcript of the broadcast.

The broadcast begins with "REGARDS FROM CHUCK PINK" (from "Chewing Pine," Capitol, 1974) as the opening music bed. Otto, speaking over the music, introduces the interview:

OttoHe's a composer, a songwriter, and most of all, Leo Kottke is a guitar player – perhaps the most creative and influential fingerstyle acoustic guitarist of the twentieth century. For the last three decades, virtually everyone who has ever picked up an acoustic guitar has, at some point, listened to Leo Kottke and wondered, "How does he do that?"

Leo was born on September 11, 1945 in Athens, Georgia, and lived as a child in half a dozen different states. He studied trombone in grade school, but discovered the guitar at age eleven, and became immediately enchanted with the idea of an instrument that was not only capable of playing more than one note at a time, but could also be played while lying down. Before long, Leo heard the music of Pete Seeger, and fell in love with the sound of the twelve-string guitar. His first studio album, released in 1969, was called "Six and Twleve-String Guitar," and it remains one of the best-selling solo guitar albums of all time.

Kottke's music has always been aggressive and rhythmically powerful, but he's always maintained a sense of delicate precision, as well. His playing style has evolved over the years, going through a considerable transformation during the 1980s, when tendonitis threatened to end his career. Leo responded by altering his technique, and abandoning the use of fingerpicks, which had contributed to his injury, and which he soon realized simply weren't necessary.

Despite his stature as an idol among a generation of guitarists, Leo Kottke is a very modest man, with a quirky, and often self-depreciating, sense of humor. When he's not on tour, he lives in suburban Minneapolis with his wife, Mary, and their two children. I caught up with Leo in February of 1999, just before a performance at the State Theatre in Easton, Pennsylvania. Two days earlier, Leo had given a private concert at a US Navy base in New London, Connecticut.

The music bed fades as Leo speaks:

Leo That was a strangely sentimental journey for me. The guy who runs day care, and entertainment, and morale, and – more or less – I don't know the exact name of his slot there, in the Navy – is a fan of mine. I was talking to him, and I told him how much I'd love to see a boat. I was in the submarine service, and I really wanted to see a contemporary weapon of death. And he said, "I can get you on there. Why don't you play at a base?" And I said, "Put me on my old base!" So I went back to New London, where I was stationed when I was on the USS Halfbeak, and played a show for the – it was inhouse, for all the characters in sub school there, and, uh – I got on a boat called the San Juan, and had a wonderful time. I – I had intended, at one time, to be a sonar man. At no time, until it was literally in my lap, did I ever intend to be a performer. At all times, ever since I was eleven, I knew I'd be playing the guitar, but, uh – the Navy was, in other words, sort of an interruption, of what turned out to be a career that I had never intended. I was – I joined underage. I was seventeen, and, uh – I wasn't that welcome in the Navy, and I didn't enjoy the Navy that much, but I sure loved the submarine. And I still do. There's something just amazing about those devices.

Early photo of Leo in concert
Leo's live recording of "THE FISHERMAN" (from "My Feet Are Smiling," Capitol, 1973) begins with his introduction:

Leo I'm going to demonstrate one of my favorite techniques in this next song. I'm going to take a lovely, simple melody and drive it into the ground.

The instrumental piece is heard in its entirety. As the audience applause fades out at the end of the song, the interview continues:

Otto I wanted to ask you about some of your recordings. One of the things that strikes me, as I listen to your recordings, is the fact that you almost always perform as a solo performer, and yet when you go into the studio, you always bring in other musicians to accompany you. Why the difference?

Leo Mainly because it's lonely in the studio. That's mainly it. If you've got to be locked into a windowless, airless room for twelve hours a day, it's better to have other people in there with you. And you pick people to play with, not so much because of their chops, but more so because of their – you know – personality. If you – you know, could stand to be stuck on a desert island with them – which is what it's like to record – then you can have them in the studio. The other thing is that records in no way bear any resemblance to performance. Even if you record live in the studio, to a two track, and that's it, it's nowhere near the same thing as a performance. So you might as well take advantage of everything that the experience offers. Just for the fun of it. It does, in the end, mean that some of what you do is gonna sound like you've never done it before, because you haven't – and, uh – at the same time that it's a drawback, it can also be an advantage.

Leo's studio recording of "ITCHY" (from "Standing in My Shoes," Private Music, 1997) is heard in its entirety. As it ends, Otto introduces the next segment of the interview:

Otto Kottke's latest album is called "Standing in My Shoes," produced by Leo's longtime friend, David Z., a Minneapolis producer whose earlier work has included projects with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Fine Young Cannibals, and Prince. The title track, like others on the album, is an updated version of a tune that Leo had first recorded much earlier in his career. In fact, over the years, Leo has re-recorded several of his tunes. Why?

Leo To get 'em right, basically. And in this case, in the latest record, it was because those are the tunes that I had, um – Some of them I hadn't yet recorded when I met David Z., which was almost thirty years ago. He was working with Prince, and I was in the same studio, just working with me, and we wanted to make a record together, so we did. It just took us about twenty-eight years. So the material on there is the stuff we would've done then. It's what first caught Dave's ear, and it's uh – so it was really, uh – you know, kind of an obvious choice for us. But the other times that I've done it – and I'll be doing it again on this next record, which I'm working on now, which is just solo guitar – no vocals and no production, um – the other reason to do it is that the tunes change, and so does your attitude, so that they can take on an entirely different character. Sometimes, it's not necessarily an improvement, but sometimes, it is.

Otto What would be an example of a song that you think has improved, and therefore you've redone it?

Leo Well, there's one with the unfortunate title of "Morning Is the Long Way Home," that I recorded first of all as a vocal . . .

Leo playing for the puppy
As Leo begins to respond, the original recording of "MORNING IS THE LONG WAY HOME" (from "Ice Water," Capitol, 1974) begins to fade up behind his voice. Leo continues:

Leo Then, on a greatest hits package that Capitol released, I eliminated the vocal, and kept the break, which turned out to be the best part of the tune anyhow. And the break contains a rhythm section – bass and drums. It had always been an instrumental, but I tacked on the vocal before I recorded the thing the first time, because I thought it fit. I don't anymore. And I don't, anymore, have – and I have never had – a solo recording of what is a solo guitar piece. So I'll probably wind up putting it on this record, and for that reason.

The music fades up to full volume for the duration of the song. When it ends, "THE CREDITS: OUT-TAKES FROM TERRY'S MOVIE" (from "Burnt Lips," Chrysalis, 1978) begins. Otto speaks over the music:

Otto In addition to his albums and concerts, Kottke has written music for several television programs and movie soundtracks. This tune, for example, is called "The Credits: Out-takes From Terry's Movie."

Leo That's Terrence Malick, whose latest movie is "The Thin Red Line." He's a good friend of mine, who I'll talk to once every twenty years or so, and uh – I have a few friends like that. We're very close, but we never speak to each other. Um – I first met Terry when he made "Days of Heaven," fairly close on the heels – considering the way Terry makes movies – on the heels of "Badlands," which was his first movie. And he wanted me to do the entire film, and uh – I refused, which was one of the stupider things that I've done, because I forgot that he had written the movie and directed it, so he knew what belonged there. And I told him that what he had, which was a score by Ennio Morricone, was great, and, he, uh, you know . . . what a jerk! So I kinda backed out. I gave him a little bit of stuff, which worked great in the movie, and then I began to see what he was talking about, so I sent him some more stuff, but that, which is "The Out-Takes From Terry's Movie," was in the wrong direction for him. And I know exactly now what he wanted. He was absolutely right, and I've followed his, uh – his approach, ever since. Well, almost. No! Actually, that's a lie. I haven't yet followed it, but I'd love to follow it, and get his idea of how to score a movie. And, uh, the thing that I sent him, "The Outtakes From Terry's Movie," I think is really nice. I liked it, myself. But it wouldn't have worked, for what he wanted.

The music fades up to full volume for the duration of the piece. When it ends, the interview continues:

Otto Are there recordings that you've made over the years that you wish you hadn't?

Leo Oh, yes! Oh, yeah. Probably, though, the most wincing that I do is over some of the lyrics that I've written in those . . . Early on, I had a bad habit of writing two verses, a bridge, and repeating the first verse – or, chorus, and repeating the first verse. If I could go back now, I'd throw away the repeat, I'd throw away that damn chorus – it was frequently the biggest stinker – and I'd probably eliminate half the words in the first two verses. I just didn't yet have any kind of sensibility for how you did that. And uh – it took me just a very long time to develop any. But I've given up thinking that there are records I wish I could assassinate, because one of those was an album called "Burnt Lips," and when I finished that, I was mortally embarrassed by what I had done. I just thought it sucked, something awful, and uh . . .

Leo on the porch
As Leo speaks, "TWILIGHT TIME" (from "Peculiaroso," Private Music, 1994) begins to fade up behind his voice. He continues:

Leo And by accident, about – well, many years after it came out, maybe a couple of years ago, I put something on a turntable – I was looking for something – and it was that record. And I thought "Aaww, no! God, there's that thing I did!" And then I thought, "Well, no, – that's not too . . ." And then I listened all the way through, and I liked it, and so – which at first, made me very happy, you know, "Oh, good! It's not crap!" But, after a couple of days, I thought "Well, what is it, then? And whose opinion is the right one? The one I had when I made it, or the one I have now?" And, unfortunately, there is no answer to that. So since then, I've had to accept the fact that I literally do this stuff only to make myself happy. And it may not last more than two seconds. And I don't really know, uh, whether even – you know – if it'll last for me. So I've kinda given up on any kind of criticism, certainly, on any level . . . really trusting my own judgement. I don't even go there anymore, which has left me in kind of a funny place . . . sorta confused.

The music ends as Leo finishes speaking, and then "THE OTHER DAY (NEAR SANTA CRUZ)" (from "Great Big Boy," Private Music, 1991) is played in its entirety. As the song ends, part one of the interview comes to a close:

Otto You're listening to an interview with Leo Kottke, recorded February 19th, 1999. I'm Otto Bost. In part two of this interview, we'll hear about Chuck Pink, and about Leo's friendship with John Gorka.

Leo John is one of the very few people . . . who enjoyed my singing.

The broadcast pauses for station identification.

Part two begins with a live recording of "WILLIAM POWELL" (from "Leo Kottke Live," Private Music, 1995). Otto speaks over the opening applause:

Otto Welcome back to part two of an interview with Leo Kottke.

Leo begins the tune, stops, then restarts it, saying:

Leo That's a little fast. I'm going to slow it down.

Once the melody is established, the music fades slightly, and the interview resumes, as the music continues behind it:

Otto Another thing that I noticed about your pieces is you often include people's names in the title of your song. Maybe you can explain some of these things to me. For instance, "William Powell."

Leo Ahh, William Powell! Well, William Powell is certainly well known. He was an actor. He was "The Thin Man," with Myrna Loy. Played a great sort of a controlled drunk and, um – I always was impressed with him, because he became a leading man in Hollywood without a chin. And, you know, any variance from the norm is something I always approve of, whatever the norm is. And, you know, it's – to use his name, it sounds very much to me like something that you hear a lot in bluegrass. You know, there's "Bill Cheatham," for example. And "William Powell" just falls nicely into that kind of slot. "My Aunt Francis" is my aunt Frances, although I misspelled her name, making her male instead of female. "Coolidge Rising" is not President Coolidge, but a friend of mine, who still makes his living selling little glass swans at state fairs – and one of the funniest guys that I know.

The music fades up, continues briefly, then the interview continues as the music fades behind the voices again:

Otto Who's Chuck Pink?

Leo Chuck Pink is a – was a fry cook at Pink's Hot Dogs in Hollywood. Danny – my first manager and I used to go down around three o'clock in the morning and order hot dogs. Chuck Pink looked exactly, and I mean exactly, like Chuck Berry, and had an incendiary temper. The least little thing would send this guy off. So we would go down there, broke as we were, and order a couple of hot dogs – wait a few minutes, and change the order – and watch him blow up. It was cheap entertainment, really.

Leo on stage
The music fades up again, and the remainder of it is heard at full volume. As the track ends with applause, the interview continues:

Otto Tell me about the song "Jack Gets Up."

Leo Ah, that's, uh, that's a song I'm very fond of, for reasons that have almost nothing to do with the tune. I love to play with David Hidalgo. David has a really organic approach to playing. He's very fluent, he's a great musician, but a lot of really good musicians play very intellectually – and I love that, but David includes – or hasn't dropped away from – how to be stupid. He's very happy to be dumb. And I was playing his bajo sexto, which is that low thing you hear in the track, and it's not the way you're supposed to play it. It's actually meant to be sort of like a high hat. It's not – it's a twelve-string, but it's tuned an octave below pitch. It's not – you're not expected to really produce music with it. You're expected to just produce a kind of a clank, with a – with a nod towards pitch. But if you play it properly, and try and support it, it will do what it does on the track . . .

As Leo explains the recording, the introduction to "JACK GETS UP" (from "My Father's Face," Private Music, 1989) begins quietly behind his voice, then fades out as he continues. This process repeats itself a few times, as Leo continues his lengthy explanation:

Leo So I started playing this, as stupid as I could be, and uh, you know – and I mean stupid, in the highest reaches of that term. It can be a compliment. And uh, just a one-four-five thing, because it's what suits that. And I, uh – I went away. I went miles away – and when I caught myself, I kinda came back to the studio – I realized that for several minutes, I'd been gone, and in the interim, I'd been not only stupid, I'd been STUPID. And I looked – I glanced over – at Hidalgo, to see if he was, you know, now sneering at me and getting ready to hit me over the head – and he'd been just as stupid as me for the whole track! He was just goofing around on his lipstick pickup electric guitar that he had – lipstick-tube pickup. And we listened to the song. First of all, that's what I like about the tune, is, you know – when you're supposed to be so productive, and come up with stuff, you can still just lay back and be as, as, you know – dumb as a post, and you can have a ball doing it. And so we listened back to the track, and it had that nice little kinda slop character that it's got, and that great bajo sexto thing, but it didn't – it went absolutely nowhere, so if I wanted to keep it, I had to come up with the lyrics. So I sat down and I just made up a – probably just, uh – improvised the first half of the song. The form found itself. That's actually a traditional – it's a Victorian, fairly Victorian form of poetry. And uh – and then I started to embarrass myself, so I went back to the Howard Johnson's that I was staying in – the Beverly Garland Howard Johnson's – and hit the hay. And the next morning, I woke up, and there was a cigar on the side – you know, on that little head you hit – uh, the table you hit your head on – that Joe Pass had given me. And I'd just been carrying it around, and I would look at it every now and then, and think, you know – "Joe Pass gave me this." My great friend, Joe Pass. That morning I thought, "Aw, hell. I'll smoke it.". I don't smoke cigars that often, and I smoked it, I got sick, and then I came up with the second half of the song. So the first half, when I was feeling well and happy, really sounds kinda morose, but the second half, the next morning, when I was sick as a dog, lifts – and you have the happy ending that's in the tune.

As Leo finishes his explanation, the song's introduction finally fades UP instead of out, and the rest of the song is heard. When the song ends, the interview continues:

Otto You did some recording a few years ago with John Gorka. How did you meet John?

Leo Oh, where did I meet him? I think we met, uh, in the – in some weird little job in Wisconsin. That, uh – it doesn't seem likely, but off the top of my head, that seems to be the first place that we met. And uh – John is one of the very few people who actually tried to, uh – in the beginning – he tells me – who enjoyed my singing, and uh – liked it, and used some of it. Now, I've never heard this, you know. There – there are a couple, I shouldn't say never – but he was the first. And uh, we just kinda hit it off, you know. Like I mentioned earlier, when you're – when you wind up recording, it's not so much because John is Pavarotti, or I'm, uh – Pepe Romero or Joe Pass. It's just 'cause you get along, you know, and you wanna play. It really is just a couple of kids in a sandbox.

Leo standing on stage
A live recording of "CROW RIVER WALTZ" (from "The Best," Capitol, 1976) begins with Leo's introduction:

Leo So, what I'm gonna do is, uh – play a song that – it's a medley. It begins like all my songs, with a lot of tuning.

After a minute or so, the music fades slightly, and continues behind the interview:

Otto When can we expect a new record from you?

Leo I wish I could tell you that. All I know is that I have about half of it recorded, and when I finally get back into the studio, I'll probably re-record that half, and the rest of it will probably take me a day, 'cause it's just me. When the label wants to release it, I don't know. My guess is that it would probably come out in the spring or the summer.

The music fades up, continues briefly, then the interview continues as the music fades behind the voices again:

Otto Do you ever get tired of doing what you do for a living?

Leo No. I do get tired, plenty of times, of running around – the, the travel part of it, just getting to the job. But I actually enjoy performance more now than I ever have. I get more out of it. I do it better than I did in the beginning. And I realize – although I've always known this – I realize more and more what a privilege it is to play. There're so many good players, and there are so many ways to wind up on a stage, and so many ways to be thrown right off of it again, so many mistakes you can make. To be there now, and to be still doing it, is such a combination of luck and, and, uh – events, and – but above all, just, of privilege, you know, uh – that people would allow you to do this. It's really very, uh – heartwarming.

Leo finishes speaking just as the medley fades up and segues into "JESU, JOY OF MAN'S DESIRING", then into "JACK FIG". At the end of the medley, the audience applauds as the broadcast concludes:

Otto You've been listening to an interview with Leo Kottke, recorded February 19th, 1999 at the historic State Theatre in Easton, PA. I'm Otto Bost. Thanks for listening.

Thanks to Mindy Hamilton for her help with transcribing this interview. For a wealth of information about Leo Kottke, visit The Unofficial Leo Kottke Website, or Leo's official leokottke.com website.

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