The Leo Kottke Connection

Photo by Tom Berthiaume




Pickin' & grinnin'
Singer Lyle Lovett and guitarist Leo Kottke have shared a stage, a tour bus and a cockeyed view of the world. We eavesdropped on a telephone chat between the longtime friends.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune
by Jonathan Bream


A paparazzo with a video camera was waiting when Lyle Lovett and Leo Kottke walked out of a Los Angeles restaurant recently. Lovett was accustomed to it, but Kottke couldn't believe this fellow with the camera and floodlight stuck in Lovett's face would persist for so long. Finally, Kottke stepped in front of Lovett, blocking the photographer. "Thanks," Lovett said softly.
    That's what friends are for.
    Even though the Minnesota guitarist and the Texas singer see each other only once or twice a year, they talk on the phone every few weeks. They've been buddies since Lovett opened for Kottke in a Dallas folk club in 1985. In 1989, they toured together, with Kottke riding on the bus with Lovett and His Large Band. They've also recorded on each other's albums.
    Three times Kottke has performed unadvertised at Lovett's Twin Cities concerts. He "threatens" to show up for Lovett's show Sunday if his plane arrives in time, but Lovett won't be present when Kottke plays a week later.
    This week, the Star Tribune hooked up the friends on the phone, steering the conversation to such important topics as Kottke's voice, Lovett's hair and movie roles for the Minnesotan.

ST: Conventional wisdom is that radio airplay promotes an artist's concert career. How have you managed to maintain successful careers with limited radio airplay?

Kottke: My radio exposure is much more limited than Lyle's. I'm just convinced that there are two music industries, one of them is performance and the other is records.
    I think records influence {concert} promoters more than influence the audience or the marketplace. At least at the level I'm at, airplay has become not nearly so important.

Lovett: I agree wholeheartedly. We've worked pretty much nonstop since my record came out {"Road to Ensenada," released in June}. It was important for me to come back to play my own shows in the markets where we played this summer opening for Sting. I think getting out and playing to the people that support you is an important thing. You're playing to your real audience that way. If you rely on radio, they may come for just a song or two.

ST: Lyle, if Leo were a member of your Large Band, how would you use him?

Lovett: If Leo were in the Large Band, I would just sing and fire everybody else. Just let Leo be the whole band.

Kottke: What a politic response. That's proof that Lyle works frequently with a lot of players. I remember talking about this on the bus, about how well everybody got along. That's not usual. {On most tours} there's always at least one feud on a daily basis, or permanently. I never detected anything like that. At one point - and this really astonished me - Lyle's folks came on the bus. And I thought now I' m going to see some soap opera. And it was just more of the same. They had a wonderful time. So did I.

ST: Leo, what is it like for you to be a sideman in Lyle's band?

Kottke: I love to do it because it's so terrifying. It's always brand new for me. I play by myself all the time unless it's in the studio, and frequently that's with people that I've known for a long time. So I've walked out on those things {with Lyle} and it's always a challenge. I don't use {sound} monitors and everybody else on earth does, and I have to kind of adjust to that, which in my case means plugging my ears because I can't handle the {volume} level; that's not because it's loud - it's because of what I did to my ears in the Navy {damage from firing guns}.
    So I'm up there and I'm not hearing too well 'cause my ears are plugged and I'm trying to make sure I fit the form. It takes me a while. Once we go through a couple of tunes, I kind of find my pocket. It is a totally different way to play. You can't just walk out and be yourself. You have to find out how to be in that. It's something I'm pretty sure I haven't done yet.

Lovett: To me, Leo always makes the right contribution. To me, Leo is never a sideman because his playing is so distinctive that it always comes through as Leo.

ST: Lyle, 20-some years ago Leo described his voice as "sounding like geese farts on a muggy day." Do you think you could come up with a new description?

Lovett: Leo is a great singer. He's strictly painted himself into this corner of not being considered a vocalist. I think it's that self-deprecating humor. He plays down his own singing when in fact people are attracted to his singing.

Kottke: I have to say that I like it myself now. I really wished I'd called it something else.

Lovett: Geese farts on a sunny day.

Kottke: There's an improvement.

ST: Speaking of vocals, did either of you sing in school choirs?

Lovett: Being in the choir in a parochial school was a horrifying experience, really. Because they'd line us up against the wall in the classroom and the teacher would play something on the piano and we were all singing along, and then the choir director would bend down and put his ear next to your mouth and see if you were singing in tune. You were either in choir or study hall.

ST: Which one were you in?

Lovett: I made the choir. I would like to have been in study hall.

Kottke: I was in the school choir for a while. The choir director told me I was a tenor. And my voice had changed. I was trying to sing tenor parts and really hurting myself. It was very noticeable that I was hurting myself and I got moved.

ST: Lyle, Leo needs a consultation on a proposed title for the album he just finished in Nashville with producer David Z. He's an old friend of Leo's from Minneapolis. What are the proposed titles, Leo?

Kottke: One is "High Strung" and the other is "Living in the Apodictic."

Lovett: Let me guess which one you're leaning towards. "Living in the Apodictic." Your title is the one. What does it mean, Leo?

Kottke: To me, the meaning is irrelevant. As in a logical proposition, it means something that's demonstrably true or necessarily true. It's an adjective.

Lovett: It's a great title.

Kottke: The reason it happened is one of my favorite writers, Janet Frame, actually one of my favorite paragraphers - she writes great paragraphs, I can't say as much for the whole novel - has a book called "Living in the Maniototo," which is an area in New Zealand. I always liked the title.

Lovett: Leo is so literate, he's so smart. He has references for everything.

ST: Leo, have you ever seen Lyle's hair out of place?

Kottke: I've seen it change. It has a mind of its own sometimes. There's a Michael Wilson picture - a real early one of Lyle Lovett - that sums up that whole look. I wish I had a copy of it. I think it's the best the hair has ever been.

ST: Lyle, what's the funniest thing you've witnessed Leo do?

Lovett: I do think of this photograph that we have of Leo climbing into his top bunk on the bus. Somehow, his rear end and his head were both poking through the curtain of his bunk at the same time, I don't know how he did it; it was sort of half in and half out.

ST: Leo, what's the funniest thing you've witnessed Lyle do?

Kottke: The last time Lyle was in town we sat out in the bus and Lyle had just gotten a couple new bikes {motorcycles}. And he was sitting there in his motorcycle helmet. There's something about Lyle in a motorcycle helmet when you've never seen him in one before that I couldn't handle.
    And he asked me, I think he was coming down with a cold or flu, and I recommended echinacea {an herbal product}to you. And you said, "Do you believe in that?" And it came from a head in a motorcycle helmet and it had a kind of oracular sort of gloom about it, and it stopped me in my tracks.

ST: Lyle, you've been in a few Robert Altman films. If he were making a new one, what would be a good part for Leo?

Lovett: Altman would do very well to do "The Leo Kottke Story." Start on a submarine in the Navy.

Kottke: There were some Altmanesque moments there. I think without me in it there are some Altmanesque moments in the Navy.


Lyle Lovett
- Age: 39
- Residence: Klein, Texas
- First album: "Lyle Lovett," 1986
- Current album: "Road to Ensenada"
- Has recorded duets with: Al Green, Randy Newman
- A claim to fame: Has acted in a few Robert Altman films, including "The Player."

Leo Kottke
- Age: 51 - Residence: Wayzata
- First album: "6 and 12 String Guitar," 1969 (reissued in '96)
- Current album: "Leo Live"
- Has recorded duets with: Emmylou Harris, Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos
- A claim to fame: Voted best acoustic guitarist five consecutive years by Guitar magazine.

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