Picking the Picker's Brain

An interview with music legend Leo Kottke.

For the last 35 years, Leo Kottke has been considered one of the most talented and innovative guitarists around. His most recent album, Sixty-Six Steps, recorded with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, explores the calypso rhythms of the Caribbean Islands. Kottke, who once called his singing voice “geese farts on a foggy day,” is also known for his quirky humor, and at his Valentine’s Day show at the Emerson Cultural Center this year he entertained the sell-out crowd with his stream-of-consciousness ramblings as well as with his finger picking. Recently, Outside Bozeman conducted an interview with the music legend.

Outside Bozeman: Regarding your tour stops, which include Missoula, MT, Bellingham, WA and Berkeley, CA, do you enjoy playing smaller college-oriented cities, as opposed to a metropolis like LA? Is there something about the culture of a college town such as Bozeman that draws you?

Leo Kottke: I decided a few years ago to play some secondary markets. Smaller, harder-to-get-to towns. It gets me out of the rut of touring—I get to see some new places, some pretty interesting halls. For myself, I prefer a big city, hydrocarbons, and a heavy duty pair of earplugs for the traffic. I feel more at home there.

O/B: Bozeman residents take pride in their town’s reputation as one of the best places to live in the nation. Do you have any humorous anecdotes or otherwise interesting memories of Bozeman that you could share?

LK: There's a guy in Bozeman who wrote a book about building an Indian, a vintage motorcycle [Fred Haefele’s Rebuilding the Indian]. I loved the book. And it says a lot about the town that he lives there, although he never mentions it in the book. But mainly I just love to play. There's only one place I won't play, it's in Bloomington, Indiana, and it's because of the dressing room. When I'm dying I'll see that dressing room.

O/B: Is there a certain occurrence or type of experience in general that has inspired your songs more than others?

LK: Yes, an E chord. That was it. My first chord, my first sound on the guitar, and I feel it everyday.

O/B: Do you find that nature in any way inspires your work, explicitly or implicitly?

LK: No, I don't think so. Grief helps, or the guitar itself. The guitar is a way to get free. I tend to be a big fan of the indoors. But I do remember watching a gopher for half an hour. It never moved more than a foot from its hole. It also erased my mind.

O/B: Are you much of an outdoors person?

LK: Well, I dive when I can. So when I go outdoors I get underwater. Even a bathtub helps, but the ocean is better. I love the silence, and the light.

O/B: Do you ski?

LK: I don't ski. Threatens the arms.

O/B: Do you take interest in environmental issues?

LK: My cousin works with Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev on environmental issues. He's an environmentalist on a global scale, his main job being the engineering of a rapprochement between the various environmental groups, and the drafting of agreements that many countries can agree on. For him the immediate threat is factory farming. For me, it's just the thought of styrofoam filling the Pacific vortex... there's plenty of it there.

O/B: Your work with Mike Gordon has shown that at the age of 60 you’re enthusiastic about exploring new areas in music. What does recording something as unique as a Caribbean-tinged cover of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” indicate about your current musical direction?

LK: I don't think I've ever had a direction. I think I sit here like a toad, wherever "here" is, and wait for the flies to come by. Mike is not a fly, I should say, but ideas are.



When the after-party is over and the tour bus doesn’t leave for another day, musicians surely need a breath of Bozeman’s fresh air. Here’s what they do while they’re in town, according to those in the know:

“Skiing… and snowboarding, in the winter.”
-Laura at the Baxter

“Rafting, kayaking, or floating… anything with a river, since it’s easy to do in one day.”
-Aaron at Cactus Records

“Sleigh rides.”
-unidentified man at the Filling Station bar

“Definitely skiing. I just took this DJ from Brooklyn skiing for the first time–he was all about it, and he actually wasn’t that bad.”
-Arron at the Zebra


Down-home Music

The local-band scene is humming in Bozeman, and it’s only getting better. But you don’t have to go to a crowded club to see the same old thing; there are more venues and music choices than ever before.

One great place to check out the local music scene is the Pine Creek Lodge and Cafe in Livingston. This seemingly podunk cafe is actually a top-notch restaurant and bar that hosts great bands nearly every weekend. And nearly every genre is represented during March and April alone: rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, swing, country, folk, R&B, blues, jazz, and “hippie rock.” Pine Creek also hosts book and poetry readings.

Porterhouse Productions is also due some credit for the growing success of the area’s music scene. The folks at Porterhouse put together some supercool shows and bring in big-name groups to Bozeman and other places in the Northern Rockies area.

The folks at Pine Creek Cafe and at Porterhouse Productions are proof that even we small-town folk are ambitious and professional enough to bring big-time entertainment to the eager public.

Pine Creek Lodge & Cafe
2496 East River Road, Livingston

Porterhouse Productions
111 South Grand, Suite 219

-Tina Orem