"H eenh-heenh-heenh-heenh-heeeeennnh. . . ."
It's not often that a musician answers a serious question about the title of his next album with a fiendish, insect-like laugh. Then again, Leo Kottke probably is the only guitar virtuoso who would name an album "Renfield's Laugh," after the hunchback in Bram Stoker's "Dracula."
"Renfield was ol' Dracula's first real stooge," Kottke explained by telephone last week from a hotel in Nashville, a three-day stop on the current tour that brings him to the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Wednesday. The new album is due this summer.
"That laugh of his is an American icon," he continued. "Renfield really gets into it when what's-her-name faints and he sees his first chance at human blood. See, up till then, he's had to make do with eating flies and spiders. So he starts crawling across the floor toward her, and he's going, \o7 'heenh-heenh-heenh-heenh-heeeeennnh . . .'\f7 "
Such off-kilter preoccupations, while they seem to belie his wholesome, cereal-box looks, are not uncommon for Kottke. If he were not already gainfully employed, he could do stand-up comedy or give syndicated columnist Dave Barry a serious challenge in the odd-yuks department. Indeed, one of the reasons people flock to Kottke's concerts is to hear his witty anecdotes and droll, even peculiar, asides.
Kottke's skewed humor is all the more effective because it acts to counterbalance prodigious musical skills. He was proclaimed a lord of the frets with the release of "Six and Twelve-String Guitar" on the independent Takoma label 19 years ago. Since then, Kottke has won numerous awards and readers' polls, and his work is the basis of a course at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.
Specifically, Kottke is a master of the 12-string acoustic guitar--though he also usually totes a six-string model on stage each night--and it doesn't at all minimize his standing to say that his reputation can be attributed in part to his specialization.
Many proficient guitarists don't even attempt to play a 12-string, at least not in public. Kottke, however, has so excelled on the instrument that he has become the musician most closely identified with it. At 45, Kottke routinely sells out concerts, and his albums sell in respectable--if not precious-metal producing--numbers, perhaps because his catholic style places him at a juncture where fans of folk, jazz, New Age instrumental, and adult-pop music converge.
Yet, Kottke's psychology is no less multidimensional than his music. He admits that he's not always a joy-boy and that the disparate tempers represented in his hopscotching, 21-album discography accurately reflect his various moods, even if he's not aware of them.
"I get to find out what I've been up to over the preceding year, emotionally speaking, when I record an album," he said. "For example, when I released 'Burnt Lips' in 1978, people told me it sounded really depressed and dark and gloomy--and I thought I was in a great mood when I made it! But I guess I wasn't. I used to cringe whenever someone claimed that a song can't help but be autobiographical. Now, I feel it is at least partly true."
As he spoke, the sound of a strummed guitar filtered through the receiver. Kottke verified the rumor that he seldom leaves his hotel room while on tour. "I usually don't bring my wife or my manager on the road because they'd just want to sightsee," he said, chuckling. "I don't socialize much; I just sit and play guitar. Not to any particular purpose, mind you; I just noodle around. But I've learned that I need that--if I'm away from a guitar for a couple of days, I really notice it."
Kottke turned fairly serious when discussing the current vogue of using acoustic guitar music on television shows and especially in commercials--a trend that began with the theme to the popular TV series "thirtysomething."
"I sure have noticed it, and I get calls to do it, too," he said. "Sometimes, I do commercials, but I'm learning that what I want to use is rarely what (producers) have in mind. Without mentioning the brand, I came up with some music for an ad that wasn't that terrible country-Muzak drivel they usually use. But they threw it away and hired someone else. Actually, it's a little frightening, 'cause when a particular sound makes its way into advertising, it usually means it's about to die," he added, laughing.
That's not likely to happen to Kottke. "Last year was the busiest I've ever had," he said. "I was out more than 80% of the year, which surprised me, 'cause I was hot in the mid-to-late '70s, and I'm not hot now. And yet, to look at revenue and the amount of time I'm performing, it looks like I'm hotter than I've ever been. That's great, 'cause I love to play, and I've always preferred touring to recording. I like to go places."