When Glenn Kotche first got to Brazil in 2005, he felt a little out of place. Wilco‘s drumming dynamo and a composer in his own right, Kotche was in Salvador, on the country’s eastern coast, with bassist Darin Gray – his partner in the duo On Fillmore – playing at Perc Pan Festival alongside the likes of Congolese junkyard ensemble Konono No. 1, a Tanzanian rapper, a Gypsy brass band and numerous other Brazilian ensembles.
“Playing as a duo, we were doing a lot of stuff where I was doing vibraphone and Darin was on bass while also cueing all these field recordings and backing tracks on MiniDiscs,” Kotche tells Rolling Stone. “It was a meticulously scripted set and it was a lot of stress and a lot of thinking. And then when we got there, we saw all these people just playing and having fun, so Darin and I ditched the cerebral side and went more for the emotional side.”
When On Fillmore were invited back to Brazil in December 2013, they decided to capture that laid-back approach in the studio, resulting in their vibrant and expansive new album, Happiness of Living.
“Brazil is of course a very special place to On Fillmore,” Gray says. “Our last two albums are a direct result of our time spent there. For us, Brazil is much more than a country; it’s really this core group of close friends we have down there.”
Specifically, the duo forged a close bond with freewheeling Brazilian ensemble the +2 collective, a trio featuring Alexandre Kassin, Domenico Lancelotti and Moreno Veloso (son of Tropicália legend Caetano Veloso). And while previous On Fillmore albums focused solely on the rhythmic interplay between Kotche and Gray, on Happiness, the pair explodes that dynamic in favor of a moveable feast featuring the likes of the +2, Atoms for Peace and Red Hot Chili Peppers percussionist Mauro Refosco, and Brazilian-American singer-songwriter Gabriela Riley, whose stunning vocals are the first to appear on one of the project’s albums.
The album careens from pleasure to pleasure, ranging from the spacey drum-circle blips that power “Ilusionismo da Arvore da Cerebraçao” to the bossa nova–meets-crickets lilt of “Cave Crickets” and the queasy calm of closer “Despidida Suspensa.”
For longtime Wilco fans, On Fillmore has always been a bit of an enigma. Kotche and Gray met in 1999 during Chicago’s post-rock heyday, with Kotche drumming for Jim O’Rourke while Gray played in one of O’Rourke’s side bands, Brise-Glace. The two formally met during a studio session and soon became O’Rourke’s touring backup band. During a layover in Miami, the tandem envisioned a project that eschewed guitar and vocals entirely and On Fillmore was born.
But then Jeff Tweedy came a-courting. “Soon after On Fillmore started, I joined Wilco and was busy touring,” says Kotche. “And then I started having children.” The collaboration was further tested by the fact that Gray resided in St. Louis, making band practice all but impossible. “We traded tapes back and forth, phone-talked until our ears were red, emailed, sent faxes, really whatever we could do to just keep in communication,” Gray explains. Years later, Gray became a member of the Wilco frontman’s side project Tweedy, creating a situation that Kotche explains as “when I’m on the road, he’s home, and when he’s on the road, I’m home. It’s not conducive for a traditional band, but it keeps things interesting for us.”
That separation, and the fact that both musicians were constantly on the move, fed into On Fillmore. On the duo’s early albums, both musicians employed field recordings to suggest specific sonic spaces. “Early on we realized that we were creating non-specific ‘places,’ rather than traditional songs or pieces, places where our imaginations could flourish,” Gray says. “What would happen if we added this recording of my backyard to this melody? What if we pushed a tape of my dog snoring against this bass line?”
On the duo’s last album, 2009’s Extended Vacation, they utilized more field recordings in an attempt to concoct what Kotche called an “imaginary place,” but Happiness is about an actual location, the result of the duo being invited back to Brazil. “Brazilian culture is very laid-back and we heard music everywhere we went, drumming everywhere,” Kotche says. That freewheeling openness is what the two decided to try and capture to tape.
This meant doing away with the strict duo format and opening themselves to any and all possibilities across four days in the studio. So when Guillereme Valerio, the brother of their Sao Paulo promoter, mentioned that he came up with a song, it became the drum-furious and curiously poppy “Jornada Inteira.” Right before On Fillmore was set to head down to Brazil for a second time, Kotche ran into Mauro Refosco backstage at Austin City Limits Festival. “As we were talking, Refosco said his band was also going to be in Rio recording with the same guy,” the drummer explains. “And it was then that we realized we were double-booked!” No matter: They just brought Refosco and his bandmates into the mix as well.
“It felt really natural to incorporate others into the making of Happiness of Living,” Gray says. “It’s hard to put into words just what it is, this deep connection we feel with our friends down there, but it is very similar to the feeling of when Glenn and I first met in the studio recording with Jim O’Rourke.”
For Kotche, the duo’s freeform Brazilian adventure resulted in one of the few albums he’s been part of that he continues to return to and delight in. “We were open to any idea and didn’t want to prevent anything magical from happening,” Kotche says of the process that made the title of Happiness of Living an actuality. “We just wanted to convey the joy we had making it.”