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Nels Cline: Intrepid Guitarist

By Published: August 19, 2004
Influential Recordings

Cline's breadth of style is reflected in the albums that he cites as influential, albums that date back to his growing up days, but extend well into his adult years. "Certainly Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds would be the first one," says Cline. "I was ten years old and my twin brother [percussionist] Alex and I were hanging out with these n'er do wells who would sit around their apartment unsupervised, their father was never home, and we'd smoke cigarettes and listen to Turn, Turn, Turn. Somehow it was a ritual, and I became enchanted by the whole vocal sound, the guitar sounds, everything, so The Byrds were my first big inspiration. My brother was really obsessed with The Rolling Stones, they were his band, and The Byrds were my band, you know with the twin thing one would define one's self by predilections, trying to be an individual. But of course, as a result, I did hear a lot of Stones and also absorbed all of that. I'm particularly fond of Their Satanic Majesties Request , and still listen to it to this day; in fact I went through a phase over the last year where I revisited it extensively.

"The next big record would have been Are You Experienced , by The Jimi Hendrix Experience," continues Cline. "Just to explain, my brother and I were obsessed with rock and roll after we were about eleven years old, it would take us two weeks to save up our allowance to buy a record and we'd just go and spend it on records, it was the only thing we spent our money on. Our friends stopped talking to us because we didn't want to go bowling anymore, play football after school or whatever. In those days there was no FM underground radio quite yet, at least that we could pick up in L.A. But this was an incredibly exciting time for music; this was when The Yardbirds were happening. 'Happenings Ten Years Time Ago' was on the radio, which was transformational in the extreme, really exciting stuff.

So when Are You Experienced came out we just knew by the cover that it was going to be the coolest record ever," Cline continues. "But we had bought a lot of records thinking that they'd be cool because of how they'd looked, and were severely burned, so somehow I had held off, same went for my brother. Anyway, one day we heard 'Manic Depression' on WKHJ, the top 30 radio station, AM, which is still a mystery to me because it wasn't the single, 'Purple Haze' was the single, and we knew immediately—I remember it so well because we were listening to it on the hi fi in the back room of my folks' house, and as soon as it came on, the sound of the voice we just knew the record, and the sound of 'Manic Depression' pretty much was right up there with 'Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,' 'I am the Walrus,' it was absolutely mind-expanding, transformational music making. So that was big, so of course I went out and bought the record as soon as possible, and then frankly, Axis: Bold as Love I liked even better as an album, then everything— Electric Ladyland , Cry of Love , War Heroes , all became huge records."

In terms of jazz, the first artist to make a big impression on Cline was John Coltrane. "Then there was 'Africa,' by John Coltrane," Cline explains, "which was the big 'ah-ha' experience. After junior high a friend of ours loaned my brother Coltrane's Greatest Years Volume One , which he had bought for his dad's birthday. His dad was this Bohemian poet, and he thought Alex would like it because he liked all this Frank Zappa stuff that was instrumental. And we heard 'Africa' and we were just absolutely devastated, we didn't know what to do or what to think anymore. The whole world changed that day, seriously, it's insane, and I've tried extensively to explain what was the attraction to that piece, and the mystery of the sound of that tenor saxophone. There were no electric instruments anywhere on that album, no guitar, and here we were just mesmerized. That was big, and it led to me buying as many Coltrane records on the Impulse! Label as I could get and gradually working my way back into Atlantic and Blue Note and Prestige.

"Paul Bley then became really huge for me," Cline continues. It was the Open to Love record that I think attracted me, then I went back and heard the trios with Gary Peacock and Barry Altschul, and then also Paul Motian and Mark Levinson and all the different trios. The Rambling record, Blood and Ballads , with Gary Peacock, all those records; I became a complete Paul Bley obsessive. I got this huge crush on Carla Bley around the same time, and started listening to a lot of her stuff —my God, she was so hot—so Paul Bley became, strangely, really, really important to me and the ballads that Annette Peacock wrote, those free-floating, really dark amorphous ballads, became a kind of paradigm where I was thinking about it as an ultimate kind of way of making music and I was trying to figure out how to imitate that feeling with a guitar trio, which I still do on almost every record."

With complete voraciousness, and total abandon, Cline soaked up everything he could from as many different sources as possible, and does so even to this day. " Marquis Moon by Television was huge," Cline explains, " Bad Moon Rising by Sonic Youth was massive. I'd heard their first record when it came out, the one just called Sonic Youth on Neutral, but I wasn't really blown away by it; it was when I heard Confusion is Sex at the record store, at Rhino where I was working for years, and it really snagged me, but then when Bad Moon Rising came out I became a full-on obsessive. I've missed barely a show since those days. I just saw them in L.A. a couple of weeks ago. And of course we've become friends over the years and I've recorded with some of those people. Those were important records.

"Patti Smith's first record, Horses was also really important," Cline continues, "I started getting more interested in rock and roll again. Oh, I forgot some of the most important records of my junior high school years, the first three Allman Brothers Band records. When underground radio started up, WKPPC in Pasadena, we could barely get it in West L.A., but one day, before it came out they played the first Allman Brothers record, an advanced pressing, and that was it, I knew I'd found my holy grail of bluesy, jazzy, tasty, dark; the perfect band.

"I used to love Johnny Winter," concludes Cline, "especially that album Second Winter , my favorite. I was also way into Traffic, the second one just called Traffic , and John Barleycorn Must Die , those were huge. Neil Young; I was fourteen and I wanted to be Neil Young, which was a hard task, because nobody could be that cool; at the time, I thought he was the coolest. Because an outgrowth of my interest and love for The Byrds was Buffalo Springfield, that led me to Stephen Stills, who is still one of my favorite singers and guitarists, but also, sadly, one of the biggest disappointments, he lost it so early, but still when I hear those guitar fills on 'Wooden Ships'; playing with Wilco has actually made me revisit a lot of that music that was incredibly seminal for me."

And, of course, the allure of the early fusion bands was not lost on Cline, including Weather Report's self-titled debut, Live in Tokyo and I Sing the Body Electric. Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band, in particular Crossings , was influential, as were a number of Miles Davis records including Bitches Brew , Live/Evil and Big Fun. "My brother bought the first Mahavishnu Orchestra album when it came out," says Cline, "but that was his obsession. And I saw them live and of course they were devastating, it was like having all your body hair singed off in one fell swoop, it was just so scary in a way. But for me, a lot of that music just doesn't hold up now, I hate to say it; it's no disrespect, that music was important."

Equally important to Cline were seminal albums in the ECM catalogue, including John Abercrombie's solo disk, Characters. And Ralph Towner's work in and out of the genre-bending group Oregon would have a monumental and lasting effect on Cline, greatly informing his work with the similarly acoustic-natured group, Quartet Music. But the huge diversity in his musical tastes would sometimes create a palpable dilemma for Cline. "I really think that when I started my first trio in 1989," Cline says, "the first group I ever led was also the first time I ever confronted what had been an almost debilitating mental dichotomy between jazz and rock, between soft and loud, acoustic and electric, all these things, which were at war in my inner being for my entire adult life. It was so upsetting that I almost quit music, I just couldn't handle it anymore, I didn't know what to do, I wasn't happy with electric guitar for a long time because I didn't know what to do with it, that's why the acoustic guitar emerged as more satisfactory to me. So when I started my trio the idea was that I just didn't care, I'd do things that I felt like doing."

And doing what he feels like doing Cline is just as inclined to play in a rock group as he is a more straightforward jazz context or, in the case of his own work, some strange kind of blend of the two. "There's a certain place I like to go to when I'm playing, says Cline, "and that's why I like to play in rock bands, because I can usually get there faster. It has to do with complete immersion, a certain kind of lack of dignity if you will. One of the reasons I played in rock bands for years after playing with Quartet Music for so long, was because I was tired of people just sitting down and listening. Before that, all I wanted to do was to play for people who would sit down and listen because nobody was listening. So I think that it's not just my personality, but also inherent in the instrument, that I can go into a lot of different domains, and it has been interesting to lead almost a double life. For example, playing with Bobby Bradford; I mean I'd do gigs once in a blue moon with Dr. Art Davis, I mean they had no idea what I was doing with Mike Watt or with The Geraldine Fibbers; yet some of the rock people are actually interested in my jazz life, especially now. But nobody knows who Vinny Golia is, and I've been playing with the guy for twenty-seven years. My idea is that if somebody ever comes to my music, that it adds up to something kind of intriguing and maybe there is some weird kind of consistency that emerges. But it's definitely not going to be obvious."

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