Nels Cline: Intrepid Guitarist
Much of this has to do with Cline growing up in the '60s and early '70s, when there seemed to be fewer rules and the music industry had yet to become so directly involved in defining what was heard. "The sort of Catholic booking policy of one evening," explains Cline, "the fact that hippies liked blues, they liked gospel, they liked folk, and so they mixed it all up, that's how you got those great stories of Miles Davis opening for Laura Nyro at the Fillmore; I meant it's crazy, you can't imagine that kind of stuff now. Audiences wouldn't be able to handle it. I think the best part about that, whether it was all great music or not, was that the audience was really patient, and the bands were patient enough with the process of their own music making to take the time and cast about. It's so cut to the chase everywhere these days; it's not as exciting to have shows where everything is so predefined."
The Left Coast Scene
Musical Resonance and Musical Audacity
The Nels Cline Singers
Destroy All Nels Cline
Instrumentals and The Giant Pin
Cryptogramophone, The Scene and The Future
While Cline continues to pursue a variety of avenues these days, and still maintains a solo career with his trio The Nels Cline Singers, he spends most of his time touring with the alternative group Wilco. When Cline joined Wilco a few months back some people were surprised at the move, but in context of Cline's voracious musical appetites, it should come as no surprise at all. And while there has been some misrepresentation of Cline's role in the group, he is clear that this is not a case of being merely a touring guitarist; this is the beginning of a longer-term relationship. "I was in a rock band called The Geraldine Fibbers in L.A.," Cline says, "which is how I met my sweetheart, Carla Bozulich. We were opening for a band called Golden Smog, which was guys from Wilco, The Jayhawks, and Run Westy Run, doing a side project of cover songs. They were doing a couple weeks tour in the Midwest and we went out opening for them. The Fibbers kind of cottoned to Jeff Tweedy, although I honestly didn't give a damn about what any of them were doing except that they had great taste in cover songs, and I felt that Gary, the guitarist from The Jayhawks, had a great guitar thing, and Jeff obviously had this weird kind of point of view, this charisma about his singer/songwriter personality, but it wasn't really my thing.
"But Carla kept in touch with Jeff," Cline continues, "and, as I've discovered, Jeff was keeping in touch with what I was up to, buying my records and listening to my playing, which he really liked. So Carla opened for Wilco on some shows last year, and I was in the band, we all re-established connections and when Leroy Bach left, Glen Kotche, the drummer, and Jeff thought, 'What if?' So they called me up and, as mercenary as it may sound, I was about to get a day job. I was completely at my wits end, working constantly but not making enough money to pay my bills, driving up and down the coast, not making any money in spite of the fact that I was constantly working.
"I'd turned down a lot of things in the past that could have been lucrative," concludes Cline, "but that just weren't interesting, but Wilco is a band that, to me, has become much more popular as they've become much more interesting. Jeff called Carla to see if it was OK to ask me to join, because I'd been playing with her. She knew I was probably going to have to do this because it was going to actually be a living and not be horrible. She probably half expected me to turn it down because I was always turning down things that would have made money but that I didn't think were interesting. Anyway, I said yes to Jeff and, frankly, it's been a blast."
Watching Cline onstage with Wilco, there's absolutely nothing paradoxical about his being there. While his role is supportive, he still gets his opportunities to stretch out and wail, albeit in a more "rock and roll" context. "I think the reason somebody like me is good for the job is that I really want to fit into the orchestra," Cline explains. "They're a very orchestral band. I just kind of range through their earlier material, because it's more singer/songwriter oriented, but the new material is very specific, I'm playing very specific parts every night. And then I have moments where I get to go off, but you know they're rock band moments, just a few seconds here and there. But it's rewarding because the music is so expressive and it's so wide-ranging stylistically.
"I also think the band is very disciplined in the way that it approaches being an orchestral type of band," Cline continues, "yet there's a certain degree of freedom. In that way it's not unlike groups like The Band, where there's constant riffing going on, tight and loose at the same time. And the funny thing is that during these shows, everybody thinks the band is so unbelievably tight , and I think it's because it's disciplined dynamically. Everyone knows when not to play. But while I have some freedom I also like to be part of something that seems ultimately meaningful. I hate to be just wiggling my fingers all the time. Some people are perplexed, other people think it was an obvious progression, others are completely mystified. Some people really hate the idea of successful bands; other people hate the idea of bands in general. Other people hate the idea of chords. For every person there's something that's potentially taboo. I don't have these boundaries, and yet it has been difficult not to play with Carla, and to not do as much of my own music. But I haven't been able to afford to do my music for a couple of years anyway; I was losing a lot of money and creating an inordinate amount of stress.
"Jeff's feeling is he wants this to go on for ten years," concludes Cline. "I think that the band chemistry is really excellent, I'm really curious what the writing process will turn into, and I think that Jeff wants to get to that sooner than he'll be able to, because it's all about shilling for the new record, A Ghost is Born ,which was totally done before I joined. I saw some stuff in the press, the other day, where I was referred to as "touring guitarist," but that's an assumption, that was never the assignment."
And there's no question that, while Cline is required to fit into a certain amount of predefinition with Wilco, he is bringing his own personality to the band, and causing things to change. "Jeff's a really sharp guy," says Cline, "and he's concerned that the emphasis of the band will be too much touring and constantly playing the same songs, so I think he's trying to figure out how to lighten up. I overheard him say that the recorded versions of some of these songs seem very outmoded now. The thing that's happened, from my standpoint, is that the starkness of some of the tunes is perhaps even starker and the tunes that rock are ramped up, they're ramped way up now. And Jeff's really inspired onstage these days." class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...
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 immediatelyI 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 hotso 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.
|Nels Cline Singers: (L-R) Devin Hoff, Scott Amendola, Nels Cline|