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Nels Cline: Intrepid Guitarist

By Published: August 19, 2004
Destroy All Nels Cline

Like many writers, Cline does most of his composing in preparation for specific projects, and with the specific musicians in mind. Possibly his most ambitious project to date is Destroy All Nels Cline , with Woodward Lee Aplanalp, Cline, and G.E. Stinson on electric guitars, Carla Bozulich on electric guitar and sampling keyboard, Bob Mair, from his first trio, on electric bass and guitar, Alex Cline on drums and percussion and, on certain tracks, Wayne Peet on clarinet and "fake" mellotron and Zeena Parkins on electric Harp. " Destroy All Nels Cline was never conceived as a working band," says Cline, "even though we did do, I think, four gigs. Two of them were opening for rock bands, one was Sonic Youth the other was Fugazi. It didn't scare the Sonic Youth audience, people loved it, that's really the best audience I could ever play for, it's the best audience I could ever imagine, but Fugazi's audience was quite divided.

"Basically I was going through personal hell at the time," continues Cline, "and I wanted to do something with my best friends and with multiple guitars. So I just formed a band and the idea was not only to investigate layered guitars and all the potential hazards and joys, but to write pieces that were, for the most part, purely for my own enjoyment; they were all written with everyone in mind, but they're almost all specifically cathartic and specifically over the top in a way that I still find rewarding when I listen to it. It still takes me to this place, it accomplishes something for me, emotionally and aesthetically, that very few things do, even in other peoples' music. So it was created to strike nerves and it does; I think that we succeeded. And when Wayne and Zeena came in as added people on a few tracks they upped the ante even further, and Wayne really honed it at home in his studio and turned it into something I think that really maximized its impact. It's supposed to have an impact, and for me I think it does."

Instrumentals and The Giant Pin

The material on Instrumentals and The Giant Pin is equally written with the trio members in mind. "The first piece on Instrumentals , 'A Mug Like Mine,' is just an excuse," says Cline. "All of our pieces are just excuses to interact. And so that's what that is, it's just a very Paul Motian-esque kind of linear thing, a Coltrane-y thing, that's very sparsely mapped out, and we just go off and everyone gets a solo bit, you know, whereas something like 'Slipped Away,' which is the concluding ballad, was written purely for my own enjoyment, but also with the knowledge that these guys, who'd played behind a million singers and whatever, would just play a slow groove and play with Zen-like simplicity, and that's what it takes to play that kind of song. I was writing with my own enjoyment in mind and yet also thinking about them and their abilities.

"I knew that with Scott, for example, I could write a groove tune, if I wanted," Cline continues. "I couldn't do that in my old trio. So, for example, 'Ghost of the Pinata' was an idea I got while listening to an Elliott Sharp gig at Tonic, and he was playing with rhythm machines, but there was this weird kind of highlife groove that he had going, and for some reason I got the idea of a house groove in six, and then it ended up being this kind of jingly jangly thing. It's not a generic sound at all; but I knew that it was something Scott could do."

"Blues, Too," which opens up The Giant Pin , is meant as an homage of sorts to Jim Hall, but with a distinctly Cline-like bent. "The line is a Jim Hall thing," Cline says, "but the rest of the piece is freely improvised, which I think comes more out of the Jimmy Giuffre Three, at least in my mind. It was written a million years ago, pre-Singers, probably when I had an earlier version of my first trio, but it was not a piece that we could effectively play, it was the wrong rhythm section, so it lay dormant, waiting for the right individuals to play it and the thing that delights me, in retrospect, about the recorded version of that song, is that what sounds like a little coda at the end, before we recap the head, is completely improvised. It sounds like a little written tasteful chord moment, like a turnaround back, but it's completely improvised. And it's also less than four minutes long, which is kind of a bizarre achievement for me."

As time has gone on, The Nels Cline Singers has incorporated more of Scott Amendola's live electronics as well. "We started involving more of Scott's electronics," Cline says, "so it's been fun to try to write more with that in mind, to really enable Scott to go off with it. Because when I met him he was working on it but nobody would let him bring it to the gigs, which just spurred me on further to say, 'Bring everything ! Bring it all !' So that's been a pleasure."

And with The Giant Pin Cline, once again, follows his own heart and chooses what simply feels right. "With the last piece on the record, 'Watch Over Us,' says Cline, "like 'Slipped Away' on Instrumentals , ending with another ballad, I went through a thing where I was wondering, 'Am I going to do this again ' and then I thought, 'I don't care, this is exactly how I want to end the record,' and that piece is another thing basically written for my own fascistic world. Having Jon Brion come in and play celeste and harmonium and having Devon and Scott play—I mean, we don't use click tracks or anything, you can't put a click to it, it's all over the place, but it grooves in a nice dirge-like manner—these pieces are ultimately satisfying for me as a listener, they're written as pieces that I think are nice to listen to. I think that while the band chemistry has evolved further on this record, the compositional mix is the same as it is on most of my records, but I love the recorded sound that [engineer] Rich Breen got, I think it's way better than Instrumentals , where we had some trouble with the studio. We went to a better studio this time; it was more comfortable for everybody, and once again finished in record time, it was really productive. I think this and perhaps Destroy All Nels Cline are my favorite to listen to, when I actually listen to my own records every once in a while; these are the two that I tend to gravitate towards."

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