Nels Cline: Intrepid Guitarist
"I used to love Johnny Winter," concludes Cline, "especially that album Second Winter , my favourite. 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 favourite 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." class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...
Over the past twenty-five years, through associations with Vinny Golia, Cryptogramophone Label owner and violinist Jeff Gauthier, his own brother Alex, and a host of others including Wayne Peet, Steuart Leibig and G.E. Stinson, Cline's name has become synonymous with the more avante-leaning west coast jazz movement, the so-called Left Coast scene. And while people are quick to look for defining characteristics of that scene, especially in comparison to the downtown New York scene, Cline is less inclined to think of it as a matter of style, rather more a matter of place.
"I think that there's no doubt," explains Cline, "and I've had to answer this question a lot mostly because I obviously play in New York as much as possible so people think I have some insight, that obviously everybody has looked to New York at some point or another. They've said, 'I really love this John Zorn guy, I want to know more about the downtown scene,' or whatever it is, and certainly John has brought a lot of people to that music. He's kind of a rock star in his genre. I wanted to move to New York in the early 70s, I was dying to move there, I thought it was the greatest place, just because I liked the feeling there. But I knew that I couldn't survive there, because I had no self-confidence. But obviously New York has the history, New York has the commerce, it has the depth, you know, they have a deep bench, there's a lot of players there, there's a lot of competition, and as a result of there being commerce there it gets covered in the press, people know a lot about these players, whereas they don't know about a lot of the players in other cities.
"So that's what differentiates it from any other place," continues Cline. "It's always going to have some kind of cachet and it's going to be easier to get a gig if you're from New York playing weird music than it is from anywhere else because people are basically going to think you're going to suck if you're not from New York. If you're from New York you must be good. That's the biggest difference. I don't want to say musically whether there's much of a difference or not, but certainly whether people want to admit it or not, there's a blueprint that's pretty New York-esque that a lot of people have looked to, even if it was only for one part of their life, it had an effect, an impact on how they think about constructing a piece, or playing their instrument, whatever.
"That said," Cline concludes, "John Carter and Bobby Bradford had a huge impact on me, they were coming more out of the Ornette thing, and Ornette's thing is not a New York thing, even though he moved there. He was in L.A. for years, but he's a Texas guy, totally Texas, so is Julius Hemphill, a total Texas guy, and Dewey Redman. But also I got really interested in the European jazz scene in the '70s, with all those ECM people. That had a huge impact, I think, on the world, you can hear the lasting resonance of players like Jan Garbarek; now other players, even session guys, play like Jan Garbarek." class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...
Cline's first trio lasted, with some personnel changes, for nearly ten years, releasing albums on the German Enja label as well as the smaller independent, Little Brother. Reconciling Cline's jazzier predilections with his desire for a broader reach that also incorporated his rockier sensibility was a challenge, and something that the first trio wasn't always completely successful at combining in a way that his current trio, The Nels Cline Singers, can. But one thing that was surprisingly clear from the start was that Cline, clearly a facile guitarist who could shred and burn with the best of them, wasn't about making records that were meant to appeal to the more technical side of the instrument. "The criticism that people who like hearing me play exciting guitar have of some of my own records," says Cline, "is that there isn't enough exciting guitar on them. That's because I don't like to hear myself do a lot of fast finger wiggling on my own records. There's a friend of mine in the record industry who loves my playing, but tells me that I don't solo enough on my own records and it's actually very scrupulously constructed so that I don't. I want to listen to what I want to listen to, that's what I record, and so I just try to do what I think will be really nice to listen to and it is all, for me, more emotion-based rather than based on any kind of conceptual novelties; certainly not based on any tradition per se , I just like to feel like something.
"I aspire to a balance of autodidact fascist self-obsessed rigidity," Cline continues, "and then writing for everyone to enjoy contributing their personality to the orchestra and having freedom, no doctrine. There are blowing pieces," continues Cline, "the non-doctrinaire pieces. But the other ones are very much calculated to have some kind of an emotional resonance that I would associate something with, and because I associate something with it, I naturally assume that it, at least, has the potential for universality because that's how art infected my life. So I go by not just music, but all the different ways that art and culture have transformed my way of thinking about the world and myself. I just use that as my yardstick; if it's good enough for me and I can live with it then it's going to have to be good enough. And I think that's not something a lot of virtuoso musicians do, because I think they measure themselves against the greats of all time, and as a result don't always express themselves, they're too daunted to, or they really don't feel they are allowed to be creative because that would be egotistical somehow."
Still, as much as Cline's records are about pure emotion and less about the logistics of performance, his broad talent and distinct personality always seep through. And while Cline's music is often without overt reference points, some people do find the need to draw comparisons. "I've gotten a lot of flak," explains Cline, "from some people who say, 'Why do you think you're so hot to make your own records? You're not as good as Wes Montgomery, or so-and-so.' But I don't think music should be a competitive or comparative thing; it certainly never was to me. To me the more the merrier, and to me the idea of the loft jazz scene, the so-called DIY aspect of that, which is totally identified with in the punk world, it's the same ethic, it means that everybody can do something, and you never know what's going to have an impact.
"Listen to a band like DNA or even Sonic Youth," continues Cline. "If these guys didn't make records or play gigs, I wouldn't be thinking about music the same way. It's a very simple equation; I'm not looking for the ultimate chord voicing everywhere I go. Someone like Lenny Breau totally inspired me in terms of his massive technique, but he also had an aesthetic about harmony that was unique to him, and not just his chops. Same goes for what my friends call primitive musicians, and some of them are compartmentalized, creating a ghetto for them called the unschooled musician, as opposed to the schooled musician. But I have to say that I categorically reject this, it's the antithesis of how I view the world and it's also the antithesis of how I think about creativity in general. To me everybody is allowed to do anything they want, I just don't have to like all of it. But if we didn't all do it nothing would change. It's some of the crazy people that usually force us all to go somewhere else because nobody else has the courage to be out there.
"I got to hear Derek Bailey in Barcelona this year," Cline concludes, "and I feel really good that I got to tell him that because of his courage, his taking the hard road, and making the courageous choice to be himself, he made it easier for all the cowards like myself, who would never have been able to do what he did. He's the father of all those years of investigation that we've all benefited from. I don't have that kind of audacity, that kind of tenacity; I'm just not that person, so these are the people that push the music forward." class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...
With the forthcoming release of The Giant Pin , Nels Cline's current trio, The Nels Cline Singers, has evolved even further from their first record, '02's Instrumentals. The trio includes percussionist Scott Amendola, well-known for his work with artists including Charlie Hunter and TJ Kirk, but also carving a name for himself as a leader with his own band, The Scott Amendola Band, including last year's remarkable album, Cry , which Cline also played on. The third member of the trio, bassist Devin Hoff, may be less well-known in a larger context, but is one of the busiest bassists in the Bay Area scene.
"I met Scott Amendola," Cline explains, "when I played my old concert series that I used to have on Monday nights at The Alligator Lounge in Santa Monica for four years. My old trio anchored the series, and one of the first people to really bounce back and forth between L.A. and San Francisco, and who was pretty much the single most important person in getting me acquainted with who was playing in the Bay Area, was this man Phillip Greenlief, a woodwind player. And Phillip brought various bands down, and one day he called me up and wanted to bring a duo with a drummer, and the drummer was Scott. Scott totally blew me away. Then Phillip came back with a trio, with Scott and Trevor Dunn, and we did a double trio at the end of the night; his trio plus my trio, and Scott and I, there was just a good feeling there.
"Gradually he started doing more and more things that I was aware of," continues Cline. "We ran into each other when he was on the road with TJ Kirk, and then one day my friend G.E. Stinson was putting together an improvising group for a gig, he wanted to have Steuart Liebig on bass, and me and him and a drummer, and I suggested Scott, because he wanted somebody who could groove and somebody who could improvise, and Scott's got a deep groove and beautiful sound. G.E. said, 'well do you think he'll do it?' because although I knew that G.E. loved Scott's drumming, he'd have to drive down here to do it and make virtually no money. So I said, 'Well, all he can say is no.' So he came down, he did it, and that's what became L. Stinkbug. So Scott and I started playing together in L. Stinkbug, but that was sort of a rare event. As time went on Scott and I would start emailing each other, and he would always say, 'You know, I want to do more with you, I don't want to do just L. Stinkbug, we never play enough.' And I thought, 'How can he be saying this, he's the busiest man in show business.'
"After The Geraldine Fibbers," Cline continues, "I was kind of waiting for Carla Bozulich to come up with another project; we had a duo we were doing, but it was really esoteric, so I was kind of biding my time. My trio had fallen apart, I'd done one project in the meantime called Destroy All Nels Cline , and it was just a very specialized and limited idea, a very unique project. But it wasn't a real working band. I finally decided, after I hadn't done anything of my own for like three years with my own band, that was really a working band, that I should do another trio. Scott finally sent his millionth email saying we have to do more together, he was actually on the road then with Jack Walrath in Europe, and he was like, 'We have to play some music!' So I said, 'Does this mean that if I start another trio that you'd want to play drums?' And he said, 'Absolutely!' followed by three hundred exclamation points.
So I thought," continues Cline, "OK, this'll be interesting because he lives in Oakland, but I just didn't care anymore, I wanted to play with whom I wanted to play with, and I thought Scott was one of the best so I asked him, 'Who should play bass, I want an upright bassist, it may as well be somebody in your town because I don't know anybody who'll do it down here in L.A. on upright.' He said, 'Well, there are two guys I can think of, but the guy I think would be perfect is this young guy named Devin Hoff, not only because he's good, but because he already loves your music, he has all your records.' I'd never heard of him, but I said, 'OK, fine,' and we booked a gig, got together and played the gig.
"People can't believe I didn't audition people," Cline concludes, "but if Scott thought he was good I thought he was good. Turns out that I had met him before, he was playing with Joel Harrison one day in L.A. at my brother's concert series, and we had had a whole conversation about Mike Watt. He was all into punk rock, was a complete jazz head, and basically fit the bill and that's the story. He's done a lot of things, he's played with Graham Connah, and still does quite a bit, Connah's a genius composer and pianist in the Bay Area, kind of an elusive cult figure, has some records out on Phillips Greenlief's label, Evander Music, all available from Indiejazz.com. He has a duo with Ches Smith, this brilliant drummer who still plays a lot with Carla, the duo's called Good for Cows and they have three CDs, a bass and drums duo, it's fantastic. He's currently playing guitar in a band called Seven Year Rabbit Cycle, it's ex-members of Deer Hoof, and he has his own group with Carla Kihlstedt on violin, from Tin Hat Trio, and players from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Ches and Devin are like the rhythm section in the Bay Area, they're everywhere now." class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...
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." class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...
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 playI 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 mannerthese 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 favourite 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." class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...
One of the most noticeable changes on the Left Coast scene in the past five years, and one that has impacted Cline directly, has been violinist/producer Jeff Gauthier's formation of Cryptogramophone Records. "Jeff's idea is to do it right," says Cline, "so everybody gets a session fee, I get a leader's feewhich I try to refuse every time and he insists on. Jeff won't scrimp on the packaging, it's really his dream. He wants it to be what he wants to do or he's not interested. Hopefully their new distribution deal with Ryko will help, because Downbeat polls are voting for Jeff on violin and as a producer, so they're obviously paying attention to the records; somebody's paying attention. Obviously interest in the so-called Left Coast is not going to be as heavy, we don't get that kind of play, which is one of the things that I love about L.A., that we're all basically in the same boatthe 'we're fucked' boat. It's not competitive but I think there are more interesting players in L.A. than ever, with a lot of young players coming out that are really doing some wild stuff and making it good."
Meanwhile, Cline's schedule with Wilco and a handful of gigs to promote the October 26th release of The Giant Pin will keep him more than occupied for the foreseeable future. And while Cline's schedule with Wilco may seem, on the surface, to take him away from his own projects, the fact that he can remain viable playing music can only help to serve his own work in the long run. "I'm gratified that not only am I pleased with the music on The Giant Pin ," says Cline, "but also the design; I got to put my own goofy ideas all over the record visually, and the fact that Cryptogramophone's new packaging smells like printer's ink is extremely satisfying. Carla titled the record because I was unable to come up one. She's in love with the record and she decided to take it upon herself to come up with some ideas for the title. So she titled it The Giant Pin , and I won't go into her definition of the title, but she decided that it should be called that, and of all the different ideas that was the one she was the most married to, and the one I thought was the most intriguing and somehow amusing. I like to keep things, on the surface at least, a little bit light, to have little bits of humour here and there, because it's not my nature at all and it's really not the nature of the music.
"So I think it's tempered a little by a light touch with humour," concludes Cline, "in the midst of all the heavy doom and gloom of my natural tendencies. That's why improvising is so great; the musicians can temper any doctrinaire impulse by contributing their own vision of how the music should be and that really helps me because I not only feed off of other peoples' musical ideas, but it does temper my tendency to go too far with certain things."
Cline may be of the opinion that he goes to extremes with some of his music but, like the best of some of his own musical progenitors, if he didn't take those intrepid risks, then music would never move forward. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...
Selected Nels Cline Discography as a leader:
The Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone) (2004)
Buried on Bunker Hill (with Devin Sarno) (Ground Fault) (2003)
Instrumentals (Cryptogramophone) (2002)
Destroy All Nels Cline (Atavistic) (2001)
The Inkling (Cryptogramophone) (2000)
Interstellar Spaces Revisited (with Greg Bendian) (Atavistic) (1999)
Sad (Little Brother) (1998)
Chest (Little Brother) (1996)
Karen Cline and Berman & Warren