Alex Cline: Free-Spirited Drummer
Knowing the music isn't particularly commercial, Cline has no inclination to change that just to try and be more popular. He sticks to his vision. Changing to more familiar forms "isn't a temptation for me. Part of the reason for that is, I work mostly as a sideman, therefore I play a lot of other people's music that covers a lot of the ground that my music doesn't cover. Yet my own music covers a lot of ground that other people's music doesn't cover.
Nels and Alex Cline
"When I put my musical ideas together, I do tend to limit myself and focus on certain things that I most want to hear and most want to experience. That tends to not include a lot of the areas that I already do and a lot of the areas that might be considered more commercial. My brother Nels plays a lot more music that reflects more of his rock influence, being an electric guitarist. While that's way back in my background, that's not something I'm tempted to do. In terms of what I'm trying to say musically, it's kind of irrelevant. But if it ever becomes relevant, I suppose I would do it. But it certainly wouldn't be because of a self-conscious (effort) to make the music more appealing, lucrative or to please somebody who might think it was cool or hip to do it.
"The same with doing a straight-ahead thing. I play a certain amount of straight-ahead jazz. I play a lot of people's music where, while it's not exactly straight-ahead, it employs a lot of the conventions of that music, like swing time, solos, trading fours. I really enjoy those things, but I don't feel a need to do that in my music, because my music seems to be more about something else."
Like his brother, the drummer was first influenced by rock music, which was the flavor of the day as he grew up. The '60s and early '70s were times when cutting-edge rock, jazz fusion and even folk-rock (Dylan plugging in), were prevalent. But his musical studies started on clarinet in elementary school, an instrument pushed on some kids so they could fit into the school orchestra. "I didn't like the clarinet at all, but I decided to play it anyway. My brother decided to play the trumpet. It was very soon thereafter we got the rock-and-roll bug. By the time we were 11, I had taken up the drum set and he had taken up the guitar."
Says Cline, "I was the self-taught rock kid. My first real teacher was a school friend that I'd known since we were about 10, Pat Pile, who was already quite the young drum prodigy and had a drum set, which was huge back then. I would go to his house and we would take turns playing the drum set. I would watch what he did and try to imitate what he was doing. We would take turns playing with Rolling Stones records and such. That was my first fundamental drum set training, which was quite good."
He and his brother heard the Jimi Hendrix Experience when they were 11, and both were amazed, having their eyes and ears opened by the daring guitarist. For Alex, the group's drummer, Mitch Mitchell, whose playing had some jazz influence, was a wonder. Mitchell became an early idol. That experience helped lead him down a path that found him discovering drummers like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Roy Haynes, Tony Oxley, Pierre Favre and onward.
He says the music of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart in those years also gave him "a taste for squealy saxophones and odd meters and strange instrumental combinations and instrumental music altogether."
Cline took some drum lessons, but they weren't very productive. At age 16, he started digging jazz more. The high school stage band, which is to say jazz band, was in need of a drummer. A friend recommended Alex for the drum chair. "This friend, inaccurately," he says with a laugh, "thought I had the talent to go in there and play that music. I naively said, 'OK.' But I couldn't read and I couldn't play swingslight liabilities."
"It was at that point, after experiencing total humiliation first thing every morning at the high school in tenth grade, that I got more training. I had about two years of drum lessons with a couple of teachers here in town. Unfortunately, that's the sum total of my musical training. Even they were not teachers who had any interest or involvement in the kind of music that I was really looking to do. At that point I was interested in playing like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette and Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes, people like that. Where would you learn to do that? Nobody told you how to do that. I had to wind up figuring that out all by myself."
Another huge influence came when someone loaned the brothers Cline a copy of the compilation The Best of John Coltrane: His Greatest Years (Impulse!, 1971).
"A friend of ours suggested we ought to listen to it, thinking of me in particular. He said, 'I think you'd like it because parts of it are really noisy.' (Chuckles) We put it on and my brother and I were completely and totally changed after hearing just the opening of 'Africa,' never having realized that jazz can even sound like that until we heard that. It completely changed us.
"The other thing was the first time I heard a track of Tony Williams with Tony Williams Lifetime, with John McLaughlin and Larry Young. I realized, because of my taste in musicearly Frank Zappa and King Crimson and stuff like thatwhat was happening musically, even though I couldn't totally understand it. It wasn't completely unfamiliar to me. But it was on a level that was completely beyond anything I'd ever imaginedcertainly the drumming was. When I heard that, I knew that was it. I was never the same after that. There was no turning back at that point. So everyone who'd been associated with John Coltrane's musicand Miles Davis, everyone who'd been associated with his whole musical trajectorybecame that which obsessed teenage Alex," he recalls. "That was it. I didn't go back after that."