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Interviews

Nels Cline: Of Singers and Sound

By Published: May 10, 2010

AAJ: How did you arrive at the "Mercy" (Supplication and Procession) arrangements?

Nels Cline Singers, from left: Scott Amendola, Devin Hoff, Nels Cline

NC: The two "Mercy" themes are the same, it's just that the "Mercy Procession" is an expanded march. It was an old piece from my old trio days that never got played more than once. It was written when I had my concert series at the Alligator Lounge, when a good friend of mine was diagnosed with having a lump in her breast. Sometimes I used to just write things at the bar at the Alligator Lounge, these little sketches or squibs, and then we'd play them. That one was written at my house the afternoon before the Monday night gig. We played it just once, as I recall, and then it just sat in the filing cabinet. I was going through it to see if there was anything I'd overlooked that I could readdress, and that was the only piece from the old days that I dragged out.

It was David Breskin's idea to have a small duet version with Devin, and then the full expanded version as it was originally created, which was the procession thing. So, supplication and procession were parenthetical title additions. It was originally just called "Mercy."

When I heard "Procession," and Scott overdubbed a whole other drum set on that, that's kind of working in my usual wheel house—some kind of ritual aspiring toward transformational catharsis music with repetition, boiling dynamics and all that stuff. But when I heard it back, I thought it sounded like Godspeed You! Black Emperor with a Paul Bley

Paul Bley
Paul Bley
b.1932
piano
intro.

That's the kind of thing I like to do with anybody, not just the Singers, because that's what I like to listen to. That's what feels good to me. Everything else is sort of foreign territory, and I'm struggling just to see if I can do things. I'm kind of at home in that terrain. I like the way Ron Saint Germain mixed that one.

Somebody recently wrote that that's a tribute to Joe Zawinul

Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
1932 - 2007
keyboard
, I guess because they were thinking of "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." I'd have to say if anything was a tribute to Joe Zawinul, besides us jamming out on "Boogie Woogie Waltz" on the live record, "King Queen" is like a Zawinul tribute. Because I used his architecture of opening statement, and then a new exciting closing statement that repeats and puts you in some sort of state of ecstasy. Which I love about his music, at its best, is how joyous it can be without being in any way sweet.

AAJ: David Witham

David Witham
David Witham
b.1957
piano
's organ on "King Queen" gives it a Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana
b.1947
guitar
feel.

NC: I didn't even think of the Santana thing until I heard it mixed. Really what it is was: Devin and Scott and I had been driving around in the van listening to a lot of '70s West African pop—compilations, mostly. After listening to much Juju and Afro Beat, and all kinds of music from Senegal and Mali, I started getting these grittier compilations at the record stores.

It's great driving music. There's what's called fuzz funk and all this stuff that I love, and from that experience of driving around with them listening to that, that I decided it would be fun to try to play some of that stuff on a record just for the hell of it. I'm not sure it's all that convincing to be playing a backwards Afro Beat groove in 6/4, and like I said, it's not a new direction for the band, it's just something I thought would be fun to do.

I actually went out and got a Vox Jaguar organ for David to play, because I love those Vox Jaguar Farfisas that are on those '70s records, wheezing away with tons of reverb. So it's a fairly overt and even maybe slavish reference to that music.

Although sometimes I have my doubts about how advisable it was to try to tackle that, because I think that stuff can be deadly, kind of like tourist. But I love hearing the riff at the end; it's fun for me to hear that. For what it's worth, my desire to do something that could be celebratory, that you could get in the body and not just the head, was sincere. And not to be taken too seriously.

AAJ: "Get Closer" reminded me of Sandy Bull's Turkish musings.

NC: My working title for that was "Egberto," because I was thinking of Egberto Gismonti. But it ends up sounding like some kind of Ali Farka Toure

Ali Farka Toure
Ali Farka Toure
1939 - 2006
guitar
thing to me. It's not supposed to be any of those things. There's also a Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner
Ralph Towner
b.1940
guitar
element to the introduction. Once again open tuned, I think it's a little bit Maliesque.

Also, I'd been listening to a Touareg band—the Touareg people primarily led by the band Tinariwen and other groups that followed them. They're nomads displaced from Mali, but also Algeria. It's kind of blues-based, but droning, beautiful electric guitar and vocal music. Without trying to imitate that, I just wanted to get a whiff, a waft. It's just a melody I had that I played with an open tuning, it felt good, so I made a song out of it.

AAJ: Isn't that how it always works? "Scissor Saw" brings you back to Industrial mode.

NC: That was inspired by hearing a Mike Patton gig with my friend Peek, a photographer up in San Francisco, and the DJ was playing some insane beautiful mysterious industrial thing. And I just got this idea and planned it in my head.

Similarly, I once heard Elliott Sharp

Elliott Sharp
Elliott Sharp
b.1951
guitar
playing with DJ Disk, and they did this kind of break beat thing that inspired me to do a track on the first Singers album called "Ghost of the Pinata." Sometimes I just go hear somebody do something and I'll make a mental note to try to approach that just from the memory of it. I wasn't trying to recreate it, because I don't remember specifically what I heard.

That Mike Patton gig—I just remember the feeling of the thing was so dark, and at the same time super alluring and not really punishing. So, I just said to Scott, "Here's what I'd like you to do: make a loop with this in mind, about this tempo. I'm going to go get a drink of water," and when I came back he had that wacky thing going.

Essentially, other than editing out a few of my repetitions, that's a live performance as well, but an edited version of a 12-minute jam where we just started messing around and recorded the whole thing. I kinda took the middle out, kept the beginning and the end, and then just fade in, fade out.

Basically, it's a palate cleanser, and I think it's just there to show that we improvise in different ways, because it is an improvisation, it's just directed by me. I said, "Here's our idea, now let's go." Besides which, you can't have too much sun, or I just wilt. A little too wistful, or breezy, or percolating, we need to get into a darker shade.



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