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A Fireside Chat with Nels Cline

By Published: October 29, 2003

In those days, it was a much bigger deal to be an uncategorizable player. It was much more of a stigma to be in the cracks.

I could refer to myself as having long been a Nels Cline enthusiast, but I cannot tell a lie. In fact, I am a recent convert, having listened to Interstellar Space Revisited (The Music of John Coltrane) in the summer of '99 (which doesn't have nearly the ring that the Bryan Adams ditty has). But I have since been a quick study. Cline, like Vinny Golia, Horace Tapscott, John Carter, Bobby Bradford, Adam Rudolph, and too many others to mention without cramping my fingers, has not only been loyal to Los Angeles by not bailing to New York, but has also helped define the musical landscape that is our fair city. It isn't easy being an individual in Los Angeles. And it couldn't be any easier being an individual artist. Folks, Nels Cline, unedited and in his own words.

Fred Jung: Let's touch on your involvement with the Scot Ray Quintet.

Nels Cline: It's not a band that plays often, but we have gigs this May to celebrate the release of the CD that is coming out on Cryptogramophone, Jeff Gauthier's label. It's called Active Vapor Recovery. It is Steuart Liebig on six string electric bass, my brother Alex on drums and percussion, and Jeff Gauthier on electric violin. For me, it is a fun type of group. Some of the material is kind of fusion, but the material is very wide ranging, so there is not really one kind of playing and I find that it hits on all different ways that I like to play at some point, including ways that I am reluctant to play, but are ultimately satisfying, like hefty guitar solos.

Scot Ray is not only a remarkable trombonist and I know that this may sound trite, but it counts for a lot in my life, I just think he's a really good person and a very sincere musician. He is very interesting in how loose he is at times about his concept, yet at the same time, he has a very specific way of making music. I find that an interesting combination and the fact that he formed a band with three of my oldest musical associates that are in town, makes it a lot of fun as well. If Vinny [Golia] was in the band, it would literally be a band made up of people I've played music with for over twenty years each. I really love playing funky rhythm guitar. I don't get to do it much anymore and Scot has a couple of tunes where funky rhythm guitar was the order of the day.

FJ: And you are also a member of the Scott Amendola Band.

NC: Right, I played in the Scott Amendola Band quite a bit this year and have now for a couple of years. A lot of the material sends to be rather open-ended at times. There is a certain way in which the band is trusted to flush out the material using its instincts. Scott directs the music in a way that is not particularly didactic. There is a sense of leadership, but there is not a sense of an iron grip on the aesthetic of the band. It isn't afraid to delve into potentially generic turf like blues or funk, but the writing itself is not generic in any way.

FJ: And your own projects: the Nels Cline Singers, why did you name it the Singers?

NC: I really felt that I needed to use my name in the band, just so people would know it was me playing, which was a hard decision that was made years ago with the Nels Cline Trio. The band members, Mark London Sims and Michael Preussner sort of mutinied and said that I should call it the Nels Cline Trio because I was calling it Bartholomew and they hated that. I had not led a band before that. The reason it is not called the Nels Cline Trio now is out of deference to the original trio, which a lot of people were very aware of. Rather than call it Nels Cline Trio, I thought a funny, yet still generic term was singers, relating to those old groups from the late '50s. Since the CD is called Instrumentals, there is a certain tongue-in-cheek aspect to it, but I would have to say that the music itself is not humorous.

FJ: And your new band?

NC: I am going to give it a name, but we are a theory right now. I am really just starting to write for this. For one thing, everyone will live here in town because the Singers is with Devin and Scott and they're in Oakland and I spend a lot of time up there, but ultimately, I want to be able to work on something here in town that is more of a project in order to develop a vocabulary of playing that will be less about so called jazz than even the Singers. It won't be quite so direct and will be more about certain compositional parameters. I just need to do a different kind of writing.

With this new group, I would like to be able to work on compositional ideas away from live performance for a while and present things that may not actually work, but I want to try them. There is no bass, although I would like the group to be open ended enough to accommodate guest musicians. If we have this core of four people, Noah Phillips and Alex and Jessica Catron, I would like to periodically add Jeff Gauthier on violin. Certainly, the group is about strings at this point and possibly Scot Ray. I can't get over my fascination with layered string instruments.

I think it will be beautiful, yet oblique chamber music with a certain drama that I can never escape in my own writing.

FJ: You run the risk of turning off the Interstellar Space crowd with words like chamber music.

NC: There is a lot of the Destroy All Nels Cline, which is another way of using my damn name, which was a lot about multiple guitars and using a lot of effects and whatnot and with the addition of Zeena Perkins, who is also on the record and Wayne Peet playing clavinet, it was all about strings on that as well. Even my trio records tend to have little layerings that I like to do in the studio in postproduction. It is really an investigation of overtones. That said, I have been encouraged to pursue two other avenues of live performance and composing that I am starting to think seriously about, Dan [Clucas] and Rob Blakeslee have both been very encouraging to try to get me to write more for horns. Vinny has been on my case about this as well.

The other thing everybody is trying to get me to do is play more solo gigs and do a solo recording. That is an exercise in absolute terror for me, but I do try to do it once in a while. I am surprised how much some of my most respected colleagues value my solo playing. So I am going to have to get over my inherent fear and loathing and pursue that. It is certainly an economically sound way to travel at this point [laughing] because it is brutal out there.

FJ: To varying degrees, everyone has an ego, but has your reluctance to self-aggrandize hampered you, not musically, but business-wise?

NC: No, I think there is definitely ego, but I can tell you after experiences of trying to tour with the Singers, the combination of trying to get the dough that will keep you on the road and my inability to really focus on business on a day to day basis is a deadly combination. Were I able to have some capital that I could invest in my own music, then I could take care of the musicians better. That said, the fees right now aren't that particularly high and I don't really do it for that reason.

It is hard for me to get up in the morning and get on the phone and work on my own behalf. Why that is, well, we could probably get into years of therapeutic discussion about low self-esteem. I was very conflicted with the inner conflict between the jazz and rock aesthetics. It wasn't until I started my trio and started to combine them in a way that felt natural to me that I actually resolved a lot of those conflicts. In those days, it was a much bigger deal to be an uncategorizable player. It was much more of a stigma to be in the cracks.

FJ: Times have certainly changed because it is cache to be an enigma.

NC: I think it is really different now. I think the fact that at one time you had critics disparaging anybody who put an electric guitar in their band and now everybody has a deejay and laptop player. It's like you're some kind of fascist, retro person if you don't use those.

FJ: Does not being bound by stereotypes allow liberty as a player?

NC: I have to admit it does. Ultimately, I am self-propelled, so my struggle to find areas that satisfy me has pretty much been a personal struggle and not so much relying on the outside world for validation. But it certainly is nice when you don't come up against friction all the time. For me, one of my earliest inspiration as an adult came from listening to Sonic Youth play.

As a huge Sonic Youth fan, it became really satisfying for me to start improvising with members of that band and particularly with Thurston (Moore). I don't think in the '80s anyone understood my fascination with Sonic Youth in the so-called jazz scene. Now, as things have blended and as members of that band have become more confident as improvisers and the way they embrace musical thought, I feel really validated. I can play with Thurston and I can play with Vinny after twenty-five years and feel that he totally trusts my instincts and in spite of the fact that we are operating more out of a jazz aesthetic, that my impulses in any direction are going to be honored.

It is a great life. There are people who will walk up to me and say that they used to come hear me at the Alligator Lounge. It was an all ages club and I am a very firm believer in the all ages show as a result of my and my brother's experiences of going to the Lighthouse to hear the music. That is how we heard legends of the music play. It is satisfying to me that after these kids were at UCLA or wherever they were and dispersed into the world that this was a scene that they checked out and it did have some kind of lasting impact on them. I can reflect on that and feel good that I was in my right mind by doing things the way I did them then, which was not particularly sound business wise. To me, it was worth it.

FJ: Los Angeles is still slighted as the bastard child when creative improvised music is concerned.

NC: People want to know why am I still in Los Angeles and what is going on in Los Angeles. I have to say that I wanted to move to New York City my entire adult life, because I just really felt a great love for that city and also a great deal of inspiration and curiosity of their musical world. There are numerous reasons why that never happened and a lot of it goes back to what we were discussing earlier about self-esteem, but also, life's events would never really accommodate this. I have gotten over it in the sense that I like my life more these days.

That being said, there are always people to play with here that I held in high regard my whole life. I feel that if I didn't have like minded individuals to do music with that were challenging me and think seriously about my playing, I would not have been happy here. We have discussed Vinny and mentioned Wayne Peet and Jeff Gauthier and my brother. There are a number of us doing things or quite a while, but now in Los Angeles, there are really a lot. There are a lot more than ever before because a lot of these younger musicians coming out of the academic world of CalArts or USC, who seem to be interested in improvised music.

If you had told me years ago that this would be the case, I may not have believed you. It has to be good for the scene. This has been going on the whole time. The perception is that there is nothing happening here and what I have been trying to prove to the world is that there has been stuff going on here all along going back to Horace Tapscott and John [Carter] and Bobby [Bradford]. A lot of people left and there are reasons for that.

Certainly, it is impossible to make a living playing music here, but that is true in every city in America.

FJ: And the future?

NC: There is a lot of finished masters. I completed another duo record with Devin Sarno called Buried on Bunker Hill. There is a trio recording that is finished with Andrea Parkins on accordion, laptop, and piano and Tom Rainey on drums. I just finished a duo record with Vinny, finally, after talking about it forever. We did it and it's all done. I am recording a new Singers CD in August. There is supposed to be the emergence on a live CD with Carlos Giffoni, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and me playing live in Brooklyn a couple of summers ago. That is called Four Guitars Live at Luxx. There is also some work coming up with Jeff Parker with the Singers. We also have two masters emerging this year by the Acoustic Guitar Trio, that is Rod Poole and Jim McAuley. I played on the new Rickie Lee Jones record. I play on the new Blue Man Group CD.

FJ: Odd.

NC: The guys in the band heard me at the Alligator Lounge. It was weird. I ended up going to do a guitar solo, but they ended up having me play on seven tunes. They kind of turned me loose on their music. They were really fun to work with. They are a successful, mega organization that started out from nothing. They were a lot of fun.

Visit Nels Cline on the web at .

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