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A Fireside Chat with Nels Cline

By Published: October 29, 2003

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.

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