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Nels and Alex Cline: 50 Years in the Making

Jonathan Manning By

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When we would try to surprise each other, we still ended up doing stuff exactly together in the most startling ways.
On their sixty-second birthday, Nels Cline and Alex Cline realized they had been playing music together for fifty years. Since their very youngest days playing music, finding inspiration in The Byrds and King Crimson and exploring jazz and experimental music most of their peers wouldn't bat an eye at, the twins have developed recordings and performed at countless shows that highlight their venture into adventurous music-making. While the brothers now reside on opposite coasts—Alex in Los Angeles, still close to where they were raised, and Nels in New York City—and do not get to compose or play music together much anymore, this fiftieth anniversary sets a particularly impressive and unique milestone for the drummer and guitarist fraternity that most musicians will, and can, never reach. The chance to play and grow musically with someone since childhood is rare, shared only by a handful of other artists, such as Mike Watt—with whom Nels has frequently collaborated—who started the band Minutemen with his childhood friend D. Boon. The brothers inspired each other and introduced one another to varieties of music and musical ideas that, over time, have they each have absorbed over time, resulting in a musical partnership that is at once clearly symbiotic yet always surprising, given their proclivity for experimental music. When they play together, "there's a level of intimacy that is unequalled," says Alex. After five decades of making music together and individually, the brothers reflect here on their duel growth, musical philosophies and influences, and what it means to play so close to home and with each other.

"We grew up essentially being one another's best friend," says Alex. "We were not ever competing with each other." The Clines shared or absorbed everything musical growing up. While one might've bought certain records the other did not, those records always got shared between the two, and both brothers wound up soaking in the same tunes and musical variety. It was inevitable that they'd grow to find their playing would always complement the other's, no matter where they were in terms of taste or ideas currently being pursued. The two grew up both listening and finding inspiration in improvised music, and even as they grew and became progressively more technically accomplished as improvisers, their mutual influences and experiences shown through. Sometimes, Nels says, "when we would try to surprise each other, we still ended up doing stuff exactly together in the most startling ways. And so the conscious attempt to surprise or to counter or go against the grain—that sort of seamless flow of communication—that didn't even work." This peculiar effect makes the twins' musical relationship all the more unique.

While both brothers have always and continue to seek adventurous modes of performance and composition and have both played in myriad ensembles and produced vastly different records, when they get together there is a sort of involuntary telepathy that kicks in. "I don't know if there's any bomb I can lob at him that will surprise him at all," says Nels. "He is able to really listen while he is playing and react as though he is in that person's head." This musical clairvoyance is amplified further when playing with his brother. Alex says that they "have these hilarious stories about... gigs where we were both in the band and we would play these phrases or musical ideas seemingly completely out of nowhere at exactly the same time." Even when they'd be apart for some time or exploring completely different styles of music, there is an unbreakable bond between the two stemming from childhood.

A deep musical relationship was something the two cherished together; during childhood, when they were exploring avant-garde music, Alex says, "everybody around me not only doesn't know about it but they don't care about it." With the kind of tastes and sense of experimentation the brothers had at a young age, it was difficult to find others interested, and, Alex says, "that mutually nurtured growth and interest was something I was not going to experience with any other musician." This dynamic yields a kind of improvising that you rarely see. The brothers could easily entertain an audience on either of their own given their years of experience improvising. One might think the persuasion of improvising would make playing together a challenge but often what happens with the Clines is that there is actually "potential for predictability or a total lack of surprise." While most listeners couldn't discern this, the brothers easily can, and Alex says that "it behooves us to be aware of this and then push past it and to challenge one another and challenge ourselves so that things remain fresh and less predictable, but musically strong because of that super close intimate musical connection."


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