Nels Cline: Finding Others

Ted Harms By

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Ask 10 people when they first heard of guitarist Nels Cline and you'll get 10 different answers. Maybe it was when he joined award-winning, arena-packing, ever-touring rock band Wilco. Or maybe it was stumbling upon a guitar internet forum where nerd boys and girls go over the minutiae of his expansive and varied effect pedals, amps, and guitars. Or it could have been hearing his critically acclaimed The Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone, 2004) with his group, the Nels Cline Singers (even though nobody sang). Or maybe it was hearing one of the 600+ recording credits that he has, with a diverse group of performers that it's truly difficult to pin him down to any genre.

Through more than 40 years of playing, he's still awestruck by who he plays with, very humble about his guitar playing skills, mystified by the attention he receives, aware that at his core is an intense drive and need for collaboration and, through it all, is just a really nice guy.

This interview took place at the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival, where he performed with Fred Frith, more commonly known as a guitarist but who has played bass with Naked City, as he currently does with OrkestROVA, where Cline handles the guitar chair.

All About Jazz: Tell us about your musical relationship with Fred Frith.

Nels Cline: Fred Frith is somebody that I grew up listening to. So the fact that I play with him at all, even though when I first did OrkestROVA he was playing bass—I was like, "What's wrong with this picture?" Not that I don't like his bass playing. Fact is, first time I probably heard him play bass was probably in the duo he used to do with Henry Kaiser and he used to play some viola and some bass, which was amazing—and a really good duo. I loved the records they did together—With Friends Like These (Metalanguage, 1979) and they did one called Who Needs Enemies (Metalanguage, 1983). And Who Needs Enemies had more bass and a Linn drum machine or something.

I go back to the first Henry Cow record [Legend (Virgin, 1973)], which I listened to when I was in high school and have followed him since then. So, that was the '70s when he put out the first Guitar Solos (Caroline, 1974) record. I still own it and it was very, very influential on me. And I saw him with Massacre in the '70s, actually lent him a speaker cabinet. We didn't become friends then; I was just a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew that Fred needed a speaker cabinet. They played at the Whiskey A Go Go and that was actually a very seminal gig experience for me. At a time when I was going to a lot of experimental and prog, free jazz and jazz rock shows, Massacre really stood out.

AAJ: You're here supporting ROVA, kind of supporting Huntsville, and then co-leading a gig with [Wilco drummer] Glenn Kotche. Does that require a different head space to go from being a sideman to a leader?

NC: Well, not so much really. Except that playing with Glenn, and they [Guelph Jazz Festival administration] asked for me and Glenn as a duo, and we've only ever played as a duo for an entire set once before, which was in Melbourne, Australia at the jazz festival there though we've done two tours where we each played solo and then played a short duo at the end. So, playing with Glenn is a different kind of challenge because I never know exactly what he's going to do, what equipment he's going to have... I know there's going to be a lot of timbre investigations and that it's not going to be particularly melodic, shall we say, although it could be if I stressed that. With OrkestROVA, I know the parameters from having done the piece many times, and having a piece to work off, which is the John Coltrane piece itself, and so I just have to relearn all the hand signals.

Nels Cline—Dirty BabyBasically, they're all areas that I'm comfortable with because I like to improvise—it's one of my favorite things. I also like to improvise within certain parameters or even limitations—I find it liberating. It's nice to have a piece to work off of and to play with other improvisers, many of whom are people I've listened to for thirty-plus years who I never thought I would play with. So, it's inspiring but at the same time it's comfortable.

AAJ: Are you worried that when you're hired as a sideman that they're expecting the "Nels Cline sound"? If you showed up with a Gibson hollow-body jazzbox and a Polytone amp, would they say "Haha. Go get your real gear!"?

NC: No, they'll never know. If I play well, I think they'd be fine with it. I might be the one that's most concerned with the sound if it's not right. But I don't think of myself as walking around the world having a sound per se. Even though, I guess, I do; but it's not the way I think. I have favorite things I like to do or certain sounds I like to hear, maybe because I hear them in my head, because I'm used to them. I don't know.

Sometimes I do go to what I know or what works, shall we say. I played a gig the other night, sitting in with Jim Campilongo's new band—he's a great guitarist that lives in Brooklyn—and I brought a different guitar; I said "This guitar's so cool, it never gets played, and I just got it recently, and it hasn't any real outings." so I took it and about half way through the gig I was "Damn, why didn't I bring my regular guitar!?" So, I'm not really as open as I'd like to think I could be. Henry Kaiser will show up with totally different pedals every time and I'm just not one of those guys, not that I'm particular iconoclastic anyways.

AAJ: To step back a bit, it's often a fine line between being in a groove and getting into a rut where you don't want to push yourself. How do you push yourself? Do you have other people that push you by saying this is sounding old.

NC: Nobody has ever said anything like that to me but I push myself, in some regards, just thinking about it and wondering. I see people like, we just mentioned Henry Kaiser or Fred Frith, play over the years, playing guitar and I think "God, maybe I'm just playing it safe," by always having certain things that I like to use. But I haven't really gotten sick of those things yet so I don't go too far with that. I would have to say that there are situations where it's really the other musicians who are pushing me and I play better, I think, with people who inspire me and are catalysts for a certain kind of creativity, more so than when I'm by myself. Playing solo for me is very difficult, very nerve racking.

I'm playing in a duo now with a guitarist in New York, Julian Lage, who's a young jazz guitarist and I'm playing with no effects whatsoever. Just because I think that's how our music works together but I also have to say it's pushing me technically because he's so technically brilliant. It's insane—he's got more than jazz chops; he's like some sort of X-Men! But I feel comfortable and very relaxed playing—and I feel almost like I can execute pretty much at least half of the ideas I have in my head. At times, if left to my own devices or alone, that's where I fall into a rut, which is to say a sort of helplessness, where I just think, "What am I going to do?" And then somebody plays one note, and then I know what to do.
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