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.

AAJ: There are some guitarists that have the same gear their entire life and then you get someone like Bill Frisell who started off with a Gibson SG...

NC: Yeah, when I met Bill it was the SG with the cracked neck; that was 1983... And yet, it's still Bill. The reason I use the Electro-Harmonix 16-second digital delay is because of Bill. He loaned it to me in 1985. We were playing with Julius Hemphill and I still use it. Now I have four of them but two are broken; Bill just got fed up with them breaking. He is the master of that thing.

AAJ: Have you thought of your next steps, career-wise? Fred Frith got into academia, a toe at a time. Do you see that for yourself?

NC: I think the only way that could actually happen would be if people tricked me into it, which may have been what happened to Fred also. People have asked—Glenn Kotche was over at Dartmouth College and we did a residency, workshops and we visited classrooms. Glenn's got a Bachelor of Arts and I don't; I don't have a degree in anything. And I'm much older than he is and it was a different education system back then. I'm always surprised when people ask me to do that but at the same time there's something very rewarding about doing it when it goes well. I did it the first time, probably, at the Creative Music School that they had in Vancouver; they asked me to do a week there as a visiting teacher and do master guitar classes and I didn't even know what I was going to do. I didn't learn from a teacher that taught me any guitar, per se; I learned more from taking theory classes and then tried to apply that to guitar. And I also played with people, like my late friend Eric Von Essen, who were great musicians and I learned how to play by learning their music and asking them questions about it.

AAJ: And that's close to Fred's situation as well. And yesterday's interview with him, he mentioned one violin teacher that he had when he was a kid and then one more teacher and he said that was kind of it for teachers that had an impact on it.

NC: It is hard to know. My parents were both school teachers in the L.A. city school system and they were dedicated to the idea of public education and the idea of teaching and it was their passion. It's not my passion because I don't feel I have a model for what a good teacher is. So, I'm always hesitant or always unsure [when it comes to teaching]. But that said, when I've done some of these things and I realize—okay, I'm 56 years old now and I have a certain amount of experience that I can speak about things and people say I'm glad you spoke about this because I never knew this, this, or this. And I start to realize I've accrued a certain amount of information which could be perceived of as knowledge. But at least the information is of interest to someone and I can impart it or connect the dots for people, just the way the dots have been connected for me over the years, realizing that you hear this which leads you to that which has you meeting this person and you realize you're both thinking about this and that sends you off to this place and it's such a beautiful, beautiful pattern that can emerge in life. If I can do that, then maybe, I'd end up doing some kind of part-time thing but it's not a goal. And that said, endless touring, like I do now, is not the ticket for a 60-someodd year old person—it's not that far away.

AAJ: But with campus Arts faculties, that is the one area where experience trumps degrees. If you were in psychology, then get your Ph.D. and maybe we'll think about hiring you. But Fine Arts departments are full of teachers that have actually been practicing for years and years. And Fred seemed to lament that his role seems increasingly to be the administration of the program, suddenly he had to worry about...

NC: Right, he got "the responsibilities."

AAJ: ...exactly. And I'm sure as your parents learned, there needs to be accountability. You have to make sure that, if you're in a school, that students need to learn x, y, and z, this is how we're going to teach x, y, and z and this is how we measure or test x, y, and z—doing that in Arts can be a hard thing. Both you and Fred are motivated and inspired by visual arts. You each have a piece in John Zorn's Arcana series of books—Fred mentions Francis Bacon and Andrey Tarkovskiy and you mention Robert Motherwell and have a Boltanski quote at the opening as well as the Dirty Baby project with David Breskin. When you're playing, do you think in cinematic or artistic terms?

NC: I think in my case of growing up with cinema and, in my case, going to musicals and stage plays with my parents, and being encouraged in terms of visual art—and my twin brother, [percussionist] Alex Cline, who really positioned himself to be a visual artist in his life rather than a percussionist—we were encouraged to be checking out art and all kinds of other things beside music. We just got obsessed with music. But I think that while playing and listening, because of our media-drenched growing up there is a certain amount of difficulty in completely disassociating the act of listening or playing with some kind of imagery or emotion terrain that we've been basically taught—or maybe it's innate—that when we hear a diminished chord in a Beethoven symphony that we get tense. That does seem very Western thinking but then again on my whole background, DNA-wise, is that... I wonder about these things. In my case, it's just a matter of, I think, inspiration and a matter of feeling that the idea of expressing oneself in some sort of artistic manner is one's path and then finding others who do it in various ways and investigating that learning about that person, the feeling that something about the work and finding what's basically a vast universe or pool to draw inspiration from.

Of people that I've felt particularly close to, in terms of visual arts over the years, some have remained since I was a boy like Joan Miro. Others that emerged later are, like in the case of Robert Motherwell and in general most of the abstract expressionists, I think that like many people I attach a certain amount of romanticism to the idea of the gesture or the idea of the iconoclastic energy behind that school of the repudiation or at least the breaking away from the Parisian model but at the same time, the Parisian model is very potent if you start adding in the Surrealists and the Dadas who are endlessly inspirational to me and constantly pointing the way to not just iconoclasm or innovation but also the Surrealists were sort of fun and sexy, too.

AAJ: It was humor to provoke a response...

NC: ...but also crafty and in some ways really, strikingly beautiful. I don't consider myself to be any kind of intellectual giant in terms of what's going on in contemporary art or conceptual art but I draw inspiration from all corners of the creative realm. You mentioned cinema—I am a movie fan—and checking out people who become icons like Marina Abramović or Sanja Iveković, whose work is decidedly confrontational and at times very pointedly political but not always about the object or about galleries or museums—these people inspire me even though I'm nothing like them. But they're so brave they make me feel better about the world.

And then other people, you just feel close to them like Christian Boltanski and his wife, Annette Messager, are such intriguing artists and they have so many common areas and they're married and they're Swiss and the whole thing is delightful on the surface and perplexing in a way—how do they make this work, how are they both so successful and so visionary. And then I think about the art world as not just the work but sometimes the individual themselves and I find it helpful because I'm not... I don't consider myself a trailblazer... I think I just squish along.

Well, I went through a whole phase where my interest in political thought went through a socialist/communist perspective, inspired by people like Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and then checking out the whole South American political scene and this whole idea of the worker and I ended up, psychologically and mentally, downplaying the idea of myself being an artist and I became really uncomfortable with it and it became more in my mind that I was more of a worker and as such I stopped doing as much creative work for myself and started playing more with other people and trying to learn how to play with a lot of other people and musicians. Some of that was a survival mechanism but some of it was a decision to not call attention to myself and yet I still made records and did my own music but not in a militant way so I think I'm sort of squishy—I do a little of this, a little of that, and I like collaborating anyway.

AAJ: If you're a "dabbler," not to make it sound that you're just skimming but if you do a lot of different things, as a whole it can all come together as opposed to being single-minded and say, "This is the only thing I'm going to do."

NC: But I am impressed by people that can do that but they're not like me. Somebody like [saxophonist/composer] John Zorn has positioned himself in his world, really as an extension of all the artists we're talking about and a very staunch and very clear idea of where he stands and why he does the work that he does, why he constantly working, he only plays his music for the most part until he decides to do a tribute to somebody that he loves. But I'm just in awe of people like that but I also feel that the electric guitar is so malleable that it can slip in and out of a lot of different work and I'm comfortable with that.

Selected Discography

Wilco, The Whole Love (Anti / dBpm, 2011)
Tim Berne/Jim Black/Nels Cline, The Veil (Cryptogramophone, 2011)
Nels Cline, Dirty Baby (Cryptogramophone, 2010)

Nels Cline Singers, Initiate (Cryptogramophone, 2010)
Nels Cline, Coward (Cryptogramophone, 2009)
Huntsville, Eco, Arches, & Eras (Rune Grammofon, 2008)

Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch, 2007
Nels Cline, New Monastery: A View into the Music of Andrew Hill (Cryptogramophone, 2006)

Nels Cline Singers, The Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone, 2004)
Nels Cline, Destroy All Nels Cline (Atavistic, 2000)
Nels Cline/Gregg Bendian, Interstellar Space Revisited (Atavistic, 1999)

Photo Credit

Courtesy Nels Cline



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