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Nels Cline: Intrepid Guitarist

John Kelman By

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My idea is that if somebody ever comes to my music, that it adds up to something kind of intriguing and maybe there is some weird kind of consistency that emerges. But it's definitely not going to be obvious. —Nels Cline
Some musicians lead double lives, working in a couple of seemingly disparate contexts that still manage to come together into a cohesive musical vision. Intrepid guitarist Nels Cline has led far more than two, involved in everything from the acoustic Ralph Towner-informed work of Quartet Music to the post-punk of Mike Watt. His own work is equally diverse. Just take a listen to his latest release, The Giant Pin , due out October 26, and you'll hear a guitarist whose influences range far and wide, from Jim Hall to Jimi Hendrix. Yet, underneath it all, there is a specific musical viewpoint that is more about allowing all the diverse influences and experiences to filter through his own consciousness; the end result being something that, while indicative of its sources, manages to sound completely Nels Cline.

Much of this has to do with Cline growing up in the '60s and early '70s, when there seemed to be fewer rules and the music industry had yet to become so directly involved in defining what was heard. "The sort of Catholic booking policy of one evening," explains Cline, "the fact that hippies liked blues, they liked gospel, they liked folk, and so they mixed it all up, that's how you got those great stories of Miles Davis opening for Laura Nyro at the Fillmore; I meant it's crazy, you can't imagine that kind of stuff now. Audiences wouldn't be able to handle it. I think the best part about that, whether it was all great music or not, was that the audience was really patient, and the bands were patient enough with the process of their own music making to take the time and cast about. It's so cut to the chase everywhere these days; it's not as exciting to have shows where everything is so predefined."

Chapter Index
Influential Recordings
The Left Coast Scene
Musical Resonance and Musical Audacity
The Nels Cline Singers
Destroy All Nels Cline
Instrumentals and The Giant Pin
Cryptogramophone, The Scene and The Future


While Cline continues to pursue a variety of avenues these days, and still maintains a solo career with his trio The Nels Cline Singers, he spends most of his time touring with the alternative group Wilco. When Cline joined Wilco a few months back some people were surprised at the move, but in context of Cline's voracious musical appetites, it should come as no surprise at all. And while there has been some misrepresentation of Cline's role in the group, he is clear that this is not a case of being merely a touring guitarist; this is the beginning of a longer-term relationship. "I was in a rock band called The Geraldine Fibbers in L.A.," Cline says, "which is how I met my sweetheart, Carla Bozulich. We were opening for a band called Golden Smog, which was guys from Wilco, The Jayhawks, and Run Westy Run, doing a side project of cover songs. They were doing a couple weeks tour in the Midwest and we went out opening for them. The Fibbers kind of cottoned to Jeff Tweedy, although I honestly didn't give a damn about what any of them were doing except that they had great taste in cover songs, and I felt that Gary, the guitarist from The Jayhawks, had a great guitar thing, and Jeff obviously had this weird kind of point of view, this charisma about his singer/songwriter personality, but it wasn't really my thing.

"But Carla kept in touch with Jeff," Cline continues, "and, as I've discovered, Jeff was keeping in touch with what I was up to, buying my records and listening to my playing, which he really liked. So Carla opened for Wilco on some shows last year, and I was in the band, we all re-established connections and when Leroy Bach left, Glen Kotche, the drummer, and Jeff thought, 'What if?' So they called me up and, as mercenary as it may sound, I was about to get a day job. I was completely at my wits end, working constantly but not making enough money to pay my bills, driving up and down the coast, not making any money in spite of the fact that I was constantly working.

"I'd turned down a lot of things in the past that could have been lucrative," concludes Cline, "but that just weren't interesting, but Wilco is a band that, to me, has become much more popular as they've become much more interesting. Jeff called Carla to see if it was OK to ask me to join, because I'd been playing with her. She knew I was probably going to have to do this because it was going to actually be a living and not be horrible. She probably half expected me to turn it down because I was always turning down things that would have made money but that I didn't think were interesting. Anyway, I said yes to Jeff and, frankly, it's been a blast."

Watching Cline onstage with Wilco, there's absolutely nothing paradoxical about his being there. While his role is supportive, he still gets his opportunities to stretch out and wail, albeit in a more "rock and roll" context. "I think the reason somebody like me is good for the job is that I really want to fit into the orchestra," Cline explains. "They're a very orchestral band. I just kind of range through their earlier material, because it's more singer/songwriter oriented, but the new material is very specific, I'm playing very specific parts every night. And then I have moments where I get to go off, but you know they're rock band moments, just a few seconds here and there. But it's rewarding because the music is so expressive and it's so wide-ranging stylistically.

"I also think the band is very disciplined in the way that it approaches being an orchestral type of band," Cline continues, "yet there's a certain degree of freedom. In that way it's not unlike groups like The Band, where there's constant riffing going on, tight and loose at the same time. And the funny thing is that during these shows, everybody thinks the band is so unbelievably tight , and I think it's because it's disciplined dynamically. Everyone knows when not to play. But while I have some freedom I also like to be part of something that seems ultimately meaningful. I hate to be just wiggling my fingers all the time. Some people are perplexed, other people think it was an obvious progression, others are completely mystified. Some people really hate the idea of successful bands; other people hate the idea of bands in general. Other people hate the idea of chords. For every person there's something that's potentially taboo. I don't have these boundaries, and yet it has been difficult not to play with Carla, and to not do as much of my own music. But I haven't been able to afford to do my music for a couple of years anyway; I was losing a lot of money and creating an inordinate amount of stress.

"Jeff's feeling is he wants this to go on for ten years," concludes Cline. "I think that the band chemistry is really excellent, I'm really curious what the writing process will turn into, and I think that Jeff wants to get to that sooner than he'll be able to, because it's all about shilling for the new record, A Ghost is Born ,which was totally done before I joined. I saw some stuff in the press, the other day, where I was referred to as "touring guitarist," but that's an assumption, that was never the assignment."

And there's no question that, while Cline is required to fit into a certain amount of predefinition with Wilco, he is bringing his own personality to the band, and causing things to change. "Jeff's a really sharp guy," says Cline, "and he's concerned that the emphasis of the band will be too much touring and constantly playing the same songs, so I think he's trying to figure out how to lighten up. I overheard him say that the recorded versions of some of these songs seem very outmoded now. The thing that's happened, from my standpoint, is that the starkness of some of the tunes is perhaps even starker and the tunes that rock are ramped up, they're ramped way up now. And Jeff's really inspired onstage these days."


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