Nels Cline: Intrepid Guitarist

John Kelman By

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Instrumentals and The Giant Pin

The material on Instrumentals and The Giant Pin is equally written with the trio members in mind. "The first piece on Instrumentals , 'A Mug Like Mine,' is just an excuse," says Cline. "All of our pieces are just excuses to interact. And so that's what that is, it's just a very Paul Motian-esque kind of linear thing, a Coltrane-y thing, that's very sparsely mapped out, and we just go off and everyone gets a solo bit, you know, whereas something like 'Slipped Away,' which is the concluding ballad, was written purely for my own enjoyment, but also with the knowledge that these guys, who'd played behind a million singers and whatever, would just play a slow groove and play with Zen-like simplicity, and that's what it takes to play that kind of song. I was writing with my own enjoyment in mind and yet also thinking about them and their abilities.

"I knew that with Scott, for example, I could write a groove tune, if I wanted," Cline continues. "I couldn't do that in my old trio. So, for example, 'Ghost of the Pinata' was an idea I got while listening to an Elliott Sharp gig at Tonic, and he was playing with rhythm machines, but there was this weird kind of highlife groove that he had going, and for some reason I got the idea of a house groove in six, and then it ended up being this kind of jingly jangly thing. It's not a generic sound at all; but I knew that it was something Scott could do."

"Blues, Too," which opens up The Giant Pin , is meant as an homage of sorts to Jim Hall, but with a distinctly Cline-like bent. "The line is a Jim Hall thing," Cline says, "but the rest of the piece is freely improvised, which I think comes more out of the Jimmy Giuffre Three, at least in my mind. It was written a million years ago, pre-Singers, probably when I had an earlier version of my first trio, but it was not a piece that we could effectively play, it was the wrong rhythm section, so it lay dormant, waiting for the right individuals to play it and the thing that delights me, in retrospect, about the recorded version of that song, is that what sounds like a little coda at the end, before we recap the head, is completely improvised. It sounds like a little written tasteful chord moment, like a turnaround back, but it's completely improvised. And it's also less than four minutes long, which is kind of a bizarre achievement for me."

As time has gone on, The Nels Cline Singers has incorporated more of Scott Amendola's live electronics as well. "We started involving more of Scott's electronics," Cline says, "so it's been fun to try to write more with that in mind, to really enable Scott to go off with it. Because when I met him he was working on it but nobody would let him bring it to the gigs, which just spurred me on further to say, 'Bring everything ! Bring it all !' So that's been a pleasure."

And with The Giant Pin Cline, once again, follows his own heart and chooses what simply feels right. "With the last piece on the record, 'Watch Over Us,' says Cline, "like 'Slipped Away' on Instrumentals , ending with another ballad, I went through a thing where I was wondering, 'Am I going to do this again ' and then I thought, 'I don't care, this is exactly how I want to end the record,' and that piece is another thing basically written for my own fascistic world. Having Jon Brion come in and play celeste and harmonium and having Devon and Scott play—I mean, we don't use click tracks or anything, you can't put a click to it, it's all over the place, but it grooves in a nice dirge-like manner—these pieces are ultimately satisfying for me as a listener, they're written as pieces that I think are nice to listen to. I think that while the band chemistry has evolved further on this record, the compositional mix is the same as it is on most of my records, but I love the recorded sound that [engineer] Rich Breen got, I think it's way better than Instrumentals , where we had some trouble with the studio. We went to a better studio this time; it was more comfortable for everybody, and once again finished in record time, it was really productive. I think this and perhaps Destroy All Nels Cline are my favorite to listen to, when I actually listen to my own records every once in a while; these are the two that I tend to gravitate towards."

Cryptogramophone, The Scene and The Future

One of the most noticeable changes on the Left Coast scene in the past five years, and one that has impacted Cline directly, has been violinist/producer Jeff Gauthier's formation of Cryptogramophone Records. "Jeff's idea is to do it right," says Cline, "so everybody gets a session fee, I get a leader's fee—which I try to refuse every time and he insists on. Jeff won't scrimp on the packaging, it's really his dream. He wants it to be what he wants to do or he's not interested. Hopefully their new distribution deal with Ryko will help, because Downbeat polls are voting for Jeff on violin and as a producer, so they're obviously paying attention to the records; somebody's paying attention. Obviously interest in the so-called Left Coast is not going to be as heavy, we don't get that kind of play, which is one of the things that I love about L.A., that we're all basically in the same boat—the 'we're fucked' boat. It's not competitive but I think there are more interesting players in L.A. than ever, with a lot of young players coming out that are really doing some wild stuff and making it good."

Meanwhile, Cline's schedule with Wilco and a handful of gigs to promote the October 26th release of The Giant Pin will keep him more than occupied for the foreseeable future. And while Cline's schedule with Wilco may seem, on the surface, to take him away from his own projects, the fact that he can remain viable playing music can only help to serve his own work in the long run. "I'm gratified that not only am I pleased with the music on The Giant Pin ," says Cline, "but also the design; I got to put my own goofy ideas all over the record visually, and the fact that Cryptogramophone's new packaging smells like printer's ink is extremely satisfying. Carla titled the record because I was unable to come up one. She's in love with the record and she decided to take it upon herself to come up with some ideas for the title. So she titled it The Giant Pin , and I won't go into her definition of the title, but she decided that it should be called that, and of all the different ideas that was the one she was the most married to, and the one I thought was the most intriguing and somehow amusing. I like to keep things, on the surface at least, a little bit light, to have little bits of humor here and there, because it's not my nature at all and it's really not the nature of the music.

"So I think it's tempered a little by a light touch with humor," concludes Cline, "in the midst of all the heavy doom and gloom of my natural tendencies. That's why improvising is so great; the musicians can temper any doctrinaire impulse by contributing their own vision of how the music should be and that really helps me because I not only feed off of other peoples' musical ideas, but it does temper my tendency to go too far with certain things."

Cline may be of the opinion that he goes to extremes with some of his music but, like the best of some of his own musical progenitors, if he didn't take those intrepid risks, then music would never move forward.

Selected Discography
The Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone) (2004)
Buried on Bunker Hill (with Devin Sarno) (Ground Fault) (2003)
Instrumentals (Cryptogramophone) (2002)
Destroy All Nels Cline (Atavistic) (2001)
The Inkling (Cryptogramophone) (2000)
Interstellar Spaces Revisited (with Greg Bendian) (Atavistic) (1999)
Sad (Little Brother) (1998)
Chest (Little Brother) (1996)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Nels Cline

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