Nels Cline: Of Singers and Sound

Rex  Butters BY

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Mimi Melnick's Salons feature some of Los Angeles' best improvising musicians in the most intimate of settings—her home, at the top of a hillside overlooking the San Fernando Valley. This afternoon's trio tunes, and tests sound levels. Bass wizard and longtime UCLA professor Roberto Miranda banters with veteran drummer Bert Karl, while the group's lanky guitarist, Nels Cline, studiously tunes a vintage Fender Jazz Master, and a fretless hollow-bodied 11-string that probably exists only in the arsenal of the versatile guitar slinger. Their two hours of exhaustive exploration slip by quickly, and the widely employed Cline rides off to his next sonic adventure.

Busier and more creatively restless than ever, Cline caught his breath long enough to speak by phone from LAX under a blaring public address system. On his way to Japan to play a duo date with paramour Yuka Honda as Fig, Cline would soon be rejoining rockers Wilco as lead shredder. But this afternoon, he had only the startlingly inventive new CD by the Nels Cline Singers, Initiate (Cryptogramophone, 2010) on his mind, and the thousands of threads that weave through the creative consciousness of one of the world's great guitarists.

All About Jazz: You guys sounded great at Mimi's, like three snakes rolling all around each other.

Nels Cline: It was so much fun for me to play with Roberto for the first time since the Bobby Bradford Motet days. I'm curious to hear how the recording came out. I felt really honored to play Mimi's. Loved it, loved it.

AAJ: What was that hollow body fretless electric you played at Mimi's Salon?

NC: It's a Godin Glissentar. It's based on an Armenian instrument. It's an 11-string fretless acoustic/electric guitar and the overall effect of it sonically is very oud-like. Wonderful instrument. They gave it to me. I'd only had it for about two weeks when you saw that thing.

AAJ: How's the road these days?

NC: I keep saying, "Wow, this year is crazier than last year," and it's turning out to be true. But it agrees with me. I'm kind of worried that I might burn out at some point—the skeleton starts to ache. But I love the work and it's easier traveling [and] playing with Wilco, because the accommodations, the hotels, are very nice.

AAJ: How many days a year are you on the road?

NC: I don't know, I don't want to know, because I always do something in between Wilco.

AAJ: The Singers are hitting South America in June.

NC: There's only three dates at this point, but they're good ones: Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Santiago. I've always wanted to go to Buenos Aires and Santiago. I played in Rio de Janero with Wilco a few years ago, but that's it. So that's exciting.

And then the Singers will play the High Sierra Festival in early July. Then we go east to play New York City, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. And I'll just stay there a week and play the Village Vanguard with Jenny Scheinman, Jim Black and Todd Sickafoose—the Mischief and Mayhem band she calls it.

AAJ: Do you check your guitar or carry it on flights?

NC: For Singers' stuff, I'll have to carry a guitar on in a gig bag, but with Wilco there's these big guitar vaults and I don't have to think about it at all. I'm looking forward to the day I can bring more than one guitar on the road playing my own music, like a twelve string, or open tunings, or baritone guitar. Then I'll know I've really arrived.

AAJ: In honor of the first two-CD set by the Singers, do you by any chance remember what was the first two-record set you bought?

NC: Yeah, absolutely: Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 1968). I got that before I got [Cream's] Wheels of Fire (Atco, 1968). My brother—I remember his first double album was probably Living the Blues (Liberty, 1968) by Canned Heat. Actually, Mothers of Invention's Freak Out (Verve, 1966) might've been before that for him, with the price of $5.49 printed right on the cover.

Some good reviews came out yesterday of the new record, which kind of shocked me, but one review mentioned the double record, live/studio thing of it, and mentioned Wheels of Fire, and it's funny, I hadn't really thought of that. Frankly, I was thinking of the live disc as a bonus disc, and it's not really packaged that way, because the record's priced as one CD.

AAJ: And yet, that's a pretty apt analogy: Cream expanded their studio sound on Wheels of Fire, just as you guys expanded your studio sound.

NC: I know, it's really weird I hadn't thought of it.

AAJ: On the studio disc there's a lot of really pretty electronic ornamentation. Is that mostly [drummer] Scott Amendola?

NC: On all our records he uses a pedal board which is mostly guitar effects, and plays either his mbira thumb piano, or runs sounds from one microphone from his drum set and then manipulates it. And then I also do a lot of little stuff live that sounds very processed, but it's just me using all my gadgets. We also had some overdubs here and there for flavor, more percussion on this record, because there's more of a groove, and little cameos adding extra flavor.

AAJ: It's rare to see a Cryptogramophone CD without [label head/violinist Jeff Gauthier producing.

NC: I met David Breskin doing this project called Dirty Baby that's coming out later this year—another double CD. The music accompanies an Ed Ruscha art monograph and poetry by David Breskin— his recontextualization of these lesser known Ruscha works from the mid-'80s to early '90s. He commissioned me to write this music. Ron Saint Germain is his chosen engineer, and he just told me he'd like to produce anything I'd like to do. So, that's the reason for that. David and Jeff get along.

AAJ: And the Super Collider imagery is a metaphor for your giant guitar sound?

NC: The Collider imagery was brought to me by David Breskin for consideration. He showed it to me on his laptop while we were mixing, and I was totally staggered by the beauty and otherworldliness of it—very mandala-like. So I picked which ones I wanted on the outside of the package and let David and Jeff put it all together. I'm not a physicist, but I did like the idea of something that is essentially the world's largest machine and also something that people thought was possibly going to suck us into a black hole and end the world, having a certain kind of unique beauty.

AAJ: The vocals we hear mixed in—are those all you, or did everyone participate?

NC: They're all me—wordless singing, I've now blown the ironic name of the band.

AAJ: Are you developing a vocal side?

NC: I sing with Yuka in Fig, but no, I don't think so. Initiate, disc one has a concept that's not a new direction for the band as much as a different kind of record, which is to say a little warmer, at times a little sunnier and groovier and dronier—just less jazz syntax and less noise overall. Not that there isn't noise, of course. But then through all that, you just get the live disc and get right into our usual impact.

AAJ: I like the bookending of "Into It."

NC: Well, that was David Breskin's idea to end the album with a remix. So, Ron Saint Germain and I remixed it and I asked Yuka to play a little synthesizer on it, to take my voice out of it, and make it sound a little different—replace my voice with her synthesizers as a melodic voice. And you can play it over and over again like a circle, like the Hadron Collider. Actually, that theme recurs again in the middle of the record, at the end of the piece called "Redline to Greenland." So, we're going for a weird built-in symmetry.

AAJ: You get pretty funky on "Floored."

NC: Blatant '70s Miles Davis reference. We'd been playing that for awhile without some of the little riffs thrown in—there are only a couple. And it didn't have a title for a long time, so we threw that in as a little voila moment, channeling John McLaughlin and Chick Corea with Miles damage.

AAJ: Scott and [bassist] Devin [Hoff]are pretty powerful on that.

NC: Those guys know how to groove. The fact that they can do that is another reason that starting the Singers was different, because the feel was going to better than my previous groups, but beyond that, since that capability exists, I feel free to do things that aren't super obvious for me because I know it's going to be groovin.'

AAJ: Then you slow things down with "Divining."

NC: Yeah, that's one of my favorites. It's kind of just like "Blue in Green" [from Miles Davis' classic Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)]. It's a reference to some of that glorious early '70s Fender Rhodes jazz. For me, it's a blatant reference to Latin- tinged jazz at the beginning.

People have mentioned [guitarist] Grant Green when they hear the guitar solo. I was playing in an open tuning, so I was trying to negotiate that. But I was trying to get a whiff of '70s George Benson in there, and Wes Montgomery certainly, but then the ending—which is pretty psychedelic, except for the percussion—is all live performance, [and] to me is redolent of Brazilian psychedelic music, which I love so much.

Some of those so-called Tropicalia artists—Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and also people I've listened to for years like Egberto Gismonti, and people that I'm just getting into now that I kinda missed like Tom Ze. Not so say that it's a Brazilian thing, but the subdivided triangle I asked Scott to play in there—that kind of build, and the voice added there—I wanted it to have a little Tropicalia psychedelia.

AAJ: Then things get going again on "Redline to Greenland."

NC: That's kind of a rock tune we wrote collaboratively, Devin, Scott, and me. It's not really much of a song. It was based around a groove on this old Electro Harmonics drum machine I have. I'm not sure how serious a tune it is, but when you listen to it in the car it sounds serious, and it blows your car up, so that's cool.

For the first time on any of my own records, I play a guitar solo that's a little bit wanky, maybe at least a little bit, trying to deal with my earlier influences, which are sort of oozing out of me these days: Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, primarily, but also Ernie Isley. I never wanted to do that on any of my own records, but it sort of feels right sometimes. With Greenland mentioned in the news alongside the concept of Global Warming, the title's a roundabout way of saying it's urgent we address this, not that we can address it with instrumental music. I was just hoping for a positive future.

I actually shook Jeff Beck's hand. I saw him in a hotel bar in Hollywood where everyone in Wilco was staying except me. I just walked up to him and shook his hand and scampered away. I didn't try to talk to him or tell him I'm a guitarist or anything. But that was fun. He looked just like Jeff Beck.

AAJ: How did you arrive at the "Mercy" (Supplication and Procession) arrangements?

Nels Cline Singers, from left: Scott Amendola, Devin Hoff, Nels Cline

NC: The two "Mercy" themes are the same, it's just that the "Mercy Procession" is an expanded march. It was an old piece from my old trio days that never got played more than once. It was written when I had my concert series at the Alligator Lounge, when a good friend of mine was diagnosed with having a lump in her breast. Sometimes I used to just write things at the bar at the Alligator Lounge, these little sketches or squibs, and then we'd play them. That one was written at my house the afternoon before the Monday night gig. We played it just once, as I recall, and then it just sat in the filing cabinet. I was going through it to see if there was anything I'd overlooked that I could readdress, and that was the only piece from the old days that I dragged out.

It was David Breskin's idea to have a small duet version with Devin, and then the full expanded version as it was originally created, which was the procession thing. So, supplication and procession were parenthetical title additions. It was originally just called "Mercy."

When I heard "Procession," and Scott overdubbed a whole other drum set on that, that's kind of working in my usual wheel house—some kind of ritual aspiring toward transformational catharsis music with repetition, boiling dynamics and all that stuff. But when I heard it back, I thought it sounded like Godspeed You! Black Emperor with a Paul Bley intro.

That's the kind of thing I like to do with anybody, not just the Singers, because that's what I like to listen to. That's what feels good to me. Everything else is sort of foreign territory, and I'm struggling just to see if I can do things. I'm kind of at home in that terrain. I like the way Ron Saint Germain mixed that one.

Somebody recently wrote that that's a tribute to Joe Zawinul, I guess because they were thinking of "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." I'd have to say if anything was a tribute to Joe Zawinul, besides us jamming out on "Boogie Woogie Waltz" on the live record, "King Queen" is like a Zawinul tribute. Because I used his architecture of opening statement, and then a new exciting closing statement that repeats and puts you in some sort of state of ecstasy. Which I love about his music, at its best, is how joyous it can be without being in any way sweet.

AAJ: David Witham's organ on "King Queen" gives it a Carlos Santana feel.

NC: I didn't even think of the Santana thing until I heard it mixed. Really what it is was: Devin and Scott and I had been driving around in the van listening to a lot of '70s West African pop—compilations, mostly. After listening to much Juju and Afro Beat, and all kinds of music from Senegal and Mali, I started getting these grittier compilations at the record stores.

It's great driving music. There's what's called fuzz funk and all this stuff that I love, and from that experience of driving around with them listening to that, that I decided it would be fun to try to play some of that stuff on a record just for the hell of it. I'm not sure it's all that convincing to be playing a backwards Afro Beat groove in 6/4, and like I said, it's not a new direction for the band, it's just something I thought would be fun to do.

I actually went out and got a Vox Jaguar organ for David to play, because I love those Vox Jaguar Farfisas that are on those '70s records, wheezing away with tons of reverb. So it's a fairly overt and even maybe slavish reference to that music.

Although sometimes I have my doubts about how advisable it was to try to tackle that, because I think that stuff can be deadly, kind of like tourist. But I love hearing the riff at the end; it's fun for me to hear that. For what it's worth, my desire to do something that could be celebratory, that you could get in the body and not just the head, was sincere. And not to be taken too seriously.

AAJ: "Get Closer" reminded me of Sandy Bull's Turkish musings.

NC: My working title for that was "Egberto," because I was thinking of Egberto Gismonti. But it ends up sounding like some kind of Ali Farka Toure thing to me. It's not supposed to be any of those things. There's also a Ralph Towner element to the introduction. Once again open tuned, I think it's a little bit Maliesque.

Also, I'd been listening to a Touareg band—the Touareg people primarily led by the band Tinariwen and other groups that followed them. They're nomads displaced from Mali, but also Algeria. It's kind of blues-based, but droning, beautiful electric guitar and vocal music. Without trying to imitate that, I just wanted to get a whiff, a waft. It's just a melody I had that I played with an open tuning, it felt good, so I made a song out of it.

AAJ: Isn't that how it always works? "Scissor Saw" brings you back to Industrial mode.

NC: That was inspired by hearing a Mike Patton gig with my friend Peek, a photographer up in San Francisco, and the DJ was playing some insane beautiful mysterious industrial thing. And I just got this idea and planned it in my head.

Similarly, I once heard Elliott Sharp playing with DJ Disk, and they did this kind of break beat thing that inspired me to do a track on the first Singers album called "Ghost of the Pinata." Sometimes I just go hear somebody do something and I'll make a mental note to try to approach that just from the memory of it. I wasn't trying to recreate it, because I don't remember specifically what I heard.

That Mike Patton gig—I just remember the feeling of the thing was so dark, and at the same time super alluring and not really punishing. So, I just said to Scott, "Here's what I'd like you to do: make a loop with this in mind, about this tempo. I'm going to go get a drink of water," and when I came back he had that wacky thing going.

Essentially, other than editing out a few of my repetitions, that's a live performance as well, but an edited version of a 12-minute jam where we just started messing around and recorded the whole thing. I kinda took the middle out, kept the beginning and the end, and then just fade in, fade out.

Basically, it's a palate cleanser, and I think it's just there to show that we improvise in different ways, because it is an improvisation, it's just directed by me. I said, "Here's our idea, now let's go." Besides which, you can't have too much sun, or I just wilt. A little too wistful, or breezy, or percolating, we need to get into a darker shade.

AAJ: And speaking of wistful, you go right into "b86."

NC: Right, which is more space jazz, and for me in a weird way, inspired, more in retrospect—once I hear these things back, I sometimes go like, whoa, what it sounds like to me is some kind of ECM Ellingtonia. Billy Strayhornish harmonic information at the beginning, something like "Blood Count." Then just space-out rubato stuff, which makes me think of the first Weather Report record, or you think Jan Garbarek will come with tons of reverb over that chord at the end. It's just stuff that oozes out of my consciousness unavoidably.

AAJ: "Zingiber" is a beautiful duet with Devon.

NC: That's a little written thing with more psychedelic Tropicalia reference at the end. It's just this idea of sparkle, like the introduction of the record—this idea of walking into a magic garden, very sensual, not all that musically advanced, but maybe have a feeling that's a little transporting without being punishing. I do enough punishing on the live record.

AAJ: There are so many great examples on this record where you play unaltered, straightforward, unprocessed guitar—it's a good reminder of just how much technique you bring.

NC: Oh, cool. Well, that's electric baritone guitar on that. I love the baritone guitar.

AAJ: Custom made?

NC: No, they're all around these days. Same guitar I used on earlier pieces by the Singers, one called "Cajun Heart Blues" on Draw Breath (Cryptogramophone, 2007), and also a ballad on the first record, "Slipped Away," which is still one of my favorites of our recorded works.

AAJ: How many shows were recorded for the live record?

NC: The live record is the second night of two nights at Café Du Nord—the entire first set and first song from the second set, in the sequence we played them in. We got all warmed up on the second night, the sound was all dialed in, we were more relaxed, probably feeling a little less under the microscope, and there it is, warts and all.

The beginning of the live record, which is "Forge," is also a blatant kind of repetition that is sort of King Crimson/Mahavishnu Orchestra, with Scott Amendola doing all this electronic processing underneath it. And then it goes into a piece from Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone, 2004) called "Fly Fly," which we didn't do the first night. Excuses to improvise—that's what we look for when we're playing live.

And the piece called "Raze" has never been written out; it's just a series of cues that we came up with during rehearsals for the gig, having gotten back together. It's just cues, there's not much writing involved. It's just for a heightened immersion in distorted sound. "Sunken Song" is from The Inkling (Cryptogramophone, 2000), but I've been playing that for years now. As part of our repertoire, we play it faster and louder than the version on the Inkling. That head, which is one of my favorites because it's so short—I finally did something that's almost like a lead sheet. To me, it's a real nod to John Scofield with the quality it has, melodically, rhythmically, harmonically.

AAJ: The inclusion of "Boogie Woogie Waltz" was a great surprise. It comes off as one of those songs that's so iconic you never expect a cover, and then you hear the cover and it's brilliant. It opens unexpected doors in a familiar, beautiful tune.

NC: There's a lot of clams on it, but I just let them go. I'd get excited, and I'm looking around at my friends from Deerhoof that are playing percussion, banging on floor tom, doing what they're doing. I'm really fascinated by songs that are, as you call them, iconic, but no one plays them. Sometimes it's because they seem untouchable, like playing "Acknowledgment" from [John Coltrane's] A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964)...

AAJ: Or doing the Interstellar Space (Impulse, 1967) album.

NC: Right, right, exactly. But other times, you just have to wonder. I just revel in the idea that no one's playing this. When Joe Zawinul passed away, we did a concert at Café Du Nord with the Singers plus the brilliant Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker, and we played some Ornette Coleman, and little of this and a little of that, one of Scott's tunes, a couple of my tunes, but we ended with "His Last Journey," from Zawinul's solo record called Zawinul (Atlantic, 1971). It's a tone poem for his grandfather, certainly a harbinger of future brilliant tone poems by Joe Zawinul, and I really have to say that sometimes I actually set aside my doubts and self consciousness and say, "I think was a really cool idea because I bet nobody's ever covered this song." And we did it our own way, but it's still "His Last Journey."

So, sometimes I kind of dig doing songs that no one seems to do that sometimes are really obvious, like "Boogie Woogie Waltz." Seems like someone would have done it. Maybe they played it in college. I don't know what kids are doing in college these days, but I haven't heard anybody else play it. When Zawinul died, it had a weird effect on me, like when John Fahey died. It had a larger and more multifaceted effect on me than I could have predicted. It threw me into a whole series of different reveries, then thought processes.

David Breskin is a Joe Zawinul/Wayne Shorter fiend, and I went back and started listening to the early Weather Report records, which are the only ones I'm particularly enamored with, and I once again began to inhale that joyous reinvention of pentatonic music. He makes pentatonic scales sound like the freshest thing ever. Not to mention, he has harmonic brilliance as well.

Pieces like "Nubian Sundance," but also "Jungle Book," for me, are so phenomenal and so incredibly inspiring. So, I just started going back to that feeling, listening to "Orange Lady" and "Second Sunday in August"—these kinds of things. And I think, now that we're talking about it, here's another weird parallel, what about I Sing the Body Electric (Columbia, 1972), US release, with the studio side very studio, and the live stuff very live. I don't think anybody expected Weather Report to get up there and do something that sounded like "Unknown Soldier."

Anyway, we've played it three times, twice at Café du Nord, and once at the Angel City Jazz Festival. For me it's always pointing a finger, saying hey, check this out, or reexamine this, or hear it for the first time. Payback.

AAJ: On "Now the Queen" you sound like Joe Morris at certain points.

NC: Interesting. That's how we play live. We play really tiny and we play really huge, and I've always done that since I started leading my own group. Anybody who's known me since my late teens knows I'm obsessed with Paul Bley's music, specifically his playing with Carla Bley and Annette Peacock, and have played certain of those pieces for years. And "Now the Queen," the Singers had never played live until that Café Du Nord engagement, and Scott and Devin, I don't think they'd ever even heard it before. But there's not much to it.

It's one of those beautiful little squibs that I think Paul would say to Carla, "Carla, I have gig tonight, write me a new song." I've been obsessed with that music since I was 19. I toss it out there every once in a while because I enjoy the challenge of trying to get my ear going and approximate what I consider to be the amazing free harmonic brilliance but still with all kinds of blues inflection of Paul Bley's music, especially from that period, the '60s and '70s.

So that's why we do it, just to play free and play quietly, no looping, no delays, no distortion. You know, "Blues, Too"—people are writing that I dedicated it to Jim Hall that night, but in the notes on Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone, 2004) where it first appeared, it's always been dedicated to Jim Hall. It's an attempt to pay homage, not just to Jim Hall, but to a sensibility about jazz improvisation that was born out of the West Coast Cool School, particularly the Jimmy Giuffre Three, and then as they morphed into the NY Jimmy Giuffre Three, then you have Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, and some of the most influential music on me that's ever existed.

Jim Hall remains to me a total inspiration, somebody who's never played it safe, someone who constantly tries ideas he doesn't play every time, and have such an amazing harmonic sense. Everything about him screams genius to me—non-generic jazz genius.

Selected Discography

Nels Cline Singers, Initiate (Cryptogramophone, 2010)

Nels Cline, Coward (Cryptogramophone, 2009)
Nels Cline and G.E. Stinson, Elevating Device (Sounds Are Active, 2009)
Wilco, The Album (Nonesuch, 2009)
Acoustic Guitar Trio, Vignes (Long Song Records, 2009)

Jeff Gauthier, House of Return (Cryptogramophone, 2008)
Nels Cline Singers, Draw Breath (Cryptogramophone, 2007)
Wilco, Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch, 2007)
Nels Cline Singers, New Monastery: A View Into the Music of Andrew Hill (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
Jeff Gauthier, One and the Same (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
Nels Cline Singers, The Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone, 2004)
Nels Cline Singers, Instrumentals (Cryptogramophone, 2002)
Jeff Gauthier, Mask (Cryptogramophone, 2002)
Nels Cline, Destroy All Nels Cline (Atavistic, 2000)
Nels Cline, The Inkling (Cryptogramophone, 2000)
Nels Cline/Gregg Bendian, Interstellar Space Revisited [Live] (Atavistic, 1999)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 3: Courtesy of Cryptogramophone Records

Pages 2, 4, 5: Beth Herzhaft, Courtesy of Cryptogramophone Records

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