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.

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