Nels Cline’s Dirty Baby

April 23, 2012
A provocative mating of art and music, Dirty Baby [Cryptogramophone] is guitarist and composer Nels Cline and poet and producer David Breskin's re-contextualization of Ed Ruscha's "Censor Strip" paintings. The lavish double-CD box set includes more than 90 minutes of new music by Cline scored for two large ensembles, paired booklets with reproductions of 66 of Ruscha’s pictures, and liner notes by Cline in a third booklet that also includes photos from the sessions. Supporting musicians include some of L.A.'s greatest instrumentalists and improvisers.

I spoke with Cline at length for his June 2012 GP Artists feature. This material was simply too voluminous to include, so it is presented here in very lightly edited form, to reflect the freewheeling nature of our discussion.

Let’s talk about Dirty Baby. I realize there’s a huge back story to this, but please discuss the concept behind it—both in terms of what it represents artistically, and your approach to composing the very different collections of music contained on the two “Sides.”

Bill Frisell put me in touch with David Breskin. He worked with David on the mammoth Richter 858 book project that included music by Bill and a string quartet of sorts, that I believe David Breskin had a lot to do with. In a similar manner to the way that Bill was commissioned to create the music for that book, I was commissioned to write music for his next, Ed Ruscha-based, project. He had envisioned this book, Dirty Baby, as two-sided—as in side A and side B—with both sides featuring lesser-known, non-word works. Ruscha is best known for his paintings that have words on them

I was relieved to find out that he was not using word paintings. I was also inspired by the fact that Side A was to primarily feature what are known as his "Silhouette" paintings, which are frankly my favorite Ed Ruscha works. David picked me not just because he particularly enjoyed the The Giant Pin album by the Nels Cline Singers, but also because he knew that I was from Los Angeles. I think he may have assumed that because of that I was aware of Ed Ruscha, and it turned out he was right.

We got together as he began to formulate this idea more clearly himself, and he told me that he wanted Side A to be a kind of suite with a generally consistent tempo, which it is. There are subdivision and double time sections—but except for rubato elements, the beats per minute remain essentially the same. He gave Miles Davis’ “Great Expectations,” from the Big Fun album, as an example of the kind of vibe he was looking for. Side A is a narrative telling a story of a primordial land, like that of North America—the settling of the land by foreigners and interlopers, pushing Westward, the creation of the idea of property, fences are constructed, indigenous people are pushed out, killed, urban centers are created and consequently suburban areas are populated and isolation sets in. By the end, we’ve sort of returned the land to the land—a more primordial state, which one might imagine could happen. That was the sort of political idea behind some of this, and he was going to write poetry in the form of Persian ghazals, which he did. He was still writing the poetry after I had done the music, but he did have all the paintings chosen and sequenced beforehand.

Side B involves the so-called "Cityscapes," where words were included in the works and then blocked out with bodice center strip pieces—or "censor strips." It was to be 33 individual pieces, ideally a minute or less in length, but I failed in my assignment. They are mostly a minute or more in length, so the album became a double album. In fact, while we were recording David encouraged certain parts to go a little longer. For example, there’s one piece where as we were holding the last note it started to pour rain on the metal roof of the studio, and, of course, we had to keep rolling tape at that point. We did slightly condense the time by taking some of the silence out, but that added about 40 seconds right there.

Backing up a second to Side A—on the one hand you had this thematic linear progression, and on the other you were working in this kind of Miles form where there’s improvisation going on. How did you reconcile those two things?

In retrospect, Side A could have been a lot more coherent than it is. It doesn’t really follow an exact soundtrack-like timeline as you turn the pages. As we were jamming out some of these parts went kind of long. But we also ended up having only a few hours to record Side A. We had a three-day session for the entire thing. That’s my fault. David thought four days would be better and I said, “I’ve never done a record in four days.” So we really could have used that extra day [laughs]. But, also, people’s schedules were really tight. We had one band with nine people and another with ten. Anyway, there was so much setup time, and we experienced some problems in the studio on that first day, so we ended up recording Side A in about four hours.

Was everybody playing together?

Yes. The entire record is 99-percent played in real time, and has only a couple of tiny moments of overdubbing. There were some mixing decisions that amounted to a form of arranging. For example, there’s a piece called “You Dirty Rotten Bitch” on Side B—all of the pieces on Side B have titles that are threats, taken from ransom notes and things like that—which originally had percussion on it, but to keep things a little more balanced, we ended up mixing out the percussion. So, mostly it was mixing decisions that changed the live aspect of it rather than actual overdubs. Even the acoustic guitars switching to electric had to be done in real time.

To try to answer your question, though, David had suggested early-’70s Miles, which I’m very familiar with, as a sort of template. We also had this kind of programmatic idea with the narrative. I think it might even be corny that I chose acoustic guitar and harmonica, and the kind of more, what you might call a rural sound at the beginning that goes urban as it progresses. But it’s liberating ultimately to know that what David wanted was for it to sprawl and connect from one thing to another, rather than to be this very tight mini-soundtrack. So I basically set up a fairly strictly composed structure at the beginning of the record, and by the end we sort of wound up out in the jam world. I expected that David and the engineer, Ron Saint Germain, would ultimately edit those jams down—but they liked them, so they left them. They’re pretty long.

The only real overdubbed piece has two acoustic guitars playing, and I hit one of them to simulate a gate slamming as it is starting out. That piece was added a little later because I felt like I had not addressed a crucial moment that marks the beginning of the idea of property division, separation, and isolation.

On Side A, who was playing the Teo Macero role? Was that the engineer and his assistant or were you also involved?

We were all involved. Certainly Ron Saint Germain and David Breskin go back a long way and have collaborated on many projects, mostly from the ’80s and early ’90s when David was more involved in the music scene in New York. But once it was recorded, that’s what we had. We weren’t going to be to able to call everybody back and say, “Hey, this would work better if we overdubbed this part—let’s try that again.”

How long did it take you to compose all the music?

I learned that 33 pieces is a lot [laughs]. I had procrastinated for various reasons, and so I didn’t start writing it until about a week beforehand. I had been touring a lot, and it was right after my mother passed away, so I was under a lot of stress. I was also dealing with a serious dilemma physically while composing and making that record, and had lost a lot of strength and mobility in my left hand. I really couldn’t play anything with any swiftness, nor could I hold down chords for very long. So, I was struggling with the actual act of playing, not to mention that the project was of a scale I had never attempted before, and I was pretty stressed out about that. I did have some help from a young man named Gavin Templeton. I just hand-wrote all my scores and he entered them into the computer and transcribed them for the other players. On Side B there are some directed improvisations as opposed to thoroughly composed pieces, which made it easier to write them down, but they still needed to become scores, and they still needed to have parts.

Is there a guitar part or a guitar sound that you’re most pleased with on that record?

There are quite a few. I was having trouble playing on the session, and I think I hear this kind of struggle—but there are certain sounds that I do treasure. Side B has so many titles that they tend to blur together, but one piece starts out with me playing the guitar with an electric shaver and then it goes into this big what I call my "’80s Swans" kind of part—huge detuned guitar chords with this sort of “The Rite of Spring” choked gong pattern. I think I’m using a Devi Ever Soda Meiser pedal. When it’s gating there’s this choked sputter closing on a Zvex Box of Metal tone. I really love that sound. And there’s a piece on Side B called “Don’t Threaten Me With Your Threats” that has a really nice lap-steel sound.
A lot of different guitars were involved and everything had to be done extremely quickly, though I just used one amplifier set up in the corner of the studio. It was a Dr. Z Route 66 head with my 12-inch GDM Seymour Duncan extension cabinet that I’ve had since about 1985. The amp itself is sitting in a storage space rotting. I just went to Seymour Duncan and met him and everybody there for the first time about two weeks ago, and I remembered after I had been there for a few hours that I actually had this Seymour Duncan Convertible amp that I had played for years.

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