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Nels Cline: Wilco and Beyond

June 19, 2012
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“I’m never anywhere for more than two WEEKS,” says the globetrotting and preternaturally prolific Nels Cline, who was “camped out” in a New York City brownstone with his similarly prolific wife, Yuka Honda, and her roommate when this interview took place. “I love it here in New York, and eventually Yuka and I will set up a household, but there just hasn’t been time yet.”

What’s kept Cline on the move? For starters he’s been touring the world with Wilco in support of the band’s Grammy nominated latest release The Whole Love [dBpm], a detail-rich musical tapestry that showcases Cline’s pop artistry within a multiple-guitar context that also includes superb playing by songwriter and lead vocalist Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone.

In addition to playing with Wilco, Cline has been involved with numerous other musical projects of late, such as Dirty Baby, a major work inspired by the photographs of Ed Ruscha for which he composed and recorded 39 pieces, and The Veil, an improvised live recording with saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer/laptop manipulator Jim Black. Other current and upcoming releases featuring Cline include a duet album with pianist Motoko Honda, The Gowanus Sessions with Thollem McDonas and William Parker, Lee Ranaldo’s Between the Times & the Tides, Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief & Mayhem, a Martha Wainwright album produced by his wife, and Tommy Bolin and Friends, Great Gypsy Soul, on which Cline “jams” with Bolin posthumously. The guitarist also contributed a “droning loop” to a song on Tinariwen’s Grammy winning Tassili.

This year, Cline hopes to record another Nels Cline Singers disc, collaboration albums with both his wife and Thurston Moore, and a collection of orchestrated ’60s mood music called Lovers. He would also like to record an album with an ensemble comprising electro- acoustic guitars, prepared piano, two clarinets, percussion, acoustic bass, and strings. “That’s my most obsessive compositional goal right now,” he enthuses. “Though I have the distinct feeling that it’s not a record that anybody is really going to want to hear!”

There’s an extensive story behind Dirty Baby, but give us a thumbnail of the project.

David Breskin commissioned me to write music to accompany two books of works by Pop Art pioneer Ed Ruscha. Side A comprises a suite of six compositions done in a style somewhat inspired by Miles Davis’ ’70s-era recordings, played by a nine-piece ensemble, and Side B is made up of 33 individual pieces played by a ten-piece ensemble. Each “side” fills a CD, and the discs are packaged in an arty box along with three booklets containing images of the artwork and information and photos related to the project. The whole album was done in three days, and tracked live with practically no overdubs. I’d written all of the material the week before. I played a lot of different guitars, but the only amp I used was a Dr. Z Route 66 head through an old 12" EVM Seymour Duncan extension cabinet. [For the complete story read Nels Cline’s Dirty Baby on guitarplayer.com.]

Talk briefly about The Veil.

It wasn’t a planned release. We did two shows at the Stone in New York in 2010, and it was only the second or third time we’d played together. A friend of Jim Black’s taped both sets. It was summer, the place was packed, and it was about 105 degrees in there. The music was entirely improvised and I felt like it was really good. Jim plays with an amazing amount of subtlety and nuance, but also with an incredible rhythmic drive. On a couple of tunes he also played bass on a laptop with one hand while playing drums with the other. And, of course, Tim’s alto sax playing is incredible and quite distinct. The engineer’s original mix sounded very safe, and I wanted the mixes to sound the way the music felt, which was pretty overwhelming, so I remixed the record with input from Tim.

Moving on to The Whole Love, the first track sounds almost like prog at some points, including the unusual groove. How did that happen?

Glenn Gotche came up with that groove, and it turned everything around, because the song had originally been demoed with this down-tempo kind of feel. At the very end, as we were sort of falling apart, Glenn played that beat as a flight of fancy and Jeff got really attached to it. He wondered what it would sound like if the whole song had that beat, so he overdubbed drums on the demo to try it out. Then Mike Jorgensen ended up putting all this analog synthesizer stuff on it and it turned into a whole other tune. The coda, which was essentially my guitar solo, was added later. Jeff just thought it would be great if the song stopped and then started back up and just really went for it. It was a very fortuitous route, and far more unobvious than even some of the most elaborate schemes that Jeff or the band has come up with. For me, it was very heartwarming and delightful that it ended up being the lead track because I think it’s a very bold and unequivocal starting point.

There are sometimes three guitarists playing at once on The Whole Love. What are a few examples of layered guitars that you are particularly pleased with?

On a very subtle level “Rising Red Lung” is a good example. I’m playing my Neptune electric 12-string, Pat’s playing his Tele, and Jeff’s playing acoustic. It’s a beautiful texture, and the guitars stay out of each other’s way. The same is true of “Born Alone,” where it’s three electric guitars with Pat and Jeff holding down the sort of verse groove. The intro is Pat and Jeff playing this backand- forth strumming thing, then I play the melody with that wild sound, and after that I play all single-line stuff other than a little slide part. That’s a pretty effective threeguitar assault.

Has the evolution of your role within Wilco been pretty much what you imagined it might be when you joined the band?

It’s pretty much as I imagined, though I didn’t have a lot of preconceptions. I see myself as a support player. I’ve had to emerge as this sort of hot-hand guitar personality playing blistering leads periodically —but that’s not my main role. One delightful surprise has been the popularity of the “Impossible Germany” multiguitar anthem, which we play every night and is kind of a ritual at this point. I find it heartwarming because the song fits into the lineage of some of my favorite guitarcentric forays by bands such as Television, the Allman Brothers Band, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. I never thought my life would include any sort of iconic guitar moment.

Switching gears, your Fender Jazzmasters and other primary guitars have a longer-thantypical string length behind the bridge. Why is playing behind the bridge such an important part of your approach?

My love for playing behind the bridge began when I realized a lot of the sounds I was hearing on Sonic Youth records were produced that way. Those strings provide a whole world of overtones and possible timbres, which is particularly important to me while doing free improvisation, because I may end up in an area of pure timbre. I have the bridges on my guitars set up specifically so I know what notes those are behind the bridge, and I write parts based on that knowledge. I can also get powerfully expressive sounds playing them with a spring or a bottleneck or whatever, which frees me from the familiarity of the sounds on the other side of the bridge. And sometimes I’ll just play an up-picked stroke behind the bridge before I hit a massive power chord, which is an exciting sound.

Some of those sounds are microtonal. How does microtonality fit into your aesthetic generally?

Asian music and the music of artists like Harry Partch and Sonic Youth have led me to an interest in a nonsystematic kind of microtonality that’s usually to be found somewhere on my records. For example, there’s a piece on Dirty Baby on which I play in an open tuning with screwdrivers under the strings to create two false bridges, and that yielded some interesting intervals. And I’ll often play unison strings that are slightly out of tune with each other to create a natural chorusing effect. I’m drawn to just intonation, microtonal tunings, and divisions of the octave in microtonal increments—but even just two electric rock guitars that are slightly out of tune with each other create a glorious microtonal sound. I’ll also play unison notes in standard tuning while soloing, and bend them in and out of tune to achieve a similar sound.

Speaking of bends, it seems like you use fewer of them than many guitarists.

I did intentionally stop bending notes in the ’70s, when I was growing away from influences like Hendrix and John McLaughlin, and then I played acoustic more than electric for a long time in the ’80s—but now I find myself hearing bends more often. Sometimes it’s an obvious choice, like when I’m playing “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed” from the first Wilco album, which is begging for a more straightforward rock solo. I could try to put my style on it, but I’m not hearing it. I’m hearing Neil Young [laughs]. Or sometimes I’ll wander into Hendrix territory when playing “Too Far Apart.” The Hendrix spirit enters me in the most unexpected moments, and then I’m bending notes. But I still don’t do that much bending. At some point I did start doing the wiggle on the tremolo bar— which is very un-jazz—but it just started happening and I liked the sound. It wasn’t a big conscious moment.

Vibrato is often a key part of a player’s sound. Talk about the role of the vibrato bar and finger vibrato in your playing.

When I started out in the late ’60s, my vibrato was incredibly fast, which was common then, especially among West Coast players like Jorma Kaukonen and John Cippolina. Then Eric Clapton came along and everything got slow, followed by Mick Ronson with an even slower and wider vibrato. That’s when it became an issue for me. It got to the point where if you played with fast vibrato you were considered lame. Then you had the so-called jazz-fusion players who took very different approaches, from Bill Connors’ beautiful neo-Clapton slow vibrato to John McLaughlin’s itchier vibrato, which I think was due to the massive amount of energy flowing through him. I was particularly attracted to McLaughlin’s playing with Miles, but he didn’t use a lot of vibrato on that stuff. It kind of came and went, and I think that’s how I play. It’s not always there. And other than wiggling the bar really quickly, when I use vibrato in my own music I think it is pretty normal sounding— not too wide, or too slow or fast. It’s kind of just there and it’s tasteful.

The Z.Vex Fuzz Factory is one of your staple pedals. How do you keep it under control, or not?

I love the Fuzz Factory! The thing that’s crucial is that I have it after my DigiTech Whammy pedal, which instantly helps control or in some cases eliminate the aleatoric aspects that some people find undesirable. When I’m standing in the right place, I can hit notes that will sustain indefinitely by using the Fuzz Factory alone or in tandem with my Klon Centaur or other overdrive pedal. And sometimes I’ll put the toggle switch on my Jazzmaster in the middle setting, which further cancels out a lot of the noise to get that pure sine wave. Another thing I like about it is the disgusting grunge, which makes me think happily of people like Neil Young, not that he uses pedals to get distortion. As far as settings go, I keep the Volume knob about halfway up, and the other controls in approximately the same place, and I don’t use the Gate unless I’m looking for coughing noises. Also, you can set the controls so that when you turn the guitar volume off a note pops out. I’ll set the controls so that the note is useful in a general way, and while I’m soloing I’ll turn the volume knob up and down, and let that note pop out in between the notes I’m playing. Then sometimes I turn my volume knob off and just jump down to the floor and twist knobs and have a Theremin!

You also have other fuzz and overdrive pedals on the board. What are they, and why do you need them?

When I play my own music, I don’t have as many overdrive choices. I always have a Fuzz Factory and I always have an overdrive. Ideally I start with an amp that has a good clean sound with some low mids and not too much treble, and then I do everything else with pedals. Without a good clean sound I’m lost. Having an overdrive pedal like a Centaur or a Sarno Music Solutions Earth Drive is like having an amp in a box. You can create all these different driven amplifier sounds with one pedal. Then I’ll have a distortion device, which can vary. My favorite for years has been the ’70s Marshall Guv’nor distortion, but I also like the Jam Pedals Rattler and Rattler 2, which are beefed up versions of the Pro Co Rat that have more gain and are less mushy sounding. And I love the Z.Vex Box of Metal. It’s very flexible. The tone knobs really work and it’s got a cool gate for sputtering effects. Those are the pedals I use in my own music.

With Wilco I need to sculpt various types of distorted sounds, and I need to get two different overdriven sounds without having to reach down and twist knobs. For that I use either an old Crowther Audio Hotcake, which produces a massive overdriven sound, or an Earth Drive, which gives me about ten different sounds, or my current favorite the Crazy Tube Circuits Starlight, which has plenty of gain and sustain. Then I have the Fulltone ’69 germanium fuzz which I use for Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck sounds, and a Crazy Tube Viagra for clean boost.

Is there anything about your playing you’d like to change?

I think I have too many notes buzzing in my head, hence my attraction to McLaughlin, Coltrane, and Indian music. And when I play with Wilco, or on something like a singersongwriter session, my main directive is to play as simply and with as few notes as possible, but with some sort of noticeable sonic quality or rhythmic feel—some kind of thing that frankly they don’t teach in schools. People don’t want to hear a bunch of busy crap all over their songs. I don’t try to play like that, but left to my own devices I play things that sound incredibly simple to me, but there may be grace notes or some little brisk scale passage from one note to the next that to me are just like connective tissue, and the next thing I know everybody’s like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” There were a few times Jeff Tweedy said, “That’s a really cool sound and I like the direction, but can you play it as though you have two of your fingers tied together?” That’s a challenge for me, and sometimes it’s irritating—but generally I want people who may be geniuses in that realm to weigh in, and I want to do what is going to succeed for them. I don’t want to just throw my thing on there and say, “Hey, you got me, so this is what you get.”

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