Nels Cline

“MANY THINGS HAVE LED ME TO WHERE I AM NOW,” says Nels Cline, describing his extraordinary musical evolution.
Publish date:
Updated on

MANY THINGS HAVE LED ME TO WHERE I AM NOW,” says Nels Cline, describing his extraordinary musical evolution. “I yearn to stay connected to these experiences, so sometimes the sounds that represent them just emerge and float to the surface in the most unexpected ways. Instead of suppressing them, I try to honor them.”

Attempting to place Cline in a convenient stylistic box is an exercise in futility. Yes, he’s an electric jazz guitarist who cites George Benson and Howard Roberts as early heroes. But he also spent years playing acoustic nylon-string and 12-string, inspired by Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonti. Then there’s his passion for the aural anarchy of the Minutemen and Sonic Youth, as well as a life-long obsession with Jimi Hendrix. All these influences—and more— surface in Cline’s playing, often within the same piece of music. In addition to his active solo career, the 54-year-old plays lead guitar with alt-rockers Wilco, a gig he has held since 2004.

A prolific guitarist, Cline has played on more than 150 albums, running the gamut of country, jazz, experimental, and pop music. “You can probably find a lot of these records in the 99¢ bin,” Cline laughs, “and many I made in the ’80s have me playing horrible guitar. I don’t think you’ll sense much identity there. It’s nice to think that at this point, my approach to guitar has some coherence or an element of identity, but it’s not really conscious on my part. I’m the poster boy for late blooming, I’ll tell you.”

Cline’s new double album, Initiate [Cryptogramophone], perfectly illustrates his multifaceted musical persona. Both discs feature the Nels Cline Singers, a trio consisting of Cline, bassist Devin Hoff, and drummer Scott Amendola, occasionally augmented by guest keyboardists and percussionists. The studio disc includes loops and swirling, feedback-laced guitar textures, juxtaposed with compositions that suggest Brazilian and West African rhythms and melodies. The live disc, culled from a show at San Francisco’s Café Du Nord, pays homage to Sonny Sharrock, Thurston Moore, and Lifetimeera John McLaughlin with an edgy mix of squalling dissonance and high-velocity free-jazz improvisations.

Where did you record Initiate’s studio disc, and how long did you take to track it?
We recorded it in Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California, and tracked it in a luxurious three days. My previous records were done in one or two days, so this felt extravagant.

There’s a mysterious, elusive quality to these pieces. Some sound as if you performed them live as a trio, others appear to be sonic creations.
A good example of a piece that may sound like a studio creation, but really isn’t, is “Divining.” That’s a live group performance with no overdubs, in terms of guitar. Toward the end, I overdubbed the voice and Scott overdubbed some Brazilian-style percussion, but that’s all.

Conversely, and to a certain extent more conventionally for me, “Mercy (Procession)” is a piece that illustrates the methodology I use when I’m recording something that really should be played by two or three guitarists. We begin with a live trio performance and then I add—dare I use the term—a noise and feedback track, and a slightly outof- tune doubled track. So there are three guitars on that tune.

Similarly, on “Grow Closer” I layered my cheap, detuned Silvertone acoustic on top of the electric track. But once again, it’s a pretty simple methodology— just a trio performance with the acoustic added later, along with shakers, bells, and whatnot. That’s my fake West African sound. I used to call the piece “Egberto,” after [Brazilian composer and guitarist] Egberto Gismonti, but it’s really a little bit more Senegalese or Malian than Brazilian. The whole vibe of the record is this weird attempt to mix all these elements I wasn’t really allowing into the Singers—or even in my own vocabulary—until now.

“Grow Closer” offers echoes of ’60s guitarists Gabor Szabo and Sandy Bull. Did you ever listen to either of them?
That’s an interesting call. I never listened much to Sandy, but I’ve definitely been listening to Gabor, thanks to my friend [Tortoise guitarist] Jeff Parker, who inspired me to reinvestigate him. I should also mention certain aspects of “Grow Closer”— particularly the introduction and the way the piece resolves—are very Ralph Towner to me. I can’t get Ralph out of my blood. He has been a massive influence on me from the time I was about 18.

Did you hear him first in Oregon or as a soloist?
Like a lot of people listening to jazz-rock in the ’70s—this was before it was called fusion—I first heard him on the second Weather Report record, I Sing the Body Electric. He does this stunning 12-string introduction to “The Moors.” I just couldn’t believe my ears when I heard it. Then I found out he’d played with the Paul Winter Consort. About that time, I bought his Trios/Solos album and Oregon’s Distant Hills. Both became absolute crucial formative records for me, not just guitarwise, but aesthetically.

Most listeners would associate Oregon, Paul Winter Consort, and Towner with purely acoustic, highly composed music. Yet you embrace electronic sounds and often conjure sonic mayhem. How do you bridge these seemingly contradictory worlds?
I’m not sure how to explain it, but I’ll try. In the mid ’80s, I was playing with saxophonist Julius Hemphill and in the West Coast edition of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. At that point, I’d also played on free jazz records by the likes of Vinny Golia and Tim Berne. But my rockand- roll aesthetic had been reborn in the late ’70s with the advent of what’s now very broadly and pointlessly called punk rock, but then had a more specific meaning. It wasn’t so much a style as a nihilistic and fundamental attitude. Tom Verlaine and Television— which I don’t consider to be punk rock— reinvigorated my interest in rock, as did the Patti Smith Group, the Clash, the Jam, and later the Minutemen and Sonic Youth.

I was trying to digest this information while playing acoustic nylon-string, steelstring, and 12-string with Quartet Music, a group I was in for over 11 years with the late bassist and composer Eric von Essen—who is probably my greatest musical teacher— my brother Alex, and violinist Jeff Gauthier. Quartet Music played compositions of great delicacy and, to a certain extent, harmonic and rhythmic complexity.

So I was leading a weird double life, both functionally and internally, and it started to drive me insane. Part of me thought I had to be Pat Martino or Joe Pass and learn to play bebop, and the other part of me just wanted to detune the guitar and make sounds like Bad Moon Rising by Sonic Youth. I almost quit music because I felt so stressed about this dichotomy. A person of greater psychological and aesthetic fortitude could have easily made it through this little thicket, but for me it was a massive philosophical dilemma I couldn’t resolve.

So what happened?
I finally resolved it by starting my own band for the first time—called the Nels Cline Trio, very original—and deciding to write music to please myself.

How did you approach composing the music for Initiate?
The process was completely different from my earlier records. This time, I hardly had anything finished. We rehearsed for four days prior to recording, and that’s probably the most we’ve rehearsed ever in eight years. Normally, we get together once before a gig and then work out new material by playing it live. But here I was with all these fragments, so it helped that David Breskin, who produced Initiate, wanted to be involved with shaping the album. He knew I had all these fragments, and it was nice to have him weigh in periodically with suggestions for using them.

For example, I didn’t have anything written for the opening of the record, though I knew I wanted it to start as if you walk into a magic garden and are simultaneously dazzled and invited to explore it. I came up with that brief melody—which I based on singing, not on playing—in the rehearsals. It was David’s idea to have it recur in a different mix at the end of the record, so the disc goes in a circle.

 When you introduce a new piece to the band, do you work from charts or do you make prerehearsal demos?
No, it’s always charts. We wrote “Red Line to Greenland” as a band, based on me riffing in this weird, low-C open tuning with unison strings. I also used this tuning in “Grow Closer.” I keep my old Hagström II— the guitar I played on both of these pieces— in this tuning. Sometimes I’ll change it around slightly, but it’s essentially [low to high] C, G, G, D, G, D. The $100 Silvertone acoustic I used for the overdub on “Grow Closer” was also in this tuning.

What other guitars and gear did you use on the Initiate discs?
On the studio album, I played my favorite 1959 Jazzmaster, which I bought from [the Minutemen’s] Mike Watt in ’95. It usually lives in Chicago with Wilco. I have another ’59 Jazzmaster here in Los Angeles, which has an especially beautiful sounding neck pickup, and that’s what I played on the live disc, except on “Thurston County.” For that, I used a ’61 Jazzmaster. All my Jazzmasters and Jaguars are equipped with a Mastery Bridge, invented by my friend John Woodland.

Sean Lennon lent me his beautiful Jazzmaster when I re-recorded my solo on “King Queen.” It’s a ’62, I believe. I played my Jerry Jones baritone on “Zingiber,” and I overdubbed some Jerry Jones 12-string on “Redline to Greenland” in the coda. “Scissor/ Saw” has a little electric sitar on it. By the way, that piece sounds super-processed, but it’s just a live improvisation over a dark loop Scott created. We played for six minutes and cut it down to three.

I played through a Dr. Z Route 66 head and a couple of random 1x12 cabinets containing old EVM speakers. They can take an incredible amount of distorted low-end information without blowing up. For the solo in the distorted mayhem track on “Mercy (Procession),” I stood next to my little Fender Pro Junior to get feedback.

And what about effects?
My principal effects are a Boss FV-500H volume pedal, CS-3 Compression Sustainer, DD-3 Digital Delay, and VB-2 Vibrato pedal; a Z. Vex Fuzz Factory and Box of Metal; an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man, Holy Grail Plus, and 16-Second Digital Delay, which I’ve been using as a looper since Bill Frisell turned me on to it in 1985; a vintage Marshall Guv’nor that my friends at Phoenix Custom Electronics repackaged with sturdier jacks; an Effector 13 Soda Meiser, which I use for the early mayhem in “Mercy (Procession)”; and a Klon Centaur Professional Overdrive, DigiTech Whammy pedal, Full- Tone Deja Vibe, Soundblox Tri-Mod Phaser, Mid-Fi Electronics Pitch Pirate, Dunlop Cry Baby Classic wah, and Korg Kaos Pad 2.

Your strings and picks?
I like Dunlop Ultex 1.14 mm extra-heavy picks. On the Jazzmasters, I use a GHS .012 set. I stick with Jerry Jones strings on my baritone, and keep a D’Addario light-gauge set on the 12-string. And who knows what’s on the detuned Silvertone acoustic.

Do you don a different musical hat when playing in Wilco?
It’s not really a different hat because whether it’s a song or completely spontaneous improvisation, my approach is always the same: Listen deeply and try to do the right thing in the moment for whatever is happening musically. What drives me is the desire to play music I enjoy with people who I love and admire. When I perform, I just want to put as much of myself into the music as I can. I want the audience to be lifted up, forget where they are, be completely mesmerized, and feel like they had a beautiful, positive, and maybe even powerful experience when they leave.