Instant Chemistry

An exploration of Nels Cline's musical empathy with Julian Lage.
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Nels Cline’s story disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are “no second acts in American lives.” Cline was nearly 50 when he went from being a well-respected, Los Angeles avant-jazz guitarist and composer to a rock-guitar god as a member of Wilco. In that band, Cline is granted ample opportunity to demonstrate his sheets-of-sound soloing, scraping behind-the-bridge noises, feedback wails, and Electro-Harmonix 16-Second Delay manipulations that fans of his ongoing experimental work have come to love over the years with his own band, as well as in collaboration with others.

The Nels Cline 4- From left to right: Scott Colley, Nels Cline, Tom Rainey, and Julian Lage.

The Nels Cline 4- From left to right: Scott Colley, Nels Cline, Tom Rainey, and Julian Lage.

So it was a little startling when, a half-dozen years ago, Cline began performing duets with guitar prodigy Julian Lage using a Gibson Barney Kessel straight into an amp. Also surprising was their uncanny empathy when performing their modern take on chamber jazz. It was like witnessing a conversation between two old friends, each with a unique personality, but with a shared sensibility.

Lage’s prodigious technique had, until then, been employed in the service of more traditional jazz and acoustic roots music, but the young player had no problem matching Cline’s more adventurous ideas. It was only a matter of time until they added a rhythm section, and The Nels Cline 4 was born. On the group’s debut recording, Currents, Constellations [Blue Note] the effects are still absent, but the chemistry remains.

When did you and Julian first play together?

We met about six years ago at something called “Jim Hall’s Crony Lunch.” After the lunch, we kept talking outside the restaurant. At some point, we got together, improvised acoustically, and that was it—instant chemistry. I can’t overstate how immediate it was. It was instant composition, telepathy, the ability to leave space, and to savor these amazing polychords that were happening.

What made you decide to expand to a full band?

I was offered a residency at The Stone by John Zorn, and I decided to program one of the shows with this band. We got together with Tom Rainey and Scott Colley for about 15 minutes beforehand, and it was really great. Everybody had a good time, and we wanted to do more.

Was the initial concept to do something with effects?

We talked about doing that, but we decided not to use those sounds. I’m using a stripped down setup. I have a bit of boost, a volume pedal, and some reverb. Julian has an overdrive if he wants, and some reverb. It is easy and straightforward. I’m traveling with the least amount of gear in some time. I have my ’59 Jazzmaster in a gig bag, a tiny pedalboard, and a couple of cables. It’s genius!

How does playing with a rhythm section differ from the duo?

We’re playing a little louder, and there’s not as much space. It doesn’t have the intimacy—it’s a bit more boisterous and energetic. That was expected. I was worried it might have a deleterious affect on our chemistry. But it’s really happening right now. It’s getting dangerous.

Did playing for years as a duet help you write the material for the band?

For the duo, we initially wrote what we called “squibs”—tiny ideas that were connected by directed or spontaneous improvisation. We’d use one idea as a launching pad for a certain type of improvisation or mood. Then, we’d move on to the next squib. That changed when I brought in some normal songs and Julian answered in kind. I was a little disappointed that my tune, “Imperfect 10,” was so far from what I originally wanted to do with this quartet. It has sovereign guitar solos, and a funky vibe to it. Still, I definitely like playing it.

What concept did you feel you strayed from?

I had in mind our version of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 style of chamber jazz, and an ECM European jazz influence.

Actually, “River Mouth” reminds me of a suite on a Jimmy Giuffre 3 record.

Nice. I’ve been listening to that music since I first discovered the Jimmy Giuffre 3 as a Paul Bley [JG3 pianist] fanatic, and then later through the Jim Hall connection [he was the band’s first guitarist]. It has been extremely important music for me, and it greatly informed the duo with Julian, as well.

Is there an overdub of an acoustic drone on the “River Mouth” suite?

Yeah. They had this toy acoustic guitar in the studio with rusted strings that I tuned open and strummed. I tried to mix it low enough so it didn’t sound like there were suddenly three guitars. The only other overdub on the record is on “Imperfect 10,” where I asked Julian to double the bass line in a couple of spots to give it a rock feel.

At first listen, it was sometimes hard to tell who was who. Has Julian gravitated towards your style a little from doing all the duo gigs?

No. We think of this as one big guitar. We’re not concerned who plays what. During the years of Julian and me playing duo, he was playing his Manzer guitar, and I was playing my Gibson Barney Kessel. Then, Julian got, in his words, “obsessed with Telecasters.” That enabled me to go back to my beloved Jazzmaster. I joke that we’re now like Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine from their early days in Television.


I saw a video of you playing a Bilt guitar. Did you use that on the record?

That’s on most of the record. It’s the Zaftig model—a hollow offset with an f-hole. I think mine is the only all rosewood one. Using a humbucker-type guitar is a perfect example of my overthinking how I would do something different with this band. There’s only one song played on the Jazzmaster. The other guitar is a Lincoln made by Derek Asuan-O’Brien. It’s a prototype offset guitar with TV Jones pickups—it produces more of a P-90 than a Filter’Tron sound. The Jazzmaster is on “Imperfect 10,” but the rest of the tracks are either the Lincoln or the Bilt. Once this quartet played more gigs, I realized I could get by with just the Jazzmaster. At first, I worried about hum, but Julian is playing a Tele, so what the hell am I worrying about?

Which amps did you use in the studio?

I now play Studious amps handmade in Chicago by Bryant Howe. On the record, I used the 14-watt model called the Selye. It has just Tone and Volume controls, and it’s housed in an aromatic cedar cabinet with one 12" speaker. I don’t remember what brand. I also used their Moseley, a 21-watt amp with a Weber speaker. I could have gotten by with the 14-watt on all of it, but, once again, I was overthinking.

You often use the ZT Lunchbox amps live. What do you like about them?

The Lunchbox is a lifesaver for people in New York. You can throw one in a backpack, go to a rehearsal, and not worry. It changed the way Julian and I tour. When you’re playing hollowbody guitars, the Lunchbox narrows the field of sound so you don’t have any feedback issues. We could play the NC4 material on Lunchboxes and not be too bummed out. But if the room is too large, we would hear the Lunchboxes more in the house than onstage. Then, it’s nice to have an open-back amp to throw the sound around a little. We don’t use monitors, and we don’t play loud, so it is good to hear a bit of that open-back sound. On these kinds of tours, we almost always get reissue Fender Deluxe Reverbs.

What function does your Boss compressor serve?

If I want a chord to sustain, I use the compressor, a tiny volume pedal made by a pedal-steel player named Glenn Taylor, and some delay to create a keyboard-style bed. People deride my love of the Boss compressor, but I like the fact that it doesn’t audibly click on.

Does it also help bring out your picking behind the bridge?

Good point. I forgot about that. I can’t get those sounds to speak without the compressor—unless I use distortion. “Imperfect 10” is the only song where I use any overdrive. I’m using the ZVEX ’59 Sound for boost and drive.

What are you using for delay and reverb?

On the record, I used the Catalinbread Belle Epoch. Live, I use a Boss DD-3. I have used it so long that, if the stage is too dark, I can get my settings just by feel. Also, I was constantly bumping Catalinbread’s Delay Level knob with my foot. In the boutiquepedal world, everybody makes fun of Boss pedals, but they’re geniuses for the design of the latch switch and knobs that cannot be bumped. For reverb, I have a Neunaber Reverberator, which has settings close to some of the sumptuous reverb sounds on the record. I’m actually getting into a processed sound I never intended with this band, and digging it.

What are your plans for the NC4?

I’m inspired by how fabulous this band is sounding, but it’s a hard band to schedule. We have only a handful of bookings the rest of the year, and a possible tour of the West Coast in February 2019. I might have to rethink the viability of it—on a practical, not a musical, level. Of course, if I can keep doing it, I would love to. Julian and I are determined to keep the duo going, and we want to do another record as soon as possible. Still, I’ve never had a plan for any part of my life.