Most music fans know Nels Cline as the guitarist who replaced Leroy Bach in Wilco, where he injected some much needed rock ‘n” roll energy into a live show that was slowly evolving into an evening at the planetarium. Before his overnight success in rock music, Cline spent nearly three decades playing in bands like the Geraldine Fibbers and adding his particular virtuosity to albums by everyone from Mike Watt to Thurston Moore. In addition to these high-profile collaborations, Cline also maintained at least a couple of solo projects that gave voice to his more experimental side. The Nels Cline Singers were active throughout the ’90s, putting out four albums and a series of 7-inch records. It’s also Cline’s main creative outlet outside of Wilco these days. The band, who despite the name have nobody on vocals, recently released Initiate on Cryptogramophone Records. Here, Cline talks about free jazz, muses on Hadron Colliders, and refutes rumors of his dangerous ways.
First off, what makes you the most dangerous guitarist working today?
Oh, dear. One cannot always believe what one reads! The writer who wrote this was referring to a performance of “Interstellar Space” in New York City with Gregg Bendian, I think. He meant well, but I am so not dangerous. It’s almost sad.
If you could change the nickname, what would you like to be known as, and why?
Oddly, David Fricke called me “the avant romantic” in Rolling Stone once, and I was shocked that I kind of liked it and agreed with it. Though I am not really all that avant. How about “semi-versatile and sincere guitar geek”?
The Hadron Collider figures prominently in the art for Initiate. Did it inspire the album, or did the pictures seem to fit with what you were already doing?
The producer of Initiate, David Breskin, showed me some of those images by Simon Norfolk while we were mixing the record at Ron Saint Germain’s house. I liked them, liked their mandala-like aspect, how they look strangely natural yet are crushingly high-tech, solidly real yet abstract in appearance.I am not sure there is really that great a connection, though it’s fun to ponder the nature of matter, of atomic particles, anytime, right? Also, as man creates insanely huge apparatuses such as this, it’s humbling and awe-inspiring, but also rather attractive in this light. Maybe the music aspires to balance the electric/electronic/technological with the naturally beautiful, the achingly human.
Describe the recording sessions. Did you go in with a pretty good idea of what you wanted, or did it evolve as the music was recorded?
The studio record — disc one — was by far the hardest Singers record to make because prior to recording I had hardly finished any of the pieces. I had this idea of doing a sunnier, groovier record, something to address the idea of rhythm and incorporation of one’s body in the music yet still keeping the music compelling or interesting. Plus, I was thinking a lot about healing energy, helping the planet out. Sounds a bit silly, but it’s true. So anyway, we worked for four days hammering my rough ideas into shape. In previous recordings, we had played most of the pieces “live” a few times, and the records were all done really quickly, finishing ahead of schedule, in either one-and-a-half or two-and-a-half days. This one took the full three days, including overdubs and such.
So I guess I had an idea of what I wanted and it evolved as it was rehearsed/recorded. I view the “live” record (the second disc) as a bonus CD, and it represents or more standard methodology. As such, it balances the studio record. I don’t view disc one as a new direction for the band or anything. I just wanted to try some new things, make a slightly different record. Truthfully, I think my Singers and previous Trio records work a lot of the same parameters, cover a lot of the same ground, and I wanted to branch out a bit. Maybe the next one will all be acoustic, or it might be black metal.
How have you stretched yourself on this record?
I think the stretching on disc one is merely stylistic. There are more direct references/reflections of African pop, Brazilian influences. I use my voice to do wordless singing, which is an attempt to warm things up as well as to refer to favorite Brazilian sounds and feelings, wherein a sensual and alluring sound is created, while still keeping the music surprising or interesting in certain ways. Art music with warm blood flowing through it.
Then there are slightly more overt “space jazz” ideas brought in, such as where my friend David Witham plays electric piano. These small pieces are perhaps palette cleansers in between the longer groovers. It is rare for me to do short pieces, so this was maybe a stretch. The music is far less fake jazz than normal for me — there is no “swing” feel, per se. And there is more drone/modal writing. And I blatantly adopt a more Hendrix-inspired approach at points, such as on “King Queen” and “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” which just seems timely to me personally at this point. No idea why, though.
Why did you decide to issue the album as a double? What is the break between the two programs?
I originally had this idea that we would do a record called Angelic/Demonic, a double CD wherein the “angelic” disc is really heavy-metal-inspired, a really long, excruciating piece or two, and the “demonic” disc would be all acoustic. But that just seemed too silly. It was my manager, Ben Levin, who encouraged a “live” recording, and it just seemed anti-climactic in this time of tapers and YouTube ubiquity to release a single “live” record. So we just put it all together for the price of a single CD. It is not meant to be listened to all at once, but I suppose all one can get from it really is a very clear portrait of me and the band in this time period.
Do you think Initiate can be enjoyed by those mainly familiar with your work in other bands?
Well, I have no idea, really. But it has been suggested that this may be the most “approachable” or “accessible” Singers record. I don’t really take those things into consideration, though. The more “normal” aspects of the record are mostly emotion-driven, like all my stuff to varying degrees.
How important is it for you to have an outlet as the frontman?
It’s important but not essential, to be honest. But I enjoy trying to come up with pieces and sounds that address my inner needs, my desire to hear and feel things a certain way. My record Coward, for example, was a rather insular and obsessive attempt to do this, and I dream of other projects and compositions that may tackle my concerns for and interests in more subtly microtonal and semi-acoustic sounds. To this extent, being a “leader” is important, but frontman, not so much.
Do you think that you reputation as a “hired gun” is justified?
I just like playing, and I like a lot of music, and I learn form these situations. I guess that makes me a “hired gun,” but I think I am just a man who likes to play the guitar and is lucky enough to do it in diverse, satisfying, and high-quality situations.
Has your experience with Wilco over the last few years been different?
It’s still fun, we play hard and we like each other. So I guess it hasn’t changed much. If you mean has Wilco changed things for me, yes. I make a better living and I play a lot in front of a lot of people. That said, I just do it because it feels good, I am proud of the work, and I want the audience to be transported and I work to that end — I always do this, actually.
What have you brought to that band?
Goofy stage presence. Maybe a bit more controlled feedback and reverse looping.
Has your time with Wilco informed your solo work?
In some ways it has made me think a bit more about “songs,” though Singers pieces like “Slipped Away” or “Watch Over Us” are pre-Wilco and really influenced by my love of Low. Other pieces show Sonic Youth influence. But playing Wilco songs has perhaps sharpened my song awareness, as well as pushing me to try new things, like dobro, in my own music.
What is next for Nels Cline?
I have another double CD of music coming out on Cryptogramophone called Dirty Baby, which is music commissioned by David Breskin for a book of Ed Ruscha’s lesser known paintings from the ’80s and ’90s accompanied by Mr. Breskin’s poetry, a total recontextualization. So it will be both a book published this fall by Prestel and a double CD released by Crypto. The Singers have some gigs in South America and a few in the U.S. this summer. A “live” recording of a trio I play in with Tim Berne and Jim Black called Sons of Champignon is being mixed. I am playing and writing music with Yuka Honda in a duo called Fig, and we will start recording in earnest this winter.
This summer will also see me playing a week at the Village Vanguard with Jenny Scheinman’s band. I’ve got a gig in Chicago in late June playing as a guest with two marvelous groups: Huntsville (from Norway) and On Fillmore. I have some recording to finish with Scarnella, a duo with Carla Bozulich, plus a gig with her in Austria this fall. Wilco will start writing and recording this summer and fall. I am playing in December at UCLA for a tribute to Alice Coltrane with a band that will include Zeena Parkins, Jeff Gauthier, and Maggie Parkins. That’s all I can think of right now.