Ick's Pick

Nels Cline: The Ickmusic Interview

Nels Cline

I’m proud to present guitar man extraordinaire Nels Cline as the subject of Ickmusic’s premier interview. Nels has been churning out projects in the improvisational jazz, avant garde, and rock realms for over three decades. Nels can manipulate the guitar (and guitar effects) like no other. You have never heard sounds like these. Sounds that mystify, confuse, beautify, frighten, sadden, elate…

Nels has also reached a whole new audience over the last couple of years, since he accepted Jeff Tweedy’s offer to become Wilco’s guitarist in 2004. This past weekend, he was gracious enough to chat with me for a while. We talked about his latest project (New Monastery: A View into the Music of Andrew Hill), his life as Wilco’s guitarist, as a member of the Geraldine Fibbers, and his many collaborations. And of course, I had to bring up Prince.

Following the interview, you’ll find a few mp3’s, links to purchase his music, some tour dates, and all that good stuff. As for the interview itself, feedback is welcome. So without further ado, it’s

~~~~~~~~ Nels Cline: The Ickmusic Interview ~~~~~~~~

So you mentioned that you were “back in Chicago”. so I’m gonna assume that it has something to do with wrapping up the new Wilco album?

Well, yeah kind of… I think I’m done, and there’s a few – I think we’re kind of done for the moment until it goes to mixing time. And there’ll be maybe a few things dealt with there. But we have some shows coming up, so I came back to Chicago because we have –

I see you have Madison this week.

Madison, yeah, and then the two shows here in Chicago. And then I go home for a few days.

I was listening to an interview that you did with Mike Watt while you were driving up to a gig, from LA to the Bay Area, on his podcast. You mentioned that the new album incorporates some 70’s soul sounds in there.

It’s pretty much – yeah – it’s very straightforward and very diverse, and I’m not sure what is going to actually ultimately be on the record because we have a lot of songs….

So it hasn’t been sequenced or anything yet.

No, we just have a bunch of songs, and we like em all, and whatever the record ends up being I’ll just be happy with.

And another world tour ensues, I’m sure, right?

Yeah I guess sometime around May.

So the studio experience, the recording process when you’re with Wilco, does it differ a lot from what you’re used to when you’re recording your own projects?

Oh yeah, it’s really different, and it’s really different actually in a very cool way. The way Jeff’s figured out to record is to play at a very… realistically low volume – sort of in a circle, the way we were doing our demos, which means that we [are able to] not wear headphones, and not get tired, and that’s really different.

Because I always have to isolate the upright bass, or whatever when I’m doing my stuff. There’s no way around the headphone thing really…. Or horns, same difference; trying to keep drums out of the horns. But the other thing that’s different is of course how long we’re taking (laughs), which is completely different. I’ve never made a record of my own music that was done – that took more than two and a half days.

Really? Wow…

Oh yeah, I mean you figure when you’re playing improvised music or you’re playing compositions that involve improvisation, you’re either ready to go, or you shouldn’t be doing it, because you’re not going to do take after take. If you have to do that many, you probably shouldn’t be recording. You know what I mean?

It’s not improvisational music at that point…

But also, there’s no way, it’s hard enough to go into a real studio playing any kind of jazz related improvised music at this point and then recoup the money on sales. Nobody’s buying that music. You know what I’m saying? You gotta play – you gotta jam “econo.” (laughs)

And actually I feel like – with Cryptogramophone, I feel like Mr. Fancy Pants, because we’re actually going into real studios with a really good engineer, Rich Breen, and you know, trying to make it sound really good, that’s what Jeff Gauthier wants.

Jeff’s the guy you were in Quartet Music with, right?

Oh yeah, forever.

And he started up that label [Cryptogramophone]?

Yeah, mostly just to try to document a lot of Eric von Essen’s music, our late friend.

Nels Cline as a member of Wilco seems sort of like a logical fit given the last several releases by Wilco. It started with Summerteeth, from there, they’ve been sort of experimental in their own right. Especially the last album, A Ghost is Born, when you listen to the last 10 minutes of feedback – noise – on “Less Than You Think” – I was thinking it was sort of an omen of you joining the band.

The funny thing is that when people hear the new material, they’re not going to hear anything like any of that stuff.

That’s par for the course with Wilco, and that’s what is so wonderful about them. You never know what to expect. When did they enter your consciousness?

I met Mr. [Jeff] Tweedy when I was playing with the Geraldine Fibbers, so that was 10 years ago. I had never heard Wilco at that point. We were actually playing shows with Golden Smog, but it was the members of the Fibbers who really cottoned to Jeff out of all those Golden Smog guys.

And so between Carla Bozulich and my old roommate Bob Bruno, that was how I heard some Wilco, but even then I didn’t really hear very much until Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to be perfectly honest.

Because actually Devin Hoff, I think, bought a copy of that and we listened to it in the van on the Singers tour a lot. And that was pretty much when I started paying more attention.

It seems like it would be right up your alley. Something that you would definitely enjoy.

Yeah it was funny, I kind of had this attitude I think at that point… I told Carla one day, I remember it was a Sunday, and I’d heard Yankee Hotel a lot in the van, but I just said, “Okay this is it, I’m actually going to really pay attention to this now from beginning to end,” and I listened to the whole record in the bedroom. I think I might have had a cold or something, so that’s why I wasn’t moving around that day. And I remember, by the time “Reservations” was almost over, yelling to her in the next room: “OK I GET IT!” (laughs)

So how did that all develop into being a full fledged band member?

…I ended up playing with Carla, opening for Wilco a few dates in the Midwest. And then when Leroy Bach left, I think Glenn [Kotche] and Jeff just thought “What if,” and Jeff called me. So I went to play with Jeff and Glenn while Autumn Defense was on tour, and things went really well. They were kind of going well before I ever went and played; I was having some really nice phone conversations with Jeff, and just felt already that this was going to be good. Lord knows I didn’t need the work, cause I was working a lot, but I was barely surviving. So I needed to make some kind of a change, so the timing was really good.


You gotta be kind of pinching yourself these days, where you’re “day job” is playing guitar for Wilco, and it gives you the opportunity still to explore everything that you want to do with your own music.

Well, yeah, extracurricular activities are encouraged. I think it’s very unusual for a band to be that encouraging of people’s side projects, because the attitude is that whatever we do outside of Wilco is always going to bring something back into Wilco. And that, along with the fact that the band doesn’t need to worry about writing hit singles, or make videos or anything like that, pretty much makes it – beyond the music and the personalities in the group, which are splendid – it makes it the best gig in town. It’s like winning the lottery or something.

A lot of people discovered you through Wilco. If they’re like me, that led them to seek out some of your other work. It’s sort of like stepping through a door into another dimension. If you were to recommend two or three albums of your work to get their feet wet basically – or whether it’s with the Trio, the Singers, your work with the Geraldine Fibbers, or any of your staggering number of collaborations, what would those recommendations be?

That’s kind of a hard thing. I’d have to divide that up into collaborations and maybe my own records, you know? I guess maybe some of my favorite stuff that’s got my name on it and my compositions is certainly The Giant Pin by the Singers, Destroy All Nels Cline, and The Inkling. I think that… between those three records, you have acoustic music, full on catharsis electric overkill, and you have some more jazz-related and compositional and free element.

And as far as collaborations, that’s kind of a vast list, but certainly the Scarnella record – that’s me and Carla… and also In-Store with Thurston Moore… and uh, jeez…

It’s an intimidating list, when I pulled the list of the collaborations that you’ve done, I mean, my God…

Yeah there’s a lot of stuff. There’s a really nice out of print record with me and a man named Devin Sarno called Edible Flowers. That’s a good one for people who like drone. (laughs)

…and the one that you did with Gregg Bendian, Interstellar [Space Revisited – The Music of John Coltrane]

Oh yeah right, there’s another one…

I just picked that up last week off of eMusic.. Man, he’s a drummer…

Okay, yeah, that was a fairly daring attempt I think and ultimately didn’t end up being despised as we expected. My experience with that kind of encouraged me in this Andrew Hill record [New Monastery: A View into the Music of Andrew Hill]; to confront so-called jazz legacies without too much self consciousness, which is pretty difficult to do for me. But I kind of made the leap just based on the idea – not only the love of the music, the inspiration I’ve gotten from it – but on the idea that if I’m honest with myself, I know that my motivations are sincere. (laughs)

‘Cause if I took it on as far as, in an external sense, how it could be viewed by the jazz police, I’d probably never do these things. I’m trying to direct attention for various reasons…the primary being just the point of view of pure inspiration, you know? And also to grow, to challenge myself.

New Monastery

What’s your history with Andrew Hill? I’m sure you know all these guys from being in Los Angeles all those years, and people coming through town.

Well no, I never saw Andrew play in Los Angeles, I can’t even remember if he did anything beside solo piano there in the 70’s. I just knew the recordings, so the motivation for doing the Andrew Hill record was really to play with Devin [Hoff] and Scott [Amendola] from the Singers, plus Ben Goldberg and Andrea [Parkins] and Bobby Bradford in a group wherein the music would not be mine. Something different. And I wanted to pay homage to a living master, somebody I felt who was perhaps overlooked – in a more mainstream sense. Certainly Andrew is well known to the jazz cognoscenti, but he’s not well known, even as we look back with rosy tinted glasses on at the Blue Note era; there’s been a lot of lip service to that.

I feel that Andrew – and his visionary recordings – maybe doesn’t get as much play as some other people. And there are many people I could have played music by, that could have come to mind, but none whose music I think was as flexible and unpredictable, and at the same time inspiring for me personally. But the thing wasn’t just to find music that I would like, it was to find music that I felt we could play with that group and still be ourselves. And I feel that there’s something open ended yet completely eloquent about Andrew’s music, and that’s enabled me to really interact with my comrades, at the same time pay homage to him and maybe make people aware of him a little bit.

We just played a gig the other night opening for him, and yeah, that was daunting. I was definitely setting myself up for … it’s just “Hi everybody, we’re going to play Andrew’s music and then Andrew’s going to come on.” And of course it’s just one of those things I had to say yes to, even though, as I said, sort of setting myself up for a fairly negative – potentially negative scenario. Not in terms of Andrew, but in terms of critics or audience. But I think it went okay… I had met Andrew Hill many many years ago, just in passing, at a jazz festival in Macedonia when I was there with Gregg Bendian.

He’s just a delightful man, and he’s in very frail health these days, but he was really interested in what we were doing, and he was really kind about it, and then, crucially, his set was fantastic and wonderful and beautiful. So it was a great night for me.

It’s sad these days, all those legends from that era are getting up there, and starting to pass…

Yeah, and a lot of them aren’t even around at all. But you know, it makes one of those evenings that makes me feel – and I have a lot of these – that I lead a rather charmed existence, you know?

Is he pretty appreciative of your project? He’s heard it?

Yeah, he’s gotten the CD that I sent him, and he sent me a nice thank you note. I don’t think he’d listened to it at that point, I think he just saw it and responded. And then what he said that day, because I kept telling him I was kind of feeling really sheepish about the whole thing, and a little bit awkward. And he was very reassuring, and he just said “you know, what you’re doing with the accordion is really interesting”, and “no, this is great!” and things like that. But we didn’t have long conversations about it. I mean he was there being feted by the San Francisco Jazz Festival and it was an event unto itself, and he was there. So I think that that was probably the most crucial aspect of that evening, not really my presence.

You were talking about the jazz festival in Macedonia. You’re heading over to Europe in December to play with White Out?

Yeah, just a few gigs.

Are the European audiences more receptive to improvisational music?

Absolutely. Oh yeah, it’s just much more of a sense that culture is part of every day life there.

The sort of linchpin gigs for that little trip are All Tomorrow’s Parties where we’re playing on a Thurston Moore curated day, and a festival in Marseilles that a guitarist named Jean-Marc Montera is putting together – that’s where he lives – he’s an avant garde guitar player. And then we have a couple of club dates… I imagine that – especially when you play festivals – small ones where there’s some kind of focus on either wide-ranging music making, such as in Wels, Austria, where it’s a very catholic kind of approach, blending everything; or something more tightly focused on the avant garde. The audience knows what they’re in for. They’re there for that, they’re not there just to hang out and drink. So yeah, it’s very different.

The first time I went over there to play was with Julius Hemphill, and I was in my late 20’s, and it was quite mind-blowing. I didn’t realize then that the first two gigs we had in Europe – this was in ’84 – were two of the best festivals at that time (laughs). So it was really different, and at that time I was not playing regularly. Being in Los Angeles, you’d play maybe a couple of gigs a month if you were lucky. So to have a little tour, and play night after night was actually different itself, let alone in front of 1,200 to 3,000 people who were already completely conversant with the language of improvised music or jazz.

What’s your favorite place to perform over there?

Oh, I don’t know, I don’t have a favorite place, it’s different… we’ve gone over there a couple of times with Wilco since I’ve been in the band, and that’s always a different feeling than from just taking the train and playing in improvised festivals or clubs. But certainly this Wels festival in Austria’s a favorite. I’ve been there a couple of times and it’s really wonderful, and the people are really cool. I like Berlin, and Barcelona certainly. Actually there are quite a few places Wilco played in Spain and Italy that were really fantastic that I’d love to go back to…

Not as much of a boomtown in Germany as it used to be, their economy is not doing so well, and I think all of the DJ culture has had a massive impact on the number of people who go out to hear live music.

As a member of Wilco, you’re reaching a whole different kind of audience. And you mentioned in your Mike watt interview, you were telling a story about Jimmy Rowles, when he said to your friend Eric von Essen, “you know, sometimes you just play the fucking F7”. Do you find yourself telling yourself that during Wilco shows, where you’re saying “Okay, calm down Nels”, or is it just natural to you?

It’s not that I need to restrain myself. Let me try to answer this succinctly. Let’s just say that I always think about that. And that’s what enables me to be part of the orchestra, is to try to have an awareness of when a simple idea is the right thing. You know? And it’s easier playing with those guys because they are in the zone, so it’s infectious. So I don’t have millions of thoughts I’m trying to tame. It’s just that the collective consciousness that’s going on is not about that. So it’s easier to get in the zone of what one could only hope is a zen-like simplicity or direction. But it’s definitely something to think about and ponder (laughs).

Does it make you want to get in the studio on your own and create something tailored to that audience? Do you stand up there and think “I could really make something that these people would just eat up.”

No. No. I’ve always been focused on satisfying myself, to be completely honest, and challenging myself. I have a list of projects I’ve been wanting to record for so long, that it’s just trying to knock them down one by one before too many more crop up. That’s been enough of a challenge there. There’s probably about ten things I’ve been wanting to do that I haven’t been able to do because of time and money.. a lot of records that are coming out that are either improvised or from me playing sessions are completely accidental..like this new record, Damsel, that came out, there was no plan for this, it just happened. And there’s a lot of them that keep happening like that.

And I don’t want to put a million things out all in one month or something, which some people do. But that said, I don’t really think about it, they just kind of keep coming out and I just keep playing, and that’s how it works.

But I would like to direct my energy a little more specifically, and do this record of me playing all the instruments, that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. And also…we’re going to record a new Singers record in January – but I also want to do some Singers stuff with maybe various Pulitzer vocalists, you know Singers with vocalists, which is way on the back burner at this point because it would be so difficult to put it all together. Also, I’d love to do a recording with the jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn, with the Singers as a core band. It’s going to be a matter of trying to schedule it all, because Calvin’s in Florida now, and he’s kind of hard to find sometimes – he’s not flourishing, shall we say, and he’s not getting any younger, so I really want to get this happening. Maybe we can slide him some bread and people will be aware of what a magnificent guitarist he is.

I was looking at your list section on your web site. The albums that you mention, all the artists. The great thing about music is you’re always learning – there’s so many artist on there that honestly I’ve never heard of, but I look forward to delving into…

Well, good. I’m sorry that site’s kind of stale…I have a feeling it’s way out of date.

You provide a lot more about yourself than most artists out there, I think, on their web sites…

Well…I really am not into trying to create mystique. So if I can address the unknown reader or the curiosity seeker out there in a personable way, and try to diffuse any mystique, then that’s my goal, to sort of speak directly about who I am and what I’m thinking about…

One of the top guitarist on there [the guitarist list] is Prince. I’m a pretty major Prince geek… you mentioned him as one of your top 200 guitarists. What’s your experience with his music?

Oh man, what isn’t there to like about Prince’s guitar playing?

Exactly, have you seen him live before?

Oh yeah, it was a long time ago, but yeah. If you see him in Sign o’ the Times, in that concert film, you get to see him do a lot of guitar playing. He didn’t do a lot of rhythmic guitar on the 1999 tour, which I think was the last time I saw him.

I’m really a big fan of funk rhythm guitar and I think that his rhythm guitar playing is just as fantastic as his obvious kind of Hendrix inspired lead. I like good rhythm guitar, Roger Troutman & Zapp, and Nile Rodgers, and I think I wrote on the web site, the guy from Lakeside, ’cause I can’t find his name anywhere (laughs). I love those hits with fantastic rhythm guitar works…

What about the Grateful Dead and all of the improvisational jam band music that they spawned? What’s your take on the Dead, and bands like Phish, and String Cheese Incident…

I don’t want to offend anybody, but I haven’t paid a lot of attention to those bands. My only experience with some of those bands was at sort of a jam band-ish festival I played with the Scott Amendola Band called the High Sierra Festival, years ago. And I didn’t know that jam bands mostly don’t jam, which in my day meant improvise. They basically solo. So, I was a little disappointed that a lot of these bands don’t actually improvise, which the Grateful Dead did.

But other than that, I haven’t really paid much attention to these bands. I don’t think I’ve heard anything yet that captivated me enough to make me want to find out more about them. Like I said, I don’t want to offend anybody, but it hasn’t gotten me. So I don’t think I’ve heard most of them. I heard Phish because I saw their movie, and I couldn’t get into that at all. And… Trey Anastasio, he’d come to hear Wilco, and he seems like a really nice fellow, but it hasn’t snagged me yet.

What’s your take on the way music is disseminated to the masses these days? I mean, more and more people download single tunes off of iTunes and eMusic

Well I don’t know if I have a take on it, ultimately I’m an anachronism certainly because I still have a lot of vinyl in my life, and I still like vinyl records, not because I have necessarily the opinion that they sound more fabulous, but I just like that format because that’s what I grew up with, and I’m still attached to album covers, as physical objects, and independent recordings as sort of art multiples in a way, you know?

But I don’t have any control over the way things are going, so I’m just trying to roll with it, and I don’t feel particularly nervous about it. I think that as much as it’s nice to make recordings, it’s playing live that I live for, and that has the most relevance to the type of music that I like to make. So as long as people still want to come out to hear concerts, I’m not going to worry about the way things are going in terms of the sales of songs or cd’s or albums, so called, you know, collections of songs, or whether people only take one song…

I think that the way people use music in their lives is distinctly individual, so that’s why there’s always going to be pop, and that’s why there’s always going to be an underground, you know what I mean? There’s always going to be an attention span, and there’s always going to be people who like one song for an entire year. It’s just that the way everyone approaches music, and what it means to them, is different. And that’s why I don’t rail against, you know, so called vapid pop, because there’s always been vapid pop (laughs). It has a place. I think that people get a little bit daunted when they see how much money some people make, and how little money others make, and I find that daunting and sad, certainly, but there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s always going to be like that.

I would love it if people would develop attention spans, but I think they’re just shortening. If I think about any of this stuff at all, I just like the idea that people can pay attention to something for more than two minutes.

So do you hit Amoeba Records, is that your favorite spot, or what’s the best record store in Los Angeles?

Um, you know, I never shop for records in L.A. ’cause I’m never home, number one, and also, number two, I tend to just shop on the road. Certainly I go to Amoeba in Berkeley a lot, because, you know, my boys, the Singers live up there. I like Aquarius in San Francisco, and the Downtown Music Gallery in New York. Between those three stores I can kind of get some shopping done. It’s hard now because there’s so much out there, no store can have everything, you know. I was a record buyer for years at Rhino Records in West L.A. in the 80’s, and I could have pretty much every sort of decent independent and import rock type record in the bins, and I could hear them all if I wanted.

But you can’t even imagine something like that now. There’s so much out there, and so much coming out constantly, I wonder anybody, a buyer, can manage their budget. Especially with so many reissues and box sets eating up your budget. So it’s just hard, so I don’t often go to the stores and find what I’m looking for, so I end up, you know, on Amazon or something. I’m not a downloader though, I admit, I’m still living in the past.

Really? That was my very last question. I’m part of sort of a sub-culture on the internet of what we call mp3 blogs, were, essentially we post features on the music we like, and we usually offer an mp3 of the artist, for – disclaimer – “sample purposes”. What’s your take on that?

Oh yeah, I’m fine with any of that kind of stuff, sharing, whatever, I don’t really care. But I’m totally not hip to it at all. I spend as little time online as possible – other than doing email and keeping up with correspondence – because otherwise I’d never have a life, I’d never get anything done, you know? Certainly it’s marvelous to be able to find information, and whatnot, but as far as music goes, I don’t really use the internet. But like I say, I’m not a young man, I’m a child of the 60’s and early 70’s [laughs].



Nels Cline: McNeil Island / Pumpkin (mp3) – from New Monastery: A View Into the Music of Andrew Hill

Nels Cline Singers: He Still Carries a Torch for Her (mp3) – from The Giant Pin

Scarnella (Nels & Carla Bozulich): Most Useless Thing (mp3) – from Scarnella

Nels Cline’s Official Web Site | MySpace

If you’re an eMusic subscriber (which, as a music lover, you should be), you can pick up a whole lot of Nels there. $20 per month gets you 75 downloads. Not a bad deal – at all (or $10 per month for 30 downloads).

Amazon links:

Tour Dates:

Nov. 22 – Madison, Wisc.
Nov, 24 & 25 – Chicago, Ill.

Nels Cline Singers
Dec. 1 – Berkeley, Calif.

White Out (Tom Surgal & Lin Culbertson + Nels Cline)
Dec. 6 – London, UK
Dec. 10 – Minehead, UK (All Tomorrow’s Parties)
Dec. 12 – Paris
Dec. 13 – Geneva, Switzerland
Dec. 15 – Marseilles, France

See Nels’ web site for details and more dates.


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