From his work with seminal-alt-rockers Wilco, to his work with his solo band the Nels Cline Singer, to collaborations with a diverse roster of musicians including Julian Lage, Mike Watt, and Thurston Moore, Nels Cline has quietly established himself as one of the most versatile, inventive guitarist around today. Since first picking up the guitar at age 12, Cline has created a sound that is wholly unique and like no other but that still has the ability to meld and mesh seamlessly into any environment in which he plays, yet at the same time retaining that distinct style that sounds like no other.
In anticipation of his brand new album, MACROSCOPE, due out April 29, Cline checked in with Honest Tune Magazine to discuss his latest album, his collaboration with Medeski, Martin, and Wood, his musical tool box, and much more. To help us with this, Honest Tune recruited Felix Lighter guitarist/ singer and noted audio gear /effects head Paul Skozilas to help us dig deep with Cline.
Honest Tune: I think there’s a lot of personality to the way you play guitar, more so, than most contemporary guitar players. Can you attribute that to any aspects of how you learned to play?
Nels Cline: Good question! I have no clue, actually. Maybe it has something to do with all the various interests/directions that have attracted and inspired me over the years coupled with what I didn’t learn. I had no significant guitar instruction coming up and absolutely no training in guitar technique. I have had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about this most of my life. But at times I have been able to see the value of being able to embrace my so-called primitive tendencies. My playing may in some way embrace certain degrees of sophistication combined with a love of rawness and the emotional potential of that. So perhaps this explains some degree of musical personality that you are hearing? My ultimate goal is just to keep up with and participate fully in whatever is happening when I am playing.
NC: Absolutely. I was certainly not a prodigy, (have you listened to me on recordings?) and I still find music to be challenging and generally difficult. I have now been trying to play the guitar for over 40 years and I am still daunted by what I perceive of as my shortcomings, yet I have so many wonderful opportunities to play with so many gifted individuals I just keep pressing forward and try not to let insecurities derail me. I think that the long haul has been a sort of automatic maturing process. I am not very disciplined when it comes to studying and practicing, and as stated before, I was never instructed in technique.
HT: As a musician involved in multiple projects do you cater your tonal palette to each project, mentally assigning and/or potentially excluding certain styles, modes etc. before you show up?
NC: In some instances yes. For example, playing with Wilco I tend to eschew “flashy” playing even though my head is usually buzzing with 16th notes. Learning economy in playing has been valuable and not all that easy for me! Another example for you might be tone choices with different music’s. With Wilco and with, say – Joan Osborne, with whom I recently recorded, the brighter sound of true bridge pickup is often what the music seems to be asking for. I tend to shy away from trebly sounds in my own music in spite of all that strident distortion you may associate with me. Using these other tones is also a challenge at times, and these parameters tend to affect how I play, not just the tone with which I am playing. In the duo I play in with guitarist Julian Lage, we specifically chose to limit our palette to effect-less electric and acoustic guitars, and this can be freeing – not confining. It then becomes all about note choices, dynamics, and articulation in very direct yet subtle ways. I like all of the above! The guitar – particularly the electric guitar – is a malleable instrument, perhaps more than any other. This is may be why someone like me with such polyglot tendencies loves it so much.
NC: When writing and structuring music for my own band (The Singers), I tend to follow what the compositions seem to require. Nothing is excluded except what I deem unnecessary to make the composition sound right. If you listen to all of our records over the years, I think you may come across virtually every guitar style and sound except for maybe ragtime and bluegrass. This is not intentional. The songs exist to both create moods and feelings as well as to explore the musical languages and relationships between the band members (and our periodic guests). So really anything goes except for what doesn’t work in a particular moment on a particular song. Sorry if that’s vague.
HT: On the tech side I think a similar question could be asked. Any intentional limiting or reconfiguring to your arsenal between projects or is more like bring the whole tool box to every job?
NC: I bring the whole tool box to recording sessions when possible, but “live” with my own band and with the various improvisers I play with I must limit the repertoire to pieces that are played on one guitar (my Jazzmaster) because of traveling limitations. This said, I use electric 12-string on much of MACROSCOPE – more than usual – and I think I may have been intentionally creating the necessity to include it on my travels. So I am going to just suck it up and pay the overage and bring a 12-string on future Singers gigs. Also, I have “an electric guitar in decent working order” on my equipment rider, which is to open up the possibility of playing songs in open tunings like “Thurston County”. If we are traveling in a van with no flights, I can bring 2 or 3 guitars easily, but that happens less and less these days. As for pedals, though I own zillions at this point, I have a fairly consistent compliment that I bring out for everything. The only variation is wah-wah or no wah-wah – the new Singers material requires it, and I also brought it out for the recent gigs with Medeski, Martin, & Wood – plus I have decided to bring a Univibe-type pedal for The Singers even though it is rather cumbersome size-wise. I usually have a size limit on what I bring out so it can all break down into my not-so-big road case. Oh well, this new Singers stuff is asking for that sound, I feel.
NC: Hmmm…there is no really interesting or singular “process”. I have some songs. I am bad at self-editing. I write them out, the band learns them. We record them. Then we see what works but usually include pretty much everything! On MACROSCOPE, as with much of Initiate, there was a deliberate attempt on my part to sort of “warm things up” mood-wise, use a lot of percussion, refer to or reflect my love of certain sonorities and harmonies that could be identified as relating to the music of places like Brazil and/or West Africa. I knew that I wanted Yuka (C. Honda) to play some electric piano, and since we were recording most of the record at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA, I could get Zeena Parkins to come play on some things – a dream team! I had written a massive, dark, troubling piece for Zeena called “Ghost Ship” which in no way fit on the record mood-wise or length-wise, so it’s not there, but we recorded it and I may mix it and throw it out there as a download possibility. But almost everything else we recorded is there on the record, from fuzzed-out garage rock to ethereal balladry. Making musical sense may not be my strength. Whether this is a “process” I do not know.
HT: How did the “process” this time compare to your previous albums?
NC: It’s always pretty much the same. The earlier Singers records took so little time to record – we always ended up with extra time, and when we recorded Draw Breath we had so much time left we recorded a whole other improvised record that I wanted to dedicate to the late great Howard Roberts (never released). Initiate was really different in that I had the fewest number of finished songs, I had a desire to play some new/different styles and moods than usual (trying to dial down the whiteboy angst factor a bit), and I wanted Devin and Scott to really weigh in and help with the arranging/direction, but this seemed to ultimately make things a bit more arduous. So even though we worked/rehearsed for about five days leading up to the recording session (a record amount of rehearsal time for us), that session took every minute of the allotted three days to finish and it was pretty stressful. I attribute this more to my own rather scattered leadership than to the material, actually. MACROSCOPE is our first record with Trevor Dunn, and it was really relaxed. The only glitch for me was how hard it was for me to relax when soloing. Sometimes my neuroses get the better of me, and also playing in headphones seems to be getting harder instead of easier for some reason. But the process was basically the same as always with the difference that Josh Jones and Zeena came in on the first sessions, which was really fun.
HT: Where do you draw your inspiration from musically? What are you listening to right now that may have impacted your music?
NC: Inspiration is everywhere. But for the last couple of years or more I keep finding myself drifting back to my beloved early Weather Report jams, Herbie Hancock Septet, and the Tony Williams Lifetime. The latter band had a later iteration after the legendary first trio with John McLaughlin and Larry Young and before the fusion god version with Alan Holdsworth that made a record in 1971 called “Ego”. My brother and high school friend Michael Preussner and I used to listen to this record religiously, and it is criminally underrated to my mind. Anyway, the emergence of vintage footage of live gigs by these bands on YouTube has been blowing my mind for years now, so there’s that. Check it out. But also I am currently inspired by the newest record by the band my wife is in called Cibo Matto – the record is Hotel Valentine, and I just love it. When the going gets rough I can always put on a Deerhoof record to cheer me up, or play something like “Canto de Iemanja” by Baden Powell. When I want have my mind quietly blown I can also listen to Jim Hall, Paul Desmond, Jimmy Giuffre. Frankly though, I don’t listen as much as I did when I was younger (and I don’t listen in ear buds like many who trade as much as I). I feel like I need to get back to more attentive listening.
HT: What does MACROSCOPE say about you as a musician, and how does it fit into your large body of work?
NC: I think I will let others decide that one.
NC: I really am not sure. I play in various situations. I strive to be prepared, articulate, to not suck! How these various music’s cross-pollinate may be subtle and/or beyond me. I really find that I try to play and develop ideas that come out of my head/ears and wonder where it came from or how it all fits together later. Would I have ever written something like the ending section of “The Wedding Band” had I not played with Wilco? I don’t know. That simple melody/progression came to me one morning while half asleep and I got out of bed and wrote it down. My feeling about it was simply that it expresses happiness and/or celebration. The repetition is meant to induce a bit of trance, like a happy ritual. But the content and the inclusion of lap steel on it has already been called “Americana”. Ultimately, such distinctions are of no interest to me. And when I go back to playing with Wilco, I play Wilco music. I feel no need to interpolate some aspect of my improviser brain/style on that music. As such, MACROSCOPE may have no impact at all on what I do with Wilco, or it may be happening and I won’t know it!
HT: What was it like to get together with Medeski, Martin, & Wood and create an album’s worth of music and improvisation live in front of audience?
NC: Playing and improvising (and later, touring) with those gentlemen was and is so natural and almost effortless. They understand how to play and listen, and it’s really like we all find ourselves on the same odd and wondrous planet as soon as we convene. In short, it was a blast and an honor.
HT: What’s on the horizon for you over the next couple of months?
NC: After this mini-tour with The Singers – and I must mention that Cyro Baptista is coming out with Scott, Trevor and me – I have duo gigs with Julian Lage at Canadian jazz festivals (our duo record is finished and will be out on Mack Ave. in the Fall), some recording in New York City with Mike Watt and Greg Saunier and a guitarist friend of Watt’s named Nick, recording with Anthony Braxton, a concert in Japan with Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band at Fuji Rock, my week in August at The Stone (NYC) wherein I play two shows per night with many different musicians to sort of re-tell my musical story in composition and improvisation, I have a few gigs here and in Austria with Ben Goldberg/Unfold Ordinary Mind, and a duo set in Austria (Saalfelden) with Marc Ribot. That’s all I can think of at the moment.