Tag Archives: Nels Cline

Nels Cline: Polyglot Tendencies


Nels1From 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.


Nels3HT:  Has it always been that way? Was there a maturation process?

 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.


Macroscope_LP_front-webHT:  What did you assign or exclude on MACROSCOPE?

 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.


Nels5HT:  With that how did you approach your latest album MACROSCOPE?  What was the process as you began working on it?

 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.


 Nels4HT:  Does you solo work impact what you bring to the table with Wilco, and if so how do you see MACROSCOPE impacting what you do with Wilco?

 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.

MMW + Nels Cline To Release ‘The Woodstock Sessions’

mmwclineMedeski Martin & Wood + Nels Cline have announced the release of The Woodstock Sessions (Vol. 2) on April 22. The four musicians came together to record on August 27, 2013 at Applehead Studios in Woodstock, NY in front of an intimate gathering of 75 lucky ticket holders. The session was part of a newly launched series that brings established and emerging recording artists together with their fans in the recording studio. The experience is a performance/session hybrid that supports the artist to fan bond by sharing the process of record making. The end results are inimitable recordings that capture inspired, one-off performances.

The initial collaboration between MMW and Nels Cline was a year earlier when they performed at The Blue Note for two sold out shows in New York City. They would later reconnect at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival in western Massachusetts. The chemistry was immediate and ever since they’d been considering ways to record.

“When we talked to Nels about recording something, we felt live was the best way. And we started thinking again about this idea of an intimate concert/studio situation that would be a cool experience and fun for everyone. It seemed like the perfect thing to do,” says Medeski. “We wanted play together, record it, and not have to fix everything in the computer. Sometimes you go into the studio and start thinking too much. It changes everything. It might end up great, but it doesn’t have the same feeling as getting together to improvise and create in the moment for the moment. This is our moment with Nels!”

Together at Applehead Studios, the quartet jumped head first into nearly two hours of improvised music spread across two sets. They’d ricochet between ideas that run the gamut from avant noise to space funk, experimental jazz to electronic minimalism with nearly a million other musical impulses and currents spiraling from their dense web of sound. The recordings were later edited and mixed into nine separate tracks by the Applehead production/engineering team of Michael Birnbaum, Chris Bittner and Kevin Salem.

“There are a lot of different ways to make records. Too often, the process gets elongated, and I’ve made many records on recent years where no two musicians played in the same room at the same time. Michael and I sat down as producers and decided that we wanted to create a situation that would foster productivity and a modern organic approach to recording,” says Salem. “These are recording sessions, pure, simple and real. For the attendees, they get to see musicians in their creative habitat. The artists get the benefit of simplicity and urgency that comes with live recording. And as producers, we get to craft something really one-of-a-kind. Putting people in a room changes the dynamic, and that yields a tangible result that makes the sessions different from even standard live studio recording and certainly different from concert recordings.”

Heard in its entirety, The Woodstock Sessions (Vol. 2) presents some of the most imaginative playing ever documented in the vast discographies of either Medeski Martin & Wood or Nels Cline.

Wilco, 9/29/11

The Cobb Energy Centre 
Atlanta, GA 
September 29, 2011 

On the heels of The Whole Love, Chicago based rock outfit Wilco forcefully rolled through Atlanta, playing two sold out nights at The Cobb Energy Center just north of downtown. This night, the second of the two, the show boasted many old favorites mixed in with new classics off the aforementioned recent studio effort.

Wordsmith Jeff Tweedy took the stage with the remainder of the band and began the show with an amazing version of “One Sunday Morning,” a track of music beauty from the new album that is not to be overlooked.

The show rolled on with more new material — including the opening track from The Whole Love–  followed by “…I Might.”

Upon the closing notes of “…I Might,” guitarist Nels Cline was handed a 1957 Les Paul Gold Top to play for the next tune.

As Tweedy approached the mic with a grin, he muttered some words that got the crowd buzzing. With a quick explanation, it was clear to the crowd…this was Duane Allman’s ’57 Gold Top –a guitar that has certainly been making the rounds lately– that was brought to Atlanta for these two shows, on loan from The Big House in Macon, GA.

You could almost see the hair on each of the band members arms stand up as the first notes of “Muzzle of Bees” were struck by Cline, and the passion spewing through the air was nothing short of momentary musically-driven surreality.

The show continued on with a few other appearances of the Gold Top including one in an incredible rendition of “Impossible Germany” that seemingly had every fan in the venue on the edge of their seats.

For an encore, Wilco opted to trudge on with the new>old formula that had worked for them the entire evening  by providing a blissful version of “California Stars” from the Mermaid Avenue album that Wilco released with Billy Bragg in 1998.

The double-rocker closer of “I Got You” and “OuttaSite” had the room out of their seats and screaming for more, but alas, the house lights came up and the show was but a memory.



One Sunday Morning,  Art of Almost, … I Might, Muzzle of Bees, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, One Wing, At Least That’s What You Said, Capital City, Misunderstood, Jesus, Etc., Born Alone, Box Full of Letters, War on War, Standing O, Rising Red Lung, Impossible Germany, Dawned on Me, Shot in the Arm, Whole Love, Cali Stars, Hate It Here, Walken, Red-Eyed & Blue, I Got You, OuttaSite


Click the thumbnail(s) to view photos from the show by Ryan Swerdlin

Wilco’s focused Sky at the Aronoff


Procter and Gamble Hall at the Aronoff Center for the Art

Cincinnati, Ohio

June 14, 2007


Starting with the slowly building jazz riffs of "Shake It Off" from their recently released disc, Sky Blue Sky, Wilco played to a packed theater at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati on June 14.  It was the second stop on their summer tour, and both the band and leader Jeff Tweedy seemed to be in high spirits.

The focus of the evening was material from Sky Blue Sky, and a peaking early point of the performance surrounded the second track of the album, "You Are My Face."  Bounding through "Side with the Seeds," Tweedy and co. quickly upped the ante as they broke into a trio of songs at breakneck speed.

Wilco’s secret weapon, guitarist Nels Cline, enveloped the Aronoff Center’s shimmering sparkle of lights with cascading chords on "Handshake Drugs" and the wistful "Impossible Germany."  Playing alongside an acoustic strumming Tweedy, Cline reached back into a grab bag of distortion and feedback on the new recording’s title track.

Both guitarists reached a summit of punchy electric, frenzied soloing on "War on War" and "Walken."  Tweedy joked with the audience and relented during a silly pause while he put on sunglasses and jewelry thrown towards the stage before summoning the ensemble to launch into "Jesus, Etc." off of the 2002 gem, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

2004’s A Ghost is Born was largely reserved for the back end of the evening as Wilco closed their set with the light, breezy "Hummingbird," and then dove into the half hour propulsive assault of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)."  The rapturous applause did not stop, even when the group closed with the radio friendly "Heavy Metal Drummer."

Focused and polished within a moderate level of eccentricity, Wilco’s concert at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati was a model of grace under pressure and relaxed pacing wrapped inside tension and release, leaving the enthused patrons begging for more.


Setlist: Shake It Off, You Are My Face, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, A Shot in the Arm, Side with the Seeds, Handshake Drugs, Impossible Germany, Sky Blue Sky, Pot Kettle Black, Via Chicago, War on War, Jesus, Etc., Walken, I’m the Man Who Loves You, Hummingbird

Encore 1: Hate it Here, Poor Places, Spiders (Kidsmoke)

Encore 2: What Light, Heavy Metal Drummer