In a 2007 feature on the "Top 20 New Guitar Gods," Rolling Stone dubbed Wilco's Nels Cline "The Avant Romantic," a title the Los Angeles musician finds odd but agreeable. Since joining up with Jeff Tweedy's revered outfit, Cline's mainstream profile has skyrocketed in a way that no one who followed his experimental jazz work could have predicted. It's a decidedly strange career trajectory for a guitarist who's recorded upward of a hundred albums, either with his own groups or alongside artists ranging from John Fahey to Thurston Moore.
These days, of course, Wilco is Cline's main gig, but that doesn't stop him from indulging his improvisational inclinations on an ongoing basis. Earlier this month, he returned from a South American tour with his free jazz trio, the Nels Cline Singers, who waited until their fourth album to include actual singing (and, even then, of the wordless variety). "Now that I'm using my voice on these things, I've blown the whole thing," says Cline, who will move on to writing actual lyrics for an upcoming project with Cibo Matto co-founder Yuka Honda.
Meanwhile, the Nels Cline Singers, who also include bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola, are touring behind Initiate, a double album — half-studio, half-live — that was released in April to critical acclaim. In the following interview, the former record-store clerk talks about the ins and outs of his double-life in alt-rock and avant-jazz.
Indy: What would you say is the fundamental difference between your guitar style in Wilco and your more experimental projects?
NC: With my own music, I don't feel like I need to play fewer notes. I have a million notes playing in my head, and certainly when the Singers play live, it's largely spontaneous. And in Wilco, although I have latitude to be myself, my ultimate goal is to make the song happen along with everyone else, it's not to be the flash guitar dude. But in my mind, it's all one thing, because it's all music and it's all guitar. And that's where I live; I live in the world of sound.
When we were in South America, journalists asked me what makes my music different from that of, say, Joe Satriani or Steve Vai in the guitar hero category. And I just really am not interested in featuring that kind of virtuosity in my own music. I'm much more interested in ensemble playing and the sound of the guitar, but not the guitar as gymnastic event, you know? And I don't have that kind of technique, anyway. [Laughs.]
Indy: One big difference between Wilco and the Singers is the group improvisation aspect. Does any of that come into play with Wilco? Do you see them moving in that direction at all?
NC: Not really. I mean, I think there are parts of it that are more open than others. But no, I think rock bands tend to script things and play songs and have a show. On the other hand, when we play the song "Spiders" in Wilco, some of the freest guitar playing I've heard night after night is from Jeff Tweedy playing on that song. Given the context where people feel comfortable to make stuff up, anything can happen. But I don't think that's the basic mindset of Wilco.
Indy: Has Jeff ever sat in with any of your projects?
NC: No, there's been talk of various things. I think it would just be a matter of getting the right mindset. I think a lot of people think it's anything goes, and it's not. It's deep listening, you know, and I think that's an acquired skill. It takes years of serious thought, and discipline at a certain level, and knowledge. You have to be listening to everything to know how to respond. I like knowing that the people I am playing with are hearing the notes and the dynamics of what I'm playing. And they know I'm listening to them. That's how we can play so much music that sounds composed that isn't.
Indy: You do a 15-minute version of a Weather Report song on the live disc, which is kind of hard to miss. It seemed like that band got lumped in with the somewhat maligned fusion bands. Were you into them at all growing up, and do you think they're due for a critical reappraisal?
NC: Well, that's a really good question. My twin brother Alex [also an accomplished L.A. jazz musician] and I got into jazz around age 16. And for me, it's their earlier work that's crucial. And the reason for the possibility of a reappraisal on my part occurred with the death of [Weather Report keyboardist] Joe Zawinul.
The deaths of musical icons in my life sometimes have a strange and unpredictable affect on me. And with Joe Zawinul, his death made me reflect very deeply upon what his music at its best meant to me. It often had a trance-like effect that translates to me as a kind of joy without sentiment. And also the influence of African pop and R&B — coming from an Austrian who was groomed for the concert stage — I find to be really fascinating. In a way, that informed my decision to put aspects of African and Brazilian music on Initiate. Because for 27 years before that, I would have feared to tread in that area.
Indy: I once saw Wilco play an in-store at Rhino Records on Westwood Boulevard. Were you still working there at the time?
NC: No, I worked there from the late '70s until I left in '81. And then I got invited back and worked till about '86, so it was way before then.
Indy: So when and how did you first meet those guys?
NC: Well, I met Jeff Tweedy in 1996 when I was touring as a substitute guitarist in the Geraldine Fibbers. We were opening for Golden Smog [one of Tweedy's side projects] for two weeks. I sat in with Golden Smog on the last night of that tour, and it was my playing on the Neil Young song "On the Beach" that made an impression on Jeff. He and I had very long talks on the phone, and my whole thing was, man, if I'm gonna come out and do this, let's see if there's any chemistry. I was trying to be very cautious and pretend like I was gonna be open to it not working and all that. But I kind of needed to be rescued at that point, so I was kind of hoping that it worked out. [Laughs.]
Indy: I've read that Jeff is a big Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler fan. Was that part of how you and he connected?
NC: No, not really. Our conversations were more about our mutual love of late '60s psychedelic rock and garage rock, and all kinds of things philosophical, not so much relating to any avant-garde music discussions. When I first joined the band, we really bonded a lot over Patto, a band from the early '70s in England. And when I realized that these guys were listening to the Incredible String Band and all these things that I had grown up listening to, that was a deep bond, and I didn't really need to be reassured that I could be avant garde in everybody's presence.
Indy: So you were kind of a prog-rock kid?
NC: Later I was. I started out with psychedelic rock and blues rock, Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, Johnny Winter, the Allman Brothers Band, Free. Hendrix was the ultimate inspiration, but I never tried to play like Hendrix. I thought it was impossible; it would be kind of against God or something.
But it was in high school that a friend of ours named Lee Kaplan introduced me to Yes and Van der Graaf Generator. Prior to that it was all about King Crimson, you know, and they basically are still a big influence, particularly that early '70s Larks' Tongues in Aspic version of the band.
Indy: A lot of that music, like some of the jazz-rock stuff, has also gotten maligned over the years, although that seems to be changing.
NC: Well, you take into account the effete conservatory rock of bands like Yes and Genesis — particularly Yes — and how it became stadium rock. Punk rock music deposed that stuff. And also Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, who were just horrendous by then. So you have to remind yourself that there's always, I think, a need for destruction in order to have creation and change. And then eventually things do come around.
I mean, in the '70s I thought it would be easy to make a living playing creative music, because I was listening to all these ECM records, free jazz, AACM artists in Chicago, and all these people who were making good livings back then. But by the Reagan years, the '80s, stuff went completely into the shitter, and I could go see Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie play for 30 people.
Indy: You mentioned Hendrix, who obviously had his share of unorthodox guitar techniques. What's the most unusual thing you've ever done to make music?
NC: I don't recall doing anything particularly unusual, other than one time playing with Devin Sarno at Spaceland, just crawling around on the floor with my guitar, and cutting all the strings off of it, and then lying on it. But I don't think that had such a great musical effect.