Nels Cline – Dual tones
In parts of Pakistan, there is a tradition of kite dueling in which colorful kites on strings coated with glass shards clash in aerial combat. Local governments have taken to discouraging the spring ritual because of the tendency for the strings to get tangled terrestrially around arms, legs and (sometimes fatally) throats.
The guitar playing of Nels Cline is something like those kite strings, nimble and flexible and capable of both soaring beauty and slashing attacks. At his most deliberately pretty, he still sounds a little dangerous. And even at his most outre, in sprawling sessions of free jazz and dense noise, he shows a wide-ranging and seemingly instinctive musicality that allows him to take apart melody and harmony as easily as he constructs them.
A discography on his entertaining website — www.nelscline.com — lists more than 130 releases over the past 28 years, including long-lost vinyl EPs, albums with a range of jazz ensembles (two under his own name, the Nels Cline Trio and the Nels Cline Singers), the occasional big-label studio session, and a handful of names familiar to the rock marketplace: Mike Watt, the Geraldine Fibbers, and, most recently, Wilco.
Cline’s invitation to join Wilco in 2004, to replace departed guitarist Leroy Bach, was taken as one more sign of bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s ongoing interest in broadening the scope and ambition of the band’s sound. His contributions have been evident on the band’s 2005 live album, Kicking Television, and this year’s meditative studio release, Sky Blue Sky. The band has given Cline more visibility than anything he’s done before; in February, Rolling Stone named him one of 20 “New Guitar Gods,” dubbing him “The Avant Romantic.”
But Wilco duties seem to have barely dented Cline’s vigorous schedule of playing and recording. Last year he released New Monastery, an album of reconfigured compositions by the pianist Andrew Hill that graced many jazz critics’ best-of-2006 lists. And this June, a month after the release of Sky Blue Sky, came Draw Breath, the third album by the Nels Cline Singers (an instrumental improvisatory trio, despite its name).
The 51-year-old Cline contracted chickenpox in August, leading to some enforced recuperation in Brooklyn and a few delays in the Wilco tour schedule. When I spoke with him a few weeks later, by phone from Duluth, Minnesota, he was back on the Wilco bus, largely recovered. “I’m still spotted, but I’m fine,” he said.
NO DEPRESSION: First of all, I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about how you came to music first as a fan and then as a musician.
NELS CLINE: I was born in Los Angeles, California, where I still reside. I have a twin brother named Alex; he and I basically got into music at the same time. We always liked music as little kids, in the way that little kids like all kinds of things. But I think that music, by the time that we were 10 years old, which would have been 1966 or so, started to have a great fascination and grew into an obsession. If you think about what was going on in the late ’60s, you can probably understand that for a boy just about to enter puberty it was a pretty heady time.
By the time I was 10 I heard, at a friend’s place, the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! album. And that was a record we used to listen to over and over again while we’d hang around unsupervised at our friend Mitch’s apartment in West L.A. My brother was a Rolling Stones fanatic and learned how to play drums from listening to Rolling Stones records. So Alex and I formed our own version of a psychedelic band and played at our elementary school graduation, playing, of course, all original material. We were called Homogenized Goo. We continued on through junior high with a band called Toe Queen Love, which was actually pretty good. I met a man named Bill Watts at that time, who was the other guitarist, and he could really play. I was terrible. I played with two fingers.
ND: Were you and Alex the only siblings?
NC: Yeah, my parents were 40 when we were born, which was very unusual for the 1950s to have kids that late in life. My parents were both schoolteachers and, as such, very supportive of cultural endeavors. They were very encouraging of our creativity, and rather forgiving of our aimless sort of meandering through noise and rock ‘n’ roll.
There were periods of time where I didn’t know anything on the guitar at all and just mostly did feedback and distortion with my little Blue Chip Stamp amplifier and Pan guitar. But then my dad took folk guitar classes at night school and showed me an E chord, and that was the beginning. It was a revelation.
ND: You didn’t take any real lessons?
NC: Later in high school, I tried to. I had two teachers, very briefly, one of whom pretty much ruined me for a lot of things and another one who almost killed me in a car accident. They both ended up moving to Japan, strangely, sparing me further damage. Although the second one, named Bruce, he wasn’t a bad guy, he just wasn’t a good teacher, he didn’t know that much. But he taught me a diatonic scale and chords, and pretty much unlocked the key to the universe with that for me.