Nels Cline – Dual tones
ND: So how did you pursue this as a career or a livelihood? There’s not a really clear path for the sort of free-jazz stuff you’ve done.
NC: Well, you know, people like to make fun of the ’70s, but the ’70s were a wide-open decade. I think until the ’80s, things were pretty unformatted, still pretty wide open. There was a lot of innovation in electric jazz, there was a lot of innovation in free jazz, there was a lot of interesting music being made.
There was never a point at which I really entertained the idea of so-called “success” in a very concrete way; it was always like a dream. For me the big dilemma was more electric versus acoustic, rock versus jazz — what I consider to be dichotomous impulses that were bubbling around within. I almost gave up music out of sheer anguish, to be perfectly dramatic about it, because I couldn’t reconcile these impulses.
By the early ’80s I was really into Sonic Youth and certainly the Minutemen, just going to shows and hearing these bands. And at the same time thinking that I had to learn how to play straight-ahead jazz because that was the stuff that would somehow turn me into a genius and make me understand things that I needed to learn to be a real musician — all these kind of weird pressures that I put on myself.
I was in a rock band for a long time, from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s in Los Angeles, called Bloc, which was really openly unsatisfying. We got signed to a major label and dropped. That was the greatest thing that happened to me, because out of frustration I started my own trio. And that was when my whole attitude toward this dichotomy sort of dissolved. I felt happier, and I also realized people kind of liked this weird combination of rock and jazz I tried to do.
ND: I think a lot of rock fans first heard of you through stuff you did with Mike Watt. How did you connect with him?
NC: The Minutemen were one of my top favorite bands of all time, possibly my favorite live band I’ve ever seen. It was basically my friend David Crouch, who worked at Rhino Records for years, and Thurston Moore who I think made Mike Watt aware of me. I opened for fIREHOSE either solo or with my original trio, and also ended up as a guest on the last fIREHOSE record, Mr. Machinery Operator, [playing] a 30-second solo instrumental. And then later played on [Watt’s 1995 solo debut] Ball-hog Or Tugboat quite a bit with the drummer from my trio, Michael Preussner.
ND: What is the difference for you between the bands that you actually lead and the bands that you’re in, as just one member?
NC: Other than the challenges of the music, there are no differences. I’ve said this before, and it sounds like I’m trying to be quaint or funny or folksy, but seriously, once the music starts I’m kind of like a little moron in the sandbox. It’s just a situation where everything’s O.K. once there’s sound around me.
Certainly this Wilco thing is really different, because you walk onstage and there’s maybe more than a thousand people cheering really loudly and you haven’t even played a note yet. That was literally terrifying the first time I went out onstage with Wilco and heard that; I mean it really freaked me out.
ND: The Wilco connection came originally from playing with the Geraldine Fibbers, right?
ND: I met [the Geraldine Fibbers] through Mike Watt, and was a huge, huge fan. And I was asked to go out as a substitute guitarist for their original guitarist, Daniel Keenan, who had tendonitis, in ’96. It was one of the happiest experiences of my adult life. And then we ended up opening for Golden Smog part of that year, and that’s how I even heard of Jeff Tweedy. And I sat in with Golden Smog on the last night of the tour. Seemingly that’s where all this started, in Jeff’s mind somehow. That’s how he remembered me.
I know that Carla [Bozulich] stayed in touch with him. He was aware of what she was doing, and she ended up opening for Wilco and I was in her band, post-Fibbers, about four years ago. We did some shows together in the midwest, and that’s when I met everybody.
ND: When they actually called you, did it surprise you?
NC: Oh, it was certainly a surprise. The lore at this point has been established that I was going to go back the workforce. I was having so much trouble making my nut every month, even though I was working a lot. I thought, “I’m crazy, I’m a loser, I’m going to be 50 years old and I’m not even able to make a living. I’m living like a teenager, with roommates and no money.”
So it was a surprise. I didn’t know that Leroy had left, I didn’t know anything was going on with Wilco, and didn’t know that much about Wilco, frankly, other than what I’d experienced from their live shows and from listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in Carla’s van, while touring with her on the Red-Headed Stranger record.