So in Cline: Nels Cline likes his day job with Wilco, but his more personal projects really show what he can do.
Wilco's resident avant-garde shredder Nels Cline takes the spotlight
By Paul Davis
Out-there guitarist Nels Cline doesn't fit the common stereotypes of the avant-garde musician. He's an affable, good-humored guy, ready to get effusive over his love of heavy metal and how he was first inspired by '60s surf rock. Still, you wouldn't necessarily know this from his body of work. For over two decades, Cline has gained a reputation as a far-reaching and free-thinking musician, drawing deep from the wells of free jazz and punk, industrial shock and trancelike folk rumination. But strangely enough, despite Cline's skronk-rock cred, he has always maintained a healthy sense of melodicism in his playing, an ability to wring both unspeakable chaos and transcendent melody out of six electrified strings.
This seeming dichotomy is perhaps most apparent in his work with his current day gig Wilco, whose understated country rock displays a very restrained experimentalism, but it's in his trio the Nels Cline Singers that Cline brings his full arsenal to the table, alongside drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Devin Hoff. With the Singers, Cline draws from the periods in a fiercely independent career that boasts collaborations with the likes of Mike Watt, Charlie Haden, Thurston Moore, the criminally underappreciated '90s country-punk outfit the Geraline Fibbers, and far too many more to list here. For Cline, the dichotomies in his work aren't that difficult to bridge.
"We have our free-for-alls and we have our rock operas, our noise fests, it's a kitchen sink approach," he says. "There are too many touchstones to enumerate. When I started my first trio, the Nels Cline Trio, I decided that after being tortured by the seeming dichotomy between so-called rock, so-called jazz, and electric and acoustic, to endeavor to get past the dichotomy and unite my sensibilities in one combo. That's what my first trio was and that's what the Singers are. It's the only way that my own music can exist, is to embrace whatever impulses I have at the time and whatever impulses I may have from my background, which is jazz-y and rock-y."
There is no immediate touchstone for Cline's playing--onstage Cline is a man possessed, wrenching otherworldly sounds out of an instrument so ubiquitous that it seems every sound it can produce has already been conjured from it. Yet in Cline's hands, the electric guitar becomes a new creature, as he wields his impressive chops, a bank of effects pedals and unusual playing approaches to create a sound that is unmistakably his own. Cline is no typical guitarist--while others obsess on soloing and riffage, he considers how to craft new sounds out of an old machine. "I tend to think of all potential ways of play with sounds," he says, "whether with effects pedals or bottlenecks or metal objects, I tend to think of them as equals. There certainly is no attempt at novelty or draw attention visually to myself, but to get the best sound in a given situation. There was virtually no guitar soloing in the Geraldine Fibbers, and I could certainly have cared less, but the question just comes to how you heighten the mayhem. How to add to that, and make it more intense, was really great--I like to disappear into sound and the moment."
What with the free-for-all, chaotic spirit that drives the Nels Cline Singers, it's tempting to use any number of descriptions that are often used for avant-garde music whether or not they are accurate--'improvisatory' is one of those terms. But according to Cline, there is a very strong structure to the Singers' cacophonous work. "We're playing tunes that I write almost without exception, and if there are free parts, then they are structured to have a free section," he says. "These are compositions, that's why you hear chord progressions--even the free-for-alls have a line that start them out. The reason I have these kind of pieces are primarily for me to enjoy what we're doing so I can have my little party and the other reasons are to bring the members of the Singers to the forum. There are pieces that are heavily orchestrated, and there are pieces that have a little line that gets us going, and then something else comes along later. Live, many times we change directives, or I change them I guess!" Still, there is a distinct difference between Cline's approach in the studio and the trio's experience onstage. He notes, "I encourage the members of the group, once we know a piece well, to disregard all directives in favor of spontaneity. That only works on those pieces that are less structured, that are designed for free-blowing as we call it."
Free-blowing, avant-garde, experimental--all terms that connote a very cerebral, high-minded approach to composition. And while he takes the Nels Cline Singers material very seriously, and no one familiar with his career could accuse him of producing particularly upbeat or accessible music, Cline is anything but an elitist, and strives for a playfulness in his music that bridges both high and allegedly 'low' musical traditions. "Some of the songs fall into the category of what I like to refer to as 'instrumental hits,'" he says. "They're never going to be hits, but I grew up listening to music in the '60s and there were a lot of instrumental hits. Sometimes I write instrumentals and they're not meant to be jazz compositions nor are they meant to be cellular areas of directed improvisation that can go on for a long period of time--they're meant to be economical and quasi-memorable little ditties. I usually justify playing those kind of pieces by thinking of them as 'Apache' or 'The Wild Bull' or 'Chariots of Fire.' I have no compunction referring to things either directly or indirectly. I think people don't get that things on my records are meant to be playful, if not somewhat humorous, but people don't get it always, they think it's all heavy-duty."
Cline finds that most people miss that humor and playfulness in his work. "There are dark moods, because that's what I am drawn to," he says. "But some of the stuff that sounds heavy-duty has some of the most humorous references--nods to things like surf or metal are supposed to sound somewhat playful, but not disposable. I don't try to control how people to react to things, but it's interesting to me that very rarely people pick up on humor at all." Cline is quick to emphasize that the playfulness is merely a way of leavening the tense and chaotic proceedings. "I'm pretty damn serious, which is why I try to have the element of playfulness into it. If I didn't think Devin or Scott could get with that, we wouldn't do it. I don't try to make them do things that are unnatural to them--well, every once in a while I do. Chemistry is everything, and I find that whatever comes naturally is best. Every once in a while I have to do a little force-feeding, but overall we play around and have a good time and I think that is because we enjoy playing together. The longer we do it, it seems more and more fun."
That chemistry is an essential point for drummer Scott Amendola, who has been playing with Cline for over a decade. For the prolific player who has collaborated with slew of modern jazz titans ranging from Charlie Hunter to John Zorn, the Nels Cline Singers presents Amendola with a singular opportunity to flex both his impressive drumming muscles and his free-ranging experimental muse as well. "My whole concept of timing works with Nels and Devin," Amendola notes. "When you're in a band like the Nels Cline Singers, from the beginning it either works or it doesn't and with us it works. Sometimes as a bandleader you have to redirect people if someone's straying, so in that sense it's so established the musical bond between that the music flows out and Nels just steers the ship. He's a great bandleader, he knows how to push us and what direction to push us in. he writes for us and knows how to direct us and we're just happy to be led by him. Musically speaking, with Nels, there's a commonality."
For Cline, the Singers project presents a chance to indulge his wildest muses while he plays with two of the finest players in the business. Still, that kind of creative latitude doesn't come easy for a musician as prolific as Cline--currently on a Australian Wilco tour and gearing up for an extensive nationwide tour supporting the band's new album Blue Sky Blue, Cline will be playing three Bay Area sets with the Singers between two huge nationwide stadium-rock tours. Despite his impending lack of sleep, Cline has no reservations. "To be able to play with Devin and Scott is a pleasure anytime," he notes. "I'm literally wedging this between an Australian Wilco tour and a major, major tour off the new Wilco record. I'm home from Australia on the 23rd and drive out to the Bay Area on the 24th so hopefully I'll know what time zone I'm in!"
The Nels Cline Singers appear Thursday, April 26, at 7pm at the Attic, 931 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. (831.460.1800; www.theatticsantacruz.com)
Send a letter to the editor about this story.