Uploaded May 28, 2016
Nels Cline is among the most celebrated guitarists of our time for obvious reasons, first and foremost of which is how his generosity of spirit translates into a wide range of interwoven improvisational approaches on one hand and an ability to come up with the “right” lead guitar part for dozens of delightful Wilco songs on another. He also expresses himself verbally rather well…
“For Jim? Sure. Anything.”
I’m in luck. By chance, I’ve stumbled into Nels Cline at his brother Alex’s monthly New Music series at the Eagle Rock Center For The Arts, and he’s agreed to do a brief interview centered on the Acoustic Guitar Trio when he’s back in town the next week. For the last 7 years or so, he’s been based out of NYC when he hasn’t been Wilcoing so the days of running into him around LA and casually quizzing him about his latest collaborations are far in the past. But what the hell; if that situation leads to teaming up more often with people like Tim Berne and Jim Black, Medeski, Martin and Wood, and the Kronos String Quartet, I can live with it.
And sure enough, Nels and I get together for a half hour while he’s waiting for some car repairs to be finished. As some of his recently-written tunes approach the forms they’ll have on the Nels Cline Singers’ 2014 release, Macroscope, he’s kind enough to go over some of his compositional strategies, his collaborations with Julian Lage, and his years in the AGT. It was January of 2013…
In general, you’re in town writing material for the next Singers album?
Yeah, just finishing off some ideas that have been in my head for months that I haven’t written out yet. I’m just refining some things, because I haven’t been doing my own music for a million years. I go up there (to the Bay Area) on Monday for four nights of gigs and three nights of recording and we’ll see if we get a record out of all that.
So you’ll be doing some of the new material on the gigs?
Absolutely, rehearsing onstage, as usual. That’s why I’m trying to get the new stuff done, so we can mess around with it. We have one rehearsal. (Bassist) Trevor Dunn has not played with us that much since he’s been in the band but I don’t really want to saddle him with too much of the past material if we can work some of this new stuff up.
Trevor is the only bass player at this point?
Yeah. Devin (Hoff) left like two years ago. Things were going too well I think. (Laughs) I don’t know why he quit, really. I know what he said, but…. He’s living here now, you know.
Yeah, he’s been doing all sorts of interesting stuff.
He’s always doing interesting stuff. He sounds better every year. He played with us in Minneapolis. We did “Dirty Baby” Side A and parts of Side B. It was the first time we played with him in a couple of years and he sounded awesome.
I hope they’ll fix my CD player today; it hasn’t worked for awhile. It would be nice to hear some music in the car when I’m driving up north. Usually, I’ll just be hearing some new music in my head, which is what always happens when I don’t have music on.
Do you have a chance at the end of a trip to write stuff down?
I never do. I’m terrible. I should just record it on my phone but I don’t even do that. I was driving in the car just yesterday and I got all these ideas and I sort of remember them. That’s what I’m working on today. I have these little descriptions that I write in words, that I think will jog my memory, but it doesn’t always work. Like these: “Hairy Mother,” “Up 4/4,” “Fuzz Work Out Guitar Rock Psych.” I have this riff out of that last style that I think I can remember.
So the album that you’re writing for, will that be out on Cryptogramophone?
I don’t know. Jeff (Gauthier) is sort of still in business. I’ll see him tonight; I think so. It’s really been hard for him. I’d like to see his life simplified and I’d like to see him not lose so much money. But, of course, (laughs) I’d love to do it on Cryptogramophone. Jeff claims he still wants to put out records by what he calls his extended family, which means me and Alex, and he’s putting out a Zeena (Parkins) and the Adorables CD. I’d like to release the duo I’m doing with this guitarist Julian Lage on Cryptogramophone because when Jeff hears it, he’s gonna love it. But a lot of people want to put out our duo. It’s really weird. It’s a bidding war except nobody has any money (laughs) so there’s no actual bidding going on.
So they give you nice smiles or what?i
No, they’d put it out. They’d pay for the fabrication but I don’t think we’re going to get any artist fee or a real budget. But how much of a budget do you need to record guitar duets? I’ll just pay for it myself; I don’t care. That is so aesthetically in Jeff’s wheelhouse; we’ll probably talk about it tonight, as well as the Singers. [The duo album has come out on Mack Avenue and the Singers latest album is a shared release on both labels.]
So the Singers are still going. Once we get the new record done and get it released, then we’ll probably do some more gigs, whenever I have a break.
Well, Scott Amendola is a very unique musician so however you can, keep that thing going.
I love it. Scott loves it. I don’t know if you’ve heard that duo he’s got going with Charlie Hunter lately but it’s really good. That’s his main other thing, besides his trio and his quartet.
And you’re in the middle of all sorts of things.
Yeah, and I’m not looking forward to putting out any more releases. I had two double records out in the same year and that was not planned. But when you improvise with people and you record it, quite often, the musician wants to put it out. I could have way too many improvised duo things out there. It seems unwise.
It’s not like you’re getting rich off your stuff at this point.
Hell, no. But I don’t worry about that. It’s really about playing live anyway. I do love that everyone can’t live without recorded music; they just don’t want to pay for it. That doesn’t hurt the big guys but it does hurt the little people to whom $200.00 would be a big deal, instead of .23 from Spotify, or something. I’m not whining about it. It’s just the way it goes.
So do you have a certain amount of time set aside for Wilco, or how does that work?
Well, it varies. That’s job one. When Wilco calls, I get my marching orders and I go. I just wedge everything in between Wilco activity. The main dilemma with that has been that in the so-called jazz or improvised music world, they book everything so far ahead. The rock world doesn’t; things can shift very quickly and so can the bookings. People will ask me to do things that I can’t commit to, and then they get frustrated and find somebody else. I’m really upfront about it but it can be really disappointing. But that’s the way it is.
I never really wanted to play endless tours doing all my own music all the time. I think I’d end up hating my own music. I’d like to do it a little more than I have been but I don’t think I could do what Bill Frisell does, for example, and have all these bands that play his music. He’s constantly touring and playing that music. I’m in awe of that, really, but I don’t know if I could do it.
Well, you get to be in a creative rock band that is amazing on its own level. There you have it.
Yep. It’s fun. We have a good time. When I was first in Wilco, I kept everything I was doing at the time going because I ended up here a lot. I couldn’t keep the Acoustic Guitar Trio going because Rod got killed. So that’s what that was about.
When you were first putting the Acoustic Guitar Trio together, what did you specifically see in Jim to make you think he would work in something like that?
He’s really the only guy that I think I could have added to it. To be perfectly blunt, when I heard Rod Poole, I was so enchanted and excited by his music that I thought it would be amazing to try to play with him, to see if I could do anything that wouldn’t ruin his music, to get closer to his music, to get inside it, to some extent. Then I thought, well, the way to do that might not be to do it as a duo because I’ve been doing duos, duos, duos. I still am and I love doing guitar duos, but that I thought to take it further afield, it would be interesting to add one more guitar. I thought of Jim as the only guy for the job: somebody that can play acoustic guitar—nylon string, steel string, open tuned, prepared, can use extended techniques but still have what we call “chops,” Jim is the guy. I can’t think of anybody else in L.A. that I would have asked.
He’s also somebody I hadn’t really played with, even though I’d known him since the 70’s. I met him when he used to come into the Rhino Records shop where I was working at the time. We’d talk about Ralph Towner and people like that. I knew a little bit about Jim’s story. I knew he’d been a session musician who’d kind of gone rogue, and was just this interesting character.
Then I started booking him at the Alligator Lounge and I could see that he hadn’t been playing in front of people that often. The more gigs you play, the more relaxed you get about playing, and I felt like he needed to do a lot more of that. He was also working on this solo guitar recording with Scott Fraser, for years, endlessly revising and redoing it. I guess he was asking me for advice at some point, and this all coalesced into the idea of “We should just play.” I don’t remember if I asked Rod or if it came together through somebody else, but ultimately, it became known that every one of the three of us was excited about the idea of playing as a trio.
Did you know that Jim was the first guy to mention the marxophone to me? He still has his. I finally got one—it’s completely ruined—and I used it in its raw, out-of-tune state on the piece I dedicated to Rod on Coward, [“Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven”]. I remember telling Jim that it was kind of hilarious in a way but maybe ironic and sad as well that some of the acoustic guitar pieces on that record sounded like the Acoustic Guitar Trio. But, it was just me overdubbed, improvising with myself, as it were. There’s something telling about that and a little bit tragic, I guess. I used the marxophone, not just because it was a texture I wanted to hear, but it is a reference to Jim to me; he’ll know that, but nobody else will.
When you were recording the duo tracks with Jim in 2007, had you played those tunes much before?
No, I think we just worked on ‘em right before we recorded them, but my memory of the actual recording session is a little cloudy. I know we did it with Scott. After doing something like that, I’m always interested in what the artist ends up liking out of what I’ve done. He ended up picking one take that I recalled thinking wasn’t that good, but when I heard it back, I realized why he liked it. It’s always interesting when people hear something that, when you’re all wrapped up in yourself, you can’t hear the same way as they do.
Well, one of Jim’s strengths is his ability to come up with a good album out of various pieces of recorded music.
Yeah, that record of duos and what not—[The Ultimate Frog]—is pretty remarkable. And I think I did something good by hooking him up with [Long Song Records head] Fabrizio Perissinotto in Italy. Other people and other labels have gotten into his stuff. I haven’t talked to Jim about how any of that is going, but I know he does play gigs out of town once in a while. Certainly, the Acoustic Guitar Trio played a few gigs and hung out a lot. It was as much hanging out, listening to what we had played that Rod had recorded, as it was playing. That was pretty interesting.
Any chance of any of those other recordings coming out?
I don’t think so. I don’t think we have anything really particularly good. We kind of agreed on what we liked, Rod being the absolute most astringent judge. He was more self-editing, maybe. I feel weird about it. Rod always wanted to put out as little as possible. He just was really picky so I think it would be kind of lame to go through it and say, well, here’s more stuff that Rod probably thought was just okay. I want to move ahead.
Before interviewing Jim the first time, I didn’t realize that at one time, he had a contract with Takoma Records. He told me how his roots are more in folk and classical; he takes things out improvisationally from there but he’s not really that much of a jazz player per se. If his first album had come out on Takoma rather than 9 Winds, he would probably be considered more of a folk artist than an improvisational one. Working at Rhino in the 70’s, you had to be aware of John Fahey and people like that.
Certainly I was aware of Fahey and Kottke and Basho and Peter Lang, and it’s remarkable to me that with the amazing glut of information on music out there, they are finding some good stuff that I thought young people would never be listening to. Certainly psychedelia and garage rock and vintage soul but people ferret out all kinds of obscure stuff. They’re checking it all out. It’s not just John Fahey but John’s a good example. I read a big article on Robbie Basho recently somewhere. So I think it’s kinda cool that more of the music that Jim comes out of is being appreciated right now, not just the Takoma tradition but Takoma-inspired artists. Jim would certainly fit in with some of those guys; he’s be one of the wilder ones tonally and texturally. I guess obviously one of the things I like so much about Jim, that I relate to, is that he’s such a mutt.
You guys have these parallel things; it’s not that you’re so much the same. You’re both considered “jazz” artists, when there’s so much other stuff in your musics. So much of Initiate is instrumental rock.
It’s fusion, Michael (laughs). When I started the first trio, people asked me what the music was going to be like because I’d never led a band before. This was in ’89. I just said fusion to upset people, but it was true.
Look at one of these song descriptions I’ve got here: “Freedom Fusion Dance (That 70’s Song)”. That’s not going to be what I really title it. It’s going to be a total “Freedom Jazz Dance” kind of thing. I’m going to write it today. It’s sort of like some songs on [John McLaughlin’s] Extrapolation. I’m not staking any claims on originality. These public or private homages are fine with me. That’s kind of where I’m coming from.
Fabrizio sent me a big batch of CD’s, including one where you’re the guest guy on it.
I did that Daniele Cavallanti record—Smoke Inside--; there’s some 70’s fusion.
Yeah, I finished off one of my radio shows with one of the more intense tunes from that and then went directly into TW’s “Vuelta Abajo.”
Nice. Yeah, man.