Nels Cline is a modern-day guitar wizard. He conjures the spirit of free jazz with the technical prowess of prog rock, and his innovative compositions are full of both hooks and Sonic Youth-inspired noise. Cline made a name for himself with his solo work and his collaborations with artists including Mike Watt, Thurston Moore, and Willie Nelson. In 2004 he joined Chicago-bred indie giant Wilco, who were working with another avant-garde hot-shot at the time, Jim O’Rourke. Cline’s mind-bending guitar technique pushed Wilco’s sound to a higher plane. While in town for Wilco’s five-show stint (with sold-out gigs at the Civic Opera House, the Vic, Riviera, Metro, and Lincoln Hall) Cline was interviewed by Chicagoan (and British expat) Jim Elkington, who plays with Brokeback, Eleventh Dream Day, Jon Langford, and the Horse’s Ha. Wilco plays Metro on Fri 12/16 and Lincoln Hall on Sun 12/18. —Luca Cimarusti
I’m playing with two bands opening up for you this week. Fantastic—I’ll finally meet you.
I had a personal disaster yesterday that I wanted to ask you about. Oh, dear.
Yesterday I left my guitar on the street thinking I’d put it in the car and then drove away. I was wondering if you ever lost any instruments that were important to you and whether you could help in my time of darkness. Well, I’m apparently not going to be of any help to you, Jim. In all my years, as the old man of Wilco, even—far exceeding the age of my comrades—I have never had that happen. I still have the same nylon-string guitar I got as a high school graduation present. And I still have the same two acoustic guitars that I got in the 70s.
I want to think if I found one in the street I would figure out how to get it back to its owner. So I’m hoping someone like me found it. There’s actually a fantastic story that Nick Lowe tells. We just spent a marvelous run that ended last night with Mr. Lowe. Besides his beauty as a musician, he’s one of the most delightful people on the planet. He told a story when we were playing in Maryland; he played there with Elvis Costello, and some kid stole his bass. His mom saw it in his bedroom the next day and gave him a huge amount of grief and got it back to Nick, and all was forgiven. So there you go. You never know.
I love the idea that some parent is gonna browbeat some poor kid in Humboldt Park and force him to figure out how to get this guitar back to me. Nothing against Humboldt Park, but the fact you just mentioned that’s where you lost it does lend me to feel perhaps more pessimistic than I had been.
So what neighborhood do you live in? Well, I’m living in New York these days.
You used to live in Chicago, though? No, I’ve actually never lived in Chicago. I’ve only lived in Los Angeles—where I’m from—and then I got married twice. I got married in Japan about a year ago, and I got married in New York City this year in the spring. I divide my time between my hometown and Manhattan, although I’m really spending most of my time in Manhattan where my wife and her roommates live. And so that’s my deal.
I just figured you had lived in Chicago because I feel like I saw you at Lula having breakfast many times. It’s not really that far from the Wilco loft to Lula, and it’s not all that far from our bassist and his family’s house in Humboldt Park to Lula, so Lula can be a destination. I’ve spent a great deal of time in Chicago since joining Wilco almost eight years ago, and it seems like making records with Wilco takes a long time. We do demos, and then we record, record, record. The whole process of making a rock ‘n’ roll pop-music record is far more elaborate than my own kind of records, which are kind of capturing performances of semi-improvised, semi-organized music. I’ve enjoyed the whole time I’ve spent here, certainly. I have musician friends and some other friends, so it’s been very rewarding. I seem to always be here in the winter. That’s less rewarding.
Well, it depends on how into physical struggle you are. Coming from southern California, the weather here can seem quite exotic. Also, I don’t have to get up every day and drive to work. I did that in California when I had day jobs for almost 18 years, but certainly never had to dig my car out.
That’s another thing about the Chicago winter. It really brings people together. I met all my neighbors last winter. I hadn’t seen them all year, but everyone was out digging. It was a nice community moment for us. In Los Angeles, we only have earthquakes do that for us. The rest of the time, everyone’s in his or her car basically oblivious to the people around them.
You were just saying about Wilco that when you make a record it’s a very long process, and when you make records based on improvised music it’s more capturing the moment. Do you find that the two processes inform each other? I think they do inform each other. There are many reasons for that. I started listening to rock ‘n’ roll in earnest when I was about ten years old, me and my twin brother Alex in Los Angeles. It was the mid-60s, so very heady, very damaging, very magical. That’s when the idea of not just performance but recordings became very intoxicating. One thing I’ve noticed about Wilco: this new record The Whole Love and the record Sky Blue Sky are primarily performed in the moment. Sky Blue Sky is not laboriously overdubbed or produced. Sometimes the tracks that are demos, where we’re just messing around and barely know the song, end up being the masters. Wilco is informed by the idea of capturing performances in the moment.
I used to be a record buyer. That was my job at the record store, buying indie and import rock records. I remember at that time England was basically the enemy, and was basically saying things like, “The guitar is dead. It’s all going to be synthesizers.” And then guitar was back with more bluster than ever. In spite of England’s call that the guitar was dead, it was never dead for me. I don’t want to be guitar-centric. It’s not like guitar heroics, but guitar sonics. That’s what has sustained me all this time and nurtures me and keeps me excited about life.
I can definitely see that, because with a guitar you’re talking about an extremely imperfect system for creating pitches. As much as guitarists try to make it accurate, it’s always a little bit inaccurate, and actually, the more accurate ones don’t really resonate with people the same way. Yeah, I definitely have a love for what I call the ugly duckling guitars. I have a couple of fancy ones, but I’ve never been able to get much use out of them.
These ugly duckling guitars produce strange overtones. Maybe they surprise you when you play them. Something comes out of them that you’re not sure is necessarily coming from you but that feeds your own creativity. I’m trying to come up with music for an ensemble that’ll address my interest in this sort of subtle microtonality that I hear, the beautiful chiming of guitars slightly out of tune with each other, or the sound of Arabic music with different scales, or Asian music, Cambodian, Vietnamese music—also the idea of prepared instruments such as John Cage’s prepared piano. These kinds of sounds combined in an intoxicating way, and I think that’s what’s led me—along with recording technology, as I experienced it as a boy, hearing things like “I Am the Walrus” or “Strawberry Fields Forever,” incredible feats of magical production, Hendrix being my number one inspiration as a boy, hearing something like Axis: Bold as Love.
I was just going to say, Axis: Bold as Love. I’ve been listening to that record since I was like 15. I bought it the week it came out. When Are You Experienced came out it was literally like being jolted with electricity, and I never really recovered. I was already messing around with the idea of playing guitar. I had one and was very, very bad, but I finally decided at that point that I was going to try to play guitar for the rest of my life.
Once in a while I’ll be driving around and “Purple Haze” will just completely knock me sideways. I’ve been listening to that song for so long and gotten so used to it being the general sonic fabric of my life that I’ll forget just how phenomenally weird it is. Almost everything about it. One parallel I draw between you and him is that, despite his phenomenal and obvious technique, he seemed to be more interested in the guitar as a sound provider than as a guitar. He was interested in all the sounds the guitar could make. He generally had an ear for the big picture, as opposed to just what his place was in a band. It seems to me that if every guitar player who cited Hendrix as an influence actually picked up on a lot of the things that were influential about him, then guitar players in general would be a lot more interesting to listen to. Well, this is the problem for me with iconoclasts or innovators or even someone who just cuts a wide swath technically and electrifies the world with his prodigious technique or something. The imitators then are legion. But I have talked to younger people who will either just claim straight out, “I don’t really get Hendrix; I prefer Robert Fripp,” or something. I love King Crimson, but all I’m saying is to not get Hendrix—I literally find it unfathomable. They’re responding, these younger listeners, to this blues aspect of the music that they’ve heard too much of. It’s like my reaction when I was trying to learn more about so-called classical music. Soundtracks ruin Mozart and Bach and to some extent Beethoven and Mahler. These people have been mercilessly plundered by film composers, sometimes very adroitly, but it made it difficult and still in some cases it’s impossible for me to experience with fresh ears the singularity and wonder of certain composers.
I love Steve Howe. He was trying to do something, kind of a new synthesis of guitar styles, but it wasn’t like the public at large grabbed that and ran with it in the same way that they did with Hendrix’s interpretation of the blues. This is slightly off the topic, but there’s something so fascinating about the advent of progressive rock in the 70s. Jan Akkerman from Focus was a guitar prog god for me.
I didn’t even get into progressive rock until I was quite old. It was when I moved here, right at the end of the 90s. One of the differences culturally between listening to music in England and America is that we don’t have classic rock radio. As a kid and into my teens, no one was listening to Led Zeppelin; it was just a done thing. God forbid you listened to Yes or King Crimson. That happened here too, but only with snobby musicians and hipsters.