Nels Cline sings low
By Austin Powell,
4:28PM, Fri. Jul. 11, 2008
Nels Cline is more of a contortionist than a guitarist. He has an uncanny ability to bend and twist notes, coloring and shaping the sounds in ways that don’t seem physically possible. Aside from his numerous improvised acoustic and electric jazz projects, the “Avant Romantic” – as Rolling Stone dubbed him in its list of 20 new guitar gods – has collaborated with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, was part of the Million Dollar Bashers house band for the I’m Not There soundtrack, and reinterpreted John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space with jazz drummer Gregg Bendian. Most people know Cline, though, as the cerebral force of Wilco, whom he joined in 2004. Two months after Jeff Tweedy and company’s sold-out two-night stand, Cline returns to Stubb’s on Sunday for two sets of screaming tonal bliss with the Nels Cline Singers.
Off the Record: What is it about your approach to guitar that makes it so malleable to the work of others?
Nels Cline: Wow. I’m not really sure how to answer that with any sort of objectivity, but I think that my general interest in a lot of different modes of musical expression and the malleable nature of guitar has something to do with it. Certainly the music I grew up with - the developments in popular music during the late 1960s and early 1970s with so-called progressive rock, jazz-rock, improvised music - created a pretty broad base to draw upon.
OTR: Do you tend to work better when given a framework or with a blank slate?
NC: I love both. Sometimes the limitations of a framework can be the most illuminating aspect of making music, but certainly there are individuals with whom I treasure playing spontaneous improvisation. I really enjoy spontaneous improvisation in the duo format quite a bit. I’ve done a lot of that without really trying to. I like the sandbox aspect of it. It’s almost childlike in that it’s so freeing.
OTR: It seems like the duo format leaves a lot more space to maneuver.
NC: It does. You have to do it with people that have the so-called 'sonic thing' present. Players that don’t necessarily just play notes or rhythms, but can go into the realm of pure sound and then leave the realm of pure sound and go into some sort of familiar ground, creating tension and release that way. It’s that vast freedom that appeals to me.
OTR: Does restraint come naturally to you?
NC: I think it does. When you get into a dynamic, either one-on-one or in a group with people, those issues become apparent in the group dynamic. Every situation creates the awareness of the need for restraint or abandonment. I think that abandonment is a big part of the music I do on my own. I’m kind of a catharsis junkie, but that isn’t necessary for satisfying music-making at all. When one is in the service of the greater whole, that restraint is just as rewarding, at least for me.
OTR: What were you hoping to capture with Draw Breath?
NC: Nothing specific. I think that all of my records, particularly the ones with trios, are kind of the same [laughs]. It’s not the same songs over and over again, but the parameters for it are very similar. What I like to do is come up with a body of work and leave enough room for improvisation and exploration in the studio. I’ll either design that into a piece or will do some improvising in the studio, and then see what we come up with and what needs to be done from there. I tend to do things that either address a specific mood or emotion, or create pieces that employ just the spontaneity and three-way communication of the trio format. That way there’s a balance between the more directed pieces and the spontaneity. I think that makes for a pretty nonsensical blend for the most part, but I don’t really worry about that.
OTR: What were the sessions with the Million Dollar Bashers like?
NC: I actually don’t have any good stories. There were some scheduling conflicts and the producers didn’t want to fly me in for the session. I ended up only doing overdubs. It was quite frustrating. I missed out on all of that chemistry and stories. Lee [Ranaldo] still wanted me to play on it, particularly for “All Along the Watchtower,” so I went to Sonic Youth’s studio and did some overdubs on it. I ended up playing on everything. I will say I’m a major Cate Blanchett fan and not just because she’s a beautiful actress. I find her to be a very inspiring artist. I’m really a true fan of her craft. To be in the movie theater and see Dylan going electric at Newport and having my guitar up there pretty high in the mix while she’s lip-synching to Steve Malcolm’s voice was really thrilling. That’s probably as close as I’ll get to meeting Cate Blanchett. I thought the move was really remarkable for a popular release, really uncompromising.
OTR: Are you able to compare the process of tackling the Bob Dylan songbook to that of Wilco?
NC: To be perfectly honest, I try not to think about it too much. The thing about playing the Dylan material was that you already know what the recordings sound like and Lee took a very literal approach to the some of the songs for I’m Not There. When I was going through the Wilco stuff, I had to learn a 100 songs that came before I was in the band, but there was a lot of latitude with the material. The point wasn’t for me to recreate what was on the record at all, but to add my own point of view. The way that Dylan plays is very much like that. He never recreates his music. He’s usually transforming his approach to the songs each time.
OTR: Wilco recently aired out its entire catalog at Chicago's Riviera Theatre. What did you take away from the process of preparing for that occasion?
NC: We really only had to learn about 25 more songs. The thing that was satisfying about it personally was we played some songs that I really like that I was told when I joined the band we’d likely never play, like “My Darling” from Summer Teeth. I had played “Dash 7” once for one of Jeff Tweedy’s solo shows, but Wilco had never really done it. I learned that I liked some songs more than I thought I did, once I went back and grappled with some of the songs, like “Summer Teeth,” for example. It’s lovely to able to play it and “I Can’t Stand It” and “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed” and some of these other songs that we were avoiding. It was a really fun thing to do and I think it was pretty wise too. We have a lot more in our repertoire now.
OTR: Is there a Wilco song that’s most cathartic for you?
NC: It’s probably my nightly epileptic attack on “Shot in the Arm,” even more so than “Impossible Germany.” I almost dread that solo every night because it’s like, ‘Oh god, here we go.’ I know Jeff really likes what I played on the demo for that song, so I basically relearned the beginning of my solo from the demo and played it live in the studio for Sky Blue Sky. I pretty much start it the same way each night. It’s become kind of a signature thing. I like that. I have nothing against playing the same notes night after night, but it does make it a bit of a ritual and somehow more mentally daunting. I start thinking, ‘Am I really going to do this? Oh god.’ There’s a little bit of baggage that’s attached to all of that.