Interviews & Features

The Nels Cline Show

Wilco guitarist makes his mark well beyond the band

By Gary Graff
July 14, 2017

Many know Nels Cline these days as lead guitarist for Wilco since 2004, playing on the group’s last five studio albums and enlivening its shows with his adventurous, sometimes idiosyncratic but always fascinating array of improvisations. The 61-year-old California native’s career was well-established before joining Wilco, however. Learning to play music alongside his twin brother, Alex, Cline boasts a lengthy resume in rock, jazz and, by his own acknowledgement, noise, including collaborations with Banyan, Thurston Moore, Mike Watt and Julian Lage, memberships in BLOC, the JAH Band and the Geraldine Fibbers, and his own Nels Cline Trio and Nels Cline Singers, which includes his wife Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto. He’s also had a fertile solo career that includes his latest release, the conceptual 2016 set Lovers. The now Brooklyn-based Cline is almost always working on something, and, not surprisingly, it’s almost always something worth talking about…

FGPO: How did guitar become IT for you? Trying to keep up with your brother?

Cline: Good question, but, no. My brother was really dedicated to drums before I was going to be a guitar player; the idea of owning a guitar and whatnot just seemed like a far-flung concept. My brother got interested in drums early on, I guess when he was about 11. He had a friend named Pat who was a really good drummer and we would go over to his house after school and both of us would have these huge, painful grins frozen on our faces. We couldn’t stop smiling while we were watching him play that snare drum, and at that moment my brother definitely wanted to do that.

FGPO: And you on guitar…

Cline: Pat’s uncle had an electric bass and a little Crown combo amp. They used to play Rolling Stones songs with Pat and Alex trading off on Pat’s drum set. At one point, I picked up the uncle’s bass and slid my hand up and down on it, playing along to “The Last Time” or something. I had no idea how everything was tuned, didn’t know any notes, didn’t do anything but make a sound. But that was the beginning of thinking: “This is something  I’d like to do, participate in anything to do with this.”

FGPO: So how did you start to know what you were doing and get good?

Cline: Well, there’s still all kinds of ways that I’m not good. [laughs] Up until high school, I played with two fingers; I only knew a few chords, like cowboy chords, really. I was trying to be a lead guitar player before I knew anything about music. And I got “good” in a couple of ways. One was playing in a band in junior high school with my brother and a guitarist named Bill Watts, who was really good as a 15-years old. His favorite guitarist at the time was Terry Kath from Chicago, and he played a lot of Eric Clapton, like Cream-era Clapton. So I just stood next to him and watched him play.

FGPO: What was your playing like back then compared to what you do now?

Cline: I had this itchy sort of frenetic style. I played a lot of trills and really fast finger vibrato; it sounded like Jorma Kaukonen on speed or something, but no melodic flare, really. I just didn’t know much. But from playing next to Bill, I started to learn more about pentatonic blues kind of playing, and that’s important.

FGPO: What were some of the really formative sources for you?

Cline:
John Coltrane was a huge epiphany when I was maybe about 16 and heard “Africa,” which set me on a path of so-called jazz and improvised music along with my brother, who was also really moved by that music. We started listening to Miles Davis. This was the early jazz-rock days, so Weather Report had just formed, the Herbie Hancock Septet, Mahavishnu, Tony Williams Lifetime — those bands became really important. And then progressive rock became my fascination with bands like Yes and King Crimson and Focus. And John Abercrombie; his Timeless record was really important. That sort of spurred me on to actually learn music.

FGPO: So what did you discover doing that?

Cline: I taught myself to use all my fingers, although you can see if you ever actually watch that I was never instructed in guitar technique. I saw classical guitarists like Julian Bream and Steve Howe [of Yes] and Jan Akkerman [of Focus] and people like that and saw they were using all their fingers so I forced myself to do it. It was just sort of inspiration and pressure incumbent upon trying to understand or accomplish something to do something I wanted to participate in. Then always playing with people better than me made me better.

FGPO: How did you develop a sense of what was your “style?”

Cline: My aspiration was less to be the world’s greatest guitarist and conquer the universe on the guitar than it was to do original music that had some sort of composition and maybe structural, emotional component. That would be my thing, and that’s what everybody was doing; they were trying to come up with their own thing.

FGPO: Given the modest origins you’ve described, is it a trip to see yourself on these lists of best guitarists?

Cline: Well, yeah, that was never what I aspired to. I’m flattered, of course, but all I think about when I see those things are people who aren’t on those lists. I realize this is a really bizarre and encouraging outgrowth of being in a band people actually listen to as opposed to just lurking in the underground, but I’m not interested in contests in general. I just don’t think of music as a contest or having a ratings system necessarily. So it’s not something that means anything to me except it’s sort of oddly flattering. But I try not to think about that kind of stuff.

FGPO: Your playing resume looks like a kind of sonic smorgasbord. Is variety truly the spice of life?

Cline: Oh yeah. I mean, I’m an improviser at heart and I like to play, so lots of things come up — not just of my own but other people’s music as well that I like doing. Many of them are things I was doing before I joined Wilco 13 years ago and are still ongoing, like things I did with Ben Goldberg, Zeena Parkins, Scott Amendola. And other things have developed since Wilco, like the duo with Julian Lage. And I’m encouraged in Wilco world to do as much of my own work as they can, and they help me.

FGPO: Was that something of a relief to discover? A lot of established players like yourself are reluctant to get locked into band situations because they can monopolize your time?

Cline: Well, from the very beginning, the attitude has been that what people do outside of the band always brings something back into the band. I think that’s a really smart way of looking at it, but it’s fairly unusual in the rock world. So it’s like a real blessing; I’m able to pretty much indulge all my varying sort of interests and stylistic predilections and then come back and play Wilco music — which is itself pretty broad and gives me a lot of room to create.

FGPO: What is your general approach to playing in Wilco?

Cline: I feel like quite often I’m sort of playing a role that the songs require. I’m not trying to put my…Well, I don’t know if I have a style, I try to do what’s appropriate for the music. Quite often one could look at that as a distinct lack of focus instead of a fascinating diversity [laughs] — it depends on your point of view. But the fact is I get to do so many things that are enjoyable and that tap into my varying aesthetic concerns, and it’s ideal. I never thought I’d be in this place in my life, to be honest.

FGPO: You’ve done so many things, but do you have a bucket list of other projects or collaborations you’d like to do?

Cline:
Well, actually, yeah. There’s some things I have been working on that haven’t been accomplished. Last summer I wrote some sketches for improvisers with some structure and some melodic content and words taken from letters that John Cage wrote to Merce Cunningham in the late ‘40s; I plan to get into that music a little more deeply and refine it and record it and just have it done. I’m still looking to an expanded version of the Singers recording [Macroscope], a very dense and psychedelic, wild recording, before maybe the winter is over. And I’m currently recording with the Nels Cline Quartet, and my wife and I have a duo called Cup; we haven’t recorded our music properly, so that’s on the list, too. I’d like to do an ensemble I’ve been dreaming about for many years, using subtle, microtonal elements, multiple electro-acoustic strings and woodwinds, prepared piano and percussion. Some day I’ll do that. Then we’ve got Lovers, my sort of double concept record from last year, in Prospect Park in early August, its first New York performance, and then a week residency at The Stone in later August with a different project every night. So, yeah, there’s stuff going on.