Q&A With Nels Cline
Except for Nels Cline occasionally singing through a tiny toy megaphone into his guitar pick-up, there aren’t any singers in the Nels Cline Singers. Rather the instrumental trio, which also features bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola have been traversing the lines of jazz, free improvisation and rock the nearly eight years. While Westword’s July 10th profile focused on Cline's experience with Wilco and his "backwards lack of training," the guitarist talked at length about many other things during our interview from his home in Los Angeles, including his initial vision when he formed the Singers, writing material for the act, working on new Wilco material and playing on the new Mike Watt album.
Westword (Jon Solomon): What’s the latest?
Nels Cline: I was just in Chicago for two weeks working on new Wilco stuff. Now I’m home. I got couple of Banyan gigs. I’ve got a couple of gigs in San Francisco with the Scott Amendola Band with Jeff Parker and me, and Jim Campilongo is going to be there. Maybe have a little guitar hootenanny with the three of us on guitars. Jim Campilongo is amazing as well. Jeff and I play together as often as possible in Scott’s band. Sometime Jeff plays with the Singers as a guest.
WW: I really dug your solo gig a few years back at the Oriental.
NC: I look forward to you hearing my band since it hasn’t been that often that we’ve been able to get out and about until this year. This will be the first time we’ve played in Denver in like six years, I think.
WW: How long have the Singers been together?
NC: It’s been almost eight years. Same three dudes.
WW: What was your initial vision when you formed the Singers?
NC: I had a trio before this one here in L.A. called the Nels Cline Trio. That was with an electric bass, mostly with a guy named Bob Mair, and a drummer named Michael Preussner. That sort of floundered in 1998 and I kind of let it disintegrate I guess because I was having some personal problems, and I was touring a lot at that time, or had been, with the Geraldine Fibbers. And prior to that, I was with Mike Watt.
So eventually, after about three years, I thought because Scott Amendola was wanting to play more and more, even though he lives in Berkeley. I really wanted to play with Scott since he and I played a little bit down here in L.A. and a little bit up in San Francisco in a group called Stinkbug, which was me, G.E. Stinson and Steuart Liebig improvising. We have a CD as well of that stuff live from San Francisco.
So anyway, I wrote to Scott and said, “Does that mean if I start another trio that you’d want to play drums in it?” He wrote back – he was in tour in Europe at the time – and said, “YES.” So I said I want upright bass this time, and this is where I’m actually answering your question. “Who should we get?” I asked, and he said, “Devin Hoff.” So I said, “OK.” So the idea was to do my own music, which always kind of the same mix of sort of jazz related material, free improvising, sound of exploration, and what I guess sounds more like rock, or some people say “post rock,” or whatever.
Basically the things that are natural impulses that I’ve had since high school pretty much, but play with the upright bass so I could get the arco work in there – the bow. And also with Scott and Devin there would be more of a likelihood that we could play with more of a groove since Scott’s got such a kick-ass groove. So, not that we’re a groove band, because we’re not. I’m sort’ve usually mixing any propensity to groove with destroying the groove. We just do all of the above, and that’s just really kind of the same old shit for me frankly. But I think with these gentlemen and with the inclusion of Scott’s electronic array the palette has broadened sine the old trio both stylistically and orchestrationally I guess.
WW: When you come up with tunes, do you bring your own tunes to the table, or do you guys make tunes out of improvisations?
NC: We don’t have much time to play together other than gigging so I usually write the stuff ahead of time. We don’t really have time to turn improvs into tunes. But we basically improvise in such a manner that at times it sounds like compositions anyway. The way I usually describe it is that there are two areas: one is the fascistic/didactic area where most of it is structured and I’m going for a very specific type of playing, note-specific type of playing and dynamic-specific. And then the other is the open ended all faith welcome style, where there’s maybe just a line or directive or a sequence of semi-structured events or loosely structured events, and then we get to improvise within those parameters. And I get out of my own way and we all contribute in the moment.
And that’s pretty much what we do is a blend of those two things. But it is usually something that I’ve kind of conceived of, I guess. I mean, that’s why it’s my band. There’s only one other group that I really wrote for that never played out of L.A., which was called the Blue Mitt Ensemble here in L.A. Other than that, I’ve just had these trios, and I write for that. I did a large project early this year that was recorded for an Ed Ruscha art monograph, and who knows when that will emerge. That was written for two different groups – a nine-piece and a ten-piece group, but that stuff is not gonna be played live. There’s no way I can get that many people and that many schedules together.
WW: I was always checking out the new Cryptogramophone DVD with you playing and talking about the Andrew Hill material. I was really digging that.
NC: That was a real rare opportunity to play with those people and try to play that music. I mean, that group could ostensibly work again at some point. That’s what I’m hoping. It’s really hard. My schedule’s pretty insane. It’s just crazy. Devin Hoff is playing in Xiu Xiu these days. He’s been doing that, and they’ve toured a lot this year. It’s always a scheduling dilemma. I’m very happy that I could play that music in some manner, and certainly with those great people.
WW: You were talking about how you were playing with Bobby Bradford when you were 18, and how you played in your college philosophy professor’s living room, or something like that.
NC: Yeah, exactly. Bobby needed his memory jogged on that one, I’m sure. It was a very unmemorable experience for him, but extremely memorable for me, kind of in a good and bad way since I was of unprepared.
WW: When did you start playing guitar?
NC: Well, I had an electric guitar when I was twelve. But I don’t think I was really very serious about trying to really play – I mean, I played – but I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I played with two fingers until I was sixteen. I was extremely untrained (laughs). By the time I was in junior high school I like to think that I actually started trying to play in earnest a little more when I was about 14. Because I was in band in junior high school called Toe Queen Love with a guitarist named Bill Watts, and he was a really good rock guitar player at age fourteen or fifteen, or whatever he was then. So by sort of standing next to him I started realized that were things you could do that sounded like other people. At that time he was really into Terry Kath from Chicago Transit Authority but played a lot like Clapton in Cream. So I was in awe, of course.
My influences at that time were more Roger McGuinn from the Byrds and then maybe Jorma Kaukonen and John Cipollina. Although Hendrix was my favorite guy, I assumed that nobody in the world would be able to play like Hendrix so I never even tried. I just tried to absorb inspiration. But I had this really lightning fast vibrato, like super nervous vibrato, which fit in really well with the San Francisco style of rock playing. But I think I sounded more like those guys than Clapton who had that slow vibrato that everyone had pretty much fallen in love with.
That’s how I got started learning more about playing, was from playing in that band, and we did a lot of cover songs, as well as long instrumentals – a lot of jamming since we were super into Allman Brothers and anything that had a lot of long instrumental stuff. That’s always been kind of the main interest for me and for my brother Alex.
And then I heard jazz. I heard John Coltrane and also around that time started hearing certain progressive rock, so that kind of threw down the gauntlet, like I guess I had to learn how to play. But I kind of taught myself and then learned from playing with people who were better than me after that, because I never had any guitar teachers of worth. I never really got much out of instrumental instruction.
WW: You’ve said that you got most of your music training from Eric von Essen.
NC: Well, yeah. That’s like an example of playing with somebody who’s better than you. He and I were musical partners, but he was light years ahead of pretty much everybody. He basically taught me more than anyone else had on the guitar by writing pieces that I had to play. And then telling me what the chord symbols were and whatnot. I also took theory classes at a community college here in LA. I just really applied theory more to my playing, but as far as instrumental technique I had no instruction.
So playing Eric’s music was really challenging. He was writing a lot in the style of Ralph Towner and Keith Jarrett and people like that at that time. And he later became a much more of a Wayne Shorter-esque jazz composer. I played with him on and off for over twelve years, mostly on for about eleven years. And that’s how I learned most of what I know. I mean, I think as far what I know about jazz, or impressionist jazz playing. Eric is not with us anymore, but he would’ve never been all that enamored with all the stuff I’ve done with Watt or the Fibbers, or maybe with Thurston. He was a very sensitive fellow, and not too in to distortion or volume, or gesticulation or arm waving.
WW: And speaking of Watt, you’re playing on his new record, right?
NC: Yeah, I’m very excited about it. I don’t think it’s going to be done until the end of the year because of his touring schedule. But I’m done and Bob Lee might be done with the drumming. We did all the playing together, but Watt still had ideas for percussion overdubs, and I don’t know if they’ve been done yet. He hasn’t put his vocals on it yet. So I think when he’s done with the Stooges this fall, he’s gonna put the vocals on it. Who knows who’s putting it out? I don’t think there’s a label or anything. But it was a lot of fun. He wanted it to be his most psychedelic record, and that’s right up my alley.
WW: What’s the new Wilco record sounding like?
NC: Well, it’s not really a record yet. We’re basically just recording new songs that Jeff’s written. He’s very prolific right now. So, I don’t know. We’re going to record a lot in October and see where we get. So I can’t really say. Right now it’s just a lot of beautiful songs by Jeff. He’s just really writing some beautiful stuff. And I think we just scratched the surface. I think he has a lot more songs that we didn’t get to. So, who knows? There’s going to be a storehouse of material that eventually -- both collectively and individually --- Jeff will assess, and it’s usually his decision what the record ends up being because he wants it to have some kind of focus. And I’m sure we’ll all be able to collectively weigh in on that, but I kind of trust his judgment on these things. I think he has a pretty good idea of what he wants.
WW: How did you first hook up with Wilco?
NC: I first met Jeff in ’96 when I was touring with the Geraldine Fibbers and he was touring with Golden Smog. We opened for Golden Smog. But as far as playing with Wilco, I think they were reminded of my existence when I was playing with Carla Bozulich from the Geraldine Fibbers and her band, and we opened for Wilco in 2003 on a few gigs. Carla and I would play in the Chicago for the Singers, and Jeff and members of the band might come out and hear us. We only knew Jeff, and Carla and Jeff were friends. But I didn’t really know him. But I think when did those gigs where Carla opened for them, they all kind of became aware of me. And Jeff was reminded – if he’d forgotten – that I exist. So when Leroy left, I think it might’ve been Glenn Kotche’s idea to ask if I would play with Wilco. I think he mentioned it to Jeff and Jeff called Carla and asked permission to ask me because basically he knew, and Carla knew, that if I did this that I wouldn’t really be playing too much with her anymore, or with anybody for that matter.
So I do tons of other stuff, and Carla and I just played together in Montreal last month. But overall it’s been a huge change. And it wasn’t something I’d ever seen coming in a million years, and it wasn’t something that I was dreaming about because it’s not the kind of thing you think about, like, hey, I might get offered the best gig in America or whatever. But the beauty of it, besides the obvious thing, is that the things that people do outside of the band are very encouraged rather than being some kind of exclusive it’s all about Wilco thing. Most bands are pretty controlling. Most band managers get very controlling about that stuff. But they’re the exact opposite with the attitude being that whatever happens outside of the band is just going to enrich the band when the band gets back together. Tony Margherita, the manager of Wilco, is really into jazz, and as such is really into helping me out. It’s been really incredible to feel that much support and respect from the band and from the band’s manager. It’s pretty ideal.
WW: I’d imagine playing with Wilco has broadened your fan base as well.
NC: Yeah, definitely. I don’t think it affects how many people buy my recordings so much because nobody buys recordings in the underground these days. We just did a Singers tour last month through the Midwest and man, if it weren’t for Wilco fans I don’t know who the hell would’ve been there. We’re playing places like Indianapolis and Ann Arbor when school’s out and still had some people. A lot of these people are very curious Wilco fans, and we’re very grateful for that. They seem to actually like it. That’s cool. It’s not exactly designed for anyone to really like it except for me and the guys. I do program the shows to be a journey and to take the listener into account, but at the end of the day, it’s just pretty much us doing what we like.
WW: Have you caught any flak from the underground avant-garde cats for playing with Wilco?
NC: Well, ya know, I don’t read what’s on the Internet, and I’m sure somebody was upset at first. A lot of people I know were surprisingly supportive. But they’re not people necessarily in the underground, but other musicians like Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, Jenny Scheinman and people like that were really exited about it. They love Wilco. Mister Frisell thought immediately, “What a great match.” I wasn’t even thinking that at first. I was thinking, “How’s this going to work?” He was very supportive and excited about it. I’m sure there are people who think it’s odd still, but I think it’s been over four years now, so they just oughta relax.
WW: I think it’s a great match.
NC: Ultimately, like a lot of things in life, you just have to be your own arbiter of your path and you just have to do what feels right. There were a few things here and there that might’ve been lucrative for me, and I was struggling a lot when Jeff called. But the other things weren’t interesting, so I didn’t do them. No matter how broke you are you just don’t want to do them. I didn’t ever design my life around being in a successful rock band. That wasn’t my goal. But I basically consider myself to be more of a rocker than a jazz dude because of my sort of backwards lack of training or whatever, and my sort of aesthetic sensibilities tend to be a little bit more volcanic and dramatic rather than subtle and based on African-American improvising tradition. I don’t know. I try to do a little of all of it, but I don’t feel adequate to really be a full-on interpreter in the style of the jazz lexicon or whatever. I feel like just sort of like an odd interloper in that world. But I find that music so inspiring and endlessly fascinating, but that’s true of a lot true for a lot of music for me.
But I love the pageantry of rock (laughs). I don’t really mean the jibe, just sort of… I don’t know I think sound in general for me is exciting and magical and I just immerse myself in whatever I’m doing. As long as I’m playing with people who feel the same way I do, which is to take it really in the moment. And everybody’s kind of doing things for a good reason, I feel happy. So I’m not really a stickler or an iconoclast. Ya know what I mean? As soon as the sound cranks up, I’m just of experiencing kind of… it’s not necessarily peace, but I do feel good. It doesn’t really take that much. It’s like magic is in the air.
WW: Kind of like getting in that zone where it feels like something else takes over.
NC: Yeah. I’m so lucky because with I’m always playing these days, and really for years, I’ve been able to play with people who are in that space. They’re not really anybody who’s gonna bum me out and suck me out of my thing, which is basically kind of a little bit at times trancelike – the zone as it were. People do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, but I think I’ve been lucky to play with people who just are into music for music’s sake and have surrendered to that in some way. And are driven to that in their own level of artistry.
WW: The name, Nels Cline Singers. There aren't any actual singers in the trio, but I read how the name kind of conjures up a virtual chorus with your instruments.
NC: Well, I actually do kind of sing now because I sing through my guitar sometimes, as I do quite often on my solo thing, so I kind of blew it a bit by singing a little bit on the gig, but not a lot. It was just a tongue-in-cheek name. I think it symbolically has the potential to make sense, but the theme doesn’t have to be basically the voice. It can be a metaphor for expression for making sounds come to life. But I was just looking for a generic appellation for an ensemble that wasn’t ensemble, unit, group, band or trio. So I just thought it was humorous to use Singers because in the ‘60s all these middle of the road records by the Ray Conniff Singers and the Ray Charles Singers existed, and I just thought it was an amusing, generic name.
WW: And what is that thing that you hold next to your guitar pick-up and sing through?
NC: It’s a little toy megaphone from the ‘90s called the Megamouth. Maybe around 2000 they were prevalent. You could buy them at toy stores. They haven’t made them in a while. I have two and I’m terrified of losing them.
WW: Lastly, I just want to say I’ve really been digging the Singers albums.
NC: The next thing I have coming out is just me overdubbed. That was supposed to be out in the fall, but I think Cryptogramophone’s going to release it in early 2009 instead, well, for numerous reasons. It has nothing to do with the record not being done because it’s done. It’s a rough time economically for label. It’s called Coward. And then we’ll do some new Singers stuff. I have so many ideas for new Singers records that are really different. I’d like to do some many different things with these guys, and with guests too. So we’ll see what we can muster and what our next move will be.