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Mirror Twins: Conversations with Nels and Alex Cline

Although their careers have some similarities, the twin composers and songwriters aren't as similar as it seems, covering everything from the monastic to the chaotic.

Nels Cline


Label: Cryptogramophone
US Release Date: 2009-02-10
UK Release Date: Available as import
Alex Cline


Label: Cryptogramophone
US Release Date: 2009-02-10
UK Release Date: Available as import

As "mirror twins", Alex and Nels Cline were identical but opposite -- Alex right-handed, Nels left, their hair parted on opposite sides of their heads. If one Cline looked in the mirror as a child, he would see an exact image of his brother, any minor differences reversed by the reflection. And yet, even then, in those days when the two of them would bash out original rock songs on entry-level guitar and drums, it seemed clear that they were very different -- as people and as musicians. Their respective musical careers have been just as alike but divergent, from their early untrained efforts at rock 'n' roll to a shared love of progressive rock, fusion, jazz, and avant garde improvisation.

Today both are well-regarded composers, pushing their respective instruments -- guitar for Nels and drums for Alex -- into genre-crossing experiments that touch on rock, jazz, classical, and ethnic music. But with both releasing new albums in February on the Cryptogramophone label, there is no mistaking one's work for the other. Nels Cline's Coward layers electric and acoustic guitars over one another, in an entirely one-man exploration of the instrument's potential. Alex Cline's Continuation showcases an acoustic ensemble's interplay, his compositions interpreted by pianist/harmonium player Myra Melford, bassist Scott Walton, cellist Peggy Lee, and violinist Jeff Gautier, as well as himself.

"My brother's aesthetic has always been rather cosmic," Nels Cline commented, when asked about the very different albums he and Alex had produced. "He's a very serious guy, and his music is very measured and slow to unfold. It has a certain kind of ethereal or even monastic quality to it sometimes, and that's Alex. I'm definitely a little bit more of a chaos fiend."

And yet for all those differences -- one record solo, the other an ensemble piece; one electric, the other acoustic; one rock and blues based, the other jazz and classical -- the albums have a mirror twin-like congruence to them. "Jeff Gauthier [of Cryptogramophone] thought it would be fun to put out our two CDs on the same day," said Nels. "The fact that they both ended up having one-word titles beginning with the letter 'c' and two 18-minute pieces on each record and were recorded the same week -- that was completely not discussed. It just worked out that way."

"We've mirrored each other, and yet we've also made really different choices, based on the kinds of personalities we had all along," said Alex Cline. For example, he said, during the mid-'70s when he began to make his own mark in the musical world, he was fascinated with louder, more aggressive music and played frequently for audiences. Nels, still refining his personal style, favored acoustic sounds and was nervous in public. Today, Nels Cline plays electric guitar in stadiums, thanks to his sideman gig with Wilco, while Alex has turned towards a more serene and rarified style. "We're very different now in many ways, and yet we still are able to come together and speak the same language," said Alex. "Of course we've shared so much of the experience that made that language, that developed that language. So yeah, the same but different."

The world's least inspiring orchestra teacher

The Cline brothers have been music obsessives for nearly their whole lives, but it you want to get to the very beginning of their journey, you have to go back to the day that a traveling orchestra teacher visited their elementary school sometime in the mid-'60s.

"She brought her flute in and played it," Alex remembers. "Hearing that instrument like that, that close and in person, was pretty startling to me. I don't know why. I had heard other instruments, but not like that. I decided to be in the orchestra."

Alex's enthusiasm was short lived, however. When asked what he wanted to play in the orchestra, he immediately said, "Saxophon.". The teacher explained the saxophones were not orchestral instruments. She suggested the clarinet. "And I thought, 'But I don't like the clarinet,'" he remembered. Too bad, he found himself exiled to the woodwind section, his brother Nels equally disaffected among the trumpets.

It could have ended right there, but Alex and Nels were, at the same time, making tentative forays into rock. A friend, Pat Pile, was already playing a drum set, quite well, according to Alex. His house turned into a regular after school destination. He and Alex would switch off, playing to Rolling Stones records. Pretty soon Nels started bringing his guitar, and the three of them, plus another kid who played organ, formed their first band. It was called Homogenized Goo. They played all originals. "It was, as you might imagine, pretty horrendous," said Nels.

Alex made one last attempt with the orchestra teacher, asking her to please consider adding drums, and if she did that, letting him switch to percussion. A few weeks later, she brought in two other boys to play drums. Alex, and soon Nels, quit the orchestra.

A ten-year-old's view of the 1960s

Leaving the orchestra meant that, instead of struggling through the "Blue Danube Waltz" or "Pictures from an Exposition," Nels and Alex could immerse themselves in popular music during a particularly fascinating and fertile era. "In 1966, I was about ten years old, and the music was exceptionally wonderful and varied, and in some ways nascent," remembered Nels. "It hadn't become the huge business that it is now. You didn't hear it in shopping malls. It wasn't social music in that way. And it was very creative and very open."

"As a boy about to enter puberty, it was a pretty heady time," he added. "The exploration of psychedelic music, in terms of pure sound and innovation and aural excitement, pretty much left an indelible mark on me and obviously everybody wanted to either play drums or electric guitar at that point. Those were the pre-eminent voices of the music. And I gravitated towards the guitar right away."

Nels leaned towards the Byrds. Alex liked the Stones. But they were both blown away by a new guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. "My brother and I gazed at the album cover of Are You Experienced longingly, but we had been burned too many times buying records because they looked cool," Nels remembered. "So a couple of months after it had been out, we heard 'Manic Depression' on AM radio, and we knew right away it was that record, just by the voice and the vibe. Everything about it just screamed that it was the Jimi Hendrix Experience." He added, "And I'd have to say without really sounding insincere or maybe hyperbolic that it was really at that moment that I knew I was going to play my guitar for the rest of my life."

Somehow these two ten-year-olds, with no older siblings, developed a taste for the most advanced psychedelia of the late 1960s -- Zappa and the Yardbirds, Hendrix and Humble Pie, Jefferson Airplane and Free and Johnny Winter. They were obsessed with rock right through junior high school. While their peers spent Saturdays bowling or on Cub Scout campouts, Nels and Alex formed another band, this time with a guitar player named Bill Watt.

"It was playing next to Bill when I started to become more aware of how real guitar players played," said Nels. "You know, because I had this kind of ridiculous, nervous style, where I just kind of played trills and picked as fast as I could. I played really fast vibrato, kind of like Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane, and then there was feedback and that was kind of the extent of my vocabulary. It was playing next to Bill when I started to become more aware of how real guitar players played. He played just like Eric Clapton."

Irreparably changed by Coltrane

Then in the early 1970s, as high school loomed and the Cline's classmates were beginning to purchase their first rock 'n' roll records, Nels and Alex moved on. "You know many of our heroes had died," Alex said. "Or they'd moved on to things we didn't find very interesting. My love for the music of people like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart opened the door to an appreciation for what was going on in a lot of jazz that, at that time was being called avant garde or jazz rock."

Nels added that a friend's brother had lent them a Coltrane record near the end of junior high school. "He said, 'Hey if you guys like the old Frank Zappa stuff, you might like this record,'" he remembered. "It pretty much stunned us. We were irreparably changed by John Coltrane."

So the two of them began to explore early 1970s music that combined rock and jazz, Miles Davis and followers like Weather Report, Return to Forever, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea. In their teens, they frequented jazz clubs like the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach and hit the free concerts that LA sponsored in the summer. "We missed Eric Dolphy and Coltrane," said Alex Cline noting that both early heroes had passed before he and his brother started going to shows, "but there were lots of opportunities even for underage people to hear jazz."

Hearing it and playing it were, naturally, two different things. "It was too perplexing to know what to do with that information that jazz was giving us," said Nels. "I didn't have the training." Both he and Alex experimented with formal lessons during this period, Alex learning enough to play drums in his high school jazz band, but Nels struggling with a series of terrible teachers. "It's a little forbidding. How to step straight into jazz?" said Nels. "There was no infrastructure. There are so-called jazz schools all over the place now, but that was not the case in 1973 or 1972. So we just groped our way through it."

By the late 1970s, however, both Clines had gone well beyond groping. Alex Cline began performing and recording in his early 20s, working with artists like Jamil Shabaka, Vin Golia, and the Julius Hemphill trio. Nels made his first record in 1978, Openhearted with Golia. The two of them joined with bassist Eric von Essen and violinist Jeff Gauthier in Quartet Music in 1979, recording four albums over the next 11 years.

Both Alex and Nels began focusing on their own material during the 1980s. Nels Cline recorded his first album as a bandleader in 1988, and, in addition to performing with Quartet Music and his own ensembles, embarked on an eclectic series of collaborations with artists including Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Rickie Lee Jones, Charlie Haden, Elliot Sharp, Thurston Moore, Mike Watt, The Scott Amendola Band, Lydia Lunch, and Carla Bozulich.

Alex's Not Alone, a solo percussion double LP, came out in 1982. By 1987, he had formed The Alex Cline Ensemble and released The Lamp and the Star, his first work with singer Aina Kemanis. The Alex Cline ensemble produced four albums over the next 12 years, and when it ended in the early '00s, Alex found himself uncertain what to do next.

Alex's continuation … and a new beginning

"I reached a point where I basically didn't know what I wanted to do next in terms of playing and performing my own music," Alex Cline said. "I really didn't give it a lot of energy. I just kind of let it drift for a while." He added, "There were a lot of changes in my life around that time, so I didn't have the time or energy to give it much thought."

Cline knew that he didn't want to record with another vocalist, since any new partnership would inevitably draw comparisons to his decade-plus collaboration with Aina Kemanis. He was working at the Cryptogramophone office, designing an album cover, when label owner Jeff Gautier put on a CD. It was an as-yet unmastered, unsequenced mix of pianist Myra Melford's CD The Image of Your Body.

"Hearing this record just somehow watered some kinds of seeds in my consciousness and really stimulated my imagination," Cline remembered. "There was something about it that I found particularly compelling. So really what wound up happening, even though it sounds kind of simplistic and it was, indeed, pretty sudden, was I started to think about some music that I'd had lying around. Some ideas that had been just forming in my mind at the time. And I thought that it would be a really great, ideal scenario to be able to somehow involve Myra in the performance of that music."

Melford seemed ideal, because she played both piano and harmonium. The harmonium, Cline realized, would allow him to incorporate long, sustained tones into his pieces, without resorting to electric instruments. With that idea in mind, Cline began thinking the rest of his all-acoustic ensemble -- Jeff Gauthier on violin, Peggy Lee on cello, and Scott Walton on bass. Cline had been playing with Gauthier for decades and had recorded with Walton in Rain Trio. Peggy Lee had played on a Vin Golia album with Cline a decade previous, and the two had been looking for a way to work together ever since. Cline and Melford had never played together before.

"In the past, I often relied on people whose playing I knew well, but who were people I was friends with and had played with for many years. In this case, I wasn't entirely sure in some ways what would happen, and yet I was pretty sure that it would go the way I imagined, said Cline. "Maybe being a drummer and accompanying people, and trying to tune into what people are playing when they're playing it helps develop that sense. But my sense of how people might actually ultimately play together turned out to be correct. It worked."

The group met twice to rehearse, building out the pieces with improvisation. "One of the things that was really wonderful about the experience was that not only were the musicians able to effortlessly manifest the music, but they began to find their own direction," said Cline. "Really, what I want is for each piece to be distinctly what it is -- and yet each requires the real-time improvisational skills of the musicians to make it what it is in each performance." Even with minimal rehearsal the musician quickly became comfortable with the music and each other. "The pieces really did start going in other directions, sometimes, somewhat surprising directions," Cline observed.

As an example, he pointed to Myra Melford's solo in "Steadfast", a piece that begins with a long drum solo, then evolves into rapid cascades of piano notes and lush, legato strings. The solo, coming about halfway through the piece, begins in staccato counterpoint to walking bass, accelerates as it goes, notes flying, glissandos flying in gorgeous chaotic rushes.

"Basically, she just went completely nuts. And that was not something I asked her to do," Cline remembered. "To have that kind of security and confidence and just take the music where you're hearing it is something that sometimes takes a long time to develop with groups," he added. "It was really incredibly inspiring to see that people were able to make that happen."

The musicians improvised within a framework that built on Alex Cline's ideas and inspirations. For example, a close listener will discover elements of ritual percussion and a certain meditative quiet that hint at Cline's fascination with Asian culture. He studies with a Buddhist monk and has spent time learning the Japanese tea ceremony. Two of the tracks on his new album, "Nourishing Our Roots" and "Clearing Our Streams" take their titles from phrases Cline's meditation teacher gave him to ponder at the 2007 Chinese New Year. These two pieces are linked, Cline says, though they sound quite different. "Nourishing our Roots" is calm, serene, and fluid, while "Clearing Our Streams" takes a more agitated, rhythmic approach. It's a juxtaposition that reflects not just Cline's musical taste, but his perspective on life. "You can't really appreciate some things without their opposites -- day and night, sorrow and joy. All these things work together," he said. "To me when you have these more resonant and pretty moments in the music, they probably seem all the prettier or lovelier because they're in contrast to areas that are much more turgid and dark and energetic and maybe even kind of chaotic sounding."

He added, "I've always kind of liked extremes in that way, in terms of my own playing. When I was younger, I was really attracted to extremes of really quiet spaces and sounds and really intense, high energy drumming. And now I think I'm trying to find a happier, more middle ground balance between the two, rather than going to incredible extremes."

Asked how being a drummer influenced his composing style, Cline speculated that he might have a heightened ability to listen and react to other people's ideas. But the main advantage, he thinks, is simplicity. He himself has only a couple of years of drum lessons as formal training, as well as a working knowledge of keyboards and strings. He has never studied composition.

"It's a kind of strange, but seemingly productive ignorance," he observed. "Because of my lack of training there are certain limitations that, at times, prove really frustrating and at times may be somewhat helpful." He added, "I think being a percussionist, I'm less prone to want to include all the fancy harmonic stuff. And I have learned to trust and feel okay about using simple musical ideas, that that's actually okay. I didn't feel that way for many years. I had to allow myself that ... I had to learn to find validity in that, which fortunately I was able to do through the inspiration I would seek in other composers' music."

Nels's tribute to the guitar's endless possibilities

Nels Cline's new album Coward is also strongly influenced by his instrument of choice, the guitar, and, more specifically by a string of records that layered various guitar tones over each other. Cline admitted that he had been thinking about this particular album for almost three decades, ever since hearing John McLaughlin's My Goals Beyond, with its double-tracked acoustic guitar. Bill Connors's Theme to the Guardian, John Abercrombie's Characters and Ralph Towner's Diary also got him thinking about the possibilities of multiple guitar parts. He began working on "Prayer Wheel", Coward's second track, in the early 1980s. The album had been on his mind for so long, he said, that "it was just a matter of me doing the damned thing."

Coward speaks to Cline's lifelong passion for his instrument. "I'm an unabashed guitar person," he said. "A lot of jazz guitarists, for example, will say that they're not really hearing a guitar in their head when they play. They're hearing a horn. Or they're approaching something close to the piano. That's never been the case with me."

Not that he insists that a guitar always sound like a guitar. "My explorations in the area of pure sound certainly does veer away from anything you would associate with guitar at times," he said. "My imagination sort of takes me in that direction. I'm not really trying to stake any claim on expanding the vocabulary of the guitar per se. But I am pretty much just trying to make a guitaristic statement. Because I play the guitar, you know?"

Cline plays the guitar in so many different styles and contexts that unpacking a specific track can require some intuitive leaps. "The Nomad's House", a duet between dobro and nylon string guitar references Ralph Towner and Hindu slide styles and Cline's highest profile gig. "The dobro is really a recent addition to my string palette, which developed out of my lap steel playing, particularly with Wilco," he said. "So in that song, there's a kind of a confluence of those worlds and also an intentional nod at the end of the piece to the Hindustani style of slide guitar ... from India." He added, "It's sometimes that I like to do, just to draw everything in, and I guess it comes out in a personal way. I'm not trying to do pastiche."

Cline's pieces for Coward were both composed and improvised -- and in some cases, improvisations were recorded digitally, then mixed and moved around in a kind of electronically-aided composing process. One example, "Rod Poole's Gradual Ascent to Heaven", the 18-minute composition dedicated to the microtonal guitar innovator. Cline realized that it was a tribute to the deceased microtonal guitar innovator only after he'd finished it.

Poole, Cline's partner in a guitar trio with Jim McCauley, was considered one of the world's leading theorists in the study of intonation. He was stabbed to death in a restaurant parking lot in 2007. His murderer had bumped into a restaurant employee in his car; Poole protested and was killed.

Not that Cline was consciously thinking about his friend and fellow guitarist when he began the piece. "It was originally going to be a microtonal, improvised, layered piece. The initial music was an open-tuned acoustic 12-string improvisation, with a tune I just made up that day," said Cline. "But as I played it back, I realized that I was starting a piece dedicated to Rod. And that started to suggest form, and then I jotted down ideas and words for different movements and different types of structure, different types of feeling and then I built it up from there. I ended up actually re-sequencing the parts right before I finished recording it. Once I got that basic idea, I just kind of steadily jammed on it until I was done."

Other traces of Poole can be found in the way Cline uses prepared acoustic guitar in the album, employing sprains and alligator clips and false bridges to generate microtonalities (or notes between the standard notes). Cline says his approach is less theoretically grounded than Poole's. "It's very much an aesthetic choice that has to do with intuitively feeling like you know it's right," he explained.

Cline gives the nod to another sometimes collaborator in "Thurston County", a piece he wrote after entering the studio. "I was trying to write a piece dedicated to Cate Blanchett, and I just didn't quite succeed," he admitted. "I didn't intentionally write it for Thurston. I just started playing and said, 'There's a Thurston riff...'"

Most of the second half of Coward is taken up by the "Onan Suite", a sprawling five-part composition that Cline can only describe as, "basically the soundtrack to a million ideas. It has a lot to do with language, religion, psycho-sexual stuff, person things, obsessions, fetishes, that's really as much as I can probably say about it. But it's also me having fun with it."

Cline says that it is only now, with this piece, that reviewers have begun to pick up on a sense of playfulness that he's had all along. "I always try to inject humor, at least in a gentle, not broad way," he explained. "There's been a little tongue in the cheek every once in a while ever since I started leading my own band and writing my own stuff. It's not always there, but it's there definitely in that piece. I think the tendency to take that piece way too seriously would probably be an error."

For instance, you can hardly listen to "Seedcaster", without a sidelong grin at its robotic rhythm and distorted machine sounds. "That's basically a duet between me standing on the Quintronic drum buddy," he explained. "There's a rhythm track and a wobble and a bass line. All of which you can do with a turntable with a spaghetti can with a light bulb inside it turning and generating, because there are holes punched in it, light centers which generate sound." He added, "It has this funny kaleidoscopic humor, a little color. It's startling and playful."

Cline is prolific, fitting his solo work around duos and trios and ensembles, side work for a wide range of musicians and his rock star gig with Wilco. When asked how he decides what he'll do and what he won't, he laughed. "It's pretty much totally random. A lot of the time, it's a friend of a friend. And I'm free that day and I go and play. There's never been a plan. And, boy, this is not planned. There's no premeditation," he admitted.

"I'm lucky now that I'm being offered more opportunities to do really quality stuff. What a wonderful dilemma," he added.

The longest-running collaboration

Though they may not play together as much now as they did as children, Alex and Nels Cline continue to appreciate and understand each other as very few brothers, let alone sometime bandmates, can ever do.

"In elementary school into junior high people turned their backs on me and my brother because of our obsession with rock 'n' roll. We didn't want to go bowling anymore," said Nels. "Then in high school, everybody was so into rock 'n' roll, but this skinny guy listening to the Art Ensemble of Chicago was pretty unacceptable. So once again, it became an insular kind of endeavor."

And yet, through it all, both Clines had at least one other person who would understand. Said Alex, "If I hadn't had Nels, the depth of my alienation that I experienced in high school, not just because of my interest in music by any means, would have been cripplingly profound. But knowing that there was somebody else who was always there, who was also interested in the same things was, especially looking back on it, incredibly helpful. And of course, I always had somebody to play music with as well."

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