A Desire to Make Sound: The Arrival of Creative Guitar God Nels Cline

Who is guitarist Nels Cline?

If you are a fan of the indie-alt-whatever band Wilco, then the answer is: He’s the new guy. He joined the band a few years ago, and the new album Sky Blue Sky is his first studio effort with Jeff Tweedy and the gang.

If you are anyone else — even a decently informed jazz fan — then the answer may be: Nels Who?

But jazz fans should be embarrassed not to know Cline — a guy who has been recording regularly as a leader and a sideman for almost three decades. His anonymity, which seems now to be falling away, may be partly a result of Cline having never moved from his Los Angeles home to New York. It is also undoubtedly a result of having never chased fame or financial success as a musician. Cline says, “I never wanted to play music that was a job — I’ve always maintained absolute sheer joy in music-making and I think it’s because I enjoy the projects that I work on no matter how disparate.”

Now, at the age of 51 and with a track record that mainly includes projects in what he calls “creative, improvised music”, the “new guitarist for Wilco” is clearly a breakout guitar hero. In February of this year, Rolling Stone slotted Cline as No. 4 in its list of “Top Twenty New Guitar Gods”, dubbing him “The Avant-Romantic”. Writer David Fricke noted that he was the oldest player on the list but maybe the newest to rock fans. Sadly, he may seem the newest to jazz fans as well.

The last months have brought new music at both ends of the Cline spectrum. Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky emerged in May as a simpler, warmer album from a band that indie-aficionados have prized for its experimental approach. June brought Draw Breath on Cryptogramaphone, the third release from The Nels Cline Singers. The Singers is an all-instrumental trio that features Cline tunes and free improvisation ranging from delicately beautiful to metal-shearingly intense.

Given that Cline’s tribute to jazz pianist Andrew Hill, New Monastary, made almost every “Best Jazz of 2006” list, it appears that Cline has now officially arrived on both the rock and jazz scenes.

How did he get here? Cline makes clear that his path has been “zig-zaggy” and far from deliberate, yet there’s no doubt his arrival is a combination of huge talent and creative dedication. “I didn’t really have a sense of myself as having some kind of weird artistic path or destiny or something specific to say. It hasn’t been a cry for recognition — it’s just been a desire to make sound.”

“I Was a Rock Kid”

Cline started playing the guitar in 1968 at the age of 12 when his twin brother, Alex, took up the drums. “I was a rock kid — self-taught,” Cline explains. “My generation grew up listening to a lot of soul music and rock — but also what was happening in the early ’70s before the term ‘fusion’ was born — what was called ‘jazz-rock’. It was harder to be a purist in those days if your ears were open and were interested in new sounds.”

Although his mature music would come to sit decidedly in the wide-open space between rock, jazz, and avant-garde creative music, Cline struggled early with questions of purism. “I was very conflicted in my earlier life when it came to the rock versus jazz, electric versus acoustic, aggressive versus gentle approaches to the point where I almost stopped playing. I was pressured in those days to think that it was too late to become a serious musician because I hadn’t started my music education early. I was told that I would probably never get it down. I was thinking — If I’m going to be a good musician, I have to know jazz inside-out.”

Ultimately, Cline describes these pressures to conform to stylistic boundaries as “self-imposed”. In fact, the music that Cline loved in the 1970s easily occupied a middle ground between jazz and rock. “It didn’t seem, in the ’70s, that this middle ground should be a hard place to get to. So much had already happened in the ’60s in pop where things were busted wide open, moving on into the early ’70s with Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Oregon, and Jack DeJohnnette’s Directions — and certainly the AACM in Chicago completely changing the way people were improvising and thinking about composition let alone instrumentation. I was seeing success, not just creativity.”

Still, Cline says that he didn’t fully embrace these possibilities in his own music until much later.

Working Jobs While Playing Music

Cline made his first recordings in the late 1970s — appearing on Vinnie Golia’s Openhearted in 1978. Golia is an important jazz educator at CalArts and a key figure in modern West Coast jazz. “I’ve lived in LA my whole life,” Cline notes, “which is not a place where you can make a living playing creative music. I don’t think most of the country has ever embraced creative music, at least not since the mid-late-70s. I never moved to NY; there are millions of reasons for that — lack of self-confidence is maybe one.”

That lack of self-confidece, however, is hard to square with Cline’s growing resume during the 1980s. He played in the chamber jazz group Quartet Music with Eric Von Essen, his brother, and future Cryptogramophone leader Jeff Gauthier. And he made gigs with many of the best “out” cats of the era, learning firsthand how to offend jazz purists. “When I was playing with Julius Hemphill in the ’80s, or with Tim Berne or Vinnie Golia, I was playing some fuzz guitar or noisy guitar or even blues-related guitar, and it was considered an affront to the music.”

These gigs did not pay the bills. “In my late 20s I was playing with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra West Coast — I did that for four years. I played with Julius Hemphill and did three European tours with him. Quartet Music had California Arts Council grants — although we couldn’t get any gigs. But ultimately I just worked jobs because I had to.”

Never confident about the ability to teach guitar, Cline had to find ways to pay the rent that had little to do with music. “This is a difficult topic to talk about, because I’ve never been savvy about it. Before I joined Wilco, I was driving up and down the west coast playing lots of gigs with Scott Amendola’s related projects but making less and less money each year as I was working more and more. And that’s recent news. Before that, I just worked at book and record stores — that’s how I survived. I didn’t try to survive playing music. I made a couple of stabs at it and failed, so I just went back to the work force.”

And although Cline became known for playing as a sideman with various bands and artists, prior to Wilco these were not profitable. “I didn’t want to do music that was a job. Without it being part of plan, this is how I was able to maintain my love of playing.”

And at some point along the way a true identity as a creative, improvising musician was forged.

The Nels Cline Sound

In the late 1980s, Nels Cline was prepared to form his own band. Between 1989 and 2002, Cline recorded a string albums with the Nels Cline Trio, featuring Michael Preussner on drums and either Mark London Sims or Bob Mair on bass guitar. In 2002, he debuted the Nels Cline Singers, a singer-less guitar trio with Devon Hoff’s acoustic bass and Scott Amendola on drums and electronics.

“When I formed my first trio in ’89 — out of absolute frustration — I decided I needed to just do something for myself — follow any impulse that seemed OK no matter how disparate. And that was actually the beginning of a huge change in my creative life where I not only married a lot of my seemingly disparate impulses but it was also met with a surprising amount of acceptance.”

Both the Singers and the original trio are distinguished because they feature only Cline’s own compositions. “The other stuff I’ve done is either somebody else’s music or music that is completely improvised, such as the trio with Andrea Parkins and Tom Rainey or the music I’ve done with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

“What I try to do on the Singers recordings is whatever I like to do — my music, my impulses. I try not to limit myself to anything other than what I like. It’s not an attempt at guitar exhibitionist as much as it is guitar-centric compositions/improvisations that are structured/directed to barely-structured/barely-directed. By doing the structured material I try to address certain sonic and emotional aspects of music-making. And by doing the looser things I get out of my own way and interact as a trio and everyone’s voice is allowed into the sonic empire so that we can really communicate and enjoy ourselves.”

All of which is to say that the Singers albums run the gamut from delicate, folk-like beauty to rancorous noise. The latest, Draw Breath may be the most passionate and may have the most range. “Attempted” could almost be classic jazz, with a jaunty, boppish melody accompanied by walked bass and cluttered but still swung jazz drumming. “An Evening at Pops'” is a symphony of distortion and electronics, sculpted into dramatic form. “The Angel of Angels” is a shimmering folk exercise in 6/8, and “Exercise I” sounds like the kind of delicate chamber jazz one would hear on ECM records from one of Cline’s influences such as guitarists Ralph Towner or John Abercrombie. In every style, Cline is in total command of his playing.

“One of the things that is most satisfying about leading a group is being able to use any kind of sonic seasoning I want to address certain obsessions I have with overtones or with sonic, harmonic, and melodic qualities. On ‘Angels of Angels’ there are two layers of acoustic 12-string and electric 12-string as well as lap steel. On ‘Caved-In Heart Blues’ I put a very low-tuned Silvertone acoustic on the middle blues lead collage section. There are no rules or regulations — what feels like the thing to do is what I do.”

Somehow, in frustratedly seeking only to do his own thing, Cline found a new way to an audience. “I’m not saying that I have a singular aesthetic per se, but it’s related to things that I enjoy and that’s it. Still, the records are made with the listener in mind. I like the idea of each recording is an excursion for the listener that presents a balanced program of the group’s abilities and my abilities. But I also make these records to please myself.”

Success Calling

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a “rock kid” raised on ’60s and ’70s grooves and known for collaborating with the likes of Sonic Youth should wind up being asked to join one of the most creative rock groups of the new century. Cline joined Wilco on their tour supporting 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, and fans immediately began talking about the band’s new guitarist — some kind of jazz guy, like, a million pedals and a deep knowledge of feedback.

A fair number of critics, then, were surprised when the band’s first Cline-included studio release was a fairly pretty country-rock essay. Was Nels Cline the engine behind a … throwback record? Cline dismisses the discussion. “It is and it isn’t a throwback record. I don’t think that anybody who makes art calculates their work to represent some sort of historical perspective. These songs have their own life and make their own demands. All we did was try to play the music the way it seemed to want to be played. If the record comes out as a so-called ‘throwback’, maybe Jeff [Tweedy]’s and our approach was to make a record that was warm and was musically connected to the content of the lyrics and harmony.”

With some sense of humor about his own reputation, Cline says, “I think it’s funny that everyone thought I was going to weirdify the band. I never thought that had anything to do with my role.” Wilco, however, did have some way of getting the word out about Cline. “It’s weird — it all started when I started with Wilco, but a lot of the incredible projects I’ve been offered recently have come from people who’ve never heard Wilco and didn’t really know anything about what I was doing with Wilco.

“The beauty of Wilco is that not only am I able to do this work in a really nurturing environment and I’m well taken care of, but also they encourage my own creative work, and the attitude is that outside projects bring more energy and life to the band.”

The Music of Andrew Hill

Cline’s most intriguing and successful “outside” project in recent years is certainly New Monastery, his astonishing album of Andrew Hill compositions. In refracting Hill’s music, Cline assembled an idiosyncratic band: his Singers (Hoff and Amendola), brother Alex on percussion, Andrea Parkins on e-accordion, Ben Goldberg on clarinet, and Bobby Bradford on cornet. Not a saxophone or piano in site. Why?

“That choice was almost political. I wanted to make the case that the music should be part of the repertoire, which means that it doesn’t have to be played by the same instrumentation as on the recording. If so-called ‘jazz’ is still a living tradition, then we can approach this music from many angles and continue to play it just as the greats of a bygone era approached popular songs of the day and transformed then in a million different ways. That was the whole point.”

Using those unfamiliar colors, Cline the arranger put together performances that are both complex — as befits Hill’s music — and edgy. “How those things can co-exist has been amply documented on Andrew Hill’s recordings,” Cline explains. “They are simultaneously super-advanced and well thought-out, yet at the same time rough around the edges and spontaneous. What I was looking for was an ensemble performance and also freedom within the structure, which is something I perceive to be at a very high level in Andrew Hill’s music, particularly on certain recordings. I took all my clues from Andrew Hill — not just inspiration but also the approach to his own music.”

And, says Cline, he’s contemplating a second volume of Hill music for the future.

Both Jazz and Rock and… Neither

So: Who is Nels Cline? If he once felt torn between jazz and rock — forced by some to choose a direction and unable to meet the criteria of “purity” that some would require — then he has now found recognition and artistic success in following some of his early favorites down a hybrid path.

It’s plain that Cline is passionate about the jazz tradition, even if his own playing is far from traditional. In seeking to keep Andrew Hill’s music alive, he stresses the idea of it truly living. “I’m just saying that maybe this can still be a living tradition even though it’s not mine to protect or expand. And maybe we don’t have to mothball it and archive it and freeze-dry it.”

On the other hand, Cline embraces popular music as a whole, finding music lovers in the rock world who are interested in hearing it all. “Wilco attracts a lot of people who just really like music. And they do possess curiosity. If my work with Wilco points people in the direction of creative improvised music, then I’m doing exactly what I always wanted to do.”

In the end, though Cline’s story is laced with matters of self-doubt and periods of being unable to make ends meet with his guitar, the guitarist an outlook at least as sunny as the sound on Sky Blue Sky. Tomorrow, Nels Cline suggests, may be greater than yesterday.

“People don’t want to be spoon-fed for their whole lives. People, especially of a certain age, possess a large degree of curiosity. They don’t want to be pandered to. Right now there are lots of things going on, and music is essentially free. And musicians can make great recordings on their own for next to nothing, which is beautiful. When people realize that jazz and improvised music make them part of the conversation — that by listening they’re affecting the music — then they start to really get into it even more.”

The music of Nels Cline — varied and striking as it is — is quite a conversation. And you’re all invited to join in.