Photo: Nathan West

“I Had to Step Up My Game”: An Interview with Nels Cline of Wilco

In a candid interview with PopMatters, Nels Cline discusses his new double album, why it took a quarter of a century to come to fruition, and his role in the ever-evolving Wilco.
Nels Cline
Blue Note

Most music fans know of Nels Cline through his tenure with Wilco, which now spans over a dozen years — long enough to make him a veteran in the band even though he’s still, relatively speaking, one of the newer members.

During that time, Cline has helped Wilco evolve into its latest incarnation. Call it their mature phase, their steady phase, their “dad rock” phase — whatever label seems suitable. Regardless of descriptor, Cline’s stint with the band has witnessed them finally and seamlessly blend their disparate influences such that they no longer feel disparate. Whereas one was once forced to enlist hyphens and adjectives and references to other bands to describe their sound, Wilco now sounds remarkably like Wilco.

This, no doubt, is partially due to Cline’s skills on guitar and his thorough knowledge of American musical idioms — both of which stretch back much further than his stint with the iconic Chicago band. Cline not only hails from Los Angeles, but also from the improvisational jazz community it fostered in the late ’70s.

Since then, Cline has played in numerous jazz, avant-garde, and experimental rock ensembles, notably the Nels Clines Singers and the Nels Cline Trio. He has also collaborated with everyone from his twin brother, Alex, to Thurston Moore, Stephen Perkins, and Mike Watt; scored numerous films; held down guitar duties for the Geraldine Fibbers; and, well, amassed a discography that would take the musical equivalent of an epidemiologist to trace to and from influence.

Cline’s latest release — a double album of instrumental covers and originals that explore the themes of love, romance, and sex — stretches back a quarter of a century in its inception and development. Titled Lovers, the collection is both an homage to and revision of the mood music of the early-to-mid twentieth century, music that was often instrumental and intended to recede into the background, ultimately serving to set a mood — hence the label.

On his website, Cline states that he hopes the collection “offers something of an update of the ‘mood music’ idea and ideal, while celebrating and challenging our iconic notion of romance.” To that latter end, the album takes some dark aural turns, weaving through not only the ecstatic moments of romance, but also explicating the aspects that are innately somber, alienating, and even disturbing. In that regard, it’s every bit as cerebral as carnal in tone.

In conversation, Cline is exceedingly affable and warmly professorial, exuding a natural humility and making frequent, fascinating detours into music and film history. Indeed, talking to him feels remarkably like being a college freshman all over again, sitting in a humanities or music appreciation class and feeling that potent combination of awe, intrigue, and excitement. For Cline, to speak is to throw open doors.

PopMatters recently spoke with Cline about Lovers, why it took a quarter of a century to come to fruition, and his role in the ever-evolving Wilco.

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You’ve had this album concept in mind for more than a quarter century at this point. Going all the way back, what was the initial concept or thematic thread that you had in mind?

Having enjoyed some of the more classic orchestrated records from the jazz idioms — whether it’s Charlie Parker with strings or Paul Desmond with strings or Stan Getz’s Focus or a large ensemble like some of the greatest pieces by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn or soundtracks like those of Johnny Mandel or Henry Mancini — I grew up with a lot of instrumental hits in the ’60s. And there would be all these records with moody covers, which we called mood music records, and we called these sort of session musicians playing unofficial versions of instrumental hits on records collected to put on and ignore, we called them mood music records but sometimes they had a lot of musical rewards.

Beyond the fact that it was an era of instrumental hits and people paying attention to instrumental music, there was this idea that grew mostly in the ’60s, probably started in the early ’60s, of the home theater and having a stereo. That was a new thing. I think that when I became aware of some of these records, which I referred to as mood music records, some of them were, you know, pretty much I guess disposable and others were really pretty interesting. I just thought how interesting it would be — and it would also be rewarding — to do my version of a mood music record, which would include (and this is my original thought) a lot of the darker aspects of romance, not just the sweet ones.

And, as such, I thought how interesting it would be to do a record kind of like Sketches of Spain where basically I’m soloing as a guitar player in this kind of traditional mode — not saying that I’m good at that, just that I wish that I could do it — and then include material from the world that I thought that was maybe more inclusive of the darker, edgier, or less sweet aspects of intimacy and love and romance and sex as we have sort of filtered these ideas through our culture, whether cinematically, musically, or in some way artistically. So that was sort of my original impulse, was to do my take on the so-called mood music record that would tie in a lot of these and then balance it with some of these other more what I thought of as more realistic aspects.

When you first conceived of the album, did you already have specific songs in mind?

Absolutely. A lot of them are on the record. But the record was never intended to be a double record. It’s just that, you know, after making songs lists and taking songs off and putting news ones on and contemplating this for so long it just got pretty long. It was my producer friend David Breskin, who produced the record, who encouraged me to just really record what I wanted to record and worry about all the rest of it later, so it ended up being a double record. But, yeah, the Jimmy Giuffre piece “Cry, Want”, the theme from The Night Porter by Daniele Paris, “Touching” by Annette Peacock, my piece “Diaphonous”, the Henry Mancini cue from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which has become known as “The Search for Cat” — these were on my first list back when.

In some ways (to put it in a way that the average person who isn’t a musician can understand) it’s analogous to assembling a mixtape in that it began with a theme and then, with time, the songs started to populate that theme.

I think that there’s definitely the mixtape element. I also have to say that I hadn’t thought of this until you mentioned the mixtape but it’s also reminiscent of the kind of thought that went behind the show on KCRW in Santa Monica called Morning Becomes Eclectic but not the Morning Becomes Eclectic we know now — it was the first Morning Becomes Eclectic which was created by a woman named Isabel Holt who lost her job because she got pregnant and was never given her job back. But she was the person who created this whole idea of weaving together seemingly disparate musical material thematically, sometimes in incredibly subtle ways, sometimes based on just a sound, sometimes based on lyric content, sometimes based on the lineage of the people involved artistically and how they related to each other. She was a complete genius and I’m happy to mention her.

But, yes, what you’re saying is true because it’s not just how the songs fit together and how the songs relate to or illuminate my so-called concept, but they’re also a layered homage built into this record. They’re an homage not only to the obvious movies or composers involved but also to various players. Like “Secret Love”, which was also on my first list, I was inspired to play this piece by hearing Jim Hall play it. And so “Secret Love” is, in its own sly way, something that I thought Jim would hear and be kind of amused by and maybe even like and some are either an homage to other guitar players and other sort of modes of thought that don’t have anything to do with romance and love and intimacy. It’s about streams of music development and how they affect me. That’s been part of the enjoyable subtext of this project.

There are five original compositions on the album that are mixed in with your renditions of other composers’ songs. Did you write the original compositions with this theme in mind — or did you write them and then realize they fit into the concept of the album?

Yes, actually, except for the newest piece, called “The Bed We Made”. I just had written it and I didn’t know if it would fit. It’s a little bit upbeat and I didn’t know if it would fit into the mood of the record and when I played it and wrote out a lead sheet for it for Michael Leonard he said, “Yeah, man, let’s do it.” So it ended up on the record. But I’m certainly not trying to make any claim like, “Hey, listen man: my tunes are as good as Jerome Kern’s or whatever.” I’m not trying to say that. I’m not trying to say that I’m, you know, the next Rodgers and Hammerstein. What I was trying to say is that this is my own idea and that I wanted to connect all these things with some of my own ideas musically just because I have ideas.

So, as I said, “Diaphonous”,was already written for this record in the ’80s, so it’s the only one that survived. The introduction, basically I worked on and it’s just a series of chords, but I could never decide which chords. So I worked on it on and off. I don’t know, I just could never decide when it was finished. So I worked on and off for over 25 years! And it wasn’t until Michael Leonard said to me, “Well what do you have?” And I showed him what I had and he said, “This is great! How about if it just repeats and blah, blah, blah …” I said, “Ohhhh, okay.” By this time we were doing the project so I had to actually commit. But while it was just a fantasy, I could just go over these ideas and not finish them forever, you know what I mean?

Yes. Recording the album forced your hand — metaphorically and literally, in this case. And speaking of, since you’ve had this idea in your mind for 25 years, what ultimately was the catalyst for bringing it to fruition? Why now? How now?

Well I got funding. Think about it. It was a five-day session with an extra day added later for the strings and harp. And you see who’s playing on there. What, you think I just want to have these guys come in and play for ten bucks, you know what I mean? There’s no way. Nobody’s making records like this now and there’s a reason for it. It’s incredibly expensive and so I got, I guess you could kind of say a stipend or I was bestowed funding through Angel City Arts in Los Angeles and the Shifting Foundation, which is centered in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was initiated by my producer friend David Breskin, so thankfully it was David who made it happen. And the Shifting Foundation funds all kinds of projects from all over the world with various artists, not just musicians, and has been on and off since the ’80s. So I’m not the only person who’s sort of on the receiving end of this marvelous gift. But David and I are really, really good friends and have worked together on many of my projects and it was David who, basically when he heard about the idea, insisted that this happen. And so, when he figured out how to fund it, I had to do it.

You’ve collaborated with a litany of musicians throughout your career, so you’re no stranger to working with diverse musicians. But this is on a whole different scale: there are over 20 other musicians performing on the album. How did that change the dynamics of and your approach to collaborating?

Well, it was super scary. Basically because we’re using the model of Sketches of Spain or Quiet Nights by Miles or using Focus by Stan Getz: basically I’m the soloist in front of this orchestra. That was the idea. And it’s guitar, bass, and drums and an orchestra. And that’s really scary because I don’t think of myself as a particularly awesome musician and, beyond that, certainly not a jazz wizard. So I had to try to relax and step up my game and play something decent.

But beyond that, having all those people there was ultimately just a delight because these are some of not only the greatest musicians I’ve known — some of them, like my brother, I’ve known my entire life — but some of them like Jeff Gauthier, I mean I’ve known Jeff since 1980, you know what I mean? These are people I go way back with. I met Doug Wieselman in 1984 when he was in Los Angeles, where I’m from. So what I’m saying is that on the musicianship side, for me, I had to bring it. But on the musicianship side for the orchestra, these are some of the best players around and they were really, really into the project and so I felt very, very supported, which made me relax, at least a bit.

So it was scary but at the same time it was kind of just marvelous that we were really doing this and everyone was having, I think, a really, really good experience — in spite of the fact that all these people, pretty much all of them I guess, they’re all better than me and they’re all great improvisers and they’re not getting to improvise, for the most part. There’s very little improvisation involved for them because they have to play all these parts and support my idea, you know? They had to be part of the orchestra. But everybody really had a blast, it seems.

You continually downplay your talents but anyone who has seen you live in concert thinks of you as a genius, a mad scientist of sorts.

Well I mean I have to say that, in all honesty music is just not that easy for me. It’s never been easy. And from a very early age, I heard a lot of people who were really, really incredible but at the same time maybe I’m just kind of lazy because I never thought I’d be anything like them. I just thought I’d do my own music. And so, you know, obviously, coming out of late ’60s rock, the reason I play guitar is specifically because of Jimi Hendrix. And beyond that, I aspired to take a more modest path.

Thinking of Hendrix as basically a magician, I figured I’d be like a plebian and take a modest path and figure out who I could emulate that would be more, I guess, my personality. And not to say that these people are plebian but this was just I was trying to find somebody I felt I could emulate because Hendrix was too magical, right? And so I started listening to people like Peter Banks and Duane Allman and Rory Gallagher and Johnny Winter. You know what I mean? These are like great players but basically sound melodic and earthly and somewhat approachable. But then I heard John Coltrane’s Africa and that changed everything. And this was 1970, maybe, or early 71. And 71, what was happening? It was the beginning of Weather Report, of so-called jazz-rock, Herbie Hancock on the Fender Rhodes …

And so, I’ve been listening to people who are basically ten times better than me my whole life. And a lot of these people that I played with on Lovers have played with a lot of the people who I’m talking about. They’re better trained than me and that’s just the way it is. But then also how I got better in my early life — because I didn’t have really any guitar lessons of any substance — was by playing with people better than me who encouraged me. And so it’s scary and it’s sometimes really embarrassing but at the same time it is a way to grow.

You’ve spoken at length about the initial idea of this album being mood music: music that’s sort of background music that creates a feel or sets a tone. But it seems to be more than that, at least for the listener.

Well I have to tell you that in a way I’ve had to dispense with this mood music idea because I realize that the record is way more engaging and diverse dynamically and stylistically than any mood music record. I think the idea that I described to you earlier was the impetus for doing this but it didn’t end up being what we did. Because what we ended up doing was, as I said, far more diverse and dynamic than just something you’d put on for romance, dim the lights, put your arm around a date and hope for the best. It actually goes into some slightly more perplexing or strident or troubling places, you know? So maybe that’s not exactly ignorable.

My original impetus was to do something that would be just as easy to ignore as it would be to completely engage with, but I don’t think we succeeded in that because my concept of the record subtly changed over time as the material changed and as I changed. So I think it’s become a more, kind of overall, brighter-in-hue experience. It’s not so dark as I initially planned back in the ’80s. And maybe that’s because I’m older, maybe because my life is different, and also maybe because as time has gone by I’ve had time to absorb and even possibly digest some of this type of endeavor that’s orchestrated with jazz soloists¬≠¬≠ or orchestrated endeavor, you know what I mean? It’s just a lot more water under the bridge now. So I’m not sure it’s a mood music record but it could be. But I guess I’ve really kind of used this as the initial impetus but then it grew into something else organically that I am comfortable with.

The sequencing seems very methodical and deliberate. Each song sort of picks up where the previous one left off, such that a narrative begins to emerge. It’s quite hypnotic.

It was a real puzzle sequencing the record because of course I could have sequenced it exactly the way I imagined listening to it all at once — which I don’t recommend anyone do, by the way; it’s too much — but it had to fit onto four sides of vinyl time-wise without mastering dilemmas and on two compact discs time-wise as well which wasn’t a problem, really. And then it still has to have this kind of vague narrative and just hills and valleys, tension and release — all the stuff that keeps you listening, you know, that keeps you engaged. So I’m really happy to hear this, that you had this reaction.

Sonic Youth’s “Snare, Girl” is an interesting inclusion among all these old-time classics and standards. Your version is less dissonant but no less foreboding than the original.

I definitely wanted to do an homage to Sonic Youth because I adore them so much and they have definitely had a huge influence on the way I think about music and guitar. But also, that song, which I’ve always found quite beautiful, is on I think a very underappreciated Sonic Youth record and it’s also the first song that I recall Thurston actually crooning on. He really croons those words and I think the poetry itself lyrically is beautiful.

This is one of the reasons we’re including the lyrics in the package on the sleeves in both the compact discs and vinyl versions, just because the songs were not all selected for their musical content as it could be jammed on or orchestrated. It was selected based on the lyrics to the songs fitting in with the concept of the record. And to me “Snare, Girl” represents the spiritual aspect of the record. You know, obviously, perhaps, “Why Was I Born” represents the kind of lovelorn or wistful longing, as does “Glad to Be Unhappy”.

You know, these songs feed into the sort of, maybe, shadowy or more regretful of committing to romance and wondering what the hell happened. And other songs like “Beautiful Love”, “Secret Love”, and “I Have Dreamed” are far more overtly romantic. I wanted to kind of keep a balance going. And then, of course, with “Night Porter” and “Max, Mon Amour” — what I call the Charlotte Rampling suite — we, without lyrics, confront what might be called deviant sexuality, you know, sadomasochism and bestiality. So, it’s all part of the picture. But, in a way, I hope that people don’t get too wrapped up in that in the sense that it doesn’t matter. Like if you said it’s hypnotic and it goes from one thing to the other and you enjoy it, that’s really the most important thing.

It would be a glaring omission not to ask you about the new Wilco album, Schmilco. Last year you all surprised everyone with Star Wars and it came as a surprise that you all are following it up so quickly. Did Schmilco come out of the Star Wars sessions?

Pretty much. I mean, Jeff’s been insanely prolific for the last couple of years. So there’s a ton of stuff. He keeps generating raw material that then gets refined at the Loft, either in real time or not in real time. And I think that Jeff thinks of this record as a sort of more stripped-down and breezier, sonically breezier, cousin or brother to Star Wars, which is a pretty overtly rocking record.

How do you fit into the larger context of the band? You’re primarily an improviser and while Wilco has sometimes been described as an experimental rock band, it’s still within the context of rock. A lot of Wilco’s songs are fairly straight-forward four-or-five-chord songs underneath the experimental flourishes, particularly the early stuff.

Well, I mean I guess it’s all about content for me, you know what I mean? I mean, certainly, there are aspects of the Wilco canon that address my 14-year-old self and I don’t find anything particularly wrong with that. It kind of feels good. But, really, specifically, it’s just been such a joy to play with these five other gentlemen and to flesh out, honor, heighten, whatever you want to say, the musicality and the impact of Jeff’s writing.

And, you know, I like to rock. Even when I was improvising prior to Wilco I was playing with the Geraldine Fibbers, with Mike Watt, and with a band in Los Angeles called BLOC and doing other things that had to do with playing parts and playing what we call — it’s funny that rock and roll people always call their live concerts a show and jazz people call it a set, you know, so it took me years to say the word show because when Wilco plays, yeah, it’s a show. We have production. We have lights. We have all that stuff and I love all that pageantry. I don’t need it, but I love it, you know? Just like I don’t need a big audience, I just like to play. But, no, I mean playing with Wilco, it engages some different aspects of what I do, but in another way I am making stuff up and I did make up a bunch of stuff when I joined the band because there weren’t a lot of specific directives for me.

So it was pretty open-ended, then, assimilating you into a band that already had a fairly substantial discography with lots of songs the audience was intimately familiar with? You were free to experiment and tinker?

Yes. Jeff didn’t say, “Learn all these parts and play this part off the record exactly as you hear it on the record.” Quite the contrary. I was asking him, “Hey, do you mind if I do a little looping thing here?” and he said, “Just do it and we’ll listen to it.” And everyone’s then like, “Hey, that sounds great!” And so I made up parts for myself, but I wasn’t asked to play them. It’s all pretty loose, you know, in the initial stages, and there’s a lot of experimentation that goes on in the recording process, some of which has to do with Jeff goading me to do things that are maybe like less reverent to the songs or less obvious. And actually a lot of Star Wars and a considerable amount of this new record, a lot of the guitar work that you hear is Jeff, not me, that’s prominent, you know? So I’m supportive in a lot of this stuff.