VIA CHICAGO: Q&A w/ Wilco Guitarist Nels Cline


BY JONATHAN VALANIA Wizardly Wilco axeman Nels Cline plays Johnny Brenda’s on Friday (May 2nd) with The Nels Cline Singers in support of the new Macroscope, as part of an Ars Nova joint. Widely regarded as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time, Cline has performed on more than 70 albums  — with the Geraldine Fibbers, with Wilco, with the Nels Cline Singers and a host of collaborators, including Thurston Moore, Mike Watt, Willie Nelson and drummer Alex Cline, his identical twin brother — over the course of an auspicious 34-year career. Last week we got him on the horn. DISCUSSED: Robert Johnson, The Geraldine Fibbers, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, John Fahey, YaYoi Kusama, Tony Williams, Jay Bennett and why the Nels Cline Singers don’t sing.

PHAWKER: Let me be the 10 millionth person to tell you that you are an incredibly imaginative and inventive guitar player. I’ve seen you play with Wilco on many occasions but I go all the way back to the Geraldine Fibbers days. I saw you play in Philadelphia at Silk City a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, better known as the early ‘90s..

NELS CLINE: Yeah, a long and winding road.

PHAWKER: So first question, the irony of the Nels Cline singers is that they almost never sing. Why is that?

NELS CLINE: Well we never did and so I decided to start using my voice on a couple things here and there. I was just looking for another name for a band that wasn’t ‘trio,’ ‘group,’ ‘ensemble,’ ‘band,’ — it was a tip of the hat to the Ray Charles Singers. But of course it’s tongue and cheek for a group that does all instrumentals. Also it’s metaphorical for the idea that singing should not always be taken literally. Playing instruments is expressing oneself in some kind of a harmonic way just like singing. So it’s a fun name but it has a serious side as well, I suppose.

PHAWKER: So what events or recordings or influences led you off the beaten path of traditional ‘rockist’ notions about what guitar could and should be used for?

NELS CLINE: Yeah well quite a few things come to mind. In a way I think I was off the path right away because I loved Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. They were already utilizing feedback and pedals and other inventive techniques in their guitar playing. Once I left the rock vocabulary, I don’t think it was all that big of a step conceptually. But conversely I had sort of designed a much more conservative path for myself after my initial desire to play guitar like Hendrix and Roger McGuinn and Jeff Beck. Hendrix seemed sort of magical and almost unapproachable in some ways that made me actually decide to go a more modest sonic route — people like Duane Allman. But hearing prog rock, guys like Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, took me further off the beaten path. A lot of acoustic guitar players like John Fahey and blues guys like Robert Johnson had an effect on me, too. It wasn’t all about electricity and sonic invention. But it was the combination of all those things that led me off the path of traditional rock notions.

PHAWKER: What was the last album that you heard that completely changed your perspective and why?

NELS CLINE: Let me think, let me think. I know that most of the time I am not listening to other people’s records because of my concentration on my own stuff. But often I am just listening to things that I already know. Usually I’m revisiting things by my friends, or people I have liked for years and years. I still have my brain turned around by listening to Tony Williams Lifetime EGO that is completely underrated and overlooked because it was after John McLaughlin had left. But the writing is so striking and so conceptually original. So basically I have just been watching YouTube clips of his band over and over again for the past two years. I am still having my mind blown by music that I like from the ‘70s.

PHAWKER: Here’s another open-ended question. The secret to improvisation is…?

NELS CLINE: Listening.

PHAWKER: There is a song on the new album called “Macroscopic (For Kusama-San)” which refers to the Japanese artist YaYoi Kusama [PICTURED, LEFT]. Who is she and why does she rate a song on the new Nels Cline Singers album?

NELS CLINE: Musically it has nothing to do with Japanese music or anything but my inspiration to dedicate the piece to her comes from just the love of what I have learned from her work — she is a very powerful, striking, and brave individual. Conceptually what relates to Kusama’s work is a particular pattern, a particular sonic pattern that is there to represent her ‘infinity net’, or her vision as a young woman or girl that has the ability to perceive things on the atomic level. The use of the voice is to make the song as extremely intimate and personal as possible. How it ended up being on a Singers’ record, I mean I am always dedicating pieces of music to various individuals whether they are well known artists or just my friends, and that one just happened to be for YaYoi Kasuma.

PHAWKER: Okay, very good. You mentioned being very busy with the Wilco, how many shows a year does Wilco play?

NELS CLINE: I never know the answers to these questions. People ask me this every once in a while but I don’t want to know the answer to be honest. At the moment, hardly any, because we took such a big break after the end of last summer. The short answer is I really don’t know and don’t know if I want to.

PHAWKER: On a Wilco-related note, do you ever stop to think, in the middle of the night or in the quiet of the moment, about Jay Bennett [PICTURED, BELOW RIGHT], and think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’? And maybe feel a sense of gratitude or indebtedness to the man — even though you had nothing to do with his demise — in the same way I feel grateful for all the young men that died at Normandy so that I can live this life.

NELS CLINE: I hardly knew the man and I didn’t really listen to any Wilco before I joined the band. I have gone back and listened to the recordings but I don’t have moments like that, I am sorry. I have moments like that for the people I have been close to and admire that are no longer on the planet but I didn’t know Jay well enough to feel that way. I feel terribly that things did not go well for him and he passed away at such a young age but I just didn’t have a strong connection with him.

PHAWKER: So last question, what can we expect when you come to Philly?

NELS CLINE: Material from the last two albums plus some extemporaneous mayhem and wonder.