BY KYLE WEINSTEIN Well-known for his role as the wizardly guitarist of Wilco, Nels Cline has accrued an impressive discography and a heaping sum of musical projects and collaborations spanning the early ‘80s to present-day. Cline has collaborated with countless musicians, including Thurston Moore, Elliott Sharp, Zach Hill, Julius Hemphill, and many more, encompassing a diverse range of genres such as free-jazz, noise-rock, funk-rock, and so on. In 2016, Blue Note Records released Nels Cline’s Lovers, a romantic concept album of instrumental renditions of classic love songs.
Last year, Ars Nova Workshop founder and Artistic Director Mark Christman commissioned Cline to compose and perform a retro-fitted Philly-centric version of the piece that was soon dubbed “Lovers (for Philadelphia),” which is essentially a series of interpretations of touchstone compositions written by various notable Philadelphians. In preparation for this special sequel to the 2016 Lovers record, Nels Cline spent the past year exploring and researching Philadelphia’s rich musical history. Tonight, Cline will lead a hand-picked ensemble of 17 musicians for a one-night-only performance of “Lovers (for Philadelphia)” at Union Transfer. In advance of the show, we got him on the horn.
DISCUSSED: The Delfonics, Thurston Moore, beer, Sun Ra, Uri Caine, Philly soul, Theoretical Girls, Bill Frissel, Coltrane, Paul Motian, Low-Riders, Tired Hands Brewery, Ethel Waters, No Wave, Yuka Honda, Wilco, Brenda & The Tabulations, Eddie Lang, Mark Christman, beer, Mike Watt and the legacy of Glenn Branca.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about the artists you’ve been interpreting for this Philly event. Let’s start with McCoy Tyner. Tell me about him, where he fits in.
NELS CLINE: Well, I always think of Philadelphia when I think of McCoy. He’s most famous for having played for years in John Coltrane’s Quartet, but he’s somebody that I’ve been listening to and enjoying on his own for a very, very long time, and the first song I thought of when I thought of this project with the new Philadelphian repertoire was his ballad, “Aisha,” from the John Coltrane album, Olé. It’s musically right in my wheelhouse as far as the beautiful harmonic content. I think that in the world of modern jazz balladry, it’s perhaps underrated, or at least underappreciated. It was the first thing I thought of, and of course the requirements for the pieces aren’t just musical, it’s also the subject matter that is implied or directly what’s being communicated by the song. So, they have to have something to do with romance, intimacy, sexuality, whatever, but also fit aesthetically into whatever I think the concept of Lovers is, which is my world. “Aisha” fits perfectly into it, not only because it’s Philadelphian – and I can also get John Coltrane mentioned since he famously recorded it on Olé, and he lived in Philadelphia for quite a while – it’s just a beautiful piece of music that’s the kind of thing that I just can’t get enough of, so I’m happy to include it.
PHAWKER: Okay, great. Paul Motian – how’s he fit in here?
NELS CLINE: Paul’s one of my favorite musicians of all time. I think that his drumming, of course, is very singular and remarkable – quite a stylist – but I also really love his own records and his writing. And I didn’t know he was born in Philadelphia, so when I saw Mark Christman’s list of notable Philadelphians – which was quite an extensive list – my eye went straight to Paul Motian’s name, and I immediately scrolled through the song titles and immediately thought of “Folk Song for Rosie,” and I don’t know if Rosie is somebody that is in Paul’s family, I don’t know if it’s a girlfriend, I don’t know who Rosie is or was, but I don’t care [laughs] because I was able to shoehorn this piece into the concept, so the less I know the better, but it’s also an incredibly beautiful piece, and represents some of the greatest of Paul’s modal ballad writing – in its original form on the album, Le Voyage, when I first heard it, but also in its later form on the Live At the Village Vanguard recording with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Both versions are absolutely beautiful, and I’m just hoping we can keep this starkness of the recorded versions of Paul’s concepts. We try to keep it lush and, at the same time, not too dense, and keep that mood. So I’m really happy to include Paul Motian. He’s one of my favorites.
PHAWKER: All right great. I really like how you put that emphasis on not knowing who Rosie is, but more of it being all about interpretation.
NELS CLINE: Well, see, for example, my attempts to get Philly soul songs into the repertoire were really unsuccessful because the lyric content doesn’t quite make it for me. You know, on the album, Lovers, lyrics are reproduced on the songs that had lyrics, even though there’s no vocalist, and the reason is that the lyrics were as important as the music in the selection of these songs. And I just couldn’t think of creative ways to re-imagine Philly soul hits, one of them being “La La Means I Love You” by The Delfonics – truly an iconic love ballad, and a huge favorite of my ex-wife, who grew up in Southern California around lowriders – and it’s a big lowrider hit, you know, people listening to it on their car stereos, on the AM radio, in the ’60s and ’70s, it never got old. And so, to be able to include that is actually personal. It has a lot of personal meaning to me. As does the inclusion of Brenda & The Tabulations’ “The Touch of You,” which I had completely forgotten about, but was another favorite of my ex-wife and her friends – more of a deep cut in Southern California – but the musical content is really quite surprising and very flavorful, and it’s got a great guitar riff, so that’s probably as pop as we’re going to get with the Philadelphian repertoire.
PHAWKER: Okay. So, let’s move on, here. How about Ethel Waters?
NELS CLINE: Okay, Ethel Waters, I didn’t even know had associations with Philadelphia. In searching through the various songs that she had interpreted, I thought “Miss Otis Regrets” is so ideal, so incredibly relevant, right now, and so honors, in its urbane and wry and witty way, some of the more twisted aspects of romance that I’d like to include in Lovers. You know, a song about a woman who’s unable to make lunch because she has just murdered her lover for cheating on her is a really great story, and delivered marvelously by Ethel Waters, who we do not normally consider prim. Anyway, we’re going to just do it in an old-fashioned way, but hopefully not a kitschy way; I don’t want it to be kitschy at all. I’ll probably play an acoustic archtop, and keep it very 1930s if we can, and probably let some people solo over the form, to some extent the same way we approached “Why Was I Born” on the Lovers album.
PHAWKER: How about Uri Caine?
NELS CLINE: Uri is somebody I think of right away when I think of Philadelphia. He’s one of these maverick artists who’s internationally recognized to be quite brilliant, but has stayed in Philadelphia. I tried to find some of his compositions that would fit into my idea of Lovers, you know, something intimate and romantic. And I discovered this piece by Uri, called “Magic of Her Nearness,” which I was not aware of, and the recorded version I heard is solo piano, and is actually quite a tribute, in my opinion, to the solo piano work in the ‘60s and ‘70s, primarily of Paul Bley. He uses a lot of Paul Bley flavor in his improvisation on this piece. I’m very happy that we can at least make a nod to Uri Cane as somebody who’s contemporary in Philadelphia, and doing great music. So, I think what we’re going to try to do is make it more of a free-jazz piece. And that’s still being discussed, but I think that’s the way it’s going to go. It’s a beautiful little piece.
PHAWKER: Okay. And tell me about Eddie Lang.
NELS CLINE: Eddie Lang, yeah. Eddie is somebody that is a guitar icon, but he’s somebody that I hadn’t paid much attention to since my earlier days in investigating jazz guitar in the ‘70s, and it was really his work with Joe Venuti that I was more familiar with, but it was actually Julian Lage who exposed me to some of these other recordings of solo guitar, and, in this case, “April Kisses,” an iconic Eddie Lang piece, it turns out, which is a duet with guitar and piano. The piano is back there very distantly, but it’s definitely there. And as a Lonnie Johnson fan, I was more so investigating Eddie Lang when he was playing the duets with Lonnie Johnson, and he’d play some blues in a swing kind of way. Lonnie was one of my absolute favorites, probably because – he is an incredible guitar player – but also his style had this combination of the influence of swing and also amazing blues playing and singing. I’m becoming more familiar with Eddie Lang’s solo stuff. We’re going to try to do “April Kisses” in duet with Philadelphian guitarist, Nick Millevoi, who’s the other guitarist on the project for June 2nd. And we’re going to try to mix it up a little bit, but still play what Eddie played on this song, and I think that the song itself has this feeling of an innocent kind of strained romance that feels very much like days gone by. There’s something sincerely, innocently romantic about it, and I think that it’s nice to be able to have that as part of the deal. And it’s also a guitar reference. The album, Lovers, has a lot of built-in homage to other guitar players. And, of course, it had been nice to work a little more guitar-centric energy into it, but it just isn’t really part of the deal. Eddie Lang is certainly an iconic guitar figure and is somebody very much associated with Philadelphia, it turns out, and it’s nice to be able to reexamine and examine more of his work that I had before. It’s been cool. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do it justice, but we’re going to try.
PHAWKER: Great, so it sounds like it’s definitely been a huge learning experience for you, as far as the history of the musicians in Philadelphia.
NELS CLINE: Yeah, I have to say, I’m very grateful to Mark Christman and Ars Nova for coming up with this idea and having this requirement that I go to Philadelphia and have my day filled with seeing and experiencing, and meeting a lot of interesting people and seeing interesting things, and very inspiring things as well. I think that there’s been a history of philanthropy in the city over the years, a lot of innovation, and an amazing roster of musicians, composers, and improvisers. I’m going to play a little bit of a reference to Byard Lancaster in the show, who’s a woodwind player most people are aware of from the ‘70s, but a lot of the rest of the world has kind of forgotten about him. So, we’re going to try to have a nod to him with a very eccentric, but simple, piece from a record he did where he played all the instruments, and it’s called “Loving You.” We’ll use it as an introduction at certain points. And Michael and I are still investigating the film composer, Sol Kaplan, who was blacklisted, and he did a lot of film work and had some association – I don’t know what music he wrote for the first Star Trek T.V. show – died in Philadelphia in the 70’s after being blacklisted. He’s somebody that I just, through research, discovered, and we’re still trying to work this piece in to the show, called “The French Woman,” from a movie called, The Victors, that I’ve never even seen, but I’m not sure how it’s going to go yet; it’s definitely not a guitar piece, from my standpoint, but we’ll see what happens. But that’s a good example to me of this project leading me into directions that I didn’t expect and that I’m grateful to have been lead in [laughs], or however you would say that in correct English.
PHAWKER: [Laughs] Okay, so to segue through into more of that research that you did: you saw a lot of sights in Philly pertaining to these artists that you’re going to be interpreting. You went to the Sun Ra Arkestra House?
NELS CLINE: Well that was a really unexpected surprise. Thankfully, I had played with Marshall Allen months before, and I didn’t feel like I was just showing up and gawking. But I hung out with Marshall and Danny Thompson at the Sun Ra House, and I do regret that Michael and I have discussed trying to do “Love In Outer Space” by Sun Ra, but it just so needs the vocals, to me, so we just didn’t quite get it together to do Sun Ra. But, I’ve thought about this Sun Ra House since the ‘70s, and had no idea I’d ever stand in there, and it’s certainly a lot smaller [laughs] than I expected, and the image of the whole Arkestra playing in that tiny living room and playing all these years there, in Germantown, is really astonishing. Yeah, I didn’t know that I’d do that. That was cool.
PHAWKER: Yeah I can’t imagine the living rooms in Germantown being very large.
NELS CLINE: Oh my god, it’s really small. And I don’t know what’s going on upstairs there – bedrooms I guess – but, man, that was cool. And we also went to the nearby park and saw that Sun Ra and John Gilmore, and members of the Arkestra are in a mosaic in the park, right there. It’s really cool.
PHAWKER: Awesome. It must have been a crazy experience. Also, I’d like to go into you performing with your brother, Alex, and your wife, Yuka, for this event.
NELS CLINE: Right. Well, we’ve played together before. Certainly on the recording. My brother and I have played together since we were 11. Alex was the only person I ever wanted to play on this Lovers concept record, if I ever did it, because of his dynamics, his ability to shade, his use of cymbals, his use of extended percussive techniques when necessary. He just knows what to do to make it what I want, and so, he’s the guy. Alex, Yuka, and I performed together on a piece of Yuka’s, called “Revert to Sea,” last year at National Sawdust, and also recorded it. The recording and the piece are still sort of a work in progress, but I would imagine that we could do it again at some point. But, yeah, it’s kind of a family affair. Some of these musicians – well, Devon and I have played together on and off for over twenty years, and he played in my band for ten years. And Zeena and I have been playing together on and off for about twenty years. I go way back in the way-back machine with some of these people. I met J.D. through my brother years ago, and he met J.D. through Julius Hemphill when he was playing with Julius in the ‘70s. It’s really cool to be able to have people that I’ve listened to for years and years, like Erik Friedlander and J.D., and Steven Bernstein won’t be at this concert, but Steven. We’ll have Amir ElSaffar instead, but he’s amazing, and my brother has played with Amir and loves him. It’s a good feeling. But anyway, the family aspect, it’s something I haven’t really thought about that much, but it’s there.
PHAWKER: It must add a much more intimate experience, right?
NELS CLINE: Yeah, it’s very cooperative, let’s put it that way. It’s easy. And it certainly makes it pleasant, for me, overall.
PHAWKER: Yeah, that’s beautiful. So, about the fifteen other musicians that you’ll be working with, did you choose them yourself, did you have help from Ars Nova? How did that all come together?
NELS CLINE: Well, I chose them all myself, except for a couple of them that Michael Leonhart chose. And the same is true of the recording. Being here, in New York the last few years, finally, and basically thinking wistfully about what I wanted the orchestral palate of the Lovers record to be, which is to say that it favors clarinets and flutes over saxophones, for the most part; I wanted mallet percussion and, of course, brass. I immediately thought of Sara Schoenbeck, the great bassoonist, and Ben Goldberg, with whom I collaborate quite often and who is completely game to come from California and record on it, and we’ll do the same for the Philadelphia concert with his contralto clarinet and his B flat clarinet. Doug Wieselman was somebody that I really always wanted on the record, but, unfortunately, he’s not able to play in Philadelphia. So, I have this young man named Jasper Dütz, who’s the son of two of my best friends in California, and is somebody who I met when he was one day old, and who’s become a magnificent musician. But instead of Steven Bernstein, Michael and I both thought Amir ElSaffar would be a fantastic addition, and he’s one of my favorite musicians and one of my brother’s favorite musicians. So all these people – Erik Friedlander, Carla Kihlstedt, J.D. – they’re all people that I know, some of whom I’ve known for over thirty years. So, it was actually a joy to flesh out the ensemble with people that I, not only have known for a long time, but also that I’ve been listening to – in some cases for thirty-five years – and have an amazing amount of respect for.
PHAWKER: All right. Now, here’s something exciting: you’ve recently brewed a new beer with Tired Hands Brewing Company. Can you tell me a little bit more about this beer?
NELS CLINE: Okay. Well, I’m not sure I can tell you everything about it. I can tell you that this was all Mark Christman’s idea. He and I both like beer a lot. And I’ve been hearing about Tired Hands for a few years from a good friend of mine, named Mark, who lives nearby, in Wynnewood, next to Ardmore. So, when Mark came up with this idea, of course I was thrilled because I’m really interested in craft beer, and so is he, so when I met with the folks from Tired Hands, I was not only really impressed with their beer, which you can’t get unless you go to Ardmore, but they’re really smart guys. They’re smart, they’re serious about what they’re doing, knowledgeable. I learned way more about beer in a couple of visits with those guys than what I’ve known for the last forty years I’ve been drinking beer… fifty years [laughs]. So I thought, for Lovers beer, it should have a rosy hue. I am familiar with some innovative craft beers from Mikkeller, the Danish brewmaster, and his twin brother, who’s in Brooklyn who does Evil Twin, and Stillwater, and a lot of these people who are doing very unique things. So, I thought, in order to give it a rosy hue, I would consider a food component as long as it wasn’t sweet, I’ve thought about a rose component for romance, and also, I’ve had beer that had hibiscus infusion, which would give it a rosy hue as well. So, after meeting with the guys, we came up with an idea of a saison with rose pedals and hibiscus, which they made into bundles. I stirred the grain and transferred the stuff to the kettle, and, you know, they kind of just set it up for me and then I would just do the simple thing, like dip the bundles of hibiscus and rose pedals into the kettle and watch the outpouring of red come out of these bags. And then they decided that they’ll finish it –once it has been fermenting – with fresh strawberry juice and some cacao. That’s what we’re working toward. We’ll see what happens. It’ll be ready, I guess, the day before the show, because that’s their fifth anniversary, I think. They’re having a big party at the same venue that we’ll be performing in, so there’ll probably be a nice supply of Lovers beer for the folks . . . and I guess something for the wine people [laughs]. But, it’s been exciting to do that, and was a really great idea of Mark’s, and very surprising, a delightful surprise.
PHAWKER: Yeah! I’m excited to give it a try, actually. Was that your first experience brewing?
NELS CLINE: Yes.
PHAWKER: Wow. Cool, so I want I want to switch over to another recent event: the unfortunate passing of Glenn Branca, who is known for his unconventional playing styles, his work with Theoretical Girls. What are your thoughts on his legacy?
NELS CLINE: Well, I mean it’s obviously extremely important. I have to confess I didn’t spend a lot of time listening to Glenn Branca records. I always would check them out as they would come out, but I didn’t find myself doing a lot of repeated listening to his work, and without going into why that is exactly, I, at the same time, cannot underestimate the impact of his work because, not only was it singular unto itself, and obviously maybe overwhelming in its sheer attack and the force of its overtones and volume and a kind of rock drama, it created, as a byproduct, Sonic Youth, which is, for me, one of the most important musical entities in my life. They’re very influential on me; they’ve become friends over the years, and changed the way I think about certain aspects of guitar playing and sound. So that alone would make him, to me, one of the most important people, even though maybe that was an accident, although he did release the first two Sonic Youth records on Neutral, both of which I listened to when they were new records, and certainly, Confusion Is Sex became a very important record for me back in those days, and I became kind of a Sonic Youth super-fan over time. Glenn, himself, I never met. I know he was kind of a controversial figure, you know, kind of a loud mouth, I guess, and just a really strong individual, and somebody for whom I have a great deal of respect. I know he’d been sick for a while, but sixty-nine, which is the same age my father passed away at, it’s just way too young.
PHAWKER: It is a shame when you lose a hero like that. So, because of him, you eventually ended up working with Thurston Moore, right?
NELS CLINE: Well, I met Thurston through Mike Watt. Thurston was a customer at the record store I worked in in the ‘80s, so that’s when I met him originally, but I didn’t play with him until Mike Watt put us all together for Ball-Hog or Tugboat? in New York City in 1994, and I played on some stuff with Thurston, Lee, J. Mascis, Steve Shelley, and Mike Watt.
PHAWKER: Oh, nice.
NELS CLINE: And that’s kind of when we started doing actual music together. You know, I was this guy working at the record store who was kind of like a, I don’t know, not a jazz guy, but kind of a jazz-fusion guy, or whatever. I mean, I was playing nylon-string guitar with Charlie Haden, and playing with Julius Hemphill’s electric band, and playing in a kind of funk-rock band called Block, back when I met those guys. And, not trying to make a splash in the indie-rock world, but I had an incredible love for their music. You know, the thing about Glenn Branca is, if Glenn Branca hadn’t existed, we would’ve had to have invented him. You know what I mean? Somebody had to do that work, and I think it’s not surprising that somebody came along and put together a million loud guitars all with unison strings and just when for pure sonic overwhelm. And he did it with panache.
PHAWKER: Absolutely. A total pioneer of the no-wave movement.
NELS CLINE: Yeah.
PHAWKER: So, as for Wilco, is there anything currently in the works?
NELS CLINE: We took the year off.
PHAWKER: Okay, anything in the foreseeable future?
NELS CLINE: Well, yeah, I’m sure we’ll do some recording at some point. I don’t know exactly when. Jeff has dozens and dozens, literally dozens and dozens of songs waiting for something to happen to them [laughs]. Probably, by now, over fifty songs. I haven’t heard anything, specifically, yet. The year is still somewhat young.