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  JERRY HALL
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  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
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WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Nels Cline, 2008

WITH JOHN RUSCHER

Guitarist Nels Cline has covered more sonic territory than any musician we know.  He took up the guitar at age twelve and has been exploring jazz, fusion and alt-country genres for four decades since – with an astounding ability to draw his different musical experiences together into a cohesive, open-minded, Zen-like approach to playing guitar.
Best known as a member of Wilco, which he joined in 2004, Nels is a dependable presence at Jeff Tweedy’s right side during live shows, with close-cropped blond hair and nerdy good looks. He has also collaborated with Thurston Moore and Mike Watt – as well as such jazz notables as Eric Von Essen and Vinny Golia. And he’s forged a reputation as a top-notch improviser with his own groups, The Nels Cline Trio and The Nels Cline Singers.
John Ruscher phoned up Nels to talk and found him doing the wash in a Chicago laundromat, taking a break from working on Wilco’s next album.

John: With the new Wilco album and working on stuff with the Nels Cline Singers…how do to get away from the music?
Nels: I enjoy reading and the odd movie. There are certain things that I’m interested in - but in phases --such as contemporary art. I’ve had periods of my life where I’ve been kind of a fashion voyeur — because I’m also interested in design and things like that.

John: Where do you get your tips for films and the books you read?
Nels: Jeff Tweedy is a voracious reader, and he has recommended some good stuff. Mostly I look at magazine reviews and the like -- follow my nose. I am currently trying to catch up on some film viewing. Sadly, I am watching on my laptop because I don't own a TV, which is so unfair to the films! Seeing a film screened is the only way to go, if you can swing it.

John: What films are you into lately?
Nels: I’m kind of generally obsessed with movies from the ’40s and ’30s, particularly film noir. Frankly, I have what a lot of people call exceptionally gay taste, so I really like Fred Astaire movies. I love watching almost any film from that era just for the clothes and the shadows. I feel like I can truly escape into black and white.

John: You guys always record in your loft in Chicago, right? What’s that like?
Nels: It is one large floor in a commercial building. Since I’ve been with the band, we’ve carved out more living space because I live out of town, as does Mikael Jorgensen. Some of our crew is now from outside Chicago too. There are businesses in the building, and no one seems to know what they really are. There are some machines upstairs that start going “clunk-clunk” at around 8:30 AM, but no one knows what they are doing! The landlord has crammed the roof with cell phone reception towers, so for all I know I might be sterile now.

John: So where do all of you sleep?
Nels: There are elevated beds for us. We call ourselves “the loft-dwellers.” There is a little kitchen and shower. In my early days, I was often the only person staying there. It was a fantasy playhouse for a musician. But nowadays when we are recording, our engineer T.J. Doherty and some crew guys will be staying there too.
What is the new record going to be like?
Jeff’s been extremely prolific, so we’re just trying to keep up with his songwriting output right now. It’s daunting! We’re going to have an embarrassment of riches, I think. We’ll probably have too many songs, so ultimately we’ll have to discuss what the record is. But I think that Jeff does have a pretty good idea already.Right now it’s just a bunch of really good classic sounding songs, and they’re diverse in the way that the band has been diverse lately. There are a lot of beautiful, one might say more “folkish,” songwriter-y songs, and then some rockers that harken back to the really good spirit of bands like The Faces or something like that.

John: How did you end up becoming a member of Wilco?
Nels: I met Jeff Tweedy in 1996 when I was playing in the Geraldine Fibbers, a band from Los Angeles. We went on the road for a couple of weeks opening for Golden Smog which Jeff was in – that was this sort of offshoot of many different Midwestern bands. The Fibbers really cottoned to him. Jeff and I didn’t become friends then. We just nodded across the dressing room or something. But I sat in with them on the last night in St. Louis, and something happened that I guess stuck with Jeff.

John: But nothing happened?
No, it was later, in 2003,when I was playing in Carla Bozulich’s band—Carla was the leader of the Geraldine Fibbers—and we were opening for Wilco for a few nights in the Midwest. That was when I met everybody who was in the band. Many of them had heard me play before, but not all of them. And I believe Glenn Kotche suggested to Jeff that maybe I’d be interested in filling the guitar chair when Leroy Bach left, and I guess Jeff thought it was a pretty cool idea. So there you have it.

John: I’m sure that Wilco has changed your perspective on making music quite a bit.
Nels: The only thing that’s really different for me is the level of notoriety that Wilco has. Even having opened for them with Carla, I wasn’t quite fully cognizant of that. And I’m kind of glad I wasn’t, because I would have been even more nervous coming into it. I was a little bit nervous because I knew that they had diehard fans, and I didn’t want them look at me as some kind of fusion dude coming in and ruining their favorite band or something.

John:  You first started playing guitar when you were just twelve. Does the spirit of the late sixties resonate in your current approach to music?
Nels: I like to think so, because I consider it to be, in retrospect of course, an extremely fertile and free era, not just for the stylistic diversity that one hears in the many bands of that era, but particularly in terms of pure sonic inventiveness. I think that both psychedelia and all of the different innovations that were happening in studio recordings around that time have had a massive influence on me.

John: Any specific memories of being blown away?
Nels: One memory is of my friend, the superb drummer Pat Pile, bringing over the 45 of "I Am The Walrus" the week it came out. We put it on and when the tape-manipulated interruption happened, it felt like my brains were suddenly leaking out of my ears—totally sensational. I was twelve years old and hadn’t done any drugs, OK? We played it over and over again in astonishment and joy.

John: You went on to pursue a lot of jazz and improv. When did you first enter that realm?
Nels: I think we can pin the date down to 1971. It might have been 1970. My brother and I had a friend named David whose father was actually a pretty renowned poet, Jack Hirschman. Jack had asked David to buy him John Coltrane’s Greatest Years: Vol. 1. Upon hearing it, David thought that my brother Alex would like it because he was into “that instrumental Frank Zappa stuff.” We sat down in our friend Bill Watts’ apartment in West L.A. and put this record on, knowing nothing about jazz, other than my dad’s swing-era type records and whatever one would hear on television at that time. The first piece was an edited version of “Africa,” and that was pretty much it for me. I think that was an “a-ha” experience.

John: What are your feelings on dating? Does being on the road a lot make relationships difficult?
Nels: Oh god. I have never been much of a dating person. I didn't do it as a young man -- and I was married for 17 years, until 10 years ago. I have had only a handful of relationships. Recently, since my itinerant life has pretty much destroyed my personal life, I have tried dating a bit. I have met some remarkable, patient women. But it is hard to commit and move on because, frankly, I am still nursing a broken heart. Such drama! 

John: What's the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning?
Nels: Morning dream residue? Being in bed is pretty sensual to me. I often prolong the experience as long as possible!

John: Anything else you’d like to say?

Nels: My mind always goes blank when I hear that question. It’s like walking into a bookstore with the idea that you’re going to remember that one book you’re looking for. You walk in and, especially if it’s a really good bookstore, you’re mind goes blank. I just feel like a lucky guy.

 



© Karen Cline

 

 
 
Prayer Wheel
Nels Cline
Coward LP, Feb 2009
Cryptogramophone




Nels Cline Official Homepage

Wilco Official Homepage
Nonesuch Records
Pitchfork Records



 

 

 
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