Name: Nels Cline
Occupation: Guitarist, composer, improviser
Current release: Nels Cline & the Aizuri Quartet rendition of Douglas J. Cuomo’s "Seven Limbs" is out via Sunnyside.
Paul Simon once told Daniel Levitin – producer and author of Your Brain on Music – that the only thing he was really concerned with was finding the right sound. That is a perplexing statement coming from arguably one of the greatest songwriters of our time. Curiously, the same sentiment returns almost verbatim at the very beginning of our interview with Nels Cline - arguably one of the greatest guitarists. What unites these two inspiring, yet obviously very different artists is that they grew up in an era when recording itself was still somewhat of a mystery, and the mixing desk a portal into new worlds (although we shouldn't make Cline, who only recently turned 65, older than he actually is. It's worth pointing out that, when Simon and Art Garfunkel had their first public appearance together as a duo, he wasn't even born yet). Sound, this utterly fascinating material – pervasive yet intangible, emotionally arousing like a drug yet impenetrable even to the sharpest blade – was not a byproduct, it was the very core of a recording, the one thing about the otherwise perfectly mathematical science of music that could not be reduced to numbers.
Looking back in time over Cline's shoulder, it is little wonder that one encounters a love for psychedelia, Coltrane's “Africa” and the indian raga in his biography – styles of music, where a key is not so much a playing instruction, as it is an indication of mood, timbre and time. It is also little wonder that he should end up playing in Wilco – a group with a remarkable talent for failelessly landing right at the borderline between genres – while simultaneously building a career interpreting the works of contemporary composers: In both, the way you tune your instrument is already a creative decision. (Although, perhaps, it always is.)
Cline's most recent contribution is playing the guitar part on Douglas J. Cuomo’s "Seven Limbs" (out now via Sunnyside and also featuring the Aizuri Quartet). On his Instagram account, he has referred to the music as "transporting, forward-leaning, diverse in mood and dynamics". All of which is true. But it is also: One of those select pieces which manages to convey the feeling of creating its own form, its own language, its own reality. It seems to start before the first note sounds, and it appears to continue after the last one has died down. Part of this is down to Cuomo's talent for the dynamic interweaving of voices - "Seven Limbs" is as much a meditation as it is a silent dance. Most of all, however, it can be explained by the sound of this labyrinthine world, a sensual, intimate and reflective tone that creates the space for the notes to blossom.
Cline has rarely sounded more lyrical, more attuned to the flow. Perhaps that's because, keeping in mind his love for sound, he may be as much a performer as a listener here.
Recommendations: If you're wanting to read a wonderful memoir that is about a life in music and beyond that, I love Viv Albertine's "Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys". A truly moving, often surprising, and all-too-human story of Viv (from The Slits) and her life, its challenges, etc.
The Swiss artist Julian Charrière has a marvelous filmic + sculptural installation work called "Towards No Earthly Pole" that is hard to adequately describe, but if you are able to see the film + installation somewhere, please do! And think (more) about climate change.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nels Cline, visit his informative website. He is also represented on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Well … "writing/producing"? Does coming up with original songs in the band I had with my twin brother Alex (drums) in elementary school count? Homogenized Goo played 3 original songs at our elementary school graduation in 1967: "Flying Frogs", Chewing Gum Minds", and "Non-Stop Chicken Flight" (the latter being an instrumental). Alex and I were absolutely immersed / absorbed by the rock 'n roll of that era: The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, Love, The Yardbirds, The Seeds, The Blues Magoos, Lovin' Spoonful, and ... The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was after hearing "Manic Depression" on the radio one afternoon that I decided to play music - specifically guitar - for life.
As is perhaps obvious, this was a spectacular time for not just pop music with rock, soul, folk, and pop all on the same charts/formats, but it was a super-colorful and innovative time for SOUND. I am, in spite of rather modest / imcompetent beginnings, quite permanently affected by psychedelic sounds and by the advances in recorded music that went to a dramatic new level then.
This said, my first inkling of music as something beyond entertainment occurred when I was ten years old and heard Ravi Shankar on a 'live' recording in my 5th grade class, which was studying India. I became obsessed with the sitar, and the sensation of this music and its ability to absolutely transport me revealed musical endeavor to potentially be a higher calling.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I was a total primitive when starting out. It was an innocent, tutorial-free existence! I knew no chords, and even learning how one tunes a guitar was somewhat of a mystery.
At first I thought I should play sitar (Ravi Shankar actually had a music school in Los Angeles until 1966), but after reading "My Music, My Life" and reading about the ridiculous level of severity and discipline involved with such, I thought "no way!" Too hard! And besides, I wanted to be cool, look like a psychedelic hippie, etc. Anyway, what ensued was a long drift into unstructured thrashing around that led to finding people to play with who could really PLAY, and it was from being next to them that I started to figure out how to play "normal" guitar - still in the zone of rock and blues/rock.
My gods were The Allman Brothers Band, Neil Young, Johnny Winter ... But it was after hearing "Africa" by John Coltrane - the next big ah-hah experience after Jimi Hendrix - that the whole trajectory of listening / learning changed.
This was in 1971, which was also the time when "jazz/rock" and "progressive rock" were really flowering, and Alex and I were way into that. Am I getting close to revealing some zig-zaggy line to "finding my own voice"?? Interests from then also began to embrace artists like Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Oregon, Leo Smith / New Dalta Ahkri, Fred Frith ... But as for my "voice" on the guitar, I am not sure I had one, that I was concerned with that. I don't even know if I have such a thing now! The main consideration as I think about it now was overall ensemble sound / approach and composition / improvisation.
Alex and I had an instrumental band in high school that aspired to be some sort of King Crimson-cum-electric Miles Davis / John McLaughlin / Weather Report kind of thing (!!), which was quite beyond us, of course (well, not beyond Alex). But it's possible that some of our music had real feeling, and also that it had a lot in common with the stuff I write and play now! And so I lurched forward.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I suppose "identity" had some sway over my thinking as I was forming ideas coming up, but I admit that I really don't give it a lot of energy at this point. I am pretty far along on the mortal timeline (65 years old) and maybe I just do what I do, inch forward.
I guess I kind of believe that my varied aesthetics have some sort of resonance, and that may be enough to keep me from too much over-thinking, from throwing in the proverbial towel.
Societal woes / pressures are a different story, though.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Hmmm ... I think insecurities and lack of training could be seen as challenges to creativity, along with lack of financial solvency. Creative improvised music and the like is not really the best path to making a living in the USA ...
But back to insecurities, I do find it rather odd that even with all my insecurities that I always wrote music, tried to play decently, wanted to make music that felt like something, that may even be transporting / transcendent. The moments in which one experiences the transcendent, the pure immersion/dissolving that music making affords, seem to be enough to keep me from getting bogged down, from quitting altogether.
I am just happy and honored to be a participant in music/sound creation.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Oh jeez ... I went from having one guitar to having maybe 4 or 5, and now I have what seems like zillions ...
In the early days, I knew zero about tone production. I was just trying to play good notes, flavorful chords, maybe propulsive rhythms ... As for why one makes such choices, the advent of effects pedals and the like revealed possibilities to me of expanding not only the sonic potential of the guitar but also the expressive possibilities. This, along with the ability to produce sounds in concert that were once only the domain of the recording studio, seem to have proved irresistible. I am really not someone who has concerned himself much with technology. In fact, though not exactly a luddite, I am certainly behind in terms of the rapidly advancing technological applications in daily life, not just in music.
As for specific instrument choices, I love both a sublime acoustic instrument as well as a funky one that may possess unique properties, such as an old Danelectro or Japanese instrument. I just love the spectacular variations that exist. Sonic Youth's music and use of guitars had a major impact on approaches to sound possibilities on electric guitar, as have innumerable greats in the "jazz" world, traditional folk musics from all over the globe, and the sound of instruments pitched in distinctly non-Western intonation.
If something attracts me, gets into my consciousness, haunts me, I will want to know more about it and it could well find its way into my personal language - not really appropriated, I hope.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
As alluded to in my previous answer, there have certainly been instruments / musics that made me question my impulses, that broadened my view and haunted my inner ear. This is always a good thing.
As mentioned, Sonic Youth did this to me - not just in terms of the electric guitar but in terms of their general sound and the feeling it engendered while also playing into my tendency (ongoing) to linger in the realm of band mystique. I dig the band thing ... Additionally, music I have heard from Mali, India, Pakistan, Madagascar, South Africa, Jamaica, Norway ...
Then the music of maverick instrument builders / innovators, the dividing up of the octave into more / different increments (read: Harry Partch, Hans Reichl, Keith Rowe ...) have been compelling forces.
I may question or re-vamp my prior assumptions after experiencing these musics while still mostly adhering to conventional practices.