Nels Cline - Toy Story

It would be hard to imagine a more fiercely committed, ferociously executed manifesto for over-the-top-intense guitar playing than 1999's Interstellar Space Revisited. That astonishing release on the Chicago-based Atavistic label paired the explosive drumming of Gregg Bendian with the jaw-dropping six-string onslaught of Nels Cline in a cathartic and heartfelt homage to the landmark John Coltrane-Rashied Ali Impulse recording from 1967, Interstellar Space. With his overdrive set on stun while brandishing a trick bag of extended techniques, guitarist Cline got closer to the spirit of Coltranes free flowing rush of energy and ideas than even the late avant garde guitar pioneer Sonny Sharrock. Ali himself admired the sheer guts of such an act. These cats are very brave to do something like this, with guitar and drums, he confided to me. A lot of people dont even come close to this kind of music. I mean, just to hear the guitar playing in a context like this is incredible! It doesn't sound like electronic music, although the guitar is heavily effected. Actually, its a great effort.

Interstellar Space Revisited garnered Cline perhaps more attention in the music press than he had enjoyed in the previous 20 years, including rave reviews in Jazziz, Jazz Times, and Down Beat. And yet, it is only one blip on the screen for this prolific composer-guitarist whose widly diverse discography numbers 85 recordings and counting as both a sideman and leader. Cline's followup to that raw, raging duet project -- The Inkling, released on the Venice, California, label Cryptogramophone -- was in some ways a complete musical turnaround. A more thoughtful, chamber-like quartet project featuring upright bassist Mark Dresser, drummer Billy Mintz, and harpist/sampler ace Zeena Parkins, it encompassed delicate lyricism with Cline playing acoustic guitar interspersed with swirling sonic abstractions and his trademark metallic crunch. Taken together, Interstellar Space Revisited and The Inkling reveal the breadth and depth of this extraordinary guitarist. And theres so much more.

Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Nels Cline developed musically alongside his brother Alex, a drummer who continues to play with the guitarist in various settings. Nels earliest guitar influences included The Byrds Roger McGuinn, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman, John Fahey, Steve Howe, and Robert Fripp. He later became attracted to jazz and gravitated toward such forward-thinking players as John McLaughlin, John Abercrombie, Joe Diorio, and Howard Roberts. His discovery of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) and its leading exponents, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, was an eye-opening experience for both Nels and his brother, leading them down a path of bold musical experimentation that continues to this day.

Clines most valuable music training came from his work with bassist/multi-instrumentalist Eric Von Essen, with whom he performed as a duo from 1977 until Von Essens death in 1997. In the late 70's, Cline also played in the chamber-jazz group Quartet Music with his brother Alex, violinist Jeff Gauthier, and bassist Von Essen. Quartet Music recorded four albums and toured extensively for a 12-year run that was highlighted by two performances in 1989 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for which Nels arranged several of his own compositions. Clines 1987 Enja release, Angelica, featuring New York alto saxophonist Tim Berne, is another fine example of his work from this period.

In the early 1990's, the guitarist formed the raucous Nels Cline Trio as a vehicle for his heady excursions and freeform assaults on the instrument. The group recorded four acclaimed CD's Chest, Ground, Sad, and Silencer. Some of the other musicians that Nels has performed and/or recorded with include jazz greats Julius Hemphill, Charlie Haden, and Bobby Bradford, rocker Mike Watt of the Minutemen, Sonic Youth guitar terrorist Thurston Moore, guitar provocateur Henry Kaiser, and avant country-rockers The Geraldine Fibbers.

Clines current projects include The Inkling Quartet and a four-guitar ensemble called Destroy All Nels Cline. He also continues collaborating in a duo format with a number of other musicians, including Carla Bozulich, Devin Sarno, Gregg Bendian, Woody Aplanalp, and G.E. Stinson. The following interview was conducted following a performance of The Inkling Quartet at The Knitting Factory in New York. Was there a period of time when you made some attempt at becoming a straight ahead jazz guitarist?

Nels Cline: Oh yeah, I was always thinking that I had to do that in order to be any good, but I never had the training to really play it right. I got some of that experience playing with Eric Von Essen for years and years, who was my biggest musical teacher. He played guitar and bass, piano, tabla, cello, chromatic harmonica, and he was a guy who understood the standard repertoire inside and out. So if I had any way of figuring that stuff out, certainly being around Eric was helpful. But frankly, I never really felt a great affinity with be-bop, per se. I always felt more aligned with the before-be-bop guys and the sort of hard bop world. I don't think I have the intellect for be-bop. It's not something that speaks to me in the way that makes me want to obsessively learn how to take all the ins and outs of it. But I love listening to it. It's just wasn't like listening to Coltranes modal music or listening to Zoot Sims or Lester Young. I kind of like the slow guys. I love Paul Desmond. And then again, I love all the wild people. Eric Dolphy and people like that are maybe more naturally in my sound than the be-boppers. So I think I kind of did everything backwards in my development. I love straight ahead playing and have certainly admired all the straight-ahead players and listened to them and tried to absorb what they were doing...Jim Hall being my favorite. But there were some other important influences along the way. Joe Pass was a crucial guy for me, as was Howard Roberts. I used to go hear Joe Diorio every Monday at Dantes with a quartet...really creative music. They were really taking the tunes in other directions, and that was really influential when I was about 18, 19. What were some of your first steps into this realm of extended technique and creating from a blank slate in a daring way on the instrument?

Cline: I think having absorbed a lot of the European avant garde over the years, but it wasnt my favorite stuff. I've always been drawn to music that has tonality here and there at least because I think I'm attached to the baggage of know, the tension and release thats more traditional. So I was studying that more carefully and listening to people like Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, and John Scofield on the guitar but at the same time had absorbed all this other kind of sound from people like Barry Guy, Tony Oxley, and Tristan Hanzinger. Having been exposed to all that kind of music, I think my fascination with it was more latent. And then when I started to decide to change the timbral aspects of what I was doing to a certain extent, I think I drew on what I had absorbed over a period of time from listening to Sonic Youth, which was my favorite band of all time and a very big influence on me. They inspired my desire to hear more microtonal sounds and textures that were idiomatic to the guitar. What was the effect of forming your power trio with Bob Mair and Michael Preussner in 1989?

Cline: I pretty much for the first time felt free to do anything. So I wrote tunes that swung or tunes that were jazz ballads or were completely Ornette [Coleman] inspired in terms of having swift, small heads with free playing but in time. Or I felt free to write drone pieces. And I could start using different sounds that were to me more about emotion than about novelty. I think I just wanted the guitar to shriek more or have more dense overtones, more clustery sounds. So I think in terms of my desire to get more texture for sensation -- a physical feeling and an emotional kind of tautness rather than for any kind of novelty or intellectual furthering of the music sort of feeling -- I think that it started with the trio. I felt free enough to do almost anything in that trio. The trio held down the last set on Monday night for many years at this place in Los Angeles called Alligator Lounge. That was an invaluable experience because not only did we as players develop quite an empathy and a way of playing spontaneously that became pretty much joined at the hip, but also I felt very free in my own playing. I was a very nervous player as a younger person...very timid in a way as a person...and I started to become freer and freer as I got older. I guess I'm a late bloomer. I had to learn to relax enough to do anything that came in my head. And I felt very comfortable in that environment. I mean, Michael Preussner is somebody I've played on and off with since high school. So naturally, I felt very comfortable in that trio. And I think thats when it all started for me. I always played in democratic bands before that, although my brother and I led bands since elementary school. But I wasnt really the leader-leader like I was in the trio, where I basically told the guys, Look, we're gonna play my tunes and Im gonna design the album covers and it's my universe and let's have a good time...I'll give you as much space as you need to play and express yourselves and I'll write my tunes with you guys in mind so you can really have a blast. But I am the leader. That was a first for me. I had never done that until 89. And now you've amassed quite a lengthy discography.

Cline: Yeah, I've been on 85 records and certainly half of them have come in the last four or five years. Yeah, things have stepped up. It all sort of just started heaping up. Have you had any encounters over the years with Fred Frith? You seem like kindred spirits.

Cline: I only met him a couple of times. I certainly have heard him. I've been listening to him since Henry Cows first album. And I heard Massacre when they played in Los Angeles in the 70's because he borrowed my speaker cabinet. So that was the first time I met him. Since then its been one of those things where when I see him he says hello and I say hello, and thats it. He was probably actually the most influential guy on me as far as using implements on the guitar. I saw his solo tours where he would play guitars on tables and assault them with all kinds of gadgets and things. Woody Aplanalp and I actually have a tribute to Fred Frith in a duo. You know how he used to drop little grains of rice on his guitar? We do a piece where we would put our guitars on the stage and let them feedback and then dump whole bags of rice on our guitars, which sounds really amazing. But the cleanup entailed after you finish your set is fairly extensive. I noticed you using some implements during your set with The Inkling Quartet.

Cline: Oh, I think I just used my egg whisk that night and my spring. And a bottleneck. I do have some toys. I have a toy phone that our roommate Bob Bruno gave me. Its a toy cellular phone...thats something I may have used the other night. I like that. And also theres this very odd toy that someone gave me when I was on the road with The Geradline Fibbers. I don't even know what to call it. It does this little arpeggio and then you can sample your voice into it. I run that through my Whammy Pedal to harmonize it or put some delay on it and it pretty much becomes an unrecognizably electronic sound. One of the nice things about playing with Zeena is she and I are seemingly interested in a lot of the same sounds and use pretty much generic pedals to get them, but it always seems to be kind of a low-tech science fictiony kind of thing, and completely accidental. For me, I think its based on cheesy science fiction movies. And I don't know why I'd want to do sounds from cheesy science fiction movies. I havent pondered it too carefully but it just seems somehow satisfying. What is your current setup in your various situations?

Cline: Pretty much the same except for when I play jazz gigs with Bobby Bradford and Vinnie Golia, where I use very few pedals. I always use a Boss compressor pedal and an Ernie Ball volume pedal, which are the constants. I may add a little reverb. And as far as I'm concerned, you can't have too many fuzzboxes. That's my motto. Currently, I use a Centaur overdrive, which I find to be marvelous. I also have an old Marshall Guvnor fuzz that I love. I have a vintage Big Muff at home, which I dont travel with because its just too damn big. Then I have a little Boss vibrato pedal and a digital delay pedal. And the ultimate crutch is my old Electro-Harmonix 16-second digital delay, which I became aware of through Bill Frisell. He and I toured Europe together with Julius Hemphill in 1985. And I saw that thing and thought, My god, what is that?! I went back to Los Angeles after that tour and found one, so I've had this thing since 1985. It's pretty trashed but I hear they're going to finally reissue them. What about your guitars?

Cline: It's varied very little in the last few years. The first 20 years I played the guitar, I had no concept of guitars or tone. I had no money and I just stayed with the same gear forever because I thought I couldn't afford to change it. I would play guitars that were horribly set up. I had crummy Strats and crummy amps. I had a Gibson 335 which I still have since 1971. But my main guitar for many years has been a Fender Jaguar. That pretty much changed my way of playing forever. I bought it because I was inspired by the way Sonic Youth could use sounds behind the bridge. The whole time I was growing up, Jaguars and Jazzmasters were considered joke guitars, not serious guitars. But when I finally checked one out, just the whole shape of it, the neck, everything about it felt perfect. So I bought this Jaguar in the mid 80's and that was my main guitar for a really long time. Then in 1995 I bought a 59 Jazzmaster from Mike Watt that he had and never played. That's the guitar Im using now in The Inkling Quartet. Visually, I pretty much destroyed it. I've broken all the switches, the machine heads are all changed and it has all these chunks missing from the headstock from when I fell on it at a Geraldine Fibbers show. But its a great guitar. I have two Jazzmasters, two Jaguars...they are my main thing. I also have my old 335, my old Martin that Ive had forever. I've been an electric 12-string freak since I first heard The Byrds, who were my first major musical inspiration when I was 10. So I have a Jerry Jones 12-string and also a Fender 12-string, which is beautiful but very hard to play. But I can't travel with all these guitars. I use them in the studio. I have a Jerry Jones baritone guitar and I have Hagstroms in open tuning. I also have a Fender Bass VI, which I love, and an electric sitar and all this other stuff. But I can't ever travel with more than one guitar unless someone is willing to shell out for the plane fare. So its basically just the 59 Jazzmaster now. That's my sole travelling guitar now. I've never played another Jazzmaster that I like as much as this particular one. They don't make those the way they used to. They sound so much better than the post-CBS Fender guitars from about 1966 on. I don't like such a trebly sounding guitar. I like it darker, though not nearly as dark and bassy as those straight ahead jazz guys like Joe Diorio or Joe Pass. I love those guys, but I also love feedback. I like to rock. What is your current philosophy on amplifiers?

Cline: It's very simple: I used to really care and now I don't. I have a couple of Hi-Watt 50s. I have a little Ampeg Jet-12 and also got this red-knobbed Fender Twin for $280 to take on the road. But basically I really find that with the right guitar and the right sensibility I can kind of get my own sound out of almost anything. Everywhere you go and you ask for a 50-watt tube amp, they give you a Twin. So there you are confronted by 100-watts, which is almost impossible to get good tone when the amp is too loud. But I've been able to make things work and not worry about it. That's what was challenging about touring with Julius Hemphill in 85 -- a different amp every night. So I just dont get too wrapped up in all that stuff. But I will confess that I'd just be lost without a volume pedal. That's really a crutch for me. I've been using the volume pedal forever. Everybody says it reminds them of Frisell when they hear me use it but for me, it came out of the whole Steve Howe-Robert Fripp thing from 72. Could you describe some of the other musical contexts that are you putting yourself into these days other than The Inkling Quartet and the duo with Gregg Bendian?

Cline: I have a duo with Carla Bozulich from The Geraldine Fibbers called Scarnella. Thats a combination of improvising experimentation with her samples and loops. She also sings. We try to seamlessly balance songs -- sometimes cover songs and sometimes not -- with free improvising. I play a bass drum sometimes with my left foot and Carla plays guitar, sampler, and sometimes also bass guitar. So what were trying to do is make a detailed and layered sound with just two people. It's kind of fun to be able to play true songs, in addition to complete texture and complete free playing. It sounds a bit like the Fred Frith-Tom Cora-Zeena Parkins group Skeleton Crew.

Cline: Yeah, but not quite so ingeniously massive-sounding with only the three people and the take-apart drum set. We're not that ingenious. On the CD we did (S/T, Smells Like Records) I played drums and overdubbed a little Farfisa organ on that, so we had to figure out ways to fill up the sound when we play live. We end up doing a lot of pounding with the bass drums rather than the most subtle drum set stuff. It's just something that brings in a more ritualistic kind of feel. We intend to do a live and improvised CD next. What is Destroy All Nels Cline all about?

Cline: That's my band with Bob Mair from my trio days and my brother Alex on drums and four guitiarists -- Carla Bozulich on guitar and sampler, me on guitar, Woody Aplanalp on guitar, and G.E. Stinson on guitar. We did a record for Atavistic over the summer with special guest Zeena Parkins and a keyboardist in Los Angeles named Wayne Peet playing Clavinet, theramin, and Mellotron samples. It's a band that I've had for about two years but we rarely do gigs, mainly because most of these guys don't like to tour and also because I could never afford to tour with a group this big. So it's more of a special event band. Basically, I created the band with some of my closest friends to max out my guitar desires. And I think its been an interesting project. The players are a combination of trained and self-taught kind of intuitive players so I try to write the music to address two different ways of thinking about playing. For example, this fellow Woody Aplanalp, who I've been doing duo work with for many years...he's a very young player and very virtuosic and amazingly crazy. He has amazing chops, basically, and we have this way of phrasing together that seemed instantaneous when we first got together and played. So I can write all kinds of crazy things for us to play while everyone else in the band is maybe doing some kind of textural layered extemporaneous playing. So there's this weird balance of composition and sonic texture that really attracts me, and its very intense at times, very dense...the opposite of what Im doing with The Inkling Quartet. Speaking of Inkling, how did that group come about?

Cline: It was originally a trio with Billy and Mark and then I became harp-obsessed and was able to add Zeena to the project, which basically has sent me off on a whole new level of excitement about playing because I feel very hooked up with her as an improviser, both aesthetically and sonically. And so, that group is balancing this sort of acoustic and electric way of playing that I feel is very much about ensemble playing rather than soloing. There's a lot of trust involved with that kind of playing because were not soloing, were relying on each other to have constant dialogue. There's an awfully wide spectrum of textures going on in that band.

Cline: Right, exactly. So its an interesting balancing act trying to do the acoustic material and then go into a more severe electric zone. And I'm really gratified with the results so far. Anything else on the horizon?

Cline: I'm starting a collective improvising group with Devin Sarno, Carla Bozulich, and Brandon Label called Dot. We're going to do very minimal drone experiments. I also have an acoustic guitar trio now with Rod Pool and Jim McCaulley, whos been on the scene in LA since the 70's. Its three acoustic guitars, an improvising trio. I call it Trio Flat Top as a joke, but that might be more reminiscent of the haircut than the guitar. Also I'm playing in this group Banyan, which is me, Mike Watt, and Steve Perkins, the drummer for Janes Addiction and Porno For Pyros. We've done two CD's. They call it improvising, I call it jamming. It's basically Steve Perkins group.

I've also been working with Lydia Lunch, who lives in Los Angeles now. She and I have been collaborating on a project...kind of a sick film noir jazz bio kind of project called Torcher. And shes happy with my playing because she said to me more than once, You are my new Bob Quine. Quine is a real lurking figure. He's one of these guys who is very economical in what he does and very influential. The whole no-wave thing was certainly coming out of Quines playing with The Voidoids. And besides that...I don't know, I'm doing some other stuff I can't even remember now. Like your work with trumpeter Mark Isham in his Miles Davis tribute band, the Silent Way Project?

Cline: Of course, I'm still playing with Marks group and toured Europe with him this past summer. I've subbed for both Peter Manuu and Steve Cardenas on that gig. But we recently demoed Marks new album, which is pretty drum n' bass neo-rave improv; kind of like Bitches Brew goes to the rave. Mark is really into that. I was also doing Henry Kaisers Yo Miles! thing for a minute there, but he didn't call me to do the last gig. I guess I'm out of the fold on that one but I was happy to do the album (Yo Miles! on Shanachie) and I certainly think that Wadada Leo Smith was brilliant in the role of Miles. It was ironic at one point last year that I had to turn down a gig with Mark Isham in order to play that gig with Henry and Wadada. It was like the warring Miles Davis tribute bands...really kind of funny. I never thought I'd be in that position. It's weird that theres two Miles bands happening at the same time, and I have this unexpected realm of expertise in knowing what John McLaughlin did on those records. Henry really wanted to know some chords and stuff when we got together to work on Yo Miles! and I wrote a chart for Mayisha. Thats kind of why I was there. That intimate knowledge comes from your firsthand experience with that band?

Cline: Absolutely, just living and breathing that and my brother. We were both pretty transformed by all that music when we were just starting to strike out from our rock n' roll world into trying to understand the world of jazz and creative music. And Miles Davis music -- his quintet and also his electric music -- became crucial. That and Tony Williams Lifetime, of course. So all of that music plus your exposure to the AACM was hitting at the same time for you?

Cline: Oh yeah. My brother and I were not tuned into glitter rock so we just found ourselves going elsewhere. For me, it all started with John Coltrane...hearing Africa when I was 16 and not understanding why we had missed all this music because we were voracious listeners. But growing up in West Los Angeles, there was really no place to hear that kind of music. We used to buy records sometimes based on how wild and psychedelic the covers looked and half the time they were horrible. But certainly Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, The Byrds also figured prominently for me in those formative years. I used to really like Neil Young and Johnny Winter and Traffic and all that kind of stuff. And then later progressive rock -- King Crimson especially, and Yes. And you were playing guitar all through those years?

Cline: Yes, I guess, as well as I could. I didn't have any real teachers. I had a teacher briefly who taught me the diatonic scale and chords. That was the most fabulous epiphany of all, but everything else has been pretty much picked up from playing. And now at this point in your career you have amassed a whole lexicon of extended technique on the instrument. Did you get into a lot of it intuitively?

Cline: Yeah, it's weird. I remember being very impressed in the 70's upon hearing a duo of avant garde improvisors at the Century City Playhouse. Among the many people who came through there who opened our eyes and ears was the Eugene Chadbourne and John Zorn duo. Seeing Eugene play with kalimba things on his guitar and balloons and egg whisks and all that sort of thing was not only, of course, visual and entertaining, it was also really interesting to me. I didn't start doing those kind of experimental things right away. It started much later for me. I was really torn between all these different impulses -- rock, straight ahead jazz, avant garde -- and I lived sort of separate lives in that way and hadnt merged all these things until I was almost 40 and started to lead my own band, which was my trio.

Just can't get enough? Check out...