A prolific studio musician, who has answered calls for everyone from free jazz ensembles to singer-songwriters, Cline is among the most instantly recognizable guitarists working today. His approach to the instrument is at once highly technical and intensely felt. His guitar work on the last four Wilco albums -- "Kicking Television," "Sky Blue Sky," "Wilco (the Album)" and "The Whole Love" -- are case studies in the imaginative welding of passion and skill.
Greil Marcus once described Robbie Robertson's guitar playing with the Band as the sound of a man about to careen off the stage. That's the way Nels Cline plays every night.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Cline last week as Wilco makes its way through the South and up towards St. Louis for a show at the Peabody Opera House, on Tuesday, October 4.
Roy Kasten: Can you recall your first live gig?
Nels Cline: Like a large event, a major act?
Just the first memorable performance.
Does it count if I played a party at my parents' house? Actually, I can say one that's even before that. I played with my twin brother Alex in our band Homogenized Goo at our elementary school graduation. That was 1967. We played three songs, all original.
One of the things I love about seeing you play is just how physical you are on stage. Can you talk about balancing technique and physicality?
I'll do my best. I try to be less physical on stage because I'm actually hurting myself. I'm old I guess. I'm not superman after all, not that I ever really thought I was superman. I'm just not invincible after all. I do have trouble standing still playing rock 'n' roll. Technically, I have a whole different body than when I'm playing improvised music, where I have more repose, a little less of a coiled energy you could call it. Sometimes my fluidity is greatly minimized by this coiled, ready-to-spring energy that I tend to build up when playing rock 'n' roll. I play with more ease and fluidity when I'm not in that coiled state. There's an attempt at this point in my life to balance the two things. What I feel when I play, and what I hope the audience experiences, when I'm playing with Wilco for example, is that explosive energy, a release, you know?
Absolutely. Do you have to channel that when you go into the studio or leave it all behind?
The studio is a totally different experience. I have to act "as if." When I'm layering tracks, the only the thing I do that's different is sit down when I play. But when I loop things on the fly, that doesn't work for me when I'm sitting. I don't have the same connection, from body to gizmo, when I'm sitting down. In terms of the energy, you have to assume that the notes and the tones and the grooves will create that. No matter how hard you play it doesn't come through. All that work in the studio is wasted energy. What it sounds like is what matters.
Thinking back on recording the new album with Wilco, was there a song that posed the biggest challenge?
There's always challenges. Sometimes the challenge is to think of anything to play, when it sounds good already. Seriously. There are certain songs on the new record where what you're hearing from the guitars is my playing the first time, the first day we played the songs, in some cases. There were demos that got reworked because Jeff loved the vibe. So "One Sunday Morning," "Capitol City," "Black Moon," for example, are completely, shall we say, un-micromanaged guitar parts. They're just what I played when I was learning the songs.
On the other hand, a song like "Sunloathe" was a big challenge for everybody because we were trying to figure out what to do to make the song unfold in different ways, keep it a little off balance, so it had changing scenes in a way, a developing, so it becomes this rather cinematic approach. There was so much brainstorming about that. A lot of playing on that song are ideas that Pat [Sansone] came up with, melodies or a chord here or there. "I'd say, "I'll play through the Leslie. Sure, that sounds great. I'd like to play Dobro here." We just tried all these things and it ended up getting mixed in such a way that it was very colorful and cinematic. Everybody was going through massive amounts of brainstorming on that song.
Certainly on "Art of Almost," for me, what you're hearing are guitar parts that are from the demo, where the groove was a half-time demo that sounded more like Crazy Horse. And then it became this sub-divided electronic thing. The guitar solo at the end was just where Jeff said, "Now you can shred," or something like that. I tried some different, wild ideas. The challenge there was to play a solo that sounded exciting to my ears. Frankly I would have liked a couple more runs at that. But if people are happy, I'll defer to them. I do enough playing all the time, I don't need to perfect something for myself. I'm comfortable just letting it go. I'll get another chance on something else at another time.
Along with Pat Sansone, you're the newest member of Wilco. Do you feel like the new guy in the band or is that passed?
That's passed. I think we both feel like we're worked into the fabric. We joined seven and a half years ago. That's a pretty good chunk of time. It feels, I have to say, rather familial.
I saw that you were in Atlanta last night, and played Duane Allman's guitar. Did you have to sign a Lloyd's of London release?
No. I'm actually playing it again tonight. It's an astonishingly low-key situation with these two guys form the Allman Brothers museum in Macon, Georgia. The owner, who has owned the guitar since 1977, wants people to play it. They said, "We take care of the insurance and we'll bring it if anybody is interested in playing it." They didn't know that Duane Allman is one of my absolute favorite guitarists of all time. At a certain time of my life, frankly, when the first Allman Brothers record came out until his death, he was my favorite living guitarist. Hendrix was my primary inspiration, but Duane Allman was someone who I thought might be my future style, my imagined style. He was my number one guitar hero from the age of 14-17.
So I literally almost lost my mind. It's an incredible guitar. It sounds amazing. Everybody said, "That's the Layla guitar," which is all well and good, but it's also the guitar on the first two Allman Brothers records, which I think are two of the greatest rock 'n' roll records ever made, personally. What can I tell you, I cried in front of two thousand people.
Wilco performs at the Peabody Opera House on October 4.