Origin Stories: Nels Cline

Nels Cline can play anything, says Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Jazz Times dubbed him “the world’s most dangerous guitarist,” and Rolling Stone put him amongst the top 100 guitar slingers of all time. Safe to say, Los Angeles’ six-string polymath Nels Cline does not need to prove his technical prowess anymore. But reducing his play to sterile technicality would be selling him short. Over the course of 30+ years, Cline has played and mastered a variety of genres, from elegiac instrumentals to Coltrane’s later improvised works and Wilco’s own take on indie-folk, which he has been amplifying with his play since 2004.

First getting hip to the psychedelic rock heritage of his native West Coast upbringing, Nels Cline ventured out into the world of improvisational jazz and jazz rock, before being introduced to noise-laden versions of rock & roll by Sonic Youth and the New York No Wave scene. Beyond Wilco, Cline has played with characters as diverse as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Yoko Ono, Marc Ribot, Thurston Moore, and Lydia Lunch, and explored the possibilities of experimental composition with his own outfits The Nels Cline Singers, Fig with Yuka Honda, and his duo with former child prodigy Julian Lage.

In this excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio, Cline discusses his earliest musical epiphanies.

I look back on it now and it seems obvious that we liked the improvisatory nature of certain kinds of music.

I grew up in West Los Angeles, California. I was born downtown. I have a twin brother named Alex. Quite often, when I’m talking, I say “we” and it’s not the royal “we.” It’s because I automatically include my twin brother because we did everything together up until we were young adults, really. We played music together inevitably and got interested in rock and roll in the ‘60s. I was born in 1956.

By the time 1967 rolled around, I was 12 years old. It was obviously a very magical time for music and for sound. It was still a time when the charts, so-called, were just one list. There was not an R&B chart and a rock chart. We heard everything on the radio. In 1970, underground radio with KPPC from Pasadena was a distant, fuzzy signal obtainable mostly at night. Alex and I would be glued to the stereo, and this is how we heard a lot of very important records quite often before they were released.

I distinctly recall a large portion of the class literally going, “Eww! Eww!” to the sound of this music while I was literally having my entire universe enhanced.

Before the advent of underground radio, it was really just early rock and roll that snagged my interest and not really specifically the guitar right away. If you imagine Southern California in the mid to late ‘60s, one thing that might come to mind is surf music, and certainly, surf music was important because as I think back, it was not only of course guitar-driven and very drums-driven, but it was instrumental music which I guess always gravitated towards. I look back on it now and it seems obvious that we liked the idea of the instrumental foray or the improvisatory nature of certain kinds of music. We weren’t thinking about that at that time. We just like things. Sometimes you just hear something and you like it.

The Byrds - Turn! Turn! Turn!

In my case, I was having my first epiphany at age 10 sitting around an apartment of unsupervised kids. We would listen to “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds over and over and over again. I don’t know how that ended up being “the” record, but for these guys, for me, it became “the” record. I was not much of a smoker. I was pretending to smoke, not inhaling but sitting around smoking Tareytons or Viceroys or something. That was the beginning of a fascination with a specific band and a specific sound. To this day, the 12-string guitar is very important to me.

Later, my teacher, who looked a lot like John Lennon, played Ravi Shankar. This was the next big epiphany, very hot on the heels of The Byrds. I distinctly recall the class, not everyone, but a large portion of the class making retching noises and literally going, “Eww! Eww!” to the sound of this music while I was literally having my entire universe enhanced and informed. I was literally seeing God or something. I wanted to know everything about this Ravi Shankar guy.

The sound of Indian music was the first inkling to me of the idea of music as a higher calling, the idea that there is something beyond entertainment, there’s something beyond pop, there’s something beyond just a song. At that time, Ravi had an Indian music school in Los Angeles. He closed it in 1966 which is when this was … I came that close to taking up sitar instead of guitar. When I read his first autobiography and he described the regimen of learning the sitar, a year of just learning to sit with the instrument and then playing for eight hours a day until his fingers bled every day, I said, “Well, I’m not doing this.” I’m just a neo-suburban white kid. You know what I’m saying? I am not this driven.

That music transformed my consciousness forever, and it still continues to inspire and in some ways direct my aesthetic. I really like modal music and drones, and repetition. I don’t mind taking a while with said drones and repetitions. The two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half minute song and soundbite is not really my thing, even though I find it interesting and quite often, extremely challenging. Playing the ten second classic guitar solo in a pop song is almost impossible for me, but what a great challenge, right?

Jimi Hendrix Experience - Manic Depression

It wasn’t long after this that Alex and I were sitting around the hi-fi one Saturday afternoon and KSJ, which was a Top 30 station that rarely played anything particularly adventurous, played “Manic Depression” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. To this day, I don’t know why they played that and not the designated single “Purple Haze” or even “The Wind Cries Mary.” Alex and I had pondered the potential grooviness of this record from looking at it for months, because at that time there was no information, there was no way we could hear these records because underground radio hadn’t happened yet.

We’d buy records quite often by what they looked like and we’d save up our allowance so every two weeks, we could get a record for, I think it was $2.99. We knew right away from the sound of “Manic Depression” that this Jimi Hendrix record we’d been staring at might be the coolest record ever. “Manic Depression” is really the reason I play music and the reason I play guitar.

That moment, just the groove itself, that 6/8 groove and the sound of the drums, the insane drumming and when Jimi sings along with his guitar and does that ascending thing, and then goes into that guitar solo, that was like being jolted with electricity. Alex and I were running and jumping up and down while this was on. We were so excited. It was the most exciting sound. It’s right up there with “7 and 7 Is” by Love and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” by The Yardbirds; really transporting, really exciting music. That was it. That was the moment.

Every time they got to that part in “I Am the Walrus” where the tape messes up and then the cellos come in, it was like having your brain leak out of your ears or something.

What that said, I never tried to play like Jimi Hendrix. I thought he was some kind of magician, that he was almost not human. I gradually over time designed a kind of more modest identity for myself ,which was more based on these kind of blues rock kind of players that were less flamboyant. It was more along the lines of guys like Rory Gallagher and Duane Allman. I love Stephen Stills’ guitar playing.

The other major moment of that time, well, it was a two-fold moment but they were united by the fact they are both Beatles moments. One of them was hearing “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a single and just the whole vibe of that song and then the whole coda at the end which is so marvelous and intriguing, and completely otherworldly, that little guitar break… and then you hear the fader go down right there and then the Mellotrons and cellos come in, and the trumpet. I could just listen to that guitar break over and over and over again, and feel the same way every time. It’s one of the coolest sounds I’ve ever heard.

The Beatles - I Am the Walrus

After that, “I Am the Walrus” came out. When we heard it for the first time, we listened to it probably about five times in a row and every time they got to that part where the tape messes up and then the cellos come in, it was like having your brain leak out of your ears or something. It was so sensory. It was such an incredible sensation. Of course, we were 12 years old. We knew nothing about drugs. We couldn’t say like, “Gee, that’s like drugs.” It really felt like drugs when I think back on it. It felt like you were really, really being physically and mentally altered on some level.

These were really pivotal moments in the formation of what is still my aesthetic. If you listen to a lot of songs from that time, people were trying all kinds of stuff because the idea was that we were all going to have mind expansion. But there was also this competition to see who could blow your mind the most, and it was still popular music. It was hearable. You could hear it on the radio. That was the beginning of everything.

By Nels Cline on May 21, 2015

On a different note