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Interview: Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline Discuss the Guitars and Gear Behind Wilco's Latest Album, 'The Whole Love'

Interview: Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline Discuss the Guitars and Gear Behind Wilco's Latest Album, 'The Whole Love'

More than a decade and a half has passed since Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco from the ashes of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo.

In that time, the group has risen to become one of the most revered acts in current popular music, mining a singular sound that is simultaneously anchored in a rootsy approach and meandering along rock's outer sonic limits.

Though they began life as a superior Americana-steeped unit, as heard on their 1995 debut, A.M., Wilco have become much harder to define over the years. On albums such as 2004's A Ghost Is Born, the band incorporated expansive guitar and synth workouts into the mix, while the textured sonic excursions heard on 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had them tagged by some as the "American Radiohead" and got them dropped from Reprise, which at the time was their label.

As Wilco's sound has transformed, so has their personnel. Their lineup has changed frequently, the only constants being singer, songwriter and guitarist Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt. Yet, the band has for its past three albums -- 2007's Sky Blue Sky, 2009's Wilco (The Album) and 2011’s The Whole Love -- solidified around a roster that finds Tweedy more than ably assisted by two guitarists: Pat Sansone, who also contributes keyboards and other instruments, and lead guitarist Nels Cline, whose work over the course of a 30-year career runs the gamut from rock to country to jazz to all manner of avant-garde musical projects.

A virtuosic, versatile and incredibly prolific player – his recorded appearances as a solo artist, band member and collaborator numbers in the hundreds -- Cline is among the most capable and inventive guitarists going. Admits Tweedy, "Nels is a pretty incredible musician to get to hang around with. It's always a learning experience playing with him."

Despite his often experimentalist leanings, Cline hardly views Wilco as a traditional outfit. "Wilco is a very free band in the sense that we don't have to do anything we don't want to do," the guitarist says. "Jeff doesn't have anybody telling him he has to stick with one thing; he doesn't have a hit he has to play every night, and he's not considered part of just one decade. There's not a lot shackling the band. If we want to shift direction, we can just do it."

On The Whole Love -- Wilco's first release under their newly formed imprint, dBpm – they indeed try out a myriad of styles, from organ-drenched rave-ups ("I Might" and "Standing 0") to slightly skewed honky-tonk ("Capitol City") to buoyant pop-rockers ("The Whole Love" and "Born Alone").

Then there are the two tracks that bookend the record: the closing "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," whose subtle sonic pleasures unfurl slowly over 12-plus minutes, and the opener, "Art of Almost," which piles on all manner of seemingly disjointed instrumentation -- stuttering drums, burbling synths, swelling orchestral strings -- before exploding into a double-time instrumental coda topped by a frenetic Cline solo, a high-point guitar moment on an album that holds many such instances.

Tweedy and Cline recently sat down with Guitar World to delve into some of the finer aspects of their own -- and each other's – guitar playing. They also took time to discuss their extensive gear collections, the considerations of playing in a three-guitar band and some of the music on The Whole Love.
The new album, Tweedy says, is their "best one yet." But, he adds with a laugh, "I always feel like the one we just did is the best one. Truthfully, I really wouldn't want to make a record where I didn't feel that way."

GUITAR WORLD: Jeff, you've said in the past that you primarily write on acoustic guitar. Was that the case as well for The Whole Love?

JEFF TWEEDY: Yes. It's really the only instrument that I have any kind of ... I wouldn't say mastery of, but I've certainly been playing it long enough that I'm conversant with it in a way where I'm able to go to what I hear in my head pretty quickly. As a writing tool there's no point in me using anything other than an acoustic unless I'm wanting to shake myself out of some kind of rut and play something where I have no idea what's happening. [laughs]

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