Nels Cline: "I had no desire to gyrate and hump my amplifier and set my guitar on fire – I wanted to take a modest path"

Nels Cline
(Image credit: Taylor Hill/WireImage)

To many, Nels Cline is the warbling lead guitarist for the prolific Chicago-borne alternative rock band, Wilco. He’s held that position since 2004. But to know the musician and lead player in that sense is to only scratch the surface of Cline’s vast sonic resume. He is also a bandleader, experimental musician, improviser, songwriter, twin brother collaborator (with his identical sibling, Alex) and talent scout – as you’ll read below. 

Cline, who released his latest record, Share the Wealth, via his group, The Nels Cline Singers, in November, appreciates both brevity and elongation in his recordings. 

Some songs on the album clock in at a couple of minutes, while others extend well beyond double digits. But that’s just fine for Cline, who enjoys the vast array of possibilities that the artform allows. 

We caught up with Cline to ask him how he first came to music, which are his favorite guitars and pedals he’s played over the years, the origins of the 2020’s Share the Wealth and much more. 

When did music first enter your world in a significant way?

“My parents had a record collection of some sort, not huge but not small. My dad especially enjoyed Broadway musicals. Periodically, he’d travel down memory lane and listen to swing-era big band music. But my first recollection of what music could possibly reveal, which was very programmatic, was a copy of the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofé. 

“It had this album cover with these burros going down the steep Grand Canyon trail. I remember listening to this piece of music and imagining the burros going down the trail and I could see them in the music. I was about six. But it was when I was 10 that music took hold in a more serious way, as an actual potential endeavor where the idea of playing music, myself, entered my mind. 

“That was the one-two punch of hearing The Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! album, which my twin brother and I listened to with our juvenile delinquent friends. I’d get quite enchanted with the sound of The Byrds as my twin brother became quite enchanted with The Rolling Stones. 

“But at the same time, in elementary school, in fifth grade, we were studying India. We used to have these units where one year it was Mexico, one year it was Japan. And in fifth grade, it was India. 

“Our teacher, Ms. Godwin, played an entire side of a Ravi Shankar live record on World Pacific Records with Alla Rakha on tabla and that was probably my first real a-ha and galvanizing, devastating musical interaction.

“I wanted to play sitar after that. The kids in classes were making horrible noises because they hated it so much. But I was literally having my mind blown. I think to this day, the idea of music as something for more than mere entertainment comes from that moment and my discovery of Indian classical music and reading about Ravi Shankar, reading his first autobiography.”

I had no desire to gyrate and hump my amplifier and set my guitar on fire and do anything that would attract a lot of attention

The more I talk to people, the more it seems music really is more akin to medicine than commodity. Seems like you agree?

“Yep, it’s a magical thing. Growing up when I did, when I was 12 or 13, it was the Summer of Love time, 1967-68, an incredibly vibrant, colorful and intoxicating time for sound in popular music. 

“I feel that with the awakening I had hearing Jimi Hendrix's Manic Depression in 1967, which cemented my path of playing for life, I feel very lucky to have been able to in a very innocent way have these kinds of sounds in my life. To have them wash over me and inspire me. I just feel so transported by them.”

What did you hear in Manic Depression emotionally? And did you hear that in other songs, too?

“It was one of the most original-sounding songs because of the 6/8 time, the amazing Mitch Mitchell drums, which were tuned in an open, rather high-pitch way. And Hendrix's youth. 

“I was already aware of Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds. I was a huge Jeff Beck fan. But Hendrix’s sound, his use of controlled feedback, his solo, singing along with the guitar, it all just sounded like absolute magic. I felt like I was being benignly electrocuted. 

“That magic, that feeling, that exhilaration, has never really worn off. I heard that song and I became pretty obsessed with Jimi Hendrix. But not in any way with trying to play like him, which, at age 12, I thought was humanly impossible. I thought it would be disrespectful in a way to try and emulate that sound and I never saw myself as particularly flamboyant. 

“I had no desire to gyrate and hump my amplifier and set my guitar on fire and do anything that would attract a lot of attention. I wanted to take a modest path. This was when guitarists that had this more restrained melodic style took hold and became of great interest to me. 

“This was the time when even finding out how to tune a guitar wasn’t all that easy. It’s not like today. So, I was a very primitive player. I didn’t know any chords for a long time. But blues players in the blues-rock vein were the ones that captivated me and who I tried to emulate until later in life when I became aware of people like Steve Howe and Robert Fripp. 

“But people like Duane Allman and Dickey Betts and Peter Frampton, when he was playing with Humble Pie, were very important for me. All kinds of guitar players from that era, Dave Edmunds, Paul Kossoff and Johnny Winter. All these guys. Some of them were very flashy like Johnny Winter and they played a lot of licks. Other guys were more understated.

“In the case of somebody like Duane Allman, who was my hero for a long time, that combination of mastery of the blues and slide and then of more extended instrumental solo forays with great patience and melodic content – that was what I fell in love with. You know, rock ‘n’ roll was taking over the universe. Once the Beatles hit, things were looking really different.

“You could buy electric guitars at department stores and at the drug store, they had a Teisco Del Ray rack. These cheap Japanese guitars were out there. Those were my first three guitars. 

“My twin brother, Alex, and I wanted to be hippies. We wanted to look and act like hippies. So, it was a combination of sound and of the sway that the so-called 'counter culture' held over us. Wanting to participate in mind expansion and in peace action and in rock ‘n’ roll.”

What was it like to develop as a musician with your twin brother and how did that development lead to your signature atmospheric wiggle sound?

“Oh, the 'wiggle' came way later in life. I think it was inspired by listening to Tom Verlaine so much. But I always thought that Tom Verlaine was inspired by John Cipollina from Quicksilver Messenger Service when he did that. 

“But people in the '60s like Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane, a lot of them had really fast vibrato until Eric Clapton’s slowhand came along and really popularized this much more relaxed and eloquent vibrato.

“I had this really crazy fast vibrato when I was in junior high school trying to play. Alex and I had a band with two other gentleman, called Toe Queen Love, the name of which came of the inside of a Fugs album. 

“My brother, he was always good. He was one of those guys who, I could feel, could pick up any instrument and make some coherent sound on it. 

“While I didn’t like Blue Cheer nearly as much as he did, he didn’t like The Grateful Dead as much as I did later. Yet, we listened to everything together and formulated our musical paths in unison. 

“Since we’re identical twins, I dare say that, as we became improvisers with so-called 'jazz' and 'free jazz' and 'chamber jazz' and these sorts of endeavors we did later starting in high school and beyond, our connection, our musical ESP, if you will, was absolutely palpable. 

“It wasn’t just noticed by us. Everyone who heard it could sense it. It’s a very unusual way to grow up but it was also a great source of not just comfort to me and inspiration, but it also made me sound better than I was.”

Nels Cline

(Image credit: Taylor Hill/WireImage)

I’m sure you have a small museum’s worth of guitars. But do you have a favorite one that you can’t live without? And I ask that having observed several of your guitars are rather worn – you seem very loyal them!

“The guitar that people really notice the most is my favorite electric guitar that I own, which is a 1960 – I always thought for years it was a ’59 but it turns out it’s an early 1960 Fender Jazzmaster that I bought in 1995 from Mike Watt when I was on tour with him. It was once black. In fairness to myself, it was a delicate and not original finish, so it was pretty easy to mess up!

“But I am somewhat brutal when it comes to certain guitar movements and actions [Laughs]. So, there’s that one and I have a ’59 Jazzmaster here in New York. The 'Watt', as I call it, stays in Wilco world, in the Wilco loft in Chicago. 

“And I’ll be reunited with that guitar for the first time in a year and a half when we start touring again in August. My ’59 that I have here was pretty distressed when I bought it. 

“It was once broken in half and re-glued back together by somebody way back in the '60s, I’m assuming. It’s great. I definitely distressed its finish far beyond what it was when I got it. But it’s not like I’m intentionally messing up my guitar, it’s just that some guitars seem to reflect the results of my attack more than others.

“For example, I love my Jerry Jones Neptune 12-string that I’ve been playing with Wilco since I joined. I bought it specifically to play on tour with Wilco and it looks absolutely brand new for the most part. It just doesn’t show the wear. Of course, it doesn’t get played in the same manner as my Jazzmasters, nor as often. But other favorite guitars – I’m very embarrassed by how many guitars I have. And I don’t actually know how many guitars I have. It’s way too many! 

I’m very embarrassed by how many guitars I have. And I don’t actually know how many guitars I have. It’s way too many!

“But ever since I joined Wilco – you know, I didn’t have any kids to put through college, I was living really cheaply in my hometown of Los Angeles and touring and just finding these cool guitars and feeling seriously enabled by hanging out with Jeff Tweedy, who is quite the collector but also very knowledgeable about these things. And I’m drawn to mostly oddball guitars. 

“I don’t have very big-ticket items, collectable guitars. But other favorites, I have a little Martin 00-17 from 1952 that I’ve had since the '70s. I bought it for $250 from Westwood Music and I still adore that guitar. I have a ’54 0-18 Martin that’s really lovely and I love my old Taylor 12-string acoustic that I’ve had since the late '70s from when their company was only in existence for a couple of years. 

“So, it was when they were still in Lemon Grove, California. It’s made quite differently from the way they make their guitars now. That’s been a favorite. I’m very inspired by Ralph Towner and his work on the 12-string. 

“Those are my favorites. I have a Gibson 335 that I’ve had since high school – that’s the guitar I played on Either Way by Wilco. It’s just a beautiful thing and something my parents obviously believed in, the longevity of my musical life at that point.”

“My dad had inherited some money, so I got a really nice brand new ’71 – you know, there was no vintage market back then. Everybody now can say, '’71: not a great year.' But now it’s vintage like me, like its owner [laughs] and I still have it. 

“I have a lot of guitars and I love them. I’ll stand in front of the vault of guitars that I use on tour with Wilco around soundcheck time and almost every time, they’re set up and I’m looking at them and I’m looking at my rosewood drop-D Jazzmaster that the guys from BilT Guitars made for me or my Jaguar. 

“I just love my guitars! My guitar for years before the 'Watt' was a ’66 Jaguar and I loved that guitar, even though it’s not technically the greatest Jaguar because the body is a heavy ash body and it has the block inlays and the binding. But that was the guitar I played jazz-style music as well as my own music on. So, it was very convincing sounding, a versatile guitar. I love Jaguars.”

What about pedals? 

“My number one is my [Electro-Harmonix] Holy Grail, the impossible to maintain and find and purchase – I have six and I think four of them are broken. The old Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Digital Delay, which I’ve been using since I was introduced to it in 1985 by Bill Frisell, who is the master of it, but who stopped using his after it broke and he couldn’t find anyone to fix it, which is definitely a problem with them.

“It’s a looper, really, and it has reverse and octave jumps, octaves down, microtonal possibilities. You can add thing to the loop non-destructively. So, I’ve been using this thing since 1985, although certainly my original one is dead. 

“It was repaired a couple of times but I think it’s just so far gone. I still have it in case somebody can take a bunch of my broken ones and make one good working one.

“And I love a volume pedal. I’m just a volume pedal guy. I use it not just for the obvious violin effect. But also to defeat 60-cycle hum in certain places, or in recording situations when I’m not playing. I just always have it up so I’m not making any noise. I’ve used volume pedals since high school. I think it’s the only pedal I owned for years. 

I think it’s important for bands to have a leader. I was already in these democratic-type bands and it can be such an incredibly arduous and turgid process to make one decision

“I was inspired to use it by seeing Robert Fripp and Steve Howe play it. So, that’s important. But when it comes to colorful things like fuzz and distortion, there’s just too many. But I always have one, I usually use my little Boss compressor that I’ve had forever. 

“I’m just used to the way they sound and work. I like my CS-3 and my cheap Boss digital delay pedal, because I could dial it in in the dark. I don’t have to have light on to know how to set it, I’ve had it for so long.”

How did you start with Wilco and what about the band’s music, style or chemistry keeps you in it today?

“I didn’t see Wilco on my horizon at all back in 2004 when Jeff called my then-partner Carla to see whether, I guess, she thought I’d be interested in playing with Wilco. And I needed to be rescued from going back to the day job thing, which I had done for 18 years. And was not a success, shall we say. Although, I put out several records of my own and was playing with a lot of people and doing music I liked. 

“The thing about Wilco that inspired me to say yes to Jeff is still an important factor, which is that where the music goes and where it can go is completely vast. We don’t have a 'hit' to play, I never know what we’re going to do exactly when we make a record. Jeff’s an excellent leader. Besides being, I think, a profound and prolific songwriter, he’s also a good bandleader. 

“I think it’s important for bands to have a leader. I was already in these democratic-type bands and it can be such an incredibly arduous and turgid process to make one decision. Now it’s been the same six guys for 17 years and it turns out that I really, really like these people [laughs]. It’s so easy to be on tour with them. If there was high drama and constant friction, I couldn’t do it. I’d be a pretty unhappy person.”

What was the genesis of your latest solo album? How did you think about the sounds and compose the songs?

“My band that I call The Nels Cline Singers started 20 years ago as a trio. It was pretty much a guitar, bass, drums kind of thing. But I became gradually more and more uncomfortable in a so-called power trio, even though we weren’t always powerful. I wanted to add more musicians to the band.

“So, I just got [some] together for a couple of days in Brooklyn with a few things I had written to see what would happen. That’s where Share the Wealth came from. I had no intention doing a double album with long improvised pieces. 

“But I had this idea to record a lot of improvisation so I could maybe collage it and cut it up and do something kind of jarring and kaleidoscopic and intriguing and psychedelic.

“I started listening to the pieces we had done and I was very pleased. But when I listened to these long improvisations, I was almost more into them than my own songs. I loved what we had done. So, I just edited them here and there, a few strategic mutes. But basically what you hear is what we played. I played it for Don Was [at Blue Note Records] and he said, 'Let’s do it'.

“It reflects a very similar aesthetic that I have been mining since high school, which is, to say, jazz-rock fusion and chamber jazz and certain aspects where you can hear the influence of indie rock and Brazilian pop. 

“The last song, Passed Down, is just a very simple - it sounds like a folk song and that’s what it’s supposed to be. [Saxophonist] Skerik’s ability to very authoritatively and eloquently enunciate a melody of that sort [on the song] was something that I sensed from jamming with him [previously] after the Phish concert. 

“To be able to have that sound on this piece, I think, is both beautiful and crucial. That’s what Share the Wealth is. It’s this accumulation of years and years of certain types of interests and a manifestation of what I consider to be a unique and beautiful chemistry between these musicians and me. Some day we’ll play a gig! [laughs] We’ve still never played a gig with this lineup!”

  • Share the Wealth is out now via Blue Note Records.

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