click here for more
Wilco (Nels Cline)

Wilco (Nels Cline)

Interviewed by
Natalie Finnigan
Tuesday 2nd April, 2013 11:11AM

Wilco are the veritable superstars of alt-country and after almost 20 years under the leadership of front-man Jeff Tweedy, the band are still evolving and pushing the boundaries of their sound. In the country again this weekend, we caught up with guitarist and self-described ‘old man’ of the band, Nels Cline, ahead of their shows and found out a little more about his approach to making music with Wilco, their creative process, and how Nels would describe his ‘sonic vocabulary’...

Hi Nels, How are you?

I’m good thank you. Great to talk to you! How are you? Where are you?

I’m great thanks, I live in Wellington, New Zealand.

Oh very good!

You’ve been down here a few times actually – we’re quite spoilt...

Haha, yeah, but it’s been a while.

Last time you were in Wellington you played a ridiculously long show! Everyone was so happy, with very sore feet and very big smiles…

Oh good – well we played for a long time I guess – I remember it well.

Well I think that’s great – you’ve come such a long way and like you said, you don’t know when you’ll be back, so it’s great to give your fans a full experience.

Yeah? Thanks. Actually, where I am right now in New York City, it’s very windy so it’s making me think of Wellington.

What are you doing in New York at the moment?

Well, it’s where I live. I’m on a break at the moment, I’m working on some music projects and I’m waiting to come to New Zealand!

What are you working on?

I started recording a new record with my band The Nels Cline singers, which I’ve had for a few years, my instrumental band. We did some recording in Berkeley last month and I did some additional recording here in New York, so me and Trevor Dunn and Scott Amendola along with some guests - Zeena Parkins, my wife Yuka Honda, Josh Jones, Cyro Baptista - It’s gonna be pretty cool. I’ve been doing that and trying to get some writing done. I’ve also been playing some gigs around the place.

Wikipedia tells me that you’ve played on over 150 albums – that’s a busy life...

Well I think it’s probably a lot more than that now, but I lost track years ago. Most of them probably aren’t records that anyone has ever seen or heard, a lot of them are not that good (laughs). Some of them are really good though – such is the life of an improviser.

You must be constantly meeting people and playing music then?

Yeah, it’s pretty great, and New York City is a great city for that. I have a lot of wonderful friends here who are amazing musicians and inspiring so it keeps me on my toes.

Is there anything so far that you haven’t done and would like to do, in terms of collaborations or musical projects?

I get asked this question a lot actually, and it always throws me a little, but my answer is usually that there are a lot of musicians I’ve played with who I don’t get to play with enough. Really, scheduling can be extremely… like a game of Tetris or something. For example, my wife Yuka and I have a duo called Fig, and we started recording well over a year ago, and we’re both so busy with our various musical projects and responsibilities, that we haven’t had time to finish it. I’d like to play more with her! (Laughs)

But I do get to play with a lot of great people like Jenny Scheinman, the Rova Saxophone Quartet guys, Tim Berne… I just want to play more with them, and I’d like to play more with my own band. I’ve also played a lot with a young guitarist called Julian Lage here in New York and we’re going to record next month. I have a record of orchestrated ballads which we’ll record in June here. Lot’s of stuff going on, but I don’t know how much I’ll be able to get done.

How do you prioritise?

My main thing is Wilco, and I basically have to fit everything else in between. A lasting dilemma for me is that the world of so called jazz and improvised music tends to book things far further in advance than the rock’n’roll world, so people need to wait until I figure out my schedule with Wilco before they can book with me. I often don’t know until it’s too late for them, so that’s my big quality problem at this point.

In terms of Wilco, and I’m sure you get sick of being asked this question after this many years, but what do you bring to the band and what has your musical stamp been…

I don’t know that my improviser background has that much of an impact, frankly, because I don’t try and push that at all. My main thing is to try and fit into the music, and I have enough of a background playing different styles that I just try to do what I think will fit. So, that usually ends up being straightforward. Maybe the one thing I’ve added is a little bit more of my own style of sound design with looping, feedback and harmonizer, so maybe that had an impact on Wilco’s sound. But if anything, not just me, but this particular edition of the band, which has now been together for nine years, it’s just more energetic. It’s a powerful sounding unit. I don’t think that’s just me, that’s a result of Pat and me joining and what the band sounds like when we all play together. I think there is an energy factor – but I can’t take responsibility for that – I contribute to it individually but it’s something we’re all into.

It’s not cut and dry, but there are bound to be a diverse range of personal and collective ‘influences’ which will have shaped the sound of Wilco. What are your thoughts about the creative force behind the evolution of Wilco’s sound?

There’s no real consistency other than the fact that Jeff is the leader of the band. So a lot of what goes on is based on decisions we made in the studio, much of which was either an idea of Jeff’s – certainly they’re his songs – but also I think we all kind of know what not to do. That’s what I’ve tried to figure out. Sometimes I think I might play it a little too safe when learning a song, just tip-toeing around, and sometimes Jeff likes a much more contrarian approach, but I don’t think that’s the way to start learning a song, so I tend to wait until he asks me to do something sort of odd…

With all these different influences you need somebody to filter it and be the captain of the ship I guess. Basically that’s Jeff. For example, my tendency for even the flavor of chords I prefer and the way I like to voice them - it doesn’t always work with Wilco songs - and I think that learning how to voice a chord or design a sound or come up with a part that is interesting, but also fits with whatever that sonic vocabulary is that works for Jeff or for Wilco, is something that I’ve developed over time.

Maybe you can hear the influence of other guitars or bands, but there are a lot of sounds that I might be drawn to that don’t work for Jeff or don’t work with Wilco, so sometimes I take direction or sometimes I hammer away at something until it clicks with everybody and clicks with me, and what that is specifically is hard to say. You have to take it on a song by song basis, but certainly chords that are too extended or fanciful don’t work very well.

For a lot of bands that would be a problem, that way of working where one person was the boss, but you’re all obviously quite comfortable with that? Does that mean you all look elsewhere for that sense of being the creative force behind a musical project?

Yeah, certainly in my own band that’s true, but I don’t really have that much of an agenda. I do get a little bit obsessed with some pieces of music, but that’s usually because I’m wanting to honour the overtones of the piece, but overall as an improvsor I’m also a collaborator. Even if I’m writing music, or if I’m playing somebody else’s music, or if I’m improvising, it’s still pretty collaborative. As is Wilco, in a different, slightly more codified sense, because we play a show, we play our parts, and we don’t really have a part of the show where we just voyage into the unknown.

It’s nice to have that balance for me. I’m not sure that I’d actually want to play my own music night in, night out. I’d probably end up hating it! My life is nicely rounded out. It certainly doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing it with Wilco for nine years. It’s just flown by!

You were talking about honoring the overtones of a piece – given you have a strong background in music theory, do you come at it from a more theoretical place and try to push yourself intellectually, or is it all about the emotion, or a little bit of both?

I think Jeff, without having that background, pushes himself intellectually in a conceptual way. I sometimes get trapped in the intellectual. I guess I can sometimes take a classicist approach, and it’s not so much rules and regulations but just things that I know that I guess I’ve learned. I haven’t studied much on the guitar, but I studied theory and composition to some extent… But I grew up playing rock’n’roll, so I really just have it all my head at once and I just ask questions if I’m dumbfounded. What do you want? What are you hearing here? I’m thinking this might be good on lap-steel, what do you think? Sometimes Pat will play guitar too and we’ll have three guitars going… but the collaborative aspect can be a little arduous in terms of time, because it takes a while, but it definitely isn’t a hassle – we love it. It seems to basically work out. Jeff does a lot of stuff outside of Wilco, including producing for other people, and spends time in the studio alone, so it’s probably a relief for him to not have five other voices in there telling him what they think of his songs. But the thing that Jeff can take pride in is that Wilco is a pretty potent unit and we can learn songs really quickly and play them all different ways if wanted to. That’s pretty cool. There’s a lot of trust. We’ve been doing this for nine years now and everybody gives 100% every night. That’s a great feeling and something to be proud of I think.

How much of the year are you on the road?

Oh god. I’m not sure, because when Wilco is not touring then I do other stuff, so it’s a lot. I’m generally not in any one place for more than two weeks.

Do you even get to see you wife?

Yeah, she’s a musician too, and she’s working in the studio too, so she’ll be touring the record later this year. I’d like to claim objectivity and say that it’s stunning and fabulous, but I’m not exactly objective, but I can tell you it’s really good. We got married late in life, and the reason we did that is because we wanted to have that certainty because of all the time we knew we’d end up spending apart. It can be a real bummer though, being apart for that long.

Last weekend in Wellington, I ran into a musician who was on tour, he’d come from the US, and he was wandering around the street disoriented and exhausted, and said ‘I do actually love this – not that you’d know it right now – it’s all about the up’s and downs…’

I actually think that once I get older, because I’m the old man of the band, it might become more difficult for my skeleton or whatever, but basically the life agrees with me and I like it, so that helps. Not everyone likes touring. Not everyone likes playing! I really do so that’s helpful.

Okay, I have to wrap up soon, but before I go, what are you listening to at the moment?

Oh, whenever I get asked this question my mind goes blank! I’m trying to write music right now, and I’m working on a new piece today for my band the singers, so I haven’t really listened to anything today. I went out and heard some live music over the last couple of weeks. I heard Tuneyards at a benefit concert last week which was delightful. I got to hear Deerhoof play – one of my favourite bands of all time – with a chamber music ensemble from Chicago. It was stunning. Anytime I’m in a bad mood I can put on Deerhoof and feel better. Now that I’m working on my album of orchestrated ballads I tend to try and listen to version of the songs Like ‘I Have Dreamed’ which was in The King And I, and ‘Why Was I Born?’ which Billie Holiday made pretty famous, but also a beautiful duet of that with Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane, so I’m just kind of in that mode – hearing different interpretations of those standards. Last night I heard the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and tonight I’m going to go hear my friend Tim Berne play in the West Village. Yeah, that’s my life.

I’m jealous – Wellington is great but the sheer amount of music on offer in New York is just amazing…

Yeah, there’s no place like it in terms of music, but when I come back from tour my first impulse isn’t to go out and hear music. I just want to stay at home and have a nice quiet time. Also, good music is being made everywhere, and there is always someone doing something that could change the face of music as we know it. They could come from a bedroom in Wellington and turn the whole music world upside down as we sit here and speak on the phone.

I guess that’s the magic of it. It doesn’t matter how much music you’ve listened to, you can still be astounded by someone.

Absolutely, one of my roommates went out two nights ago and heard D’Angelo with Questlove, just duo, and I think D’Angelo hadn’t played a gig in ten years and is finally finishing his second album after some heavy personal problems. Apparently he was absolutely mind-blowing beyond belief - just the extent of his keyboard work and singing – a one man orchestra – and you just never know when someone is going to do that to you! You never know who it’s gonna be or where it’s gonna be – I could be down in New Zealand on tour and hear it. Amazing music has been coming out of New Zealand for decades, just in terms of pop-music alone. Legendary. We love those Finns, y’know, but not just them. There’s always someone doing something incredible.