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Interviews

Nels Cline

Nels Cline When you’re a musician of great prowess, the tension between creativity and commerce can become difficult to manage. For most of his first 25 years in the music business, electric guitarist Nels Cline eked out his living by playing on countless tours and albums with his own adventurous groups and other musicians he considered worthwhile. But last year, he’d just about had it.

“I was at wit’s end,” Cline recalls from his LA home. “Not because I wasn’t working, but because I wasn’t making enough money after all the work. I was starting to think I was delusional — maybe the dumbest person alive.”

He’d been turning down more lucrative gigs in favour of making creatively satisfying music with the likes of the Geraldine Fibbers and Mike Watt, but when Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy asked him to become a member of his band last year, he agreed at once. Wilco are one of the rare bands whose popularity has risen as their music has become more original; even their song on the Spongebob Squarepants soundtrack, their first recording with Cline, has a progressive feel. What’s more, the steady paycheck enables Cline to pursue his many other projects without fear of going broke.

Currently, the guitarist is touring with his ironically-named trio The Nels Cline Singers, featuring Devin Hoff on bass and Scott Amendola on drums. Their second album, 2004’s The Giant Pin, features some low-key jazz vibes, driving rock workouts, ambient weirdness, free improvisation, and of course the occasional wailing guitar solo. On “Fly Fly,” for instance, he suddenly breaks into a freak-out which literally bowls him over.

“The headphones slid off my head when I was playing,” Cline recalls. “I had to keep them from falling off, and I ended up holding the guitar like a platter for them to fall on. I was sweating a lot, and I just slipped and fell on my ass. That’s where you hear those open guitar strings. I tried to play that last riff on my back with the headphones all wrapped around the guitar, which is on [the album] too. It was kind of funny. … I’m always trying to inject a little bit of humour into my records, because most of it does tend to be a little bit on the minor-key, heroic-tragic side.”

Thankfully, this seems to be the only kind of fall for which the electric guitar’s “tragic hero” is headed. With the monetary issue out of the way, he’s also becoming more comfortable with his inner rock god. “I have endeavoured to not filter too many of my natural impulses out,” he says, “even if they seem kind of ‘bonehead’ sometimes.

“I like to rock out. Most people’s favourite piece that we play live is ‘Something About David H,’ which is an elegy for a dead friend from my teen years, and essentially just a big dirge in E- with a big guitar solo at the end. There’s nothing particularly innovative going on there. It’s really about mood and emotion and catharsis, and judging from the reaction that people have, maybe the bonehead thing isn’t boneheaded at all; maybe it’s just a way that we communicate with the common language of music and harmony.”

— Originally appeared in Eye Weekly, May 2005

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