Nels Cline: Have Guitar Will Destroy

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Nels Cline
By Norm Harris
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Nels Cline
By Norm Harris
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Nels Cline
By Norm Harris

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Waves of blistering white-hot energy roll off the stage at Tonic, bathing the downtown New York denizens in sheer sonic catharsis. As stunned scenesters take it all in, drummer Gregg Bendian whirls around his kit with incredible speed and dexterity, at once summoning up the crisp, muscular attack of Billy Cobham and the flowing polyrhythmic pulse of Rashied Ali. It’s a formidable, throbbing foundation for guitarist Nels Cline, who seems to be pushed beyond levels of human abandon by the sustained and focused intensity of Bendian’s pumped-up percussive assault.

Long and lanky, decked out in blue jeans, tennis shoes, a short crop of hair and a Live Skull T-shirt, Cline is thrashing on stage, machine-gun picking his beat-up ’66 Fender Jazzmaster guitar with the fury of Norman Bates enacting another gory shower scene. As taut muscled arms flail, veins bulge in his neck and hands blur over the strings, he suddenly drops to his knees in a jolt of ecstatic desperation and reaches over with his right hand to twirl the knobs of an effects pedal while simultaneously hammering on notes with the spindly fingers of his fretting hand. As a roar of feedback envelopes the crowd—a mix of white noise and upper-register whoops—a few of the uninitiated stand aghast, straining on tiptoes to see what is going on or, more precisely, how much farther out Cline will take it. Like rubberneckers crawling past carnage on the highway, they try to avert their eyes but can’t. The sonic shrapnel is frighteningly intense, yet too compelling to ignore. They are transfixed by the visceral appeal of this tumultuous Bendian-Cline tandem, watching slack-jawed as the guitarist transcends notes and heads to an exalted place where Hendrix and latter day Trane dwell.

As the dust settles from the live interpretation of their Interstellar Space Revisited (Atavistic) CD, a brief moment of eerie calm is broken by a lone shout from the back of the room: “I’ll bet you won’t see that on Ken Burns’ Jazz.” That brazen pronouncement is met with nods and amens throughout the house, eliciting a sheepish grin on stage from Nels Cline, the world’s most dangerous guitar player.

While Bendian and Cline have been performing their audacious, bombastic love letter to Coltrane, Interstellar Space and free jazz together since Dec. 1998, this set at Tonic on the last day of January, 2001, reaches a new level of the extreme. Rather than resurrecting this volatile material as a kind of museum piece—some ancient, sacred artifact to be cherished and handled with kid gloves—Cline and Bendian get sweaty with it, injecting their own adrenaline-fed rush of ideas into the mix.

Cline seems especially pleased about the “happy accidents” that happen along the way while traversing Interstellar Space from “Mars” to “Leo” and on to “Venus,” “Jupiter” and “Saturn.” Their rendition of “Venus” is more sensitive and seductive than the original but by the time they get to “Jupiter,” the guitarist starts departing from a melodic concept and going more for sheer sonics. “At that point I start investigating more feedbacky things and electronic effects,” he confides. “I feel free to investigate shifting melody, modulating melody, not just timbre. I’m still playing lines. I’m playing melodies that come to my head but I’m trying to modulate them, trying to connect different kinds of key changes and chord changes in my head and also deal with different rhythmic values, different tempi—the usual smattering of what I consider to be interesting music making.”

In the heat of his own search, the guitarist is as transformed by the Coltrane’s volcanic Interstellar Space as Charles Manson was by The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Derek Bailey may be as conceptually free, Fred Frith and Eugene Chadbourne may be as unorthodox, intuitive and imaginative, but none seem as capable of mayhem as Cline.

“I don’t know, I think it’s just natural for me to freak out like that,” offers the unassuming Los Angeles resident. “And I’m less psychologically daunted by performing Interstellar Space now. When we first started doing this, it was a lot harder for me to psychologically adjust to the idea that we were going to start doing, say, ‘Leo’ now. It was kind of daunting or frightening. I mean, Interstellar Space was a huge record for me. So was Meditations and Live in Seattle. But I’ve gotten over that initial intimidation and as I find myself more relaxed as a player I find it easier to jump off into even the most monolithically intense passages with a certain degree of looseness and a kind of restraint that maybe isn’t immediately perceivable but that I feel as a player. And that’s a fairly new level of looseness for me.”

Though he is a fearless improviser, Cline rejects the experimental music label that is often hung on his adventurous sonics. “I don’t just get up there and play things without knowing what they’re going to sound like,” he says. “That’s why I’ve always been confused by the term experimental in terms of the kind of things that I do because I don’t really experiment all that much. It’s more exploratory. I’m not really trying to find some new thing I haven’t done before. I do repeat things that I know work, in terms of phrasing or technique or even electronic sound. The sounds I use that are relating to feedback or effects boxes or whatever are usually sounds I’ve already decided I like to use, so I return to them and try to play spontaneously with them, which really isn’t experimenting so much.”

He also rejects the term noise as a description of his decidedly un-guitarlike expression on the instrument. “Noise was a pejorative term in my day and so I rejected it. Now it’s the exact opposite. Now noise is a cool term. Somewhere in the middle of experimental and noise is maybe something I can live with.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Nels Cline developed musically alongside his brother Alex, a drummer who continues to play with the guitarist in various settings. Nels’ earliest guitar influences included The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman, John Fahey, Steve Howe and Robert Fripp. “I came up with so-called psychedelic music,” says Cline. “It was an era of so-called mind expansion. People were challenging their audiences to think about sound in different ways when I was a kid. It was like a magic world. And so I still carry that in my soul—the love of intoxicating sound and mystery and new methodologies.”

Cline was already playing guitar through those psychedelic years. “I had a teacher briefly who taught me the diatonic scale and chords,” he recalls. “That was the most fabulous epiphany of all, but everything else has been pretty much picked up from playing.”

His most valuable music training during his formative years came from his work with bassist/multi-instrumentalist Eric von Essen, with whom he performed as a duo from 1977 until von Essen’s death in 1997. In the late ’70s, Cline also played in the chamber-jazz group Quartet Music with his brother Alex, violinist Jeff Gauthier and bassist von Essen. Quartet Music recorded four albums and toured extensively for a 12-year run that was highlighted by two performances in 1989 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for which Nels arranged several of his own compositions.

His discovery of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) and its leading exponents, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, had been pivotal for both Nels and his brother, leading them down a path of bold musical experimentation that continues to this day. Cline also had his eyes and ears opened in the late ’70s by the avant-garde duo of Eugene Chadbourne and John Zorn, whom he saw perform at the Century City Playhouse in Los Angeles. “Seeing Eugene play with kalimba things on his guitar and balloons and all that sort of thing was not only visual and entertaining, it was also really interesting to me,” he recalls. “Upon hearing Eugene, I didn’t start playing with egg whisks and balloons myself though. That came much later for me. I was really torn between different impulses—rock, straightahead jazz, the avant-garde—and I lived sort of separate lives in that way and hadn’t merged all these things.”

During his developmental years, Nels admired such forward-thinking jazz guitarists as John McLaughlin, John Abercrombie, Joe Diorio and Howard Roberts and for a time flirted with the idea of becoming a straightahead jazz guitarist himself. “I was always thinking that I had to do that in order to be any good, but I never had the training to really play it right,” he recalls. “Frankly, I never really felt a great affinity with bebop, per se. I love straightahead playing and have certainly admired all the straightahead players and listened to them and tried to absorb what they were doing—Jim Hall being my favorite. Joe Pass was a crucial guy for me in the ’70s as were Howard Roberts and Joe Diorio—all really creative players. They were really taking the tunes in other directions, and that was really influential when I was about 18, 19. I also used to love George Benson’s guitar playing then—all those CTI records where he played with such amazing technique and amazing feel. I still love all those guys, but I also love feedback. I like to rock.”

He was finally able to reconcile his disparate interests in 1989 after forming his raucous Nels Cline Trio as a vehicle for his heady excursions and free-form assaults on the guitar. The group, featuring bassist Bob Mair and drummer Michael Preussner, recorded four acclaimed CDs: Silencer (Enja), with original bassist Mark London Sims, Ground (Crown Pocket), Chest (Little Brother) and Sad (Little Brother).

“My trio was the first time I felt free to do anything,” says Cline. “I had tunes that swung or tunes that were jazz ballads or were completely Ornette-inspired in terms of swift small heads with free playing but in time. Or I could do drone pieces and start using different sounds that were to me more about emotion than about novelty. I think I just wanted the guitar to shriek more or have more dense overtones, more clustery sounds. I had a desire to get more texture for sensation, a physical feeling and an emotional kind of tautness rather than for any kind of novelty or intellectual furthering-of-the-music sort of feeling.”

Previous to that experience, Cline had appeared as a sideman on early recordings by New York saxophonist-composer Tim Berne. “Tim was sort of Julius Hemphill’s assistant and student at the time and was just getting his feet wet playing,” Nels recalls. “He decided he was going to put out some of his own records, which everyone was doing back in the ’70s when the loft scene was still alive, and he asked my brother Alex to suggest some L.A. players so he could come there and record. He jokes that no one would play with him in New York. Perhaps they just thought of Tim as Julius’ acolyte but he also has a humor that’s very self-effacing. Anyway, I think he just wanted to come out and put a larger group together and he knew that we knew how to make records quickly.”

Alex Cline, who had played in New York with Hemphill, recommended players for Berne’s first two Empire records—1979’s The Five Year Plan with John Carter, Roberto Miranda, Vinnie Golia, Glenn Ferris and Alex and 1980’s 7X, which Nels played on with John Rapson, Roberto Miranda, Vinnie Golia and Alex. “You can hear on those records how Tim’s compositional style is already intact,” says Nels, whose own 1987 Enja release, Angelica, features a guest appearance by Berne.

Aside from his current celestial excursions with Gregg Bendian, Cline also explores freely in the more controlled setting of his Inkling Quartet, featuring Los Angeles drummer Billy Mintz, bassist Mark Dresser and downtown all-star Zeena Parkins on electric harp and sampler. “It was originally a trio with Billy and Mark and then I became harp-obsessed and was able to add Zeena to the project, which basically has sent me off on a whole new level of excitement about playing because I feel very hooked up with her as an improviser, aesthetically and sonically. And so, that group is balancing this sort of acoustic and electric way of playing that I feel is very much about ensemble playing rather than soloing. There’s a lot of trust involved with that kind of playing because we’re not soloing, per se, we’re relying on each other to have constant dialogue.”

For the Inkling Quartet, which blends chamberlike elegance with textural abstraction as heard on the new The Inkling (Cryptogramophone), Cline alternates between his solid-body electric guitar and nylon-string acoustic guitar. “I’d say that it takes far more preparation for me to play nylon-string guitar the way I’m attempting to play it with the Inkling Quartet because I find it to be much less natural for me,” he explains. “It takes a certain kind of selectivity, concentration of smoothness and execution that—since I’m not a classical player—is more difficult. But the satisfaction of that sound, the intimacy of it, the obliqueness of some of the writing and also the way we improvise I find deeply satisfying. By contrast, being able to strap on an electric guitar and just blast off into something like ‘Leo,’ is not too difficult for me. I could probably do it any time of day or night.”

A newer project is Destroy All Nels Cline, a ferocious, dense-sounding group featuring brother Alex on drums, Bob Mair on bass and three other guitarists—Carla Bozulich, Woody Aplanalp and G.E. Stinson. Their self-titled debut debut recording for Atavistic also includes guest appearances by Zeena Parkins on electric harp and Los Angeles keyboardist Wayne Peet playing clavinet, Theramin and Mellotron samples.

“It’s a band I created with some of my closest friends to max out my guitar desires,” says Cline. “The players are a combination of trained and self-taught kind of intuitive players so I try to write the music to address two different ways of thinking about playing. For example, this fellow Woody is a very young player and very virtuosic. He has amazing chops, basically, and we have this way of phrasing together that seemed instantaneous when we first got together and played as a duo. So in Destroy All Nels Cline I can write all kinds of crazy unison things for us to play together while everyone else is maybe doing some kind of textural layered extemporaneous playing. So there’s this weird balance of composition and sonic texture going on that really attracts me, and it’s very intense at times, very dense—the opposite of what I’m doing with the Inkling Quartet.”

Of the material on Destroy All Nels Cline, the guitarist is most proud of a 14-minute suite dedicated to the memory of Horace Tapscott called “As in Life.” He explains, “I’m not sure as I wrote it exactly what I was thinking about when I wrote it. It really came out in a natural way and I just wanted it to spring from my heart and mind for Horace, not from a stylistic perspective.”

Cline’s discography to date is quite lengthy, numbering upwards of 90 recordings. “Certainly half of them have been in the last four or five years,” he says. “Yeah, things have stepped up. My trio did four CDs in the ’90s, then I did a bunch of session work and it sort of just started heaping up. Pretty soon I had all these CDs coming out. Things just started to explode.”

As a ubiquitous player on the thriving L.A. improvising scene, he maintains a number of other musical outlets, each with its own set of challenges and unique rewards. There’s a free improvising duo with Carla Bozulich called Scarnella, in which Nels simultaneously plays guitar and bass drum. He also plays on the recordings of his brother Alex and bassist-composer Stuart Liebig, which were released by the Los Angeles-based Crytogramophone label. There’s a duo with “space bassist” Devon Sarnow, a minimalist drone-oriented experimental quartet called Dot, an acoustic guitar trio with Rod Pool and Jim McCauley called Trio Flat Top and the alt-country psyche-rock band Geraldine Fibbers. In addition, Nels has gigged and recorded with trumpeter Bobby Bradford, the Vinnie Golia Quintet and with two separate West Coast electric Miles Davis tribute bands led by Mark Isham and Henry Kaiser.

“It was ironic at one point last year,” says Nels, “that I had to turn down a gig with Mark Isham’s Silent Way Project in order to play the gig with Henry’s Yo, Miles! project with Wadada Leo Smith. It was like the warring Miles Davis tribute bands. It’s funny, I never thought I’d be in that position of being some kind of authority on this music that I came up with in the ’70s. Me and my brother Alex were pretty much transformed by all that music when we were just starting to strike out from our rock ’n’ roll world into trying to understand the world of jazz and creative music. And Miles’ music—his quintet and also his electric music—became crucial for us. So playing all that music now just comes naturally to me because it had seeped in to the point where I didn’t have to study it, it just came out. So it’s weird that I suddenly have this unexpected realm of expertise in knowing what John McLaughlin did on those records. That has become a kind of marketable job skill for me, which is staggeringly strange.”

While Nels remains indelibly tied to the jazz tradition, he is also inherently connected to a rock aesthetic. Both sources inform the music he plays today, whether it’s the Interstellar Space Revisited duo, the Inkling Quartet or Destroy All Nels Cline.

“My love of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Rowles, Zoot Sims is deep and very real,” he says. “Their music speaks to a certain side of the human heart and ear and sensibility that nothing else does. That’s why I cherish it. So I think that it is a big part of my life and a big part of my sensibility, but I don’t consider myself to be certainly one of the deeper interpreters of that music. I’m not really furthering that tradition. I do a lot of exploration with sound, I do a lot of things that reflect my love of what I’d have to say is orchestral music in the Western classical sense—which is to say there’s all this drama and chest-pounding. When you hear the Destroy All Nels Cline record you’ll know that it’s about as far from the intimate and rarefied syntax of the jazz combo as it gets. It’s a little bit more over the top—and that’s just natural for me, being this kind of urban-suburban white dude who grew up at a certain time. You know, the thrill of the big amplified sound is very real for me. I like that sound. It was exciting to me when I was 10 and it still is.”

Gear Box

“For the first 20 years I had no concept of guitars or tone. I also had no money so I just stayed with the same gear forever because I thought I couldn’t afford to change it. I would play guitars that were horribly set up. I still have my old Gibson ES-335 that I’ve had since 1971. I had crummy Strats and crummy amps along the way. But when I bought a ’66 Fender Jaguar in the mid-1980s that pretty much changed my way of playing forever. The whole time I was growing up, Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters were considered joke guitars, not serious guitars. They were generally twangy sounding and associated with surf music. But to me, just the whole shape of it, the neck, everything about it felt perfect, and that was my main guitar for a really long time. Then in 1995 I bought a ’59 Jazzmaster from Mike Watt that he had and never played. The switches and the machine heads are all changed but it does have the original pickups. It has all these chunks missing from the headstock from when I fell on it at a Geraldine Fibbers show. But I still love it.”

Cline currently has two ’66 Jaguars and two vintage Jazzmasters (’59 and ’66) in his collection, along with his Gibson ES-335, a Martin acoustic (serial #007), a Taylor 12-string acoustic guitar, a Jerry Jones 12-string electric and a Fender 12-string electric. “I’ve been an electric 12-string freak ever since the Byrds, who were my first major musical inspiration when I was 10.” Other axes in his arsenal include a Jerry Jones baritone guitar, various Hagstroms in different open tunings, a Fender six-string bass and an electric sitar. “So I have all this stuff but I can’t ever travel with more than one guitar unless some promoter is willing to shell out for the plane fare,” he says. “So I basically just travel with the Jazzmaster now. I’ve never played another Jazzmaster that I like as much as this particular one. They don’t make those the way they used to. My ’66 that I have sounds so much brighter.”

Regarding amplifiers, he says, “I used to really care and now I don’t. I find that with the right guitar and the right sensibility, I can get my own sound out of almost anything. On the road you get a different amp every night and you’re often confronted by amps that are almost impossible to get a good tone out of. You ask for a 50-watt tube amp and the promoter gives you a 100-watt Fender Twin. But I’ve been able to make things work and not worry about it. So now I just don’t get too wrapped up in all that stuff.” Nels’ own personal amp collection includes a couple of Hi-Watt 50s, a little Ampeg Jet-12 and a reb-knobbed road-worthy Fender Twin he picked up for $280 “so I could just set up really quickly and thrash it.”

Crucial to Cline’s setup is an Ernie Ball volume pedal. ”I’d just be lost without a volume pedal,” he says. “That’s really a crutch for me. I’ve been using the volume pedal forever. Everybody says I got it from Bill Frisell but for me it goes farther back. It came out of the whole Steve Howe-Robert Fripp thing from 1972.”

He also carries a Centaur overdrive pedal, a Marshall Govenor fuzz pedal and a Z-Bex Fuzz Factory pedal. “You can’t have too many fuzzboxes, that’s my motto,” says Nels. He also has a vintage Big Muff pedal at home, which he never travels with “because it’s too damn big.” Other effects devices in his setup include a Boss Compressor pedal and Boss vibrato pedal, a Boss digital delay pedal and an old Electro-Harmonix 16-second digital delay. “I became aware of that pedal through Frisell when we toured Europe together in Julius Hemphill’s band in 1985,” he says. “I saw Bill manipulating that thing and thought, ‘My god, what is that?!’ I went back to LA after that tour and found one, so I’ve had this particular box since 1985. It’s pretty trashed now but I it’s like the ultimate crutch for me.”

Regarding his use of various odd implements on the guitar, Cline says, “I keep my stuff pretty simple. It’s pretty much stuff out of the kitchen or the tool shed, not too much out of the factory—basically the egg whisk and my spring. I think it was my desire to hear more microtonal sounds and textures that were idiomatic to the guitar that drew me to first using springs and different utensils on the guitar. And now I have a few other toys, including a toy cellular phone that I sometimes use on the pickups and another toy, which does this little arpeggio thing. I run it through my Whammy Pedal to harmonize it or put some delay on it and it pretty much becomes an unrecognizably electronic sound.”

He credits Fred Frith with opening his eyes to the possibilities of using kitchen utensils and other implements on the guitar. “I saw his solo tour where he would play guitars on tables, which was a real eye-opener. And now in my duo with Woody Alpanalp, we do a tribute to Fred Frith. You know how he used to drop little grains of rice on his guitar? We do a piece where we put our guitars on the stage and let them feedback and then dump whole bags of rice on our guitars, which sounds really amazing. But the cleanup entailed after you finish your set is fairly extensive.”

Originally published in July/August 2001

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