Q&A: Nels Cline

The guitarist and sonic provocateur invents a new brand of mood music on his Blue Note Records debut


“Romance” is not a word that comes immediately to mind when considering guitarist Nels Cline. His sonically gonzo playing has ingratiated him with avant-gardists and six-string shred-heads alike; even in Wilco, where he can be heard playing Jeff Tweedy’s love songs on stages around the world, his role more often than not is a disruptive one. But for more than 25 years Cline has harbored a secret dream: an ambitious, radical reimagining of the classic “mood music” albums of the 1950s and ’60s. Looking at the covers of those vintage bachelor-pad soundtracks, Cline imagined music that could accompany a less sterile version of lovemaking than that suggested by these Mad Men-era LPs, with their martini glasses and shag carpet.

The list of songs grew and changed over the years, incorporating not only American Songbook ballads and vintage mood-setters by composers like Henry Mancini, but also more complexly ardor-stoking pieces by jazz composers like Jimmy Giuffre and Annette Peacock, and barbed love songs by Ambitious Lovers and Sonic Youth. The long-gestating project has finally been realized as a two-disc release on Blue Note titled Lovers, with lush but far-from-anodyne arrangements by Michael Leonhart, played by a stunning roster of collaborators including Julian Lage, Steven Bernstein, Jeff Gauthier, Erik Friedlander, Kenny Wollesen, Zeena Parkins and Cline’s twin brother, Alex, on drums. Cline, 60, discussed the album from his home in New York on a break from Wilco’s 2016 world tour.

What was it about mood music that so fascinated you?

It was based not on a great love of mood-music records, though at various points I’ve found them to be rather entertaining entities, as a record-store nerd. What I wanted to do initially was an update of this idea of a record that you would put on for atmosphere to get some sort of romantic action going, that isn’t just a sanitized idea of mixing martinis, dimming the lights, sitting a little too close on the couch and tentatively putting your arm around somebody. I’m not one of these people that always plays music during sexual activity, but I liked the idea of something that would function for those people in a way that’s not from the 1950s moral compass, but more realistic or wide-ranging.

How did your vision of the album change over 25-plus years, and how did that reflect your own personal evolution over that time?

Before, it was mostly going to be ballads, and the whole thing was going to be pretty drifty, floaty and dark, with a lot more shadow than light. Now it’s definitely more varied and brighter than I envisioned in 1980-whatever it was. I think that I must be a happier person. [laughs]

In part, that might have something to do with the presence of your wife, Yuka C. Honda, in your life and music, including on this album. What part has that played in your change of attitude?

It’s huge. I’m also older. When I was thinking about this before, I was basically playing free jazz in Los Angeles, working in a record store and dreaming about a project. When I really had to decide what pieces to play, I wanted it to be a more varied and hence engaging listening experience, rather than it all being misty ballads. It became a little more sprightly and maybe a little more dynamic. It became real. It wasn’t just this weird daydream.

Was there ever an ironic intent to this project?

No, never. I’m hoping it in no way comes off as kitsch, or in any way arch or “wink, wink.” It was supposed to be the exact opposite; it’s actually supposed to be maybe, possibly disturbing. And not disturbing in an off-putting way but in an alluring way, darkly romantic and in that sense something that I would personally love.

Did touring with Wilco, essentially playing pop songs-many of them love songs-night after night have any impact on how you approached Lovers?

I don’t think so. Certainly it’s helped me as a player and made me ponder the interaction between the band and the audience and the love that the audience seems to have for the music. But the paradigms that inspired Lovers have been with me for a really long time, and they’re really still involved with my thoughts about Jim Hall, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jimmy Giuffre, Annette Peacock, Paul Bley-things that have been part of my musical universe for my whole adult life.

Your original pieces really bring out the lyricism that’s often there but somewhat obscured in your music.

I had to really try to calm down to play on this record. That was a real forced-maturity kind of thing, because I’m kind of hyper.

Is it meaningful to you that Lovers is being released on Blue Note?

God, yes. It’s mind-blowing to me. … I knew that it was going to get some attention because I’m now this guy in Wilco and it’s generally pretty listenable compared to a lot of the avant-garde improv music I do, but now it’s probably going to be scrutinized more than I ever thought. I’m always happier when I’m not thinking about that. I have enough doubts already about my playing without having to add anxiety about how it’s going to be received and how many people might like it or hate it.

You’ve mentioned Jim Hall as a particular guiding light for the project.

There are aspects of it that, as I’d become somewhat friendly with him in his later life, I thought would entertain the heck out of him. Then he passed away on the last day of tracking with the main band [Dec. 10, 2013], which was really crushing. I like to now think of the entire record as being dedicated to Jim, on some level. I’m hoping somehow, on some other plane, he can hear this.

Now you can just sit back and wait to meet the children produced under the album’s influence.

[laughs] I realize that it doesn’t quite function that way. [Annette Peacock’s] “Touching” was always on my list, but later I decided to begin that with “So Hard It Hurts,” a very intense ballad from Paul Bley’s Ballads record on ECM, and that brought the idea of actual violence into the picture, which I felt had to be there for the sake of honesty. So there probably won’t be a lot of kids created with that big C-minor chord blasting out of there. “I’m not in the mood anymore, honey.”

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