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Published: 2009/02/22
by Mike Greenhaus

Of Cowards and Continuations with Alex and Nels Cline

The Cline Brothers spent close to three decades as the “first twins” of avant-garde music before Jeff Tweedy tapped Nels Cline as the lead guitarist in Wilco shortly after the release of 2004’s A Ghost is Born. Since then Nels has scored “guitar god” status in Rolling Stone, played marquee spots at mega-fests like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza and turned indie-hipsters and jam-aficionados alike onto his jazzy style of rock guitar playing. But, despite his late-blooming rock-star status, the 53-year old guitarist maintains a separate but equal life in the avant-garde and jazz worlds and recently released the experimental solo disc Coward. Meanwhile, his identical twin brother Alex has been balancing his work as an avant-garde drummer with a day job and, ironically, entered the studio to work on the solo album Continuation with a hand-picked ensemble the same week his brother began recording. On the eve of the Cline Brothers’ simultaneous releases, sat down with the twins to discuss their new projects, love of improvisational music and how they first bonded over Live/Dead.

Part I: Nels Cline

Both you and your brother recently released solo albums the same day and the titles of both albums also happen to start with the letter “C.” Was that just a coincidence?

It’s a coincidence. You know, we’re identical twins and strangelyor maybe not strangelywe ended up with these one word “C” titles. We also ended up recording the record the same week without planning to and each record has two 18-minute pieces on them. Very oddor maybe not, I don’t know. But anyway, yeah you know, our label thought it would be a fun idea to release them at the same time.

While you have released many solo albums over the years, this is actually your first “truly solo” studio project, correct?

It’s just me overdubbing and that is something I’ve thought about doing for over 25 years, actually. I think enough time had gone on of me talking about it, and I was kind of consistently putting out records of my trio, the Nels Cline Singers, and I had just done a huge project which will also emerge this year of two large groups playing music that will accompany an Ed Roche art monograph called “Dirty Babies.” I guess I’d better jump on it while I had a little moment, a hole in my schedule, because I knew it was going to take more than two days to do.” I usually do the Singers records in one to three days. So I blocked out some time in my friend’s home studio for about five days and just holed up in there and spazzed out [laughs].

In terms of the overdubbing, obviously you’re best known as a guitarist, but you play all sorts of instrumentsor toys as you sayon the album. Did most of these songs start with you on guitar, or did you start with other instruments and later work in the guitar?

Everything starts with guitar. For example, there are two pieces on the record that are duetsjust two guitars, but the only thing I think where that was not the case, are the movements in the long “Onan (Suite)” that have drum-machines on the “Seedcaster” movementthat movement is essentially a duet between the “drum buddy” and the electric guitar. The electric guitar is certainly not always normal sounding, but it’s done, each track is done live, so the drum buddy track is one track that I did live which is where you hear sort of bass-keyboard type of sound and the beat and the weird wobble sound. And then you have the electric guitar on top of that which is also one track, live against the Drum Buddy track, and then later just to kind of tie it all together, or kind of add a little bit of spice to it, I added ping-ponging rhythm guitars, that just appear very briefly, and one of the reasons for that I think may have been besides interest and color, the fact that those guitar and Drum Buddy tracks aren’t stereo, the sound field is not exactly super exciting. The Drum Buddy is coming out of one speaker, all the sounds and the same goes for the guitar. And then on the last movement, as someone described it, “a Bollywood Chase scene movement,” which is not what I was thinking, called the liberator, there’s a rhythm track that I created with my little Chaoscillator, and it also has a synth-bass sound, and the phrase is in six, but the actual drum beatyou can’t do phrases in six on the Chaoscillator. Everything is square, everything is in four, so there’s basically kind of like a weird, the accents shift which I thought was kind of cool, and then we just used Pro Tools and loop everything so I guess the way most people are making music these days. Starting with the loop, so we did a big bold blazing rhythm track and then I improvised some sort of poly-rhythmic drum fills, and put them on different players and just improvised sticking them in here and there so it’s not just the same thing exactly over and over, and then I played the electric 12-string track over the top and that was that. The rest of them are just starting with guitar.

How long did you spend conceptualizing and writing these movements, especially the “Onan (Suite),” which contains several distinct sections?

Oh, the “Onan (suite)” was written in the studioit was just a series of ideas jotted down on paper that weren’t actually even written notes. I just had an idea of what I wanted each movement to do. So I just did it in the studio, most of the record, one piece on the record called “Prayer Wheel” which goes way back to the 80s. There is also a piece called “Divine Homegirl” that I had done with my original trio in the ’90’s, and I did a slightly different version which is kind of my nod to Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie. It is kind of an antecedent if that’s the right word for that, but the “Onan (suite),” and “Thurston County,” and “The Nomad’s Home” and the Rod Poole piece were all kind of conceptualized kind of ahead of time, but were actually written in the studio.

In a recent issue of Relix you mentioned that your brother was really turned on by the Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead, but tuned out when the band began exploring more folk-based material with Workingman’s Dead. But that is also round the same time you tuned into The Dead, correct?

I think we both liked the live recordings and Live/Dead, but certainly Workingman’s Dead was not my brother’s favorite record. But that record was close to me right away. The funny thing is that we were twins growing up and both obsessed with music and, up until maybe 1971 specifically, obsessed with rock and roll. 1971 is when we first heard Coltrane and Miles and the Tony Williams Lifetime and things were changed suddenly because we were uninformed about how to play that kind of music. Progressive rock was also crucial at that time King Crimson for me and Yes was important, but I think that it’s funny to note that we really listened to everything together all the time, but to carve out our distinct identitiesbecause people looked at us a lot of the time as one personalitymy brother was really into Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jethro Tull, Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer. Those were his bands and then I was more into Traffic, Johnny Winter and Hendrix. So we didn’t really ever crossover. Like if I went out and bought the Jeff Beck’s Truth record, and Beck-Ola came out after, he didn’t like _Beck-Ola_that was my record [laughs]. But I think The Dead was the only time we crossed over with one guy buying into a band and then the other guy getting into it because he started out with the Dead albums, and then when Workingman’s Dead came out I got that. So I think that’s the only time that I can think of where we switched.

Your style of improvisation is clearly more rooted in jazz than rock but are there are other jambands besides The Dead that touched you?

I don’t know what jamband means. I don’t know anything about the jamband scene, I only heard of the term when I was playing with the The Scott Amendola Band at the High Sierra Music Festival a few years ago. That’s when I realized that jambands didn’t actually jam in the way I thought jamming was jamming. They actually just solo, set up a groove and solo. I didn’t hear anybody at that festival making stuff up except for solos. So, you know, what makes MMW a jamband as opposed to other bands like that? I’ve heard Garaj Mahal but that music isn’t particularly interesting to me. The fact that John Scofield is hot on the jamband scene is marvelous because there’s a guy who can actually play incredible music, and in a groove way, in a jazz way, he can be electronic he can be un-electronic, and the same goes for MMW who actually really improvise. So if these are jambands then I like them, but I don’t think that a lot of the jambands that I’ve heard that aren’t those guys are very interesting. So I don’t really align myself with that that much, but there are inherently elements of that music that are what I do because I do solo, I do play over grooves once in a while, they’re not funky grooves. My funky groove era was in the late 80s, early 90s in a band called Bloc, you know it was kind of a funky rock band here in L.A. And I love funk and I love funk rhythm guitar, and you know I’d rather listen to that or listen to Nigerian funk from the 70s than a jamband that I’ve heard today, I just haven’t heard anything that’s snagged me yet.

In terms of your other collaborations, you occasionally improvise with the live painter Norton Wisdom. Can you talk about the development of that project?

Oh yeah, we have a duo called Stained Radiance, and I’m producing a little DVD of ours, and we have a director named Jeff and we got a bunch of cameras and we did some stuff in one afternoon and we’re going to try to release a little Stained Radiance DVD this year. You’ll hear me, and you’ll see me a little bit, but ultimately what we want or what I want is for people to see what Norton is doing. Norton I’ve known for 20-some years, I think I met him in 1980…I was the one who kind of dragged him into the Banyan thing. And Steven [Perkins] manhe always brings it.

Shifting back to your new album, I imagine that the song “Thurston Country” is named after your friend Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth fame)?

Yeah, “Thurston County,” which is actually a real county, is named after him. Every time I drive through Thurston County and see the signs, how could I not think of Thurston? That piece was written after I thought I had finished the record, and I had listened to everything I recorded and I just thought the album needed something different, so I told Mark, my engineer friend, which I had been saying to him for five days, “Take a break, I’ll call you when I’m ready.” We recorded and mixed that that song in one evening. There’s not much to it, just a lot of guitars, the thing that sounds kind of like a drum is me just tapping on the back of the bridge of a guitar. That was fun to do it’s a tribute to Thurston, it’s got a Thurstonian riff, the so called verse riff which is blatant Thurston, it’s in seven. I don’t think Sonic Youth plays in seven anymore, no they don’t because I listen to them constantly. Sonic Youth is a band that I think keep an interesting balance between spontaneity and fixed compositional elements. They’re a huge favorite of mine. I have like four CD’s with Thurston, I think. I’ve played with everyone in Sonic Youth except Kim. Some were completely improvisedthe first one is called Pillow Wand, and there is some structure on that one, but it’s mostly improvised.

Improvisation was kind of one of my earliest impulses, my brother Alex and I after elementary school gravitated towards making stuff up half the time, which in that case going back to your earlier question was coming from rock, because we didn’t know anything else. But I do like to joke that by high school, the parameters of our music were kind of set in a direction that they’re still going in. It’s still kind of the same mixture of composed, improvised, rhythmic, non-rhythmic, quiet, loud, jazzy, rocky, whatever, all those elements. Even elements of classic pieces like impressionism and maybe even concrete, it all kind of comes in because it’s all been out there, and also Indian music for me is crucial for me as well as other types of Asian music.

In terms of your improvisation specifically, who do you look to as your “big brother artists?”

I am not sure that I care to make a determination one way or the other but I certainly feel it has more to do with jazz than rock, just because of the harmonic content at times, and maybe jazz isn’t the right world, but it has something to do with the advancements that were made by people like that where there’s realms of prepared guitar, there’s realms of pure texture, electronic treatments. Some of that has as much to do with Jimi Hendrix as it does with Keith Rowe. On the record there’s no system that is employed, there’s not a specific temperament, there’s nothing scientific about it, it’s completely intuitive, and I just know that when I hear it and I like it, then it’s fine. So I’m playing out of tune a lot intentionally on the record but it’s the sort of out of tune that my ear wants, so I go for it. I’d like to do more of that. That in fact has more to do with listening to not the people like Harry Partch or Poole, but also to the Japanese composers or Sonic Youth, sounds that are I guess technically to the Western ear are out of tune, that I find enchanting.

Your roots are clearly in improvisational music, but many of our readers first heard of you through your work in the rock band Wilco. How has your time with Wilco changed your style of playing?
I am not sure if does changeit has always been hard for me play a concise solo in a rock band. Working on [2007’s] Sky Blue Sky was fun, but some of the big challenges for me were making solos you don’t mind playing over again. While at first they were improvised [in the studio], I play them note for note live now because they have become parts of composition, which I guess is a good thing. But physically it is different playing that style of music…my whole body reacts differently. I am super relaxed.
Has Jeff Tweedy’s style of writing influenced your method of composition at all?
Certainly a Jeff song makes me sit up and notice, but has made me be patient with my playing, much like classic harmony. They are both marvelous and beg to be taken seriously. There is a crucial compositional element in his songs but then he leaves certain parts wide open for us to see what happens.

Part II: Alex Cline

When I recently talked to your brother he mentioned that it was completely coincidental that you both recorded solo albums whose title start with the letter “C” the same week and that both of those albums contained two 18-minute compositions

Yeah, it was totally. We weren’t consulting at all with one another. No, we were acting completely independently, although somewhat simultaneously. My project took two days to record and on the second day of my recording session, Nels began his recording session. And both CDs have artwork by women artists, and I think, in fact, they’re both paintings on Masonites which is really bizarre. There are a lot of other weird coincidences. There’s the orchid factor which Jeff pointed out which I hadn’t noticed which is the reference to orchids on both CDs. None of this as I say was shared between me and Nels during the process at all.

Can you talk a little bit about your recording sessions?

I’ll tell you how it went. First off, I guess I should say since this group had not ever played together as a group before. Even though I had played with everyone at some point or another at one time or another, I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to work in terms of the chemistry. But it worked quite well as fortunately as demonstrated on the recording. There were two days of rehearsal which were pretty relatively brief as far as this sort of thing goes, probably you know, between two and three hours and then two days of recording and it actually somewhat miraculously turned out that everything on this CD is not only either a first or a second take, we didn’t do more than two takes of anything. But we actually recorded probably almost two thirds of the music on the first day of the session which is usually a day given over to adjustment, you know. Getting the headphones right, me setting up all my stuff and taking up everyone’s time. Getting comfortable basically, not only with just the environment, but with the music itself since this was all music that not only had none of the people in the group played until the rehearsals began, but I hadn’t played it before. I wrote it, but I never played it before so I was also making adjustments to what I wanted to do with the music throughout the process.

When you wrote the music, was it all specifically for this album, or were they pieces you had been playing over the last couple of years?

None of the music had ever been played before, there were a couple, actually the two 18-minute tracks were ideas that I had lying around for a while, although, completely incomplete. And the rest of the music I composed more in a period closer to the recording session. But by the time I was actually working on the music, it was all written with the people who play it in mind which is how I always do everything. In fact I told someone else this already but when Myra was having a little bit of a schedule trauma when we were trying to get this thing happening, ‘cause we had sort of a deadline to work with, she said a couple of times, “If it’s becoming too difficult for you to work with my schedule, it’s okay if you get somebody else to play on the record.” And I told her flat out: “Either it’s you or nobody because I’m not going to do it without you, because I wrote the music with you in mind. You’re irreplaceable.” And that’s really how I felt about everyone, I really wrote the music for those people and in the end, because so much of it is interpretive and improvisational as well, they all really put their stamp on the music, not only in the way that I’d hoped, but beyond the way that I’d hoped really.

My music doesn’t really have much to do with my instruments as a rule. Although it’s gotten easier, there was a time when I was first doing music as a composer band leader where it at times became exceedingly hard for me to even think up parts for myself because a lot of what I was engaged in musically was creating music that I couldn’t play myself. All the sounds that I hear in my head that I can’t make, I have to get other people to do that and so sometimes I leave myself out of that equation.

You must have had some intense jam sessions growing up with a twin who was also a musician. Can you talk a little bit about how your collaborative process evolved?

Our interest in playing our instruments began in the mid-to-late 60s when we essentially got into rock and roll, and, for whatever reason which is kind of hard to explain now, we both just started playing together without necessarily having any kind of tunes on which to base what we were doing. In fact, this kind of became just normal for us, and then when our tastes started to shift as I got to be about 16 and was moving more into an interest in playing jazz, and was certainly was listening to jazz at that point, and was very affected by a lot of the music that was happening at that time, which would have been the early 70s when jazz was going through a lot of big changesthe improvisational aspect of what we were doing obviously just plugged right into that. So even when we heard bands that were playing sophisticated compositional material, and appreciated and admired that. We were hearing a lot of the same bands doing virtually free improvisation or sometimes total large chunks of their concerts were free improvisation. I’m thinking of people like, in the kind of uncategorizable jazz sense, someone like Oregon or in a rock sense, someone like King Crimson. So this gave us a sense that improvisation was actually a viable component to interesting music-making which unfortunately was a bit delusional on our part but we didn’t know any better, we just thought, “Hey we do that, and we like that.” So we pursued it more and more.

As our musical interests grew together, we found a lot of common ground to explore musically together. We did go through a period where my brother was more focused on the acoustic guitar and playing much more kind of intimate and introspective music and kind of developing his musical vocabulary at a time when I was already kind of out there doing a lot of gigs and starting to tour and playing more in what one could call the avant-garde jazz scene, which was from like 1976 on. And it was not long after that the group Quartet Music was formed, that happened at the end of 1979 and our first concert was in 1980. So that brought us back together in a shared musical language that actually required me to come up with a completely different set of instruments to play and demanded different skills from me that turned out to be a real great musical and learning experience for me.

Hearing some of that free music must have opened up the possibilities of what the drum could do, correct?

Yeah, there were sounds that had to happen that were a little more akin to so-called ethnic percussion sounds, but also one of the big challenges was just playing quieter. Having instruments that would generate a certain amount of intensity while not completely overwhelming a band that was while still essentially acoustic was well amplified through a sound system. But it wasn’t loud, so I had to learn to develop a different touch, shall we say. And that turned out to be something that actually had great benefits overall and it really changed my playing, it changed the way I was hearing my instruments, it changed a lot of the choices I ultimately made in a lot of the sounds I was going after as a drummer/percussionist.

Something else your brother mentioned was about how with the Grateful Dead, you were much more into the Live/Dead era, but when Workingman’s Dead happened you kind of “checked out.”

Yeah, that didn’t interest me, but by then I was also pretty much, to use my brother’s phrase, “on jazz island.” So at that point, the kind of rock music or popular-type music that I would have been listening to would have been a lot more out than that. I mentioned King Crimson for example which was one of the holdover groups I maintained an interest in over the years and during the 70s but I was also listening to a lot of groups that were essentially influenced by jazz or in their own kind of way trying to play jazz like The Soft Machine or bands that had become essentially instrumental bands over the course of their evolution. And my brother did enjoy a lot more kind of popular music than I did at that point. I mean he was listening to still and influenced by The Allman Brothers and was listening to Yes and stuff like that andeven though there were a few prog bands that I liked, that music didn’t really captivate me heavily. Partly I think because of the lack of a real loose improvisational aspect to the music. You know, it was so tight and so completely rigidly organized that it became a little bit stifling for me to listen to after a while. It was also during this time that bands like the Mahvishnu Orchestra took off and that was an exciting time, even though jazz purists were horrified.

How do you balance composition and improvisation in your music?

I think for me, having a real strong balance between both those elements is really important. I bear that in mind when I’m writing because I feel like when I compose something, I’m not only creating some music I’m hearing that I want to hear played, but that I’m creating a context for musicians that I want to play with whose voices in the music I really admire and appreciate to have space to explore musically. So frequently people comment that they can’t necessarily tell where the composition ends and the improvisation begins and to me that signals some kind of success level because that’s what I like. I like it when the lines become really blurred.

I like the unpredictability of knowing that once a musician starts applying his or her own sensibilities to a piece of music that it might go a direction that I had never really imaged it might go, and in fact that did happen at times during the recording of this CD. It’s often times those moments in the music making that give me the most enjoyment when I listen to it back. I’m very touched really that people’s comfort level got to the point that they felt they could do that. And that speaks a lot to these people’s abilities as players and improvisers as well and everybody really contributed so much that it really becomes as much of their music as mine. I don’t even really like the term “my music,” it seems a little inappropriate. I initiate most of it but then there’s a lot that could happen. If we were able to play this music live ever, these pieces would be fairly different each time they’re performed.

Moving back to your new album, do you plan to tour behind this project?

Well, there will be a version of this group doing concerts on the West Coast at the end of March. Unfortunately, Peggy Lee had a schedule conflict at the times that were available for these events, so we’ll have a different cellist but this group will play some live sets on the West Coast. I didn’t actually put the group together with the idea that we would actually play live. It was really just to make a CD, so I’m very excited to be able to play the music live. Everybody in fact indicated at the end of the session that they desire to do so, but making that happen of course is a whole different thing, especially since other than me and Jeff, everybody lives somewhere outside of this city, although everybody is at least on the same coast. But it’s definitely not practical in that sense. Other than that I do most of my music making as a sideman, so I’m always doing stuff. I’m always busy playing other people’s music or getting asked to become involved in collaborations usually of an improvisational nature with people from either here in town or up in the Bay Area or people coming through town from elsewhere.

So you would say that most of your music today is in the avant-garde jazz world in general as opposed to rock music?

Yeah, it tends to range from swinging jazz to completely sonically-base free improvisation. Not much in the more rock world. I try to, I have a lot of different and varied musical influences and they frequently, not all of them but many of them find their way into what I do and I like to have a lot of contrast and even at times extremes. Like extreme quiet and extreme intensity, those sorts of dynamic variations. And I have been playing for the last few years with the Arthur Blythe Quintet, and I’m a long standing member of an entity called Open Gate Theater which is a multi-disciplinary music dance theater ensemble that’s very unstable but has been going for many, many years. What else? Oh I’m in the Tom McNally Trio. He’s an electric guitarist here in town and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. There are various projects that are fairly stable and then are these one-offs that seem to happen a lot. And there have been a number of those just recently. As I jokingly said to somebody a while back when they asked what the new CD was like I said, “Well you know, it’s my usual thing, it just kind of goes from meditation to conflagration.” It’s hard to really fully appreciate one without the other, otherwise we wouldn’t know what it was. If we had quiet all the time, we wouldn’t necessarily recognize it as being something special. It would be boring too.

Mike Greenhaus blogs at

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