Interview: Nels Cline on Masturbation, Thurston Moore, and Wilco's New Record
"I'm a really big fan of Sonic Youth, and I kind of don't make any bones about it."
Jeff Tweedy pulled a rabbit out of his beard when he landed Nels Cline in Wilco following Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Screwing with that album's winning formula by introducing an off-the-wall competing guitarist
on its follow-up, A Ghost is Born for the tour in support of Foxtrot's follow-up, A Ghost is Born, was arguably idiotic but no doubt genius. Cline, an L.A. born-and-bred guitarist of infinite variations, proceeded to spew his electric load all over live renditions of Ghost songs, in effect challenging Tweedy to jerk off with his own guitar-playing, which suddenly was possessed by Neil Young circa the album Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. By accident or by design, Tweedy had, in Cline, installed a permanent challenge to his already "A" game.
Throughout his five-year run with Wilco, Cline has additionally released more than a dozen albums of his own, in various configurations. His latest, Coward, is an elegant, meditative, "me, me, me"--as in he plays all the guitars and all the effects--project that was 25 years in the making. I caught up with the 53-year-old guitarist in advance of his solo show at the Stone this Sunday, wherein he will mostly forgo the multi-layered songs on Coward in favor of his "usual, semi-premeditated sonic investigations." Our topics of discussion: masturbation; how he and his twin brother, a drummer, were influenced by the '60s; and why an eccentric like him is still attracted to a mainstream band like Wilco.
I have one of your old records, Ash and Tabula, and, you know, it's pretty aggro. But Coward sounds a little like John Fahey--more casual. What gives?
The record that you mentioned with Tom Rainey and Andrea Parkins [Ash and Tabula]--like, some of the records I put out are completely improvised. The records with my trio, the Nels Cline Singers, and with myself, in this case Coward, are not only improvised records but records that reflect my compositional interests. Coward is a particularly unique project, not just because it's an overdub project, but also because it's not a collaboration with anybody. I just indulged all my fascinations with microtonality and overtones--that's what's going on there.
So the new songs are compositions, not improvisations?
There's a combination of both things on the record. For example, certain songs, like "Prayer Wheel" or "The Divine Homegirl" or "The Nomad's Home"--some of them are songs, with melodies and chord changes and rhythms. Other pieces, like "X Change(s)," are kinds of experiments in basically improvising with myself and string instruments. Obviously, if I did something as I was improvising on this record that I didn't like, then I could hear it. So there's a certain amount of preconception that's inherent in just giving it another try. But I tried not to hack away at it over and over again and lose its spontaneity.
Do you play to impress sophisticated listeners, or do you play to educate a curious listener, maybe like a Wilco fan who wants to learn more about some of this avant type of music?
I don't do either one. I play what I like to play. I mean, I've never sold many records so it's not like I've been thinking about sales. I just make something that I think my friend Jeff Gauthier, whose label I've been recording on, and my friends would probably enjoy, and say, "Hey, good job, Nels."
Do you have a pet bird?
I hear a bird chirping.
Oh, it's just the great outdoors of Glendale, California.
Are you playing an acoustic on the album, or is that a steel guitar?
There's all kinds of stuff. But it's a mostly acoustic record.