From Crippling Insecurity to Channeling the Ineffable Cosmic Om
Nels Cline’s expansive musical vision encompasses, intermingles, and frequently transcends multiple idioms.
The idiosyncratic guitarist has received widespread recognition for his incendiary soloing and hip compositional contributions as a member of Wilco—though viewed within the totality of his creative endeavors, rock star might reasonably be considered his “day job.” Cline has released more than 50 albums as a leader or principal collaborator—including seven with his longstanding free-jazz ensemble the Nels Cline Singers and a celebrated duo project with Julian Lage—and performed on well over 100 others by a wildly diverse group of artists that includes Yoko Ono, Lydia Lunch, Rickie Lee Jones, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Rufus Wainwright, Tinariwen, Banyon, Wayne Kramer, Medeski Martin & Wood, Osamu Kitajima, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Carla Bozulich, Zeena Parkins, and John Zorn.
Cline’s electric guitar playing is practically devoid of cliches and to a great extent distinguished by his deft hybrid picking, distinctive rapid vibrato bar manipulations, dramatic open-string pull-offs and hammer-ons, impossibly fluid angular runs and arpeggios, atypical chord voicings, expressive bends, and edgy glissandos—not to mention his signature extended techniques, and uncanny mastery of effect pedals, especially the notoriously difficult to wrangle Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Digital Delay. His nylon-string and steel-string acoustic guitar work is equally uncommon.
Whether reimaging jazz standards or generating walls of exquisite noise, adding delicate atmospherics to tunes by singer-songwriters or pounding out post-punk mayhem, infusing conventional rock songs with tasteful harmonic and melodic touches or opening fissures in the space-time continuum with otherworldly sonic manifestations, however, Cline remains true to his inherent aesthetic nature, always sounding like himself.
Do we tap into creativity or does it tap into us?
Ah, yes. It’s almost the ultimate question. Sometimes it feels like it taps into me and other times I feel like I tap into it. When it taps into me it’s more of an “A-ha” or “bulb-lighting-up” experience—the sudden feeling of an infusion of ideas or a certain resonant frequency that absorbs my attention. Much has been said about the ineffable and universal Om or whatever speaking through the musician and I guess in a sense that’s what I’m referring to.
But then there are other more nuts and bolts or even possibly banal examples of creative bursts sparked purely by something like having heard somebody else’s music. I’ll be so galvanized by a musical moment or sonic event that whatever reluctance to engage in musical endeavor that I may have been experiencing at the time will be shattered and I’ll start playing and working in a new creative burst. That could also be creativity tapping into me, though I see it more as nuts and bolts when it’s somebody else’s creativity that’s sparking mine—but maybe they are really the same thing?
Or they at least spring from the same source?
I’ve never formulated any sort of codified concepts about this, but it is certainly something that has captivated me since I was a boy. Everyone seems to possess a certain innocent joy in creating stuff, and children up to about adolescent age are very free with their creativity, until eventually it gets drummed out of them. Certainly in the early years of schooling, if you have a decent scholastic atmosphere, you get to try a bunch of different stuff like arts and crafts and painting and music, and something may snag you. I think we are all creative until we’re told that we’re not adequate, or that we have to obey all these rules, or that we have to get a real job—whatever it is that tends to put the kibosh on natural creative endeavor.
And as we get older, it becomes an increasingly complicated affair, especially when those external forces include the sorts of rules, judgments, competition, justification, and other things that the art world, and to a certain extent the music world, engages in tirelessly. These sort of outside forces that aren’t creative have certainly taken a toll on me and created what could be described as a kind of self-consciousness. Someone just sent me a hilarious pie chart that said something about musicians. A huge piece of the pie was labeled “crippling insecurity.” The next biggest piece, which wasn’t even a quarter, was labeled “practicing,” and then there were these little tiny, tiny slivers like “thinking about practicing.”
That crippling insecurity thing is an ongoing process with me, as I deal with the real world, so-called, rather than the child’s world of kind of constant creativity and constant freedom in one’s mind and soul. I remember two musician that I had been playing with for years confronting me and saying, “You and your brother and all these guys have been putting out your records for a long time, but what makes you think they are any good? What makes you think that you could hold those records up to, like, Coltrane’s records?” Those kinds of encounters are not exactly confidence instilling.
But the thing is that I can’t stop doing what I’m doing and so I haven’t. I have wanted to do what I’m doing since I was 12 years old and there’s really nothing else I can do except write and maybe make collages. I’ve always thought of artists as sort of “my people” since I was young, and my parents were always encouraging. They were school teachers who really respected art and culture. They made my brother Alex and I feel like we had talent, and that art was an acceptable path. Having that support from an early time all the way into adulthood certainly instilled at least a kind of confidence—but it didn’t prevent crippling insecurity [laughs].
I feel like in many ways, in spite of my certain, I guess, consistent artistic leanings, I have spent way too much energy just trying to get over, just trying to be acknowledged. And I don’t mean acknowledged as great, I mean just heard. I think there are compromises that an artist can make in a situation like that to maybe tread in more familiar territory just to get work, just to keep going. In my case it’s not really compromise in the worst sense, it’s subtler and even insidious, happening almost unconsciously. So, at various points I’ve had to reassess my decision making in terms of my aesthetic choices and compositions.
I have so many diverse ideas. It’s kind of like my guitar playing when people say, “Oh, yeah, man, I love your style.” And I say, “What style?” I play in a million different ways and I don’t know why except that I’m just trying to do the job of the music at hand to the best of my ability, the way I’m hearing it, which doesn’t have any kind of consistent voice, in my opinion.
You don’t believe that you have a distinctive voice as a guitarist?
Absolutely not. Take John Scofield, for example, where you can hear three notes and know it’s him. I know that there are things that people associate with my guitar playing, but I don’t always do them. There’s so much talk about finding one’s “voice” and style when one is coming up, and in my case I guess I’ve spent so much time freaking out with distortion and looping that a lot of people think that that’s all I’ve ever done. Other people may have heard my solo on “Impossible Germany,” which I guess is what I’m best known for at this point, but that’s just a particular aspect of my lead guitar playing. And when some people hear me play acoustic guitar they say, “I didn’t know that you played acoustic.”
Regarding soloing, to be honest, for the past few years one of the things I don’t want to hear, by choice, is me soloing. A lot of my own records tend to eschew guitar soloing in any large degree, and when I do it I often feel like I’m just being pressured into it due to the fact that I’m the leader writing the music and that I play guitar and people are known for that.
The reluctant guitar hero?
The “guitar hero” was invented by British rock writers when I was a little boy, and although I bought into the romance and excitement to some extent, what I was really interested in was sound and the massive amount of excitement and creativity that was going on in the late-’60s popular music. And so, yeah, it was cool. I loved how hippy musicians looked and I loved the album covers and all that kind of stuff, but in spite of my deep love of Jimi Hendrix, my main inspiration to play music for the rest of my life, I never saw myself as flamboyant or an attention getter. I just wanted to participate in music making and have the music speak for itself.
And the guitar hero thing is both positive and negative. On the one hand, it has provided instant cache in a marketplace that generally eschews instrumental music or music that’s maybe category-less, simply due to the fact that I’m a guitarist. On the other, it often means that people just want to know about the guitar. For example, in interviews I’m rarely asked about my songs, song titles, compositional structures, and things like that. And when one is an instrumentalist as well as a composer, there’s typically a sort of “show me” thing that comes up, in which it is imperative to somehow prove one’s facility, virtuosity, and possible innovation on the instrument in question.
Well, sometimes I just want to play chords over and over again or just play a drone and live in it for a while. What has always interested me more than virtuosity is some kind of cool sound or a chord voicing that’s just so transporting, which gets back to creativity. There is this feeling of going somewhere else and being immersed in it, which is a much deeper level of musical experience than the, I guess, initial sort of thrill and excitement of being in the presence of insane virtuosity, like, say, seeing Eddie Van Halen, where you just go “whoa” and your hair stands up. But then, ultimately, you have to address the aesthetics if you want to live with it.
How would you describe your creative process?
Generally, it’s a struggle and it starts with the germ of an idea—something that’s leading somewhere, but I don’t usually know where. So, the first little inkling, that first fascination, doesn’t really feel like anything at the time. It’s only in retrospect that I realize that this tiny little idea just engendered a potentially elaborate series of musical events that I deigned to happen by organizing them. Typically, it’s just one chord voicing or two chords, and usually it’s not a melody, which may be why I’m not the most melodic guitar player.
Can you provide a specific example?
Recently, I was asked to play a 30-minute solo set for a live-streamed event. I took on the composing of two new pieces because I happened to be sitting around playing this little three-quarter-size Airline guitar that’s almost impossible to play, but which I love the sound of. In fact, the sound quite often reminds me of the guitar sound on Jim Hall’s early work from the late ’50s up to the ’70s, which was all on his Gibson ES175. So, I just sat around playing this guitar and next thing I knew, I had these ideas and I thought, “Well, I should really do something with this.” And then a few days later, I had two new pieces of music that I’d practiced over and over and over just because it was so hard to actually play this instrument. And the piece that currently is called “The Shuffle Riff Variations” started out with two chords, just a little riff back and forth, in alternating odd time signatures. I just think naturally in odd meters sometimes, or, always really [laughs].
Generally, when I write this kind of material, or almost anything that’s not in some sort of classic functional harmonic structure, I follow my ear and do the musical analysis later. I just ask myself as I’m working, “What’s next? What am I hearing?” I kind of move things around and keep playing them over and over until they all start to connect to something. Then, if I have to, I’ll analyze the harmonic content and rhythmic content later. It’s basically still an intuitive process for me, typically not based on any kind of compositional organization, rules, or regulations—and is coloristic. It’s like, “Does that taste good? Does that smell good? Yeah, okay, good.”
What about when you’re playing live and you’re improvising and you get the jolt then?
Oh, that’s a whole other topic. I have definitely experienced that deep connection when I’ve felt transported, and it’s almost like I might suddenly wake up and discover it’s not really happening. I feel that way quite often when playing with Julian Lage. There’s a sort of flowing, almost like the music is playing itself. I’m so relaxed while playing with him that I just play better. I tend to get nervous and tight in a lot of other situations.
Another side of it is the “sound bath” sort of thing. For example, I was playing with Zeena Parkins and Thurston Moore in the Easthampton Town Hall in Massachusetts, and although Thurston broke a string in the first minute or so and had to five-string it through the whole thing, it was one of those gigs where basically we were traveling through another world and I was feeling light as a feather, like I was levitating. And it’s not about finger wiggling or scales or nailing it. We were flowing in the moment, with—how many cliches can I come up with? Tripping the light fantastic or flying on the wings of angels. But that’s what it feels like. And this is one of the ultimate lures to continue playing even when my crippling insecurity is sending me all these negative messages. It’s moments like those that nullify that nattering voice.
Yeah. That’s the payoff. Coming at this from a slightly different perspective, as it pertains to performing, does it feel more like the result of neurological brain activity or some other organic process—or more like some sort of transcendent or even spiritual experience?
The answer is almost the same as before, which is I’m not sure, but maybe all of the above? Again, there’s certainly a lot that has been said and written about the music of the spheres and the healing properties of resonant frequencies and all those sorts of things. But I will say that as a musician, I feel grateful and humbled to be a participant in something that’s apparently so much larger than me. I feel that way whether I’m playing a large Wilco gig or for 60 people with a group of improvisors—when that feeling’s there, it’s there.
I feel privileged to have those experiences, and there is something spiritual about them because music’s so much bigger than I am. And I don’t mean “big” as in important. It is certainly important to me, but it doesn’t have to be to everybody. The music has its own life, its own resonance, its own trajectory—and in some cases, its own demands. I’m not somebody who can interpret music of great complexity, requiring great virtuosity, because I wasn’t raised that way, musically. I didn’t have guitar lessons. I’ve carved out a path doing the best I can, and I’m just trying to keep up a lot of the time. But that’s great, I’ll take it!
I suspect that many audience members were also transported on those occasions you mentioned. People of all types, all over the world, seem to be able to sense when that magic is happening and the creative energy is flowing. It’s tangible to the listener as much as it is to the performer, isn’t it?
I would hope so. I don’t want to make any assumptions on the audience’s part, but as an audience member in good standing myself on many an occasion, I would have to agree with that. I remember quite a few years ago I was playing a festival in Wels, Austria with the Singers and we were on after a duo of Yamantaka Eye from The Boredoms and Otomo Yoshihide, who was doing turntables at the time. They are two people that I am extremely in awe of, and they hadn’t played together much previously, as they are from different scenes in Japan. There was plenty of histrionic drama and at times while watching and listening to them the performance was so compelling that I found it somewhat overwhelming and just started crying. And I cannot have been alone in feeling something strong from that performance. The music they played was unremittingly of an avant-garde nature, and was in no way intended to evoke sentiment, but there was something about the energy of it that felt so marvelously human. It was so unapologetically what it was.
When these things happen, I just feel like I’m on the right path in life because I get to play my music. But it also messed with my head, because at the same time that was happening I was thinking to myself, “Now I’m going to go up there and play my fucking Pink Floyd jazz?” You know what I mean? It was a little crushing in that way. But that was a positive wakeup call and it made me wonder about some of my own aesthetics. When I saw the Pop Tatari-era Boredoms, it was the only gig where I ever thought, “Okay, stage diving’s a good idea.” I didn’t do it, but I wanted to. Sometimes music just makes you go crazy.
I’ve had quite a few goosebumps moments watching you play in different contexts over the years.
Well, that’s beautiful to hear. Sometimes Julian and I would end our set with a piece called “The Bond,” which is dedicated to my wife Yuka, and people would be tearful. That’s what I was feeling, and they were feeling it, too. That also made me feel like I was on the right path—and that I was doing the right thing with my goddamned life [laughs].