Cline joined Wilco in 2004—and it’s been
his highest- profile gig by far—but he was already a prolific guitarist
before that, with a discography of more than 100 albums. In addition to
having two top 5 records with Wilco, he has put his lovingly detailed
playing on releases by Mike Watt, Thurston Moore, and Quartet Music,
Nels Cline sums up his love for guitar simply and definitively: “I just love sound. That’s the main thing I like about being in a rock band— the sound is surrounding me, and it’s inherently exciting to me.” That’s a remarkable statement for a musician who has recorded professionally for nearly 35 years.
Born in Los Angeles in 1956, the self-taught Cline initially reveled in the sounds of ’60s rock and jazz, and he lists Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck, and especially Jimi Hendrix as influences. The reason you’re reading about him today is because he pursues experiment like few others, as evidenced most recently by the buzzing, queasy ambiance of “Thurston County” (off his 2009 release Coward) and the frantic, Latin rock-inspired soloing in “King Queen” off his brand-new Nels Cline Singers album Initiate.
Whether he’s playing in Wilco or an avant-jazz side project, Cline melds rich, tone-color creations with slashing, climatic solos that are both fiery and beautiful. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that he’s a bona fide pedal addict and gear guru. He sat down with PG before a recent Wilco gig to talk about his affinity for “ugly duckling” guitars, his secret passion for shredding, and why he’ll never, ever put down his Jazzmaster.
Is it true Jimi Hendrix inspired you to pursue guitar?
Yeah—I was already thinking about it, though, because I was into The Byrds, and my twin brother, Alex, was listening to the Rolling Stones all the time. We were becoming rock ’n’ roll obsessed, and we were buying records with our allowance every two weeks. When Are You Experienced came out, it looked incredibly cool, but we had bought records based on how cool they looked before and they weren’t always great. But then I heard “Manic Depression” on AM radio—which was really amazing considering “Purple Haze” was supposed to be the single at that time—and that was the moment I decided it was going to be guitar forever. It was just the most magical moment.
Who are some of your favorite guitarists?
It’s a huge list. Roger McGuinn from The Byrds, John McLaughlin, Jim Hall, Tom Verlaine. Many of them were influential when I was a boy or teenager, like Duane Allman and Steve Howe. I was really influenced by Peter Frampton when he was in Humble Pie. Also Robert Fripp, Wes Montgomery and, of course, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. I also think Jeff Tweedy is one of the most underrated guitarists. John Dieterich of Deerhoof and Jeff Parker in Tortoise are great guitar players. These are my friends, but I admire what they do. I’m just a music fan and a guitar fan. Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix were my main guys when I was 12 or 13, but I find myself drawn to Beck’s playing now more than ever. I don’t necessarily mean all his records; it’s just his guitar playing is so phenomenal and innovative and expressive that I find myself thinking about it a lot, especially when I’m playing a rock song. I was also very much influenced by John Coltrane.
Was it a surprise when Rolling Stone named you one of 20 “New Guitar Gods”?
Cline and one of his prized 1959 Jazzmasters. Photo by Anne Erickson.
It was definitely surprising. I don’t think I can take things like that seriously, but it was a fun thing to tell my mom when she was alive then. I don’t think she could really wrap her mind around the whole idea of it, but she knew it was good.
Aside from Wilco, you always have plenty of solo projects going. Of all the projects and releases coming out in 2010, which are you most excited to see come to fruition?
Probably the new record by my trio, The Nels Cline Singers. It’s called Initiate, and it’s a double CD: one studio disc, and one live. The studio CD is a little bit different stylistically—a little more groovy—and I use my voice on some of the songs, which I haven’t done before. And then there’s the live CD recorded in San Francisco at Café Du Nord that’s sort of our usual mayhem. So I’m excited about that, for sure.
Do you use the same guitars in both Wilco and your solo projects?
Pretty much. Oftentimes, I’m traveling and I can only bring one guitar. But sometimes I like to get kind of swanky. I did this record last year called Coward, and it’s an overdubbed record of me doing everything. I used a lot of guitars from my home studio on that, so that was an opportunity for me to use things I don’t normally use.
Sounds fun—which guitars did you use for that?
Well, Coward didn’t really involve “swanky” guitars—just a lot of layers of mostly cheap ones, like Silvertone and Truetone acoustics. My ‘70s vintage Taylor 12-string that I bought new in 1978 was crucial to “Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven,” however, and it’s pretty swanky! But my attempts to use my lovely 1960 Gretsch Tennessean or ‘66 Gibson Firebird with Wilco have so far been unsuccessful. Jazzmasters and Jaguars, plus oddities like Hopf and Magnatone guitars, seem to serve me better.
How many guitars do you own?
You know, I’m actually not sure, because I didn’t used to own a lot of guitars before I joined Wilco. Jeff Tweedy is a terrible influence on me [laughs]. I might have about 45. Some of that is a necessity of duplication, because I spend so much time with Wilco in Chicago. But I live in Los Angeles, so I’ve had to amass amps, pedals and guitars in both places so I don’t have to fly with all this stuff.