Nels Cline on the Between the Times and the Tides Sessions
When you’ve spent the last 30
years changing the vocabulary
of the electric guitar, you can call on
some heavy friends. Lee Ranaldo called
on some of the heaviest for Between
the Times and the Tides. To fans who’ve
come to know Nels Cline through his
high-profile work with Wilco in the
last half decade, it may be a surprise to
know that Cline spent years as the lowkey
guitar king of the free-jazz improv
underground. It should come as no surprise,
then, that Cline and Ranaldo—
who has actively championed the avant
underground for decades—have collaborated
in improvisational situations
before, including 2001’s Four Guitars
Live gig with Thurston Moore and
Carlos Giffoni. While motoring between
Wilco gigs, Cline shared some thoughts
on working with his old buddy, mentor,
and brother in sonic mayhem.
It’s cool to be working with Lee
again, I gather?
I’m really proud to be on the record.
I’ve admired Lee’s work with Sonic
Youth, but also with Kevin Drumm and
Text of Light. So I was thrilled. But it’s
funny, I always seem to be the last guy
to overdub on a record, and that happened
here, too. I just went over to the
studio in Hoboken [New Jersey] with
the idea to play on a couple things to
see how it went, and it just kept going.
When I listened to the record, I realized
I played on about everything! The
record is so amazing sounding, though.
It has such a beautiful roar to it. To hear
the way the guitars all sound together
and how strong the songs are—hearing
it made me emotional, frankly. To be
lucky enough to be part of that sound
got to me.
You seem to have such admiration—
almost a gratitude, it seems—for
what Sonic Youth’s work has meant
to you personally.
That’s very true. The influence Sonic
Youth had on me, personally, is almost
incalculable. Certainly, what they did
with guitars was completely intoxicating
and attractive to me. I never
thought about playing or guitar or
sound the same way after I experienced
them. So that’s pretty huge.
When I first got into them, around
’83 and Confusion Is Sex, I got so into
the whole aesthetic and the way the
band gelled. I thought, “This is perfection
… how can I create something
that’s a complete entity like this.” By the
time they got to Daydream Nation and
became this kind of rock ’n’ roll juggernaut,
that was just so huge in every
way—it was hard to not be impressed.
How do you view Sonic Youth’s influence
in the larger musical world?
Well, in the ’90s when you started
hearing bands like Unwound and
Polvo doing things with detuned guitars
and eighth-note rhythm-section
things, you could spot a very direct
influence. There was also a certain outlook
on culture—the way they married
high and low culture—that felt artful
and humorous at the same time. But
mostly it was just that the music was
excruciatingly beautiful, but not in the
sense most people perceive beautiful—
and that gave people a different angle
from which to hear music in general.
A lot of that is in what they did with
overtones. I’m not sure many people
have been able to touch their sensitivity
or their sense of how to create
intoxication with guitar overtones. But
the way that made folks look at harmonic
information is really influential,
even if fewer people hear or see that
than the bigger pop culture influence.
Society isn’t always so kind to the
avant-garde. Is it weird, after so
many years of toiling in the avantgarde
scene, to look up and think,
“Whoa! There’s Lee … there’s Alan
Licht … we’re all still around!”?
Yeah, man! Absolutely. I’m so thankful.
But when I think about how frail
the body can be and how hard basic
survival can be, yeah, to get to sit
there and work out guitar sounds
with Lee or work with Thurston—
it’s not lost on me for a second how
lucky I am. The avant-garde has less
presence in the media right now, but
that’s certainly not for lack of effort
from Lee and Sonic Youth. Their
efforts to expose the world to the
avant-garde are totally heroic, but
also totally natural.
After playing with Lee in a lot of
improvised contexts, was it weird
to work in the realm of actual
songs and compositions?
No, not at all. I used to grapple with
the implications of occupying those
two divergent streams, but I don’t
really live in that mode of thought
anymore. And knowing Lee and
Thurston over the years and watching
how open and spontaneous they
can be in any world, in any way,
that’s helped immensely.
“Xtina as I Knew Her” is a very
strong example of those two worlds
colliding. It’s deep in abstract textures
and ripping solo work.
Well, Lee was so relaxed—it was just a
very relaxed situation. He just let me
come up with whatever idea I wanted,
directing me just a little. And then,
because we were using Pro Tools, he
could grab whatever parts he liked.
But I was surprised how much he
took and how audible he made it.
Do you have any favorite moments
on the record?
I listened to it recently in the car and
I didn’t want to get out of the car. I
think that’s when I got really emotional
about it. I grew up listening to
music in the car in L.A., and getting
that vibe and all the moods—from
the heavy riffage to the lap steel—
was really cool. There’s both drama
and modesty in it, and things like
the lap steel parts that were so spontaneous