Photo by Sean Ono Lennon
Nels Cline has led something of a double life for the past 16 years. While known widely as the virtuosic, guitar-wielding, not-so-secret weapon of beloved alt-country originators Wilco, Cline has simultaneously tended to an extremely prolific career as a genre-busting composer, 6-string innovator, and solo artist, and built a reputation as one of the most vital improvisers of his generation.
His astounding number of extracurricular musical pursuits include a critically acclaimed album of duets with jazz guitar wunderkind Julian Lage (2014’s Room) and an ambitious double-disc concept album called Lovers, which not only found Cline a home at the revitalized Blue Note Records, but might be the only album ever to feature covers of songs by both Henry Mancini and Sonic Youth. And let’s not forget his imaginative CUP duo project with his wife, Yuka C. Honda of Cibo Matto.
While there have been countless liaisons and contributions to the albums of others throughout it all, Cline’s true musical home—even before he joined Wilco—has always been his own cleverly named instrumental outfit, the Nels Cline Singers. With the Singers’ latest, Share the Wealth, Cline’s chameleonic, cinematic guitarwork and compositional chops have been thrown into exciting new territory again, thanks to an expanded lineup of improvisational sparring partners whose skills may have inadvertently spoiled the guitarist’s grand vision for another concept record, but to absolutely wonderful effect.
When Cline first hatched the idea for what would become Share the Wealth, the plan was for the freshly expanded Singers lineup—now a sextet—to record a batch of minimally guided improv sessions, which he would then chop up and reimagine via the wonders of DAW editing into a sort of sonic collage—something with a ’60s Brazilian-psychedelia flavor in the vein of Os Mutantes.
Cline also planned to have the squad take a stab at some of his more concrete compositions. Brazilian percussion ace and composer Cyro Baptista (Trey Anastasio, Herbie Hancock), avant-garde tenor sax antagonist Skerik, and keyboard wizard Brian Marsella joined Cline and longtime Singers bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, John Zorn) and drummer Scott Amendola for two days’ work at Brooklyn’s the Bunker Studio.
Despite the impressive resumes of the Singers’ new additions, Cline was unsure if the sessions would yield anything album-worthy, as this lineup had no gigs under its belt, making its chemistry as a unit a major unknown. However, when Cline listened to what the band had captured during those improv sessions, he found something magical. In fact, the guitarist was so impressed with how well the raw material worked in its unedited form that his plans for a chopped-and-screwed sonic collage went out the window altogether. Tchau!
On Share the Wealth, those improv jams now appear—and blend remarkably well—with the Singers’ take on some of Cline’s originals. And despite the lack of major editing, the album’sfinal formis still a psychedelic-tinged aural adventure in which Cline and company take the listener on a journey through impressively executed and dynamic musical arrival points.
Share the Wealth is not only a fine display of the uncanny playing chemistry and clairvoyance that exists between Cline and his Singers—it’s also one of his most approachable releases. The album boasts Brazilian-tinged guitar vamps (“Segunda”), playful backbeat groovers (“The Pleather Patrol”), a pair of somber but beautiful ballads written for a fallen friend (“Passed Down” and “Headdress”), and a stunning, meditative Kubrick-gone-free-jazz odyssey (“A Place on the Moon”).
Cline’s guitar often plays a supporting role on this album, creating unique textures, dancing around and coalescing with Skerik’s wild saxophone outings and Marsella’s perpetually morphing keys. While this might leave fans of his formidable linear chops a little flat, the results are extremely musical and mature. Of course, there are still shining moments of guitar mastery that see Cline reaching for exotic harmony on the Tuareg-influenced album closer “Passed Down” and a few blasts of the man’s signature off-kilter free-jazz weirdness, but it’s applied in a decidedly less confrontational way.
Premier Guitar spoke with Cline by phone as he enjoyed the solitude of his new home in upstate New York, where he reflected on the process of recording the Singers’ new release and discussed the relatively simple (for a man with a famously ever-expanding guitar collection) selection of gear he brought in for Share the Wealth’ssessions, the mastery of improvisation, staying sharp as a musician at a time when most of us can’t play with others, and his endless love for the abstract nature of sound.
I love your original concept for editing improv sessions into a William S. Burroughs-esque cut-up Brazilian psych album. What made you abandon that?
I honestly didn’t even know if we had a record after we finished the sessions. The thing is, we’ve never even played a gig with this expanded version of the Singers. Listening back to what we did when we were just improvising and messing around, I really loved the chemistry there and what we’d done. I really liked hearing us arrive at these musical places and make these shifts very naturally as a band. A lot of the transitions and shifts on the album sound like edits, but they’re just what came out. I didn’t set out any specific parameters for the improv during these sessions, other than for the session that became “A Place on the Moon,” and I just said to everyone “space” on that one. On all the other songs, the other guys were just given BPMs that I chose randomly as click tracks in headphones, thinking that I would have everything on the grid so I could do these bold, jarring juxtapositions that I was envisioning.
TIDBIT: Ambitious and free-ranging, Cline’s new album took just two days to record at Brooklyn’s the Bunker Studio, with engineer Eli Crews.
What’s the ratio between improvised work and composed stuff on the album?
The record’s maybe a third improvised, as far as what I chose to include. Nobody had played any of the written material prior, and we did it all in two days. I had to time compress songs because some improvs were over 30 minutes, but I didn’t edit the trajectories of how any of the improv sessions went at all. There are three complete improvs on the record: “The Pleather Patrol,” “A Place on the Moon,” and “Stump the Panel.”
The original improv that became “Stump the Panel” was well over 20 minutes, and Scott Amendola forgot to put the click in his headphones, but it worked really well. I would just randomly say a BPM to our engineer and co-producer, Eli Crews, and he would put the click in our headphones for the areas of free improv.
For “Stump the Panel,” Scott started out playing all this wild stuff and we were all looking at each other like, “what is going on here?!” So we just turned the click off and did our thing, because he’d just taken off and all this cool stuff started to happen in that jam. When I listened back to this really long improvised jam, I was like “Wow, I really like this! I like this more than the tunes that I’ve written!” It was a delightful surprise.
This group moves as a unit in a way that genuinely sounds like you’ve played together a lot. You do a lot of support playing this time around, too.
I felt the same thing, and I do have a long track record of playing with Scott [Amendola] and Trevor [Dunn], and even Cyro [Baptista] and I have toured together a bit, but how well Brian Marsella and Skerik worked in the mix was really a pleasant surprise. Brian and I had played together and he’d done an expanded lineup gig with the Singers at the Victoriaville Festival a few years ago, and that was where the seeds for this lineup were planted. I had a desire to have musical foils in the treble clef area, to take some attention away from my playing and help me relax a little bit. I was becoming quite daunted and fatigued with being the lead guy in power trios all the time. I really like to play off of somebody.
I didn’t really know what the role of the guitar was going to be in this version of this band. Once I got in the studio, I realized I didn’t really feel like standing out. My head was in a more supportive role and I was focused on doing a lot of looping and sound making and harmony on-the-fly, rather than the single line blazing or finger wiggling that people expect from guitarists who lead bands. I’m not super comfortable listening to myself do that kind of thing at this point. There’s a little bit of that playing on the album. “Headdress” was something where the guitar and the keyboards are really hard to distinguish from one another, because they’re meshed into the same sonic realm deliberately. I did overdub the melody that Skerik’s playing at the end to add some emphasis. That was my big production touch!