Avant noise terrorist with a jazz jones; improv worshipper; atomic flamethrower hurling molten punk-infused spit balls. Guitarist Nels Cline fits all three bills. And that’s barely scratching the surface.
Working in a wide range of styles, from straight-ahead, frenzied post-punk destruction to free jazz to soundscape/noise experimentation, the Los Angeles-based Cline might just be the most versatile and interesting six-stringer working in the indie/underground world today.
Cline has appeared on more than 60 albums, the first of which – jazz man Vinny Golia’s Openhearted – dates back to 1979. He’s recorded and performed with a slew of jazz and rock artists in addition to steering several of his own projects. Cline even landed on two major labels recently via his work with bassist Mike Watt, late of the Minutemen and Firehouse, and former Virgin Records act the Geraldine Fibbers.
His latest projects include Scarnella, an ensemble featuring Geraldine Fibbers singer/songwriter Carla Bozulich, and a his own band, a new six-piece featuring four (!!) guitarists, which follows his previous unit, the Nels Cline Trio.
VG spoke with Cline on a tour stop with Watt.
Vintage Guitar: You mentioned you worked at the Rhino Record store in L.A.
Nils Cline: That was from about late ’76 to ’86. That was how I ended up hearing a lot of stuff – the Minutemen, Australian jazz, Television.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up, what were some of your influences?
My twin brother, Alex, plays drums and he and I used to play music together all the time. When I got to high school I got into Coltrane, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, that sort of thing. We weren’t too interested in Kiss or any of those “crucial” ’70s bands. I was really influenced by Ornette Coleman and Coltrane. I played with people like Vinny Golia, Bobby Bradford, Charlie Haden, Julius Hemphill. All the time I was playing rock, but in a more experimental vein.
Do you still have a foot in the more jazz-influenced playing scene?
Oh yeah, I still play with all those people.
How many people do you play with?
Currently, I’m playing with Carla [Bozulich] in a new project called Scarnella. I play with Mike [Watt] and once in a while with Thurston [Moore, Sonic Youth guitarist], Bobby Bradford, Vinny Golia, Gregg Bendian – he’s a New York percussionist – and Devin Sarno – a bass player in L.A. I have my own band, but it’s no longer the Nels Cline Trio, it’s called Destroy All Nels Cline. It’s a six-piece with four guitarists, bass, and drums.
How do you approach playing with all these different musicians and their personalities and styles? Is it difficult to adjust your playing to fit the style/mood?
Well, I’m old (laughs). I’m 42, so I’ve had a lot of experience, not necessarily pro or session-type stuff. And I think one of my strengths is feeling some connection to the sensibility of the person I’m playing with. With the Geraldine Fibbers, it wasn’t about me playing heavy leads, whereas with Mike it is. I like a lot of different types of playing and I’m lucky I’ve been able to do different things. I don’t really draw any lines. I’m not interested in categories, which is why none of my records can be sold very easily.
Do you like being told to wing it when you’re playing with others, or do you like a “road map?”
I actually like getting directions from people, although not necessarily purely musical. For example, on (the Geraldine Fibbers CD) Butch, there’s a piece called “Trashman in Furs” where Carla asked me to play like a 14-year-old boy in his bedroom who’s grossly incompetent but really sincere. With Mike, he uses metaphors to describe what he wants, so there are sounds on “Contemplating the Engine Room” where he wanted the sound of bike-pedaling and a propeller turning.
Your work, particularly with the trio, features a good amount of improv playing. How did that develop?
I was kind of an experimenter in the earliest days because I was terrible. I was real into feedback and stuff like that. I used to play the guitar different ways to get certain sounds, then I tried to learn how to play for real and kind of stopped doing that. I got all serious and tried to learn scales and chords and said, “I’m not gonna mess around like that anymore!” Now I think of this as a quest to get the sounds I’m hearing in my head.
What’s up with the objects you used to play with? There’s got to be some crazy stuff going on.
I’m kind of known for using an egg whisk. I also use toy ray guns, which I stole from the guy in Ultra Bide, a Japanese guitarist whose name I can’t remember right now. And I have these talk toys. I use springs, too. I’m just grabbing whatever object I like and trying to play with some originality. Although I use different textures and sounds and implements on the guitar, it isn’t new at all. I’m taking things I like and I’ve convoluted them rather than being an originator of anything.
What are your main guitars?
I primarily play one of two guitars when I play with Mike or my trio or the Geraldine Fibbers. My main one’s a ’59 Jazzmaster I bought in ’95. It’s kind of Frankensteined; I’ve really chewed it to bits. But it’s a really nice-sounding guitar. The other one is a ’66 Jaguar. I have three Jazzmasters at home and two Jaguars. And when I play tunings I play a Jerry Jones baritone guitar. And I play a Jerry Jones 12-string, along with a Fender 12. I play a Hagstrom, which I have open-tuned. I love Hagstroms. I play a Gibson lapsteel sometimes, a Taylor 12-string I bought in the late ’70s. I have a Martin 00-17 from ’52. What else….? Oh, the other Jaguar I have as a spare is a ’64. It’s a total beater. It had hippie paint all over it when I bought it.
I have a Gibson 335, a ’71. It was my first good guitar. I got it when I was 16.
What do you like about the old Jags and Jazzmasters?
It’s interesting because they’re so en vogue now and they used to be joke guitars. You got made fun of if you played one. I started listening to Sonic Youth and started wanting to play behind the bridge of the guitar more, so I decided to check out a Jaguar or Jazzmaster, whichever I could find first. I didn’t know there were differences in pickups and that one had a slightly longer scale, which is what I particularly like about the Jazzmaster. But being able to play behind the bridge is crucial for me. I think the neck pickup has a really good tone, and I like the body shape, it’s very comfortable. The neck is good for my long fingers – it works well for me. And some of them don’t, like a Les Paul. I can’t hang with them. I loved Duane Allman so I kinda wanted one. People who’ve heard my so-called jazz CDs think I’m playing something other than a Jazzmaster.
Do you run into tremolo problems with the Jazzmasters?
Everyone asks, “How do you keep it in tune?” But I don’t have a lot of trouble with them. It’s more susceptible to temperature changes, you come from a cold van into a hot, sweaty club…
Photo: Jeff Brown.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug ’99 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.