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Guitarist Nels Cline On 'Lovers,' An Album 25 Years In The Making


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.


BIANCULLI: Today's guest, Nels Cline, is best known as a guitarist in the indie rock band Wilco. He brought a more experimental sound to the band, adding the kind of feedback, distortion and noise that he's explored in the avant-garde groups he's led. But, as you can hear, the album he released last year is a departure. It's a collection of lushly arranged versions of American popular songs, covers of more recent songs and some original compositions.

The album is called "Lovers," with arrangements by Michael Leonhart. In 2007, Rolling Stone named Nels Cline one of 20 new guitar gods. And in 2011, he made the magazine's list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time. We're going to listen back to the interview Terry recorded last year with Nels Cline, shortly after his album "Lovers" came out. This weekend, Nels Cline will be performing at the Solid Sound Festival, a three-day music, comedy and arts festival curated by Wilco on the campus of MASS MoCA in western Massachusetts.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Nels Cline, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me ask you to describe the concept of your new album, "Lovers."

NELS CLINE: Well, it's something that I've been pondering and dreaming about for, well, maybe over 25 years, certainly. It's about a mood music record but not a cheesy one. It's an attempt to show feelings, update and be more thorough the idea of romance, sexuality, intimacy and how that relates to songs - not to say that I have achieved that (laughter), but I am aspiring to that.

GROSS: So you said it's kind of like your take on mood music but not the cheesy kind. In my mind, mood music was always considered cheesy. (Laughter) You know, it's not about just - you know, to me, like, beautiful music - you could say ballads. But mood music always implied this kind of cheesy thing for swinging bachelors or for, like - there's always, like, a picture on the album cover of, like, a beautiful woman lying in front of the fire or woman lying on - with her head on her lover's lap or something, you know (laughter)? You're supposed to, like, put it on to get in the mood (laughter).

CLINE: Right.

GROSS: And so that's the cheesy part. Why are you thinking of it in terms of mood music? Why not just come out and say they're beautiful ballads?

CLINE: Well, I think it has something to do with how I initially thought of the record because I was working for almost 10 years in a record store in West Los Angeles called Rhino Records. And we had all those $1 mood music records, many of which I put up on the bathroom wall - were the covers that you're describing. But I also discovered later that some of them weren't cheesy. And I also felt that it would be interesting to update the idea of this record and make it darker in terms of the emotional and artistic content.

GROSS: So you are best known for more, like, free jazz kind of stuff and for adding distortion and feedback and noise...

CLINE: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...To Wilco with your guitar and all the gizmos or whatever (laughter) that you have that you can attach...

CLINE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...To it. And in this, like, you're playing, on a lot of it, much more straightforwardly and much more melodically. And I'm wondering if melody is starting to take on new meaning for you as a musician.

CLINE: Well, I mean, I think it's always been there. But maybe you're correct in that there is a, I guess, continued interest that has taken on new meaning and maybe a certain kind of relevance as I've hit age 60 (laughter).

GROSS: The age when melody sets in (laughter).

CLINE: But it's always been there, to be honest. I just feel that in my own work, there have been, I guess, more extremes. But every one of my records pretty much has some kind of at least floaty ballad on it that I consider to be melodic. But they might be at least a little abstract.

GROSS: I think one of my favorite tracks on here is "Beautiful Love," which is a Victor Young song. And he wrote some great songs - "My Foolish Heart," "When I Fall In Love," "Street Of Dreams," "I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You" and the theme for "Johnny Guitar," which is - which Peggy Lee sings in the movie and is really great.

CLINE: Wow, I forgot about that.

GROSS: Yeah, and this is not one of his, you know, best-known songs, but it's a beautiful song. So tell us why you chose it. And I'd also like you to describe the instrumentation work in here in the opening because it's very ear-catching. And I recognize some of the instruments, but I don't know exactly what's going on.

CLINE: Well, we've got a reference at the beginning of "Beautiful Love" to its original appearance, as far as I understand it, which is in the Boris Karloff movie "The Mummy." And in that iteration, it's in three-four time, which our introduction is.

And I asked Kenny Wollesen, who plays vibraphone on this, to put the motor on very fast, which is a sound that I associate with the 1930s and '40s and a sound that one does not hear so much these days. It was kind of, I guess, deemed uncool at some point. I don't know what happened there. And we've got the bassoon, and we've got flute. And it's just very charming at the beginning.

And then we go into what I could, I guess, generally describe as a jazz guitar, bass, drums trio with Devin Hoff and my brother, Alex Cline. So it's a kind of combination in my mind of a retro tribute and then an update relating to my love of jazz music.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is a great track. It's called "Beautiful Love," and this is from my guest Nels Cline's new album, "Lovers."


GROSS: That's "Beautiful Love" from Nels Cline's new album, "Lovers." What you're playing there in your more solo part sounds almost inspired by Wes Montgomery.

CLINE: Oh, yeah, absolutely and, you know, many great jazz guitarists I could name. I have to say that Jim Hall is a huge inspiration and a touchstone for much of this record for me. And Jim and I were sort of getting to know each other not long before he passed away. And while I was making this record, there were certain pieces that I really couldn't wait to play for him (laughter).

But he passed away in the last day of tracking in his sleep in his apartment a block from where I've been living in Manhattan. And "Secret Love" on the record is actually an homage to him directly because we play it in the key of A flat major that he enjoyed playing it in. And I always thought that the polyrhythmic heartbeat polychord that I came up with would really, really kind of bring a smile to his face (laughter).

But certainly Wes - I love George Benson, and I think that Django Reinhardt, when he went electric in the '50s, is very underrated. And I really love that sound. So certain aspects of guitar are part of the sort of layered homage on much of this record.

GROSS: You know, you mention Jim Hall, and I think of him as being one of the most spare guitarists. And I think of you as just a kind of multilayered, very almost dense guitarist 'cause there's so many layers of sound and distortion in some of your work. So it's interesting to me that you would feel such a connection to his music.

CLINE: Jim was a genius. And he was also, yes, as you point out, really a master of understatement. And I think maybe, in this case, my deep love of him is not merely aesthetic and musical. But, also, there's that kind of love of the other - you know? - because, yes, I'm - I have a million notes buzzing in my head, and when you hear "Lady Gabor" on the "Lovers" record, you hear me doing live looping and all these kinds of things that I enjoy doing that are, I guess, part of my style, I guess. You know, I don't know. But I do aspire to growing up some day to being more like Jim.


CLINE: I wish.

BIANCULLI: Nels Cline speaking with Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with guitarist Nels Cline. He'll be performing this weekend at the Sonic Sound Festival in western Massachusetts.


GROSS: So let's talk about your work with Wilco. I know there's a lot of Wilco fans in our audience. You joined the band in 2004. So what did Wilco bring out in your playing? Like, how did you adjust yourself to find the right sound for Wilco?

CLINE: It's actually kind of interesting that - I think, primarily, my goal was not to bring my personality as a whatever - you know, jazz-type, soundscape-type person to the band, but that kind of ended up happening. I feel that, mostly, it - the Wilco songbook kind of brought out my sort of 14-year-old aesthetic self, the rock ’n’ roll obsessive that was listening ardently to Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds and, you know, The Beatles and Rolling Stones - that music that I grew up with. And, interestingly, I think trying to channel either my initial idol Jimi Hendrix or trying to fake some Clarence White - or (laughter), you know what I mean? - some great Glen Campbell stuff or something.

And then Jeff has to tell me sometimes, you know, you're being too reverent to this material. And sometimes I think he wants me to destroy the song...


CLINE: ...As he did on a song like "Dawned On Me," where I think I was trying to come up with some little jingle-jangly thing. And while I was messing around, I was strangulating my '60s guitar and with an amp that was - basically, I blew up the amp doing this. And he said that's the sound that should be in the solo section. So, I mean, that would not have been my first impulse. And I think that people think it is, that my whole raison d'etre is to bring some sort of chaotic sound design to Wilco's ensemble sound, but it wasn't.

I really enjoy addressing this more classicist aspect of popular music, whether it's country, folk or rock ’n’ roll, and just trying to make the song sound like the song should sound. You know what I mean? It's not all about some kind of avant-garde mindset or about changing the sound of the band or bringing whatever my thing is into it because I really don't think I have a thing when it comes to music. I think I want the music to sound like it should sound to everyone in the band and then particularly to Jeff if he wrote the song. That's what's successful to me.

GROSS: Did you have to find not only, like, a music space for yourself within the band Wilco, but also, like, an onstage personality to have? Because - let's face it - the smaller, more avant-garde groups that you play with probably play in, like, small clubs and small performance spaces, where everybody's wearing a T-shirt and - granted, you all wear T-shirts onstage anyways. But you know what I mean.

CLINE: Not me.

GROSS: Oh, not you?


GROSS: But those small spaces, I mean - it's just different than being in, like, a really big theater or an arena.

CLINE: It's sort of - this is going to sound maybe a little like I'm kind of not telling the truth, but I am telling the truth. I don't really care how many people are there, and I kind of play the same no matter what. But, yes, rock ’n’ roll has pageantry, I like to call it.

GROSS: Yeah. Exactly. Right.

CLINE: In Wilco - yeah - we have lights. We have atmosphere. We have, you know, fake smoke - all that stuff that rock bands do.

GROSS: You do the fake smoke thing?

CLINE: Well, light designers insist on it so they get definition from the way the lights look. It's just a thing. We don't do, like, fog, like dry-ice fog like The Cure or something. But, you know, I was playing rock ’n’ roll with Mike Watt in the '90s with the Geraldine Fibbers, and I - when I play rock ’n’ roll, I move around a lot. And I just do, you know? And when I play with Julian Lage, I'm sitting down, you know?

I just like to do all these different things. And my concentration and my - I have to say my dedication to the moment and to the sound is the same, no matter what I'm doing. And I think without sounding disingenuous, I get a kind of fundamental - if not moronic - pleasure from sound as soon as it starts.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLINE: So even in soundchecks, once we start playing, I'm in the zone. I'm happy, you know, because I like playing, and I like sound. And I like all different kinds of sounds, and that is what drives me. And that's what's probably saved me.

GROSS: So when you're soloing, is there a time limit on your solo, like, especially for recordings? You know, did you have Tweedy say, OK, like, no more than 35 seconds?

CLINE: Well, the song form is usually kind of set except on "Art Of Almost" from the record "The Whole Love," where he basically created a coda that we played separately and added it onto the end of the song. So I would, as he put it, shred.

So he asked me to shred, and I think that the length of that was determined prior to my shredding (laughter). But it could have been longer or shorter if I'd wanted it to be, you know? Other songs - I know I just mentioned "Dawned On Me." That solo section, which is just shrill noise at this point on the recording, is of a set length.

And I find that this is a huge challenge for me. I start thinking about people like George Harrison when I'm given this little space of maybe 10 seconds or 15 seconds to do something, you know, beautiful, coherent, exciting, whatever is required because I am not good at self-editing. So it's a - really, really a great challenge, and it's - it varies from song to song.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the song that you were referring to, "Dawned On Me?" So this is Wilco with my guest Nels Cline on guitar.


WILCO: (Singing) Every night is a test. To the East from the West, the sun rises and sets. That's the sun at its best. I forget that I know. I regret letting you go. Sometimes I can't believe how dark it can be. But I can't help it if I fall in love with you again. I'm calling just to let you know it dawned on me, dawned on me. So on...

GROSS: That's Wilco, with my guest, Nels Cline, on guitar.

You said as - you know, that Jeff Tweedy uses the word shred to describe your playing. And it sounded like - it sounded to me like you were distancing yourself from using that word yoursel (laughter). So do you object to the use of the word shredding to describe yours or anyone else's guitar solos?

CLINE: No, but I have to say that what he was asking me to do was play some really exciting, crazy guitar. And that's not normally what is required on most Wilco songs. So that was why he used that word. And I'm comfortable with it. But I'll use it, really, with a little tongue in the cheek, usually. But it does sort of set the scene, doesn't it (laughter)?

GROSS: Right. Yes. Right.

BIANCULLI: Guitarist Nels Cline speaking to Terry Gross last year. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And he'll talk about growing up with an identical twin brother who plays drums on Nels Cline's album "Lovers." Also, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Chuck," the new posthumous release by Chuck Berry, his first studio album in almost 40 years. And movie critic David Edelstein reviews the new Sofia Coppola film, "Beguiled." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2016 interview with guitarist Nels Cline. He's best known for his work with the indie rock band Wilco. This weekend, he performs at the Solid Sound Festival, a music and comedy concert in western Massachusetts. Last year, when Terry spoke with Nels Cline, he had just released a CD of lushly arranged jazz ballads, covers and originals. The album was called "Lovers."


GROSS: So you started playing guitar when you were 12. And your twin brother...


GROSS: ...Alex, I think, started playing drums at about the same time.

CLINE: Yeah.

GROSS: So that must have been pretty great, to have a twin brother who you could play with.

CLINE: Absolutely amazing 'cause not only did we do everything together, including obsess about rock 'n' roll and then later jazz and improvised music, but he was always really good (laughter). So I always had this really amazing drummer to play with. And then without getting all mystical and weird, there is kind of a psychic thing with twins which I can't deny.

And so there was this kind of communication that is absolutely unique and really kind of a seamless kind of, like, bonding consciousness that I experienced playing with him for really up until my - into my 30s, I guess. Then we stopped playing together a lot because I was on another path. And he's a very serious retiring kind of person and never endeavored to make a living playing music. So he plays all the time in Southern California or on the West Coast but works at UCLA in the oral history program.

GROSS: But he plays on your new album.

CLINE: Yeah, he was the only person I ever wanted on this project from the very beginning. And it's because of his - he has a lot of big band experience from all his playing in high school and beyond. And it's his use of color, his ability to use cymbals in a certain way, his ability to phrase, to keep the band really together and his feel and sound - like, everything about it. I just knew he was the guy. And so far, you know, I flew him and his family out to New York to make the record. And we performed some of the music at the Newport Jazz Festival several weeks ago, and I could fly him out for that. And so far, I've been able to have Alex on this music every time we try it.

GROSS: Are you identical twins?

CLINE: Yeah. We're actually a type of identical twin called mirror twins.

GROSS: What does that mean?

CLINE: From what I understand, it's a type of twin where the egg separates at a very, very late stage in development. And he's right-handed. I'm left-handed. We're opposite personalities in - to a great extent. His hair parts naturally on an opposite side from mine. We're - well, if you - we're called mirror twins because if you look at - if you come up behind me, and I'm looking at myself in the mirror, I look like my brother and vice versa.

GROSS: Wow, that's really - I didn't know there was such a phenomenon.

CLINE: Yeah, it's weird (laughter).

GROSS: So did that ever make you feel like you were half a person (laughter) when you weren't together?

CLINE: No, but people would make you feel like that. You know, like, when you're a kid they say, like, where's your other half? So my brother and I spent a lot of energy differentiating ourselves from each other and asserting our individuality in the world, I think, so that we would be seen as individuals and not part of a two-unit whole, you know?

GROSS: So what did you do to differentiate yourself from your brother?

CLINE: Well, it's actually humorous, probably, to think about it. But, for example, music - since we're talking about music. We liked all the same music for the most part. But there were certain bands that were - they were my bands. And there were other bands that were his bands. And, even though we listened to everything at the same time, together - for example, you know, Frank Zappa, The Mothers of Invention - that was an obsession of my brother's. Well, he was always going to be the Zappa guy, or he was always going to be the Jethro Tull guy or - I mean, he tormented me with Black Sabbath at the time, but...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLINE: And rarely did we switch over. So, for example, like, he loved the Grateful Dead when they were psychedelic. And then when "Workingman's Dead" came out, I loved that, and I became the Grateful Dead listener. That was a rare event. The same thing happened with Joni Mitchell, where I was listening to Joni Mitchell. And then when she started playing the "Hejira" era stuff with Jaco Pastorius and whatnot, he became obsessed with that music. And I said, hey, man, it's a great record. But go for it. You know, you can have the Joni records now (laughter).

GROSS: So you were mirroring with your tastes in the Grateful Dead and Joni Mitchell (laughter).

CLINE: Yeah. We just - that was the only sort of crossover from the sovereign record universe that we lived in. But, you know, I mean, I didn't love everything Alex listened to. And, you know, I tortured him with "Johnny Winter And Live," and he tortured me with Blue Cheer. But we still sat and listened to this music together all the time and talked about it.

And that was one way. The other way was, of course, clothing. We didn't dress alike. But it was an amazing and magical connection, you know? And I know that it's frustrating when people can't tell you apart. You think you look completely different from this other guy (laughter), but that's just a tiny irritant in what is really a kind of really special and marvelous existence.

GROSS: So what did - how did you dress to set yourself apart from your brother? And is that reflected in how you dress on stage today?

CLINE: (Laughter) Interestingly, Alex was a very flamboyant dresser in terms of color when he was really young. And then when puberty hit, he became really - he started dressing really drably. My brother now - he's been a vegetarian for most of his - well, his entire adult life, as far as I recall - and now vegan. And he's kind of one of these kind of hemp pants and Croc-wearing kind of people.

And I think my initial look was based more on kind of drab, hippie stuff. Like, in school, I was wearing a lot of denim work shirts and football jerseys to imitate my idol Leon Russell, you know (laughter)? And I don't dress much like that anymore, although it would probably work really well with Wilco. But I went into a whole polyester thrift store phase...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLINE: ...You know, and started wearing really outlandish clothes, especially with the Geraldine Fibbers, where I was encouraged to do this. And they had - Carla Bozulich had such an amazing sense of style. And so...

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait are we talking those, like, '70s and '80s wide-lapel polyester suits?

CLINE: Well...

GROSS: I hope not.

CLINE: ...I didn't have any suits, but I did have some crazy shirts. My favorite crazy pants at that time were what I called my Gumby pants, which I had bought in, I believe, Cincinnati. And they were low-rise bell bottoms, green bell bottoms with really, really wide - they were elephant bells - I guess you would call them.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CLINE: And I would wear these with a women's pajama top and a big, wide vinyl - red vinyl belt and work boots.

GROSS: Wow, what a combo (laughter).

CLINE: Yeah, I was really skinny then, too, Terry. I mean, it's - things have...

GROSS: You still are.

CLINE: ...Sort of - well, no, not like I was, though. I was - my brother and I were alarmingly thin, and it was not cool. It was sort of the object of ridicule, you know?

GROSS: So how did you first discover jazz? Because when you were growing up, jazz was no longer the popular music of its time. And you had to find it.

CLINE: It's a pretty cool story, actually, Terry. My brother, as I mentioned before, was really into The Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart and some of the more forward-looking artists of those days. And a friend of ours, who's no longer on the planet, named David Hirschman was asked to buy for his father, Jack Hirschman, who's the very avant-garde and renowned poet from the San Francisco area these days - he was asked to buy John Coltrane's "Greatest Years Vol. 1" for his dad's birthday.

His dad just said, here's what I want. Go get it for me. And when David heard it, he loaned it to Alex, my brother, saying, I think you might like this record. It's reminding me of some of that instrumental Frank Zappa stuff you like. So I'm still not sure why we were in our friend Bill Watts's (ph) apartment at the time without him or anyone else in his family being there. But we were sitting in his apartment in West Los Angeles and put on "Africa," which is an edited version on that record.

And that was the moment that I decided that I needed to know everything about what might have been happening with so-called jazz music. And I became a Coltrane obsessive. And also the piece on that record "After The Rain" and "Alabama" are utterly profound and changed my whole way of thinking about music.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

CLINE: Thank you, Terry. This is a real pleasure. You drag some things out of me that I'm kind of surprised I got to talk about. And it's really, really cool. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Guitarist Nels Cline speaking to Terry Gross last year. This weekend, he performs at the Solid Sound Festival in Massachusetts. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Chuck," the newly released studio album by the late Chuck Berry. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.