Carlos Santana beams from the cover of the June Guitar Player magazine, an example of the guitar deities frequently featured. Joe Perry, Jimi Hendrix, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Angus Young are among the other cover cats of the last year.
But the March spot went to Nels Cline, a household name only in Fringeville.
True, Cline has cachet as the new guitarist for Wilco, but this breakthrough is still surprising — especially to Cline. Wilco’s latest release, A Ghost Is Born, is No. 568 in Amazon.com’s sales rankings; the Nels Cline Singers’ The Giant Pin is No. 69,788. (And that’s after Cline was declared a "genius" with a "near-magical ability to reinvent guitar craft" in Guitar Player.)
"It was completely surreal," Cline says over his cell phone while driving around Los Angeles and making final preparations for hitting the road with Jeff Tweedy and company. When he got the first call from Guitar Player, he thought it was a prank.
After the reality set in, came the guilt: "I started tripping. I said, ‘Wait a minute, has Fred Frith ever been on the cover of Guitar Player? Eliott Sharp? Derek Bailey. I’ve never seen Ralph Towner on the cover.’"
The reaction, he says, fits with the chronic low self-esteem that, as he nears 50, he says he’s still trying to overcome. "I don’t wear it as a badge of honor. I’m trying to grow out of that shit."
But the reaction also says something about a guy who’s concentrated more on his own notion of musicality than conventional careerism. "I’ve never had a plan, never really tried to get gigs for myself," he says. "Some people have the self-possession and that trajectory and that sense of confidence. I’ve never had that."
Following his own trajectory, though, Cline has evolved into a guitarist of startling versatility: aw-shucks pretty, sledgehammer hard, able to shift directions with a Road Runner-like disdain for the laws of inertia, hard-as-hell to categorize.
"The parameters of my own work haven’t really changed that much since I was in high school," Cline says. "It’s the same mix of sort of melodic and noisy and rhythmic and arrhythmic and compositional and freely improvised. I don’t really like to do any one thing all the time, but I like to do all of these things all the time."
Around the age of 10, Cline and his twin brother, Alex, both became obsessed with rock ’n’ roll growing up in Southern California. Alex took up drums, Nels the guitar, and they both took to an eclectic range of music as listeners and performers. "I always had somebody good to play with. Alex was always a better musician than me," he says. "I think we were able to realize all sorts of musical ideas because of our proximity."
Cline was pushing 40 before he could quit a succession of bookstore and video store jobs and tour enough to (just) stay afloat with music.
He’d long been involved in the avant-garde jazz and creative rock scenes. The Cline twins had toured Europe, for instance, at age 28, playing behind jazz saxophonist Julius Hemphill. (The first European gig of that tour is on disc as Georgia Blues on the Minor Music label. A later, lamentably unrecorded Hemphill band included both Clines and Bill Frisell on guitars.)
And Nels Cline collaborators read like a roll call of musical heavies, particularly cutting-edge heavies: Vinny Golia, Mark Dresser, Zeena Parkins, Gregg Bendian, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Yusef Lateef, Tim Berne, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Charlie Haden.
But his 1995 tour with post-punk bassist Mike Watt’s Second Men (including a stop at the State Theatre) marked the beginning of Nels Cline as "tour monster" and the end of the day jobs.
Among others, he logged miles with singer Carla Bozulich in the Geraldine Fibbers and other configurations. When the Fibbers opened Golden Smog dates around 1996, Cline first crossed paths with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, then playing with Smog.
After that, Chicago-based Tweedy would often check out Cline when he came through with Bozulich’s groups, and a couple of years ago they opened for Wilco.
"He was always very kind and, I think, maybe was kind of keeping tabs on what I was up to," Cline says of Tweedy.
"At first I thought he was just an incredible noise maker — which is cool enough in itself," Tweedy told Guitar Player, "but when he sat in with us on a Neil Young cover, it became obvious he was a total master of all things guitar."
When Wilco’s Leroy Bach left the group, following the recording of A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy called Bozulich, essentially to ask permission to pull her guitar slinger and collaborator away. Then he called Cline, who took it at the level of "maybe I’ll come out and we’ll screw around and see if there’s any chemistry." But the more they talked on the phone ("musical things, but also psychological-emotional things"), the better the idea seemed. "It was settled that it would be a good situation for everybody before I actually played anything with them," Cline says. The new Wilco lineup was officially announced in March.
And how has his arrival changed the sound of the band?
Cline laughs, says he’s heard it’s "a little noisier now." Then says he’s probably not the right person to be fielding the question. After all, how much perspective can the new guy have?
But for the fuller explanation, he notes that the band has also added keyboardist-guitarist-backup vocalist Pat Sansone.
"I’d say the band is certainly a fully orchestral unit at this point. The potential is so vast that the band perhaps sounds a little more grand and in some ways a little more refined and polished and other ways woollier," he says.
In contrast to Wilco’s alt-country lineage, Cline hears himself as "a little less of a real rock or rootsy guy and a little more of a sound guy."
And with a repertoire of about 85 songs — though any given set is focused on the last couple of albums — there’s plenty of musical territory to explore. "I know the band can go anywhere stylistically," Cline says.
Critics have been supportive and more. The Los Angeles Times said Cline has made a "decent-enough live band into an often-memorable one." Daily Variety credits Cline as key to the band taking shape. The Austin American-Statesman called him "a shot in the arm."
Fans who can’t make it to any of the band’s upcoming shows to get their own take will get a chance to hear the new Wilco on a live CD and DVD to be released in the fall, Cline says.
And this summer the band will also start work on a full, studio CD.
"With Wilco, I think the recording process tends to be very, very episodic. There’ll be all kinds of experiments going down that will gradually lead to the official effort," he says. He adds that Tweedy apparently "wants the record to have a lot of groove, so whatever that means ultimately we need to shake it out in the studio and screw around and experiment."
Considering how he’s lived his musical life, open-ended should feel homey for Cline.
Cline, on the records:
Among Nels Cline’s numerous recordings as a leader, he counts among his personal favorites, The Giant Pin and Destroy All Nels Cline.
His most recent release, The Giant Pin (Cryptogramophone), is officially credited to the Nels Cline Singers. The name is a joke since aside from the odd wordless chant, both Pin and it’s predecessor, Instrumentals, are instrumentals. The name was chosen, says Cline, to distinguish this group (with Devin Hoff on bass and Scott Amendola on drums) from an earlier three-piece named the Nels Cline Trio.
On The Giant Pin, some selections sound like amped-up and twisted variations on Ornette Coleman melodies. Cline sails a sea of slashing anthem-like chords into a squall of distortions in "He Still Carries a Flame for Her." (When’s the next King Crimson auditioning?) Next thing you know, he’s turns Beatleseque for a second or stirs up the perfect riot of skronk. And with an enormous arsenal of special effects, new sounds just keep coming and coming. Surprisingly, it all coheres.
"The Singers stuff is about the individuals involved as much as it is about me, so I have to get out of the way a lot of the time so as not to be too much of a fascist," he says.
And if you want to try one Nels Cline record, he suggests starting here. "If you don’t like Giant Pin, you’re probably not going to like any of my other records. It has all the ingredients that I was limning with my brother back in high school: loud-soft, time-no time, key-no key, melody-no melody."
On Destroy All Nels Cline (Atavistic) — the title is a tip of the hat to the ’70s Detroit band — a small guitar army puts up a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector quake. Or as Cline puts it, the 2001 record has a cathartic wallop with Cline, Carla Bozulich, Woodward Aplanalp and G.E. Stinson wailing on guitars, Bob Mair on electric bass, Zeena Parkins on electric harp, Wayne Peet on keyboards and Alex Cline raising a percussive ruckus.
As to future projects, for one thing, he wants to convene an extended version of the Nels Cline singers to record the music of jazz pianist-composer Andrew Hill.
Wilco performs Tuesday, June 21, at the Meadow Brook Music Festival, Oakland University campus, Rochester Hills. Ticketmaster at 248-645-6666. More on Nels Cline is at www.metrotimes.com.
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]