Nels Cline: a guitarist’s guitarist
From pop to country, and from experimental to jazz, it sounds as if Nels Cline of BB&C – best known among rock fans as a member of Wilco – can turn his hand to anything
BB&C: Nels Cline (centre) with saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Jim Black
You can blame Jimi Hendrix, says the American guitarist and composer Nels Cline, who freely admits that if it hadn’t been for Hendrix he might not be the musician he is. Hearing Manic Depression in 1967, at the age of 12, was the moment Cline realised what he wanted to do with his life.
“What I heard in the song,” he says, “was just something that thoroughly intoxicated me. Everything about it – the sound of the guitar, the riff, the voice, the drumming, the part where Hendrix sings in unison with his guitar playing just before the solo, and then the solo bursts out – made me think that I had been jolted by electricity.”
Cline has a reputation as long as a very long arm, and an equally lengthy list of collaborative projects, the latest of which is BB&C (made up of Tim Berne, Jim Black and Cline), which makes its debut in Ireland this week.
Rock fans may know him best as the freewheeling guitarist in Wilco (which he joined in 2004), but, to a different subset of aficionados, Cline is the go-to guy, the free jazz/avant gardist guitarist’s guitarist.
He is, he says, a person whose self-confidence always requires bulking up – “I’ve never really hustled for a gig” – but accepts that by virtue of age and experience he has joined a network of musicians that think along certain lines. This, he points out, is “helpful in order to make things expand a little bit”.
At the last count, Cline (his obligations to Wilco notwithstanding) has played on more than 150 albums across most genres of contemporary music. From pop to country to experimental to jazz, there is nothing, it seems, he won’t attend to.
At what point does he decide to engage with other musicians, other ideas?
“I suppose it depends on the seriousness of their approach; generally, I’m very open, from singer-songwriters to friends of friends, or if there’s something interesting about them. I’m always willing to participate, to add something to their music – to see if I can do it.”
Cline adds that he finds very little easy as a guitarist – “everything for me is a challenge,” he says. The implication is that a musician’s anxiety about rarely, if ever, attaining perfection affects his performances. Fair comment?
“In terms of spontaneous, so-called free improvising,” he says, backtracking somewhat, “that’s probably the one area in which I feel the most confident. Certainly, in BB&C I don’t have any trepidation about that, no insecurities.
“But when it comes to satisfying someone else’s musical vision, or reading their notation, playing through their chord changes or just getting the sound they might want, that’s undoubtedly daunting. It’s perplexing, I get anxious about it, yes, but it’s also very satisfying.
“For example, the people who work in the singer-songwriter area might want something from me that will sound fresh rather than familiar. They don’t want any fancy guitar playing, so you’ve got to come up with some memorable hooks, or some kind of sound design. Something to give it an extra flavour.
“And then there’s the 10-second guitar solo on a pop song. That’s really challenging, because I’m usually only warming up after three minutes.”
And what about Wilco? What’s it like being a spontaneous guitarist within that band format? It’s always challenging to hear music that’s relatively classic in content and form, Cline says, but he agrees that Wilco take it somewhere else.
“My first inclination is to take the classicist route, to do something a little bit more traditional that will automatically fit, but Jeff Tweedy [of Wilco] is looking for – from me generally and, perhaps, music in particular – something a lot more than that.
“Sometimes he has to push me pretty far to get me to, well, not totally disregard the mood or the form of a song, but to take it somewhere else. And that isn’t my first impulse.
“Everyone thinks I’m some wild avant-garde guitarist, but I’m really quite square when it comes to a lot of stuff. While I may have a lot of imagination in terms of how to use sound in my playing, it’s not always the first thing that springs to mind on, say, a classic folk song.”
A wild avant-garde guitarist or not, Cline regularly pops up on those greatest guitarists of all time lists, sitting besides his initial inspiration, Hendrix, as well as others such as the Edge, Jimmy Page, Tom Verlaine and Rory Gallagher. Cline is equally amused and conflicted by his inclusion.
“I always think of how many wonderful guitarists that aren’t on the lists but should be. As much as I admire all those other guitarists on the lists, they’re really just popularity contests, aren’t they? That said, it was a fun thing to tell my mom when she was alive. Showing her my name on those lists made it obvious that I was no longer shuffling around, working in retail stores.”
BB&C are at Triskel Christchurch, Cork, tonight and at the Workman’s Club, Dublin, tomorrow