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

BB&C: Nels Cline (centre) with saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Jim Black

Fri, Feb 21, 2014, 10:25

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.

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