February 23rd, 2007 | Interviews

Nels Cline is one of the most versatile and accomplished guitarists to ever remove his shirt for the L.A. RECORD. He is currently playing mostly with Wilco but reserves ample time for millions of other projects, including the Nels Cline Singers who will be performing early next month. He shaved his arms before doing this photo shoot.

What bands made you want to become a musician?
The first impetus to think about music other than just as a listener was hearing the Byrds in the mid ‘60s—my brother listened to the Rolling Stones and the Byrds were mine and the Stones his. Before that, I’d listen to children’s record—Tubby the Tuba, Sparky the Magic Piano—and leading up to the Byrds was surf music. Not even original hits but Dick Dale done by somebody else that you’d buy in the drug store—comp records of a second-string band. I didn’t know what records to get at that point—I’d get what looked cool! Also there were two girls down the street and one day they just gave us a little book of singles they had—that they were tired of. When I reflect on what they gave us, it’s mindblowing. Not just because they were just so iconic but because it’s amazing to think they were tired of them! “Bony Maroni” by Little Richard, “Something Else” by Eddie Cochran, “Great Balls Of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, “Tequila” by the Champs—”Tequila” was our favorite. I guess we already liked instrumentals. We played music at our elementary school graduation—Homogenized Goo! All original material!
Sounds good.
Until you heard it! The gauntlet was fully thrown down when I heard Are You Experienced? That’s when I knew I was gonna play guitar—I had to at that point. There was so much magic in the late ‘60s as it was and Hendrix took it to another level. And Ravi Shankar was huge when I was ten—I heard him in an elementary school India unit in sixth grade. So there was an inkling not just as pure magic—a higher calling, if you will.
How long did it take you to get to the point where you feel free enough to play the way you do?
As someone who was always a very nervous and insecure player, it was a long process of trial and error, and I’m thankful for the sympathetic individuals around me. It’s a combination of curiosity which leads to experimentation and also a weird kind of easy satisfaction with sound—I didn’t mind sounding like an idiot as much as other people who were more well-trained. They learn all the rules but they never do anything creative—though they’re way better musicians than me by a million miles.
What kind of natural instincts do you have?
I don’t have perfect pitch. It’s relative—when it’s on, it’s pretty good, but it’s not always working. It’s mercurial, just like me. It’s not always there in a purely mechanical way. You hear a lot of the same damn chord progressions these days. We haven’t gone much further than ‘Louie Louie’ these days.
What makes you cringe?
I guess I don’t care that much—the only time I’m bothered was when my best friend was trying to co-write and would get these cassettes or CDRs from the publishing company of some very successful behind-the-scenes songwriter to do lyrucs for, and it would be the most recycled stuff in the world, and we were broke—completely broke—and these guys were making a huge living. I remember one time coming home and this guy was playing my acoustic guitar and looking at my friend’s lyrics and basically singing ‘Let It Be.’ And you’re just appalled that this person is a successful songwriter—they basically just convinced someone and got the hit under their belt and all the rest of the clichés. And everybody seems to go along.
Do you have a favorite guitar?
I have this Jazzmaster in Chicago that I bought 11 or 12 years ago from Watt—a ‘59 Fender Jazzmaster. I beat it mercilessly. There’s virtually no finish left. Strangely, a couple of years ago I was on the cover of Guitar Player, and the most fun aside from the surreality was they put my guitar on top of the masthead—there it was! My little baby! I tried the Jazzmaster because of Tom Verlaine and that picture on Marquee Moon. And also Thurston Moore. The tonality of early Sonic Youth records—I wanted that in my life!
Do you think you have a fundamental personal guitar style?
If I were to be completely honest with myself, it’s possible—just saying possibly—that my bedrock sound is a weird combination of early ‘70s John McLaughlin and maybe kind of mid-’70s Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie, and everything else before that. Like Hendrix, for example—though I never played like Hendrix. I didn’t think it was possible, and if it were possible, I thought it was kind of sacrilege! I had a weird primitive naïve idea about playing guitar. I used to play with just two fingers for years. I didn’t know anything! I’m a primitive, baby! I had bad guitar teachers but they ended up moving away, sparing me further damage. Most of what I learned on guitar I learned from trial and error and playing with musicians that are better than me.
So who was the last musician you really learned something from?
At the risk of sounding like a total jive-ass, pretty much every time I play I have that experience. The last time I played in Chicago was with the Scott Amendola band—he’s the drummer in my trio—and there’s always some moment of pure challenge in the course of music making, and also moments of pure satisfaction. I guess I came away thinking, ‘Wow, that was a challenge—I learned something.’
When was the last time someone told you they’d learned something from you?
Once again, I’ll sound like a jive-ass—it usually happens every gig! I’m always a little embarrassed. I put it out of my mind immediately. It’s not the kind of thing I really ponder. Like I don’t really read press—it can be a little paralyzing to think too much about what other people think of what you do.
What do they say?
Usually they shake hands and say, ‘Man, you blew my mind!’ Like Mike Watt would say when we’d be doing some gig and there were like ten people, but we played our asses off. I mean, we don’t care, but he’s always saying: ‘Planting little seeds…’