Nels Cline on Wilco's future and his favorite Cibo Matto tune

Nels Cline is on the far right of this photo.
Nels Cline is on the far right of this photo.
Photo by Zoran Orlic

See Also:
Wilco lend helping hand to Duluth floods victims

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"It has something to do with my Catholic taste," Wilco guitarist Nels Cline says, regarding the variety of art galleries, stadiums, and churches where he's played for decades as a performer melding jazz virtuosity with an ear for outsider sounds. It also has a fair amount to do with his impressive versatility, which has led to collaborations with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Mike Watt, and a stint in the alt-country act the Geraldine Fibbers. Since 2004, though, the 43rd greatest guitarist of all-time (according to SPIN) has held a steady gig pushing Jeff Tweedy's creative buttons.

In spite of his intimidating resume, he asserts that every project and performance is "all part of the same groovy experience." In an interview with Gimme Noise ahead of Wilco shows in Duluth and Rochester, Cline discusses living with a guitar addiction, and his favorite song by his wife, Cibo Matto frontwoman Yuka Honda.

CP: Over the years, you've had the opportunity to play in so many different venues -- more than just a smattering of dirty clubs.

Nels Cline: I don't, and never had, any goals for the number or type of person I wanted to play for. So I just really kind of approach everything from the standpoint of the music itself and let it take its own course from there. So basically, for me, it's one of the greatest things because it's as lovely as it is to play all these different kinds of music. They all have their own strange and marvelous aspects. Playing in a place in New York City, like The Stone [A not-for-profit experimental music performance space], it's a tiny space with some folding chairs. [It] has this sort of think tank environment, a kind of intimacy that can be kind of oppressive during the summer when it gets really hot in there [laughs].

And there's a kind of electricity generated by that just as there's a kind of excitement generated by an entire semi filled with lighting apparatuses and a brilliant light designer and a bunch of fake smoke or whatever it is. There's that kind of spectacle, if you will, has its own excitement too. So I kind of love being able to feel that sort of sense of occasion, or lack of sense of occasion just as much. Just like I like to play music that is completely, or in some way at least apprehendable and connected to a tradition and in other senses not even composed, completely and spontaneously improvised. It has no readily identifiable category. It's all part of the same groovy experience [laughs].

Nels Cline on Wilco's future and his favorite Cibo Matto tune
Photo by Zoran Orlic

CP: Do you find that since you joined Wilco, other bands are trying to copy this template of adding an avant-garde specialist? Get any offers to woo you away?

NC: Oh. Oh. No. I'm not saying that somebody isn't out there trying to find a guitar player that's maybe somewhat flexible or uses some looping or feedback or something. If that's the case, I have no awareness of it. And certainly no one's tried to lure me away from Wilco, but I have the blessing and the mild frustration of scheduling dilemmas in general. I do play on other people's records, that I'm so happy to do when there's time. I do play these other gigs of my own, or play with Jenny Scheinman, or with BB&C this little collective trio, or whatever I'm able to do when I have time. So that's really it. There's no question that I'm going to start just doing some whole other band or something. You know, I played on some of this new Martha Wainwright record that my wife [Yuka Honda] produced that's coming out later this year. That was really, really fun to do. Every assignment has its own little challenges and then I did a lot of improvising. Lee Ranaldo's record. That was a real joy to be on that and be able to fit in on a couple of songs.

CP: You mentioned your wife earlier, who is in Cibo Matto. What is your favorite song from her catalog?

NC: [laughs] Well, I really like so much. That's a very tough question, but I've always had a fondness for "Artichoke," I'd have to say.

CP: I was definitely expecting a food name for an answer.

NC: They're working on a new record. I think it's going to be very very very cool.

CP: Are you staying out of that one? Or are you going to get involved?

NC: Oh no. I mean if they wanted guitar and they wanted me to play, I'd do it. But so far there's no guitar on it. I don't want to talk about it though. It's great. Everyone says "Oh yeah sure, he loves his wife's record," but they're coming back with some great music.

CP: You've been listed in many magazines ranking excellent guitarists, but do you think that many of the people that compile the lists have even heard what you consider to be your best work?

NC: Oh. Probably not. If they want to, it's findable. [laughs] All this kind of stuff is so surprising to me in general because I wasn't even aware that these things were happening before. People just started sending me emails and had seen it way before I'd ever heard about it. So I'll see it, but ultimately it's just made me think right away of, once i looked at it, got mildly disturbed and somewhat amused. It just makes me think of at least a hundred guitarists that aren't on the list that I'd love to see on a list somewhere. Oh well. I guess it's fun.

CP: Though it seems like you've amassed a serious collection of guitars over the years. I've seen a few interviews where you go through your gear.

NC: That thing off of Premiere Guitar? Yeah well, that's a combination of my own immaturity probably and you know, there's some kind of "kid in a candy store" aspect to this. An obsession with the guitar itself, which I'll never get over, and an extreme amount of enabling energies from Wilco. I can get away with it, but I'm not the only one who's like this, certainly. I know Jeff Tweedy [Wilco] is one of the only two people who's like this. I know quite a number of very talented guitar players who are not considered Rock guys who have some pretty serious guitar fetishes going. It's innocent fun, but it is a little excessive.

CP: Do you remember the first time you played behind the bridge on an electric guitar?

NC: Oh, I'm sure I did it with my old Gibson 335 when I was 17 years old, but not with the same intent as I did when, well I started doing it on guitars where it didn't work so well, and then I finally got a Fender Jaguar in the '80s. So sometime in the mid 80s, that I started really going for it, because I became a Sonic Youth obsessive. I realized that part of it, was that they were making a lot of those sounds. I wanted to copy them. [laughs] I don't mean copy them [like] playing the exact same thing, but I just wanted to have that aesthetic and those fans in my world and adapt it to the music I was doing. For the sake of its expression, because it felt like something very important to me and still does.

CP: What is the future trajectory of Wilco at this point, beyond the summer touring. What do you know?

NC: Well you know, it's a good question. I'm a little uncertain. I know we're going to Europe again a couple more times. I know that Jeff [Tweedy] wants to do some recording and just try some new things, but nothing's been scheduled yet. So i'm just kind of waiting for my marching orders. Certainly we have our label now and I think right now, all that we can manage is the release of Wilco material. I don't think we're going to be signing anybody. So I guess just some new music in our future. At some point. But I'm told maybe not as much touring next year. So that may mean lots of recording or it may mean a break. I'm waiting to find out.

See Also:
Wilco lend helping hand to Duluth floods victims

Wilco's John Stirratt talks about the band's Minnesotan ties

Wilco. With Blitzen Trapper. 6 p.m. Sunday, July 1 at Bayfront Festival Park, Duluth and 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 2 at Mayo Civic Center Auditorium, Rochester.

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