Nels Cline is extremely lucky, and he knows it. Widely regarded as one of the world's finest living guitarists, Cline came up playing styles of music whose audience is sadly shrinking: jazz, improvisatory, and avant-garde. If those were the beginning and end of his interests, you probably wouldn't be reading this article. But throughout his career, Cline, 56, has kept one foot on in the pop music world, collaborating with artists like Mike Watt, Sonic Youth, and even Willie Nelson. Still, none of those associations raised Cline's profile as much as joining the celebrated Americana rock outfit Wilco in 2004. Now, Cline gets to lend his virtuosic wailing to some of our era's finest rock — and play for large crowds all over the world — while working with his own experimental trio, The Nels Cline Singers, on the side. Ahead of Wilco's three Bay Area shows this week, we spoke with Cline to find out how that all works out.
At what point does your guitar work figure into the writing of Wilco songs? Are you improvising leads when you're playing through demos? Do you add those later?
A lot of stuff's added later. I tend to at times become a bit of a rock classicist, so I start going with some more familiar sounds, or things that I consider to be more of a classic sound. And that's not really what everyone's looking for — I mean, that's not what Jeff [Tweedy] is looking for most of the time. I seem to have some kind of a reputation for strange noises and whatnot, but these aren't my first impulses.
I was going to ask whether you end up pushing the music of Wilco in a more avant-garde or experimental direction. But it sounds like sometimes they push you in more of an out-there direction.
The idea that I'm pushing the band in any direction is not an accurate one. I think live there are certain things that I've added since I joined that have to do with my own kind of world of sound design, with controlled feedback and looping. Maybe I've ramped up the energy on a couple of the solo spots. But overall, no, I have not in any way tried to push the music in any direction — frankly, I think I take direction.
You've played with a ton of people — Mike Watt, Charlie Haden, Thurston Moore. What do you like about playing with Wilco?
There are a lot of things. There is a kind of ability for Wilco to tap into this sort of prolonged adolescence that I've been living in, but at the same time still be a very sophisticated and — dare I use the word "adult-leaning" — ensemble for a rock 'n' roll band. We don't have to play hit songs, because there aren't any. The baggage of Wilco is sort of lost on me. It's lucrative, meaning that I get to work a lot, but also it doesn't feel like work because we're playing rock 'n' roll. And crucially, there's good band chemistry and good personal chemistry, so that it's actually a pleasure to go out and play. I don't really have much of an ability to get my own music out there and live or die by it at this point — it was too hard. I get to do it now in between Wilco activities ... so it's kind of having the best of both worlds for me.
How has being in Wilco changed the profile of your solo work?
Well, I think that I might sell a couple more records. But it's certainly made an impact on my live playing. More people come to the gigs because I'm the guitarist in Wilco.
What's your sense of how the audience for jazz, avant-garde, and improvisatory music has been holding up?
This is a tough topic to talk about, because frankly, I think we're in a period of struggle in general with culture in our country. I go back to a time when there weren't so many formats and labels on artistic endeavors as there are now. There was a lot more experimentation, a lot more interest in that. So whereas a lot of the music that I was listening to and influenced by in the '70s may not all have been super successful, for the most part the people who were performing it were able to play in decent venues and be paid attention to, sell some records, have careers. That these people would not have record label deals now or not be playing decent halls is an obvious fact.
Now there's the idea that music is essentially free, that you can just get it for nothing. Part of me is completely reconciled to the idea that we just have to keep playing live. But for a lot of people — particularly, I think, small underground artists — the idea of playing in the United States of America as the only option is an impossibility, because it's too expensive to tour. So I would like artists in general to be able to thrive ... but I'm also not going to whine about it. There's always going to be curious young people to check it out and to create their own music. It's just harder.
What newer artists are you listening to these days? What are you listening to in general?
I'm sure everyone's tired of hearing me say that I always listen to Deerhoof and Low and Sonic Youth, but that's a fact. Particularly when I'm feeling down in the dumps, Deerhoof is a splendid antidote. It makes me super happy to listen to Deerhoof on every level. As far as younger bands go, I'm drawing a blank right now. I really like tUnE-yArDs.