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It’s Not Easy Being Three

music_NelsClineSWilco guitarist Nels Cline takes on his own trio
I’ve just caught veteran guitarist Nels Cline in a Chicago studio in between takes with none other than Wilco, but, quite frankly, Cline’s biggest project is furthest away from my mind.

Though he’s been best known as the lead guitarist of Wilco since joining Jeff Tweedy’s rotating cast in 2004, Cline’s career stands amongst some of the most prolific musicians ever; he’s recorded with such an array of collaborators that the word ‘eclectic’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. He’s also probably one of the most affable artists around, as our chat confirms, and the experimenter’s jazzy Nels Cline Singers (joined this week by Cline’s wife, former Cibo Matto member Yuka C. Honda) will be descending upon Don Quixote’s this Friday, Feb. 4.

“Of course I’ve heard of Jandek!” exclaims the 55-year-old. I’ve just told him about a concert I attended days earlier, where the enigmatic Houston outsider musician was backed by longtime Cline collaborator B.J. Watt. “As a fan of The Minutemen, it was lovely to finally start playing with Watt around 1993. We started our musical exchange enabled by Thurston Moore and my friend David Crouch, who was managing Rhino Records, where I used to work.”

This part of the conversation gives two insights. One is that he has recorded four unreleased albums with Watt over the past two years (on top of 2010’s two double albums), a true indication of his nonstop work ethic. The other is a hint of some of the stars he’s worked with, Thurston Moore being the longtime Sonic Youth co-frontman. Cline’s also worked with Yoko Ono, Willie Nelson, and extensively studied the Coltrane family catalogue, but it’s clearly his jazz proclivities which inform his primary and foremost creative outlet.

“It’s hard, being in a trio,” the Los Angeles-based musician says of his Singers project. “I never thought of myself as a good enough guitarist to front a trio. So being the primary voice, the primary chord instrument, it’s just harder, but it’s fun. Sometimes I just don’t want to hear myself, so it’d be nice to be buried in the ensemble, but you can’t do that in a trio with guitar, bass and drums. So you just have to confront that.”

In this way it’s difficult to describe the decade-old Nels Cline Singers, though the band shares a clear homogeny with Cline’s past experiences as a bandleader. Some analogs might be the solo output of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, or the collaborations between Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden and elder statesman jazz drummer Steve Reid. But Cline’s focus on spacey loop pedaling is also dissonant and meandering enough to be compared with Jandek’s numerous live albums.

“I’m a mutt, certainly, from where I’m coming from, so I never really drew distinctions,” Cline explains his take on musical genres. “For years I didn’t know how to break those barriers between jazz and rock and whatever—I just was sort of tortured by these distinctions. But gradually that all broke down as I started playing my own music to break down this dichotomy I was feeling.”

Whether or not the Singers are successful in this venture, Cline probably had it right in the first place—it might be more convenient to mostly eschew labels. Though his current band still seems to fall under a clear wing of experimental jazz, who’s to say the Midwestern rock of Wilco hasn’t influenced Cline’s solo output, and vice versa.

“I’ve certainly become more attentive to the idea of the song,” he says. “But certainly playing Jeff Tweedy’s songs with Jeff’s lyrics, and paying attention to how sometimes the familiar can sound completely new—sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.”


The Nels Cline Singers perform at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 4, at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy 9, Felton. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 603-2294.
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