Few artists have as much going on, in as many different areas, as guitarist Nels Cline. His recent releases alone include a quadruple album with Anthony Braxton and a sui generis disc with wife Yuka C. Honda (of Cibo Matto) as the duo CUP. As far into strange places as his work takes him, he may have received the most attention for his work with rockers Wilco, who released “Ode to Joy” just a month ago.
“It’s easy for me, apparently,” Cline said of his ability to switch between projects. “It must be part of my nature. I enjoy all the different things that I get to do that are, on the face of them, quite different from each other. My involvement is not technically the same, but at its core the same, which is to say that I’m interested in sound and song.”
The sound elements show up in Cline’s interest in pedals and effects; he manages an array of tones to suit whatever is needed. At the same time, he’s displayed a remarkable melodic sensibility, as quickly became apparent on Wilco’s “Sky Blue Sky” from 2007.
“Whatever I can do to participate in the manifestation of such things is what I live for,” he explained.
Cline describes improvising as his “strong suit” and feels “more confident in a genre-free zone,” noting that, in that sort of setting, “it’s all about a sonic palette that’s about imagination rather than technique.”
“It’s not a demonstration; it’s an immersion, a sound world,” he added. “Or, with Julian Lage, with no effects, it’s about note choices, sonority.”
In the studio, Wilco offers something different for the musician. “Ode to Joy” gives Cline a few moments to shine, but he does much more to fit into the overall vision of the record. The whole process differs from his more outre jazz work.
“In the case of Wilco, I take a lot of direction,” he said. “If Jeff [Tweedy] has an idea in mind that’s specific, he’ll say it, or I’ll get it out of him. Other times, he’s looking for something and he doesn’t know what it is. Sometimes the stuff I end up doing that he likes is surprising to me. I might do something where he says, ‘What’s that? How about some of that?’ I never would have thought of that as part and parcel of this song.”
On “Bright Leaves,” we hear “a bunch of different attempts” by Cline that were cut into pieces and rearranged. Cline uses “a pedal that makes the guitar drift in and out of tune.” Cline was surprised that Tweedy liked that “seasick” sound, but it’s part of a process for this record, where Tweedy was looking for sounds that, as Cline puts it off the top of his head, “are like artifacts, components of distressed or worn artifacts. This kind of aged, worn-out, texturally interesting sonic world.”
Other times, Tweedy came in with guitar parts that Cline felt were just right and should be kept. Fans tend to be surprised that Tweedy plays the guitar part on “Love Is Everywhere.” Cline felt that there was “no making it better,” so the band kept it.
Part of the pleasure of the new album lies in finding all these sonic artifacts — all the strange little touches that envelope ostensibly normal sounding songs. The challenge now for Cline is to figure out how to play them live — a special trick for a band that doesn’t record with concert performances in mind. Tweedy’s playing an acoustic guitar with a rubber bridge — what Cline describes as “the center of the sonic ‘Ode to Joy’ universe” — leaving Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone to figure out how to recreate this world live.
Meanwhile, he busily builds his other worlds, as on on CUP’s “Spinning Creatures,” just out last week. The pair surprisingly builds improv work over computer-generated tracks, and even includes a little bit of vocal work from Cline (“The challenge is to believe in myself when I’m singing,” he explained). That sort of music differs greatly from either his jazz or his rock work as the pair tries to “represent various aesthetic moods [with] the goal to move it into one sound.”
“I feel like the luckiest dude, because all I do is put one foot in front of the other and participate in music-making as much as possible,” Cline said.
That didn’t always seem likely, as he came to it “quite late in terms of it being able in any way to pay my bills” and even acknowledged, “I got damaged by an attempt at being taught by my guitar teacher,” as he found his way.
“If my life means anything, perseverance and finding something that you enjoy can actually work out,” he added. “I’m the poster boy for the late-blooming musician or artist.”
Seeing Cline in so many places with so much success makes that idea both surprising and well worth keeping in mind.