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Apr 23, 2009

With a new solo album, a full-time gig in alt-rock juggernaut Wilco and dozens of upcoming guest spots, Nels Cline is proving that after 30 years in the business, his musical mojo is more potent than ever.

By Drew Stoga

Guitarist Nels Cline is one busy man.
In a hectic year that saw him cranking out solos for tens of thousands of frenzied Wilco fans, he also found time to gig with his trio, The Nels Cline Singers, guest on nearly a dozen albums, and record and release his new solo effort, Coward.
It’s enough to make most peoples’ heads spin. But for Cline, the demand for his talents is the culmination of more than three decades of making his name in the music world.
Cline’s first foray into music came in the late 1970s, when he began playing in the free-jazz improv group, Quartet Music, with his twin brother Alex. Since then, he has played with some of jazz’s biggest names, including Charlie Haden, Scott Amendola and John Zorn.
But despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Cline isn’t convinced he’s paid his dues as a jazzman.
“I don’t know if I consider myself much of a jazz musician,” he insists. “I don’t know if I have the requisite knowledge or discipline.”
Perhaps that’s because jazz is just one genre on which Cline has made his mark. He’s also a prominent player in the rock world. His collaborations with post-punkers like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo and The Minutemen’s Mike Watt have yielded predictably noisy results.
It’s a testament to Cline’s versatility and prowess that he is able to mesh so well with such a diverse group of musicians.
“My mind works in a way that ‘all faiths are welcome,’” he says. “So it’s an interesting challenge to try to do all these different things. At the same time, it’s kind of natural.”
In 2003, Cline got the call to take over as lead guitarist in Wilco, an ever-evolving band that emerged from the early 1990s alt-country scene. The band has recently begun flirting with the sort of sonic experimentation that is Cline’s forte.
His inspired playing can be heard on Wilco’s Kicking Television: Live in Chicago and Sky Blue Sky. Both records demonstrate his chameleon-like ability to fit in wherever he is needed, along with an uncanny talent for playing everything from scorching rapid-fire solos to soaring lap steel lines.
His latest endeavor, Coward, which was released in February, is a solo album in the truest sense of the word, featuring Cline—and Cline alone—playing 36 instruments, both electric and acoustic.
The idea for the project—to do an entire album with numerous overdubs—was one that had been considering for “well over 20 years.” Despite a few detours into noisier territory, the record is dominated by a contemplative and gentle tone.
So does that mean Coward is the signal of a new Nels Cline, who is mellower and more mainstream—perhaps the result of hanging out with Wilco founder and songwriter Jeff Tweedy and the rest of his laid-back group?
He allows that “playing with Wilco certainly has enhanced my thinking about ‘the song.’ As someone whose music has been at times described as ‘un-melodic,’ it has made me think a little bit more about what is melodic.”
In the coming year, look for Cline to continue to perform and record at a breakneck pace with Wilco, The Singers and everyone in between.
When asked about how he finds the time to fit it all in, Cline is characteristically humble: “I am not trying to cheat death or anything, I just like to play.”

Have Guitar, Will Travel

Over the years, Cline has honed his skills while playing with some of jazz and rock’s top talents.

Sky Blue Sky (2007)

Cline’s lap steel playing helped make this one of the more memorable tracks off Wilco’s most recent studio effort—his first with the band. Their upcoming record, which will again feature Cline on any number of stringed things, is set for release this summer.

The Nels Cline Singers
Draw Breath (2007)

More than with any other group, Cline shows his range and imagination when leading his trio, The Nels Cline Singers. It’s worth noting that there are no actual singers in The Singers.

Scott Amendola
Cry (2003)

Cline frequently collaborates with American jazz drummer Scott Amendola, as well as with violinist Jenny Scheinman, who is also featured here.

“Chi Cacoan”
Nels Cline
Destroy All Nels Cline (2001)

Possibly more than any of his other records, 2001’s Destroy All Nels Cline makes it clear why he’s the missing link between John Coltrane and Sonic Youth.  Cline’s twin brother, Alex, contributes some frantic—and fantastic—drums to the record.

The Geraldine Fibbers
Butch (1997)

The Geraldine Fibbers got a little less country and a lot more rock ‘n’ roll when Cline joined the band for 1997’s Butch.

“Big Train”
Mike Watt
Ball-Hog or Tugboat (1995)

Former Minutemen and fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt is another of Cline’s frequent cohorts. The two have several upcoming collaborations planned for release in the upcoming year.

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