Thursday, December 07, 2017

Talking to Nels Cline

I'm the lucky writer to have two pages of copy bestowed on me in the current issue of Pittsburgh City Paper. That is, everything I wrote this week is spread over the first two pages of the arts section. First, there is a column about the release of guitarist Chris Brokaw's Canaris on vinyl by Pittsburgh's Omentum label. Then I wrote a double-feature about upcoming appearances by drummer Louis Hayes and, two days later, by Nels Cline. (Prior to interviewing the latter two guys, I did an interview on Thanksgiving night for a different article: I spoke with Archie Shepp. But that's another story.)

Both Hayes (who comes to town this Saturday, the same night as Brokaw) and Cline (next Monday) were a blast to speak to. Cline in particular was something because we spoke for nearly an hour - and the first twenty minutes had nothing to do with the trio that is coming to town (him, ROVA saxophonist Larry Ochs, drummer Gerald Cleaver). We covered a lot of ground, which makes sense considering the wide scope of his music, from his free improv excursions up through his spot in Wilco, with whom he's played for 13 years. If you want to travel on the bridge from experimental jazz to punk rock, check out "Confection" on the Nels Cline Singers' 2007 album Draw Breath. He likes Pittsburgh too.

Because of that, I'm doing my usual thing of reprinting sections of our conversation that either didn't make it to CP or got abbreviated in the process.

How far back do you and Larry go? 

It goes back to the '90s, I guess. But I’ve been aware of Larry and ROVA since they began. I didn't actually come to play with them until around 2000, sometime like that. The first time I ever played with the ROVA guys was a concert they were doing in San Francisco. And I could be wrong about this. It was ROVA members interacting in different combinations with various improvisers. In a little theater sorta near the M. Carla Bozulich [of the Geraldine Fibbers] and I went and joined them, along with [drummer]Ches Smith.

Then I started the Singers. I started playing in the Bay Area with [drummer] Scott Amendola a lot, either with the Singers or with his band. We would do shows with ROVA. And ROVA would sit in. Kinda like a less structured, more accidental events. Then we did the Celestial Septet, which was ROVA plus the Singers. I think the first time I officially played with ROVA was the Electric Ascension concert in San Francisco that became a compact disc [This recreation of John Coltrane's Ascension was recorded in 2003, released in 2005].

What do you like about playing with Larry?

I hate to sound like this, because he’s not a young guy. He’s actually older than me, which is a rare event in my musical life these days. He’s old school in that he can refer to a certain vernacular on the saxophone that one doesn’t hear very often, at this point . Particularly in the way that he can reference Albert Ayler in his playing, I think. And his awareness of his antecedents, not just Ayler and Coltrane but Archie Shepp. I would think that a lot of these people have somehow gone through Larry’s aesthetic world. Aside from the fact that he’s a personable guy and he plays his butt off, that’s what I like about him.

This seems like our third winter that we're going to do these little tours. This is the longest of the three. But the first time we played,  I don’t remember what time of year it was but I think it was wintery. It was at a place here in Brooklyn called Jack. Larry just happened to be in town and said, "Hey, do you want to do a trio with me and Gerald Cleaver?" And Gerald and I had talked about the possibility of someday playing together so it worked out. We just went and played for- I don’t know, 30 people - and had a blast.
Larry decided that since he tends to come out this time of year, maybe we should try to play some gigs. It’s really that simple. And then he books the gigs. I try to get the minivan and that’s it. We just do it. We don’t have a recorded document yet, although there’s a live recording from last year that Larry said he’s pondering doing something with. We don’t have a moniker and for some reason we can still get gigs! (Laughs)

It’s really fun. It’s pretty unpredictable in part because Gerald is a really unpredictable player. Some nights – I think it’s the recording that Larry likes – Gerald is playing beats almost the whole time. I think a lot of people probably wouldn’t expect that. They’d expect free jazz drumming etc etc. Gerald might just play a 4/4 beat for 10 minutes. He is completely unpredictable in that way. But it always seems to be some really great decision.

I love playing with Gerald because he can do so many different things. But his own aesthetic is quite  unpredictable. It’s challenging and it’s really cool. I wish I could say something more articulate about it. but I’m still learning about his playing and digging it. [Cline mentions a show where he and Cleaver played Pat Metheny songs, in front of Metheny] That was a little unnerving. But my point in mentioning it is how incredible Gerald sounds playing that music too. I'm just really learning how much Gerald can bring. And I also like his own music, his composed music.

So when Gerald does something like playing a 4/4 beat, how would you respond to it? Would you lock into a groove, would you go against it?

It’s such a good question. It’s one that I can’t answer. I guess sometimes I do tend to go with it, knowing that Larry is not going to, all of a sudden, start playing Junior Walker. He’s not going into his King Curtis bag. So why not? I can just play or create some sort of loop that might almost be in time and that usually sounds pretty cool against a groove.

But it depends on the dynamic level that we are accumulating or working from, the mood of the moment. There’s no set strategy. The strategy is to react with some kind of salient ideas that will push the music forward without me trying to steer it or bend it to my will.

I don’t know. I can’t answer your question succinctly. All I can do is say that, yeah, sometimes going with the groove and locking with it can be really cool, especially if Larry decides to smear crazy arrhythmic stuff over top of it. That could be a really good sound. Conversely. if he decides to play a rhythmic figure, that could free me up to not play rhythmically. We have to be on the groove, is what I’m saying. I really love free improvisation. It’s probably the only area of music that I guess I feel confident or relaxed. Music generally tends to be pretty hard for me. But just starting from zero and going, is my fave zone. Particularly with individuals that one can  feel, at the end, that something satisfactory or inspiring has been created [with them].

It surprises me that you'd say that music is hard for you, considering you have such a command of different styles.

Well, I’m a polymath and I’ve done that. Certainly it was not my goal when I was younger. When I was younger, because it was the '60s through the '70s, all I wanted to do was my own music, which involved improvising but also involved composing. That’s what everybody was doing that I was listening to. Progressive rock, jazz-rock fusion, free jazz, I think that I and my friends, from that era, were all working towards creating our own music. Instead, over time that became untenable to being in Southern California doing that  - or any major American city other than New York, Brooklyn and Queens.

You have to start doing other things in order to keep playing. I worked retail jobs for 18 years. But I was still playing and trying to do just what I wanted to do. With the resurgence of interest in rock music - after losing interest in the early to mid '70s - I just sort of realized that, in order to feel like I was doing what I wanted to do, liking the guitar in particular, I ended up being more of a stylistic chameleon person. But that sort of was an accident. I think it was because of a desire to play with a lot of different kinds of people and finding it satisfactory or inspiring to get into their aesthetic world and make their music come to life.
It’s just a challenge that I try to lead because I love music. I love playing. That doesn't mean I'm confidant doing it!

Has playing with Wilco helped boost the profile for your own music, or do they operate on parallel lines? 

Definitely helped, there's no doubt about it. Playing with Wilco changed my entire life. I was going through quite a struggle to survive, prior to joining Wilco. But it's interesting, the year I [joined, 2004] was the year I started playing a lot more playing in general with people that had no inkling of Wilco, no knowledge of my so called avant-rock side. A lot of stuff started happening. But there’s no doubt that the awareness of me or my playing exponentially exploded with Wilco.

And the direct effect of that happening or people knowing me on the street  - which happens quite a lot - is that when I play concerts with Larry and Gerald, the number of audience members that show up is probably twice as much than otherwise. And it’s not because all Wilco fans are into everything I do. I always think that they’re curious and also supportive of me. They’ll come out even if they don’t think they’re going to like it, they’ll come out and see what it is I’m going to do. That changed dramatically. If you’re on tour in your minivan in Cleveland, the different between 50 and 100 is huge. And since joining Wilco, it’ll be 100 people rather than 50.

Without pandering, I love Pittsburgh.  It’s been a long time since I’ve played anything other than a Wilco show in Pittsburgh. I’m looking forward to it.

I remember seeing you with Mike Watt in the '90s, and you played your guitar with a whisk.

A lot of people remember the whisk. I don’t use it anymore. But I still have it. I've gotten it down to a roughed up bottle neck and a spring. That’s pretty much the two main items [I use], outside of making false bridges with chopsticks and alligator clips to change the overtones. But primarily just down to the spring and bottle neck. I’ve got a little bag f tricks that I carry around.

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