"Take care. I hope to meet you sometime," guitarist Nels Cline said as our phone conversation was ending. A similar thing happened the last time State of Mind featured Nels back in 2007. When he came to town a few months after the interview, he invited our writer backstage to meet face-to-face and make a more personal connection. After sharing a revealing conversation about music and life over the phone, that seemed like the natural thing to do. That's the way Nels operates. He's humble and generous with his time despite the recognition he's gained from playing in Wilco. He's as genuine as the music he makes.
A lot of our conversation revolved around the maturing process -- both personally and artistically. When our discussion ventured into how he struggles with the visibility that comes from playing in a popular rock band, he stopped himself and said, "My life is great." He keeps things in perspective. Likewise, when we got into the nuances of his musical philosophy, he candidly spoke about potentially finding freedom in everything, and how he's unified all the different styles, genres and tendencies of his playing by, simply, not worrying about them as such. And when it comes to approach, his head is in the right place: he feels he's at his best when his voice is blending into the orchestration, not soaring over it. Yes, he can dazzle you with guitar heroics and make a Rolling Stone list, but he's less interested in that when it comes to making music. He thrives on collaborating with musicians who share a similar affinity for "surrendering to the composition," and who approach improvisation with the same readiness for pure engagement and listening-reacting dialogue. He says he's been lucky enough to have many of these musical collaborations over his career.
We started by talking about playing in Jenny Scheinman's group Mischief & Mayhem and the release of their debut record by the same name. It's a great band and a great record (I spoke with Jenny on the same day. You can read it here). Since he was wrapping up a tour with Wilco at the time, we discussed how the material from The Whole Love was taking shape in the live setting. From there it blended into all of his different projects and "the quality problems" he has as a musician: he's so busy that it's difficult to schedule time to play with all the musicians he loves.
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I spoke with Jenny earlier today about Mischief & Mayhem. I love the record, and it's such a great sounding group. What are some of your thoughts about playing in this band?
Well, of course, it's super fun for me. I liked Jenny's music since I first heard her band from years ago when she was living in the Bay Area and playing with Scott Amendola [drums], Dave MacNab on guitar, and Todd [Sickafoose] on bass. In a lot of ways, it was truly original, singular. And then we ended up playing a lot in the Scott Amendola Band -- taking little tours on the West Coast. We did a little bit of playing with Carla Bozulich, who I used to make a lot of music with. In a way, this feels like the culmination of an ongoing relationship musically in that I kind of think it happened as an accident. Certainly the most strident at times -- or maybe powerful would be the more appealing word -- of Jenny's bands that I've heard because we get pretty intense. And I think some of that comes through on this new record. It's been a real treat to be able to play whenever it's schedulable. These week [long] runs at the Village Vanguard, for example, have been really fantastic.
Yeah, Jenny talked quite a bit about that. She mentioned that Lorraine Gordon [Village Vanguard owner] said "I like the explosions" after seeing you play [laughs].
Yeah, she was really funny. We kind of tip-toed into that first couple of gigs thinking that we were going to be a little too raucous, shall we say. But no, she loves Jenny [laughs]. We had a way with it.
A little loud for the Village Vanguard?
It's adventurous music, but in spite of that, it's not super high decibels or anything. But it does have what one might call the sonic qualities that are a little more strident than a lot of other things, which fits my palette particularly. But Jenny gets pretty textural in this setting; she'll make pure sound and it's pretty explosive. With Jim Black on drums it's pretty much a given that's it's not going to be innocent bystander music. He and I sort of set each other off, I think [laughs].
Oh yeah? How so?
The few times that I've been able to play with him he ends up having all these crazy ideas, and then he claims it's my fault that he's having all these explosive ideas. We just set each other off. It's super fun to play with him.
Jenny used words like "rambunctious" and "exuberant" and that there seems to be this undercurrent of humor running through the music. It's sort of like you're constantly egging each other on.
It's interplay, that's what I would say. After many years of playing with Todd and Jenny in Scott's band, that chemistry is well in place and it just starts right up like years haven't gone by at all. And with Jim in there -- who is just so incredibly plugged in, he's listening, yet at the same time able to contribute really strong ideas with his strong identity. It's not all explosive. There's a lot of quieter material, but that inventiveness of a four-way conversation is there, and Jenny's music allows for that dialogue. It allows for reinvention and reinterpretation. And that's where I think the playfulness might come in as an adjective, basically.
The Mischief & Mayhem name, I guess, came out of an email I sent to Jenny in the earlier days of the combo just proclaiming my willingness "to engage in more mischief and mayhem" and I guess she really liked that and thought it was fun [laughs].
That's great. Are there any moments from that last run at the Village Vanguard that really stand out?
I'm not sure if there are any particular moments that stand out over the others. The thing that's so great about it for me is that... I've only done this with Jenny at the Blue Note as a trio and these two different week runs at the Vanguard, where you have this five or six day run, that basically makes me feel like packing a bagged lunch and saying, "OK honey, I'm going to work." You get multiple exposures to the music, to the different audiences, and in a way, not too many individual things stand out. It's more of a feeling of continuation that we get to get deeper into the music and continue this four-way conversation. There were certainly nights -- I can't remember which ones -- where Jim would do this mind-blowing, just insane, time switch-up idea where he comes in with a new tempo that was hilariously fast. Things like that. Jenny is a lot more out on some nights rather than others, as far as how wild she'll get on the violin on certain pieces -- particularly on some of her older ones like "Junius Elektra" and stuff like that. So, nothing really stands out though, sorry [laughs]. It was really fun. They're always fun and I hoping it can happen again this summer. It might be really tough for me to schedule, but we'll see.
Yeah, you're all so busy doing stuff that it's tough to get everyone together.
Well, it's the story of my life. It's a quality problem to have. I'm wrapping up a tour with Wilco right now.