In June 2007‚ Matt Bushlow interviewed Nels Cline‚ Wilco's resident guitar hero and the avant-garde veteran behind the Nels Cline Singers. Parts of the interview were used in the August/September issue of State of Mind. The full transcript is too good to sit on‚ so we offer it here for your enjoyment.
Matt Bushlow: Do you think Wilco listeners would be surprised if they were to spin a Nels Cline Singers record or the Andrew Hill record (New Monastery: A View into the Music of Andrew Hill) that you just released?
Nels Cline: I guess they would be. There's been some attempt-not on my part‚ certainly-to kind of illustrate or educate people to the fact that I have some kind of wacky history coming into Wilco. So I think that whether it's the record of Andrew Hill's music or me playing with Tom Rainey and Andrea Parkins or the Singers or Thurston Moore‚ they've probably figured out at some point or another that they're gonna hear something they may not be all that ready for. But I don't worry about these things. For me‚ because I did a lot of stuff before this‚ including playing in rock bands‚ the seemingly dichotomous aspects of my so-called musical past is just what it's all about at this point. I just don't give it a thought. My main hope in terms of the Andrew Hill music is that people will be exposed to Andrew Hill's music. So‚ if they're curious enough to listen to me play it‚ maybe they'll be driven to listen to him play his own music‚ and that would be certainly part of my devout wish.
MB: Freedom in music is often difficult for people to digest. What are your thoughts on someone who walks into a gig and listens for a few minutes and can't handle the degree of freedom that they hear in what you're doing?
NC: In the United States of America it is culturally a challenge to listen to instrumental music in general. As far as having a vast palette of expression‚ I think in terms of freedom‚ as you're talking about instrumental music or free jazz‚ or if you're talking about a group that has open-ended structure‚ or lack of overt structure‚ the most important thing for people to realize is that ideally‚ and I think perhaps essentially‚ it's really a dialogue between them‚ the listeners‚ and the musicians playing the music. I think that jazz music‚ so-called‚ is the perfect example of this. I think that the listener must realize that musicians are not merely entertaining each other but that the listener is being essentially told a story with sound and that in a way their participation‚ the electricity of that moment‚ contributes to that story and contributes to that moment. And I think that once people feel a connection and they feel like they trust that they're being taken along on a journey that's not gonna lead them into some kind of hideous nightmare‚ that they can kind of find their way into any kind of freedom‚ you know? I mean…I don't know if I'm making any sense…
MB: Yes‚ that makes perfect sense. I'm completely with you.
NC: Culturally‚ in the United States‚ we're not encouraged to trust that we're going to be led somewhere. We're not encouraged to actually check out very many cultural aspects of the world. Curiosity is not encouraged these days. And certainly when one goes outside of the country‚ one sees a lot more appreciation for subtler or slightly more forward-looking forms of artistic expression‚ and it's kind of not feared at all. It's part of everyday life. And I think that Americans are taught in a weird way to not only slightly fear‚ but maybe mistrust‚ cultural iconoclasts. I think that means that there's a separation‚ where in other situations I think people feel that the artist is assisting them in their daily life to expand perception and to ask questions‚ and I think that that's the way to look at it‚ rather than as an off-putting or potentially bullshitting experience. I think there's this weird tendency in American culture to think of avant-garde artistic endeavors as kind of potentially a bullshit act.
MB: I find it fascinating that anything that seems to push out of the box really is seen as either some sort of novelty or perhaps bullshit or some sort of postmodern joke or something like that‚ which is really such a shame. Do you ever get a chance to talk to listeners about stuff like this?
NC: You know‚ the funny thing is that when somebody like me is fielding all kinds of comments from people‚ it's very rare that somebody comes up and gives me the downside. Most people are just complimentary‚ and that's why they want to sort of be right in your face saying something-because they want to say something nice. It's rare that somebody says‚ "Man‚ your stuff really reeks‚" or something. (laughter) "Admit it‚ you're just a charlatan‚" or something. Those voices are in my head all the time anyway; I don't really need somebody to tell me that‚ but it's oddly refreshing. But‚ no‚ I guess I don't really have that much of a dialogue with people about it. People are pretty encouraging. I hear every once in a while sort of internet scuttlebutt‚ but I avoid all those things‚ and don't read blogs or any kind of online chitchat‚ pros and cons‚ just because I don't have the time or the wherewithal to receive that.
MB: Ultimately‚ what's the point? It seems like you have such a strong base of people who understand what you're doing and see the value of it and love the recordings that I can see there not being much of a point in dealing with any naysayers out there.
NC: Well‚ no‚ I think that‚ it's not even that… The naysayers are fine‚ but I just… The whole external world of people considering all angles of yours truly is a little daunting to me. I find it simply a little paralyzing. So for me‚ it's better to try to exist closer to the way I used to‚ which is just to say‚ just doing whatever the hell I want and not really thinking about the consequences. (laughter)
MB: Considering this‚ and considering how difficult it can be to make a living as a musician‚ I guess I have two questions. One is: when did you really know that this was the path‚ just going with it and doing whatever you wanted to do? And then the second question is: have you ever felt any sort of pressure to kind of fit into a different box in order to either make a paycheck or perhaps just be able to feed yourself?
NC: Oh my God. Well‚ OK‚ as far as when I knew my path‚ that was very early. I was very excited by music from an early age. I don't have musicians in my family‚ per se‚ but my parents listened to music and my twin brother‚ Alex‚ and I listened to music pretty voraciously. By the time rock 'n' roll was starting to happen in the mid-'60s‚ we were really excited about it‚ and I was contemplating the glory and romance of rock 'n' roll from about age 10. I was 12 when the Jimi Hendrix Experience album came out‚ and I think it was when I heard "Manic Depression" that I decided then and there that I knew what I wanted to do. So it sounds a little bit mythical‚ but it's true. That's a true story.
As far as the pressures‚ that's such an incredibly deep and multifaceted question‚ and I would have to say there are reasons why survival has been really difficult for people like me in the past‚ and the fact that I am surviving now and flourishing is just as perplexing to me as it might be to anybody outside my sphere. Because I'm not a businessman. As anyone who knows me will tell you‚ I'm completely disastrous at having any kind of business stance or any kind of plan or so-called-or even a perception of a so-called-career.
I've kind of just instinctively moved ahead. Yes‚ there have been pressures‚ certainly‚ to do all kinds of work. I worked in retail for 18 years. The pressures to not be a loser‚ and be a breadwinner‚ especially for a male in this culture‚ are extreme‚ and I think that struggling and floundering around as I was for most of my adult life certainly was wearing me down and making me feel inadequate as an upstanding member of society. I never wanted to do anything else.
Certainly one takes jobs that one doesn't always want to do‚ even musically‚ and in my case I turned down a lot of road work that was not interesting. Not a lot‚ but a few things. When some kind of weird session comes along‚ you're gonna make a hundred bucks‚ or a few hundred bucks-I would always take them if I could‚ and it didn't mean that I had to live and breathe that music day in and day out. It's just that you try to play something one day in the studio. It was also a challenge to be met and something I could learn from and I could make a little bit of money.