I have to say‚ one of my favorite rejoinders from the classic early '90s stage of indie rock snobbery was in a 'zine from the Midwest. Some kid wrote a review of one of my seven-inch singles by my first trio that Byron Coley and Thurston Moore released. The first sentence of it was "Nels Cline is a musical whore who will do any gig for a hundred dollars." (laughter) And the irony of it was that I was never making a hundred dollars; I would have loved to have made 25 dollars at that point‚ so I had to laugh about it. But there is the perception that if someone does a variety of jobs and not just a variety of artistic endeavors that one is just some sort of a sellout or a hack. I just know too many people who do all kinds of work‚ and many of my friends who I think are pretty much vaunted artists in the public eye approve of the idea of survival over everything because they'd love to live to create another day. (laughter)
MB: Which makes perfect sense. Considering all those things‚ I guess it must have been a relief not only to start having conversations with Jeff (Tweedy‚ of Wilco)‚ but to know that he really understood what you were doing and the kind of music you wanted to play and was offering you a gig that would be a good gig where you could make money and feel great about doing it.
NC: Yeah‚ you know‚ the thing about Wilco besides the obvious things you just mentioned‚ which are certainly true and wonderful‚ is that outside endeavors are encouraged because the attitude is that it's gonna bring something back into the band. In the case of not just the band‚ but the band's management‚ they've been really supportive of me and trying to help me in my individual endeavors‚ not just with Wilco.
Basically‚ there's the whole tenor of my life‚ if you will‚ that has changed for the better‚ as far as things are a lot easier for me than they were. That said‚ there is a certain kind of sacrifice involved; I mean‚ I'm barely able to play with my own trio at this point. We have a new LP coming out any day‚ and I can't really play any gigs with those guys. But at the same time I'm not even sure I could afford to play with my trio still. It was never affordable before. I'm not really sure how affordable it would be now‚ but we'll try at some point‚ because the band's gonna keep going no matter what.
MB: It would be a shame to not have people be able to hear the music live‚ because the record (Draw Breath) is fantastic and it would be really fascinating to be able to go see you guys do the material. I wanted to ask about both the writing process and the recording process. How much of it was free and improvised and how much of it was stuff that you had written out‚ or is it just a combination of both?
NC: The new record‚ or in general?
MB: Well‚ I guess I could ask you both. I was thinking about Draw Breath just because it's the newest thing that I've listened to and then I guess in general in your approach as a writer.
NC: Well‚ you know‚ Draw Breath for me falls into sort of a simple category that I like to refer to as the same old shit. (laughter) There are the free-flowing tunes‚ the have the hard tunes‚ the soft tunes‚ the chord progressions and melodies and non-the pure texture and sound. I kind of throw it all in there. Mostly to satisfy myself and to honor this sort of language that I like to investigate. So it's a little of everything‚ all structured to a certain extent.
Take something like "An Evening at Pop's"- it's completely free at the beginning; there are a few tiny little melodic written areas. Our eventual destination‚ you know‚ in our minds‚ is a drum break that will bring in that sort of Elvis guitar‚ and then we have a scale at the end of "Pop's" that Scott (Amendola) likes to play on thumb piano that I tune my guitar to. We know we're going to play a drone and in that scale and key and there won't be any drum set playing there. That's sort of structured and not structured all at the same time. Whereas "The Angel of Angels" doesn't even have any blowing on it. It's a song in almost a classic song sense‚ except it doesn't have a bridge‚ and I just like the sound of that.
Some of these things are almost just like ditties; they're like little ditties for us to just kind of rock out.
MB: I think‚ to some degree‚ it cleanses the palette after hearing the freedom to hear something more structured and more simply melodic and harmonically familiar to the ear.
NC: Myself also. I think the electric guitar is certainly something people understand and are sympathetic to. And the language of it is not only highly flexible but I guess iconic in a way; so to play a piece like "Confection" on the new record is in a way just to honor my love of rocking out on the electric guitar much as the same way as "Square King" on Giant Pin was. And there are certain references in each of these pieces that are either covert or rather secretive. Little overtures to fave raves like Jeff Beck or Deerhoof‚ Blonde Redhead or obviously Jimi Hendrix. Roger McGuinn‚ Tom Verlaine.
MB: One of the things I wanted to ask about in regards to Sky Blue Sky is that one of the things I really noticed right in the first couple of listens is how much it really sounded like you guys had very much settled the six-person lineup‚ really settled as a band. I have no idea what the recording process was like‚ but the recordings sound like the six of you guys went in and played all these songs as opposed to them being put together piece by piece in the studio. And there are longer instrumental passages‚ there are many more guitar solos than previously; was the recording process‚ and also what the songs ended up being‚ the final product‚ influenced by how much time that the six of you spent on the road over the last few years without going into the studio and making an album?
NC: Absolutely‚ and I think that your perception of the session is absolutely correct. You're listening to performances where the vocals on more than half the record are live vocals… Playing very low volume amplifiers‚ no headphones‚ for the most part‚ unless Glenn needed to lock with the piano or something and couldn't hear it. And yes‚ certainly our three years playing live created a true ensemble. I think we feel that what you hear on Sky Blue Sky is pretty much‚ in a way‚ the warmest and most kind of unfettered presentation of the band's performances that we could come up with‚ still realizing that it is a record and that we could add little overdubs or touches or redo things if we didn't like them. But the amount of fixes or layering that went on was really very little. And so I think that your perception of the record is quite accurate.