In the spring of 2007‚ I was working on a feature about Nels Cline. Though many have come to know him as Wilco's lead guitarist‚ he has performed and recorded with a panoramic range of artists‚ from Charlie Haden to Thurston Moore to Willie Nelson-and far‚ far beyond. (As Nels would say‚ "Do your homework.") One of his closest friends and collaborators over the years has been bassist and songwriter Mike Watt‚ co-founder of The Minutemen and fIREHOSE.
The way Watt answered the phone set the tone for our conversation: He simply barked "Watt!" Short‚ stout‚ electric--like the man himself. He spoke quickly and with increasing enthusiasm as we covered his history with Nels‚ including Watt's first two solo albums‚ Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Contemplating the Engine Room. At the time‚ I had wanted to speak with someone who had experience working with Nels and could talk about what he brought to the table in creative situations. Watt gave me both. He spoke with deep respect and genuine affection for a man who is clearly his close friend‚ and as he told me‚ a "sensei" in his world. Just don't describe Nels as "normal." That just makes him laugh. In Watt's words‚ "He's singular‚ you know?"
If you don't mind me asking‚ before we get to Nels‚ I heard you just got back from Israel with The Stooges. What that was like?
That was the last leg [of the tour]. And the last gig was the first time I ever played in Israel. It was in Tel Aviv at a convention center. Had five or six thousand-it was packed. And wow‚ wow they have heart. Lotta spirit from the folks. I didn't get a lot of time there... When we got in‚ it was at night‚ and I went to Jaffa‚ the older part‚ you know‚ and saw Steve MacKay play with three Israeli musicians that were incredible. An improvised kind of gig. I wish I could of been there another day and gone to Jerusalem or something... I really enjoyed playing there. You know what it is on the TV right? When you go there... I mean‚ I find this about all kinds of places. You don't really know unless you go there yourself.
That's one of the reasons I asked; it's really hard to know. I've never been there and I thought‚ especially with a musician going there to play a gig‚ you must really get a different view than... I mean‚ I hate to say‚ the only news [coverage in the U.S.] is when there's some sort of bombing or some sort of political [crisis]...
Right. I mean‚ we were right on the Mediterranean and the beaches right there. But they said about an hour away was Gaza and the West Bank‚ and there was a lot of heavy stuff there‚ of course. There were a lot of problems‚ right‚ with the neighbors and just getting along as humans. But‚ on the other hand‚ people want to have some kind of life; they're not living just for CNN broadcasts. [laughter] They were telling me that a lot of the slang in Hebrew is Arab. There's a lot more mixture there than we see there‚ you know? Yeah‚ the musicians were telling me there's a lot of common ground. The chow definitely is Mediterranean. It's not like New York City; [laughter] you might be thinking pierogies and knishes. No‚ it's tabouleh and hummus and stuff. Because that's the land. We get this warped kind of thing... When I'm on the street walking around no one knows I really play in a band. So I get to see what's up. And I felt really fortunate to go there. And I want to go back.
All the towns‚ man‚ I like playing all over. That's one of the greatest things about this gig. And Nels‚ right now is out with Wilco. And‚ you know‚ me and him both have our things with our own musics‚ but I think when you help other folks out-I mean‚ there's a lot of levels to it‚ but [if] there's a bigger band like The Stooges or Wilco‚ you end up finding more newer paths to rock. And maybe a little bit bigger venues and stuff. But there's also something about helping out other people. Because I don't think you can always learn everything if you're always the boss. Most of life‚ what I've found out‚ is about taking turns. Now‚ Nels‚ you know‚ I had him play with me for my Contemplating the Engine Room opera. Here I had to relate to him‚ not just music‚ but this whole story‚ you know? And the guy is so generous. He comes from a semi-improvising background of the seventies. More than anybody I know. And it's really helped him become a cat who doesn't push his thing on you‚ man. He sees what's up and tries to help out as much as he can‚ but still bring the Nels Cline persona.
John Coltrane said in this interview that all musicians are after some kind of truth‚ they just have their own way of going for it... But then there's so much common ground‚ and music is about bringing together‚ too. You know‚ [for the opera] I had to get this whole thing out of my head; I had an easel there in the studio explaining to him‚ because I used a lot of stuff from Joyce's Ulysses ‚ that wasn't even song stuff so much‚ because I wanted to tell the story of The Minutemen and I never had the courage. And here‚ I had Nels who's probably the best cat. One heavy thing was there was a song for D. Boon called "The Boilerman" and I actually... I didn't tell him this was gonna happen‚ but I handed him D. Boon's guitar‚ that his pop gave me‚ and I said "Man‚ play a solo on this‚ for this song‚ because it's his song." Nels‚ it was kind of a shock to him‚ but he went for it. That's one of the good things about him.
So when did you first work with Nels? I know you did The Engine Room together‚ but when did you first hang out and play with him?
Well‚ that was in '97‚ Cinco de Mayo in '97. I actually recorded with him before that for Ball-Hog or Tugboat? In fact‚ he was like the spine. Because that album was made up of . . . there was no band. Every song had its own band. And he was the cat who appeared the most. And who was really the guy I leaned to. The whole album was the idea of‚ Well‚ the bass player knows the song‚ so anybody could play drums and guitar and sing with him. It was right after fIREHOSE ‚ so I wanted to try something with no band‚ or just a bunch of bands for the songs. That was the first time I recorded with him. But the first time I actually seen him play‚ he was doing Spanish guitar with Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra . And I saw that gig‚ and fIREHOSE was just startin'‚ and it was like [in hushed voice] wow‚ man. And I asked him to open for fIREHOSE at McCabe's-solo Spanish guitar‚ nylon strings. Yeah‚ and then I find out that he's way into Sonic Youth and this big fusion of improvising jazz education in the seventies‚ and then before that‚ Stooges‚ Hendrix‚ the Byrds‚ Yardbirds. Yeah‚ you know‚ and getting to talk with Nels is righteous. He knows his music. [laughter] You know what I mean‚ he eats‚ breathes and drinks it‚ but he never comes out like some expert-that's just the way it is.
He's so humble. I saw him after a Wilco show with this circle of people‚ and if you hadn't known who he was‚ [you would think] it's just five people hanging out‚ talking about the show. And it was‚ he's totally gracious‚ normal‚ listens to everyone‚ responds‚ doesn't have any sort of attitude...
[laughter] I don't know about normal‚ but he's unassuming. He's singular‚ you know... He's got his own personality; he's not like a sheep. He's very unassuming‚ and not ego-ed. You're right about that. It's hard for me to like say another dude is like Nels... [laughter] If normal means like everybody else. He has a very strong sense of decency‚ and wants to treat everybody very... right. Maybe that's like a normal person. I wish it was more normal. [laughter]
I know both of you guys‚ when you're doing your own thing‚ you're working pretty far outside of what people consider the mainstream...
Normal. [laughter]
There we go; we can just work with normal. So what do you think the deal is‚ why do you think there isn't more of an audience for the music you guys are doing?
I think there is more than there was. I'll tell you my trip on it. You know‚ I come from the punk scene which was... In the seventies it was very small and most people hated it. So you built up this kind of self-reliance‚ like‚ If I don't like it‚ nobody else is. Not like It's the greatest thing on earth‚ but you know‚ I'm putting my heart into this. And so you learn not to care about other people having approval of it. [laughter] You know‚ it's just the circumstance of the situation. And then‚ you know‚ punk got bigger‚ and whatever‚ morphed into things that was more acceptable. But still‚ in a way‚ the challenge of challenging music is tough on folks! People use music for different things. Some people use it as a spring board to launch into nether regions. Other people use that sort of thing to belong‚ you know. To clue into some kind of scene. And they don't want you rocking the boat with too many ideas‚ you know what I mean? This is a human thing‚ you know. There's an individual thing‚ an expression thing‚ and then there's a herd mentality. That's what the marketing people are always preying on.