Wilco’s Nels Cline Talks “The Art of Almost” and The Band’s Two Night Run At Red Rocks

Photo by Zoran Orlic

Even for a band as consistently solid as Wilco, it’s got to be tough to live up to the hype. For the better part of the last decade, they’ve had accolades showered on them and been called things like “the best live band in America,” “as good a band as America can claim in the 21st century,” and even “the most important band in America.” Is it all just critics trying to snag headlines, or do these grandiose claims hold any water? Many say yes, but does it really matter at all?

Judging from the calm, down to earth and matter of fact persona of Wilco’s experimental and heavily jazz influenced guitarist, Nels Cline, the headlines and pull quotes are pretty much irrelevant because all that really matters is creating the best music that his band is capable of, day in and day out. Without that, there won’t be any accolades at all.

Listen Up Denver! got to sit down with Cline as the band was in the midst of their spring tour.  He had just crawled out of his bunk on a tour bus in southern Alabama and was sipping coffee as he stared out the window at the band’s crew playing football outside. For the most part, Cline is a regular guy, with regular problems and bills to pay just like the rest of us. The difference is, he pays those bills by playing guitar in Wilco, and there are only a few people in the world that can say they’ve done that.

Listen Up Denver!: How did you end up joining Wilco?

Nels Cline: I met Jeff in ’96 when I was touring in a band called the Geraldine Fibbers from Los Angeles and we were opening for Golden Smog and I sat in with them on the last evening on that tour and something was memorable there.  I continued playing music with the leader of the Geraldine Fibbers, Carla Bozulich, and in 2003, after that band broke up, we opened a few Wilco shows in the Midwest.  That was when I officially met everybody.  The guys had come to check out a gig I did with Carla and with my own band The Nels Cline Singers in Chicago and that’s when I met people who turned out to be Wilco sound people.

When Leroy Bach left the band I guess the idea was that maybe I could fit in and that’s when I got the call from Jeff.

Listen Up Denver!: How did you react when you got that call?

NC: To be honest I was surprised.  I was pretty much shuffling around, mostly on the West Coast and sometimes in New York City, playing mostly Jazz related music and hadn’t been playing in many rock bands.  I’d had a couple of touring offers that weren’t musically interesting, and even though I was broke I just didn’t see myself doing any work that I didn’t want to do.  In this case it was pretty obvious that I was going to do it because it was a really lovely offer and I knew that there would be a lot of freedom and flexiblity in a rock band like Wilco.  I knew it wouldn’t be a situation where I just learned parts and played the same hit songs every night.  I also knew that there were really good talented people in the group.  I didn’t have to think about it for more than about 4 seconds.

LUD!: Can you talk about how the band has evolved or matured since you joined?

NC: It might a bit boring to say this, but it’s definitely a band and it’s a situation where we know what we are doing but each record is different.  Not because of the songwriting per say, because of course every song is a different song, but I think that in creating a studio record Jeff has a good idea of how a record should sound and it’s not a repetitive thing.  He thinks about it in different ways each time and as a group we have the ability to play a lot of different ways and try a lot of different ideas either with a sonic sensibility or with an arranging sensibility.  So it’s very relaxed and it’s getting more and more refined.

LUD!: In recent years you have talked about significant pain and problems with your neck.  How is that going at this point?  You are obviously still playing, so something must be going right?

NC: It’s an ongoing dilemma in a way.  It’s more related to the fact that I’m just older and have been playing guitar since I was 11 and now I’m 56 and I can’t stand still.  I’m doing all kinds of things to deal with it in terms of exercise and stretching and strengthening.  I’m on it!  It’s not threatening, it’s sort of a nagging annoyance.  I don’t know, I’ll see how it goes.  I have to take a positive attitude if I want to keep playing.

I had one doctor suggest that I find a guitar strap that goes around my chest instead of over my should and play the guitar way up high like BB King.  That’s not gonna happen, I just can’t rock it that way.  I’m gonna keep playing as long as I can and try to deal with taking a healthy approach to compensating for a certain kind of, I don’t want to call it abuse . . . but.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to rock it this way when I’m 60, it should be interesting to see what I can do at that point.  I don’t feel like stopping!

LUD!: On a different note, can you talk a little bit about how The Whole Love was made?

NC: Well, Jeff comes in with songs, and that’s definitely been the case on the last two records, but they aren’t necessarily all that fleshed out all the time so that’s when the process of group arranging comes into play.  We demo everything when they are pretty raw.  We know them well enough to play something that sounds like a song and record it and that can lead to a complete reimagining of the material.  If Jeff doesn’t have words for everything he’ll just make them up or sing wordlessly and sometimes that even leads to new lyric ideas.

In the case of something like “Black Moon” or “One Sunday Morning” you are hearing pretty much early version of us learning the songs.  They are sort of gussied up demos in a way because the freshness of those songs was something that we all thought sounded good.   That said, a song like “Art of Almost” was a very unobvious, surprising, and mildly elaborate reimagining of a song that was really different in its demo form.  It became embroidered with this new groove and with these electronics and this new form ending with the guitar solo.  That song came out much differently than it had begun in an extremely cool way.

It’s not really a totally predictable process.  Sometimes it’s very straightforward, like Sky Blue Sky which pretty much captured live performance.  In this case a lot of embroidering can happen and a lot of flavor can be added and taken away with the use of a computer to mess around and move things around and experiment in a non-destructive way.  This is where Pat came in very significantly on this last record doing a lot of detail work and coming up with some arrangement ideas.  Jeff, aside from being the songwriter and the voice of the band and the leader of the band, can also be the conceptualist in a more general and over arching way.  With Pat in there dealing with a lot of the nuts and bolts on the interior of the music I think they made a very good team.

Sometimes people think you set out to make a record and you have a huddle and say ‘now we are going to make Sgt. Peppers, but our version or now we are going make Tonight’s The Night, our version, and it never can be that way.  No band could ever work that way unless they are kidding themselves.  Basically you have the songs that you have and then you sort of fashion a satisfactory collection with a nice flow, and maybe some surprises, out of that.  At one point with The Whole Love we thought we were making two records.  One more kind of straightforward, kind of downtempo country folk flavored one, and one more balls out rock record.  I’m always happy to see diversity and some variation coming from inspiration in the music I grew up listening to in the late 60’s and early 70’s where variety was kind of expected, as was creativity, and that’s why I’m really happy with this record.  I think it has great songwriting but it also represents a fairly high level of variety and color and straighforward playing.  So that makes me happy.

LUD!: Given that you guys thought you might have enough material for two records at one point.  Is there another Wilco record lurking in the wings?

NC: There are not a ton of songs that are waiting in the wings.  There was one song that we were retooling that was from back in the Sky Blue Sky sessions and that still hasn’t come out.  It’s a good song, but it doesn’t sound at home yet in the world.

LUD!: You mentioned the experimental nature of “The Art of Almost” and I think it is an interesting choice to open a record with.  Can you talk about why that is the lead track on the album?

NC: I think the idea was to start the record strongly and surprisingly.  I think “The Art of Almost” is hard to fit into a sequence. If it’s in the middle of a bunch of songs it might have sounded even stranger.  I think you either have to end with it or begin with it.  I think that One Sunday Morning is another that you either start or end with and that limited, in a good way, the choices for those songs.  So why not start out arms swinging and fist clenched with something surprising.

LUD!: You guys recently started your own record label dBpm Records, can you talk about why you made that decision?

NC: I think it was of a decision based on not being able to see through the uncertainty of this transition of how music is going to be marketed and formatted in the future.  It is an effort to avoid the frustrations that Jeff and our manager, Tony Margherita, were experiencing with a slow reaction time or lack of vision on the part of certain aspects of the already entrenched music industry.  It’s not so much for artistic freedom because I think that since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot we haven’t had any label medling with the music or even the packaging really.  But then on a different level we did it so we could make our own mistakes and have our own successes and not have that middle man who seems rather unnecessary at this point.

When you realize that you are stuck with their system and it’s not working for you, it is almost incumbent upon an artist to take charge of their own material and release it.  Doing it yourself isn’t always easy because it’s hard to get the word out, but that’s been the case for a while anyway.

Bottom line is, I think it’s more possible than ever to make it work now than ever.

LUD!:  Given that you are playing two nights here at Red Rocks, can fans expect two completely different setlists from night to night?

NC: If I had to hazard a guess right now based on other two night runs I would say that we are going to repeat a couple of songs from the new record and most of the rest of the set will be different.  We will also go through the files of the previous gigs we’ve played at Red Rocks and see what we played last time and work around that too.  A few things come into play there.  Other than the stuff from the new record there are about three songs that we tend to play regularly but the idea would be to change the rest of it up.

LUD!:  Anything else you want to add before I let you go about your day?

NC: The Red Rocks gigs stand out to me because I’m excited about both of the opening bands.  Punch Brothers the first night and then we’re going to be happy to see Dr. Dog again since it’s been a few years since they opened for us and we are fans of theirs for sure.  Playing at Red Rocks is always an incredible honor and treat.  We have friends coming from all over the country to catch those shows.  It’s such a great place!

Nels Cline and Wilco kick off their two night stand at Red Rocks tonight.  It’s sure to be a memorable weekend of music on the rocks, so don’t miss it and be sure to get out early to check out Punch Brothers and Dr. Dog.  Both bands may well someday headline the majestic amphitheatre in Morrison!

For a different take on this conversation please check out June’s Marquee Magazine cover story here

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Who Is Timothy Dwenger

Music has always been a part of my life. It probably all started listening to old Grateful Dead, Peter Paul & Mary, and Simon & Garfunkel records that my parents had, but it wasn't long before they were taking me to concerts like Starship, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Huey Lewis & The News. I got the bug to write about music after reviewing an Eric Clapton concert for a creative writing project in high school but didn't really take it up seriously until 2002. Since then I have published countless articles in The Marquee Magazine and done some work for Jambase.com, SPIN Magazine, and various other outlets. I started Listen Up Denver! as a way to share the music information that is constantly spilling out of my head with people who care. Please enjoy!