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Nels Cline got an electric guitar when he was twelve years old, but he wasn't really serious about trying to play, and he admits that, at the time, he didn't know what he was doing. "I played with two fingers until I was sixteen," Cline confesses with a laugh. "I was extremely untrained." While playing in Toe Queen Love during junior high school, he started learning more and immersed himself in the music of the Byrds' Roger McGuinn, Jefferson Airplane's Jorma Kaukonen and Quicksilver Messenger Service's John Cipollina.
"Although Hendrix was my favorite guy," he says, "I assumed that nobody in the world would be able to play like Hendrix, so I never even tried. I just tried to absorb inspiration. And then I heard jazz. I heard John Coltrane, and also around that time, started hearing certain progressive rock, so that kind of threw down the gauntlet — like I guess I had to learn how to play. But I kind of taught myself and then learned from playing with people who were better than me after that, because I never had any guitar teachers of worth. I never really got much out of instrumental instruction."
Cline's lack of tutelage seems to have fueled his unorthodox explorations and made him one of the most visceral and multi-faceted guitarists today. His idiosyncratic playing can be heard on albums by Mike Watt, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, MC5's Wayne Kramer and, most recently, Wilco. He's been a member of the group since 2004, when frontman Jeff Tweedy asked Carla Bozulich, with whom Cline had been touring, if it was all right if the guitarist joined them.
"Overall, it's been a huge change," Cline says of playing with Wilco. "And it wasn't something I'd ever seen coming in a million years. It wasn't something that I was dreaming about, because it's not the kind of thing you think about, like, 'Hey, I might get offered the best gig in America or whatever.'
"But the beauty of it, besides the obvious thing," he continues, "is that the things that people do outside of the band are very encouraged rather than being some kind of exclusive, 'It's all about Wilco' thing. Most bands are pretty controlling; most band managers get very controlling about that stuff. But they're the exact opposite, with the attitude being, 'Whatever happens outside of the band is just going to enrich the band when the band gets back together.'"
To that end, Cline has been very busy with other projects, including the Nels Cline Singers, who've been traversing the lines of jazz, free improvisation and rock for nearly eight years with bassist Devin Hoff (who's been touring with Xiu Xiu) and Scott Amendola, who's backed up a slew of musicians.
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with Nels Cline.