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Nels Cline speaks his mind about music

Behold, an actual guitar hero (you know, in real life and stuff): Nels Cline.

This is the weirdest studio record for us, for sure, in every way," guitarist Nels Cline says of the Nels Cline Singers' latest effort, Initiate. "I came into the session with almost no music finished. I had all these sketchy ideas, and I had this desire to make this different kind of record, and we basically had three days."

On previous Singers albums, Cline says, the trio, which also includes bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola, recorded really quickly. "We'd give ourselves two or three days to record, and we'd always finish early," Cline says. "In fact, I think on Draw Breath, we gave ourselves three days, and we actually made a whole other record that's never come out because we had so much time. It was an improvised record, but it was a whole other series of things."

On Initiate, released on Cryptogramophone in April, Cline and company maxed out those three days in the studio, with Hoff, Amendola and producer David Breskin helping Cline finish everything. "We clarified and focused and wrote some new things," says Cline, "and basically came up with a record that was what you hear and is very close to what we had arrived at."

The result is part one of Initiate's two-disc set, which also includes a live recording of the Singers performing at San Francisco's Cafe Du Nord last September. The album shows just how multi-faceted the guitarist, who's gained a wider recognition since joining Wilco in 2004, is, while at the same time showing how completely visceral he can be in a live setting.

"This is either the most friendly Singers recording to date or the most antisocial, depending on who you are and what you expect," declares Cline on his website. When asked to elaborate on the statement, Cline says, "I just figured there were going to be people, sort of like hardcore dudes, who might find the studio record a little bit mellow and be all bummed out because there's some breezy stuff on there. I'm using my voice and trying to get a little warmer, possibly. I'm a romantic, anyway, so I think all my records have a kind of romanticism, but maybe it's a different feeling."

"At the same time," he continues, "people who maybe don't cling to the idea of things having to be hardcore — they will probably find this refreshingly direct and can maybe play the whole record in mixed company. Or maybe not the whole record, after all, because we still have 'Mercy (Procession)' to deal with, which has plenty of anguish in it. Well, maybe not anguish, but just some kind of strong wistful feeling."

The slow dirge "Mercy (Procession)," with its epic, gradual build, was one of the many cuts on Initiate that Cline says was inspired by the music of keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul and what it meant to him when Zawinul died. The live disc includes a cover of Zawinul's Weather Report tune "Boogie Woogie Waltz."

With Initiate, Cline says he also set out to make music that was artful and that reflects his influences and interests in "music other than Western so-called music of Europe and America, that had maybe some influence from Africa and South America."

"I was also thinking about how so much music from, let's say Brazil, is so artful, yet it still is like music that's in the body," Cline explains. "You can get into it with your body. I wanted to see if we could maybe strike a balance between the intellect and the body, but not exclude the body from the scenario.

"I also wanted to bring in some early-'70s space jazz," he adds. "It's maybe a little bit of the minimalization of the Caucasian angst of previous efforts. And also, there are no overt swing grooves or free-jazz moments on the studio record. I just wanted it to be something a little different. And by free jazz, I mean just a piece with a little line, like 'Attempted' on Draw Breath, and then we could just go off and could go anywhere."

Cline doesn't see Initiate's studio disc as a new direction for the band, per se; it's just a different record. And stylistically, it might be Cline's most diverse work to date, one that finds the guitarist exploring other territories the Singers haven't necessarily traversed before, like the groove-laden "Floored," which recalls '70s electric Miles Davis, or the Santana-meets-Afrobeat of "King Queen," which also features guest organist David Witham.

The live disc, on the other hand, draws from earlier Singers material and is essentially a document of what the trio does in a live setting. To that end, Cline admits to making a few flubs during the live set. "But what are you going to do?" he muses. "I'm not a very precise player, so I just left them all in."

He may not be very precise, as he claims, but Cline is still one of the most daring guitarists out there today, both in jazz and rock. In February 2007, Rolling Stone included him in its "Top 20 New Guitar Gods" issue. To a Wilco fan, the 54-year-old Cline might be a new guitar god, but anyone who's followed his thirty-year career knows otherwise.

Cline started playing when he was twelve, and he admits to playing with two fingers until he was sixteen. Weaned on Jimi Hendrix and the Byrds, he culled his lightning-fast vibrato from listening to Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina. But once he heard John Coltrane around the same time he started hearing progressive rock, he says he decided to really learn how to play.

"I kind of taught myself," he noted in a previous interview, "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." There were exceptions: One person he learned a lot from was jazz bassist, pianist and composer Eric von Essen.

"He and I were musical partners," Cline noted when we spoke a few years ago. "But he was light-years ahead of pretty much everybody. He basically taught me more than anyone else had on the guitar by writing pieces that I had to play and then telling me what the chord symbols were and whatnot. I also took theory classes at a community college in L.A. I just really applied theory more to my playing, but as far as instrumental technique, I had no instruction.

"So playing Eric's music was really challenging. He was writing a lot in the style of Ralph Towner and Keith Jarrett and people like that at that time. And he later became much more of a Wayne Shorter-esque jazz composer. I played with him on and off for over twelve years, mostly on for about eleven years.

"And that's how I learned most of what I know — I mean, I think as far as what I know about jazz, or impressionist jazz playing. Eric is not with us anymore, but he would've never been all that enamored with all the stuff I've done with [Mike] Watt or the [Geraldine] Fibbers, or maybe with [Sonic Youth's] Thurston [Moore]. He was a very sensitive fellow, and not too into distortion or volume, or gesticulation or arm waving."

And there's plenty of distortion, volume and guitar effects in what Cline does with the Singers, so much so that he sometimes feels strange playing in smaller jazz clubs, because the trio can be somewhat impolite musically.

"We played many of these kinds of clubs where I feel like we're like the wild man who's just come in and plundered and pillaged and then destroys the club and leaves," he concludes. "I think if people hear the live record, they can stay away if they're going to be turned off by some of the mayhem."

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