Nels Cline – Skronking at the Avant-garde of Space Jazz

“I’m kind of just a chameleon, or an amorphous blob,” Nels Cline once confessed to The Observer.

A casual scan of Nels Cline’s dizzying discography echoes this – spanning lead guitar duties in iconic Chicago rock band Wilco, to over 200 recordings across alternative, punk and jazz. While accolades have been plenty (Rolling Stone once hailed him as one of its 20 “new guitar gods”), Nels Cline has hardly had time to rest on his laurels with various projects fueling his flair for genre-bending.

Share The Wealth, his latest Blue Note Records outing with long-time band The Nels Cline Singers, is no exception. From the striking seduction of ‘Segunda’, the listener is coaxed into moon landing nostalgia against a feverish backdrop of sophisticated jazz rhythms. Just as Neil Armstrong did with the space race, The Nels Cline Singers manage to seize the zeitgeist of modern capitalist America, through some deliberately dissonant and seriously avant-garde “skronking”.

ZoneOut’s Cassandra Paz conversed with Nels Cline on the new album that he’s described as “really bizarre for the current Blue Note catalogue” and probed into the curious kaleidoscope of this sonic explorer.

Share The Wealth – the new album by the Nels Cline Singers – is out now to stream, download, and own on vinyl.


THE NELS CLINE SINGERS

Share The Wealth is your third album with Blue Note Records, following Lovers and Currents and Constellations. Can you tell us how The Nels Cline Singers and this album came about?

It’s kind of a weird story, because the Singers have existed now for almost 20 years. I only led one other group before the Singers, which was called The Nels Cline Trio. And so, I needed a band that would continue that legacy. The term “singers” was just kind of tongue in cheek, a substitute for trio, group, ensemble, etc.  

There’s always been a strong influence of rock and roll in the Singers. And electricity is generally pushed forward, although there are usually acoustic pieces as well. Now we have a new iteration, with the added voices of Brian Marsella, Skerik and Cyro Baptista which is more wide-ranging. I don’t like to be at the forefront, and I like to play off other people and have more voices in the ensemble.

Years ago, I didn’t know what to do with the Singers because I was the only voice. I was trying different things in New York and touring with Wilco. I just put it on the back burner for a while until I could rethink everything. And rethinking is what created Share The Wealth.

It sounds as though more improvising, rather than thinking, happened during the recording. No music was sent out ahead of the session and the current band members hadn’t even played a gig together…

Yes. We only did two days in a Brooklyn studio and just recorded some vague ideas, a few songs of mine that weren’t even that fleshed out. It’s bizarre because I basically had this idea to make the record very compressed, like a very psychedelic record, some crazy Brazilian Tropicalia record with abrupt transitions and startling contrasts. And so, I asked everyone to improvise, sometimes with just a BPM (tempo) that I would just say off the top of my head. I was just thinking of collating these elements. I was amazed at how much I loved them.

I really wanted to honour the trajectory of the improvisations and didn’t want to change them that much. I gave them these random titles: ‘Stump The Panel’, ‘The Pleather Patrol’, and ‘A Place On The Moon’…


SPACE JAZZ

I noticed you have a penchant for space jazz. In an interview with The Observer, you’ve said that what happened with space jazz had a lot to do with the zeitgeist then: the idea of mind expansion, protesting against the status quo in the ‘60s, etc. With so much going on in the US right now, did this influence the title of the album? 

When we recorded the album, we all thought “there’s a real wealth of ideas here”, but that’s not what I was thinking about in a socialistic sense.

Coming from the USA with all our supposed wealth and influence – and yet still with an underclass, and with an accumulation of wealth by fewer and fewer individuals at the top every year – I see this as a very unhealthy development and I don’t see it helping very many people, the average person. I think that sharing the wealth is the sign of a fair society. And that’s what I dream about.

Going back to 1969, it was a magical era with the space landing… but also very troubled, filled with conflict that is not exactly commensurate with what we’re experiencing now, but certainly there are parallels.

You revelled in the sounds of ‘60s counter-culture, like Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. Are there other icons that have influenced “Share The Wealth”?

The album comes from years of listening to The Tony Williams Lifetime, Herbie Hancock’s Crossings, and Weather Report. This is what I was listening to in high school and my aesthetic has expanded and contracted since then. It has this electricity and chemistry that I see as a current version of that expansive improvisational jazz rock.

And certainly, a piece like ‘Princess Phone’ is an obvious reference to Miles Davis not just from the ‘70s, but well into the ‘80s with records like ‘Star People’, ‘We Want Miles’ and ‘Decoy’. These brilliant records are kind of inside, not just me, but I think everybody in the band, and these just came out in a startling way in the recording.

As a lifelong guitar aficionado and gear guru, how did these albums impact your choice of effects for the recording?

The idea was to use more electronic elements. I was really influenced by all the sounds that we were talking about before… listening to Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea use Echoplex Tape Echo on their Fender Rhodes electric pianos, and Jan Hammer with the Ring Modulator with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.


UNCATEGORISABLE

Such an eclectic range of influences. No wonder the resulting music is uncategorisable at times.

I am definitely somebody who was born to be uncategorizable. In the ‘70s, things became completely wide open for me and my twin brother, Alex. We were exposed to so much music, but the combination of these elements was not exactly embraced by the journalistic community. Everyone tried to be genre-specific and categorise things in a much narrower way, so the idea of something based on a hard to define or all-embracing aesthetic is very appealing to me.

Indeed, you have embraced and fused various genres in your work. What genre are you keen to explore next?

If I was to be reincarnated, I would explore to its fullest extent the Hindustani slide guitar. I’m no scholar of Indian classical music, but it’s still one of the most consistently inspiring and centering listening or concert experiences that I will ever have. When I heard an archtop acoustic jazz guitar converted to a slide guitar and applied to the classical music tradition, this just took me to a whole other place. There’s no way I can do it now, not in a significant way. But given another lifetime. Yeah. I would take that on and be very happy.

Follow Nels Cline at nelscline.com