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Nels Cline: The Many Loves of a Musical Chameleon

Unwittingly, guitarist Nels Cline has become the single degree of separation between the bi-polar musical personalities of Lydia Lunch and Blue Man Group. He appeared prominently this summer in Europe and New York as part of the “punishing musicality” behind Lunch in the “Audience as Willing Victim” tour, only a few weeks after the release of Blue Man Group’s enhanced C.D., The Complex, on which he makes several guitar cameos. But while he may be a self-described musical chameleon, Cline does more than just change color while bouncing between settings like Lunch’s blood-red verbal slayings and the P.R.-friendly bemusement played up by those funny blue men: he draws on decades of genre-crossing experience, and he’s informed enough about what’s “out there” to stay loyal to his own musical proclivities.
It isn’t as if he makes conscious decisions to go after different styles as a type of musical master plan, nor did he begin with jazz and turn back to rock again, or vice versa. Certainly he’s not following fashion. Rather, it seems as if there is no limit to the types of music he can relate to. “The great thing about working with Lydia,” he says, “and other strong personalities like Mike Watt [Minutemen] and Carla Bozulich [the Geraldine Fibbers, Scarnella] is that I can tap into other outlets that connect with those artists, their audiences, and feelings I have that go along with what they do.”

Cline tapped into those other outlets quite specifically on Lunch’s latest tour, putting the guitar down at times to play hand cymbals or take percussive assaults on a set of floor toms while alternately flogging distorted cries out of his reclining guitar. Through all of this he stood rigid and stern as Lunch doled out poetic tongue-lashings to her willing assailants, both of them giving off an attitude that said “Don’t fuck with us.” Offstage, answering fans’ questions, he was generously friendly and sincere, like the light-hearted musings on his website.

Cline’s split persona with Lunch seems to be a microcosm of what he’s been doing for decades: adapting with agility to any number of musical situations. Any two days out of Cline’s musical life seem to be smaller movements within a larger piece. For example, on a pair of July evenings after Cline returned to Los Angeles from New York and Lunch’s European tour, he played the L.A. County Museum of Art with long-term jazz cohort Vinny Golia on a bop-tinged free-jazz date, then shifted gears for the next night’s all-Stooges-covers performance with Mike Watt at a benefit for the San Pedro Skatepark.

“When I play free,” Cline says, “hopefully I’m bringing something to bear in terms of content that comes from doing more than free playing. I can draw from lots of different approaches to find something I find appealing. That goes for lead playing too, even if I’m unleashing torrents of lead guitar, I’m going to do my best to take it somewhere interesting.”

Earlier this summer in New York, he brought together some of the city’s most interesting talent in three separate trio settings. On an evening at Office Ops in Bushwick hosted by Brooklyn-based radio station Free 103.9, Cline was joined by Carlos Giffoni on electronics/guitar and Chris Corsano, New England’s unstoppable energy-drummer. The trio shook the walls and bathed the audience in sheets of fractured decibels, not backing off for a second. The night before was more of an exercise in restraint: Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and experimental turntablist Marina Rosenfeld took the stage with Cline at Tonic for a set that could have easily unleashed into frenetic terror, but instead produced steady streams of electro-current, resembling perhaps the amplified sonic emissions of a nervous system in a prolonged state of catharsis. The final trio, with Andrea Parkins on accordion, piano, and sampler, and Tom Rainey on drums, traversed blues-based rock grooves and outward-bound sonic scrapings.

In typical fashion, Cline provoked others in each trio, and responded by extracting sounds and textures so quickly that it was hard to tell whether they were rising out of nowhere or had always been there. Watching Cline work is like seeing someone use the guitar for a game of Operation, except the shock impulses from metal on metal aren’t mistakes; he’s learned how to finely tune and employ such outbursts like a sonic surgeon. He works fast, bending over his pedal rig, pulling tools out of his pockets. “The springs, whisk, and pedals came out as a way to expand the expressive range of the instrument,” he says, “to make it scream, vomit, bark, shriek, or murmur in ways that guitars don’t normally do without assistance.”

If the advantage of having such a wide body of experiences to draw from is that you gain an impeccable sonic vocabulary, the disadvantage is that you aren’t trusted with it. “I think that one can inherently have a sense of mistrust towards a chameleon,” Cline says. He seems to be referring to a time in the past when critics spilled gallons of poison ink on his efforts. He was a wild card in the ’80s in both jazz and rock. “Jazz critics were suspicious of what I brought to the table,” he recalls. “They were afraid of my so-called interpolation of pop syntax in the un-sulliable fabric of free jazz … as if my influence was going to be the death of the music. It’s interesting considering that by the mid-’90s jazz didn’t make the map without having hip-hop or turntables.”

“The advantage of getting older,” he continues, “has been to watch different styles of music alternate between ultra-seriousness and kitsch.” He witnessed the explosion of L.A. punk firsthand while working at Rhino records, watched it dissolve and “camp-out,” and notes how “life-or-death” indie rock was for musicians in the late eighties. “I remember reading a review in a zine of one of my 45’s that Byron [Coley] and Thurston [Moore] put out,” Cline says. “The first line was, ‘Nels Cline is a musical prostitute who will do any gig for 100 bucks.’ It was so funny to me at the time because there was so much passion in the rock scene. Because I did other kinds of gigs rather than stick to one band, I was some weird muso-interloper. I have to give this guy credit for doing research on me, but he was wrong: I didn’t do any gigs back then that paid a 100 bucks; I would have done them for 25 or 40 bucks!”

From one angle he’s an interloper, but from another he’s an interlocutor with the ability to transmit his own style in any setting. Not surprisingly, he treks through all these musical climates with little reverence for the status quo. “My response to everything is almost like vaudeville in the sense that music for me is primarily emotional, visceral, and not too intellectual. I like the feeling of going somewhere, whether it’s from a strong sense of drama or dynamic, confrontation, stimulation—even something belligerently beautiful or romantically hideous.”


Bethany Ryker

Bethany Ryker is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. Her radio program, the "Stochastic Hit Parade,” airs weekly on WFMU. She is currently completing a masters thesis at The New School for Social Research on the aesthetics of mechanical music in the digital age.


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