Hand Me The Watt: Nels Cline On Big Walnuts Yonder, Wilco, MMW, The Allmans & More

By Chad Berndtson May 3, 2017 7:01 am PDT

Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with John Medeski, Marc Brownstein, Mihali Savoulidis, Marcus King, Chris Wood, Andy Falco, Bruce Hornsby and many more. (A full archive of more than 40 The Art Of The Sit-In features is here.)

At least two great things happened when Nels Cline officially joined Wilco in 2004. One of America’s great alt-country bands found its jones for art-rock — an infusion that helped its live show evolve into the powerhouse it became, where visceral tension and improvisational fireworks exist just below what appears to be a placid surface.

Another was that a much bigger audience found its way to Cline, since the 1980s a buzzed-about guitarist and a musician’s musician plugged into everything from jazz, to punk, to alt-rock.

Somehow, Cline — a true sorcerer of the instrument — brings all of those strands into his work with Wilco, and also maintains a small galaxy of other projects, from his nominal bands like the Nels Cline Singers, the Nels Cline Trio and the more recently launched Nels Cline Four, to collaborations with everyone from guitar upstart Julian Lage and Medeski, Martin & Wood to his wife, Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, with an exhaustive list of associations, collaborations and maybe-we’ll-get-to-this-again-one-day bands with a who’s who in jazz, rock and experimental music.

Cline has plenty to do with Wilco this year, and will join Medeski Martin & Wood during Jazz Fest on May 4. He has more in the works with almost all of the named associations above, and when we talk on a warm day in April, he’s just come off a series of shows behind his 2016 Lovers project, which re-imagined 1950s mood music featuring Cline and an entire orchestra of players — textured and comfortably low-key.

Also on his plate is Big Walnuts Yonder, which reunites Cline with one of his oldest friends and musical associates, punk patriarch Mike Watt, and combines the two with drummer Greg Saunier (best known for Deerhoof) and guitarist/vocalist Nick Reinhart of Sacramento experimental rockers Tera Melos. They’ve recorded a self-titled debut album due out this Friday, May 5 and shows might follow if they can ever align schedules.

It’s with Big Walnuts Yonder that I began my discussion with Cline, and visit so many points of his world, from Wilco to the Allman Brothers Band.

JAMBASE: So what is Big Walnuts Yonder? I love that name.

NELS CLINE: Yes, to me it sounded like a typical Mike Watt sideways poetic weird cool thing. It’s from a Richard Meltzer poem [begins with s] actually.

JAMBASE: And what pushed you to do this?

NC: It was “why not?” Why wouldn’t I do something with Watt, and Greg? Nick, I didn’t know at all. But that’s how it started: Nick saying something to Watt about wanting to meet me and Watt saying if he wants to know me he should play with me, and that’s really what started the whole thing.

Greg is super busy too, and we all kind of put a limit on how much time we’d be able to spend recording, so it took us forever to actually record something. We also kind of decided we weren’t going to play live, but I think that’s going to change, and eventually we’ll do a handful of gigs, even though it’s nothing we can sustain. I’m personally doing so many different things right now that it’s going to be hard, and I laugh because I don’t even know how we’re going to play some of this stuff live. Now that I do know Nick a little bit — and I’ve watched a lot of Tera Melos clips on YouTube — I know he can actually sing and do all those 3,000 pedal changes all at once, so, hey, maybe we can play this stuff live. It’s an interesting idea. Like I said, why wouldn’t I do it? I do all kinds of things besides Wilco and my own stuff. I love playing with different improvisers. I play with people like Scott Amendola, and with my wife Yuka, and then my own stuff, I’m starting another band besides the Singers called the Nels Cline Four. I just like to play. I love ideas that are inherently intriguing and exciting and this one is.

JAMBASE: How do you decide what projects to commit to, with all these demands on your time and possible collaborations you could do?

NC: I never have a plan. Things come along, and I try to fit them in, and I try to have a personal life and try to enjoy it, but this is what I live for. It’s a little game of Tetris.

JAMBASE: And it’s been that way for a long time.

NC: Yeah. But I have help. I have a manager and booking agents who help me organize it.

JAMBASE: But Big Walnuts Yonder will play out, you think?

NC: Yeah, it’s looking like everyone’s kind of up for it. There’s nothing on the books at this point, but I definitely wouldn’t rule out New York and the West Coast. It won’t be any time too soon, but something’s going to happen. There’s a lot of interest in us doing it.

JAMBASE: Looking to the immediate future, you’re playing with Medeski, Martin & Wood at JazzFest. I remember seeing you with them at the Blue Note some years ago.

NC: That was my first show with them.

JAMBASE: Yes indeed, and you’ve hit together a few times since. What’s it like for you to drop into the MMW thing?

NC: Playing with MMW, for me, that first time, was like landing on a planet where you all speak the same language and have some implicit, intuitive understanding of the parameters with which you all live and breathe. I toured with them after we recorded live in the studio. We all just kind of knew what to do. It was just like breathing. For me, as a jazz-rock mutt, I can step into their world with considerable ease but still be challenged. It’s the perfect challenge, and as someone who likes to improvise, it’s extremely rewarding because they have a vast palette as an ensemble.

Every once in awhile on our Europe tour, they’d go into one of their tunes I didn’t know, and then I’m just using my ears and intuition. I jump in, and we once again give the illusion that we’re somehow well-rehearsed. It was incredibly fun. It’s been awhile since we’ve done it. They were supposed to play at Le Poisson Rouge in October and Chris got sick, so I ended up playing with John [Medeski] and Billy [Martin] and Julian Lage and Chris Lightcap and it was this insane gig. I think doing that rekindled their interest in playing with me.

JAMBASE: I’ve seen you play with Wilco and with all the other associations you mentioned, as well as with MMW, Marc Ribot’s groups, Jenny Scheinman, with The Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule and many others. Does that same intuition apply in all those cases? Does the way you approach involving yourself in those groups change?

NC: I listen, and I begin. It’s really just that simple. I have plenty of reasons in life to be bashful or hesitant, but improvising is something I can just start. My twin brother Alex’s old painting teacher used to say, “OK, make a mess.” Which is not to say it sounds messy, but it has to start somewhere. I just begin.

JAMBASE: Have you always been that way as a musician?

NC: No, I don’t think so. I was pretty nervous and a somewhat hesitant player when I was younger. I just wasn’t very good. One can accumulate it over time without ever actually quite working towards it. It’s the only area of music-making I have any relaxed confidence in: improvising. Music itself isn’t that easy.

JAMBASE: Have you been in or would there be situations where for whatever reason you just couldn’t inject yourself? Would you play polka? Black metal? Bluegrass?

NC: I’m pretty diverse and versatile. But I’m not, for example, a bebopper. Bebop is way too hard for this old man’s tiny brain [laughs]. Black metal, I don’t know. Polka, sure, but maybe cumbias not so much. I can hear pitches and follow them and follow harmonic movement — all musics have their own parameters. With Wilco, I really put on a few different hats from the guitar vocabulary, but I never really aspired to be that kind of player. I play what I think the music is asking for. Wilco for me really taps into some kind of early teenage stuff, something retro in what I wanted to be as a player. It’s turned out to be incredibly fun. I want to make those songs compelling and beautiful.

JAMBASE: How does Wilco scratch the improvisational itch for you? You have nightly showcases, such as in “Impossible Germany” where you go off, but many of the songs themselves are compact and structured.

NC: To me, actually, I’m not even looking for that with Wilco. If I were, then I’d probably be frustrated, but that’s really not what I’m putting on that music. There is a fair amount of latitude in what I can do with Wilco, but I like arrangements — being part of the orchestra is not a problem for me.

In the early ‘70s, I was designing my brain around the idea of being a composer as a guitarist, inspired by people like Ralph Towner, John McLaughlin and John Abercrombie. That changed over time because I needed to survive. I actually expanded my vocabulary playing other people’s songs in other styles — it expanded my horizons. I don’t bring the improvisers dictum to everything. I do need to do it, and interestingly, the people who help manage and book Wilco are very encouraging of that. One of the first things [longtime Wilco manager] Tony Margherita said to me was that they wanted to help me get my thing going inside the attitude of Wilco, but that whenever someone did something outside of the band, they bring that back into the band. It’s great — it’s a wise and beautiful thing. Wilco is a beautiful universe of sound and music.

JAMBASE: What do you and Jeff Tweedy talk about when it comes to music, either Wilco’s or music in general?

NC: I don’t know if we talk all that much about music. Jeff is extremely voracious. He’s way more aware of what’s going on out in the landscape than I am. Between his two sons and his general curiosities, he knows way more about young rock bands on the scene. He’s also purchasing tons and tons of improvised music, and that’s generally where we have discussion. He’ll get something like from [drummer] Chris Corsano, and I’ll say, “Oh I’ve played with that person,” or he’ll get something by [guitarist] Mary Halvorson, and he’ll say, “Don’t you know her?” And then we’ll talk about how great Mary Halvorson is for three or four minutes, and then he’s back on his phone reading, or trying to figure out what hideous new developments have happened on the political landscape that day, and how he can assist in hastening the demise of rotten government. He’s very politically concerned, active and engaged and spends a lot of time on what he cares about, but we do, every once in awhile, confab on musical stuff.

I do do that with the rest of the band. Those guys have a shared language. They know every Big Star song, for example. I listen to that stuff but I didn’t grow up playing it like they did. We’re diverse, but all unified, and it’s a great environment for sharing ideas.

JAMBASE: Wilco seems to be in a fruitful period. I was going to ask you what it will take you keep you guys in that fruitful period but I think you’ve just answered that.

NC: Jeff is a super-savvy individual as well as a star. He just kind of knows when to recede and when to re-emerge. The biggest challenge for Wilco right now is what to do with all of the songs Jeff is writing — he is insanely prolific, and just increasingly even more prolific. Jeff is aware of course that if we were to put out two Wilco albums a year, and a Tweedy record, and this skronk noise thing [with Corsano and Darin Gray, aka Chikamorachi] that he’s spending some time on, well that would be overkill. But that’s how much he’s got going — that could very easily happen if it went unchecked [laughs]. So the big challenge now is just pacing ourselves, making sure we understand the perception of the outside world.

JAMBASE: Are there certain Wilco songs that you have a hankering to play, or to jam out?

NC: That’s a question that’s going to tax my tiny brain. I think more than that, there’s unreleased demo-type stuff. But I think my only desire with Wilco periodically is that certain songs that we might term deep cuts get played more often. They’re not always very exciting songs, and Jeff is someone who really understands the architecture of a set, and how you give the audience rock ‘n’ roll energy and mix in the favorites and the new stuff. Some of these deep cuts, like “Solitaire” or “Deeper Down” or “Everlasting Everything” or some of the Mermaid Avenue stuff, we played more often when I was first in the band. “Everlasting Everything” was really hard to play live. I could see it slightly rearranged — I think it’s such a great song — but songs like that are not exciting songs, and sometimes they get sort of shunted to the back of the bus because they’re too slow, too quiet, too depressing, I don’t know.

JAMBASE: Who haven’t you played with that you’d like to? Or play more with?

NC: I honestly don’t think about who I haven’t worked with, but I definitely don’t work enough with a huge list of people. I’d like to play more gigs with the Singers, and just scheduling that is really hard. I’d like to play more … well, we just got through a weekend of this Lovers music with an 18-piece group, and I didn’t think we could ever really do that music live. Now that I know we can, maybe I’d like to do that a few more times. But there are many individuals, especially living here in Brooklyn, who are my friends and who I have listened to for years. I want to play more with [saxophonist] Tim Berne. There’s a trio I’m doing with Jim Black and Elias Stemeseder called Eye Bone, and we have a recording we’re trying to figure out as well as making time to play some gigs. I want to play more with Zeena Parkins — we play duos sometimes and not enough of them, from my standpoint, because that’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.

I want to play more with the great musicians around town, Chris Lightcap I mentioned, and play with my wife, and play with Wilco, and play the Lovers music, and also, when I can, find out what Dino Saluzzi is up to in Argentina. He and I played with Charlie Haden in the ‘80s — he’s one of my favorite musicians and composers. So I don’t spend too much time wishing I could play with people I haven’t worked with.

JAMBASE: I generally close these columns with a sit-in story. What comes to mind?

NC: Well, the last time I did the sitting-in thing is one I won’t share, because it was horrible. It was Los Lobos at City Winery and I personally was horrible, it just didn’t come together. But I also played with them at a festival in Marin [Sound Summit Music Festival in September 2016], and that was incredible.

I’ve known Steve Berlin for a while, more as a frequent acquaintance than a buddy. In L.A. in the ‘80s I used to see him all the time with Fast Freddy, or sitting-in with The Blasters, or with The Plugz — he was everywhere. He asked at this festival if I wanted to sit-in with Los Lobos, and we had a lot of chatter about what song, and he mentioned we’ve got this song and it’s a big drone in G, and I said that sounds good. So they start a song, and I’m at the side of the stage and someone comes up to me and I say, well, I’m planning to sit-in on this song, and the person says, well, that’s this song. So I’m up there and they haven’t set up an amp for me, and I kind of looked out and David Hidalgo just kind of looked at me, and Steve just kind of looked at me, and they kept going, and then David pulled the plug out of his guitar and held it up to me. I said to Zack, my guitar tech, “Hand me the Watt” — my main guitar, which is called “the Watt” because it belonged to Mike Watt — and I plugged into Hidalgo’s set up, which was the most screaming, overdriven treble I’ve ever heard, and basically I felt somehow strangely comfortable. I pulled the plug back out and handed it to him. That was incredibly fun. It was a beautiful, warm afternoon that was supposed to be cold and foggy, but instead was damn hot. That was good sit-in.

JAMBASE: What else?

NC: Of course the ultimate one was the first time I sat-in with The Allman Brothers [in 2012 at the Beacon]. I was up there for like 30 minutes. That was pretty crazy, the “Dreams.”

JAMBASE: And you knew Warren Haynes, right?

NC: Warren and I had become friendly through the director of The Allman Brothers museum at the Big House, EJ Devokaitis. EJ had kind of done some behind-the-scenes cajoling, and I think Warren thought, oh, sure, the Wilco guitar guy. We weren’t pals before that or anything. I have this deep respect for the band though. Certainly, I was a guy who grew up listening to The Allman Brothers — they were hugely, hugely inspiring to me. EJ knew this, so he started to ask. Warren and I became friendly after I sat-in with them.

JAMBASE: I was at that Beacon show and I think I’ve listened to that gnarly “Dreams” about 100 times. You guys clicked, and the crowd really loved you.

NC: “Dreams,” yes. This is the other thing. I was someone who, to be honest, hadn’t paid much attention to The Allman Brothers after Duane was killed, because I just couldn’t bear it. Warren asked me over email, what would you want to play, and I said “Dreams,” which I consider a personal favorite deep cut. I didn’t realize that for the band, in that lineup, it had become a ritual — an amazing live piece. Warren said “Dreams” was kind of a special event song, and that they’d consider it, so when I heard that was on the list for the night I was there, along with “Mountain Jam,” I was like, oh my god.

I first heard The Allman Brothers — heard their first record — on KPCC in Southern California before it even came out. I got to hear a promo copy, and the first few tracks — you know, “Don’t Want You No More” and “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” — I mean, wow. I counted the days until that record hit the stores and I bought it. So when I got to play with them, it was completely big. It was an amazing experience.

JAMBASE: And you and Warren have played together a few times since then. The Gathering Of The Vibes show in 2015 where Wilco had Warren out for “California Stars” was pretty special.

NC: I love Warren. Derek [Trucks], too — I consider Derek an avatar of slide guitar. He’s stunning and original, and his very nonpareil slide style sometimes means that Warren’s slide playing kind of gets short shrift. For me, Warren’s slide playing is more like Duane’s was. Derek doesn’t really play like Duane Allman, though he can, but what he does is play almost like a carnatic singer — like a gospel singer playing through a slide — it’s a whole other sound. Warren pulls out the slide, and to me, he sounds quite like Duane as well as himself. He’s just superb. They’re both just such great players.

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