Podcast 306: Nels Cline

November 2020

Nels Cline joins us on this week’s podcast to discuss his new double-album on Blue Note, Share the Wealth. Share the Wealth finds Nels alongside the powerhouse lineup of Scott Amendola, Skerik, Trevor Dunn, Brian Marsella and Cyro Baptista. Inspired by the cut-up recording methods of Os Mutantes and influenced at least a bit by Miles Davis’ electric period, it’s one of his wildest projects to date. During our chat, we also talk gear (including the guitar that is closest to his heart while he’s quarantining during the pandemic, his pedal board and more), collaborator Julian Lage, forthcoming Wilco recordings and more. It’s a fun conversation with a Fretboard Journal favorite.

Read some of the highlights below and, as an added bonus, check out some of our previous features with Nels: His interview with Ralph Towner for our 39thissue, our cover story on him in the FJ#37 (part one, part two) and our podcast with Nels and Lage.

Photo above: Sean Ono Lennon

Interview Excerpts

Nels on the Making of Share the Wealth

“I’ve had this band called the Nels Cline Singers for quite a while. It started out almost 20 years ago as a trio with Scott Amendola on drums and electronics and Devin Hoff on electric and acoustic bass. And it sort of drifted along for about 10 years as a trio until Devin decided to move on to other aspects of life, both musically and personally… at which time Trevor Dunn came in on bass.

“[Dunn] is probably one of the only people in the world that could really replace Devin Hoff. They’re both really good friends and [actually] have a bass duo, but they are people who can play masterful acoustic bass in the jazz and classical manner and also play exceptional incisive and sometimes extremely hardcore electric bass. So they’re perfect for my music. But I was still unsatisfied with the trio format. Maybe ‘unsatisfied’ is a strong term. I was getting restless and uncomfortable being the main voice all the time.

“And I needed something else. I really thought that if I could get some extra percussive color in there, I would relax a little bit. And so we made a record called Macroscope, which is I think the first one that Trevor played on. That’s now been years ago, but I really wanted this percussive flavor. One of the two percussionists was Cyro Baptista, who I was quite aware of some from his work in New York and with many different people, including my wife Yuka [Honda]. He can bring that color and excitement and a certain degree of madness to the music.

“So I asked him if he would come and play with us and tour with us and he actually did, which turned the group into a quartet. It was a remarkable experience unto itself. But Michel Levasseurat the Victoriaville Festival in Quebec asked me to do an expanded version of the Singers a few years ago. I came up with a version that included not only Scott, Trevor and Cyro, but the amazing Brian Marsella on keyboards…

“[For that] I also added Zeena Parkins, with whom I collaborated on-and-off for maybe 20 years at this point. She was playing her electric harp and Marc Ribot was on guitar. I knew that Marc was going to be there with Ceramic Dog… so I tried this expanded version of the Singers, but it was only a sound-check-rehearsal-and-then-go kind of situation. We didn’t quite get our land legs, but it certainly fired my imagination. There was no way I was going to get Marc Ribot in the band [laughs], but I love having two guitars.

“Flash forward to last year and I ended up playing on one of these post-Phish concert jams that happen when they have a residency, as they did at Madison Square Garden. The first one I got has to do was this one with Skerik on saxophone and effects, MonoNeon, Billy Martin and me. Skerik and I had at least met maybe 18 years ago and would encounter each other on the West coast when I was out with maybe Scott Amendola Band or the Singers and he was doing one of his bands. We’d be on shows together – a festival or something – but I’d never played with [him].

“Playing with [Skerik] was really fun. There was something about not just his use of effects pedals, which certainly dovetails into my sort of sonic realm in some cases, but just the power and directness of his playing. It was pretty riveting…

“I just thought, ‘What if I put all these people together and flew them to Brooklyn and recorded for a couple of days… to see what we would get with some material?’ I had these ideas of improvising, taking chunks of it and creating this very compressed sort of psychedelic, almost prog rock, kind of jazz rock record. I wasn’t sure exactly where it was going to go because we never played a gig and we had very little time. But we did it.

“My friend, Eli Crews, engineered and co-produced with me, and then he and I got together and did some computer magic. There are things where I kind of wanted a little more here and a little less there, and certainly the improvisations needed to be edited, because they wouldn’t fit even on a double album.

“I was actually stunned by how much I loved the improvised pieces. This took on a whole different cast at the record, when I started realizing how much I was enjoying these improvised forays. So, I hacked it all together with Eli and presented it, through my delightful manager Liz, to Don Was, who said, “Let’s do this!” I’ll be honest: I thought what he was going say was, ‘Wow, this is really, really great stuff, Nels, but this is probably not a Blue Note release.’ So I was stunned and, of course, extremely pleased.

“All the records I’ve done now for Blue Note… I didn’t realize were Blue Note Records until I was either done or halfway done.”

Shades of Miles Davis Electric Period

“The piece on the record called ‘Princess Phone’ is a direct Miles homage, to that era of Miles. Not just the ’70s or late ’60s Miles, but even ’80s… Star People or Decoy. These records are still important to me. I just thought it’d be fun for this band to know how to do that. I’m not saying it’s any kind of cool, killer song. It’s not the most important composition in the world, but it’s just another excuse to figure out how to play together. I did do some crazy edits on that to throw people off the scent there with the Cyro and Scott manic exchanges at the end, which were certainly not originally part of my compositional idea. I just thought it’d be fun way to end it. And maybe a little bit innocently jarring.”


The Track List

“[Of] the pieces I brought in, two of them didn’t even include the whole band. They were ballads that I had written. I’m not trying to upset anybody or direct too much attention to this, but they weren’t really written for the whole band and they were ballads that I had written to come to terms with a friend’s suicide. Those are ‘Nightstand’ and ‘Passed Down.’ Of the other material that I had, one was a piece called ‘Share The Wealth,’ which is the name of the album.

“And I thought it would be a great album title, but the piece didn’t make the cut. I just wasn’t really happy with it, both compositionally and performance-wise. I didn’t push for a specific thing, I just recorded it. In my mind, I kind of thought of these as demos. I had this piece, which at the time I was calling ‘It,’ as a working title, and that’s ‘Beam/Spiral,’ the second track on the record, which is the most produced track. That was the first so-called single … and it came out with an accompanying video that my wife Yuka made.

“I had this Caetano Veloso song called ‘Segunda’ from Gal Costa’s Recanto that I wanted to open the record with. In my mind, that is a great opening because it’s just a nice, solid drum jam with some soloing… an introduction to the orchestra kind of thing. And it’s also a song that I just love. The piece called ‘Headdress,’ was my smooth sort of dub, sumptuous drifting-in-amber kind of groove number, inspired by all kinds of stuff.

“I know I was very inspired by Jeff Parker’s The New Breed, but also Esperanza Spalding from her 12 Little Spells. Recently, we were just sitting around watching videos that we enjoy and realized that Flying Lotus’ ‘Coronus, the Terminator’ is also another jumping off point.

“When I think back on it, that’s really all I brought in… and ‘Princess Phone.’ Both ‘Princess Phone’ and ‘Passed Down’ had more writing.

“I edited out this excess in post-production, where I just was like, ‘What was I thinking?’ ‘Passed Down’ had this whole B section with all these Ralph Towner chords. And it just sounded overwritten to me. So Eli and I chopped it away. And the rest was improvised and there were no instructions for the improvisations other than the one that I ended up calling ‘A Place On the Moon,’ where I just said to everyone … space.

“The rest of them all had BPMs as the only parameter… beats per minute… in a click in our headphones. The amusing thing is that the longest piece, which is track four, which I decided to call ‘Stump the Panel’ for some reason was a very long improv. I would say to Eli, ‘Eli… 99,’ or something. He’d put 99 BPMs in our phones. The idea was that I was going to just use tiny chunks of them and collage them at some point to make a very potentially kaleidoscopic and somewhat jarring musical experience.

“But Scott forgot to turn his click [track] up… at all. So he started playing this whole other groove. We were looking at each other wondering ‘what is happening?’ We just turned our click down and soldiered on and all this cool stuff happened. So the improvs that you hear – ‘The Pleather Patrol,’ ‘A Place On the Moon’ and ‘Stump the Panel’ are edited.

“There are some strategic mutes because I wanted the listener to be able to potentially have desire to hear it again, you know? I’m trying to make it a nice listening experience. But they had to be shorter anyway. I didn’t change the sequence of any of them in terms of the trajectory or the course of events. It was unchanged.

“… Everything timed out really perfectly, uh, for vinyl, which was quite a pleasant surprise. And I do think of the whole thing, since I’m old and listen to records quite often in their entirety, as quite a journey.” [laughter]

Nels’s Quarantine Go-To Guitar

“My little late ‘50s Danelectro Convertible. I’m obsessed with this guitar. This guitar is on the new Singer’s record. It’s the guitar on “Passed Down,” the last track, where we mic’d it acoustically and used the pickup sound and combined them. Mostly, it’s acoustic-sounding. And it’s an overdub on “Beam/Spiral,” where I strummed along with my electric guitar strumming just to give the strumming a little more percussive tamber.

“I love this guitar. Really, really love it… I only really had two guitars when we left Brooklyn months ago, temporarily, and that was my Novo Miri s and my Dano. The Novo Mirus is a guitar that Dennis Fano gave me. It’s incredible guitar. And I brought it along because it’s a hollow body guitar and it has these Lindy Fralin hum-cancelling P-90s, so it doesn’t hum, which is always important to a lot of people. And it’s very versatile. It has a certain amount of edge, but at the same time, it can be smooth…

“I got it last year. Mr. Tweedy and I had discussed the virtues of the Danelectro Convertible together at certain points. I always wanted one of those. And, of course, both Jeff and I are very aware of the amazing stuff that Alan Sparhawk does with his Convertible.

“Jeff sent me a picture on Reverb of this Danelectro. It was very cheap and it looked like it been played to death. I bought it and took it over to Tom Crandall who did a neck reset, and I find it to be absolutely magical, to be honest.”

The Fretboard Journal Podcast is sponsored by Mono Cases and Folkway Music.

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