Nels Cline - Biography



Nels Cline’s discography is insane. He’s one of those dudes that doesn’t even unstrap his guitar at the supper table. And looking at it, he’s probably got one of the most deranged resumes in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. You can begin and end a conversation about his unfathomable versatility with a single, factual statement: He’s recorded with both Willie Nelson and Lydia Lunch. He’s jammed repeatedly with the guys in Sonic Youth; he’s won a Grammy award with Wilco, he’s recorded with the late garage-rock, 1960s icon Sky Saxon, from the Seeds, and with the avant-garde electric harpist, Zeena Parkins. On a dime he can go from shredding, free-improv, Pete Cosey-style noise, to delicate, Woody Guthrie lilt. He’s a long-time collaborator with Mike Watt from the Minutemen, and he’s on the original motion picture soundtrack for Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie. Nels Cline is a world-class experimental musician who can traipse into the mainstream whenever and wherever it suits his whim. Really: Lydia Lunch and Willie Nelson.

Cline first picked up a guitar at age 12; his twin brother Alex chose the drums (he is also an outstanding artist). As a youth in Los Angeles, Nels kicked around in both the punk-rock and avant-jazz scenes, eventually working with everyone from Ornette’s legendary bassist Charlie Haden, to Wadada Leo Smith and Gregg Bendian. His first recordings were released in 1979 and 1980, and highlighted his skills as an improviser, with performers like Tim Berne, Eric von Essen, and his brother, Alex; he also appeared with the industrial group Rhythm Plague, on the compilation A Children’s Guide to C.O.M.A. (1983 Rotary Totem) and the cassette Dressed for the Apocalypse (1984 Killzone). He then landed a prestigious gig touring Europe with World Saxophone Quartet founder Julius Hemphill; Cline appears on Hemphill’s album Georgia Blue (1985 Minor Music). In 1988 he released his first solo LP, the radiant and supercharged Angelina (1988 Enja Records). Nels also appeared on his brother Alex’s solo debut, The Lamp and the Star (1990 ECM).

The 1990s saw the formation of the Nels Cline Trio, and the first of several collaborations with Thurston Moore from New York noise mongers Sonic Youth. The Trio thoroughly tears it up on the Lady Speed Stick single, released by Thurston’s own Ecstatic Peace label in 1991; they followed it with the masterful Beardism/WDTCHC [theme] (1992 Ecstatic Peace/Father Yod), which sounds like a wooly version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra channeled through Double Nickels on the Dime. The Trio also released its first full-length CD that year, Silencer (1992 Enja). Speaking of the Minutemen, Cline also worked with Mike Watt’s post-Minutemen band, fIREHOSE; he’s on Mr. Machinery Operator (1993 Columbia); the Trio covered “Self Referenced” and “West Germany” on Our Band Could Be Your Life: A Tribute to D Boon and the Minutemen (1995 Little Brother); and he graced Mike Watt’s solo debut, Ball-hog or Tugboat? (1995 Columbia). Cline was also in Watt’s touring band. (Speaking of which, Nels Cline is the blatantly obvious choice to replace the late Ron Asheton in the Stooges.)

And the momentum just built from there. Nels went alt-country with the Geraldine Fibbers, appearing on What Part of Get Thee Gone Don't You Understand? (1997 Sympathy for the Record Industry), and the singles “Butch” (1997 Virgin) and “California Tuffy” (1997 Virgin). He brought the funk with a version of "Hot Pants (She Got To Use What She Got To Get What She Wants)" for the album, Super Bad at 65: A Tribute to James Brown; and then he and Gregg Bendian decided to really show off, with the masterful Interstellar Space Revisited: The Music of John Coltrane (1999 Atavistic), in which they rip through classic John Coltrane/Rashied Ali duets on electric guitar and percussion; and then Jeff Tweedy decided to stack the deck with ringers from the avant-garde fringes (Glenn Kotche’s solo debut is a work of genius), and he gave Nels a call, and now Nels is the lead guitarist in Wilco, and he’s on Sky Blue Sky (2007 Nonesuch) and Wilco, The Album (2009 Nonesuch), and he gets to be a big rock star and play arenas, and all is well in the world. (Seriously: Iggy, if you’re reading this, give Nels a call. He’d be perfect.)

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