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Wilco's Nels Cline: 'L.A. gets no respect as far as culture'

Nels Cline and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco

Before Wilco's Jeff Tweedy plucked guitarist Nels Cline out of the L.A. underground to join his Chicago rock 'n' roll collective, Cline was already something of an avant-garde legend. There was only one problem: Cline was broke.

In the early 2000s Cline was playing in six bands, according to his estimate. Locals who were into solo, improvisational jazz-rock guitar could find Cline regularly performing at downtown club The Smell (there were usually about 11 of us), a venue for which Cline was one of the earliest, most vocal supporters. He had turned down numerous invites to join various rock bands, instead performing in experimental outfits such as Carla Bozulich's Scarnella or with Mike Watt in jazz/punk/noise outfit Banyan. 

As far as those band offers, Cline won't, he said, "enumerate," other than to say the bands weren't very interesting. How uninteresting? Penniless frustration was actually more appealing to Cline, who, at the time, was staring at the big 5-0.

"People think I was successful because I was making records and playing out all the time, but I was not making a living, not effectively," Cline said earlier this month. "Things became really strained in my life -- just the stress of trying to continue with this idea that it gets better tomorrow. When you’re about to turn 50 years old, that can feel like a delusion. I was going to go back to the workforce and get a day job. That’s when Jeff called me."

Story: Wilco is maturing, but it is not growing soft

Joining Wilco wasn't some slam-dunk, either. His then-partner Bozulich told him he would be insane not to, but while Cline had shared bills with the band, including 2002's All Tomorrow's Parties on the campus of UCLA, he wasn't all that familiar with the group. Yet Tweedy sent Cline an unmastered version of what would become the 2004 album "A Ghost is Born," which featured some of Wilco's fiercest guitar work, and Cline's ability to make a living as a musician was suddenly a late-blooming reality. Today, Cline lives in New York, is married to Cibo Mato's Yuka Honda and is in year eight of his Wilco tenure. The band on Tuesday will release "The Whole Love," which is Cline's third with the group. 

"I really liked 'A Ghost is Born,'" Cline said. "I could really get with that record. If I had just heard (Wilco's 1995 debut) 'AM,' I would have wondered what I could contribute. That’s nothing against ‘AM.’ It’s just that it has a classic kind of rock sound, and I don’t think I’m the guy for that job."

Cline's gig in Wilco has taken him out of L.A. He still has a house in Glendale, but Cline resides with his wife and her roommate in New York. Along with keyboardist/programmer Mikael Jorgensen, he's one of two of Wilco's six members to not count Chicago as home. Reflecting on his early days in Wilco, Cline said it was for the best he knew little of the band.

"If I had known walking into it in 2004 just how many people were scrutinizing their every move or how highly considered the band was, I would have been even more nervous," said Cline. Wilco was coming off its most successful album in 2001's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," and the story and drama behind it was showcased in documentary  "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart."

"None of that hit me until later," Cline said. "At first it was just a nuts-and-bolts thing of wanting to fit in and taking direction. That’s normal for me. I’m someone who does his own music, but I’m often a sideman. It’s not exactly a big gear shift to have to fit into something. That’s what I try to do a lot, but in fun, creative situations. Not like wedding bands." 

"The Whole Love" has provided more room from Cline to roam. Opener "Art of Almost" builds to a tense eruption of notes, while "Born Alone" features a multitude of subtle tricks. What Cline had crafted for the solo, a heavily delayed drench of fuzz, was used for the verses, and the song ends with a cascade of ascending and then descending notes.  

"Everyone thinks of me as Mr. Anarchy-Free-Freak-Man," Cline said. "I tend to tip-toe into some of these things or sit out and not know what to contribute right away. There are too many possibilities in my head, or I’m hearing something in my head that’s familiar or classic rather than iconoclastic. Jeff often wants iconoclastic."

Wilco's studio and touring demands, in combination with his personal life, forced Cline to relocate from L.A. to be closer to Chicago. Yet Cline's home city dominated much of the discussion.

"I’ve been a proponent and a defender of Los Angeles most of my adult life, it seems, which is pretty much a thankless task," he said. "I’ve dreamed about living in New York City since the '70s. There are a myriad of reasons why I didn’t move here, not the least of which was financial. But my life didn’t revolve in that direction."

Cline stops short of saying he doesn't miss L.A., noting that he wishes he could perform more often with his brother, Alex. Still, he was asked to follow up on why defending L.A. is "pretty much a thankless task." He mentioned a host of musicians and artists who spend time on the West Coast, including Raymond Pettibon (of Black Flag fame) and contemporary artists Paul McCarthy and Stephen Prina, and lamented the fact that they're virtually unknown to much of L.A.'s pop-culture world.

"L.A. gets no respect as far as culture goes, unless you’re into visual art," Cline said. "I don’t think people in L.A. know there’s this cultural phenomenon that we represent to the rest of the world. Everyone else just thinks of Hollywood and fun in the sun. That’s sort of what I was up against when I was trying to basically show, if possible, the quality of music making that goes on in L.A. and the challenges of the improviser when living in a city that’s not considered cultural."

Make it known that Cline is not ragging on his home city now that's he's moved East. He does, however, wish some of L.A.'s musicians would take after Chicago's improvisational jazz player Ken Vandermark and start more aggressively representing the city to the rest of the world.

"Ken Vandermark worked tirelessly to put Chicago improvisers on a global map," Cline said. "They went to Europe and embraced the European scene many years ago. I think they have a more militant attitude. I wish L.A. had a little bit more of that, but we all have a chip on our shoulder in L.A. because everyone hates us and thinks we’re plastic and shallow. I bought into that growing up too. It’s monolithic." 

So a thankless task it may be to defend the City of Angels, but Cline is keeping at it.

"Every town has an underground," he said. "Music is good everywhere. It’s not just good in New York City or it’s not just good in Oslo. I think people realize that music is made everywhere, but perceptions they run deep.

"I used to always have to stick up for L.A. in certain situations, and especially in certain towns," he continued. "I have to stick up for my beleaguered comrades in L.A., and I will insist that there are great improvising musicians lurking in the corners all over the world, but most definitely in Los Angeles. It’s not all bright, shiny, shallow surfaces."

RELATED:

Album review: Wilco's 'The Whole Love'

Musical Cline twins march to different beats

Breaking down Angel City Jazz Festival's 'Global Jam'

-- Todd Martens

Image: Nels Cline, left, and Jeff Tweedy. Credit: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times

 
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