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."