Nels Clines music is scary. Not horror-movie scary -- more what Talking Heads were thinking with that title Fear of Music. Deep-reaching art like Clines sticks you with the kind of dilemma you confront when a spiritual path or a career change or maybe love gets in your face. If you commit to it, you risk your time, your energy, your security. You risk getting fooled and busted up. For what? For something you need. Too bad you need it. Scary.
Cline is no huckster. He makes that clear right away, giving comfort to the wary. A couple of weeks ago at the new Rocco, for instance, he began a set with his new trio, the confoundingly named Nels Cline Singers, with just some . . . sounds. He plays guitar, usually electric. So he bent his long pipe-cleaner skeleton over his amp and pedals, and for five or 10 minutes picked out little swells, expostulations, runs. This served a number of purposes. To warm up his fingers. To find out whether all those cords and boxes were working. To seek out new life and new civilizations. And to let you know that this wasnt gonna be pop music, so if you were not okay with that, you might as well split now.
Soon the themes started to emerge, and contrabassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola got more involved, stationing themselves as corners of a triangle so they could all look at each other. There was a six-note figure that would be repeated at irregular intervals. There was a rich drone. There were delicate arpeggios and blasting chordal assaults. Hoff played a sick, sliding solo. Amendola could be whomping on everything in sight or completely silent: This was music of extreme dynamics. Clines guitar buzzed, fluttered, howled, sledgehammered, expressing infinite shadings of texture, alternating emotions of uncertainty, elevation, pain and rage.
The walls and lighting in this shoebox room were artery red, similar to those in Santa Monicas Alligator Lounge when Cline used to book its New Music Mondays (generally featuring himself) in the mid-90s. Two absurd crystal chandeliers, gleaned from the Dean Martin estate, glittered and shook above the no-alcohol bar, which wasnt getting much business, because the SRO all-ages crowd had other things to think about. How deep to follow, maybe. Choices.
Cline made his a long time ago. Since teenage days soaking up the Stooges and Miles Davis and jamming with drummer twin brother Alex, this 45-year-olds detours from the edge havent taken him far from the brink -- the brainy funk-rock band Bloc for a few years around 1990, to a couple of 90s CDs with Mike Watt, to touring and recording with the last version of the Geraldine Fibbers. But Clines long discography (available, along with info and lists of music he likes, at www.nelscline.com) is dominated by extremes, as hes been called on by explorers such as Julius Hemphill, Tim Berne, Vinny Golia and Thurston Moore when they wanted somebody whod push it as far as it would go. And communicate. Some brand-new CDs feature his side-ax work: Requiem for Jack Kirby by Gregg Bendians Interzone, in addition to Clines eerie pirouettes with the vibraphonist, features original artwork by the late Fantastic Four co-creator Kirby. Sibling comity reigns on the Alex Cline Ensembles latest meditation, The Constant Flame. And Nels runs rampant on the epic concluding track of Pomegranate, Steuart Liebigs challenging neo-neoclassical kunstwerk.
But lets turn ears to Clines own recent releases, which, along with his live standups as a leader, offer the best lantern to spelunk the shadowy, inventive mind behind his wry exterior.
Destroy All Nels Cline is both a group and the title of a CD released a few months ago on Atavistic Records. Clines friend and Scarnella bandmate Carla Bozulich, late of Geraldine Fibbers, amended the name from the 1968 Japanese film extravaganza Destroy All Monsters!, and it fit right in with Clines state of mind a couple of years ago, when he was plowing through emotional turmoil.
I wanted to cauterize my being with sound, Cline says of the project. And I wanted to be nullified or extinguished by my surroundings. He and co-producer Wayne Peet did this by swaddling his own guitar in layers of strings -- the electric guitars of Bozulich, Woody Aplanalp and G.E. Stinson, the bass of Bob Mair, and the electric harp of Zeena Parkins -- plus Alex Clines drums, cymbals and gongs, which absolutely speak. The result is a powerful density in which its often hard to tell one instrument from another. The guitars chime, roar, scrape, feed back. Theyre icy flakes on Friends of Snowman, complementary hoverings on Progression, charging spies on Chicagoan. Any jazz- or rock-loving listener willing to indulge the unconventional palette for even a minute is likely to be sucked right in. Because this music is exciting. And its true.
Take After Armenia. It throbs behind evanescent guitar specters before gradually melding with an old LP orchestra recording of Bozulichs aunt singing Mahler and Prokofiev, then swells to a hellish crescendo that establishes it as the modern heir to the Beatles A Day in the Life. Among the many amazing compositions, the tallest monument is As in Life (In Memory of Horace Tapscott), which Cline says just exploded out of me. Through the metaphors of electricity and rhythm, you hear a thousand voices ringing in praise, sea gulls in the ocean darkness, an interstellar journey, an African struggle, a Velvet Underground subway vamp and a huge celestial reprise -- itd be hard to conceive of a more emotional 15 minutes.
Considering all the strings, youve got to wonder why they dont get in each others way. Cline describes Stinson, Parkins and Bozulich as intuitive players who were allowed to roam freely. Since much of their playing fills an atmospheric role, collisions werent much of a worry. Cline got more structural with Mair and Aplanalp. Woody and I discovered we had an instantaneous ability to play together, Cline says of the day when the two first collaborated several years ago. Their trebly mesh, stretched across Mairs oaken beams, underlies a lot of this music.
Last years The Inkling (Cryptogramophone) is a much sparer quartet recording, but hardly lighter. It exudes an austere sensuality appropriate to its central work, Alstromeria, which is also the title of a Pablo Neruda poem that tells, says Cline, of a flower that grows from desolation. Most of the CD was recorded in just a few hours, thanks largely to harpist Parkins rapport with Cline, her ability to focus, and a confluence of aesthetics -- We have similar taste in effects pedals, says Cline. The drummer is Billy Mintz, whos essential, like air. The bassist, the phenomenal Mark Dresser, plucks a raggedly gutty solo or bows coarse overtones to support Cline, who strokes gentle plangencies like sharp Cheddar on apple pie, drips icicle droplets into cold water, opens a creaking metal door and swallows you dry. The music goes somewhere, every time.
Always in demand, Cline looks at his appointment schedule now and finds hes pretty much booked up for the rest of the year. Hes wrapped a bunch of records that havent come out yet -- a live package including a CD with Parkins and Thurston Moore and one with Kim Gordons band; one with guitar extender Elliott Sharp; one an acoustic microtonal effort with guitarists Rod Poole and Jim McCauley. Though Cline says hes a tourist when it comes to microtonal music, hes always liked playing between the notes.
As for the future, Cline says hed like to study Vietnamese and Korean music, build his own instruments, find new ways of creating. But despite his associations with new music, he catches on the word.
I dont believe in new too much, he says. Theres a world searching for novelty -- and what is that?
Nels Cline plays as a member of Stinkbug, Wednesday, August 15; of Crater, Thursday, August. 16; and of the Scott Amendola Band, Friday-Saturday, August.17-18, all at Rocco.