Nels Cline‘s music is scary. Not horror-movie scary — more what Talking Heads were thinking with that title Fear of Music. Deep-reaching art like Cline’s 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 wasn‘t 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. Cline’s 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 Monica‘s 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 wasn‘t 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-old’s detours from the edge haven‘t 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 Cline‘s long discography (available, along with info and lists of music he likes, at www.nelscline.com) is dominated by extremes, as he’s been called on by explorers such as Julius Hemphill, Tim Berne, Vinny Golia and Thurston Moore when they wanted somebody who‘d 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 Bendian’s Interzone, in addition to Cline‘s eerie pirouettes with the vibraphonist, features original artwork by the late Fantastic Four co-creator Kirby. Sibling comity reigns on the Alex Cline Ensemble’s latest meditation, The Constant Flame. And Nels runs rampant on the epic concluding track of Pomegranate, Steuart Liebig‘s challenging neo-neoclassical kunstwerk.
But let’s turn ears to Cline‘s 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. Cline’s 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 Cline‘s 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 Cline’s drums, cymbals and gongs, which absolutely speak. The result is a powerful density in which it‘s often hard to tell one instrument from another. The guitars chime, roar, scrape, feed back. They’re 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 it‘s true.
Take “After Armenia.” It throbs behind evanescent guitar specters before gradually melding with an old LP orchestra recording of Bozulich’s 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 — it’d be hard to conceive of a more emotional 15 minutes.
Considering all the strings, you‘ve got to wonder why they don’t get in each other‘s 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 weren’t 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 Mair‘s oaken beams, underlies a lot of this music.
Last year’s 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, who’s 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 he‘s pretty much booked up for the rest of the year. He’s wrapped a bunch of records that haven‘t come out yet — a live package including a CD with Parkins and Thurston Moore and one with Kim Gordon’s band; one with guitar extender Elliott Sharp; one an acoustic microtonal effort with guitarists Rod Poole and Jim McCauley. Though Cline says he‘s “a tourist when it comes to microtonal music,” he’s always liked playing between the notes.
As for the future, Cline says he‘d 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 don’t believe in ‘new’ too much,” he says. “There‘s 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.