Something Else! Interview: Wilco guitarist Nels Cline on Scott Amendola’s Fade To Orange

There might not be any guitarist in the world currently involved in as many projects – and of such incredible multiplicity – as Nels Cline. But there’s one such endeavor that has special meaning to him, because it’s led by his good friend and longtime Nels Cline Singer drummer, Scott Amendola.

Amendola’s symphonic Fade To Orange recording project is getting a big assist from Cline who, along with Nels Cline Singer bassist Trevor Dunn, will be lending their talents to the performance. Talent alone won’t make this record happen, however — which is why Amendola has turned to PledgeMusic, in an effort to raise the funds needed to make this a reality through the direct support of music fans.

Cline recently took a short break during his North American tour with Julian Lage for an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown to tell us about his long-time friendship with Amendola and his thoughts of playing alongside a huge orchestra. He also makes the case for music fans to go to Amendola’s PledgeMusic page and click on that “Preorder Now” pledge button. “I believe in making people’s dreams come true and I believe in personal expression and supporting creativity,” asserts Cline. “I think that if you believe in those things and (in) Scott Amendola as a person and drummer, you ought to push that button.”

S. VICTOR AARON: Tell me about how you first met Scott.

NELS CLINE: I met Scott because I used to have a concert series in Santa Monica, California, every Monday night at a club that no longer exists there called the Alligator Lounge, and the series was called “New Music Monday.” It was a situation where my old trio — the Nels Cline Trio — would anchor the evening by playing the last of three sets and I ended up booking Phillip Greenlief twice. Phillip showed with a rhythm section of Scott Amendola on drums and Trevor Dunn on bass, which is pretty funny when you think about it now [Amendola and Dunn are both in Cline’s band today] and I remembered listening to Scott and being completely amazed and delighted by his playing and we became friendly.

The first time we played together, other than jamming at the concert series, was when my friend GE Stinson, the guitar player, put a band together just to improvise when the series moved to another venue called the Gig — and I was no longer running (the series), GE was. I pushed it off to him because I was on the road too much. The band ended being called Stinkbug and eventually L. Stinkbug, with Steuart Liebig (bass), GE, me and Scott. I think it was my idea to have Scott play because GE was looking for a drummer and I said, “what if Scott will drive down from Berkeley?,” and he did. We started wanting to play more and more together and that eventually turned into the Nels Cline Singers and me playing in the Scott Amendola Band.

S. VICTOR AARON: What is it about Scott’s style of drumming that attracted you to it?

NELS CLINE: Kind of everything, really. Great sound, great feel, versatility, imagination — he’s able to play jazz with great finesse and fun in an old school kind of way. He also has amazing enthusiasm and also he’s pushing himself to expand his own vocabulary. For example, the electronic forays which he was just putting together when I started the Nels Cline Singers. He told me about it and said nobody would actually let him bring the stuff to the gigs that he was doing with other people and I said, “Hey man, bring it all!” [Laughs.] So, it’s everything.

S. VICTOR AARON: So, anything you throw at Scott, he’s able to absorb it all.

NELS CLINE: Yeah, but I never auditioned a single, “perfect” person to play for me, it’s not about that. But if I hear something I like in someone as I did about Scott, a lot of it as it applies to my music has to do with an awareness of what one might call a kind of contemporary jazz style of playing. Which is to say, the bass drum will have tone, but there will be an ability to play free jazz, not just to play time, and when the time is there it should sound like something maybe referring to earlier generations of jazz, not just jazz-fusion. Scott has all of those qualities in spades.

S. VICTOR AARON: How does Scott help define that Nels Cline Singers sound?

NELS CLINE: He knows how to improvise, primarily, and can play great time. I need time, not just jazz time, I need ballads, 4/4 ballad time like doo-wop, almost like ’50s rock. I need hard-core post-punk and I need sound and he has that with his electronics, also. He’s about all of these things.

S. VICTOR AARON: On some of the songs, you seem to let Scott drive things for a while. For instance, on your last album Macroscope, “Companion Piece” sounds like he’s setting the tempo and the mood for a good bit of it.

NELS CLINE: That song is structured to be that way, but the thing about me is having grown up with my twin brother Alex who’s an amazing drummer, I’m drum-centric. So, what I want in my music is for the drummer to emerge, not just a large amount of freedom to express him- or herself but I want that drummer to have a personality in the music. I want him to be on equal footing with everybody else. I can’t get too much drum, that’s just me, so a strong personality on the drums is important not as an egocentric strength but a musical strength — with the knowledge that he or she can emerge in the music with great force as necessary or with great color. I like restraint on drums when it’s appropriate, which Scott can do, during times like “Watch Over Us” or “Slipped Away” from our earlier records, where he just lays down this insane jam-like feel; (there’s also) minimal drumming, there’s power, there’s flamboyance and creativity.

S. VICTOR AARON: And the wicked backbeat, like on “Floored” [from Initiate].

NELS CLINE: Well, yeah, but he knows I was thinking about Miles Davis, 1973, so he knows what that means. It means Al Foster. [Laughs.] References are important in my music, I’m not imitating people necessarily. It’s nice when people have a shared vocabulary. I understand what references are because then we can entertain each other to the rest of the world by throwing [those references] in there with a little wink and a lot of respect.

S. VICTOR AARON: Let’s talk a little bit about Scott’s new project Fade To Orange. I know you were on the original performance of it, and you’re going to be on the recording. Was that your first time playing alongside a symphony orchestra?

NELS CLINE: No, it wasn’t, actually. I did it in the late ’80s, for a group I was in for over eleven years called Quartet Music, which had Eric von Essen (the late bassist), Jeff Gauthier (violin) and my brother Alex. We played with the Milwaukee Symphony for two nights and did arrangements of our music for about half the program. That was the only time before this.

S. VICTOR AARON: When Scott brought you and Trevor Dunn into the Fade To Orange project, did he just say: “Here’s the score, just pick your spots to improvise or was it much more structured than that”?

NELS CLINE: It’s improvisation within limits and then there’s some written material so it’s all within limits — structured freedom, like a lot of things that he and I do. I had to hit my mark at certain points because transitions need to be made, the orchestra needs to know when to come in or I need to know when to stop or switch what I’m doing.

S. VICTOR AARON: Did Scott leave enough open spaces anyway so that you guys can come into the studio and come up with a significantly different result this time around?

NELS CLINE: I think it’s actually going to be better [because] Trevor and I are going to overdub on the piece, so we don’t have to capture the one perfect performance, which with that many other players at the same time is kind of daunting. I recently did a recording with Bobby Previte on percussion, on a piece that he wrote that I was able to play it live with him but then later — just as what will happen with FTO — go in and play it in the studio and go through it section by section, and really perfect what the composer wanted.

Bobby’s piece is like Scott’s — not sonically or the mood — but the values are a little similar in that there’s a lot of improvisation within certain structure and limitation and using a lot of the palette that both of these excellent drummers know about me. They know it’s my vocabulary, so they allow my personality to emerge in the music. For Bobby’s thing, we could hone each section and I could play it until he was happy and that way the piece gets maximized for the listener an composer. I think that’s what Trevor and I will do when we go in and record over what’s already been done for Fade To Orange.

S. VICTOR AARON: What new revelations about Scott as a composer did you come away with from that first time Fade To Orange was performed?

NELS CLINE: Well, it doesn’t sound particularly perceptive, but the revelation was that he actually wrote the piece — because he’s never done anything on that scale before. It wasn’t totally surprising that there are elements of what we would call “minimalism,” the influence of, say, Steve Reich in the music, but I never heard that side of him before. It’s not too surprising because I don’t know of any forward-thinking people in the profession who don’t like Steve Reich’s music. Scott’s music doesn’t normally embody that, so that was a bit of a surprise, but a pleasant one. And it’s also a piece he wrote for his wife Ari; that he would do something on this scale is cool.

S. VICTOR AARON: I’m calling to mind the time that the Nels Cline Singers got together with a saxophone quartet, Rova, for a one-off collaborative record [The Celestial Septet from 2010]. Can you envision the Singers officially making a “Nels Cline with Strings” record down the road as a result of getting a taste of that through Fade To Orange?

NELS CLINE: Well no, not really, but I recently did a record — not with the Singers — of my own with a large, 13-to-21 piece group, so I’ve kind of done it. It’s not symphonic, really, it’s more of a mood music record that’s kind of jazz-related. I have an orchestral mind, but I don’t design that for my own band. To me, it would feel like Procol Harum with the Edmonton Symphony or Deep Purple with the London Philharmonic, it’s not always a match made in heaven for me. Conceptually, it’s not what I’m hearing, but ‘never say never.’

S. VICTOR AARON: The second half of “Seven Zed Heaven” from Macroscope sounds like strings swirling around like an orchestra, but I guess it’s electronic effects?

NELS CLINE: It’s Trevor playing arco bass, then it goes into Scott’s electronic array. He’s playing a cymbal during that whole ending capturing the sound of my guitar and Trevor’s bass through this array, altering the sound in real time.

S. VICTOR AARON: Wow, it sounds just like a string section.

NELS CLINE: Yeah, but it’s just us three, plus Cyro Batista on percussion.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.