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Under the ‘Macroscope’ with Nels Cline (Wilco, MMW, Grateful Dead)

by Mike Greenhaus on May 14, 2014

The Wilco guitarist and veteran free-improviser on his new Singers record and connecting with his classic rock roots.

Singers and Supporters

Macroscope is the first Nels Cline Singers record with bassist Trevor Dunn, although he’s been playing with the band for over two years. We did most of the recording at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif. [Drummer] Scott Amendola works in Berkeley and the people at Fantasy are so sweet and kind to me. We didn’t really have much of a plan going into it other than there would be guests on the record. Josh Jones, an Oakland-based percussionist and drummer, plays on a few songs. Zeena Parkins came by and played some electric harp, but we ended up just using one short jam with her. My wife, Yuka C. Honda, played some electric piano and Cyro Baptista (John Zorn, Trey Anastasio) added some percussion. I wrote “Red Before Orange” in the studio—it’s kind of a fusion lounge-jazz number that’s amusing to me—to entertain my wife, just thinking she’d get a kick out of the chords in the bridge. And I wanted her to play Rhodes on it. But instead of staying in the lounge zone, it kind of goes psychedelic and I do some sort of a Hendrix tribute. The name Singers came from my attempt to come up with a new generic term for a group such as combo, band, ensemble or unit. So I just thought Singers was funny but also kind of poetic.

Planet MMW

I met Medeski Martin & Wood once when Wilco was at a festival in Jackson Hole, Wyo., but the first time I played with them was when we did a show together at the Blue Note in New York last year. Playing with them is kind of like landing on a planet that I understand. I recently recorded an album with them at a studio up in Woodstock, N.Y., in front of 40 or 50 people. We played two improvised sets and then, John Medeski engineered, edited and mixed it. We are touring Europe together this spring and I went to Europe with BB&C [also featuring Jim Black and Tim Berne]. So I’ll have two all-improvised trips to Europe.

Weird Baggage

I was a huge, huge Allman Brothers fan from the time the first record was released. I heard “Don’t Want You No More” and “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” on KPPC’s Underground Radio before the album was released, and I just basically called the record store until it came out. I saw them when I was in high school about a month before Duane Allman was killed but after Duane, it was too sad for me to listen to their music for decades. I had a phase during the last five years where I’d drive around LA listening to the first two records—it’s hard for me to listen to their At Fillmore East record because I used to listen to it literally every day when I’d come home from school, so there’s a lot of weird baggage there. I was kind of driving around in my car listening to those records a lot for a while, not feeling sad but getting excited. And then, I met the director of the Allman Brothers museum and he offered Wilco the opportunity of playing Duane’s ‘57 Goldtop Les Paul at a gig in Atlanta. I was completely freaked out. Now, I’ve played that guitar many times and I’ve also become friends with Duane Allman’s daughter Galadrielle. I ended up sitting in with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon a couple of times, too.

Grateful Dead DNA

My twin brother, Alex, bought the first Grateful Dead record when it came out because we were both very focused on San Francisco rock bands when we were 13, and he bought Live/ Dead, Aoxomoxoa and Anthem of the Sun. When they stopped being psychedelic and put out Workingman’s Dead, he totally lost interest and I became really excited. I saw them around ‘71 and after that, I got into prog-rock and jazz-rock and free-improvised music and I didn’t follow them into Terrapin Station and beyond. But when Wilco did the AmericanaramA tour with Bob

Dylan, My Morning Jacket and Bob Weir, I was amazed when Jeff Tweedy said Bob Weir wanted to sit in with us. The idea of the tour was that we were all gonna cross-pollinate, which isn’t what happened. I never even met [Bob Dylan] and it seemed like his band—who are all amazing and really sweet guys—were forbidden to play with anybody before Bob’s set. So Jeff and the guys in MMJ took it upon themselves to mix it up. Jeff asked Bob [Weir] right away because we had just played “Ripple” during a covers set at Solid Sound. It really impressed everyone in the band that he was just good to go.

Dark California Stars

Jeff just kept tossing more songs at Bob for possibilities but the song Bob really wanted to do was “St. Stephen,” which the Dead rarely did in their later years. The thing on the list that Jeff immediately wanted to do was “Dark Star.” I kept reminding him that it’s a jam song but he was so open— he just really wanted to play it. And then, he heard me sing it on the bus—I was sort of imitating Jerry’s voice—and Jeff said, “You have to sing on this.” Jeff asked Bob if it would be OK and decided to mix it with our song “California Stars”—just change the second chord to a minor chord so that they would connect tonally. The only times I’ve ever sang with Wilco were the two times we did “Dark Star.”


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