A whole lotta love for Wilco

'old man' nels cline, talks about joining up with the band and being named a living guitar legend

Chris Wasser

There are more than 100 albums in Nels Cline's discography. That's a lot of memories. And even more good friends. Indeed, the Californian guitarist has been a leader (the Nels Cline Trio and, more recently, the Nels Cline Singers), a guest artist (recording and touring with Mike Watt), as well as something of an alt-country guitar hero (the Geraldine Fibbers). But that's just scratching the surface. In 2004, Cline joined Wilco, reinforcing the notion that this is not a man who likes to sit around.

"I think because of the output and, you know, the number of different things I do, that there is this tendency for people to think that I'm one of these people that never rests," laughs the 56-year-old music maker. "But it's not true. I don't even consider myself to be driven, frankly. I just like to play."


Indeed he does. And when Jeff Tweedy came knocking, Cline didn't have to think twice. After all, both he and the inimitable Wilco leader appear to have a lot in common. The Illinois-based outfit have spent the best part of 20 years mixing it up, breaking the rules and slowly climbing to the top.

These days, a new Wilco record is a bit of an event -- and not just for critics. Their last three albums debuted in the US top five which is no mean feat, especially for a group whose history is littered with label problems, personal issues, and frequent line-up changes.

Cline calls it a "steady climb". He could just as easily be referring to his own career.

When I ask him why he joined Wilco, the answer is simple -- he pretty much deserved it.

"Well, you know, it sounds really awful in a way to answer this question honestly, but at the time, I wasn't doing so well," he offers.

"I was playing a lot, but I wasn't making a living, and I was pushing 50 and starting to think I would actually go back to working a day job, because that's what I had done for 18 years in Los Angeles. It was just really, really hard.

"Up until 1998," he continues, "I was still working in a book store and, you know, scraping by barely. And so Jeff called and there wasn't much hesitation.

"I needed rescuing, frankly, from myself, or whatever. And to do something lucrative was, like, liberation. I wouldn't have done something I didn't think would be enjoyable.

"I mean, I couldn't do this if we didn't get along as well as we do and if we didn't have a good time doing what we're doing. But I was hoping -- and this turned out to be true -- that there would be freedom and diversity and flexibility, and all those things do exist.

"Why I did it was to not starve, but to do something that would be really creative and fun and not ... crap," he laughs.

The only member of the band in his 50s, Cline is the self-confessed "old man of Wilco". Not that it has ever been an issue, though.

"No, I think I constantly mention it for no reason at all. It's actually absurd how much I mention it," he says.

"I think we have a lot of the same tastes and interests, and sometimes in a surprising way, considering when and where people grew up and what they were listening to. There's just a lot of common ground there, so it's a strangely encouraging kind of thing."

In a "perfect universe", he admits, he would be able to record more of his own material. But that doesn't take away from the fact that the band he has been in for close to a decade appear to be at the height of their creative powers, last year's eighth studio album, The Whole Love, proving a solid -- and experimental -- addition to the Wilco canon.

And it's no surprise that Rolling Stone magazine included Nels Cline in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All time. In fact, our man here was ranked as the 82nd best axe-wielder in the world, ever. Not bad. Not bad at all.


"It's obviously something that would never have happened without Wilco," he nods. "Of course, there is something flattering and mildly exciting about it. I don't take it very seriously, but there is part of me that goes, 'wow, well I'm not working in the book store anymore'."

The Whole Love is out now. Wilco headline the Forbidden Fruit Festival in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham on Monday, June 4