Nels Cline: His Upcoming Blue Note Debut and the Vinyl Trend

Guitarist Nels Cline will make his Blue Note debut on August 5—this coming Friday as a download, with CD following on August 19 and LP on September 2—with his album Lovers. It's a beautiful, wide-ranging, 18-track, 23-person-ensemble look inside Nels's soul, and a project that's been in the making for 25 years. It contains a mix of Cline's originals as well as songs by Sonic Youth, Arto Lindsay, Jimmy Giuffre, and Great American Songbook Standards.

I've known Cline, named by Rolling Stone as one of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time," from his avantgarde ensemble the Nels Cline Singers, and from the acclaimed rock band Wilco. But what I was really dying to know was . . . what does Nels Cline listen to? Is he an audiophile?

We met at Bar 6, down on 6th Avenue and 13th street, in the Village, so I could unravel the mystery for myself.

Jana Dagdagan: Tell me about your system at home.

Nels Cline: I was given a stereo system by my good friend David Breskin, my producer friend, as payment (I didn't ask for it) for a recording I did. He commissioned me to write music for him called Dirty Baby, which is also how I met Ron Saint Germain, who recorded and mixed Lovers.

It's a Primare stereo with ProAc bookshelf speakers, which they don't make any more. The alienating thing about my Primare amplifier is that there are no tone controls. I grew up with tone controls and a loudness button. You used to be able to turn it down then push the button and bass would come in. It has none of those amenities. I guess the idea is that it's perfect, but I really miss being able to pump a little bit of extra bass, because it really opens up at a louder volume. That's when everything seems to blossom, when the bass kicks in. It's a beautiful-sounding stereo.

The reason I have it is not just as payment for the work I did on Dirty Baby, but also because what I was listening to was so horrible. It was this little portable Aiwa (bought at Target) CD player with speakers that came with it, because my old Dual turntable had died. I forgot what happened to my stereo, but it basically ended up in pieces all over Los Angeles. I wasn't living anywhere solid, so I was relying on people's systems wherever I was.

David Breskin was apparently talking to Saint (as we call Ron Saint Germain) about the fact that I refused to be paid for the recording and only the composition aspect of this record, and Saint said something like, "You said he's listening to crap at home! Hook him up!" So he did. This was about nine years ago.

JD: What kind of turntable do you have now?

NC: A Pro-Ject with a Sumiko Oyster cartridge. It's good but it's also one of those turntables where you have to change the belt to change the speed. That drives me nuts, because I play 45s and 12-inches, too. I have a lot of reggae and old funk 12-inches, and punk rock and psychedelic rock 45s. So I get really lazy sometimes. I don't want to change the belt so I don't listen to those as much. But, man, those 12-inches sound amazing!

JD: How do you feel about the vinyl trend?

NC: I'm really on the fence. For Lovers, we're buying carbon offsets because vinyl is a petrochemical product and it's really bad for the planet. Also, I generally find vinyl quality to be really bad, and for Lovers we're going to have the vinyl repressed because I rejected the first two test pressings. It turned out there was not a very good pressing plant being used. I won't mention the name. Had I known that was the pressing plant, I would've nixed it from the very beginning, because they're not known for quality, and never have been.

So now there's another place in Kansas: QRP. They're going to be good pressings.

The lack of quality control certainly existed in the old days, the '70s and early '80s, where there was a lot of recycled vinyl and rushed, not high-quality pressings. However, one was able to return the record for any defects and get another one, which you can't do now. You buy that vinyl and you're stuck with it. Until people start doing super high quality all the time, I don't see that as a viable business model. Now, if there're ticks or pops, or if the record's slightly off center, people think, "Oh, that's cool, it's vinyl!" That's not cool with me.

Also you're now listening to a lot of vinyl pressings of digitally recorded records, like Lovers. The mastering is fantastic, the recording is fantastic; Joe Gastwirt mastered it—he's brilliant!—and Kevin Gray did the vinyl mastering. But it's probably not the same sound because it's a digitally recorded thing, as opposed to something recorded on tape in '68.

It's a little bit of a fetish, and not so much informed by the fact that everything sounds better on vinyl. Especially when it comes to classical music. I'm happy to put on my Erik Satie solo piano and not hear ticks and pops on a CD, or play a symphony by Olivier Messiaen and not have to turn the record over. No complaints with that.

JD: Do you own a lot of records?

NC: Yes, I have about 2000 records, which is me really pairing down my collection.

I have an insane number of CDs still. I don't even know how many. I've never digitized them. One of the reasons I have them is this whole iTunes experience. I'm sure there's some way around it, but everything becomes compressed and EQ'd in this way that's not the same as the mastered version of the recording. Also, I'm the guy who likes liner notes and album art. I mean, who doesn't? I guess a lot of people don't now . . . but I do.

I still buy CDs, which people think is insane, but that's how a lot of crucial improvised music is being released still, and people in Europe and Japan still really like them. And I can travel with them to sell them, which I can't do with vinyl, now that everything's about vinyl again.

JD: Do you ever purchase digital downloads?

NC: God. I just had really bad news about the hi-res version of my record Macroscope with my band the Singers. Apparently it's completely screwed up. It has fades where the songs don't end, songs that start at the wrong time, misspellings of the titles; it's a disaster! And I had no idea because I never looked at it.

And the answer to that question is: no, I've never done that. But I'm old, you know. But I've definitely bought a lot of music just off the iTunes store.

JD: Do you consider yourself to be an audiophile?

NC: No. I'm amazed that friends of mine who have insane ears can hear things that I just don't hear, and they care passionately.

I had a friend growing up named Michael Preussner, who played drums in my first trio. We went to high school together, and he was an audiophile. He had all kinds of stuff . . . My twin brother, Alex, and I would listen to records with him all the time. It was incredibly fun, but he was hearing all kinds of things that I wasn't sensitive to. He was really sensitive to recorded sound, and really appreciated certain types of recordings. Like, symphonic recordings from the mid-'60s on London recorded with just a stereo pair above a whole orchestra done perfectly. He would point out all these subtleties that I was happy to learn about, but probably would not have cared all that much had he not pointed it out.

JD: Is your wife [Yuka Honda of Cibo Mato] an audiophile?

NC: No, my wife's not technically an audiophile. She's definitely one of those people I'm describing, who hears things I have no sensitivity to. She produces recordings and does a lot of her work on Genelec speakers.

She just bought these speakers in Japan when we were there earlier this year—Eclipse. They're amazing sounding! They look kind of like eggs or eyes. She's using those a lot while she's working in her studio. She also has some massive tower speakers that she hasn't been using that have been sitting in our bedroom. I'm terrified of them 'cause they're so huge! They probably sound amazing; I don't even know what they are. She's had them since the '90s.

She's mostly listening to this equipment when she's working. When she's resting or drawing inspiration, she may just go on YouTube and start looking at videos, but she's listening to everything through that system. She's sort of absorbing other people's work and checking it out that way.

In the kitchen, there's a desktop computer, and she plays stuff off the iTunes on that computer through Harman/Kardon computer speakers. She's not concerned about how those speakers sound. She's cooking. As long as they're loud enough, she can play her Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Beyoncé, or whatever she's listening to.

JD: Tell me more about your obsession with records.

NC: That's what I spent my whole life, starting at about age 10, being obsessed with: listening to records. The idea of playing music grew out of that. That's how I ended up wanting to play, from listening to rock and roll music. Late '60s, you know.

This then led to '71: me hearing John Coltrane, Paul Bley, Miles, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock—all this kind of music, and trying to figure out how to participate in that. I was always more interested in the notes than in the recorded sound, even though we always discussed whether a record sounded good or not. Trying to find good pressings became an obsession with everybody who cared about sound.

For example, on a record like Larks' Tongues in Aspic by King Crimson on Atlantic Records, US pressings compared to the German import version is like night and day. The German import version sounded so good; the mastering was so much better, the pressing was so much better. The music was important to us, so we'd try to seek out import pressings of records that weren't horribly mastered. I think Yes Records would fall into that category. They were not well-mastered in America, and a lot of times probably had too much program material time-wise, to be absolutely perfected anyway. Supposedly, 20 minutes or less is about the length of a vinyl side to be properly mastered, even though they figured out there were Deutsche Grammophon records that have almost a half an hour on one side. The audio level has to be lower, and the grooves get closer together. If you have really dynamic program material, you might run into problems, especially if it gets really loud at the end of the side.

These are the problems with vinyl that I don't miss. When I download something or put on a CD, I'm not worrying about these things . . . There are certainties. I like those certainties. But, as we know, when it's all really happening, vinyl's great.

Once I realized Lovers was going to be long, I was very happy to think about it like a Side 1, Side 2, Side 3, Side 4 project. That's the best way to listen to it. The CD will be a double CD, and it'll work. It's a longer chunk to listen to one CD, then the other, than it is to hear 18–20 minutes, then another 18–20 minutes.

The vinyl way to listen to [Lovers] is the best because it's a little less overwhelming time-wise. It gives you breaks. I like that, in this case. Like I said, I'm not into it listening to a Messiaen symphony, but I am into it when it comes to Lovers. With certain records, it's nice to have those pauses. You know, you get up, make yourself a sandwich, forget about it for a couple days, then go back to it.

cgh's picture

I was just hanging out with a wine maker I really admire and respect. We're drinking the history from his library and talking about winemaking. He is a fervent biodynamic wine maker. (Or, as he refers to himself, as does every serious vintner I know, he is a farmer). He talks about none of the things that other great makers talk about. Not the terroir, the brix levels, the vines, the barrels, the racking, the chemistry, etc. All he does is talk about the biodynamics - the geese that keep the weeds down and the terroir fertilized, the lack of chemicals, the lack of machinery. He produces amazing wine.

So Nels can't hear too well, isn't wild about vinyl, and likes tone control knobs in his audio chain... and he makes great music. I love it.

Jon Iverson's picture
Saw Nels in Big Sur 2 years ago with Cibo Mato and he was a spirited and kinetic force on stage. Also note that he has great taste in music as evidenced by the YMO box sitting on the left speaker.
jjgr's picture

Seriously. I've been using one for years (including to play many of his records - some of my favorites), and would love to return a favor. Who could I contact?

veentage's picture

Good questions! Another interview that I enjoyed!

Potty Knotty's picture

Come on Nels!.......looking at the photo of your hifi system, why are your speakers on the same shelf as your turntable? That's a recipe for bad sound for vinyl play back. Please get some speaker stands.

Glotz's picture

I would think he's been playing on stage for a looong time, and loud music will wreck one's hearing over time. If it's not that, it just patience and time- there are no golden ears... just people that listen long enough with a good enough system.

Get a better cartridge with that modest turntable and the increases in enjoyment and detail will be huge. Yeah, we all know the rap... the turntable, tonearm... a $500 cart will bring him huge increases, but like he reads this anyways... lol.

The Wilco albums and the latest box sound fantastic, but again, because a certain company is overwhelmed by volume the pressings they have been asked to produce, several have been warped on arrival. It sucks, but we deal.

But man, you are one INSANE guitarist and LOVE listening to your wild definition of music! A master indeed. I need to buy this new release!