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Nels Cline of Wilco


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Nels Cline of Wilco


If you've seen Wilco in concert over the past five years, your eyes and ears have no doubt been captivated by the alternative-rock band's guitarist Nels Cline, who joined in 2004.

Vocalist, songwriter and fellow guitarist Jeff Tweedy is still the group's focal point, but Cline's head-spinning guitar pyrotechnics add dynamic firepower to the Chicago-based sextet. Much of the 53-year-old Cline's previous work has been in jazz and avant-garde music, but he manages to fit in well with the roots-rock and country leanings of Wilco.

Speaking to the Free Press by phone recently, the talkative Los Angeles native said he is looking forward to a return visit to metro Detroit. Wilco is supporting its new release "Wilco (the album)" with a sold-out show Tuesday at the Royal Oak Music Theatre.

Question: In the Wilco concert film "Ashes of American Flags," it's revealed that your on-stage gyrations are so violent that they give you whiplash. Have you learned to calm down when you play live?

Answer: I do compensatory things, but I can't sit still live. Look, I do my stretches and get massages and have a great chiropractor in Los Angeles. I put ice on my neck after shows so it doesn't become inflamed and I don't get whiplash. But I still thrash myself.

Q: What was different about recording your new album as opposed to the previous one, "Sky Blue Sky"?

A: That one we did in the Loft -- our studio in Chicago -- with everybody in a circle playing with little amps and no headphones, making the studio an instrument. This one got started when the band members with wives and kids were invited to an Oxfam benefit in New Zealand with Neil Finn. That left out me and Mike (keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen). The rest were down there with producer Jim Scott, and things went so swimmingly it was decided to record basic tracks there, with us doing overdubs later in Chicago.

Q: The first single, "You Never Know," has you playing a passage on slide guitar that is reminiscent of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." Is that intentional?

A: Blatantly! That song was never in the program to begin with; it was tossed in at the last minute.

Q: What songs on the new disc are you particularly proud of?

A: Quieter tunes like "Solitaire" and "Country Disappeared," along with "Everlasting Everything," which has an understated feel to it. When the band surges in on that one I always get repeated goose-flesh; that's a good sign.

Q: The last time Wilco was in town you were opening up for Neil Young at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Did you get to spend much time with Neil on the road?

A: Not really. But I've been a huge fan of Neil's since his days in the Buffalo Springfield. His early solo work was the soundtrack to my teenage depression. His guitar style was crucial to me growing up.

On tour he was focused working on new material for his latest album, the one nobody likes ("Fork in the Road"). ... I sat and listened to every sound check and he seemed to be in a constant state of concentration on his new music. He seems like a total workaholic, with a super-powerful fierceness.

The last night of the tour for us with him was at Madison Square Garden, and he invited everybody onstage, including us and the band Everest. So we were all on stage with Neil doing "Rockin' In the Free World." I was so exhilarated watching Neil goin' at it I started crying.

Q: On paper one would think that a guitarist with your background in jazz and experimental music would be a bad fit with Wilco, and yet it works beautifully. Why do you think you fit in so well?

A: I think I've been leading a double life. My work with Mike Watt (punk rock bassist and member of the reunited Stooges) and Geraldine Fibbers (the alt-country group) led to Wilco. My goal has never been to further or extend the vocabulary in the avant-garde.

Following my instincts led me to songwriters and instrumentalists, and my objective has always been to fit in and find a voice; that's very satisfying. Working with Wilco speaks to my earliest points of musical inspiration: the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, Traffic and a lot of blues and rock.

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