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THE NELS CLINE SINGERS: An Oral History (1 of 4)

Having just celebrated our 10th anniversary here at the Crypto Nerve Center, we have another milestone upon us: The Nels Cline Singers are also reaching their first decade (and four albums’ worth) of delicate lyricism, groove-laden fuzz-funk workouts and face-melting sonic deviance – all without any discernible singing.

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Since joining the critically lauded rock group Wilco in 2004, Nels Cline has emerged in recent years as one of the most respected, argued-over and unclassifiable musicians active today – memorably described by Jazz Times as “the world’s most dangerous guitarist” and by bestselling author David Carr (Night of the Gun) as "one of the best in any genre.” Ironically, Cline formed the Singers in 2001 not entirely on his own accord but at the urging of versatile percussionist Scott Amendola, a New Jersey-born Black Sabbath and Ornette Coleman acolyte who had gained prominence in San Francisco's heady, dot com-era music scene of the early 90s though his collaborations with guitarist Charlie Hunter and saxophonist Phillip Greenlief.

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Buy these...you will buuuuuy these...

It was Greenlief who introduced Cline to Amendola, who then brought in Colorado native Devin Hoff, a young contrabassist equally at ease with Norwegian Black Metal as he was with improvised skronkitude. What emerged was a impeccably pedigreed and potently eclectic band of three successive generations of vanguard virtuosos whose buzz has only grown with each subsequent release – Instrumentals (2002), The Giant Pin (2004), Draw Breath (2007) and their new world music-influenced double-CD Initiate (2010), which Tim Niland of Music and More recently called “a fascinating and thrilling journey.”

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With the release of Initiate on APRIL 13, we at the Beast thought we’d forgo the usual promo interviews (although don’t get us wrong -- we did those, too) and instead pay homage to all the dogged and loyal scribes -- famous, infamous and anonymous – who have provided us with ten years of solid and devoted journalism, opinions, rants, interviews, whining and live reviews on the NCS. Coupled with brand spankin’ new interviews with Nels, Scott and Devin, we have fashioned a musical journey of three accomplished and twisted April fools using the “found voices” of the past decade. Enjoy!

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[Photo by Peak]

The story you are about to read is true. Out of respect for the survivors, no names or events have been changed -- especially the ‘OFF THE RECORD’ stuff, which is juicy indeed.

PART I: “POWERJAZZROCKFREEPSYCHEDELICATEMUZIK" (1965-2000)

Every trio has a taproot. This one’s sprouted in a drowsy middle-class corner of West Los Angeles.

NELS CLINE: “I was fixated on rock ‘n’ roll from 1965 onward. The moment at which our friend Pat Pile, in elementary school, took [my twin brother Alex and I] over to his house after school and showed us his snare drum, and played us the drum exercises he was working on…I felt my face was going to crack in half. I could not stop smiling.” (Downbeat, 6/09)

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[Drawing by Michael Arthur]

NELS: “I’m sixties-damaged…because I think that there were certain tenets of music in the pop world of the sixties that were maybe unspoken but are still kind of rules to live by for me. One is variety, especially with rock bands…If you bought an album from 1966, when things were starting to get a little psychedelic, there was a great variety in the records. Bands just didn’t do one kind of song, so it was kind of a given that there would be an acoustic number, then a long jamming number, and a spacey number, a mind-bending number, and an upper pop-rock number.” (Oral History Interview, 1999)

NELS: “Obviously, there were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and I was super into the Byrds. I liked Love. Then there was Jimi Hendrix, who was an epiphany. One Saturday afternoon, I was in the back room at our folks’ house listening to KHJ. They played 'Manic Depression,' which was odd, because it wasn’t the single. We were jumping up and down, yelling and freaking out. It was like being zapped for three-and-a-half minutes by pure electricity.” (Downbeat, 6/09)

At age 11, the brothers formed their first trio—Homogenized Goo. “We were both totally rock and roll obsessed—” begins Alex, who exudes a Zen-like calm, “—but we beyond sucked,” adds the intense, stovepipe-thin Nels. “Eventually we gave up and started improvising.” (Glue Magazine, July/August 1999)

NELS: “This was before Traffic had that song ‘Medicated Goo’ even. We were listening to rock-and-roll and psychedelic music, and looking at pop art and surrealist and dada art, and just getting into that, getting into absurdity…The whole vibe of the day was kind of all about fun, mind-expanding stuff. It was a great time to be entering puberty. A little confusing maybe, but great, really exciting. In my music, I think the electricity and the freedom and the curiosity of that era still resonates with me.” (Village Voice, 5/08/09)

NELS: “We would play all original material and we would dress up. Alex played drums, Pat played his uncle’s bass through my blue chip-stamp amplifier – we collected blue stamps. I got a Melody amplifier. My dad bought a Melody electric guitar from one of his students for $20. It had one pickup. It was all about the guitar.” (Oral History Interview, 1999)

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[Photo by Brandon Wu]

NELS: “I had a weird primitive naïve idea about playing guitar. I used to play with just two fingers for years. I didn’t know anything! I’m a primitive, baby!” (L.A. Record, 2/23/07)

We played all original material (3 songs) at our elementary school graduation. Set list:
1. Flying Frogs (“attempt at pop song”)
2. Chewing Gum Minds (“dark science-fiction number”)
3. Non-Stop Chicken Flight (“an instrumental”).
Those poor kids...
(nelscline.com)

By high school, the brothers were haunting all-ages shows at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach and discovering dissonance and multiphonics via John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. (Glue Magazine, July/August 1999)

NELS: “A weird desire to play a combination of King Crimson, The Allman Brothers and Weather Report—that’s what we were trying to do in high school. I joke that our music hasn’t changed at all since high school, except that we play better. The parameters are constant.” (Downbeat, 6/09)

I saw Nels and his brother play in the University High School jazz band - he had a brown 335 [Gibson] and was good in 1975! He still is. His dad taught English at Emerson Jr. High and we were all terrified of him. (post on The Gear Page, 10/26/06)

The nerdy band names change: Liquid Blue, Toe Queen Love, Android Funnel, Frog Prints, Glirendree. In 1989, Nels forms another band (“innovatively called the Nels Cline Trio” ) with "the ultimate bedroom drummmer" Michael Preussner and bassist Mark London Sims (later replaced by Bob Mair), becoming a bandleader for the first time at age 33.

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NELS: “Michael Preussner is somebody I've played on and off with since high school. So naturally, I felt very comfortable in that trio. And I think that’s when it all started for me. I always played in democratic bands before that...[but] I wasn’t really the leader-leader like I was in the trio, where I basically told the guys, ‘Look, we're gonna play my tunes and I’m gonna design the album covers and it's my universe and let's have a good time...I'll give you as much space as you need to play and express yourselves and I'll write my tunes with you guys in mind so you can really have a blast. But I am the leader.’ That was a first for me.” (Guitar.com, July/August 2001)

The trio began by canting heavily toward its leader’s jazz concerns – that is, collective improvisation and group dialogue – with elements of blues and noise thrown in for texture. (Kevin McAlester, New Times L.A., 11/97)

NELS: “We had our little mottos: ‘We Suck’ or ‘The Scum Also Rises.’ We were thinking, ‘We’ll get good, we’ll just work, and we’ll try to master this music and become more fluent.’ We weren’t thinking of it as a finished-product thing to go out and record yet.” (Oral History Interview, 1999)

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NELS: “I pretty much for the first time felt free to do anything. I wrote tunes that swung or tunes that were jazz ballads or were completely Ornette [Coleman] inspired...Or I felt free to write drone pieces. And I could start using different sounds that were to me more about emotion than about novelty. I think I just wanted the guitar to shriek more or have more dense overtones, more clustery sounds. So I think in terms of my desire to get more texture for sensation -- a physical feeling and an emotional kind of tautness rather than for any kind of novelty or intellectual furthering of the music sort of feeling -- I think that it started with the trio.” (Guitar.com, July/August 2001)

Over in Santa Monica, guitarist Nels Cline teamed with booker Milt Wilson of the Alligator Lounge…to present improvisational music of all stripes on what was considered an ‘off’ night, coming up with New Music Mondays. (Michael Davis, New Times L.A., 11/99)

NELS:[The Alligator Lounge] was an invaluable experience because not only did we as players develop quite an empathy and a way of playing spontaneously that became pretty much joined at the hip, but also I felt very free in my own playing…I guess I'm a late bloomer. I had to learn to relax enough to do anything that came in my head.” (Guitar.com, July/August 2001)

NELS: “My own music…most often forms itself around the identities of the players I’m working with….Much of what the trio did was oriented to Bob and Michael’s individual styles, or to what latent or lurking forces or traits I felt the music could freely call upon. In light of this, Michael became a much better ‘free’ drummer and Bob became a master of distortion and extended (and rad) techniques, to my mind.” (Six-String.com, 4/01)

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Nels Cline is a musical whore who will do any gig for a hundred dollars.
(early 90’s ‘zine review of the Nels Cline Trio’s 7” “Lady Speed Stick”, a tribute to Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, which cost $100 to make and took seven simultaneous labels to release)

Not coincidentally, playing every week, the core Nels Cline Trio…became one of the most formidable electric bands in the land, combining jazzy chord progressions with punk-rock energy, and modal drones with feedback forays that recalled the masters of psychedelia. (Michael Davis, New Times L.A., 11/99)

“I’m better than that Nels Cline guy.”
(guitarist Andy Summers of The Police, overheard at Alligator Lounge show)

NELS: “The tribute thing at New Music Mondays was a really great idea, because even I don’t want to play my music every week. We did a series of tributes to Wayne Shorter, Annette Peacock, Carla Bley, Charlotte Rampling, Kim Gordon and Paul Motian. Sometimes they were just conceptual tributes. I wrote a piece to be performed just once called “Never Knew Tina Chow,” dedicated to the socialite artist who had died of AIDS… People who had no idea who she was were in tears by the end of the piece…That was one of the first times in my life that I ever felt like maybe I was onto something, like I’d done something right for a change.” (Oral History Interview, 1999)

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Tina Chow, 1988 [Photo by David Seidner]

NELS: “People like Robert Dick or Phillip Greenlief, when they needed a place to play, everybody would tell them, ‘[New Music Mondays] is the only place to play in LA.’ Word got around and I myself booking out-of-town bands almost immediately after the series started. This is how Scott Amendola came down to L.A.” (Oral History Interview, 1999)

“If Scott Amendola didn’t exist, the San Francisco music scene would have to invent him.” (Derk Richardson, San Francisco Bay Guardian, 8/16/00)

“Scott archives everything. He’s the official historian of the Nels Cline Singers.”
(Devin Hoff, Interview, 3/11/10)

NELS: "The first time I heard Scott I was really blown away…There aren't too many drummers on the West Coast who have his wide-ranging ability. Scott's got some funk in him-a looser, sexy thing going on-and the flexibility to play free and different styles." (Jazz Times, 11/05)

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SCOTT AMENDOLA: "I used to bang on things as a kid…I'd just sit around banging on pots and pans and coffee cans. When I was nine, we had to pick an instrument in school, and I started studying drums. I always loved music and I was really driven by drums and music in general." (San Jose Mercury News, 7/05/02)

SCOTT: "My grandfather, Tony Gottuso, played guitar -- he started in the 30's, in the Bronx. He played with everybody from Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole. He's on the original 'Hello Dolly' with Louis Armstrong. And he played on The Tonight Show from '52 to '57, toured with Sinatra, recorded with Joe Venuti. He was a great guitar player -- we used to play together…He is somebody who really taught me about song, because he loved playing with singers. He also used to arrange a lot of big band music, and did a lot of jingles -- he was known as the jingle king in New York for awhile. He's on Pioneers of Jazz Guitar, this classic record on the Yazoo label. But he just would always play the song.” (Jazz West, 9/01)

SCOTT: "One record that really changed my life was the Chick Corea record Live In Europe, with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous. Now, my teacher was very much big band & swing, Buddy Rich, four on the floor, two and four on the hi-hat, ride pattern straight. So then I heard this record, and listened to Roy Haynes just dancing around, with a deep pocket, but the hi-hat was kind of all over the place, and the bass drum was just playing accents here and there. The next time I went in for a lesson, and I was playing along to this music, I just did that, and Sonny was like ‘What are you doing?’ And I said ‘Roy Haynes - check him out.’ As if this guy hadn't heard of Roy Haynes before. But he just kept saying 'Listen to Buddy Rich.'” (Jazz West, 9/01)

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[Photo by Alan Phillips]

SCOTT: "I grew up listening to AC/DC and Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane...Jazz is in there, but jazz doesn't define who I am.” (Jazz West, 9/01)

SCOTT: "I was also into Pat Metheny, and whenever he was playing in New York, my high school friend and I would go in. So in 1986 we went to the Song X show at Town Hall, with Charlie Haden, and Ornette and Pat, and Jack DeJohnette and Denardo Coleman -- the show that changed my life. DeJohnette just completely blew me away -- the whole concept of time, and expression within improvisation, which I didn't really understand at the time, but was just stunned by the music I heard. Coleman did this free solo on an electronic drum set for about ten or fifteen minutes, and it just really hit me hard. Just the idea of sort of melody within melody, there was just this way of ideas just flowing. I liked the freeness, especially how Jack just seemed so free in his playing.” (Jazz West, 9/01)

When some of Amendola's more modern timekeeping influences -- Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins -- began to creep into the family jam sessions, Amendola says his grandfather told him, “’You play all this crazy shit, but it's great.’ He loved it, he loved where I was taking the drums." (David Cook, San Francisco Weekly, 8/28/02)

SCOTT: "When I was about 20, I auditioned for this mainstream band. I was in the basement getting ready and listening to their records, but by the second day I was thinking, 'Man, I don't want to play this music this way. I don't want to play this at all.' So I decided to just learn the songs and then figure out how to play them so they felt right to me. And when I went in to play with these guys, I started scraping cymbals and stopping the beat and doing all this stuff they weren't used to. I didn't get the gig, but I had a great time. I went back to Boston, and that's when I made up my mind. I decided that I was gonna learn who I was, and that I was gonna do what I was gonna do, with no second-guessing." (All About Jazz, 2/13/06)

Upon arrival in the Bay Area in 1992, Amendola gained visibility through association with guitar phenom Charlie Hunter (with whom he drummed from 1993 to 1997), and gained entrée to the L.A. crowd via the constantly traveling NoCal saxist Phillip Greenlief. (Greg Burk, L.A. Weekly, 2/28/03)

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Phil Greenlief

SCOTT: “Phillip said, ‘Hey check this out’ and he played me Chest by the Nels Cline Trio. I thought it was really cool shit. We went down to L.A. and played at the Alligator Lounge, and when I saw him play there I was like, ‘Holy shit, who’s that guy?’ And Nels was like, ‘Holy shit, who’s that guy?’" (Interview, 3/12/10)

NELS: “I hadn’t met Scott before he came down to the Alligator Lounge in a trio with Phillip Greenlief and Trevor Dunn. At the end of the night we did a double trio with Trevor, Phillip, Scott and Bob, Michael and me, and it was fuckin’ great. I loved his playing right away." (Interview, 3/05/10)

SCOTT: "Not too long after that, I saw him live again and was totally blown away by Nels’ playing, his personality. It totalIy turned shit around for me. After that, Nels had a date booked and G.E. Stinson, who had taken over booking for New Music Mondays, was like, ‘What do you want to do?’ and Nels told him, ‘I want to play with Scott.’ And we started L. Stinkbug, which was a really fun band...I was on the road in 2000 in Europe on a real awful tour and I was really down. I was thinking, ‘Who do I really want play with in this world, if I could play with anybody?’" (Interview, 3/12/10)

NELS: “Stinkbug was where Scott and I really learned to play together. It was my idea for G.E. Stinson to invite Scott into that band. G.E. was hesitant because Scott lived so far away; he didn’t know if he’d come! I said, ‘He’s back from tour, ask him, all he can say is ‘no’ and he said ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ We did tour first gig at The Gig in West L.A. Then we started playing at Rocco. Pretty soon I was playing in Scott’s band all the time.” (Interview, 3/05/10)

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Phillip Greenlief & Scott Amendola

Given his extensive involvement with Amendola, Cline offers some insight into why Amendola seems to be at the center of so many of the most interesting bands. Stipulating his brilliance as a player and his musical flexibility, Cline notes that Amendola is remarkably self-possessed. "He totally has his [stuff] together. He takes care of business, and tends to be a lot of peoples dad. He has all these responsibilities, because he's able to handle things, so people rely on him." (Andrew Gilbert, San Jose Mercury News, 7/05/02)

NELS: "Scott was on my case from between the demise of the old trio and doing Scarnella with [singer/guitarist] Carla [Bozulich], but Carla was having some serious health problems and I was kind of waiting for her to do another band, so basically couldn’t wait anymore and decided to start another trio." (Interview, 3/05/10)

NELS: “The only difference I saw between the L.A. scene and the Bay Area scene was that the Bay Area scene was so camped-out and suspicious of each other’s musical tendencies, and L.A. was just this one big blob of camaraderie. Like the free improvisers up there don’t like to play jazz gigs, there’s just a whole lot of sniping…I don’t know, I don’t like it. In L.A., we’re all just basically in the same boat, which is ‘screwed’—and I think we all kinda know it.” (Interview, 3/05/10)

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Scott & Nels hoofing it to a radio interview at KALX in Berkeley, 2008 [Photo by Peak]

NELS: “And also at a time when I was getting work that paid nothing, before the dot-com bubble burst up in the Bay Area, [Scott] started hiring me for gigs. At that time I didn’t even have a car I could drive up there, so I rented one. There were a lot of gigs that paid really well in restaurants, and I would just drive up there and play and come back with $100 bucks in my pocket, which was miraculous for me at that stage. Basically, Scott was my primary employer there for awhile.” (Interview, 3/05/10)

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NELS: "I did the Singers for two reasons: one was economical and the other was to do these sort of slow, floating ballads where there was nobody in my way other than bass and drums, so I can refer to the classic Paul Bley trio recordings of the 60s, which was something I’ve always been obsessed with, but Scott was really on my case to play more, ‘C’mon, let’s play! Let’s play!’…He was writing me emails when he was on tour in Europe and I finally wrote back and asked him, ‘If I started up another trio would you be interested in playing drums’ and the response came back ‘YES” with a massive amount of exclamation points. So I threw caution to the wind.”

SCOTT: “At that time, I think, Nels didn’t have a website or a cell phone. [laughs] All I had was an email address. I wrote him: ‘Hey man, I’ve been thinking about you, I really love to play music with you’ and he wrote back: ‘I was thinking the same thing!’ After I got home, we talked on the phone, and he really didn’t want to start a trio. His last trio had broken up a little roughly in the end. He also felt like he didn’t want to be a lead voice in a band. The funny thing was, whenever I saw his trio, I never got the impression that he was the leader per se. Nels is such an amazing composer and player that I always thought he was more about the band sound than anything. We talked about different people and configurations, and then we got to bass players and I started scratching my head. I mentioned a couple of names but I wasn’t sure who was the right person.” (Interview, 3/12/10)

NELS: "So I said, 'I want upright bass this time...who should we get?' and Scott said, 'Devin Hoff.'” (Denver Westword, 7/09/08)

COMING UP IN PART II:

Will this "Devin Hoff" character be as cool as his name?

How does one exactly drop-kick a Fender Jazzmaster into a wall?

Who is the mysterious “Shoeboy”?

Such questions may or may not have a right to be answered…

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