I seek new sounds
because new sounds
OK, shall we get the twin thing over with first?
The first time I interviewed them was 10 years ago at the Chado Tea Room in West Hollywood. I watched their interaction over the menu with some fascination as Alex turned to Nels and asked, “Do you need tea guidance?” I also noticed how different they were. Alex seemed like Sting after transcendental meditation or an unusually heavy Tantric workout: calm Zen-master eyes behind wire-rimmed specs, hands folded on lap, carefully thought-out answers. Nels, on the other hand, was like a live electrical wire exposed and wrapped in black tape: intense eyes, intense way of sitting forward and speaking so fast that he interrupted himself, a vaguely tormented air about him, so honest and open that it took me aback a bit. I actually think I saw sparks come out of his head.
That I interviewed them again exactly 10 years later wasn’t planned – it was just one of those bizarre coincidental things that just “happened,” which is par for the course when you are dealing with these gentlemen. Take their current pair of solo projects: Alex’s Continuation and Nels’ Coward, both released this week. Both projects were unintentionally recorded in the same week, both album titles begin with the letter C, and both composers chose paintings by women artists for their album covers. Both albums make references to orchids. Both contain two pieces that are 18 minutes long. Both have one piece that is over 15 years old. Drones are featured in several pieces on both CDs. The original designs of both CD discs were (again, unintentionally) practically identical, although Nels's was changed because of this. Alex's was recorded at Burbank's Glenwood Place, which started out in the 1970s as Kendun Recorders and was where Nels recorded his first album as a leader, Angelica.
And finally, Alex's CD is about 7 minutes longer than Nels's. Not a coincidence, you say? Maybe not, unless you consider that Nels is about 7 minutes older than Alex.
Messes with your head, doesn’t it?
But the concept of "identical twins" is a deceptive one: they reflect back similar states with opposite qualities. Examples: Alex is right-handed, Nels is left-handed; Alex's hair parts naturally on the left; Nels's on the right. The first time either of them had a cavity in their mouths, it was in the same year, opposite teeth. ”Alex and I kind of had different personalities all along, but we kind of switched at one point," Nels told an interviewer in 2003. "Alex was pretty affable and gregarious in elementary school and junior high...I was more reserved growing up and I kind of came out of my shell in my early 20s. Most people who meet me now can’t believe there was a time when I rarely spoke in social situations.”
Again, what is most striking about the Clines' new CDs is the individuality of their expressions. In both cases the music is intensely personal, and obliquely autobiographical. Yet despite the above coincidences, one is amazed by how radically different Nels and Alex's musical expressions are. Nels's CD is a solo/overdub effort, perhaps more rooted in the acoustic side of his musicianship than many of his fans might expect. He plays a plethora of instruments from acoustic and electric guitars, to zithers, effects, and the Quintronics Drum Buddy (go ahead, google it).
The title Coward is an odd one, given the sheer audacity of the sounds contained within and almost overflowing from this bit of plastic. As with Alex’s contribution, their late mother Thelma's penchant for growing orchids is immortalized in the transparently droney album closer, “Cymbidium.” Homage is here in force, one of the disc’s most emotionally charged pieces, “Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven,” paying tribute to the L.A.-based microtonal guitarist who was brutally murdered near his home some two years ago. Nels’ austere and brooding explorations of microtones on “Ascent” is counterbalanced by the whimsical slides, jumps and hiccups that pervade “Thurston County,” dedicated to his friend Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. As Nels has been contemplating a solo overdub project for nearly 25 years, several older compositions, including the dreamy and harmonically complex “Prayer Wheel,” make appearances here.
(Go here for Nels’ extended notes on each of the tracks on Coward.)
Nothing, however, prepares adequately for the stunningly diverse “Onan Suite,” which is, according to Nels, the most self-indulgent thing he’s ever done. Of this six-part sonically diverse epic he will say no more, save raising four possibilities, “Fact, fiction, biography, or autobiography? You be the judge!” He goes all out, incorporating such unique instruments as the Drum Buddy, a hybrid of drum machine and turntable, in the raucous penultimate movement and in “Onan”’s high-powered rumbler opening, “Amniotica.” There, distant voices and snatches of disembodied sound complexes drift by, capturing Nels’ diverse sonic landscapes in wild microcosm.
Just days after we interviewed Mr. Alex, Downbeast had a chance to sit down with Mr. Nels at Mike & Anne’s bistro in Pasadena. Unfortunately, because of his endlessly kinetic schedule, he only had about an hour. (He was due to return to Chicago to continue his lead-guitarist duties for Wilco). As always, the man who refers to himself as "Nervous Nellie" was a blur even when he was sitting down.
(Go here for Nels’ accounts of his upcoming projects with "Uncle Wilco" and others.)