When you’ve spent the last 30 years changing the vocabulary of the electric guitar, you can call on some heavy friends. Lee Ranaldo called on some of the heaviest for Between the Times and the Tides. To fans who’ve come to know Nels Cline through his high-profile work with Wilco in the last half decade, it may be a surprise to know that Cline spent years as the low- key guitar king of the free-jazz improv underground. It should come as no sur- prise, then, that Cline and Ranaldo— who has actively championed the avant underground for decades—have col- laborated in improvisational situations before, including 2001’s Four Guitars Live gig with Thurston Moore and Carlos Giffoni. While motoring between Wilco gigs, Cline shared some thoughts on working with his old buddy, mentor, and brother in sonic mayhem.
It’s cool to be working with Lee
again, I gather?
I’m really proud to be on the record.
I’ve admired Lee’s work with Sonic
Youth, but also with Kevin Drumm and
Text of Light. So I was thrilled. But it’s
funny, I always seem to be the last guy
to overdub on a record, and that hap-
pened here, too. I just went over to the
studio in Hoboken [New Jersey] with
the idea to play on a couple things to
see how it went, and it just kept going.
When I listened to the record, I real-
ized I played on about everything! The
record is so amazing sounding, though.
It has such a beautiful roar to it. To hear
the way the guitars all sound together
and how strong the songs are—hearing
it made me emotional, frankly. To be
lucky enough to be part of that sound
got to me.
You seem to have such admiration—
almost a gratitude, it seems—for
what Sonic Youth’s work has meant
to you personally.
That’s very true. The influence Sonic
Youth had on me, personally, is almost
incalculable. Certainly, what they did
with guitars was completely intoxicating and attractive to me. I never
thought about playing or guitar or
sound the same way after I experienced
them. So that’s pretty huge.
When I first got into them, around
’ 83 and Confusion Is Sex, I got so into
the whole aesthetic and the way the
band gelled. I thought, “This is perfection … how can I create something
that’s a complete entity like this.” By the
time they got to Daydream Nation and
became this kind of rock ’n’ roll juggernaut, that was just so huge in every
way—it was hard to not be impressed.
How do you view Sonic Youth’s influ-
ence in the larger musical world?
Well, in the ’90s when you started
hearing bands like Unwound and
Polvo doing things with detuned gui-
tars and eighth-note rhythm-section
things, you could spot a very direct
influence. There was also a certain out-
look on culture—the way they married
high and low culture—that felt artful
and humorous at the same time. But
mostly it was just that the music was
excruciatingly beautiful, but not in the
sense most people perceive beautiful—
and that gave people a different angle
from which to hear music in general.
A lot of that is in what they did with
overtones. I’m not sure many people
have been able to touch their sensi-
tivity or their sense of how to create
intoxication with guitar overtones. But
the way that made folks look at har-
monic information is really influential,
even if fewer people hear or see that
than the bigger pop culture influence.
Society isn’t always so kind to the
avant-garde. Is it weird, after so
many years of toiling in the avant-garde scene, to look up and think,
“Whoa! There’s Lee … there’s Alan
Licht … we’re all still around!”?
Yeah, man! Absolutely. I’m so thankful. But when I think about how frail
the body can be and how hard basic