The group travels to Interlochen in August
By Ross Boissoneau | August 6, 2022
With a discography of a dozen studio albums, Grammy Awards, tours and highly acclaimed live recordings, Wilco’s success is almost a given.
That’s despite the fact that the group, which appears at the Interlochen Center for the Arts on August 17, has always operated in a left field of its own choosing. Debuting as an indie-rock version of alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, the band have morphed in a number of directions in the nearly 30 years since their formation, including punk, folk, rock art, etc.
So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that his new album, cruel country, embraces a kind of country-esque, Americana sound. To hear guitarist Nels Cline say it, it was all a natural progression from Wilco.
“My first inclinations were rock and blues. In the mid-70s, I got into improvisational music and progressive rock. Then punk galvanized me,” he says. Among the influences he cites are Bartok, Weather Report, Pink Floyd, Television, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. He names three artists as his main inspirations: The Byrds, Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix. So of course he would join a multi-hyphenated country-folk alt-rock band.
“When I started playing with Wilco, I wasn’t aware of a lot of Jeff’s writing,” he says, referring to songwriter and bandleader Jeff Tweedy. “I only knew of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
Cline joined the band with guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone right after the recording of A ghost is born in 2004. Cline says Tweedy sent him versions of songs from that album before it was released. “I knew right away that it would be stylistically diverse and I would have good latitude, which is liberating.”
Cline’s own music, both before his time at Wilco and since, is equally disparate. In large part, he explores the territory in a free jazz aesthetic while swaying his hips. He reinterpreted the music of John Coltrane, worked with his percussionist twin brother, Alex, and embraced punk and funk with the early fusion of Miles Davis, Tony Williams and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He formed a band with bassist Mike Watt (frontman of punk band The Minutemen) inspired by Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart, among others.
Quite a distance from Wilco. But what else would you expect from a man who named his band the Nels Cline Singers, with no vocalist in sight?
Since joining Wilco, Cline has recorded eight albums with the band while pursuing his own career. In conversation, it is evident that he enjoys performing Tweedy’s songs with the band. “I’m almost impressed with his writing,” Cline says of Tweedy.
Like virtually every other musician on the planet, Cline has been held hostage by the pandemic. Wilco hasn’t toured or recorded together, so being able to do so for Cruel Country was a godsend, as the forced time away from his bandmates – from everyone – during the pandemic has raised doubts as he is his worst critic. . “I’m still in shock that I have too much time to gaze at my navel,” he says. “I was thinking back to my previous recorded production and thinking, ‘What the hell was I thinking? I tempered it a bit, but there was too much pandemic time.
The songs on cruel country both embrace and expand on the alt-country sound, however you define it. Tweedy says in press materials that he and the band were looking for something new musically. Doing so while still recovering from pandemic-enforced isolation felt, in his words, “free and futile.”
It was then that the familiar terrain of country and folk music came to the fore. “The songs started coming. Loads of them,” Tweedy says.
Cline agrees with that last sentiment. “Jeff continues to write tons and tons of songs. The songs escape from him. Some songs I heard, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if these are Wilco songs, but I love them. I joke with my friend Julian Lage: “I was never born with the Americana gene. Now I kiss her.
“I can’t wait to play more cruel countrysays Cline, noting that the band’s recent tour of Europe has found Wilco focusing on music from their previous recordings. Although these are still part of the sets in the United States, Cline says the band will be playing more of their new material. The recording features 21 songs, but Cline says the band would typically only play five or six at their European gigs.
One of his joys as a member of the band is playing with fellow guitarist Sansone. “I can hear Pat playing. He’s a badass guitarist. Of course, Cline too, but he says he tries to avoid overplaying. “I just try to stay away, play what the songs want.”
Sometimes, though, what songs want is big guitar sound. “On ‘Many Worlds’, we jam at the end. It’s more like trellis work with guitars in tandem,” he says of his duel with Sansone. “Conversation, not heroic.”
Which is a good description of Wilco’s music. Whatever work Tweedy sets out to explore, when fleshed out by the group, it takes on an aura of its own. With Cruel Country, it can be labeled country-folk, or maybe alt-americana. But ultimately, it just sounds like Wilco.
Get tickets and more information about the August 17 show at interlochen.org/concerts-and-events.
Photo credit Annabel Mehran.