When Wilco headlines Outlandia on Aug. 13, the band’s lead guitarist — Nels Cline — probably won’t be looking at the audience. The 66-year-old guitar legend told The Reader he prefers to disappear into the music he’s making with Wilco, which has been alt-rock royalty since dropping the seminal “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” in ’01.
But on their 12th studio album, released May 27, Wilco sounds more country than rock. “Cruel Country” is a warmhearted double album that evokes a bruised optimism about the U.S. — although Cline told The Reader he doesn’t see “Cruel Country” as political. Ahead of Outlandia, The Reader chatted with Cline about the new record, Wilco’s Midwestern roots, Cline’s iconic “Impossible Germany” guitar solo and more.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
The band has Midwestern roots — Jeff [Tweedy, the band’s frontman] is from Illinois, The Loft [Wilco’s recording studio] is in Chicago … Do you guys feel a connection to the Midwest?
Jeff has an affection and affinity for the Midwest. I can feel it. I’ve heard him describe it … It’s very important to him, the Midwest itself, and Chicago specifically, which is enjoying a vibrant and diverse music scene … I used to always hear people disparage, say, Oklahoma because it’s just nonstop flat … Maybe [it was] a cultural thing during the hippie era to deride certain places because of generalizations about the residents. I think all that stuff is really horseshit. Nobody I know [believes] that.
I have really fond memories of playing in Omaha … I liken it to the way Tulsa has changed. These places where at one time one didn’t think of, say in Tulsa, one of the best craft beer creators in the world, but they’re there. This is happening all over the country, these kinds of independent operations, flavors … Things change and get better, for whatever reasons, and certainly every time we’ve been in Omaha, it’s been really cool. There’s something to be said for the architecture of downtown Omaha. It’s got a real flavor we appreciate.
Is there anything you like to do in Omaha when you’re here?
No, because I’m the guy that never does anything except play. Seriously. Jeff will go on hikes everywhere he goes, Pat [Sansone, a multi-instrumentalist for Wilco] is going to try to find an art museum or a photography foundation, John [Stirratt, Wilco’s bassist] is gonna look at architecture and find the best coffee. They go out on a mission. I just find a corner, and sit and play guitar.
Is the band friends with, or influenced by, any big names in the Omaha indie music scene?
When … we [played] rock festivals in Europe, Bright Eyes [was there and] … we all became friendly at that time. Conor [Oberst] ended up moving to Los Angeles, where I’m from, and ultimately ended up interacting with friends of Pat’s, and people I know … And I have a really, really good friend from Omaha … [who] gave me a feeling for how the downtown area had changed, and that a lot of it had to do with what the music scene brought to the city, not just a decent espresso.
There’s a stereotype that Wilco is “dad-rock.” But my friends and I are fans, and we were 3-year-olds when “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” came out. Do you see the stereotype shifting? When you look into the audience, is there a younger generation of fans?
It’s been a frustrating — verging on infuriating — label that emerged around the time of [our 2007 album] “Sky Blue Sky” … because we started [it] with a soft song. I think that’s the only reason this ever took hold … [But the label] has dogged us … I don’t really look at the audience … but [from what other band members tell me], there are more 20-somethings than there were a handful of years ago … I hate these terms, so I’m trying not to use the Gen Z term — but they’re out there … This is a multi-generational audience … [Again though], I am not looking very carefully.
It makes me feel a little self-conscious. I’d rather disappear into the sound and activity of playing, and periodically look at my bandmates and see how we’re all doing. Other band members really key in on the audience. But I can’t do that.
You’ve been with the band for almost two decades. Does the experience of touring change? Do you enjoy it more, or do you sort of get numb to it?
That’s a very good question … We can do it all this time because we not only love what we’re doing and believe in the work itself, but we [also] really get along. We definitely don’t become numb to it.
[But] it’s always a combination of looking forward to [touring] and sort of dreading it because … people have kids and families … So there’s always that moment right before you leave that’s kind of sad. Once we get going [though], it’s really fantastic.
Omaha will be your second U.S. show since the Supreme Court decisions came down. Do you anticipate the audience responding differently to your music?
I don’t really see [“Cruel Country”] as political … It’s humanistic, it’s poetic, and has a certain kind of classicism about it … [But] it’ll be interesting to see once we get out there what the vibe is in the Midwest … In spite of all the [COVID] surges … people are focused on finally hearing live music … I don’t know if that’s going to take precedence over their political assessments of our art form.
[As for recent political events], having up until recently lived in Manhattan and in Brooklyn, the striking down of the New York gun law was the first crushing blow, followed by the Roe v. Wade crushing blow, and now it’s going to be the gutting of the EPA crushing blow … [Being on tour in Europe], in a place that has socialized medicine and no guns, while this stuff is going on here, reminded us of when we were in Utrecht [the Netherlands] in 2016. The results of the presidential election came down, and we all felt like we’d had an explosive device go [off] next to our heads. We were so numb. Our ears were ringing from despair. It’s surreal to come back … [and] feel like these problems here are insurmountable, or we’re going [in] such the wrong direction.
Let’s get into the new album. Tell me about moving more directly toward country music than in the past on “Cruel Country.”
I don’t think it was a very premeditated idea. It just sort of formed itself … [When Jeff first sent us the songs, they] struck me as being stunningly classic in what one might term “country” or “folk,” with strong choruses and traditional song structures. I didn’t know if these were Wilco songs, honestly … [There was] a massive amount of material because Jeff … wrote, in my memory, 51 songs in 52 days … Absolutely mind-blowing … He’s probably writing a song right now. They just flow out of him at this point … I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in my lifetime.
We have at least another half an album that’s being worked on as well [in] a different style. Jeff’s been calling it something like art pop … I think we’re going to try to attack that come wintertime.
What’s a guitar moment you love on “Cruel Country”?
A lot of people think … on the song “Cruel Country” that all that cool twangy guitar is me, because I’m supposedly the lead guitar player, but it’s Pat. [He’s] from Mississippi … [and has] a really deep connection to what I might generally refer to as country rock, as does Jeff. At one point, Jeff asked Pat if he’d ever played what’s called a B-Bender Telecaster, where you bend the B-string a whole step by pulling down on the guitar, and then the strap moves this apparatus. It’s hard to explain. It was invented by the genius Clarence White, incredible guitar player. Anyway, so Pat said, “Well, no, not really.” Jeff said, “I’ve got a B-Bender Tele. Why don’t you try it?” It’s just so natural for him. And now live, on a song like [“A Lifetime to Find”], where I’m playing square neck dobro, [Pat is] doing this classic, country twang, electric guitar … He’s all the way on stage left, and I’m on stage right, but when I hear that, I get so excited.
[Also, in] “Many Worlds,” there’s this long jam. That was perhaps … our most treasured recording moment … Jeff really wanted me and Pat to create a latticework, or lace two guitars together, nobody taking any particular lead guitar, but just creating this … sparkling guitar mélange.
Yeah, on the Wilco subreddit, people were wondering about the kinds of guitars on “Cruel Country.“
If people are curious, it’s really important they realize all that great twangy Telecaster guitar is Pat, and I’m playing a lot of square neck dobro and lap steel … On “Many Worlds” … it’s me and Pat … jamming out on electric guitars. Jeff’s playing acoustic guitar through that whole thing.
For this album, you guys recorded live in The Loft for the first time since 2011. What was that like?
We recorded a couple of songs for Peter Jackson to hype his “Let It Be” remake, the extended “Get Back” experience. We did “Dig A Pony” and “Don’t Let Me Down” … We happened to be in Chicago and recorded them [live]. And when everybody watched the Peter Jackson “Beatles” movie, [we were] even more committed to the idea of playing in real time … It [inspired us to record live], which we’ve all been wanting to do for a long time. But we live all over the map at this point, so it’s not like Jeff can say, “Hey, I’ve got a new song, come on over The Loft,” and we go, “Okay, see you tomorrow.”
We’re so stoked to have been able to record this way … It’s definitely a pleasure to be playing in real time, really close to each other at low volume … Tom Schick, the engineer/co-producer, has the sounds at The Loft so dialed there’s almost no lag ever … [We pretty much recorded] a song a day.
The “Impossible Germany” guitar solo [from “Sky Blue Sky”] is legendary. What’s it like to play live?
It has been one of the most amazing and surprising developments of my so-called professional life … [Years ago, when we debuted] “Impossible Germany” in Spain … people went crazy. [The band was] looking at each other like, “What’s going on?” [We realized] the song had some kind of life force we didn’t know it had … I don’t think anybody in the band could have predicted, even for a second, that it would have this kind of resonance … It is this incredible blessing — how many epic guitar solo-centric songs, that aren’t metal, exist in the lexicon today? I can’t think of [any]. It’s a very unusual event on the musical landscape.
[And] it is something that, on the flip side of saying it’s a blessing, I could also describe as a bit of a burden … Sometimes I let myself down, you know, I finish it and go, “Oh well. Better luck next time.” … It’s a huge challenge … The tone of the solo itself I selected for the song, not for my own liking, so it’s a little trebly for me … I like a much darker tone … But my role in Wilco, and in music in general, I see as a facilitator.
From Nov. 2020 – Aug. 2022, Leah reported on social justice, including employment equity, economic justice, educational inequality, and the experiences and history of Nebraska’s LGBTQ+ community. Although she’s now pursuing a PhD in Communication, Information and Media at Rutgers University, Leah remains a diehard Reader fan and wholeheartedly supports all things Reader. You can connect with her via Twitter (@cates_leah).