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For Nels And Alex Cline, An Avant-Jazz Fraternity

You may not have heard of Nels Cline. But if you're a fan of the band Wilco, you've probably heard his guitar.

Nels Cline joined the massively popular band in 2004 and appears on its latest recording Sky Blue Sky. But for his new album, Coward, Cline is a one-man band: He's overdubbed himself on guitars and several other instruments.

Not that he doesn't have anyone to play with. For years, Cline has played guitar in many experimental rock and jazz bands — and he grew up practicing with his identical twin brother, Alex.

"Our first band was called Homogenized Goo," Alex Cline says. "Formed when we were 12."

Alex is a percussionist, and he also has a new album out called Continuation — it's scored for an unusual jazz quintet with cello and violin. Both Alex and Nels joined host Liane Hansen to talk about growing up together in music, and their jointly released records.

Behind The Music

Compared to much of his work in various rock groups — and even some of his jazz projects — Nels Cline's Coward is something of a departure. Cline can be known for his shredding, but here songs build slowly, gradually, meditatively.

He says that he composed much of the album in the studio — but the concept actually evolved over 20 years. It's variously inspired by '70s ECM records, music of avant-gardists like composer Harry Partch and microtonal guitarist Rod Poole, and even certain Asian musics.

"And I think that all these things combined with an idea of revealing sort of a personal aesthetic," Cline says. "Pretty self-indulgent — I just thought I wanted to do it for me and for my friends to listen to."

Buoyed by his massive drum kit and collection of gongs, Alex Cline's Continuation is somewhat more conventional-sounding. But swing-feel jazz is also coupled with various percussive experiments.

"I have a pretty broad musical landscape that I like to inhabit," he says. "And it does move from swinging jazz to pure sound, whether that's a single bell resonating or something like an enamel chopstick being scraped on a cooking pot."

Sound-making gadgetry seems to be a fascination that runs in the family. Nels' album features not only various guitars, but "effects, sruti boxes, autoharp/zither things, Megamouth" ("that's a toy megaphone," Nels says) and "Kaossilator, Quintronics Drum Buddy."

All In The Family

Growing up in Southern California, the Clines say, they were each others' best friends entering high school. Certainly, they had already developed a musical rapport, playing together in various rock outfits — and increasingly, creative jazz groups — with friends.

"[We] kept moving into musical areas that were not particularly of interest to anyone else," Nels says. "We played everything together up until, gee, well, into the '80s."

The brothers don't collaborate as frequently now, but still often play in various ensembles together and occasionally perform as a duo.

Both musicians also dedicated part of their new albums to their mother. Thelma Cline died a day short of her 92nd birthday, on Christmas Eve of 2007.

"My brother and I grew up always knowing that we were really loved, and we were really supported," Alex says. "Including in doing this kind of odd music that we've come to be so interested in for so long."

So did she ever tell her sons to, say, get real jobs?

"Not really," Alex says. "But maybe she should have."

A Crossover Audience

Though he's been involved with various avant-garde jazz projects for many years, Nels Cline is probably best known for his work in rock bands. He's played with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Carla Bozulich and of course, Wilco.

"It's been incredibly helpful to have Wilco fans, who are either just generally supportive or curious, show up," Nels says. "Otherwise we'd have difficulty finding enough people to fill a club. And so I'm encouraged to continue to do my own thing."

Alex even noticed that Nels' new measure of fame was trickling down to him.

"I ... this week got an e-mail from someone from Wilco's management telling me how much he likes my new CD," Alex says.

So will fans be treated to a duet disc of the Cline brothers? Not soon, they say, but they both mused on how such a project could work.

"Somehow, the idea of hearing two identical twin brothers just kind of whip it out, in total spontaneous — in the moment — I think might have its charm," Alex says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.