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Eats and Beats: The free-form exploration of Nels Cline’s Radical Empathy Trio

Nels Cline
High Road Touring
Nels Cline joined Wilco in 2004 but has a number of stylisicaly diverse side projects like the Radical Empathy Trio that focuses on all-improvised music.

Guitarist Nels Cline is best known for his work with the band Wilco. But one of his free-form side projects, the Radical Empathy Trio, couldn’t be more different. It’s a far cry from Wilco’s sweet melodies and introspective lyrics and is pure improvisation. The band is a collaboration between Cline, keyboardist Thollem McDonas and drummer Michael Wimberly.

They perform Thu, Jan. 26 at the Kitt Recital Hall on the Northern Arizona University campus in Flagstaff as part of the Interference Series at 7:30 p.m. The show will include a virtual appearance by musician and composer Terry Riley as well as the NAU Jazz Combos.

In the latest installment of KNAU’s series Eats and Beats, Nels Cline talks about his love of improv music and his complicated relationship with the guitar solo.

Nels Cline: What we’re doing is just improvising in the moment based on our personal languages combining in real time. I don’t have an agenda for the Radical Empathy Trio that exists outside of any of the other work I do. I just start playing. Basically, we don’t know what we’re going to do until we start, so I just listen and react. It just leads itself along. That’s it.

Radical Empathy Trio
Ryan Heinsius
The Radical Empathy Trio, featuring keyboardist Thollem McDonas, drummer Michael Wimberly and guitarist Nels Cline, performed in Flagstaff on the NAU campus Thu, Jan. 27, 2023. Composer and musician Terry Riley collaborated virtually.

Well I love it, I live for it. I really do think if I have a strength in music making where I’m not nervous or overly challenged, it’s in free improvising, and particularly improvising with people who can really listen. It’s really about sound. I like to call it getting in the sandbox. We just get in the sandbox and it’s a very innocent endeavor. And yes, it is freeing.

People often feel shut out of this type of music and I think the best way to approach it is live. For one thing, it’s a conversation, but secondly it’s not just a conversation among the musicians. In a way the presence of an audience member or two or three or ten or more is having an effect on what the musicians are doing and, in fact, we are having a conversation of some sort all together by having convened in this space at that time to experience sound together. If you think of it as a conversation or something—I guess exploration. And I mean like exploration, like, putting on a spelunker’s helmet and going through some weird cave. It’s an excursion of sorts.

The older I get the more the guitar solo is fraught with all kinds of baggage and weight and a certain degree of questioning and anxiety. In a free-improvised situation I don’t have to solo. And then the idea of solo, which in a lot of situations is viewed as having to call up some kind of heroism, you know what I mean? It’s like, the heroic, dramatic solo. And I love that as much as anybody to listen to, I just don’t always feel like I can do it well. But that’s just me being in my own way.

The hardest thing for me to do still after 18 years in Wilco is, and even prior to when I was in Wilco, is the economic to-the-point, 10-second, 20-second solo on a song, like a song-song with vocals and a chorus and maybe even a bridge. So, I’m still working on that.

I feel that my years-long investigations of altering the sound of the guitar and whatnot, I can bring that to bear in a positive way. And in a band like Wilco, I don’t have to sound super normal all the time. I just go right into my Wilco brain. I take pride in our live sound, in our live shows. So, we just go right into that zone. It’s really lovely.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom as executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.