Interview: Jenny Scheinman and Nels Cline

Dan Ouellette

By Dan Ouellette

on 03.20.12 in Interviews

Fresh from a slot performing songs at Relix magazine, violinist, songwriter and bandleader Jenny Scheinman and her Mischief & Mayhem bandmate guitarist Nels Cline are settled into the living room of her uncle’s West Village apartment. It’s the night before the duo (along with bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Jim Black) will unleash the whimsical and powerful music from its eponymous album at the Village’s (Le) Poisson Rouge in what will probably be its last gig for a long stretch. Two days later, the now-New York-based Cline will be biding adieu to his wife Yuka Honda, whom he married last year, and returning to Europe on tour with Wilco, where he serves as lead guitarist. And very soon after, the seven-months-pregnant Scheinman (she stands for most of the interview because her back is sore) will be taking an extended hiatus, relocating from her Brooklyn digs to Northern California where she grew up.

In this eMusic interview, Scheinman and Cline talk with eMusic’s Dan Ouellette about the new disc, the state of jazz and their agreement that they are musical mutts.

You two have a history that goes back to California.

Nels Cline: I was born and grew up in Los Angeles. I met Jenny when I started playing with drummer Scott Amendola, who was from the Bay Area, which is where Jenny was living and playing at the time. I had a weekly concert series for about four years at a club called the Alligator Lounge in Santa Monica. Scott played there with [saxophonist] Philip Greenlief and [bassist] Trevor Dunn. They did a double trio set with my band at the end of the night. Scott liked my playing and I started drifting up to the Bay Area, which was still in the dot-com bubble.

Jenny Scheinman: I was on Scott’s first record and then he played with me on my album, Live at Yoshi’s [with Dunn and guitarist Dave McNabb].

Cline: That’s still one of my favorite albums. But I heard Jenny before that when we played a double bill at Harbor College in the L.A. area. I was playing with tabla player Chris Garcia. We were on first and then Jenny played. I thought her playing was very original. I was intrigued. It was remarkably quiet for an electric band. Then we played together in Scott’s band, which included Trevor and saxophonist Eric Crystal. We drove around in a van and played gigs on the West Coast.

Scheinman: And then when I moved toNew York [in 1999], I was always trying to snag him to play, which turned out to be rather frequently.

It’s interesting that in the mid-to-late ’90s there was quite a community of California artists who later moved to New York.

Scheinman: There was a big migration, especially between 1998 and 2000. Before that it was golden time in San Francisco. We played a lot, especially at a club called Bruno’s. I moved to New York because I was familiar with it. My parents were both from New York, so I came here a lot when I was a kid and stayed with family. Landing here when I did, I felt very bonded with West Coast musicians I knew — and even those I didn’t know. It was like, “Oh, you’re fromOakland?” That made an immediate expatriate connection.

Cline: I first wanted to move to New York in 1976, but then life intervened. Really, though, I didn’t have the self-confidence to come here. I would have been eaten alive. But bottom line, today I love it here.

There was this sense that New York City was the center of jazz.

Scheinman: There’s always been a history of players getting ready to move toNew York, which is what I did. It was, I’m going to go toNew York when I get it together. There were about 15 of us who moved from the Bay Area. I know it was hard on the Bay Area. But it just wasn’t a stable music town like Chicago or New Orleans where people stay home. But I commend people who stay.

You’ve said that the way your bands come together is that you can hear who should be playing with you as you’re composing.

Scheinman: Usually that’s how it works. Casting is such a big part of being a bandleader. It’s a slow process, where I’m hearing musicians in my head — knowing their playing, what they’re able to do. Then I imagine what it would be like if we all got together. It’s like inviting two strangers to a dinner party, wondering if there would be interesting chemistry. As far as Nels and Jim go, I heard them soon after I was asked to do this show on a big, outdoor stage at the Celebrate Brooklyn event. I wanted something that could shoot off the stage.

What about their playing made you believe that they could?

Scheinman: There’s a certain kind of exuberance and aggression. That might be the wrong word, but it’s like the directness of their playing and the density of sound. I was aware of the wide sonic spectrum of Nels’s loops and his variety of sounds. Jim has a tremendous sonic palate too. He’s constantly shifting what he’s doing and he’s very funny. Same goes with Nels. They both crack me up. It’s also good energy for the audience. We needed to reach out to the people — to a crowd in a park, rather than it being a small, intimate audience. So the music had to fill that. Then I thought of Todd, who’s also charismatic and dynamic. He’s played hundreds of bass guitar shows with Ani DiFranco, who’s a great, strong performer. So Todd, like Nels and Jim, can shoot his energy out rather than in.

Cline: Of course, there are also the quiet moments on this album and during the shows.

So, going from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to the Village Vanguard. Did you have any apprehensions? I remember being at the very first Bad Plus show that Lorraine Gordon booked there. And all the guys were freaked out that Lorraine was going to turn the lights on and kick everyone out. But she loved the band.

Scheinman: Lorraine is such a surprise. She amazes me. She’s really smart and very open to hearing new music. She wants the music to be real, and she has really emotional responses. She cries. The first time I played there as a leader was with [pianist] Jason Moran, [bassist] Greg Cohen and [drummer] Rudy Royston. After our first set, I was nervous, but Lorraine loved it. I wasn’t sure if Mischief & Mayhem would work. It wasn’t built for the Vanguard. It was built for an outside stage. There’s rock and punk and madness in it. ButLorraine gave me a green light, so I figured, well, this may be the last time I play there. But when I got off the stage, she was sitting in the same seat she always sits in at the back of the club, and she said to me, “I loved the explosions!” I think what we played opened her mind and she likes that feeling, which not everyone likes. For most people, the older they get, the less comfortable they are with something new. ButLorraine was into it. We can thump the Vanguard’s walls pretty hard without the volume becoming painful. It’s like a natural compressor in there, and it’s super fun.

Do you have any favorites from Mischief & Mayhem?

Cline: We’ve played a lot of these for quite awhile. They’re all pretty fun to play because of the band’s interpretive power. If there’s a favorite, it probably has something to do with Jenny’s writing, like “The Audit” and “July Tenth in Three Four.” “12 T” [the nickname for "Devil's Ink"] is a favorite. The hardest to play is “Ali Farka Touché.” I discovered recently in a recording session with a singer/songwriter that straightforward triadic tunes are hard for me. On the surface, they’re supposed to be so simple. Especially if the piece is slow, my mind is racing to make choices out of a dozen possibilities, so I tend to make last-minute decisions in the simplest of music and sometimes I come up with the stupidest stuff. I also like the episodic songs where we improvise and connect up. We do it so well in this band. Those link moments are what give the band its mischief. For example, Jim will drop some crazy bomb that will send us all off, if only for a few seconds, before we continue to finding that elegaic moment.

So you’re talking about the journey quality of “Devil’s Ink.”

Cline: Yes. I like a lot of freedom. I’m not very adroit with certain kinds of structure. Those things are hard. But it’s never been easy for me, except for making things up. That’s what I’m most confident doing.

I read that at one point you were thinking of leaving “Sand Dipper” off — that it was like a B-side.

Scheinman: It almost wasn’t on the album because it was so hard to mix. It’s always been a favorite. But I fell in love with the rough mix — a danger in the recording process. So I had to remix it because the first mix didn’t make any sense. It’s a tricky thing, like a huge sandstorm of sounds and moments and space and abstractions and then there’s this clear, pentatonic violin melody like a little bird flying through it. It’s not exactly a song, but it’s one of my favorites. And, if the purpose of music is to transport the listener, then this one certainly does that for me. I also like the tight play in the fast ones, like “A Ride with Polly Jean,” “The Double Vee” and “The Mite.” The form is tight, but playing them is like our rebellion against that. That’s the way this band works. It’s fun to write tight for them because we’ll eventually blow holes in the sides.

Cline: Launching some anarchic, insane projectile into the form is what makes it liberating and endlessly entertaining. We listen to each other and react. We’re having conversations back and forth. It’s very liberating to depart and return at will, sometimes within seconds. That’s something that happened pretty much right away when we first played with each other, and it gets deeper when you can play a week somewhere, two sets a night.

The album is 43-plus minutes long. Why? After all, you have 78 minutes to play with.

Scheinman: I think you can grasp the whole album in one thought. I was insecure about that at first. Am I cheating people of something if I still charge the same amount of money? So many records are 72-plus minutes long — almost twice as long as this one. But then I went back and listened to some of my favorite records, like White Chalk by PJ Harvey, which I think is 31 minutes long. Same with a Gillian Welch album. I called a few friends to poll them if it was OK to be so short. And they were fine with that. Besides, the mind has a hard time listening to an album for more than 70 minutes. This band naturally lends itself to a short record. It’s almost like we’re playing a joke regarding pop music. This is not about expansive dreaming, but is punky, tight, youthful and it has a lot of energy. Nels, you’ve made a lot of long records. It’s like you can’t stop recording beautiful music.

Cline: I have no self-editing capabilities. I’m dedicated to the idea of my next two albums being under 45 minutes each. I want to make vinyl records and release the albums that way and through downloads, unless someone inEurope, where people still buy CDs, would be interested in releasing them on CD. The last two albums — they were both double CDs — that were long were unintentional. One was commissioned and one was a live free jazz recording.

Scheinman: Both good reasons to go long.

Cline: But a lot of my records are too long. The next Nels Cline Singers album is a concept record — a suite, so there’s no way I can make it too long. Maybe there’ll be one bonus track that will be endlessly long, really heavy and super boring. The other album is a mood record which has to be short and be on vinyl, just like the mood records of the early ’60s.

Scheinman: I end Mischief & Mayhem with one of my favorite tunes, “The Mite.” You know if this album were 78 minutes long that people probably wouldn’t give the song as much attention as it deserves.

So, is this a jazz album?

Scheinman: It’s certainly the kind of music that people are interested in right now. You go first, Nels.

Cline: I wouldn’t call it a jazz album. It’s an album of songs and improvisation which means it has a lot to do with the improvisational music tradition, which is the American art form called jazz. But it’s obvious that we also embrace other elements such as rock ‘n’ roll, folk, bluegrass that involve improvisation al forays. People ask me all the time if I improvised with Wilco. I say, there are songs that are tightly structured. So I consider myself more of an orchestrator. The most improvisation I do is on the country material because I’m the guy who usually plays what I call the “running obligato,” which is the commentary that traditionally comes after the vocal line and the melody.

I hear that tradition in Jenny’s music and I don’t think it’s just because of her fiddle. We’re not beboppers, but I’m also not a person who eschews bebop. But I don’t consider myself a traditional jazz player. I never mastered that syntax. It’s not a battle about jazz or not; it’s arbitrary to me. But I’d much rather be called jazz than New Age, but that’s also ridiculous. Maybe it should be Old Age. Hey, I’ve been an aesthetic mutt my whole life. It’s easier now to be a mutt today than in the ’70s to the late ’80s when one was viewed with great suspicion if one brought impure elements into something viewed as a purist form. I can’t thrive in that environment. I can only thrive in the cracks.

Scheinman: I like mutt. I personally don’t care how jazz is defined. I’m also not particularly scholarly or have any investment in whether there are rules in music that we’re breaking. I do believe in the discipline in the study of music that can lead to good music. Jazz for me was something I loved from listening to my dad’s jazz records. It’s so holistic to study. You’re exercising and enjoying both sides of your brain in a really complete way that’s hard to find in any other genre — the engagement with music theory, time, total creativity and then dropping everything and just being inspired — that right-brain thrill.

Part of the reason people love studying bebop is you can explore harmony and improvisation simultaneously. That’s part of the obsession I’ve had with it. After college at one point I decided to transcribe all of [John Coltrane's] Crescent — not because I loved it but because something about it intrigued me and mystified me. So I figured out all the notes and I remember the sheet music spread in a circle was all around the room several times. But now I totally love it.

Cline: I like to anger, upset or disappoint people when I tell them that most of the music my friends and I play is fusion. People don’t like that because it reminds them of the jazz-rock world of the ’70s. But fusion is an emblematic word. It’s a word that was created because no other word would work. It’s an amalgam of impulse and different ingredients of music. This appeals to me. I want to possess that word.

Scheinman: (laughing) Take back the fusion flag. And I want to take back the jazz violin flag. Frankly if I see that there’s a jazz violin show playing, I won’t go. What I’m playing is all about a liberation.