A convenience of marriage: Nels Cline + Yuka C. Honda’s CUP

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CUP’s Yuka Honda and Nels Cline | via Ars Nova Workshop

Guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Yuka C. Honda would be (and have been) fascinating as interview subjects without having to join forces. The former was an established guitarist in the avant-garde world before he joined Wilco in 2004; the latter is best known as co-founder and producer of art-pop outfit Cibo Matto, though she has a robust resume of production, collaboration, and multimedia work.

Cline and Honda’s new pairing as CUP, however, doubles the fun and requires the married duo to give their first-ever joint interview for one of its earliest conjoined shows – April 26 at RUBA, a gig that doubles as the record release celebration for Desertion Trio, the experimental jam outfit led by Cline’s friend, Philly guitarist Nick Millevoi.


The Key: As the two of you have appeared on each other’s solo records – along with having your own acts, Fig, then CUP – how and when do the divisions occur? How do you separate these things from the other? When does an idea or a session or a collaboration become a CUP thing?

Nels Cline: I’m always thinking about who is going to play my songs, but not so much one person over another person, unless it is like a jazz group. There is a song, for instance, on the upcoming CUP record – “As Close as That” – that was actually on my Nels Cline 4 album. Originally I had that for me and Yuka to play. Because Yuka likes that piece so much, she encouraged me to play it with for 4, without knowing what it could sound like. We did, and it’s cool, but the CUP version is more restrained, spacier, more atmospheric. The pieces I’m only doing with or for Yuka, I’m thinking about her language, what instruments and sounds that she uses. That’s where I’m coming from.

Yuka C. Honda: In my mind, everything is flowing at the same time, and not singularly distinguished. Going into the studio with Nels, a lot of things come into my mind. The ones that he likes most are the ideas I have for CUP.

TK: While interviewing you separately about your own projects, we somehow wound up talking about you two working with each other.  Nels, you mentioned that Yuka didn’t come from a background in improvisation. Yuka, you mentioned the same thing is discussing your own work. As time goes on, has that changed? That you have struck more equitable ground in that regard?

NC: Well, yeah. I’ve now contributed guitar to several of Yuka’s multimedia works that allow for improvisation.  We just do what we started, but, there is greater context for it now. It’s ambitious work. We play together more now than ever before. I feel as if it’s not really the improvisational aspects that have grown closer, it is the general aesthetic, the foundational aspects, that have gotten closer. There might be less songwriter-ly things to come… putting your head in a big dome of our sensibilities, rather than compartments.

YH: Though not an improviser, I’ve been improvising more as I’m doing this. Nels and I work in a way where there’s very often the spontaneous, in the moment music. It’s intertwining. We found a great common ground.

TK: Nels, you sort-of inferred that CUP is morphed from Fig.  Having heard both, I can say that CUP sounds and feels softer, rounder and – curse word – accessible. Fig had rough edges and more angularity.  Can you give me a picture of the process of moving from one to the other?

NC: I think we just liked the name ‘CUP’ better. Sorry.

TK: Longest question. Shortest answer.

NC: And a short answer is a miracle in my case. I could be loquacious. Consider yourself lucky.

TK: As collaborators and as a married couple, do you feel that you try to keep the relationship out of the work and objective, or, is the proximity – the point of the work itself  – to be subjective?

YH: I’m into making music with people I know, and the more I know them… the fact that Nels and I live together, and know each other so much is really reflecting in the work, for the best. I welcome our relationship into this music. We feel more free that way, to explore. We can listen to our mastering in our room at night. There’s a comfort in that.

NC: For sure. It also carries some risk, in my case, as the closeness we have frees me up to be irritable at times. I think that at the end of the day, I have a great satisfaction in the work, and learn from that experience, personally, and not just musically. I think that it’s beneficial to work together, and not just hang and eat and be together. This music that’s so true to our hearts – that’s closeness.

TK: With such proximity and comfort, how do you guys involve risk?

NC: If you hear our album, which will be out later this year, I think the risk is in doing it all. It’s all over the place. It’s our aesthetic. I’m singing which is very rare and unusual. Yuka’s singing a little bit.

YH: Also unusual to the world.

NC: The material goes from groovy and winsome to industrial and confrontational. We don’t think of that as risk. It all comes naturally. It’s what we’re digging.

YH: We’re naturally abrasive.

TK: What song or moment or feeling made you two break out into vocal song?

NC: Speaking for myself here, and people will groan in dismay, but I fell in love with Yuka, and that’s what started it. It’s a love thing.

YH: Awww.

NC: No, it’s true. I was inspired.

YH: I don’t know if I would call what I’m doing ‘singing.’ I’m thinking that I am creating a vocal sound.

TK: Certainly, you have both been through these parts in the past, but Nels, you have a relationship with Philadelphia. What can you say about such a longtime affair with Ars Nova Workshop, for example?

NC: I had been aware of Ars Nova, before and during the many shows I’ve done under their auspices.  Nothing compares to their getting me that grant to do the Lovers for Philadelphia project. Not only was that a challenge, but, it basically entailed me going on several fact-finding explorations through Philadelphia, being guided by Mark Christman. Those were not only illuminating, but inspiring. All of the trips there were deep and damned interesting. And Mark and I became friends. I thought he was just this guy who put on cool shows, and plays his hand pretty close to the vest. Then I got to know him beyond being a supporter of the arts, and he became a real friend. I’m grateful that I got to know Mark, Nick Millevoi and a handful of talented musicians in Philadelphia.

TK: Nick is opening for CUP, and he invited you, yes?

NC: This trip this week started with Nick inviting us. He’s a great musician and a remarkable dude.

YH: I agree wholeheartedly that it has been a beautiful experience  – to meet them, and be exposed to their lives, while exposing them to our lives.

Nels Cline and Yuka Honda’s CUP plays RUBA Club in Northern Liberties on Friday, April 26th. Tickets and more information on the concert can be found here.

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