Interview: John Cale
The Velvet Underground’s albums are ‘so dull, sonically’, claims Cale, a shifty adventurer who wishes he’d written ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’
Words Cian Traynor
Photography Sam Christmas
There’s one thing John Cale has in mind to cap off five decades as a pioneer of iconoclastic music. “Somebody’s going to come up with another ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ and I would really like to be that person.” He bursts out laughing, but it’s true. The man is fixated with the cutting edge, constantly connecting his ideas to contemporary sounds. “I’m blown away by what Pharrell and Snoop did there. It really pisses you off to think, ‘Shit! I wish I’d written that.’”
It wouldn’t be such a surprise if he did. Besides altering the course of popular music with The Velvet Underground, as well as producing The Stooges, Patti Smith, Nico, Happy Mondays and The Modern Lovers, John Cale’s output has evolved like no other.
In the Gothic Room of Kensington’s Gore Hotel in London, the Welshman is wilting into an armchair — arms crossed, legs extended, head crowned with strands of silvery wisps — like a grumpy monarch on his throne. One minute, the craggy lines of his face contort into a grimace, as if you’ve just awoken him with an indecipherable instruction. Another, his eyes glow as he lowers his voice and leans forward, exuding conspiratorial charm. At any moment, it’s difficult to tell what’s coming next.
His discography is much the same. With over 20 solo albums, soundtracks, collaborations and experimental orchestrations, you never know what you’re going to get with John Cale. His last two records alone, 2003’s HoboSapiens and 2005’s blackAcetate, were cited (respectively) as a career highlight and a sub-standard reinvention. But even the misfires, Cale says, show him aiming for something unique.
It’s hard to disagree. New album Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood, out in October, is a netherworld of lean, darkly textured vignettes that opens on a collaboration with Danger Mouse, then flares into auto-tuned vocals and processed beats — not necessarily things you’d associate with a 70-year-old man. But in a career built on conflict, improvisation and single-mindedness, subverting expectations is Cale’s speciality.
“You could say it’s taken me 20 albums to figure out what I really want to do and, critically, maybe this one makes more sense than the others… but I know what’s going to happen: in about three months, I’ll be done with it.”
Face To The Sky, from Shifty Adventures…
As a kid, Cale was so restless he couldn’t wait to escape his sheltered upbringing in the Welsh valleys. Given his talent for the viola and piano, he’d lie awake at night dreaming of working alongside composer John Cage in Manhattan. By 21, he was doing exactly that. A succession of music scholarships brought him to America, where he joined the avant-garde community and began experimenting with drones and minimalist composition — the perfect primer for what was to come.
“One of the healthy diseases the avant-garde teaches you is don’t do anything that even resembles what anyone else does. Don’t even think about it! You’ll be laughed out of the club.”
Cale sensed that a collision between art and rock was imminent in the late-1960s. Returning from a visit to London with records by The Who and The Kinks, he pored over the sounds with flatmate Lou Reed — a struggling songwriter he’d been playing with — and believed that if they didn’t engineer that breakthrough, someone else would.
When they first met, Reed seemed fragile and lacking confidence. Cale encouraged his lyricism, sharing ideas and igniting an artistic adventurousness. Though they had little in common besides a taste for drugs and risk-taking, Cale believed they were perfect creative foils. Words came to one as effortlessly as music came to the other.
“It’s the way he would improvise lyrics: he could go into the subconscious and confront it, though he believed there are some things in the subconscious you should never go near, whereas I was more interested in subliminal advertising and using that aggressively. Columbia University were doing sensory deprivation experiments in the psychology department at the time, so I’d call them up offering to take part and they’d say, ‘Who are you?!’” He laughs. “But Lou understood the use of language. One of his specialties was talking to a drunk at the bar and knowing exactly when to ask a question that would make the guy want to hit him. He had this way of instigating things with the smallest effort. One word, one gesture. It was expert. That’s why I thought the band had a future: we could improvise so that every concert was different.”
The unit that would eventually morph into The Velvet Underground, with Sterling Morrison on guitar and Moe Tucker on drums, rehearsed every week for a year, honing a groundbreaking fusion of dark, droning feedback and searing street poetry.
“That’s another disease from the avant-garde,” he says. “As long as you refine and refine and refine, you’ll get there. I mean, we worked hard with The VU, making something impossible to duplicate. Playing things in different keys, guitars changed in different ways. That was kind of a ‘fuck you’ attitude: ‘You’re not going to be able to figure this out, so forget it.’”
Reed and Cale’s relationship was tempestuous, barbed with competitiveness and insecurity, and the question of who contributed what to their collaborations would become fiercely contested. When Reed showed him the lyrics to ‘Sunday Morning’, the Welshman assumed they’d fit the words around his musical steering — only for Reed to retort, ‘No, I don’t think of you as a songwriter.’ The putdown hurt Cale, leaving him with a perpetual point to prove.
When artist Andy Warhol offered to manage the band, he guaranteed creative freedom (on the condition that ice-blonde German diva Nico was added) and eliminated any outside interference on their debut, 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico. By doing so, Cale says Warhol kept their aesthetic pure and taught him that the best solutions are always the simplest.
The simplicity didn’t last long. A year later, second album White Light/White Heat attempted to capture the animalism of their live shows but, like their first record, it was received poorly and a maelstrom had begun to envelop the band: mind games, contract disputes, tense tours, escalating drug use and no sign of success. For Cale, the music was becoming secondary.
“We turned into a rock’n’roll band of the worst kind: a touring band who couldn’t stand being around each other, forced to face situations we didn’t want to be in and, really, given so much attention that we couldn’t deal with it. We got a bomb of publicity from Andy and I don’t think we were ready. The internal dynamics were insecure to begin with but when Lou decides one day he’s going to fire Andy and doesn’t tell anybody, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute…’” He shrugs. “Then when difficulties came with what direction the songs should take after ‘Sister Ray’, I knew the strange arrangements were what would keep us where we were, keep us in the future a bit… But at that point, I don’t think Lou was interested in doing that kind of work anymore. There were so many chemicals floating around the atmosphere that it really didn’t lend itself to that, let alone rational thinking. And the sense of propriety, you know: ‘This is mine. This is mine. This is mine.’ It lasted all the way to the reunion tour.”
One day Reed gave Morrison and Tucker an ultimatum: ‘Either Cale goes or I go.’ The Welshman was out, leaving the Velvets to pursue a more commercial agenda. Initially feeling helpless and broke, Cale began writing every day in a bid for self-sufficiency. Having already penned songs for Nico’s solo album Chelsea Girl, he was approached to arrange and perform her second, The Marble Index, kick-starting a surge of creativity.
As a multi-instrumentalist with a classical background, avant-garde credentials and blossoming songwriting nous, Cale’s versatility soon became sought-after. His first task as producer, however, was to capture The Stooges’ volcanic proto-punk for their debut album in 1969. “When you see their live show you think, ‘How the hell am I going to get that on record?’ You don’t. The record is a record. You’ve got to be careful. If you do it perfectly, you may lose some of its gloss. The landscapes that these songs occur in are murky. You’re in a Blade Runner situation here. Things are not clear; you’re confused, the surroundings are opaque and you’re blindsided. So getting that idea across is probably more important than the sounds you’ve got going.”
After kicking heroin and ending a short-lived marriage, Cale moved to California to work as an in-house producer and A&R for Warner Bros. But maintaining his own recording career while struggling to please label executives felt like a conflict of interest. Either way, it was clear from Cale’s first post-VU releases in 1970 — Church Of Anthrax, a collaboration with composer Terry Riley, and Vintage Violence, a solo debut of smooth, sophisticated pop — that he was a man with no genre, making him a nightmare to market. Nowhere was this more painfully evident than at a label convention in Beverly Hills.
“I got a seat on a table for promo men from Connecticut and two of them were young and excitable, saying, ‘Aw, Church Of Anthrax! Yeah!’” He laughs. “The other guys on the table were these hardened old heads saying, [disgusted] ‘Oh yeah, I remember that — murder!”
‘Venus In Furs’, live on Later… With Jools Holland, 2003
By then Cale was living what he describes as a belated adolescence, racing his Mustang Cobra, developing a cocaine habit and marrying Miss Cynderella (Cynthia Wells of Frank Zappa’s ‘groupie group’ The GTOs) despite concerns for her mental health. Yet somehow he managed to record Paris 1919 amid the turmoil, crafting a pop masterpiece that left no doubt over his songwriting abilities. The experience, he says, taught him to push artists out of their comfort zones and harness every expression of their personality.
“It really disturbed me, what [producer] Chris Thomas was doing, because I would hear things back clearly, like my voice, which shook me because I wasn’t used to that.” He raises a fist to his mouth, smothering a belch. “So it’s a question of: do you best help the artist by doing everything they want you to do? Or by holding up a mirror to them and showing a new angle?”
The 1970s proved intensely prolific for Cale: playing on sessions for Nick Drake and Brian Eno, producing numerous albums and making three of his finest records — Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen Of Troy — in just over a year.
“[Those albums] are kind of scatterbrained because I was under real stress at the time, socially, and I didn’t have the solution. Some of the things I did made it worse, so all I hear there is this idea of making every song different from before — it was all the same principle.”
Having never toured as a solo artist, Cale made up for lost time by launching into full-on rock-star mode: wearing a hockey mask while wielding a Flying V guitar through narcotic-fuelled gigs of ferocious improvisation. One night he even decapitated a chicken on stage, prompting his vegetarian band mates to desert him.
Maintaining a breakneck momentum, Cale was enlisted to produce Patti Smith’s seminal debut, Horses. Initially revering Cale as a hero, Smith ending up slugging him, claiming it took a year to recover from the madness.
“That’s hyperbole,” he says, dismissing the notion with a wave. “With Patti, I got her to improvise against herself and that was really an important moment. Those kids had been together a long time on the road, going through trials and tribulations, and their instruments were really precious to them. So when someone comes along and says, ‘Look, we’re going to be here forever tuning these fucking guitars if you don’t get something that works,’ then rents in a bunch of instruments that are totally new to them… it caused a ruckus: ‘I love my instrument! I worked for it! Paid for the thing!’ It’s an upheaval you have to be careful about. I guess at those points you feel taken over. But Patti and Lenny [Kaye] understood, I think.”
When Cale roughed out some demos with David Bowie in 1979, he had the foresight to know that, given their history with drugs, working together would be dangerous. Not that he calmed down anytime soon. For years, the shows got wilder and sloppier; the material manic and paranoid. It was only when Cale’s third wife gave birth to a daughter in 1985 that he decided to get sober and take up squash — the most gruelling sport he could find — overnight.
“You’re looking at this creature in your arms thinking, ‘You’re going to miss out on the best parts of your life if you don’t stop,’” he says ruefully. “I’m not a politician, but those that don’t know history will only live to repeat it. That’s one of the things I’m convinced I’m not going to do.”
Cale seemed reinvigorated by 1990, releasing two high-profile collaborations: Wrong Way Up, with Brian Eno, and Songs For Drella, with Lou Reed. Both were critically acclaimed but fraught with difficulty. The death of Warhol had reunited Reed and Cale for a memorial album, though the same arguments over authorship emerged and Cale vowed never to work with Reed again. Still, a one-song Velvet Underground reunion that year was enough to pave the way for a European tour in 1993. Inevitably, familiar tensions resurfaced.
“There wasn’t a band anymore. There were four individuals that Lou thought could be hired for so many dollars. I mean, I was doing better before I got involved with the tour… but I thought it was worth making the point that, with Sterling and Moe, ‘This is what we were and you can hear it here.’ I thought we had an agreement about doing whatever we wanted.”
Convinced the band never lived up to its potential, Cale longed for the stimulus of new material. The sessions felt encouraging at first, but relations began to disintegrate once he brought up the subject of publishing. There would be no new recordings, no US tour; only the divisive Live MCMXCIII.
“What that live album represents to me is the bare minimum of respect for the capabilities of the four of us. The bare minimum is shown in that. Anybody can play a song the way they did years ago, but to come up with something new? That’s another kettle of fish altogether — and I was only interested in that.”
On the flight back from Europe, Cale remembers looking over at Reed and thinking, ‘This guy is empty.’ Recently, however, when Cale went looking for a quote to include with the new album, he dug out Reed’s song ‘Kill Your Sons’ and the lyrics gave him pause, putting such grievances in context. “I wasn’t aware that he talks about [his] shock treatment in it,” says Cale. “That’s a form of torture, doing that to somebody. I know it plays into his personality, but that’s something you always have to be aware of, when you think about it: [paraphrasing the lyrics] you start reading a book and by the time you’re on page 17, you don’t even know what the beginning is because it erased your memory.”
As Cale’s demeanour dims, the frustration over what could have been clearly lingers. Is it a pain in the arse being asked about The Velvet Underground?
“Yeah, it’s not a pleasant feeling. It was a really disappointing letdown, in the end. We worked so hard for that first album and then blew it. Yes, that was our responsibility, but we had a chance to do it properly and we fucked that one, too.”
Cale never had a ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ moment to rival Reed or elevate his albums into significant sales, but for years now his back-catalogue (much of it out-of-print) has been re-circulating online, winning new fans and creating new influences. Yet while The Velvet Underground’s debut is routinely hailed as one of the most influential albums of all time (a six-disc anniversary edition is due in October), Cale finds the notion onerous, deeming the band’s albums “so dull, sonically”.
“I never understood the idea of influence. I don’t think it’s valuable or useful to look elsewhere. But I think [The Velvets] touched a nerve. It certainly talked about things that weren’t being talked about and made progress in areas that were fairly academic. But then people don’t really care about the academic fortunes of a rock’n’roll band. They just want to go out and dance.”
Influence, however, permeates in different ways. Earlier this year, an LP by singer Sharon Van Etten recreated the cover of Cale’s Fear and dedicated the album to him. “He inspired me to take chances production-wise and to always let your voice be the main thing,” she says, adding that while every Cale record sounds different, you always know exactly who it is.
Humbled by this, Cale’s self-criticism softens for a moment. Asked if he’d revise things he’s said about himself in the past, like being a composer who dishevels his personality by dabbling in rock’n’roll, he puts his hand up. “It’s all bullshit. Defence mechanisms. They don’t really help you. I am what I am.”
For some, being awarded an OBE and representing your country at the Venice Biennale would seem fitting milestones to end a career on. Not for Cale. Even in grizzled maturity, he prefers the dark of the studio to the real world, only concerning himself with what he hasn’t done yet — like finding the next ‘Drop Like It’s Hot’. The back catalogue, he adds, is merely a deck of cards to shuffle before hitting the stage.
“I wouldn’t trust myself if I found a facile approach to it all. I like the awkwardness, the insecurity of not having the solution yet.”
Asked what keeps him going, the gaze hardens.
“I can’t do anything else,” he says. “Music is all I have. The best thing I can do is get better at it.”