Interview: John Cale
The legendary musician talks about his storied career and why he chose to revisit 1982’s Music for a New Society more than three decades later
Although John Cale is likely best known as a founding member of The Velvet Underground, Cale actually left the group in 1968, and has spent the next four-plus decades composing music, producing records, collaborating with artists from across the stylistic spectrum and consistently pushing boundaries.
A classically trained musician born and raised in Wales, he played viola – amongst several other instruments – and eventually earned a scholarship to study music in the United States. Moving to New York City in 1963, he quickly entered the city’s avant-garde circuit, performing alongside heavyweights like John Cage and La Monte Young before linking up with Lou Reed and starting The Velvet Underground in 1964. The creative tension between the two was said to be the driving force behind the band’s seminal first two albums, The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat, with Cale providing many of those records’ more experimental flourishes. Over time, however, these impulses rubbed Reed the wrong way, and Cale was forced out of the group in 1968.
In the years that followed, he began his long career as a solo artist, alternately offering up efforts that were both wildly experimental and more traditionally song based. Collaboration was a regular part of his work, as he teamed up with artists like Terry Riley, Brian Eno and Nick Drake, not to mention his later output with acts like LCD Soundsystem and Animal Collective. He also worked as a producer, stepping behind the boards for albums from Nico, The Stooges, The Modern Lovers, Patti Smith, Squeeze, Happy Mondays, Siouxsie And the Banshees and countless others.
Throughout it all, Cale has become known as arguably one of the most important figures in underground rock & roll history, particularly in relation to proto-punk, punk and New Wave. That being said, he’s also delved into drone, experimental, classical, electronic and numerous other sounds along the way. In short, John Cale is one of those figures whose body of work can’t be neatly summed up in a simple phrase, or even a series of them, but there’s no question that his influence looms large over modern music history. In this excerpt from his recent RBMA Radio interview with Frosty, Cale takes us through his career, with a focus on his latest project – his re-working of the 1982 album Music for a New Society.
I would like to open up by giving you the opportunity to start back as far as you like. I’d love to hear any kind of early music epiphanies, things that blew your mind as far as your perception of the musical world.
I guess the first real bit of excitement in my life was improvising. I was bent on being a composer, so I wrote a piece for piano in the style of Khachaturian. My grammar school had a visit from the BBC mobile unit because they do programs from schools all over Wales and they wanted to know what was going on the Music Department. My name came up and I said, “Yeah, I have this piece.” “Can we see it?” “Yeah.” I gave them the score and they said, “Okay, we’ll be back in a month or so and we’ll be ready for you.”
They came back in a month and they set up and they said, “Could you now play the piece?” and I said, “Well, sure. Give me the score back and I’ll perform.” They said, “Whoops, we don’t have the score.” The piece was half-finished, so I knew the beginning, and taking it from the beginning through to the end was hair-raising, but it was exhilarating and I just thought afterwards, “Wow, that was not difficult. You’re living on the edge right there. You’re scared most of the time, but you worked it out.” That’s kind of where the thrill of music came from. It was working it out, having moments where you’re not sure what the hell is going to happen next.
One of the composers you’ve mentioned was an influence on you was John Cage. Was his Zen philosophy soaking into your outlook on music?
Zen was a relief. I mean, a lot of things in post-war Europe... The musicians and composers working back then had to prove the social responsibility of their music. Why you’re doing it. It was partly left-wing, socialist theory, and partly paranoia. Whatever you did had to have socially redeeming qualities. Thank God for rock & roll. I mean, that was one redeeming quality that they never figured on.
Can you paint a picture of the scene around the time that you were with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela?
We were digging into all sorts of things, intonations, tonality. La Monte was playing saxophone, Marian was holding the drone, Tony [Conrad] was bowing the guitar, and I was bowing the viola. Marian would usually make a really volatile Indian meal, very hot, and everybody enjoyed it. And we’d sit down and play and people would come by and join in. Not too many after a while. Charles Lloyd stopped by and he just didn’t know what to make of it, but La Monte was really impressed with his dress style, which is all black. He was a ghoul.
What do you think was most important about that period of working with Theatre of Eternal Music?
If you do one thing for long enough and you’re not just staring off into space, you start figuring things out. Dennis Johnson explained to La Monte the theory of curved space and time. The idea was that if you drew a straight line and you never came back to the place where you started, then space was infinite. There was a lot of semi-scientific thinking going on. Some of it was wishful thinking, some of it was really accurate and some of it was, musically speaking, a breakthrough.
With this kind of long-term vision and these kind of ideas, were you still thinking of the moment in a visceral way? Like, “I want to make this happen”?
We all were, yeah. We were doing it. We didn’t quite know how to do it. I mean, I did a record with Terry Riley while I was still working with La Monte and I brought up the idea with CBS Masterworks to do La Monte’s piece. It was really very difficult. They didn’t want to know. They said, “Yeah, we know about La Monte’s music, but, you know, the trouble is that that circle gets smaller and smaller, not larger and larger,” and so I wasn’t really persuasive. The record with Terry was a lot of fun [though].
It was an idea from the record company to put two of us together in a studio and see what happened. We did this piano piece and put two drummers in there. We got a fiery and bubbly piece out of it. Terry has this great way of putting blues and ragtime together and playing impossible time signatures. He’d put one time signature on his right hand and another time signature on his left hand. I mean, if you could stop giggling while you’re playing, you’re ahead of the game.
How did the Velvet Underground come together as a group?
Well, we went through a number of possibilities for drummers, but they were all scarier than the next one. But we were trying to do something different, putting the viola together with all this. If you did a beautiful viola part to something acoustically played, yes, it was going to be nice, but there was something that wasn’t there. It really took time to get to that. It took us a year to get the banana album together, to really have something that I thought would stand on its own.
Because I was going back and forth to London, I would come back with records and say, “Listen to this. This is really interesting.” We’d sit there and try and figure out, “What the hell are we doing?” That was the key. I said, “We could really be unique. It’s easy. All you got to do is do things in a way that nobody can figure out what you’re doing and still get the same result or even a better one.”
We didn’t really have a lot of gear. It was a lot of fun, putting a guitar, vocals, a viola and a bass through two amplifiers. The minimalism that you hear was much worse later on. Then Andy [Warhol] showed up and, all of a sudden, you’re in a different league altogether. I mean, I’d known about Andy because there was a lot of suspicion between artists, as usual. About who had the original idea. Because you were dead meat if you had done anything that somebody else had done. That’s been a principle that’s sort of stuck with me. I try not to do the same thing that I’ve done again.
The basic element of what was important was the work. That was the thing with Lou. Every time. Like when we did Songs for Drella. We had a job to do, and we had this amount of time. No problem. You get it done. The ancillary stuff that happened was always outside of that bubble. It was, “Get on with it.” Take as much weed as you want, but get on with it.
When did you feel like, “Okay, this is working in a live setting”?
I don’t know. It was getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between the PR and the actuality because we ended up in the middle of a storm of publicity that we didn’t know was coming. We got a lot of notoriety very quickly, attached to Andy. I guess Lou didn’t like that. Andy was straight ahead about it. Like, “You can’t depend on me to play in museums and art galleries all over the world.” Andy said, “I can do that. But you have other responsibilities. You’ve got an audience out there that’s not going to go to these things, so you better focus on that,” and Lou absolutely agreed with it. But the way he handled it and the way he did it was really destructive. I mean, he just like blew up the band and fired Andy without telling anybody, and it was like, “What?”
But we got a lot of attention. Not that there was appreciation. There were a lot of people that really disliked us. Bill Graham was one of them. Zappa may have disliked us, but he made sure he was on every gig that we played on the West Coast, because he knew that the publicity was going to be there, and he was straight up on that.
You may be in the eye of the hurricane, but you’re figuring out how much of this you can control or not, and I figured, “I can’t control any of it, but I’ll try to stick to the music rather than figure it out.” Once we got out on the road and started touring and then did White Light/White Heat, we were no longer the squirrelly little band on the weekend, figuring out, “Well, can we do something different?” It was all, “As long as you put a back beat on it, you’re fine,” which is how we got through the tour.
During White Light/White Heat, it was barely a conversation. It was competition. It was like, “Who’s louder than the next?” Nowadays, you’d sort of laugh at us. Gary Kellgren was the engineer. I noticed when we were playing something back, somebody would go and raise their fader. One day, I noticed that Gary had a little drawer down at the bottom of the console, and every time somebody went too far, he would reach down to this huge toggle knob there. He’d turn it down and close the door. Yeah, we didn’t get away with much then.
You said that an artist is dead in the water if they’ve done something that’s been done before. Do you think that being free of VU at that point was the best thing for you?
It had to be. I mean, I thought I could be a producer. I thought I had the knowledge and some experience, and I got the opportunity by first doing [Nico’s] Marble Index and then doing Iggy [and The Stooges].
What about Marble Index? What was the intention going into the studio? What was on your mind?
We really didn’t know. I mean, I didn’t know what the songs were, so as soon she played the song, I sort of had an image immediately of what the arrangements would be and then did them. It was just myself and a bunch of instruments. Fortunately, Frazier Mohawk, the producer set it up properly. “Evening of Light” is still my favorite song on there.
The big problem was how to separate the harmonium from her singing voice. We tried all sorts of things. We didn’t really quite get rid of it. The idea was to let her sing with the harmonium and then take it out. If you do, you dress it up with all sorts of string quartet writing around it, and you’d have something totally different.
Of all things, I took it over to Jac Holzman at Elektra, and he said, “I really like this record.” In those days, working in the industry in that position, to say you like Marble Index? Wow. Because she was most awkward of all songwriters. English was not her natural language, but as time went on, with all her albums, she started writing prettier and prettier. Every time there would be these heavy Gothic lyrics, and there was always one song, a little gem that would be very pretty and simple. She got the hang of it.
What were you feeling around the time of Paris 1919? What were you wanting to put into the world?
I had left New York by the time I wrote Paris. There were a lot of sketches of songs around in New York. When I moved down to California and worked for Warner’s, I sat and wrote and finished most of the songs there. It was really a travelogue of someone who is disembodied in California. A Welsh boy who has come to California and is working for a record company and writing songs about all the things that he admires about Europe.
How did your upbringing in Wales materialize in Paris 1919?
I didn’t realize at the time that’s what was going on. I just knew I had these songs and my experience of having something produced for me at that point was really strange. I mean, suddenly, it was out of my hands and I was listening to my songs coming back at me and they were totally unfamiliar and strange and kind of upsetting.
You know, it’s that thing of identity. Who am I this time? I mean, in the end, I had great musicians. It was great with Little Feat. It sounded fabulous, but I just... You know, there’s a certain point where you can’t tell the forest for the trees. When you’re an artist, you’re in the spot. And, at the same time, you’re far away, looking at you in the spot. You’ve got to give it up. You got somebody there dealing that that, so let them deal with it. It sounds kind of silly, really.
You had been in that position as a producer with others. Like with the Stooges in the late ’60s.
I just wanted [to work with] the band because of their live show. Danny Fields asked me to come out to Detroit, and they were opening for MC5. It was the way that James [Iggy] handled the crowd. I mean, one minute, you threaten them; another minute, you hug them. It’s fabulous. And you go, “Wow, how am I going to put this in a record?” A silly question. You just make the music. You don’t worry about the visuals and all that. I had all sorts of preconceived notions about the band and how to deal with the live show via the record, which was a mistake.
If you take an artist into the studio, you’ve got to be convinced that they know who they are.
What do you look for in a collaboration?
An open heart. An understanding that, when you put two different people in the studio, that, as long as they communicate with each other and enjoy each other’s flow and whatever, that the end result will be something different. If you’re ready for surprises like that, it can be great.
How do you seek that kind of person?
Most of the time, it’s really a puzzle. Most of the time, I go, “This guy’s really good. I wonder if...” I never say, “Now, I can.” It’s “I wonder if...” There’s room in that energy because you look at Patti [Smith], you look at James [Iggy Pop], and you know that this thing is not going to go away. These guys are going to be around for a long time because they know who they are. If you take an artist into the studio, you’ve got to be convinced that they know who they are enough, so that when you play something back to them and they sound different from what they think they were, they’d be able to handle it. A lot of people just freak out on that. Nowadays, thankfully, people do all of that at home, and they know right there and then what voice is going to come out. There’s still room for surprises in the studio, which are the best.
You had a long string of solo albums following Velvet Underground. Is there an album that you still feel confident in the vision that you had back then?
I would say it’s Music for a New Society. I mean, it was a difficult period, a difficult record, but when I started thinking about re-recording it, I thought the ideas were still viable. There was emotion in there. Did I want to really have that emotion come through again? I thought, “Well, there’s no point in doing it unless you have that and add to it. And you don’t want to make the record that sounded like that then; you want to make the record that sounds now.” That album was really like a rock in my shoe, because it didn’t dissolve. I mean, it strengthened it. It didn’t dissolve it. It was a person arguing for his life, in a way.
Can you sketch out what your headspace was at that time?
There were a lot of things going on, and one of them was my loss of identity. I was trying to figure out where I was going to go. This was supposed to be a solo album. How was I going to proceed from here and make something different and deal with... I wanted to be honest. I wanted to show all the strains and violent thinking that was going on and, at the same time, come out of it with something that really made you want to go on.
It had that. I mean, you could see the claw marks on the door maybe, but vocally and spiritually, it certainly had something that clung to you. You knew this was not a throwaway vision. I was thinking, “How did I get from Wales and classical music and veer into this position, where I’m writing songs about I don’t know what?” Because I didn’t know what they were about until I started recording. In the end, I did expose a lot of nerves on that record, and I’m glad that they’re still there because it’s something I could pull out and refer to.
It was always a disappointment to me that, when you did a record, by the time it came out, it was old to me. I really wanted to do something that didn’t sound old. Something that was testy and kind of irritated you a little bit because it didn’t tell you what you thought you should be told about what a record is.
What does revisiting the record provide for you?
The reassurance that something that happened a long time ago still has value. I mean, I can think of a lot of songs that I’ve written that I really don’t want to perform live.
Were there any songs in particular that you were excited to revisit?
“Close Watch” was a song that had been visited and revisited quite a bit. I was playing it one day and I changed the tonality of the song to become a lot more mysterious, and then I found a drum loop that worked with it and set it up properly and gained all this space. What the song has is an implication about another person in there. Like another ghost. I met Amber [Coffman, the song’s co-singer] and we started working in the studio. It turned out that that other voice was really important for the song. That was really satisfying, to put that one to bed.
You talk and you mention this ghost thing, and with Music for a New Society, there is that ghostly vibe to it. It’s interesting because it’s you, it’s a solo record, but are there other entities that kind of occupy that space for you? Do you feel like there’s these other figures present?
Yeah, always. I mean, I don’t have control over them, but there are. I don’t know whether they’re something conventional. Like, when you’re trying to figure out what the next line of a song is and all these characters run through your mind and you suddenly grab one of them and do it. Something like that.
What about “If You Were Still Around”?
I had these visits from Sam Shepard when I was recording the original record and “If You Were Still Around: was what came out of it. There’s a version that works where I have a train that runs through the songs. You sing a verse, then a train appears and trundles through the song. Then you sing another verse and the train comes back. This idea of the train is sort of your sense of mortality in all of this.
There was a choir out in Cucamonga that I had sing on the new version. There were several iterations of it, but the song still had a kind of... It wasn’t a love story. It was kind of a lament about a love story, and when I finished it, it was about a year since Lou had passed. Everybody was very well aware, and it really made a poignant statement about all the people from the Factory that I knew and weren’t around anymore.
I thought the video was really very beautiful, and we treated it all with respect, but I think the words really applied a lot to Lou and the relationship. It could have put to rest everything about... because [there have been] a lot of books and a lot of gossip. This seemed to me the most elegant way of dealing with that issue.
How about “Prelude”?
“Prelude” was something that I took off the original album. I wanted to put a Welsh folk song on the original, and I couldn’t remember the exact words. I thought I’d get my mom to sing it for me, so I called her up and we had a chat. She sang a song for me that was not the one that I wanted her to sing, and it was fine because, when I came back and revisited it, you got a sense of... The reason I took it off originally was because she wasn’t well and I didn’t think it was fair to put it on the record. Now it gave me a different perspective. It’s like a way of creating an arc of the records. That set the album up very nicely.
Anything else that you’d like to leave us with?
Yeah. There is life after life.