Posted October 24, 2007
By PATRICK EMERY
John Cale’s curriculum vitae could be a history of punk and rock’n’roll music. Born and raised in Wales, Cale trained as a classical musician in the 1950s, discovering the avant garde music of John Cage along the way. Recognising that his destiny lay in the United States, Cale headed across the Atlantic to New York to work with LaMonte Young and Aaron Copland. In New York Cale met Lou Reed, subsequently forming the Velvet Underground with Reed, Stirling Morrison and Angus Maclise (replaced subsequently by Maureen Tucker). The band fell in with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd and a legend was born. While Reed remains the most regularly cited public face of the Velvets, without Cale’s haunting viola and avant garde influence, the Velvets would never have had the historical impact that’s led the band to be described as the most influential band in modern rock’n’roll.
After leaving the Velvets in the late 1960s – arguably one of the only occasions when ‘artistic differences’ was something more than a convenient euphemism – Cale pursued his own interests, including establishing himself as a producer. Cale went on to produce a string of classic punk albums, including the first Stooges album, Patti Smith’s “Horses” and the Modern Lovers’ debut album. In the 1970s Cale refined his solo show, before taking up a spot as in-house producer for Island Records. Cale’s production skills remained in high demand in the 1980s and 1990s, with credits including the Happy Mondays’ “24 Hour Party People”. In 1993 Cale reunited with his Velvets colleagues for the ill-fated Velvet Underground reunion tour which quickly imploded when old wounds surfaced.
In the 21st century John Cale refuses the temptation to rest his creative intellect. His 2003 album, “Hobosapiens”, was hailed as a return to form, and saw Cale embrace digital production techniques, while his next album, “Black Acetate”, indulged the urban rhythms of hip hop.
In November 2007 John Cale returns to Australia with a full band in what promises to be a concert tour to remember. I spoke to the iconoclastic Mr Cale about his varied career, and the mysteries of the avant garde, on the eve of his tour.
Despite growing up in an industrial part of Wales, you seem to have deviated fairly quickly from what might’ve been expected from a young Welsh boy. Were you aware early on that your interests deviated from your Welsh contemporaries?
Yes, in a marked way. It was really clear that while I was practising my scales at home other kids were out there playing games. I wanted to be out there playing rugby or football – but I knew that playing rugby was out of the question because I didn’t want to have my hands broken or my teeth kicked in. It was strange enough to the local lads that I wasn’t playing rugby – playing viola on top of that was like having horns on your head.
How important to you these days is your Welsh heritage?
I kind of ran away from home. I had to get out of there for a number of reasons, and I needed to find out whether I could succeed as a composer and everything worked against it. My parents, although they were supportive of me, were really very doubtful that anything could come of it. But I’m glad I got to go to Goldsmiths [College, London] – I really had a learning experience at Goldsmiths bar none, and they supported me really in all my shenanigans. I wanted to chase after the contemporary music scene in Europe, and they put up with that, they actually allowed me to put on a festival of new music in the hall there, and ironically that happened on the last day of college. And the day after that I flew out to New York – I had my sights set on New York from the start.
At the time you formed the Velvet Underground Lou Reed was already a practised writer of pop songs. Do you think the tension between your avant garde interest and Reed’s pop sensibilities was at the root of the Velvet’s unique sound – and ultimately the reason for your departure from the Velvets?
On the subject of the Velvet Underground, can you tell me what The Gift was inspired by?
No, I don’t know.
You spent some time in the 1970s hanging out in New York with the fledgling punk scene. Was that scene as vibrant and decadent as its regularly mythologised to be?
Well, it was all around CBGBs. I guess you have to have a centre – in London it would’ve been the Marquee, and in New York it would’ve been CBGBs and in LA, well, I don’t know where it would’ve been, maybe the Whisky. San Francisco had the Fillmore. But I always thought the Los Angeles punk scene was much more ferocious than the New York one. The kind of intensity that went on in New York was nowhere near what the intensity was in England, and the political intensity in England was really strong. Similarly with LA, LA was really anarchic. It was more anarchic in LA than New York. But CBGBs was the centre piece of the New York scene and that’s why it flourished.
Your solo shows in the 1970s are the stuff of legend – performing in a hockey mask, extreme theatrical aspects and the like – was the chaos and intensity of those shows symbolic of your own life at the time?
I suppose you could say that, but I have no idea. I was trying to entertain the crowd. I was just having a lot of fun. We would change the set every night, and change the way we played the songs. We would make up songs on stage. One of the things [Chris] Spedding and I really got very tight with was that I could depend on him to be there no matter what I did. He had his ears pinned everytime, and maybe the other guys were playing catch-up, but the two of us could improvise and come up with new songs at the drop of a hat.
What about the infamous show when you decapitated a chicken on stage? Was that simply intended to shock the audience, or was there something deeper and metaphorical to it?
It was done to throw up a mirror to the audience. There was a lot of gobbing going on at the time, a lot of chains and slam dancing, so I just did that to say ‘OK, do you want to think about something, think about this’. And they were revolted – as were my band, who happened to be vegetarian, but that’s another story.
You started out as an avant garde artist, but found yourself in the punk scene. Is there a relationship between punk and avant garde?
I don’t know. Most of the avant garde I’ve come across have been students in college. There must be some corners of the globe that I’m really not aware of. I would imagine there’s a quite lot of avant garde, but the avant garde would come, I think, from universities and colleges and well educated European culture. In America, although they know where it is, and San Diego is the place where I’ve found it – lately – next week it could be somewhere it is.
Do you think avant garde remains a mysterious branch of the arts?
Yes, it has cachet. It’s still one of the little corners of culture that no-one really understands. And I don’t think they will understand until they do come to grips with LaMonte Young and the pieces that he wrote in 1958 and 1960. There were some performance pieces he wrote then that really defined what the avant garde was – and John Cage knew it. And John handed the baton over to LaMonte around 1960.
Does avant garde music defiy understanding?
No, I don’t think so. You need something to attach it to. Andy’s 15 minutes became part of the lexicon, and as soon as that happened the idea of what was Warholian caught on everywhere, and so did the pop image.
You’ve produced a whole host of bands over the years, including the first Stooges record. I’ve read that the song "We Will Fall" on that album came about after you decided to record Iggy reciting a Jewish chant. Is that true?
(Laughs) That’s a very funny idea, and the first time I’ve heard it.
Do you remember how that song came about?
You’d have to ask James – James wrote it!
In addition to your various production duties, you mixed and released Lester Bangs’ "Let It Blurt" single in the late 1970s.
That was when I had a label, Spy Records. I made about three or four records. There was Bobby Neuwirth, there was a band called the Sic Fucs, Lester and Harry Toledo and the Rockets. And for a year there we were really going after it and then it crashed. We didn’t record Lester, but we released it for him. Lester didn’t live far from us, and I used to see him regularly, and we would all compete to see who would close the bar.
Was Lester Bangs a frustrated punk musician?
I think Lester was frustrated at everything. He was on fire most of the time.
Around the same time the UK punk scene had taken off and was all over the music press, not to mention the tabloids. Did you feel any affinity with the UK punk scene?
Not really. I was too involved with Patti, and my own solo shows. After Patti was when I first started going after solo shows and how to make all the rock stuff work with an acoustic piano. And what it came to was – more or less – turning it into a recital. It was a little sombre sometimes, but you establish your parameters and create your tension wherever you can.
The punk scene – I was probably closer to the punk scene in London than I was in New York because when I left New York and did Patti’s album and stayed there and didn’t go back to London to the Spedding band, all the people in the band were really flabbergasted, and said ‘What on earth are you doing? You should really stay here – things are really bubbling under here’. And sure enough, the next thing you hear about is the Sex Pistols. And I lot of the things I’d been interested in were starting to happen.
On your 2003 album, “Hobosapiens”, you decided to embrace modern day digital musical tools. Do you think computers and software products help or hinder artistic creativity?
It’s a great help. You can try and approximate things so well in that system – you can almost have nothing live except the vocals. I make my choices in a different way – I’ve gone through a number of permutations on how to write songs. I’m enthralled with the way Dre, Pharrell and Snoop arrive at their arrangements, the rhythmic funk that they’ve got. I’m gravitating more towards hip hop production than anything else – that’s where all the ideas are these days.
That’s an area you explore on your most recent album "Black Acetate".
That was the one that got closest. That was the one that had Hush in it, and Hush was the one that got me chasing after the funk thing. Hush was actually playing the groove. In Woman we’d been toying with using an MPC, and an MPC was such a dyed in the wool instrument for hip hop bands. It had this severe nature with 808s, and the way the compression ratio was we really stayed away from it. At the time I was doing "Black Acetate" we heard "Dropping Like a Tortoise" and I was blown away. So we eventually said ‘OK, let’s try something with an MPC’ and we tried it on "Woman", but you could never tell. You couldn’t say the use of the MPC there is as nasty as it is on "Dropping Like a Tortoise", or some other Pharrell records. I’m still trying to work out a way to get the funk in there. Lazy back beats, like Louisiana grooves and shuffles, and gospel feeling – they’re the general areas that I’m into.
Do you think hip hop music has managed to escape the racism that surrounded it when it first appeared?
No, I think it has a lot of responsibility to tidy up itself. But that’s really their thing. I know where it came from, and it’s really difficult to shake it. It provided an outlet for a lot of really great creativity. But from my point of view I can do without all the ‘motherfucker this’, misogyny and homophobia. It really doesn’t advance anything for me – and that’s why I pulled back and just concentrated on what the production does.
The title of the album itself – “Black Acetate” – harks back to a bygone era in the music when vinyl dominated. Do you think the mainstream music industry has a commercial future in the digital age?
(Laughs) That’s the 64 million dollar question! I don’t know. I just read today that Oasis had joined Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead. There’s no guarantee that Radiohead will come up with a great business model. Putting the album on-line and asking people to pay whatever they want for it is not necessarily going to give the band the kind of ... they can always establish that it that if you want the deluxe edition you can have it. But I don’t know what it means – are you going to have a 44.1 MP3, or are you going to have what iTunes offers you for less money? It’s not clear yet. But I really think there’s a big problem.
The odd thing is that the rock’n’roll people are just noticing this. The hip hop people are just roaring straight ahead. They don’t care – they put it out on iTunes. iTunes has become the biggest music retailer in the world when Apple didn’t really want to be that, and didn’t intend to be. But they became it because of the lethargy of the music companies. And if you talk to the record companies about classical music, there’s some labels in classical music that are doing quite well. So what’s going on here?
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