Turntable Interview: John Cale
As a music fan, it’s hard to express the heart-palpitating, adrenaline-boosting excitement of getting an email asking if you would like to interview rock legend John Cale. As one of the founders of the Velvet Underground, Cale lies at the root of much of the modern music we know. As a producer he has worked with everyone from Nico to LCD Soundsystem to Patti Smith to the Stooges and Squeeze and Modern Lovers. Even at the age of 70, Cale hasn’t slowed down or confined himself to working behind the scenes. He performs regularly and puts out a steady stream of albums filled with his unique brand of post-punk experimental art rock. His new album, Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood, is out now on Double Six. He stopped by Turntable.fm to talk about his new album, his waning love of the Scary Movie franchise, and Coolio.
JOHN CALE: hi stereogum!
STEREOGUM: Hello! Is this John?
JOHN CALE: how we doing this ?
STEREOGUM: There’s a little button up there that says “Play Music” We will both click and start playing.
John Cale started playing “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long” by Erykah Badu
JOHN CALE: We’re off.
STEREOGUM: Excellent! Thanks for coming on to Turntable! I was very excited for this interview to hear what you would play. I did not guess Erykah Badu. Is she a particular favorite of yours?
JOHN CALE: Her arrangements are always surprising and I try real hard to figure out how she comes to them – saw the band on TV show of a show – still puzzling.
STEREOGUM: What do you look for in a band? What catches your attention?
JOHN CALE: Loved that song on Mark Ronson’s last album – she was on Letterman singing it standing in a pair of ice skates – so cute !! I look for what gives the band an edge- the subtle ingredient that gives it an ID.
STEREOGUM: Do you find yourself drawn to any genre in particular? Or is it just about an edge?
JOHN CALE: In this case it’s the voice in all it’s variations.
Melissa Locker started playing “Waves” by Joey Bada$$
JOHN CALE: I wander from hip-hop to hip-hop as in dirty south varieties or the tex-mex variety
STEREOGUM: Do you have an iPod?
JOHN CALE: Yes in my iPhone-
STEREOGUM: What do you think fans would be most surprised to find in your iPhone?
John Cale started playing “Can’t Funk-Shun” by Kokane Sheldon Fisher
JOHN CALE: Some jazz for kickback probably – Miles – Paul Motian.
STEREOGUM: When did you discover hip hop? Was there a particular artist that lured you in?
JOHN CALE: Snoop’s Drop it like it’s hot stopped me in my tracks
JOHN CALE: I couldn’t figure where it came from – simple minimalist funk with a comedic delivery –
STEREOGUM: Which acts do you think are the most exciting acts in hiphop right now?
Melissa Locker started playing “212” by Azealia Banks ft. Lazy Jay
JOHN CALE: Eminem still has it – slaughterhouse is on the grand scale as is J-Zee – is still think small claustrophobic songs are powerful –
STEREOGUM: Small and claustrophobic? Do you consider the songs on your new album small and claustrophobic?
JOHN CALE: Yep!
STEREOGUM: How so? I wouldn’t choose those adjectives at all.
John Cale started playing “Lost & Found” by Lianne La Havas
JOHN CALE: They carry an environment with them – they happen amongst noisy busy street sounds.
STEREOGUM: So they are intensely atmospheric?
JOHN CALE: It’s the engine I prefer for writing – location location location.
STEREOGUM: Where did you write the songs for your new album?
JOHN CALE: At the mixing board in the middle of a pile of instruments.
STEREOGUM: Did you have a plan or a vision for the album? Or did you just wait to see what would happen with all those instruments?
Melissa Locker started playing “One Day” by Sharon Van Etten
JOHN CALE: More waiting and listening until some kinda shape came to dominate the ideas.
STEREOGUM: Do you write your hooks or words first?
JOHN CALE: Hooks and words happen together as a kind of way station to pull the story of the song together.
STEREOGUM: Have you always written like that?
JOHN CALE: No it was the quickest way lately for me to organize my song thinking.
STEREOGUM: On the song “Hemingway” you punch a piano. How did that happen?
JOHN CALE: It’s a carefully placed and administered palm to the keys – a good irritating reminder of the back beat –
John Cale started playing “24 Hour Party People” by Happy Mondays
STEREOGUM: Ah so more of a slap, really.
JOHN CALE: Yes.
STEREOGUM: You worked with the Happy Mondays right?
JOHN CALE: Yep – they do choruses a lot like Big Mello and Kokane – unruly sloppy and hilarious.
STEREOGUM: Did you approach them or did they come to you?
JOHN CALE: I was aware of the Hacienda people – Tony Wilson had me on his TV show and I liked his renegade approach to it – he’d be the official voice of Manchester TV reading the news at 6pm and at 11pm Fridays his show So it goes was one of the best R&R shows ever – so he asked me to help the band – quite an experience – don’t think anyone was ever in total control of the process but the sausage came out OK.
STEREOGUM: How did the Manchester scene compare to the NYC scene in the 60s?
JOHN CALE: Very well – if you saw 24 Hour Party People it was faithful to the tenet held by everyone in Manchester that London sucked big time!
JOHN CALE: jealousies of a regional nature were never as rancid or funny as between the two.
STEREOGUM: Do you enjoy working with bands, like the Modern Lovers, who were influenced by the Velvets?
John Cale started playing “Pusherman” by Curtis Mayfield
JOHN CALE: I was mesmerized by Jonathan’s persona – played the weak kneed brother until you saw it was a facade that belied a real strength.
STEREOGUM: His music is very powerful.
JOHN CALE: The innocence is – who would write a song about the local 7-Eleven again? Urban white songs for mums. About mums I mean.
STEREOGUM: Ha! True. Coolio wrote about a Can of Corn.
JOHN CALE: Yea – so serious it was funny.
STEREOGUM: Do you ever listen to the music you’ve made over the years? Or are you more of a crumple-it-up and move on type?
JOHN CALE: The latter.
STEREOGUM: So what do you think of the album that’s about to come out? Are you already over it and on to the next thing?
Melissa Locker started playing “Beautiful World” by Devo
JOHN CALE: I did hear part of the new VU release 6CD package – Melody Laughter was a grind but you hear the brain whirring.
STEREOGUM: When you do listen to the VU are you able to enjoy it?
JOHN CALE: It becomes a critical assessment of the audio – those recordings are kinda muffled to me now.
John Cale started playing “The Wilhelm Scream” by James Blake
JOHN CALE: And no surprise the gear we used was pretty crap – voices coming out of the bass and guitar amp – not a lot you can do.
STEREOGUM: True. But the music behind the audio is still pretty amazing. What do you think of your new album then?
JOHN CALE: I think Nookie has depth and detail in it – and if you can latch on to the story it leads you to many worlds.
STEREOGUM: Where does the title come from?
JOHN CALE: The wood part comes from a story I read about a holiday spot in Japan that at the end of the summer celebrations becomes a suicide spot – very puzzling to people there because the dead vary a great deal – so saw that as an interesting jump off point for a song, then the Blade Runner elements in the sound design took it other places.
Melissa Locker started playing “Lost” by Frank Ocean
JOHN CALE: Love Frank O.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, he’s amazing. He lives in Los Angeles, too. Maybe you can collaborate?
JOHN CALE: He has some real good ideas I saw SNL – breath of fresh air.
STEREOGUM: But it’s interesting that you say Blade Runner, because the film actually came to mind when I was listening to the album.
JOHN CALE: That’s unusual for someone to spot the announcement character of the opening – murky subway cafes etc etc.
STEREOGUM: I just watched the film again so it was on my mind.
JOHN CALE: Yea it was a long time since my last viewing and it was after I finished the song so I was shocked at how much I’d taken from the film.
STEREOGUM: You use a lot of experimental techniques in your music. >: Perhaps the computerization lent itself to Blade Runner thoughts?
John Cale started playing “You Can’t Keep Running Away From Love” by The Sureshot Symphony Solution Myron & E
JOHN CALE: Try to abuse the natural sounding elements-
STEREOGUM: It’s very different from the gritty garage sound of the VU.
JOHN CALE: The computer is my friend and only does what I ask it to do – even when I give it crazy rules I want to see what the algorhythms bring.
STEREOGUM: Where does your love of computers come from?
JOHN CALE: Toys – Marvel Comics – futurist lit – the idea of magic ?
STEREOGUM: Blade Runner is fairly dystopian, does that worry you at all? Or do you embrace it?
Melissa Locker started playing “Vcr” by The xx
JOHN CALE: I see most things as dystopian – human affection being the worst example of it.
STEREOGUM: Human affection?
JOHN CALE: Yes – twisted to order.
STEREOGUM: So William Gibson’s replicants?
JOHN CALE: We are all.
STEREOGUM: That’s very dark!
JOHN CALE: That doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.
STEREOGUM: Oh of course not.
JOHN CALE: Irony there. I tried maybe failed.
STEREOGUM: It’s always hard to tell over IM.
John Cale started playing “Gun Has No Trigger” by The Dirty Projectors
STEREOGUM: But does it mean your music is not meant to be make-out music?
JOHN CALE: Not at all – “Living With You” can be OK for a smooch.
STEREOGUM: I’ll add it to the make out mix!
JOHN CALE: Coolio. Or alles cool as they say in Germany
STEREOGUM: That’s who’s next on my song queue
JOHN CALE: Dang that is just too cosmic!!
STEREOGUM: right?! You’re playing the Dirty Projectors now. How do you normally come across new music?
JOHN CALE: what if all these artists met at the drive in ? for what movie ?
John Cale started playing “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio
STEREOGUM: Peewee’s Big Adventure?
JOHN CALE: Blech ! – not eating popcorn to that one!!
STEREOGUM: What movie do you think? You cannot eat popcorn to Lars von Trier either.
JOHN CALE: Scary Movie would get a few laughs esp. Miss Mann!
STEREOGUM: Are you a Scary Movie fan?
JOHN CALE: That’s a great song title “eating popcorn at an Lars von Trier movie pass the salt.” I was a fan, but they got weaker and weaker –
STEREOGUM: Yes, true. What do you consider your favorite films?
John Cale started playing “Stone Rollin'” by Raphael Saadiq
JOHN CALE: Alien – There will be blood -Wild Bunch.
STEREOGUM: Have you seen The Master yet?
JOHN CALE: No, but am dying to
Uh-oh ! I gotta go – sorry – see ya on the web – enjoyed it – bye!
STEREOGUM: Goodbye and thank you!