Q&A: John Cale On Memorializing Lou Reed & Re-Making Music For A New Society
To call John Cale “prolific” is an inexcusable understatement; the multi-instrumentalist and producer is responsible for some of the most formative music in rock’s history. Born in Wales, Cale attended London’s Goldsmith’s University (which has graduated Damien Hirst, James Blake, and Lucien Freud since Cale’s time there) where he studied viola before moving to the States in 1963. Cale made his home in New York City, where he met Lou Reed, and together the two formed the Velvet Underground. Cale left the group in 1968 after releasing The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat. From there, Cale continued his career as a solo artist and producer, releasing 30-plus albums over the course of the past 30-plus years, and he’s responsible for a vast number of notable works beyond his own output. Cale worked on Nico’s Chelsea Girl (1967), The Marble Index (1969), and The End (1974), he produced the Stooges’ self-titled debut, and assisted Patti Smith in the making of her seminal album, Horses, which turned 40 last month.
Though Cale’s name is often associated with pioneering works of yesteryear, he’s rarely taken time away from the studio in the past 50 or so years. Music For A New Society — Cale’s critically lauded experimental album — turns 34 this year, and he is reissuing it on Friday (1/22) in addition to simultaneously releasing a remake of the original, titled M:FANS. In order to make M:FANS, the now-73-year-old Cale revisited the album’s original masters and outtakes, re-recording and reordering tracks as he saw fit. Cale worked alongside Amber Coffman of the Dirty Projectors, as well as a church choir to complete the project. Music For A New Society was originally improvised and recorded live in New York’s Sky Line Studios, and Cale himself describes it as a collection of narratives, most of which end in tragedy. They’re a fraught collection of songs that mirrored his artistic trajectory at the time of their recording, which has changed drastically in the years since. While he was remaking the album, Cale reevaluated some of Music For A New Society’s tired stories, adding to them and recycling old ideas that he scrapped on the original release.
Listening to both versions of Music For A New Society back-to-back offers a curious experiment in time travel in more ways than one. It’s easy to notice the very obvious, conscious sonic changes, and then there are smaller, less noticeable ones that open the songs up to reinterpretation. Cale has always been a forward-thinking musician, a man who built his career on an earnest need to think differently and ahead of the curve. It’s fascinating, then, to listen to the way he revamps an old project and turns muted, minimalistic ballads into works of modern fiction. It’s even more fascinating to hear Cale talk about what compelled him to do it. Cale, who’s based in Los Angeles, took time to speak to me about M:FANS, the death of his collaborator Lou Reed, and the inevitable passage of time.
STEREOGUM: Why did you decide to remake Music For A New Society rather than just release completely new material?
JOHN CALE: Well, for a long time people have been coming up in concerts and saying “When can I get a reissue of Music For A New Society?” We had been waiting for the right time to reissue it, and it just happened that there were some festival promoters in Europe who wanted me to come and perform some of my albums in their entirety. There were a bunch of festivals that were built around that idea of getting bands to perform their seminal albums, etcetera. And I’d done it with Paris 1919 a bunch of times, and then they told me that I could perform Music For A New Society in its entirety as it is on the record. I thought that was an excellent way to hook it in with re-releasing the album, and it involved, you know making new arrangements and seeing what else I could bring to the table, really.
STEREOGUM: It’s an interesting move since you’ve mentioned in interviews that nostalgia isn’t really something that appeals to you much, at least in terms of Velvet Underground reissues.
CALE: Yeah that’s true, but it only applies to the VU. I mean, nostalgia could mean anything. It could mean old girlfriends, it could mean books that you’ve read, and all that. This was really an attempt to try and pull out from the original record the essential kernel of each song and put it in a new place.
STEREOGUM: In a press release you said that the old version at one point sort of started to sound stale to you, and so reworking it was like a way of re-experiencing it. Do you feel like you achieved that in some sense? Putting the album into a new light or into a more modern light? It certainly sounds like a very modern album.
CALE: I attacked it in different ways. There are a lot of characters in the original album who were all struggling in one way or another. The songs were about the stresses that were on each character and how they would try to resolve those issues. For most of them, there wasn’t a resolution. It’s still that way on the new album, but I think you really get a better feeling of the ways the characters look at themselves this time. Like on “Taking Your Life In Your Hands” — now, it’s really much more a song about the passage of time than it is about a mother who just killed her kids. There are different angles that we came at on each of the songs.
STEREOGUM: What was it like to work with Amber Coffman?
CALE: Well, Dirty Projectors have been a favorite of mine for a while, and Amber… I just had no idea she could sing the way she did on “Close Watch.” She came into the studio and it was just by chance that I was using a vocoder and doing stuff and all of a sudden her voice was doing all of these things that a vocoder could do in a way that sounded very natural.
STEREOGUM: You recorded this all in Los Angeles as opposed to live in New York like the original. Did that play in to the change? Recording what was once kind of a live album in a real studio and on a different coast?
CALE: It was pretty straightforward. Having your own studio means that you can go in and scramble around for a much longer period of time without worrying about when you’ve gotta leave.
STEREOGUM: Do you return to New York often? What do you think of it now?
CALE: Its very expensive. [Laughs] Well, everything there seems to be based on how fast you can run people out of town, or how fast you can price people out of town. There’s still a lot of energy there, though. I think one of these days it’ll change again. It was really the music scene out here in LA that got my attention.
STEREOGUM: You clued us all into this project when you released the video for “If You Were Still Around” on the anniversary of Lou Reed’s passing.
CALE: The video was done around the time, around the anniversary… It suddenly became obvious to me that that song was the best way of handling an anniversary like that. It’s very even-handed about the way things were, and kind of emotional at the same time. So, the emotion that was there when I re-recorded the song really suited the way I felt about the anniversary and Lou.
STEREOGUM: You had already been working on M:FANS when Reed passed, did the project start to take a turn after that? Did you feel a new sense of urgency?
CALE: It just sort of focused me in a way. It calmed me down a bit. The wrench of him actually going made me realize that I had been working on something right under my nose that really addressed our relationship. At first I wasn’t aware, and then all of a sudden, there it was. “If You Were Still Around” has the sound of a the train running through it. I used a train in one of Nico’s songs, too. It’s a really effective kind of situational thing. It puts you in a strange space when, in the middle of a song, you suddenly find that you’re standing next to a railway line. All sorts of images appear in your head. It worked well on the remastered version.
STEREOGUM: The sound of a train kind of goes back to the idea of looking back on things, nostalgia and trying to move forward.
CALE: It really gets you thinking about your mortality.
STEREOGUM: Was mortality something you thought about a lot while you were working on this project?
CALE: It did have a role to play, that’s for sure
STEREOGUM: That video you released was so evocative, it was obviously a lovely tribute to Reed but you also included so many others in the actual visuals.
CALE: Yeah, well it became a question of who do you not put in. I think we chose the people of an era that were really essential and it was done with the right intention. And you could tell from the way the thing was that it was done with a lot of respect and appreciation, and admiration, too.
STEREOGUM: Absolutely. As time goes by and people who were friends and cultural icons start dying, it must become very hard to figure out how to memorialize them in an appropriate way.
CALE: Yeah. Sometimes you achieve a balance, and sometimes you just don’t. I really didn’t come around to making a tribute for about a year. It was the year after Lou’s death that sort of calmed me down and made me realize that there’s something that can be done still that shows respect and appreciation of somebody that you’ve worked with for years.
STEREOGUM: On a lighter and different note, you’ve always been seen as a curator and tastemaker — what sort of records or artists inspired you in 2015?
CALE: Erykah Badu. I’ve always talked about her. The song with Andre 3000 on that mixtape is unbelievable. She was one, but I also like Vince Staples and Chance The Rapper. Donnie Trumpet And The Social Experiment. Their record was really something. “Sunday Candy” is one of those mysteries… even when I saw him on SNL it was kind of a mystery. Where did this song come from? When I first heard it, I thought it had a whole religious connotation, and now I don’t. I don’t think it’s quite that obvious anymore. It’s really more about how normal it is to talk about Sunday and your Grandma and what you do in the day-to-day. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a ringing endorsement of a church or God or anything. And it’s charming! I love that.
STEREOGUM: What was your initial thought when you unearthed the outtakes that you chose to include on the reissue?
CALE: When I found the song “Thoughtless Kind,” I didn’t remember that song at all, and it was a great surprise. I mean it really was almost all there, I didn’t have very much to do with it, to do to it. There was something very wholesome about the outtakes.
STEREOGUM: You brought up the fact that there are characters in the first album. Can you talk about how they’ve transformed in this new work? I think that “Taking Your Life In Your Hands” is a good example.
CALE: It changed as we put the “tick-tock” chorus in there on M:FANS. As soon as we added that, the song itself became elongated and it started having a different deepness about it. That song became about the passage of time. It became about this character that was condensed in the first version spread out and happened over a certain period of time that you don’t know about but you get the sense that you’re now talking about the person’s entire life and that really came from the arrangement, from adding the sounds of a clock. I like that idea anyways.
STEREOGUM: It’s kind of a lovely metaphor for the timespan between the two albums because it is a very different sounding record. And I was going to ask you a bit about the prelude because I had read that was originally supposed to be included and then you chose not to include it on the first version
CALE: That was the idea, to present this as an arc. “Prelude” is really about a phone call that I made to my mother because I wanted to include a Welsh folk song on the album and I couldn’t remember exactly how the folk song went, so I called her up and asked her if she would sing it to me. And then there was a conversation, and by the time we got to putting the original album together, my mom wasn’t feeling well and I decided it wouldn’t be fair to put that on the record yet. I took it off, but now I think it makes more sense on M:FANS. I think it gives you a platform to survey the album from.
The reissue of Music For A New Society and M:FANS are both out 1/22 via Domino.