We’ve Got A File On You: John Cale

Madeline McManus

We’ve Got A File On You: John Cale

Madeline McManus

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Whatever your favorite moment across the career of art rock legend John Cale might be, it’s almost certainly something that helped shift the paradigm of popular music.

It could be the way his demented viola scrapes away at your brain matter on the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” a song that forged a weird new path where the dark repetitive heart of drone music would flourish and help define avant-garde rock across the decades that followed. Or the four-string quartet he bled pain out of on Nico’s viscerally haunting “No One Is There,” making the arrangements sound like quarreling mourners angrily spitting eulogies over one another at a terse funeral. Cale unlocked a feral yet strangely alluring pitch-black pain inside the late German singer’s vocals, the pair’s creative union arguably igniting the nascent goth movement.

Maybe you prefer the brilliant solo material, especially the New Romanticist drama of “Paris 1919” and the unbridled joy of its regal organ and flurrying horns. Everything seems to be played by people drunk off love, and Cale tellingly sings the words, “She makes me so unsure of myself/ Standing there but never ever talking sense.” In truth, I’m a little intimidated at reducing such a rich legacy down to 60 minutes of questions and flash points, especially when there’s so many high points to sift through.

Described as one of the most underrated musicians in rock history by David Bowie, Cale has produced subversive masterpieces for everyone from the Stooges to Patti Smith to Siouxsie And The Banshees. He also earned his experimental stripes playing under the guidance of legendary composers like John Cage and La Monte Young, while Cale survived being in a band (well, for two groundbreaking Velvet Underground albums at least) alongside the infamously cutting tongue of Lou Reed.

However, I worry being forced to look back could be a grating experience for an artist who only tends to move forward sonically. After all, on the jauntiest song of his career and that rare Cale track where it feels like musically he’s channeling the vibrant glow of summer rather than getting lost within the foggy disquietude of winter, the artist famously purred out the words “Been there, done that/ Been there: don’t want to go back.”

Thankfully any concerns quickly disappear, with this 82-year-old Welshman warmly reflecting on his discography during our late-night Zoom call with all the candor of a veteran finally reconnecting with old photos that have been hidden at the back of an attic for too long. “The music is dark, but it’s sexy too!” Cale beams of former bandmate Lou Reed’s genius, skin-crawling “Shiny, shiny/ Shiny boots of leather,” opening lines from the psychedelic hellscape “Venus In Furs.”

Meanwhile, of Nico’s mysterious reference to a “demon dancing down the scene” on her career best, Cale-produced solo album, The Marble Index, he cryptically explains, “She was using the devil as a protective shield rather than stirring up any trouble.” His gruff, slightly weathered Welsh accent dissolves into a refreshing enthusiasm while remembering those early sessions with the Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman.

The hyperactive rock dramatics of “Roadrunner,” which was a prelude to today’s pop punk scene and feels as giddy (“I am in love with rock and roll and I will be out all night” is its infectious battle cry) as a golden retriever hurling itself towards a beach, is a particular joy for Cale to reflect on producing. “Jonathan is very child-like! The Modern Lovers had a whimsical approach to playing rock music. It was refreshing to be around. He had an infectious curiosity.”

Cale’s pleasantly reflective mood perhaps has something to do with last Friday’s release of his brilliant eighteenth studio album, POPtical Illusion. The conventional wisdom is that by your 80s the best course of action for a rock renegade is simply to relax in a deck chair in the Bahamas and wait for the publishing money to come rolling in. But despite the clock ticking faster, Cale is still innovating, putting out some of the funkiest music of his career. On many of the new tracks Cale obscures his harmonies with a p-funk vocoder akin to Zapp’s Roger Troutman, while “Calling You Out” has trippy glockenspiels and muddy vocals that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Thundercat project. Cale seems to be re-cementing himself within more hip-hop, jazz, and funk-adjacent musical textures.

“Shark Shark, take me down!” he sings with an enchanting combination of trepidation and excitement on head-spinning album highlight “Shark-Shark.” Cale says the songwriting taps into our always-online era, where the sharks can pull you down to the depths at any second and beauty’s grip can suddenly give way to chaos. “There’s always somebody sharking around in 2024,” he explains, a wicked smile filtering through the line. “Always somebody trying to take a nibble at you.”

To celebrate the release of this veteran’s latest record, I spoke at length with Cale, covering everything from his childhood growing up in a working class Welsh village where the men were expected to work down the mines, to a creative ascent that has led to classic collaborations with the Velvet Underground, Nico, Brian Eno, and so many others. I found someone (mostly) happy to indulge, giving me a unique window into how a lad from a place with more sheep than people ended up changing the course of rock history.

Growing Up In Garnant, Wales, And Escaping The Mines

I wanted to go back to your hometown of Garnant, Wales. From my research it’s obviously such a beautifully hilly landscape, but there’s something kind of ghostly there with the workers’ mine and a lot of local superstitions. What was it like growing up in the area?

JOHN CALE: We would like to pull people’s legs, you know, and pretend the area was haunted! One minute you’d get a good laugh down the pub with your friends, the next you’d wonder what the hell was going on. My mum would not let me go down the mine with the other lads. My family thought – it was verboten – that I mustn’t work down there, ever! They wanted me to do my work and be good at school, to use the music to be successful.

What was it about the viola that made so much sense to you as an instrument? I guess it’s elegant but also kind of twisted with the sounds you can conjure out of it. Did playing that instrument help expand your horizons beyond a small-town mentality… and ultimately push you into moving to New York in 1963 to study under La Monte Young?

CALE: I would like to say I was drawn to it because it sounded deathly or something, but the reality was a lot more mundane than that. The school had an orchestra, and I wanted to play with it, which meant I had to go to rehearsals and learn how to pick up an instrument. I remember I had viola rehearsals every Saturday at Cardiff Castle. There was a real romance to playing somewhere so ancient, you know? The thing about playing the viola is there’s a very limited number of solo pieces available for you to practice, so I ended up playing violin pieces on it instead. This was a great challenge, but also a lot of fun, and you naturally start to stretch the limits of the instrument.

I remember watching a masterclass from Cornelius Cardew, and he’d tell everyone you have to plan for great change in music. He would say you should always leave spaces for experimentation. Well, La Monte was sitting in the audience and he made sure to tell everyone how much he disagreed! To him, you can’t plan for change in music, because change was guaranteed already. I took something new away [from every different approach].

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The Velvet Underground & Nico (1966)

Coming into the first Velvet Underground record, the thing I always obsess over is your viola-playing on “Venus In Furs.” I love how it sounds evil and transcendent all at once. It’s like this tornado of torment and very elemental and storm-like in how it moves. What inspired that particular sound?

CALE: We combined the bowed guitar with the viola, while holding a drone. It was really about intonation and using that as the basis for all the harmonic changes. We managed to create this really ferocious sound, but as dark as it was, there’s something quite sexy about it too. I guess the leather Lou sings about on “Venus In Furs,” well, it touches on the military and the restraints America puts on you, but there’s the sexual element of restraint through Tony [Conrad] introducing us all to Michael Leigh’s book. Lou always had this brilliantly loose poetic sensibility.

On “The Black Angel’s Death Song” the strings feel like they’re being played by a skittery spider. At another point your viola seems to mimic squad sirens. There’s this distortion that sounds like a hissing snake, which might be coming from an idiophone. What were you trying to do with this instrumentation?

CALE: We were trying to be different from everybody else. You really wanted to expand your horizons or what was the point? Everybody else was starting their songs playing with vibrato, but we didn’t want that! It was about doing something that startled the listener, and seeing how far we could then take it. We didn’t want the average paranoid sound to come from the guitar, but something that took you into a new world. We wanted to really expand what the instruments were capable of.

White Light / White Heat (1968)

Moving into White Light / White Heat, I sense the objective was to put the listeners in a trance-like state and to blast away any beauty, left over from a song like “Sunday Morning,” into deep space. On “Sister Ray” there’s the line, “Don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?” But that’s almost the mission statement maybe. To leave an ugly mess and not care how it affects other people.

CALE: A trance? That’s definitely a possibility, yes. I think there was also a question to be asked about the annoyance factor in the music. You were really annoying people with the sustained drone sound and you’d end up having a general melee with the audience, because they just weren’t ready for that sound yet! I remember when we played “Sister Ray” at the university in New Jersey and the crowd went nuts. They were yelling epithets at us and saying we should be ashamed because of how rough everything sounded. But that was also the ultimate compliment they could give us!

I love that when you guys struck Waldo’s head on “The Gift” you really hit a cantaloupe with a baseball bat to achieve the exploding sound. Your stoic vocal delivery of that track’s twisted story is very theatrical also, and the way you say: “He could feel his heart beating in his throat” literally awakes the listener’s senses. What would you say is the best way for a producer to stir the listener’s senses?

CALE: We never got enough collisions in the sound of “The Gift” for me. Look, I believe the power is in the silences and the gaps. A well positioned silence is a profound thing. It will get right up into your nose really quick.

Creating a lot of the music from those two Velvet albums in the shadow of Andy Warhol’s Factory must have been a real trip. What was it about that particular environment that helped shape your overall creativity?

CALE: Andy Warhol had a really nice sense of humor and if you had some musical or creative ideas you couldn’t work out, you could speak to him about it and he’d give you real consideration and help on how to proceed. I really enjoyed the company of everybody in the Factory to be honest! They were all full of ideas and they had a sense of humor that was quite unique. You’d be hanging out there and there would just be this spontaneous lurch into outrageousness. Someone would suggest you do something wild in front of the group. I just remember all the laughter, honestly. We goofed around and had such a ball with Andy.

Playing On Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter (1971)

A song like “Fly” plays my heart strings like a fiddle. You played the harpsichord on that, right? An instrument that requires plucking and a lot of physical labor. Why did its sound fit Nick so well?

CALE: The reason I played the harpsichord was because there wasn’t much else I could do that would conjure up similar images to what Nick was doing with his guitar. Maybe guitar power isn’t what you first notice about Nick’s playing, but there’s a very gentle honest sound to it. It’s like receiving a hug. I think that the quality of what he did was very rare.

It’s interesting because I think for so many listeners, Nick’s music serves as this kind of guiding light, but I think as a person he struggled to find his own guiding light. Did he feel like he was a bit lost mentally?

CALE: A little bit, yeah. I mean what you got from Nick Drake and his music was this kind of intense sincerity.

That’s a perfect way of putting it. Nick said on “Northern Sky,” which I know you worked on too, “I felt sweet breezes at the top of a tree.” Like a lot of this music, it’s about being refreshed by mother nature, isn’t it? It should all feel like a fresh breeze.

CALE: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Making Solo Masterpiece Paris 1919 (1973)

I believe Paris 1919 is your greatest solo project. On a song like “Half Past France” I can see how Nick’s melancholy inspired your vocals a little. Would that be accurate?

CALE: That’s true. But I don’t think I ever got close to his way of approaching that kind of gloomy atmosphere he achieved in his songs. I mean, I tried my best, but I don’t think I got remotely close.

I think you’re being too harsh on yourself. “Half Past France” reflects all your travels, especially the lines, “Floating in this bay, so far away.” You were this working class boy from Wales, suddenly playing at venues across the world. Was that intimidating? Did being in America so much make you miss Europe?

CALE: I guess with the whole of Paris 1919 as an album I was writing about how much I missed Europe. It was a Welshman singing the blues. LA was a good nurturing point, but my heart was in Europe. You spend all your life trying to escape and then you suddenly long for it!

On the album’s title track you have this really beautiful line about someone making you feel unsure of yourself. It nails that love at first sight feeling, where two people’s eyes lock and there’s instant sparks. Was that about any woman in particular?

CALE: I think there are several of them to be honest.

Producing For Nico Across The 1970s

Marble Index and Desertshore by Nico are two of my favorite albums ever, especially your surreal production on them both. What was her presence like? I always sensed Nico felt like an old soul, who had somehow lived six lives already.

CALE: Pretty much exactly what you said! Nico became a musician by default. She was persuaded by Jim Morrison to try whatever she wanted to do in music, and suddenly you’d see her every day with a piece of paper writing down lyrics. It was an obsession! What I liked about Nico is she didn’t mind working out songs around my viola or Lou’s guitar pick, and she could be versatile. Ultimately, I think she had her own vision of what life was supposed to be and didn’t see it reflected in other people’s ideas. Working with Nico was certainly a strange experience.

Frozen Warnings” sounds like it is being played deep out of an ancient cave. It’s a strange song that definitely evokes Winter and its sheer cruelty. What did the “cloudy borderline” Nico sings about represent to you? I sense it’s the space you guys most enjoyed operating in.

CALE: That’s part of the scene for sure! Finding that weird space, yeah. You know, you’ve got a German national who really is learning another language and there’s a joy to that and her learning English in real time, right? It gives everything an honesty.

On “Afraid”, which has the most heart rendering piano I’ve ever heard, she sings this poignant line: “You are beautiful and you are alone”. Do you think Nico had an obsession with destroying her own beauty? I imagine in that sexist era, it was a cruel weight to carry, as it meant people saw her looks before they acknowledged her genius. I bet that exhausted her.

CALE: She had no patience for it! As long as she got some recognition for what she was doing musically and playing on her harmonium, she was good. And when she didn’t get it, she would find it somewhere, no matter how remote. She would find people that would, you know, understand it properly! She’d always be living in a different postal area than everybody else. You couldn’t find her.

Does it surprise you that those projects you did with Nico are being embraced as masterpieces by today’s youth, when in their era they were written off critically and barely ever in print?

CALE: That’s something that happened, certainly. I mean, I think it’s happened with a lot of music! As the music ages and matures, you really have a different understanding of where an artist like Nico was coming from.

Working With Brian Eno On Wrong Way Up (1990)

Your 1982 album Music For A New Society feels like everything is in slow motion musically. But then by 1990, on you and Brian Eno’s Wrong Way Up project, you sound re-energised and revived. That music had so much optimism. “Been there done that/ Don’t want to go back” – it’s like you had fully accepted the past was the past. That’s an album about letting go of the bad times.

CALE: The music with Brian felt like several big smiles. We would create day after day and there was an element of surprise to the process that was really welcomed. We managed to accomplish a lot of variety; there was disco, shoegaze, and funk sounds on there. We sort of tripped over our own shoelaces trying to finish it.

The track “Spinning Away” has a tropical feel to it. I feel like my mind is wandering on a beach in the Caribbean. Were you in paradise recording it?

CALE: Not even. We were in rainy Essex. But we smoked a lot of pot and that made me and Brian feel like we were somewhere sunny, sure.

There’s this lyric about being “high above in the violet sky.” Is that where you were in the 1990s – finally enjoying your life after setbacks?

CALE: That kind of poetry is really valuable. You know, Brian was very easy to work with. He knew the power of taking the piss out of yourself a bit; humor can go a long way.

Mercy (2023) & POPtical Illusion (2024)

I wanted to talk about 2023’s Mercy album and “Story Of Blood” with Weyes Blood. The crashing drums there are properly hip hop to me. Lou liked Yeezus, so are you into rap as well?

CALE: It’s always something that I’ve responded to and really paid attention to. I believe you need to have as much variety as you can in your instrumentation and if you can reference rap with sincerity, then I think you’re in a good place.

I think that experimentation definitely carries through to POPtical Illusion, which seems to be clearly inspired by rap and funk. On “How We See The Light” you have this line where you say, “Sometimes you learn a thing or two.” At 82 is that the key to staying frosty, musically? I sense that the second you stop seeking out new sounds, that’s like death.

CALE: Yeah, but I mean that’s always been the case! That never changed.

“Shark-Shark” is an incredible track and I could feel the grungy spirit of Sterling Morrison kind of coming into the booth. How did the music come together?

CALE: I get bored very easily, so I am always trying to shift a song into a new direction. I never really have a finished product. I’m just scrambling around trying to get either a new piece of poetry or a new piece of nastiness. I guess you could say I’ve been chasing ghosts for a while and hopefully some of them then pop up in the songs. You then take their energy and build a song around it. This philosophy has been around me for a while!

I know you’ve had an up and down relationship with God over the years. But at 82, have you got closer to the idea of a higher power? Has the concept of God shifted in your mind?

CALE: It’s a bad time for this question. Let’s face it: the world is shit right now and I don’t know whose god or whatever has put this on order, but I’d like to send it back [to the kitchen]! I suppose there are times where it’s sensible to believe in a force or good vs evil, but the lines are grossly blurred, and the wolf is at the world’s door.

Do you ever see yourself slowing down? Or will the music keep coming?

CALE: I mean, all of a sudden, at the beginning of last year, things started happening and I was writing a lot of material. It turned out that I’d really created myself a library of music, which I then had to pay serious attention to. I still haven’t finished them all, so I’m going to keep moving.

POPtical Illusion is out now on Domino.

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