John Cale

Interview by Luke Temple

Portraits by Bibi Borthwick 

“In the ’60s you had to play something from the Top 10

in order to get a gig at a cafe or a club,

JOHN CALEand we said fuck that.” — JOHN CALE

John Cale is a Welsh musician, singer-songwriter and composer best known as a founding member of The Velvet Underground in the 1960s. Cale’s extensive solo career includes seminal albums Paris 1919, Fear, Slow Dazzle, Helen of Troy and Music for a New Society. He has collaborated with artists including Siouxsie and the Banshees, Brian Eno and Patti Smith. Cale was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 with The Velvet Underground.

Born in Salem, MA, Luke Temple is founder of the New York-based band Here We Go Magic. Noted for his use of falsetto, Temple has released four solo albums and four with the band. During a hiatus, Temple and bandmate Michael Bloch recorded Be Small (2015), combining live sessions from the Here We Go Magic with Temple’s newer work.

John Cale’s dark and experimental 1982 solo album, Music for a New Society, is his best-received work and continues to have a cult following. M:FANS is Cale’s 2016 reissue of Music for a New Society, accompanied by an album reworking its original songs. The double album includes three unreleased bonus tracks and features the Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman.

First published in 1975 by musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies is a set of cards, each printed with an aphorism meant to encourage lateral thinking and help artists break past creative blocks.

After his 1951 Music of Changes, composer John Cage (1912-1992) began making music based in methods of chance. His “chance operations” used the I Ching, an ancient, classic Chinese text which uses a combination of numbers and symbols to dictate an outcome.

German-born musician Nico (1938-1988) is best known for her vocals on The Velvet Underground’s debut album. She became one of Warhol’s Superstars in the 1960s, and appeared in his film Chelsea Girls, as well as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Nico released six solo albums from 1967-85.

It is important to let life’s chaos seep into the creative process. Artists of all disciplines use different means to push themselves into unknown territory, from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to John Cage’s “chance operations.” We are, in a sense, opening the windows and letting in air without being in control of what smells may waft through or the strength of the wind. It forces us to adapt rather than fall back on habits. We are having a dialogue with our environment and with time.

John Cale is an excellent example of an artist who has made a career balancing order and chaos. From the distorted organ on Sun Blindness Music to his seminal work with The Velvet Underground and Nico, there is always the sense of working with an ever-shifting ground beneath him. As with all great artists, Cale is never static and always pushing. He has decided to rework and re-release his almost totally improvised 1982 LP Music for a New Society, which is a perfect case of the aforementioned process. It was my honor to be able to speak with him about this new album, M:FANS, as he took a break from the studio.

Luke Temple: So you’re in the studio. What are you recording?

John Cale: Some new stuff. I’ve got to get ready to release another album later next year. There’s a lot of stuff that’s been sort of abandoned, and now we’re going to see if we have enough ideas and which ones to polish up. You know, if you leave stuff lying around for a long time, you just lose interest in it. They all seem a little jaded by the time you go back if you give it eight months.

LT: I have entire records that are finished and I had every intention of putting out. Then I sit on it too long because I’m working on something else that seems to take precedence. When I go back, the moment’s gone. I can’t necessarily relate to what I did.

JC: If too much of that goes on, you just get really fed up. I just say, “Well, wait a minute. These don’t have the immediacy of what I did yesterday.” Really getting that immediacy is what’s important. If you’re doing something from a year ago, by the time the damn thing gets out it’s another year, and you’re like, “Who am I this time?”

“With The Velvet Underground I wanted
to be chasing after Bob Dylan and have Lou [Reed]
improvise lyrics every time we performed.”
— John Cale

LT: Are you familiar with the band Animal Collective? I don’t know if they still do this, but when they tour for a record they only play new material that’s going to be on the next record. So you never actually see the album that you came to see live.

JC: I think it’s high time that was thrown out, that concept that you have to do what’s on the record. Because you really do new stuff anyway to keep your sanity. You don’t do the same thing every night, do you? You want to switch it up.

LT: I tend to record somewhat formally and with a tight structure. I’m not a master improviser, so when I play live I sometimes feel trapped in my song.

JC: You are [trapped]! No getting away from it. But that’s the thing about improvising—one of the intentions of The Velvet Underground was that I wanted to be chasing after Bob Dylan and have Lou [Reed] improvise lyrics every time we performed. You know, first of all, in the ’60s you had to play something from the Top 10 in order to get a gig at a cafe or a club, and we said fuck that.

I keep my sanity, too, by changing the persona of the guy who’s singing the song. It’s a bit of method acting where this time the guy’s singing Paris 1919, but he’s really sarcastic about it, and maybe you jerk the arrangement around in a different way. We did that in Belgium, and everybody was on edge because they didn’t know quite how it was going to work. But it was certainly exhilarating because you didn’t know.

Guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for The Velvet Underground from 1964-1970, Lou Reed began an expansive solo career after separating from the band. With seminal albums Transformer (1972) and Berlin (1973), Reed gained a large cult following. Reed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, a year after his death.

An experimental psychedelic band from Baltimore, MD, Animal Collective was formed in 2000 by Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Deakin, Geologist and John Maus. The band has released 10 albums, including the acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009).

LT: Speaking of improvisation, you’re re-releasing Music for a New Society.

JC: Re-releasing it in its original form with new masters of some of those performances from the day. And then there’s another album which is a totally revamped version of Music for a New Society.

LT: In composing that record was there a lot of improvisation going on?

JC: It was entirely done that way. First of all, it was meant to be a solo album, so I couldn’t really bring anyone else into play. I became a one-man band. I was trying to exorcise a lot of devils in my head about the situation I was in at the time. I was not in a good place. So I improvised my way through the album. It didn’t count except when the tapes were rolling.

So whatever the personality of a character in the song at the time, I was trying to get out of the situation I was in. It really represents a tortured vigil of someone who’s trying to struggle their way out. And in the end, it just happened naturally. It was what it was. I thought it was honest. I thought it was straightforward. But on the new album, I really wanted to give it some backbone. The way to deal with these songs is to play them the way you want them to be now, not the way they were then.

There were some festivals in Europe that came to me and said, “Hey, we’d like you to come and play Fear exactly as it is on record.” And then they say, “We did Paris 1919 as it was on the record. Now would you do Music for a New Society?” So we did that in Aarhus, [Denmark,] with a string quartet. There was only one way of stopping all the people from asking, “Why don’t you do stuff from Music For a New Society?” I figured the best way to deal with it was to do some live performances of the album as such, then to use that for putting a new version together.

“I keep my sanity by changing
the persona of the guy who’s singing the song.
It’s a bit of method acting.”

LT: It’s a heavy record, man.

JC: Tell me about it. It wasn’t easy.

LT: Some songs sound more composed than others. Like “Close Watch.” Or was that song just improvised in the studio?

JC: Yes, most all of them were. When everything came out, I was trying to figure out how my subconscious would prepare. Sometimes they were fine—“Broken Bird,” “Taking Your Life in Your Hands” and “If You Were Still Around” were really kind of pretty songs. But with the new version there was a lot more spine to them.

I was trying to get the same mood about things, only stronger. It’s really about me now. I found that the songs could stand up because they have enough mystery about them. And mystery is good to have in your back pocket.

British new wave group Talk Talk formed in the early 1980s and released five albums before breaking up in 1991. The band’s popular releases include It’s My Life (1984) and The Party’s Over (1982).

LT: The process I’m working with now is trying to improvise sections, then sort of edit them together. Are you familiar with those Talk Talk records Laughing Stock and Spirit of Eden? They were ostensibly a pop band, but their last two records were heavily edited from long improvisational sessions.

JC: So you’ve not gone out on stage and improvised a song?

LT: I have, actually. I had a residency in New York at a small club called Union Pool. I curated different musician friends to play 45-minute sets. Everything had to be purely improvisational. They could do whatever they wanted within the parameter set up for them. At the end of the night, everyone who played would get on stage and go crazy.

JC: That’s great. Jazz people do this all the time. Songwriters are hampered because they have words to deal with, but what you just described sounds to me like a really healthy adventure to go on.

LT: It’s really important. My band and I write songs with sections that allow improvisation. It always has to be textural—never about playing the solo or just ripping through your chops. When it works, it’s amazing. When it doesn’t, it can be really difficult.

JC: You still learn from that. The awkwardness is valuable. The idea of making mistakes changes all the time. Mistakes are the seeds of ideas.

LT: It’s hard to see the forest through the trees when you’re in the midst of that process. To not want to control things.

JC: As long as you keep the faith, you’ll get it. You’ve certainly spotted that. And you know there’s another way—if you do the arrangements on the certain set of changes and you take the changes out, you’re left with references. With Nico, for instance, we’d do the arrangements around everything she did, which was sit and sing the song. It wouldn’t change very much from one take to the next, so I’d build up this arrangement around her voice—of violas, different instruments—then take out the anchor for the whole thing, which was the harmonium. So you would have her voice suspended in this environment. Your arrangement becomes a reference to an implied center that is invisible.

There are a lot of ways of doing it, but by the end of the sessions (we had 10 days to do M:FANS), it was exhausting. You know what you’re faced with going in, but you have to knuckle through. No matter how grotesque the emotion is, it’s really yours. And your idea of mistakes is going to get re-revised.

“The way to deal with these songs is to
play them the way you want them to be now,
not the way they were then. ”

Arthur Russell was a musician popular among the underground avant-garde and disco scenes in the 1970s and ’80s. Though Russell was highly prolific, the only record he fully completed was World of Echo (1986). He remained in obscurity until after death.

LT: In writing music, there’s always the attempt to allow for pure improvisation but still remain narrative to some degree. A lot of Arthur Russell’s music has that. Lou Reed, also. Even though his were very simple pop songs, there’s a wild card element surrounding the music a lot of times. He set up a situation where people would assume the live version is going to be different every time.

JC: Have you checked out the André 3000 record with Erykah Badu? It’s kind of unbelievable, like an urban version of [Nico’s] The Marble Index. It feels like it’s improvised but is very personal. The simplicity of it all and the chops that André has—they’re outstanding.

LT: Is he playing most of the instruments on it?

JC: Everything. It’s kind of ridiculous. How did these ideas come about? How do they develop and how are these things gonna work on stage? You never think about that. Because this thing is an environment in and of itself—you’re watching all these planets whizzing by you. It’s fabulous.

LT: I suppose the best way to treat the live show is not even worry about creating the same environment.

JC: If you create a different environment every night, people will love you for it. It’s special because they’re hearing something that nobody
else has.

LT: So you’re at the beginning of working on another new record now?

JC: M:FANS comes out January 22nd, and I’m on the road until somewhere in the middle of May or June. I have to figure out which songs are going to be on the next new album and get them finished as soon as possible so they feel at least a little fresh to me. You want to feel like you’re doing something of the now.

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