Cale answers your queries on Lou Reed, his favourite music and making Nico cry

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As the Welsh wizard continues to restlessly reinvent himself, he pauses for thought on the subject of instrument abuse, working with Lou Reed and Nico, and hanging out with David Bowie. Interview: Tom Pinnock. Originally published in Uncut’s February 2016 issue (Take 224).

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“I’m sorry, I just saw a bobcat walking past my window,” says John Cale, halting mid-speech. “I’m really glad I’m not outside. Are they ferocious? Well, you certainly don’t want to corner them…”

The same could perhaps be said of Cale – for the last half-century, one of Wales’ greatest musicians has doggedly refused to be tied down or labelled, whether he’s producing The Stooges, Patti Smith or the Happy Mondays, collaborating with Brian Eno and Nico or making his own wildly eclectic, and sometimes difficult, music.

Always keen to move forward, today Cale is most interested in discussing his new release, M:FANS, a futuristic reworking of his dark, claustrophobic 1982 album, Music For A New Society. However, he’s happy to field queries on, among other topics, working with David Bowie, buying boxes of tangerines, the end of The Velvet Underground, viola torture and the brand new music he’s recording now.

“I’m looking forward to getting my other new songs out,” he tells us on the line from California. “I have a studio at home, so all I do is go in the studio every day and write songs. Then there are these new scales that I’ve been using live, they do this weird thing to the songs. It’s like they make the arrangements really fizzy, like there’s a built-in Doppler effect…”

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Is it true that most of Music For A New Society was written on the spot, just before recording?
Euros Childs
Uh, yeah, barely. It was meant to be a solo album, so I was meant to have a pile of instruments around me and have the songs come from whatever instrument I was picking up at the time. So you sit down at the piano and you see what happens. But then, it sort of spread out and, of course, there’s Allen Lanier [on “Changes Made”]… Most of the others were really meant to be stream of consciousness, improvised songs. You start with an idea and you develop it, but it had to be in real time, you had to develop it there and then. I was in the studio for 10 days – I put myself under that pressure. I wasn’t in a very good place at the time and it was all about changes, about changing me, changing the people around me. Some of them I wished would go away, and I wanted to go away; I didn’t want to be in that circumstance, so it all comes out in the mix. M:FANS is really what I wanted the original to be.

Is there any chance of Caribbean Sunset being reissued?
Adam Godwin, via email
That’s really not on my mind at the moment. I’m working with Domino to try and put several other reissue ideas on the table, but we’re not there yet. There’s a reason I wanted to revisit Music For A New Society, because it contained a lot of tension and a lot of – what do you call it? – mental grinding.

Out of all the instruments you play, do you have a favourite?
Anthony Rowland, Staffordshire
No, I don’t. I play a lot of them, and I usually torture them once I play them. It’s really about altering the sound of whatever I’m playing at the time, and so one instrument becomes several others in the course of the day. It’s more about sounds, and how you get different ones from different instruments. You don’t just put the guitar in the amp and play it; you put it through several other things first and play it, and then when it comes out the other end you do some more to it. Is the viola suited to experimental music? No, it’s just the use of the drones; it gives you a sense of space. But if you want to play three-string drones on the viola, you gotta modify the bridge, but you can’t do very much with it after that. But it’s a great noise.

You’ve played the Bataclan in Paris a few times. Were you personally touched by the recent attacks?
Jerry Fontes, New Jersey

Yes, it’s just horrific… I’ve been aware of a lot of people that dislike music as a cultural force – not just a mild dislike, either – but people who have no place for it in their lives, and I feel sorry for them.

Would you be interested in working with David Bowie? I understand you had a jamming session in New York in the ’80s…
Alex Heslop, via email
Bowie picked me up to go to the Mudd Club and I was in the studio, and we started working, throwing things around. But anyway, the answer’s yes. I’ve worked a lot with Brian Eno, and Eno and I, it’s a dynamic that works. We’re very different, but he’s breaking equipment just like I do.

Do you still like watching Channel 4 News? And are you still eating your oranges?
Shaun Ryder, Happy Mondays
Yes! Channel 4 News at 7pm with Jon Snow was always a favourite. I mean, there’s a lot of other things nowadays, it’s not exclusively Channel 4. I’m surprised he remembered that [laughs]. As for the oranges, I live in California so the urgency is not so great any more. And they were tangerines, actually. I used to go out in Liverpool when I was recording the Mondays [Cale produced their 1987 debut, Squirrel And G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)] and buy them like everybody else. I bought a box of them. At that time, I’d stopped doing all the bad things I was doing and I was really focused on making my body a lot healthier, playing squash and all that. There were a few moments during the recording where the Mondays were shaky, but it was fun – it was the characters that made up the band that really made it fun.

What do you remember of recording Nico’s The Marble Index?
Audrey West, via email
It was all done in five days. When [Elektra’s] Jac Holzman heard it and said, “I really like your record,” I couldn’t believe it. To have a record company president say that he liked The Marble Index… But Jac was that kind of guy. We were doing some interesting stuff – on “Evening Of Light”, I was playing an eight-string bass, a Hagstrom. I thought of it as a tuba part, and played it as one. It was mostly instinct. Nico was confused, and put out by the fact she didn’t quite understand what was going on when we were recording. Which is understandable. But at the end, she was crying, and everybody went, “Oh no, what’s wrong now?” And she said, “It’s so beautiful.”


Did you have any idea that when the Velvets dressed in black and wore shades you’d be setting a sartorial benchmark for bands right up to today?
Nat Pryce, Devon
No, it’s kind of Welsh methodist empirical. There was a little bit of a Beat influence too, yeah. Young bands? Yeah, I know that look got taken over by the art world; the art world did that with a vengeance.

June 1, 1974, by you, Eno, Nico and Kevin Ayers, is a great live album – what do you remember of the day itself?
James, Brighton
I was kind of a frontman for the band, something I hadn’t done very much of. I did “Heartbreak Hotel” for the first time with that heavy metal arrangement, and I was really very happy with what happened. The tour was a way to kill many birds with one stone. All the lesser-selling artists put together in one place.

How do you feel today about The Velvet Underground reunion of ’93?
Harrie, The Netherlands
We wasted a lot of great opportunities. The potential was there to do a lot of great things, but Lou just wanted to regurgitate his catalogue. We could have done a lot of different things, and everybody was there, waiting for it to happen… But that’s it. I mean, everybody got to understand what Moe and Sterling were about, so that’s a positive thing.

Who are you listening to at the moment?
James Innes, via email
Eminem and Dre, and Earl Sweatshirt. And some guys from Chicago called Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment. Kendrick Lamar too. He’s very good, very solid. I still listen to Snoop Dogg… there’s so much good humour in Snoop, you’ve got to love him. I think a lot of experimental music is going on in rock’n’roll today, and in hip-hop.

Hullo, dearest John. The Academy was in peril – is it still? And what else do you consider to be ‘perilous’ in this crazy world of ours?
“Legs” Larry Smith
No, we saved it, Legs, we saved it! We were at the Manor [recording The Academy In Peril, released in 1972] and Legs was living nearby with his parents. So he came by and I asked him to do a vocal over one of the tracks that I had, and he was perfect. I said to him, “Now, you’re the director of a TV channel, this is what you would say to the floor,” and off he went. It just seemed to fit his ability to improvise tongue-in-cheek narratives, and I wanted to get some of it. It was one part of the Bonzo Dog Band that I’d missed.


What do you remember of producing The Stooges’ first album?
Drew Cole, via email
It was a very small studio, very tight in there, and I was really concerned about getting separation on anything, but really that’s not what the band was about. The live show was very appealing, you know. Iggy would threaten the audience one minute, then he’d be affectionate to them the next. I was worrying about how to bring the energy of the live performance into the studio. Because, in the studio, it’s really how much do you put out in the studio, and they put out. “We Will Fall” was constructed in the studio, but it worked. They were so good – Iggy was great at improvising, so I wasn’t worried about it. Do I work bands hard? Not really. I let them work me hard. They’re in charge most of the time.

Is it true that before you left the Velvets you wanted to record the third album with all the amps underwater?
John Allan, London
No, I don’t remember that. I think that story came from when you try and play cymbals and dip them in water – that probably came up at some point from Moe [Tucker]. We spent a year playing the first album – every week we’d get together on the weekend and just play and play and play until we got the new arrangements. But when it came to White Light/White Heat we were barely able to be in the same room for more than five minutes. White Light was recorded quickly – it had to be. Lou was getting more satisfaction from writing pretty songs and he wanted to go in that direction, and he had an ally in Steve Sesnick, who was the manager, who went to Moe and Sterling and said, “Look, this is Lou’s band. You are the backing band. That’s the way it’s going to be.” So it was only a matter of time before word got round to me. Everybody knew the excitement of the first album wouldn’t last. Lou fired Andy Warhol, and didn’t tell anybody until about a week later! So, surprise, surprise, he brought in Sesnick, who wanted us to do shows in front of movies – The Visit with Anthony Quinn – and sell shirts. He knew somebody who was making frilly shirts, so he thought we could go and promote the shirts for him. No, none of us wore the shirts.

The December 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on Pink Floyd, plus a free CD compiled by Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner that includes tracks by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sleaford Mods, Yo La Tengo, Can. Elsewhere in the issue, there’s TheDamned, Julia Holter, Desert Trip, Midlake, C86, David Pajo, Nils Frahm and the New Classical, David Bowie, Tim Buckley, REM, Norah Jones, Morphine, The Pretenders and more plus 140 reviews

Uncut: the past, present and future of great music.

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