Music : Interview

John Cale discusses tour drama with with Eno and Ayers, hip-hop comedy, and what it takes to cover Nico.


John Cale by Shawn Brackbill.

At John Cale’s performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week - the legendary Welsh musician and producer (most known for his stint in the Velvet Underground) - I was struck by how casual the man seemed performing a lifetime of material. He walked out on stage, blew through his 1970 orchestral-rock classic Paris 1919 with precision, and then returned to the stage to play a set of challenging and obscure (even for Cale) material. It was clear that for Cale, this second half of the show was the focus: “Hedda Gabbler,” “December Rains,” and several other songs from his most recent album, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, proved to be the centerpieces for the night, as the sprawling (and often challenging) orchestral pieces filled the Gilman Opera House. The most audible reaction of the night was very obviously reserved for “Venus in Furs,” with loud cheers greeting the lone appearance of Velvet Underground material. I recently spoke to Cale about the concept for this show, his bizarre one-off 1974 tour with Nico, Brian Eno, and Kevin Ayers, and There’s Something About Mary.

Gary Canino With previous Paris 1919 shows that you’ve done, the second half of the show has been devoted to Vintage Violence. However, the second half of the show I saw at BAM last week was half Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood material, and half Sabotage-era material. What was your concept for the show?

John Cale Over the years I’ve been trying to add new songs every time we do it, to really take advantage of the fact that we have an orchestra. If we could only have an orchestra every time we want… so we did three or four new tunes the other night. This time we owed the new record some support, so I added some orchestral versions.

Also, the songs in the second half were just part of that group of orchestral songs that have developed over the years, you add one in London, you add one in Paris, and by the time you’ve added all these songs, you then have a nice backdrop for the second half of these Paris 1919 concerts. But it’s really just about which songs benefit from having orchestral arrangements, not a certain time period focus. “Riverbank” and “Hedda Gabler” in particular benefit from the arrangements.

p(q). GC I unfortunately missed your Nico tribute show last week. I wanted to ask if there’s a certain kind of performer or personality that’s necessary to sing a Nico song.

JC Well, there’s just another angle to it. Whoever wants to sing a Nico song has to approach it from the right point of view. There’s a lot of love for Nico on that stage, they all really appreciated her for being a songwriter, not because she was the gorgeous member of the Velvet Underground. It’s a different approach. When I first started working on the Nico tribute show, I had all these people wanting to do “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and all that, and I said no, this is about Nico’s songs and albums. And when they realized that was the case, the floodgates opened, and I had tons of young female artists, all of which adored Nico and wanted to participate for the right reasons. Some of them hadn’t done something like that before, and when they came on stage, they were sort of really pleased that they now had another string to their bow.

GC Is it unusual to play material from Desertshore and The Marble Index live? A lot of that material is very abstract.

JC It definitely is . . . I think Kim Gordon’s performance was the most abstract. There were some very funny reactions from the audience. Some of the benefactors of the institution were adjusting their hearing aids and asking if there was trouble with the sound and things like that…

Kim was doing something I haven’t seen since 1965 when the Velvets first started… singing into the amplifier! The guitars, bass, and vocals would go into the amplifier, so you can imagine how all that sounded.

GC The Paris 1919 show you played was interesting, some of the material was performed very faithfully, and others were very different…I was most surprised by the sitar intro to “Half Past France.”

JC It works for the song. The end of the song is very dreamy.

GC Is that Lowell George of Little Feat playing the intro guitar part on the album?

JC No actually, it wasn’t. It was somebody else, another guitar player, and that was the last I had seen of him in LA. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with him. Apparently he was this guy who hung out with the Manson Family, and his brain was just completely shot, but he did this session with us. He was a great guitar player, but after that he just disappeared into Oregon. It was kind of sad. He detuned his guitar for that one, we had to work on it for a bit.

GC I also noticed you played the album out of order, “Macbeth” was the last song you played, instead of “Antarctica Starts Here.”

JC Yeah, you need something with a little energy to end the piece. The album is only 35 minutes long!

GC Patti Smith had a quote recently where she claimed that “New York has closed itself off to the young and struggling… New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city.” Since you spent many formative musical years in NYC in the ‘60s, and also since you just performed here, I wanted to ask you if you agreed with her statement.

JC Well, she’s right in a certain away, but what Manhattan lost, Brooklyn has it back. Brooklyn’s now the center of artistic endeavor in New York, and that’s great. I guess she’s talking about the Lower East Side, which is gentrified, and isn’t really the wasp’s nest it used to be. But all that’s alive in Carroll Gardens and Brooklyn.

GC An unusual live record of yours I wanted to ask you about is June 1, 1974, which features yourself, Nico, Brian Eno, and Kevin Ayers playing each other’s material.

JC Well, you can imagine what it’s like to go on the road with it! Very strange. Everybody jumped in a bus and drove from London to Manchester. It was crazy.

GC Was that the only tour the four of you did?

JC Yeah. I don’t think anybody wanted to do it again! (_laughs_)

GC Why was that?

JC It was just all those personalities together! And some of the band was from a different world than where Nico and Kevin and I were coming from. There were some funny scenes on that bus. One of the guys in the band had never gotten laid before that tour, so right after we finished our London show, we got back on the bus, and everyone was watching him and giggling because his personality was changing from his sexual experience. He had just met God.

GC With the Velvet Underground and your solo albums, you had a very prolific output, with typically a record out once a year. Do you think it’s important for an artist to be consistently releasing music?

JC I’m not sure anymore. Those cycles were driven by the record companies, you know, a single, and then an album, and then a single, etc. And you don’t make an album without a hit single. So that was kind of broken when the Velvet Underground came around, because we never had a single. We pretended to have one, but we never did.

But with In A-Gadda-Da-Vida, suddenly the album market roared ahead and everybody was making albums. Singles weren’t so important anymore, albums were now important. So it was interesting how those things played into each other. The ASCAP BMI rates for recordings over five minutes were also very generous, because everyone wanted to reach that limit because you’d make more in publishing! But the rules of the megathon record company really changed with hip hop anyway.

GC Also, most hip hop LPs are lengthy, around the hour and a half mark.

JC Yeah, they’re interesting, because they came from a whole new perspective. It drove a lot of different things, I love the funny hip hop records. Not the misogyny, bitch-this, bitch-that, but…

GC Are you a fan of skits or sketches on hip hop albums?

JC No, I just go for hip hop characters with a sense of humor, not someone talking about putting a cap in somebody’s head. There’s this group called Not the 1’s, they have a single called “You Dress Like an Asshole,” and it’s right on the button.

GC Also, regarding being prolific, was it frustrating recording the Modern Lovers debut album? I know they recorded and recorded and just sat on those recordings for years.

JC Yes, it was very frustrating for everybody. Everybody believed in them. And every time you really wanted to do something, Jonathan [Richman] said no. Those early recordings were sort of the best, no navel gazing, just demos. So we recorded those, and that was it. Because when it came down to being serious and getting a little more concentrated, he didn’t want to do that. So it was frustrating for everybody.

GC His career has seemed to go the way he’s wanted it to since though, he’s still recording and on the road all the time these days…

JC It’s great. I thought they found a perfect spot for him in There’s Something About Mary. He’s perfect as a house band guy, making comments, that personality. He’s open to anything.

GC He’s also featured briefly as the house band guy in Kingpin.

JC Oh really? I’ll have to look that up.

*John Cale's latest album, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, is available from Double Six Records

Gary Canino lives in New York City, where he spends his nights playing lead guitar for the New Border music ensemble The Monte de Rosas Band.

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