Classically trained violist John Cale made the jump to pop music when he joined Lou Reed's short-lived band The Primitives in New York City, to help promote Reed's novelty song "The Ostrich." After The Primitives dissolved, Reed and Cale joined guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Moe Tucker to form The Velvet Underground, which started as an adjunct to Andy Warhol's art experiences and became the most influential alternative rock act of all time. Dumped after the group's second album–Reed and Cale have since reconciled and disowned each other countless times–Cale began an eclectic career as a producer, an A&R label representative, and a performer with more than a dozen solo records under his belt. In the last role, Cale has veered from catchy, pretty pop to avant-garde noise, depending on his mood and his interests at any given time. In conjunction with the release of his rhythm-minded new album HoboSapiens (now being distributed in America after a successful run in the U.K. last year), Cale spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about his past, his eclecticism, and his drive to keep working.
The Onion: When you first arrived in New York, you were involved closely with the avant-garde music scene. What drew you to people like John Cage?
John Cale: Well, John was great. He was an inspiration. He was more mischievous than anything else. He didn't approach classical music from a serious point of view at all. There was a lot of giggling and a lot of silliness. I was from this really repressed Welsh village, where I'd lived under the gun of religion and language. You try and become a composer in Europe in the '50s and '60s, and more than anything, you have to prove your social value. Whatever you're going to write, you've got to prove it's redeeming. There's a huge hangover from the war, when people submitted their services to dictators and fascists and all that. It's just a huge headache. Then along come Cage's Zen koans, and it just took a huge weight off my shoulders. Yeah. There's life after music.
O: Does your upbringing also explain your affinity for Dylan Thomas?
JC: Dylan Thomas is more of a challenge. About 15 years ago, I really wanted to find out what it was that got me going in music in the first place, so I went back to Dylan Thomas to try and write a song cycle [Words For The Dying]. It was something I was a little intimidated by, because the poems themselves have a lot of noise in them. But then "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" happens, and after that, it's fine. I think there's a lot more fun in Dylan Thomas than how people portray him. The way they taught him at schools in Wales was a little suspicious: They teach him in the Welsh language, which is extremely rigid and organized. They try to explain the Dylan Thomas poem in terms of that Welsh tradition. I don't think it works. It's a little spurious.
O: You made a shift in the '70s from prettier records like Vintage Violence and Paris 1919 to ones that were more ragged and noisy. What prompted that change?
JC: Going out and starting a band in New York. You can do albums like Paris 1919, and that's fine, but you don't just put them out there and not support them. My period working in A&R at Warner Bros. was a learning experience, about corporate activity and how to survive. But the real issue for me was, "What do I do about this performance business?" When I came to America, I was really interested in improvisation. That was kind of the basis of Lou's and my relationship, he with words and me with music. And La Monte Young, and The Dream Syndicate, and all of that. So I couldn't spend the rest of my life in an office and not go out and perform. But what do you do? You've just left The Velvet Underground, you've been at Warner Bros., should you go out and put together a band? Yes. And basically, I'd try and do the same concepts I used in the VU. Always have a song on stage where you improvise, so you have one cacophonous ending for a show. Always put a song on the album that's improvised. And when you go out on the road, you realize that that's how you keep people's interest in what you're doing, making things up onstage. Everybody pays attention.
O: You did have a reputation for being a wild man, onstage and off, in the '70s.
JC: Yeah, yeah. I was living the dream. When you come out of the box with your first band since The Velvet Underground, you have to do something that's kind of rabid. I knew people would be watching and comparing. For me, it was a fun time. We used to dismantle clubs when we went there. Make every show different. I'd get in the club and I'd turn all the lights out when we went on stage. Walk out in the dark, sit down and do "Close Watch" in the dark, and then go straight into "Gun" and hit them with that while the lights come up. Whatever you could do to make it interesting.
O: Did you ever feel silly?
JC: It didn't matter. I didn't mind being silly. Pulling stunts in the band was so much fun. There was a bouncer in one club who had flaming red hair and a flaming red beard, and I pulled him aside and said, "In 'Heartbreak,' I want you to take this stepladder and bring it onstage, but don't tell anybody in the band." He brought the stepladder out, and no one knew what the hell was going on. We're in the middle of "Heartbreak" and I'm doing an imitation of a sloth, hanging upside-down on the rungs of the ladder, singing. The band was falling around on the floor. It was so much fun. They got their revenge, though. We all went offstage, and when I came back to do something soft, two of them marched across the stage with the ladder. So you can't do the same thing every night.
O: A lot of the influential rock critics of that era seemed to have a problem with art encroaching into rock or pop in any way. Why do you think that is?
JC: I think it's a problem with the word itself. If you took the word out, you wouldn't have a problem. It's still rock 'n' roll. I always had a problem with it, because I thought it was a bad use of the word "art." But genres are more a problem for the Grammy committee than anybody else.
O: You've done a lot of collaboration in your career.
JC: Yeah, I like it. I always learn something. Especially when you throw people in the deep end when they've never done anything like that before. They surprise themselves often, and that's always a pleasure to see. It gives them resource. Backbone.
O: Is that part of what you try to do as a producer, to put artists a little off balance?
JC: It was. You know, if you have that kind of modus, you've got to be careful. I certainly don't think that's the only way of doing it.
O: Did you have any sense when you were producing The Stooges or Modern Lovers or Patti Smith that the albums you were making were going to be as timeless as they've been?
JC: No, I just trusted in what Jac Holzman had said. I told him, "It's fine to arrange songs for Nico, but that's a European experience, and I really want to be a record producer, because I think I've got the requirements." He said, "Yeah, but you've got to find the right band." And he found the right band for me. The Stooges were very simple. Just straight ahead, like the VU. Everyone was concerned about how to get what they do live on record. It's totally impossible. A record is a record. You can't see the visuals, and you're never going to be able to imply the visuals. You can't do anything.
O: Did the band members tell you what they were expecting from you?
JC: No. When I first met them, the icebox was full of like 50 cans of beer. They didn't eat. They drank. And late at night, Iggy [Pop] said he liked to sit around with a pedal steel guitar, and I told him I wanted to hear it. He'd tuned the pedal steel guitar to one note, which immediately reminded me of "The Ostrich." I thought, "Well, that's something to work on. Where do we put that into the set?" That mindset I totally approved of.
O: What about Modern Lovers, with the obvious debt to The Velvet Underground? Was Jonathan Richman looking for you to replicate that sound?
JC: Jonathan had been following the VU for years from Boston, but I had totally lost contact with him. He wasn't in my mind at all. Then I had this tape that had come in, and I listened to it, and it was "Hospital." I thought there was something intriguing about this. It started off with this really weak-kneed persona, but by the end of the song, it completely converted you to a different point of view. So this guy came in and, yeah, I heard "Jonathan, Jonathan, Jonathan," but it didn't register that this was the same kid who used to come into the dressing room and shower Lou with poems. Then it started making sense.
O: HoboSapiens is more dominated by electronics than anything you've done before. Why is that?
JC: I always try to do the grooves first, the vocals second, and then the live instrumentation afterwards. In the end, taking it to Nick Franglen to help mix it was important, because I'd really gotten tired of the grooves I had on there, the loops. Nick came in with this large chest of vinyl records that he pulled samples from. For "Zen," for instance, he created that drum loop which introduces the song. As we went through the songs, he really propped them up and gave them new life. We dropped what I'd brought from New York and started building new rhythm tracks.
O: Do you ever find that new technologies give you so many options that it's hard to focus?
JC: No. I really just go by my level of impatience. If I'm tired of something, I move on to something else.
O: Early in your career, you made some really lo-fi records.
JC: You're not kidding. I just saw a photograph the other day of the opening of Paraphernalia, a nice big photograph I signed for somebody in Belgium. I was looking at it and trying to figure out where the PA came from. I double-checked, and there were three amps, and there was Sterling, Lou, and myself. I remembered that the viola and the guitar went through the same amp, and sure enough, the microphone was going through one of the guitar amps. So it really must've sounded like shit.
O: Some would argue, though, that those kinds of limitations make you more creative.
JC: It's great to be creative, as long as you can afford to buy new speakers every two weeks.
O: You've made bright, poppy, accessible records and you've made difficult, noisy records. Do you see any advantage to accessibility versus making things tough?
JC: It's too early to tell for Hobo. The thing about that record is that it has some kind of hypnotic appeal. It really has a lot of yearning in it, and not just in "Look Horizon." The songs we dropped were songs that have what "Look" has in spades, but run off into a cinematic event in the middle of the song. It was a bad habit I got into, letting the songs venture off into beautiful countryside. We didn't put those on there.
There's a lot of serendipity on the record. There are two quotes on the album from Alain Robbe-Grillet, the novel Repetition. He hadn't written anything in 20 years, and then bang, this novel comes out. And in the first four pages, there are these stunning, riveting descriptions that took me back to what it was like being in New York when I first arrived there, the isolation and sense of desertion that you feel. Especially his quote about being in a railway carriage, where everybody's huddled carrying their luggage, and you walk in and people look at you and they listen to you speak, and their attitude toward you just increases your feeling of isolation, because they recognize that you're foreign.
O: How much thought have you given throughout your career to making your songs more or less "pop"?
JC: Well, only because you can move so fast with the new system that you can make mistakes quicker. You can change your mind quicker. If you want a Bangladeshi rhythm section, you can have it there. And if it doesn't work, you can find something else. What used to happen is, I'd teach a band to play songs, and then I'd rearrange them. That took days. This takes minutes.
Something weird happened with this score I was doing. I finished the score, I handed it in, and the director said, "We need a song for the end titles." I wasn't prepared for it, but I thought, "All right, here's a chance to see how long it actually takes. I'll do a time-and-motion study. So if Spielberg comes to me someday and says 'Here's a section of a film, I need a song about this, can you do it?,' I'll know." I took this little film and pulled a cue out of it and restructured the cue so it fit some phrases, and then I wrote this song called "Wilderness Approaching." That turned into a three-day event. Three hours a day. Very simple song. I put the keyboards down, I put the voice down, and then I put on the backup vocals. I learned something from that. I realized that this would be a five-day event if I wanted to put an orchestra or whatever else on there. Once I realized I could move that fast, it really gave me a kick in the pants. After that, I organized my days around going to the gym, basically. I worked from 10 to 2, every day. And I got a lot of work done in a short period of time.
O: Did your relationship with Andy Warhol affect the way you go about your daily working routine? Do you try to treat art as a job, Factory-style?
JC: Well, you're pretty much limited by the days that you have in the studio. But it doesn't ever stop. I'll be puttering around and something will happen. Work is more fun than fun.