An interview with John Cale

A feature chat with the music legend, in town this week to play and speak as part of POP Montreal.

John Cale

The world is running low on rock icons, especially the leftfield innovators whose avant-garde, experimental tendencies have often — unfortunately and somewhat ironically — been accompanied by one of the biggest music clichés there is: addiction to hard drugs and alcohol, a condition that has shaved years off the lives of so many stellar musicians, sometimes even after long periods of clean living. But as the likes of Keith Richards have proven, some people just beat the odds.

And so we have Iggy Pop, still going strong, releasing records, playing shows, giving lectures and generally acting the elderstatesmen of punk that he is, coming to Montreal this month for a public interview and private teaching sessions as part of the Red Bull Music Academy.

But this week, another titan of proto-punk, proto-alternative music — less notorious than Pop for his personal drug use, despite its impact on his music in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but forever tied to drug culture via his work with the Velvet Underground — is coming to town to play a show with his three-piece band and to speak as part of the POP Montreal festival this week: John Cale, the Welsh avant-garde composer and viola player whose partnership with Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground was ground zero for glam rock, punk and more strands of alternative and indie rock music than you can fit on a coherent musical family tree. After Elvis and the Beatles, there is perhaps no more influential early rock band than the Velvet Underground — the careers of both Pop and David Bowie, artists whose influence is almost equally difficult to measure — would have gone down very differently without them.

But Cale left the Velvet Underground after only two albums, taking the drone and what drummer Maureen Tucker has called “the lunacy” out of the band, embarking on a career as a solo artist that’s been going strong for nearly five decades. (He’s also well known as a producer. Among Cale’s many production credits are two truly classic records: the self-titled debut by the Stooges and Patti Smith’s Horses.)

His diverse solo catalogue veers dramatically from the cutting edge art rock, contemporary classical and electronic material — his impressive mid-’70s trilogy of albums on Island Records, Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy, is reminiscent of the post-glam experiments that Brian Eno and David Bowie were producing around the same period — to the conventional, delving into classic pop, rock ‘n’ roll and U.K.-style folk music.

Cale’s latest record M:FANS is a reimagining of his 1982 album Music for a New Society, which, in its original form, is a grim, stark document of a period of personal turmoil and artistic confusion. The making of M:FANS took on a different shade of darkness mid-production, when Cale’s old friend and creative foil Lou Reed passed away, leaving a major mark on the record.

I was lucky enough to speak to Cale last week to talk about M:FANS, the circumstance of his split with the Velvet Underground in 1968 and the roots of his experimental streak.

Lorraine Carpenter: How did you start playing music in the first place?

John Cale: In the grammar school I went to they had a school orchestra, of course, and all the instruments were provided by the educational authority so I started out playing timpani with them. I wanted to get a violin or something more interesting because a timpani just sits around most of the time, but the only thing they had left in the school was a viola so I got that. I tried to be as expert at that as I could but the literature is very thin for the viola.

The work for itinerant musicians in South Wales in the 1950s was seasonal: you’d do Easter, you’d do harvest and you’d do Christmas — you’d play Handel at Christmas, oratorias basically. You’d get your five pounds here and your five pounds there, but at least I got out and started playing with small orchestras at small venues.

LC: When did you start playing unconventional, experimental music?

JC: I did it in grammar school, when I decided I wanted to be a composer. There was a piece I wrote that was a toccata in the style of Khachaturian, and what was fun about it was that I was playing all the black keys of the keyboard; you get that oriental feeling from doing all the modal scales.

I actually got in trouble at a broadcast: The BBC came by, ’cause they do local broadcasts from the school, and they said, “I hear you’re going to be a composer,” and I said, “Well I’ve got this one toccata,” and they said, “Can we see the score?” so I gave them the score. About three weeks later they came back to finish the broadcast and they asked me to play the piece for them and I said “Okay, could you give me the score back?” and they didn’t have it.

I had to improvise my way out of the piece ’cause I couldn’t remember part of it. I was on the edge and I had no idea what was going to happen but I put my mind to it — it was really exciting and scary as hell at the same time. It was one of those things where I should’ve learned the part but what resulted was really good. I mean I was aghast that finishing off a piece could be that simple. I thought “No, this is a fallacy, this can’t be — you can’t just finish off a piece off your top of your head.” But that’s what all composers ever did.

That was an eye-opener, and that got me really involved in improvising. Then I got onto jazz and I couldn’t figure out jazz to save my life — what the basis of the improvisation was. It took me a while but then when you got into improvisation and other people are doing the same thing, it’s that communal activity that really inspires.

LC: Were you listening to contemporary classical music and being influenced by that?

JC: All the time. It was a weird phenomenon: My village had a workmen’s library — the coal miner’s institute had provided books for the local community, so you could take out books and if they didn’t have the books, you could fill out a form and they would get them for you from a public library in London. I got into that big time; it was like Christmas every day. You could get musical scores so I got Anton Webern, Stockhausen, all the avant garde composers. I learned so much.

LC: When did you get into rock ‘n’ roll?

JC: Oh, right away. I was one of the guys up on the stage in front of the screen on the weekend dancing to “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley — I was up there. All the women that I would run into in church on Sunday would come up to me and say, “That was really hysterical, what were you doing up there?” I said, “Having a good time.”

It was part of being a teenager. Somebody recognizes that you’ve got taste and you’ve got energy and you’re having fun with music, not sitting at a desk playing a viola in an orchestra. The obvious thing became “How do put a viola into a rock ‘n’ roll band?” but that didn’t happen so I went chasing down the avant garde route and that got me to a meeting with (composer) Aaron Copeland, and that’s what got me to America.

[Cale studied with Copeland before co-founding the Velvet Underground in 1964. Sonn after arriving in the U.S., he also picked up experience playing with major avant-garde composers LaMonte Young and John Cage.]

John Cale young

LC: How did you end up leaving the Velvet Underground? Was it, as if often written, due to creative differences with Lou Reed?

JC: I mean there came a time when… there was always a discussion about differences between songs like “Sunday Morning” and “Heroin.” At one point we found ourselves without Andy (Warhol) as a manager. Lou had fired Andy without telling anybody, and the next plot he had was to hire some guy who really wanted to use us to sell frilly pop shirts — he wasn’t much of a manager. In his first meeting with us, he said, “Look, this is Lou’s band and all you guys are side men,” which is a big mistake. The four of us had really pushed hard to maintain what we were doing and not take any shit from anybody.

(We were often told) “You could get a job if you play one song from the Top 10,” and we refused to play anything from the Top 10 and we lost a lot of gigs like that. Luckily we got involved with Andy and the art world and it was a different story. But when this guy came along and did that, the arguments about whether it was going to be “Heroin” or “Sunday Morning”… Lou said, “I want to do more pretty songs,” but then it turned out it was going to be ALL pretty songs, and I said, “You’re going backwards. We’ve already established ourselves as doing something else and pretty records is not the way to deal with what we’ve established.” So that stopped that collaboration.

LC: I read that your reunion with Lou Reed for (1990 Andy Warhol memorial record) Songs for Drella didn’t go smoothly.

JC: That’s not true. It ended abruptly but when we have a task to do, we we’re together — we were on it. I had a conversation with Julian Schnabel at Andy’s memorial and he said we’ve got to do something for Andy, and I thought, “Okay, well how about a requiem?” So I went to [my] band and asked if they were interested and they said yes and what kind of orchestra do you need. But somewhere in the middle of that discussion, I ran into Lou somewhere and said, “You know what would be much smarter would be if you and I alone wrote a piece for Andy and people could be able to see how you and I are together as just simple musicians.” So we went ahead with that but of course the auxiliary stuff that crawls into the space that used to be creative just sort of ended that one. I think we performed it twice.

Doing things as a duet, it’s kind of an empty space compared to what we did before with the band. So it was a little lonely up there. It was raw and it was interesting from that POV and people did get to see us on stage — I’m not sure that’s what we wanted people to see but I’m glad we got it done.

LC: Did you have a friendship with him after that?

JC: I always thought that it was a friendship. I didn’t think it was a war or anything, but he had his career, I had mine. I had plenty of work to get on with, I just had a lot of questions about how to proceed. So I just got on with it. Every now and then we’d run into each other and it would be fine.

LC: I understand that his death had a real impact on your latest album.

JC: Yeah, it happened right in the middle of it. So it couldn’t help but have an influence.

LC: Why did you choose to revisit the album Music for a New Society?

JC: A lot of times when you’re out on the road, people come up and say, “Hey that album came out a long time ago, why don’t you put it out again? I’ve worn down my copy.” Then out of the blue came this suggestion from that we pick an album — it was either Fear or Music for a New Society — and do it in its entirety for an evening concert. I chose Music for a New Society. It was an opportunity to try out some new things and see how that would work because the original was very gritty and so we had a string quartet and backup singers and we did the concert and I realized that that was not the way to go. We really needed to put some more blood in the veins of it so we came back and started doing it in a different way.

The strands of the songs are still there. In the original version, there was this harrowing way that silence played into it. There was a lot of stuff that wasn’t said in the recording that was there in the mentality of the recording, that’s kind of where you find the gist of what the new version would be, and I went back to the tapes and found a new song that was there. So it all worked together in the end.

LC: What’s next for you?

JC: There are a couple of albums that I’m still trying to polish off, one that will come out at the end of this year and one next year. The second one will be all new songs — I’m finishing those now. I have to get my string players in my brass players in and add some dressing to the salad.

LC: There’s been a real decline in music programs in public schools in North America. Maybe it’s kind of a cliché that Wales is a really musical country, but is it still going strong in Wales?

JC: Well, totally — I mean they can’t escape it. I once did a version of a song with a gospel choir and when I hear a gospel choir it reminds me of all the choirs in Wales — they have the same power.

At harvest and Easter time at the church I went to, they would have a special preacher come in he would be someone who would get carried away in his preaching — here it’s called a soul and over there it’s called hoyl, it’s basically the same thing. They would pick a text from the Bible and they would start ranting and raving and go off. That’s how much of a community music has there.

And when you think about ISIS… you’re not allowed to have music around — that’s suicidal. That’s an obvious form of suicide. ■

John Cale performs as part of POP Montreal with opener Helena Deland at the Rialto Theatre (5723 Parc) on Thursday, Sept. 22, 8 p.m., $40/$65 for Golden Circle seats

In Conversation With John Cale, an interview with Will Straw, is happening as part of POP Montreal at the Museum of Fine Arts on Friday, Sept. 23, 5 p.m., $15/$10 for VIP museum members (ticket includes $5 discount to Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit)