Tear Into Your Fear
Although it should be raw and visceral, the rebellious urges of rock music can flourish when merged with the avant-garde. Many musicians have coupled the primitivism of rock with the ideology of artistic experimentation, and many have succeeded in doing so with the help of John Cale.
Cale is, of course, most famously known for his work with the Velvet Underground. With his insistence on corrupting Lou Reed’s three chord classics with his shrieking, droning viola and commercially suicidal swathes of lo-fi distortion, the two Velvet Underground albums that count Cale as a member formed the very blueprint of art rock, and they’re arguably the most stylish LPs in the entire rock ‘n’ roll canon.
But there’s so much more. Alongside around 16 solo albums and countless collaborative works, Cale’s forever earned a footnote in music history with production work for the likes Brian Eno, The Jesus Lizard and Super Furry Animals, as well as debut albums by Patti Smith, The Stooges, The Modern Lovers and the Happy Mondays.
The concept of “rock legend” as we currently know it might be fading from us, and the news is regularly filled with obituaries for the musicians who defined 20th century music. With Cale’s peers Lou Reed and David Bowie passing away in recent times, what does he feel these days when he’s reunited with fellow countercultural icons such as Patti Smith or Iggy Pop? “It’s confirmation of what I felt when I first met them,” he tells me over the phone, his deep Welsh accent still prominent. “They’re still around, they’re still doing it, they haven’t changed and they’ve still got the force. I mean, when I first saw Iggy and I first saw Patti I thought ‘this is going to be around for years.’ There’s so much strength there.”
The concept of Cale’s 2016 re-make album M:FANS began life with Cale’s invitation to perform Music For a New Society, a “lost classic” which had been out of press for many years, at a Danish arts festival in the autumn of 2013. Two months after the concert, Lou Reed passed away – an event which has had a profound emotional effect on Cale. With his enormous discography to choose from, Cale rerecorded Music For New Society track If You Were Still Around, which would be released the following year alongside a nostalgic music video to mark the anniversary of Reed’s death. From Cale and Reed’s polarised musical visions prompting Cale’s departure from the Velvet Underground in 1968, to their 90s reunion disintegrating when the pair struggled to remain on amiable terms, the tension of Cale and Reed’s bond was always the source of much speculation. Lyrically, If You Were Still Around expresses a resentful longing for a disinterested or absent loved one, and there’s a sense of tenderness beneath its aggressive imagery: “If you were still around / I’d hold you, I’d hold you / I’d shake you by the knees / Blow hard in both ears”.
“I kept my head down for most of a year,” Cale tells me of the months following Reed’s death. “I thought, ‘it’s going to come around again and I’d better figure out what the best thing to do is.’ And I thought that the words in that song were really apropos. I think the track dealt with the issue elegantly, respectfully.”
Along with If You Were Still Around, Cale had undergone the cathartic process of gutting and refitting the rest of Music For a New Society – the recording of which he has described as both “excruciating” and “torturous”. Recorded at New York’s Sky Line Studios in 1981, by this point Cale had emerged from the deepest depths of his mid-late 70s excess (at a particularly insane and mythologised Croydon gig in ‘77, Cale severed the head off a dead chicken with a machete during a twisted rendition of Heartbreak Hotel before tossing it into a crowd of horrified punks) but he was far from achieving sobriety or inner peace. “I tried to put it all out there,” he says of the album’s cheap, improvised recording process. “The rule was ‘it doesn’t count unless the tape was rolling.’ We went through about five or six days of doing that, and then stopped it. I really wanted internal dialogue to be part of that album, a lot of it. And I guess that’s what makes the album a little difficult to grasp.”
“A little difficult to grasp” is one way to put it. Opening with Take Your Life In Your Hands – a song that tells a mother’s story and alludes to imprisonment, murder and suicide – Music For New Society is a minimal and unsettling portrait of John Cale’s psyche at this point in his life. In M:FANS’ press statement, Cale expressed a desire to re-imagine the album’s characters from a different emotional standpoint – “what was once sorrow, was now a form of rage,” he wrote.
Musically, Cale gave the songs more muscle, warming them with fuller instrumentation and modernising them with thudding 808s, auto- tuned vocals, distorted guitars and a sense of determined rigour in his voice. The vulnerable Thoughtless Kind had been transformed with booming pop production, while the crumbling percussion of the once miserable Sanctus (Sanities) was replaced with a gothic industrial techno thump that doesn’t sound a million miles away from the German metal group Rammstein.
M:FANS wasn’t the first time Cale revived an entire album. He’s performed his solo album Paris 1919 various times in recent years, and in April he played 1967’s Velvet Underground & Nico in full at La Philharmonie in Paris. As the Velvet Underground’s debut album, the songs encapsulate the band’s glamourised early period, of which the backdrop has formed the fabric of a million countercultural fantasies – tales of musical, sexual and pharmaceutical experimentation; of the writers, drag queens, bohemians, socialites, sex workers, speed freaks and junkies gathered at Andy Warhol’s Factory; of Nico’s ice-cold glare, the strobe-lit psychedelia of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and so on. So, I ask with my fingers crossed for amphetamine-fuelled anecdotes, what does Cale enjoy about revisiting those memories when he’s playing the songs?
“I don’t enjoy it,” comes his blunt response. “I’ve done it, and I learnt my lesson. I mean, you’ve really got to stay a distance away from that. Because you don’t want to be in the middle of a performance and suddenly have flashbacks of where you were when you wrote it,” he chuckles slightly. “I left that behind years ago, and I really don’t want to rejoin it right now.”
“But we had a lot of fun doing it in Paris I tell you,” he insists. To paraphrase a classic Brian Eno quote, The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band – and Cale aimed to illustrate this diversity of influence with the show’s roster of guests, which included Animal Collective, French model and singer Lou Doillon, Mark Lanegan, alternative rapper Saul Williams and The Libertines’ Pete Doherty and Carl Barât. “There were a lot of people from publishing houses with their own ideas about what we should be doing, and we didn’t like them,” Cale says. “The way they’ve done the Nico [tribute] shows, it’s always been about young, female artists. It was very difficult to find someone who could sing Heroin. I tried to think of a female singer who could do Heroin, and I didn’t come up with it. But I thought Saul was excellent.”
“Iggy Pop and Patti Smith haven’t changed and they’ve still got the force. There’s so much strength there”
Rather than an inability to let go of his younger days, these revisions of Cale’s back catalogue, it seems, are motivated by the thrill of mutating the material into something new. From leaving home in South Wales’ Amman Valley as a teenager to experimenting in London and New York alongside avant-garde musicians such as the Fluxus collective, John Cage and La Monte Young, Cale has always leant towards the radical, and over the course of the five decades of his career, he’s somehow never lost that thirst for innovation.
A recent example of Cale’s futurist experiments is 2014’s Loop>>60hz: Transmissions from The Drone Orchestra show, which saw him team up with “technological storyteller” Liam Young at London’s Barbican centre. The first of their kind, for the two performances Cale played with a band while the UAVs buzzed around the venue like mechanical dragonflies, undermining the technology’s menacing, militarised image. “It was out of control, but worked,” Cale remembers of the show. “There were people who were running the drones who had pilot licenses. And you really had to organise your drama around battery time. It was like running an aircraft carrier. For someone to really pull that show together, you needed to know the songs. It’s pretty funny, the aircraft controller was my manager,” he says with an audible smile, “because she was the only one there that knew all my songs.”
For the last decade or so, influential critics have lamented the unimaginative archeology of retro culture, expressing anxiety about the perceived absence of innovative populist movements since the mid 00s. As a famously forward-thinking musician, I’m intrigued to know what genres Cale listens to in order to hear human emotion expressed in new ways. “There are a lot songwriters who don’t think in terms of the old ‘verse, chorus, verse, bridge’ kind of thinking,” he says. “People like Earl Sweatshirt. That kind of structure is really strange, it just kind of rambles through the song. It’s really interesting, Sweatshirt has this laconic use of structure. I like the way he drifts. Him and Chance The Rapper.”
For the next five minutes or so of our conversation, Cale continues to discuss his interest in contemporary hip-hop with passion, referencing Chance, Vince Staples and producers such as Carnage, Hit-Boy and No I.D. “The movement and the view points are really expanding,” he says excitedly. Loyal fans will know that Cale’s appreciation of rap music is nothing new. But still, there’s something encouraging about such an experienced musician recognising the avant-garde potential of hip-hop – a genre which continues to grapple the mainstream while generating new trends in production, language and dance – but is often discredited by the elder gatekeepers of cultural credibility due to moral scrutiny, deep seated racial prejudice or because of its use of minimal resources. “I wonder what these people were thinking when they made the record,” Cale says on his hip-hop discoveries. “I listen to the recording techniques – they’re minimal sometimes – but they work. A lot of the stuff I hear comes out of Akon’s studio in Georgia, some from Chicago. It’s out there, you’ve just got to go look for it.”
At 74 years old, John Cale remains remarkably active, culturally curious and unafraid to open emotional wounds. And so, I ask before our conversation comes to a close, what is it that drives him to do so? “I think we’ve gone over this already – it’s anger, and impatience. There are a lot of different ways of telling a story,” he says, pausing slightly while considering how to conclude. “So when I come in to do a record, I try to break as many rules as I can remember.”
M:FANS / Music for a New Society are out now via Double Six / Domino.
John Cale performs with Festival of Voice Ensemble and Chorus at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 3 June