John Cale is mostly patient and forthcoming while discussing his new studio album, the heavily electronic Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, but every once in a while, when a question doesn’t catch his fancy, he isn’t above a flash of fierceness. “Is it okay to ask about the past?” I say, wanting to tread respectfully around someone who cofounded the Velvet Underground in 1965 with Lou Reed; is an officer of the Order of the British Empire; collaborated with Brian Eno and Terry Riley, among many others; produced landmark albums by Patti Smith, the Stooges and the Modern Lovers; was a youthful protégé of the classical composer Aaron Copland; and once cut off the head of a dead chicken onstage. Cale pauses. Even over the telephone – he’s calling from his manager’s office in L.A. – I can hear his brain ticking. “Well, I guess,” he growls in his deep, Welsh-accented voice. “I don’t pay much attention to it.”
He doesn’t have to. At the age of 70, Cale is hardly breaking stride. Nookie Wood is a brash, defiant exploration into the way electronic textures and heavy beats can adorn pop music; the songs are angry and unsettled, often touching on themes of trauma and dystopia. Danger Mouse helped out on the first single, “I Wanna Talk 2 U”; they’d met when Cale contributed to an album Danger Mouse produced for the Shortwave Set in 2007. But if the new album is doggedly forward-looking, Cale himself remains full of surprises. This, after all, is the guy who left behind the saturated drone of the Velvet Underground to make achingly romantic folk albums like Paris 1919 in 1973, and the singer responsible for the most poignantly understated version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on record. Not one to be pinned in by anyone’s expectations, including his own, he follows his disclaimer about the past with a series of ’60s recollections so vivid, you’d think the events happened last week.
The new album sounds like post-industrial disco. It’s high tech and heavily layered.
The songs were written in the studio. I started off with an MPC [Music Production Center — ed.] instead of a guitar or a piano. You create the mood and the groove of the song, and then add instruments. Some were synth instruments, some were ordinary guitars and bass. But I really don’t try and overdo it. I still try to keep it down to one, two or three essential elements in the arrangement that lock the song in.
I googled “MPC,” but I can’t say I really understand what it is.
It’s an Akai electronic drum. It’s a big feature of hip-hop records. The thing I love about hip-hop records is the way the beat with the backbeat is late. It’s very sexy. It’s a slow, late beat. That’s something that’s controlled on the MPC. I try to use that as often as I can. It’s helpful technology. It creates a great, funky feeling.
You also use auto-tune as an artistic element.
I didn’t use it to make sure my singing was in tune. In “Mothra,” it was to make my voice sound robotic. In “Face to the Sky,” it creates this solitude around the singer. So it was really to help the character of the song along.
I love the dissonant piano bang that runs through “Hemingway.”
It’s a very good irritant.
Did you loop one bang, or were you banging again and again?
We devoted ourselves to making a very good bang for the whole song.
It’s a really good bang.
What kind of music were you listening to that influenced the sound of this record?
Erikah Badu had a lot to do with it – her arrangements. I don’t know how she writes the songs, but I imagine it takes quite a bit of work and focus. I also listen to a lot of hip-hop – funny hip-hop. Bands like Not the 1s – they have a single called “You Dress Like an Asshole.” Nails the fashionistas right there. There’s a guy in Texas called Chingo Bling. He usually makes singles, and then once he’s had a whopper of a hit, he puts out an album. His last hit was You Can’t Deport Us All.
In the new songs, it feels like the background is foreground: production elements that should be atmospheric are suddenly front and center.
What you’re describing is a sound design approach to the songwriting. The thing I noticed about Nookie Wood after I finished it was that I’d stolen a lot of ideas from the first Ridley Scott movie, Blade Runner. Blade Runner‘s full of sound design. It has foreign languages, it has cars going by. I’ve got a Vietnamese announcer going through “Nookie,” and the idea is to have this clamoring going on. Where the song puts you is really what the song is about.
There’s so much technology to play with now, but it’s obviously not new. Has technology always interested you?
I’ve been interested in breaking stuff, yeah.
It’s interesting how little technology was available when the Velvet Underground was around. All we have, besides the recordings, are a few grainy films. Imagine what Andy Warhol would have done if he had YouTube and an iPhone? I’m sort of glad he didn’t, because the limitations were part of the magic of those times.
There are new rules being made every day, and those new rules are meant to be broken, in the same way Andy broke the rules by projecting films onto people onstage. There’s plenty of room for doing that again. It’s not a lost art.
Yet the avant-garde from that era is still avant-garde. It’s John Cage’s centennial, and his work is still mind-blowing.
I was in London last week and they did “4’33″” on the BBC. They have a system on the BBC that if silence lasts for more than 45 seconds, they immediately break into old political speeches or classical music. They had to turn the system off to perform the Cage piece. His stuff was impudent. His thing about destroying the concert hall – the ethic of European classical music was that you entered the concert hall and focused on the music and listened very intently. He said, “Look, there’s no point in getting crazy about this, because even in a concert hall, people cough, and you’re probably hearing a subway going underneath the building. So this idea of the sanctity of the concert hall is a chimera.” That was very important because it brought the outside world into classical music.
You were trained as a classical musician, which is so precise and rigorous and disciplined. Was there a moment when you broke out of that, either in college or when you became involved with rock ‘n’ roll?
I was in the music department at Goldsmiths [College in London]. I said, “Look, the whole point of this curriculum is to teach people to write music in the style of Palestrina and the style of Bach. I guess it’s an accomplishment, but it doesn’t develop humanity any. You’re better off encouraging people to express themselves and find their own style of writing.” They said, “Yes, you’re right, but we’re not going to change.” It was a full frontal for me. What’s the point of having a bachelor of music where you learn to write a fugue? I mean, some of these people were getting their doctorates writing fugues. The fugue form is like going to prison.
Then you got to New York around 1963 and worked with experimental composer La Monte Young.
By that time, John Cage had passed the baton for avant-garde music over to La Monte. La Monte sees the drone as an instrument of civilization: the 60-cycle drone in the house [that comes] from electricity is the drone of Western Civilization. We were tuning to the 60-cycle hum, and trying to tie that in with a very Oriental approach to music – trying to measure time in terms of sound.
It was all very abstract. We rehearsed every day for a year and a half, and we got somewhere with it – we developed a new system of intonation. Having spent all our time doing that, all of a sudden I found myself walking around New York with a Beatle explosion going on.
Did you love the Beatles?
Totally! You know Murray the K? The fifth Beatle? Every night on WMCA it was something about the Beatles. We’d get out of rehearsal with La Monte, and at 7 o’clock, there was Murray the K on the radio.
You brought all this background and education with you into the Velvet Underground. Did you find that the others were up to your level musically?
All of us were able to improvise. Whatever I was able to do musically, Lou was up to it lyrically. Lou had an amazing ability to improvise. Whatever happened that morning would come out in a song.
The scene around the Velvet Underground, with Andy Warhol and the Factory, is a large part of the myth, but musically you all were on a high plane.
We got so much publicity and we just weren’t ready for it. We got lost. Although we never abandoned our principles in terms of what we wanted to do musically. And, in fact, Andy was always there supporting us. He was another collaborator. Andy said to Lou, “You want to write songs? Here’s 14 topics that you can write songs on.” So Lou would run off and write 14 songs. One of the songs had all these swear words in it, and Andy would tell him, “Don’t forget to put the swear words in that song.” Because doing something accurately twice in a row was challenging to all of us.
John, it’s been nearly 50 years, and I still don’t think you’ve done the same thing twice.
[Gruffly] Yeah, I get on with it.