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Here’s How John Cale Stays on the Cutting Edge at 82

The art-rock icon on his new album, Andy Warhol’s sense of humor, collaborating with difficult people, and listening to hip-hop

John Cale

For six decades and counting, John Cale has lived on the edge of the avant-garde. A classically trained violist, he spent the mid-Sixties playing hours of drones with minimalist composer La Monte Young before co-founding the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed. The band transformed rock & roll into an art experiment, with Cale’s noisy electric viola flourishes and rejection of the genre’s verse-chorus-verse formality.

As a solo artist, he continued his experiments, combining classical and rock on 1972’s The Academy in Peril and 1973’s Paris 1919, embracing New Wave on 1981’s Honi Soit, attempting Method acting through songwriting on 1982’s Music for a New Society, turning Dylan Thomas’ poetry into oratorios on 1989’s Words for the Dying, and blending hip-hop sensibilities with art-rock on 2012’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. During those years, he also produced albums now considered classics by his Velvet Underground bandmate Nico, the Stooges, Nick Drake, Patti Smith, and the Modern Lovers.

Even at age 82, Cale remains curious about how malleable music can be. He wrote his latest album, POPtical Illusion, out Friday, during the Covid lockdown and immersed himself in turning his emotions into music. “I’m Angry” sounds surprisingly muted, as he parses why he feels upset, while “Davies and Wales” pays tribute to his mother’s family and his home country with an irrepressible joy. “Shark Shark” is a punk song, “Edge of Reason” uses trap beats, and “Laughing in My Sleep” features tonalities that recall Eastern music.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Cale looked back at his career and the decisions he’s made to help him remain on the cutting edge. Cale had only one rule for the conversation: “No bleeding allowed.”

What are the most important rules that you live by?
Well, I can’t pin it down. Some of it is because I avoid them. I look at other people, and I enjoy watching other people dodge them. So I’m a dodger. But when you’re 80 years old, you have a ton of them.

How about rules for songwriting?
I’m always looking for something different from music that maybe doesn’t work. If you find a chord change that doesn’t work, you’re better off starting there.

On your new album, POPtical Illusion, the song “Calling You Out” mixes a pretty melody with discordant background drones. Why blend beautiful with ugly?
I’ve always done that. The oddness of 12-tone music is daunting to me still. I spent a lot of time [studying] [composer] Anton Webern when I was in Goldsmiths [College], and it didn’t satisfy me as much as hip-hop does now. The year that it took me to get this album together was a lesson. I just stayed at home through the lockdown and tried to find something that was not obvious.

How did lockdown change you?
The songs that I wrote in that period were a rampage more than anything else. Really, I just kept going; it was not something that I wanted to do. I didn’t think I was ever going to have an answer to any of the stuff that was going on in the world at the time. So all I had left was getting the songs out. The most satisfying part of my day is to find another groove.

There are trap beats on the album’s “Edge of Reason.” How does hip-hop satisfy you better than weird classical music?
When I was in grammar school, I was trying to listen to as much classical music as I could find, and now I’m listening to as much hip-hop as I can find. I like the warmth of Dilla. There’s Earl Sweatshirt; Vince Staples; Tyler, the Creator. They cover a lot of ground.

Where do you hear the avant-garde in modern music?
I mentioned Dilla and Vince Staples, but it’s harder and harder to find the avant-garde. You can’t predict it.

Your song “I’m Angry” is kind of on the light side — how come?
In the end, you just surrender. You start with the idea that this song is about a nasty son of a bitch, and I’m going to tell everybody what it is that this guy is so happy about life with. You try and do one thing and you always end up with another. You’re hopeful to be able to get some aggression in there, and in the end you end up with sweetness and light, but not too much.

You’re from Wales. What’s the most Welsh thing about you now?
This new song, “Davies and Wales.” It’s about growing up in one place and ending up in another, and it has this jovial, jumping-around-all-over-the-place feeling, trying to find different angles on things. I ended up with a song that’s a fun attitude towards things that I’d grown up with as a kid and hated at the time, but they’re things I like now. I’m glad I was able to put it all in a song.

Fifty years ago, you sang, “Life and death are just things you do when you’re bored” on your song “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend.” Do you believe that?
I thought Andy [Warhol] would like that line.

How did working with Warhol help you to see creativity differently?
Andy had a sense of humor, and it was pleasurable. It was a lot of fun trying to get the straight answer from him. A lot of times I had questions about how to do this or that, and the answer I’d get was always a surprise. [There] was kind of a certain awkwardness about it, but at the same time, it was innocent pleasure.

How did Andy help you?
I asked Andy for help designing the cover for my solo album, [1972’s] The Academy in Peril. I had a row of Kodachrome photographs, and he just took them and gently dropped everything onto the page. It was a million miles away from having to put all of them in an order and design it properly. But it had a charm to it that was really great. So you learned a lot about how uptight you are.

I was reading a book recently by Edie Sedgwick’s sister, Alice Sedgwick Wohl, and she wrote that Lou Reed had told her Andy taught him how to be nice. What do you think of that?
No, you’re not getting away with that [laughs]. I mean, we all try to get away with that. I try to be nice too.

In your memoir, What’s Welsh for Zen, Lou Reed comes across as a difficult personality. How do you collaborate with people like that?
You take advantage of him and just do as much as you possibly can on the positive side, and you ignore all the other stuff. You don’t belittle them. You don’t answer them in their language. The best thing to do is to just get your work done. If we hadn’t patched up for [the 1990 Warhol tribute album] Songs for Drella, then that would’ve not happened.…So good things happened to bad people. Well, I don’t think that everything Lou did is bad.

Well, your book gave the impression that he was … disagreeable.
That’s a good word.

Before you moved to New York and met Lou, your background was in classical music. How important was rock & roll to you growing up?
I remember going to my local cinema in the valley that I was from and seeing Rock Around the Clock, and it was so much fun. It was really fun offending the elderly ladies in the valley. But it turned out that they engaged more with the film than I did and were laughing and giggling and carrying on, and it was such a surprise. They had a great time. I had a great time.

In the end, I had a very pragmatic family that made sure that, yes, you can listen to rock & roll, but you can’t have music playing really loud on a Sunday morning while people are walking to church. And then you find in order to assuage your family about where your future really lies, you show them that you’re learning as much classical music as possible. And then once you’ve learned the techniques and practices of classical music, you veer off to the avant-garde and you suddenly realize, wait a minute, I’ve only been doing this now for seven, eight years, and that’s not going to do it. I mean, I’m learning more from rock & roll than I am from [classical]. You’re overtaken by history.

You studied with composers like Iannis Xenakis and John Cage. Do you still use any lessons from them in your music?
I wouldn’t dare go to Xenakis. Xenakis was an architect. He built the Philips Pavilion and then came sarcastic to music, and he just burnt it, just torched the whole basis for what had been going on elsewhere. And I mean, Stockhausen had it in one way, Xenakis had in another, but Xenakis was… I mean, those classes [I took from him] at Tanglewood were austere to say the least.

For instance, with the Philips Pavilion and the angles of design in the building itself, he was talking about how the angle of the roof, for instance, would show him where the glissando for the violins would go in Pithoprakta or one of the other pieces that he had. So it was, “Catch me if you can,” kind of. I mean, you want avant-garde music, you can find it, and it’s an entirely different landscape.

What about John Cage?
I kind of let John Cage off the hook because he really had a sense of humor about it all. That was very well delineated by him in his writings and the way his pieces were written, and so it was a lot of fun.

What advice do you wish you’d gotten about the music business before you got into it?
I had a pretty vicious idea of what the music business was going to be, but I had some of the best tutors in that field. When I went to work for Warner Bros. [in the Seventies], I really learned a lot. It was really a full-blown postgraduate course  in the value of creativity, how you develop it. If you’re in A&R, you need to develop people as personalities and nurture them.

You’ve worked with many talented people, producing albums by Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, the Stooges. How do you define musical genius?

Surprise. You don’t know what you’re going to get. When I went in the studio with the Stooges, it was one thing after another. When you get James [Iggy Pop] coming into the studio and sitting down and writing out all his lyrics, it’s not what you expect from a rock & roll musician. He really took it seriously. He didn’t want to get misunderstood.

When you first moved to New York, you played drones for hours with the composer La Monte Young. What did you get out of that?
My perception shifted. When you got done with 80 minutes of sustaining a drone … I mean, it all developed in a very organic way. Once we got to a certain level of noise and you had this drone going on, it changed the whole landscape of that music. It was very useful. When I ran into Lou and I started playing electric viola, it all made a difference.

The best part of it was doing “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Venus in Furs.” That was my contribution. Once you have those [droning] tonalities, you can do a lot of strange things with them. There are people all over the world doing this anyway. It’s not as if you’re breaking the china.

Do you believe you have to suffer to make great art?
No. But don’t let me soft sell this. There’s plenty of difficulties that you’ll run into. Get on with your work and enjoy it.

From Rolling Stone US