‘Hip-hop is the brand new avant garde’: John Cale on Lou Reed, anger and continuous reinvention

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‘Hip-hop is the brand new avant garde’: John Cale on Lou Reed, anger and continuous reinvention

Even over the cellphone from Los Angeles, John Cale has a sure presence. It’s not simply the nonetheless resonant Welsh lilt of his talking voice or the way in which he takes his time to choose the best phrases, extra his tangential mind-set – about music, songwriting, the world basically. That is somebody, in any case, whose 1999 biography was titled What’s Welsh for Zen?.

That phrase echoes in my head greater than as soon as throughout our transatlantic dialog, Cale having lived in Los Angeles for 10 years now after a protracted stint in New York. His solutions, whereas at all times courteous and regarded, generally have a tendency in direction of the summary and are marked by a reluctance to be pinned down about the subject material of his songs.

On his new album, POPtical Phantasm, as an illustration, there’s a monitor known as Funkball the Brewster. Once I ask him the place the title got here from, he replies: “I made it. I made it like I make breakfast.” Just like the track itself, which begins with the road “Inform me to go to hell” and ends with a barely audible scream, the reply is pure John Cale: intriguing, however arduous to fathom.

“John’s artistic gaze is diagonal reasonably than linear,” says his buddy of greater than 20 years, the creator and journalist Ed Vulliamy. “That additionally applies to his entire method of trying on the world. He’s as arcane, attention-grabbing and relentlessly curious because the music he makes.”

By the use of illustration, Vulliamy recollects assembly with Cale in New York simply after the 9/11 terrorist assaults. “Everybody in Manhattan had a visible reminiscence of the occasion, however John, together with his coyote ears, had an aural one. He vividly described all of the individuals operating silently previous his entrance door, their ft not making a sound due to the mud.”

At 82, a full 60 years after he met Lou Reed and fashioned the Velvet Underground, and 54 years after he launched his first solo album, Classic Violence, Cale stays a singular determine in common music, the diagonal gaze of his songwriting alongside his musical attain – he’s classically educated – positioning him ceaselessly on the attention-grabbing outskirts of pop, his always stressed artistic momentum undimmed by outdated age.

‘I don’t wish to dwell on the previous’: John Cale, high left, with Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, Nico and Sterling Morrison within the late 60s. {Photograph}: Alamy

POPtical Phantasm is his 18th solo outing, the songs therein usually densely layered in samples, synths, loops and distorted instrumentation. Lyrically, it usually sounds as if Cale is channelling his unconscious much more so than regular, whereas daring the listener to make sense of the outcomes. Sonically, it’s a defiantly fashionable assertion of intent from somebody whose whole artistic raison d’etre is certain up with the concept of ahead movement. “I don’t wish to dwell on the previous, I simply attempt to get on with issues,” he says at one level. “That’s at all times been the case. With me, it’s at all times, what’s subsequent?”

The brand new album follows quick on final yr’s album, Mercy, on which he collaborated with varied youthful artists together with Weyes Blood, Animal Collective and Fats White Household. “I really feel like he at all times desires to push the envelope,” Natalie Mering (AKA Weyes Blood) informed the Guardian on its launch, describing how she arrived at his Los Angeles studio to seek out that there have been no conventional devices, only a collection of miniature toy pianos. She described his strategy as “obtuse” and “conceptual” but in addition “very uncooked”, which nearly nails it.

As with Mercy, the brand new file’s place to begin was “an enormous tranche of songs” that Cale wrote in a feverish burst of creativity throughout the Covid pandemic. “The lockdown form of dictated what was occurring, so my anger confirmed up pretty usually,” he says. What was he offended at precisely? “Political stuff, primarily. I wasn’t actually nervous bodily by what was occurring with the lockdown, however there have been some issues that actually aggravated me.” In consequence, he continues, he began writing songs “with an ideal deal extra aggression than I’ve within the current previous, nevertheless it was a distinct type of aggression – a type of romantic aggression”.

That “romantic aggression” takes many kinds, from the brooding Firm Commander, during which he has a pop at “rightwingers burning their libraries down”, to the just about self-explanatory I’m Offended, the place the darkly hallucinatory lyrics might – or might not – be about mortality and even specific a hint of remorse. As ever, he’s not saying. “My songs have an inside logic, however I additionally suppose individuals wish to uncover issues for themselves once they hearken to them, simply as they might once they learn a poem.”

On How We See the Gentle, he sings about “wasted time” and studying a lesson in “the quiet methods of affection”. I ask him whether it is primarily a dialog with himself… “Partly, sure. My youthful self.” On the uncommon moments he permits himself to look again, is it with remorse or stoical acceptance? “It’s merely acceptance. With all of the turmoil that was going after I wrote this file, I used to be actually glad to have even some moments of reflection – and gratitude.”

Cale has at all times, by temperament in addition to design, been one thing of an outsider. Even inside the nascent New York art-rock scene that spawned the Velvet Underground within the mid-60s, he appeared an outre character, barely aloof. He was 22 when he first crossed paths with Lou Reed at a home occasion on the Higher East Aspect in 1964, however, by then, he had already been on fairly an eventful artistic journey.

Born within the village of Garnant in Carmarthenshire in 1942, Cale’s first language was Welsh. His father, William, was a miner and his mom, Margaret, a schoolteacher. Her maiden title was Davies and, on the brand new file, there’s a jaunty however bittersweet track known as Davies and Wales that appears, nevertheless obliquely, to check with her. “Sure,” he says, quietly, after I point out it. “Nevertheless it’s actually a joke track about all of the Davieses I’ve met in my life.” Like his accent, his Welsh id stays intact. “I’m afraid so,” he says. “It’s tribal. It doesn’t go away.”

Cale took to music early, enjoying viola within the Nationwide Youth Orchestra of Wales aged 13. A long time later, he recounted how, aged 12, he had been molested by his music trainer within the organ loft of his native church. That revelation forged new psychological mild on a few of his extra unhinged dwell performances within the Seventies, when he usually appeared carrying a sinister-looking hockey masks and appeared to completely inhabit his darker songs, similar to Concern Is a Man’s Greatest Good friend and Guts. The latter is a track about bloody revenge that begins with the road: “The bugger within the short-sleeved shirt fucked my spouse.” For a time, the uneasy spotlight of his set was his transformation of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Lodge into an prolonged psychodrama that always ended with him crouched, foetal-like, underneath the piano. In a single efficiency, unimaginable in our age of set off warnings, he decapitated a dwell rooster on stage, inflicting his band to stroll off in disgust. His excessive behaviour, he later admitted, was exacerbated by his prodigious cocaine behavior, which reasonably than suppress his traumas appeared to dramatically intensify them in unpredictable methods.

Cale on stage on the Rainbow theatre in 1974. {Photograph}: Mick Gold/Redferns

Cale left Wales as a teen when he gained a scholarship to check music at Goldsmiths in London. There, he fell underneath the affect of the experimental Fluxus motion, which additionally counted the younger Yoko Ono amongst its myriad fleeting members. He carried out the UK premiere of John Cage’s Live performance for Piano and Orchestra in 1963 and, quickly after, with the help of the American composer Aaron Copland, relocated to New York. It was a heady time for experimental music and Cale immersed himself within the scene, collaborating with Cage on a dwell efficiency of Erik Satie’s Vexations that lasted greater than 18 hours, and dealing for a time with one other pioneer of the avant garde, La Monte Younger, whose use of sustained drones would so inform the disorienting thrust of a number of Velvet Underground songs.

“My gratitude is at all times to Aaron Copland who introduced me to New York,” Cale tells me. “With out that preliminary step, I’d by no means have been capable of progress. And, however for the generosity of Cage as a human, I’d have continued utilizing blood financial institution donations as a supply of revenue.” They continue to be abiding influences, not least by way of their shared work ethic. “They didn’t get to be the leaders of the motion by sitting on their fingers,” he tells me. “They abided by the edict that ‘work is extra enjoyable than enjoyable’ and so do I.”

That probability assembly with Reed in 1964 led to the formation of the Velvet Underground, whose viral affect would form the course of rock music for generations to come back. The group managed to fuse Cale’s usually bracing experimentalism – his use of the viola as a viscerally unnerving part of the group’s signature – with Reed’s songwriting model, which ranged from the uncooked reportage of songs similar to Heroin and I’m Ready for the Man to the disarmingly melodic drift of wistful ballads similar to Sunday Morning and I’ll Be Your Mirror. The group’s creatively productive, however wildly dissolute, alliance with Andy Warhol at his Manufacturing facility studio has been so oft-recounted that it’s now the stuff of rock legend.

Intriguingly, on final yr’s Mercy album, Cale included a track known as Moonstruck, which was devoted to the group’s stunning however doggedly self-destructive singer, Nico, who died, aged 49, in 1988. Following her departure from the group, he produced her second solo album, The Marble Index, in 1968 and co-produced her third, Desertshore, in 1970. The latter specifically is now critically lauded for its stark however seductive strangeness.

“You’re a moonstruck junkie woman, watching your ft…” Cale croons on Moonstruck, in opposition to a luxurious however suitably melancholic backdrop. Have her songs stayed with him through the years? “Very a lot so. She was a novel character. Should you had any understanding of Nico in any respect, you knew to at all times converse to her by way of her creativity. She resented her bodily magnificence and anybody who referred to her in that method. Private insecurities apart, she was uncompromising as a songwriter. We’ve got the proof.”

Has he ever been tempted to jot down a track about Reed, who died in 2013, and with whom Cale had a famously tempestuous artistic partnership? “I believe I’ve already, nevertheless imprecise they could appear,” he replies, leaving us to do the guessing.

Cale left the Velvet Underground in 1968 after the discharge of their second album, White Gentle/White Warmth, on which his experimental strategy is most evident. His reluctant departure brought on a fracture with Reed that apparently lasted till 1987, once they spoke once more for the primary time at Warhol’s funeral. The pair reconciled for a time, recording the elegiac Songs for Drella, a tribute to Warhol that was launched in 1990. A Velvet Underground reunion tour adopted in 1993, however that, too, resulted in acrimony. Cale and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker are the one surviving members of the unique group.

‘No regrets, many errors’: Cale, second left, performing with the Velvet Underground in 1966. {Photograph}: Charlie Gillett Assortment/Redferns

“The Velvet Underground are vital, immensely so,” says Vulliamy, “however their legend tends to overshadow what John has performed since, which is frequently reinvent himself. There have been so many John Cales since then.” That’s certainly the case. There may be, to call however a number of, the John Cale who produced landmark albums by the Stooges, Patti Smith and the Trendy Lovers within the Seventies, the John Cale who has collaborated with fellow experimental travellers similar to Terry Riley and Brian Eno, and the John Cale whose 18 solo albums chart a course whose map reference factors, as Vulliamy places it, “vary from Elvis Presley to Alban Berg by the use of Dylan Thomas”.

When Cale revisits his previous work, whether or not on stage or on file, it’s usually to dramatically dismantle and reassemble it. In 2016, alongside the reissue of his 1982 album Music for a New Society, he launched M:FANS, which featured new variations of the unique songs. The choice to take action was precipitated by the dying of Reed three years earlier, which he described as “too painful to grasp”. It appears emblematic of Cale’s diagonal strategy that, by immersing himself in a dramatic remodeling of his personal work, he discovered a method to exorcise the demons that stalked his fractious artistic relationship with Reed, and, on the identical time, pay homage to him.

As his current data attest, John Cale continues to be pushing and pulling on the parameters of the track. “I look again on the very first file I made, Classic Violence, and I actually can’t complain,” he tells me. “I can’t say if these songs actually hit the mark, however they do have various things in them which might be nonetheless attention-grabbing to me. I assume my new songs are slightly extra animalistic than after I wrote Concern Is a Man’s Greatest Good friend.” Is he significantly telling me that track isn’t animalistic in its personal method? “Nicely, it’s type of crooked,” he concedes. “It comes at you in a jump-start type of method.”

That isn’t a foul description of a few of his current work, his musical strategy specifically taking its cue not from the avant garde, if that time period even applies any extra, however the fixed sonic adventurism of hip-hop. “It’s ravenous,” he says, approvingly. “Rock music simply doesn’t try this any extra and neither does the avant garde. Hip-hop is the brand new avant garde.”

He has additionally, he tells me, simply found the music of the Irish group Lankum, who’re on the forefront of the present darkly gothic reinvention of the standard folks ballad. Their songs, he says, “simply creep up on you. They’ve so many issues occurring. A lot character.”

At 82, nonetheless stressed, nonetheless curious, Cale reveals no signal of slowing down. Once I ask him if he has any regrets, he replies: “No regrets, many errors – however few which might be noticeably grotesque.” Once I ask him what’s subsequent, he says: “Starting the artistic dissonance of street work.” So it goes, the identical because it ever was, however at all times diagonally totally different.

POPtical Phantasm is out now on Domino


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