John Cale at 70: interview (2005)

Wednesday 7 March 2012, 09:00

James McLaren James McLaren

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In 2005 BBC Wales Music contributor Louis Pattison talked to John Cale about Iggy Pop, tonality and that chicken. Here we republish that in-depth interview.

John Cale playing at Glastonbury

John Cale playing at Glastonbury

You've been touring the new album, BlackAcetate. How's it been?

We didn't get further than Berlin this time, but in January, February, we'll get down to Spain and Greece. The audiences there are very close to being where they understand what to expect. That it's a rock 'n' roll band, and we're playing rock 'n' roll.

Herb Graham Jr was your main collaborator on the album - is he out with you?

No. He was the main engineer, and helped me with the grooves. He helped me really focus on getting myself in a different place to HoboSapiens. Hobo has grooves that were pretty rigid; I played all the grooves on this one, but we didn't go that one step further and quantise it. It's loose, it's kind of warmer.

Herb has worked with R&B artists like Macy Gray. Did you have that in mind when you hired him?

That's one reason. He's a really big fusion jazz drummer, he does George Benson tours, so he's very sharp. He really turned out to be valuable when I started making my own grooves up, because he kept me away from doing stuff that had already been done.

A song like Brotherman is funky in a way you've not been known for.

I made that track and I had no idea what to do with it. I was rapping in the studio - well, not rapping, just making up jokes. And everyone started laughing so I kept going. There were other tracks that were much more hardcore funk than that, but I've still got to go back and finish them.

We worked September through to November, and then came back in January. We were knocking out three tracks a day, and getting closer to where I wanted to be, which turned out to be Hush. I think I deliberately just dropped the bass - in general I focused on using the drums more as a driving point behind writing the songs.

Do you identify with the phrase 'it's not where you're from but where you're at'?

Yeah. Yeah! (Laughs). I've not heard that before, but it's great. I like what the future holds. I don't like thinking about the past.

One song that stood out was Perfect. On the surface, it's quite sweet, but the line "You're perfect for me, right now", lends it a slightly different edge - that all love is fleeting.

Yes. You'd better take it while you get it. I wouldn't even use the word love. Maybe 'Get along with'? It's not necessarily a love song. I never use the word, it's loaded. What love means to me is need. I think everybody has that need.

That's a very anti-romantic way of looking at things.

Do you return to Wales often?

I played in Cardiff on this tour, and it was really kind of wonderful. I had 16 members of my extended family there, I kind of wangled a reunion. I hadn't seen them in a long time, and to be honest I don't feel very comfortable in Wales - I feel kind of an oddity. But they were so busy networking with each other I didn't have to do the MC bit at all. It was like a playground!

You once recorded a live album at New York punk venue CBGBs, which is teetering on the edge of closure. Do you have good memories of the place?

I don't know what the story is lately. It seems to be that NYU owns most of the property down there. So between NYU and the mayor's office, maybe they think it's a landmark worth saving. It's probably going to end up a Gap store at any minute. But I do really think that CBGBs has a place in the city's history. I have warm, sweaty memories of the place. Really greasy, beer-sodden nights.

Your 1999 biography What's Welsh For Zen? was a critical and commercial success. Do you have any plans for a follow-up?

No, I'm writing a movie, about Mozart going to New York in the 60s. I've been reading so many novels, when I read some of Rushdie's stuff, it's just so daunting - there's all this energy and crackle. I don't want it to come out half-baked, I want a tempo and a pace for it. The movie is starting to shoot next summer - I've got all the dialogue mapped out, I've just got to sit down and do it.

Are you still learning music, in a classically-trained sense?

Not so much new instruments as new sensibilities. When you're working with an MPC sampler and you have to listen to Dr Dre and Pharrell Williams - Pharrell can turn around and make a beautiful R&B song - they're so expert at all these different styles. I want to get lean and mean, keep it minimalist. I want to get to Drop It Like It's Hot. Did you hear EMI just bought the next 10 records by Pharrell? At $300,000 dollars per record.

The Neptunes have a very minimalist style - it's as much about what isn't there, as what is.

But it's more than that. People are sitting around in A&R meeting going 'Is that a spraycan?', and Pharrell's using it as a rhythm device! I really love his ideas. I've been waiting for things like that to crawl across to the mainstream, but it's not there.

I must admit, The first time I heard Can I Have It Like That, the break in it bothered me. But what I did love was the noise in the verse. There's this solid whining going on - like an engine noise. I used that on Hush on the new album - this buzz going on, this generator noise. But I took it off for the mix, because in the end it was buggering up the placement of the vocal.

You could almost draw this use of sound back to the tonal experiments you investigated with the Velvet Underground.

Absolutely. Tonality is the name of the game with those drones that Pharrell uses, because it's out of tune. The noise that's in the background, it's not in any key - it's that weird frequency that you get from engines. There's something thrilling about it.

Are you a nostalgic person? You seem willing to talk about the Velvets, if not enthused.

No, I don't care about it anymore. It's passé. That was a long time ago, and there's so many exciting things going on now that sound so much better.

Can you hear the influence of the Velvets in modern music?

Not at all, any more. In some of The Strokes I can hear it, but really that's more of the mental attitude of the musicians. I don't feel a lot of that rabid mentality any more. Repetition is generally what people are talking about.

You produced the début album by The Stooges, which has recently been remastered. Did you hear it?

Oh God, I have no idea why they bothered. There's really nothing distinguishing there that makes it worth a reissue. It's scraping the bottom of the barrel. I don't get it. But they have their reasons... they probably show me a bunch of figures and it makes sense. But as a musician, it means nothing to me.

Have you seen The Stooges live recently?

No, not for a long time. I saw Iggy at the Elvis Presley anniversary they had in Memphis. He hasn't changed a bit. It's nice to see a guy who just gets on with the music. And he's as leathery as ever.

Even in your 60s, you're showing no sign of slowing down.

I'm still looking for something. I'm getting closer, I think, but if someone moves the goalposts before the next album, I may have to follow them! I'm content with making records, but I don't want to be doing the same thing all the time.

Finally, there's a popular story about you cutting the head off a chicken onstage with a meat cleaver...

It was a really nice meat cleaver. I bought it in Berlin. So beautifully balanced. It didn't take very much. There was no sawing, you just lowered your arm and the weight of the cleaver carried it.

There's been no explanation why you had a chicken and a meat cleaver onstage together in the first place. Presumably it was premeditated?

Yeah. My band left over it. It turned out they were vegetarians. We got the chicken from a farm outside of Oxford. I told my tour manager to put it in a box and just come out with it. Of course, he had to grandstand it. He came out holding the bird, right up high, and that was it. We were screwed.

The bird was on the floor of the van all the way to London. The band had all this time to ruminate over what was going to happen. They were like 'What are you going to do with the bird?' Nothing. 'Are you going to hurt it?' Of course not.

Around that time everyone was gobbing on musicians. Tom Verlaine came over to play the Marquee, and he couldn't believe that people would drink beer and spit it at you as a form of adulation. So I took it a step further.

I threw both the head and body out into the crowd. Everyone was kicking it away from them like it was contaminated. After the show, the band came up to me and said, You lied to us. You said you weren't going to hurt it. I said I didn't hurt it. It didn't feel a thing.

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