Perfect Sound Forever

John Cale

interview by Oliver Hall
(September 2005)

The rehearsal studio in West Hollywood where I've been instructed to meet John Cale looks like a Southwestern military post: a great stucco monolith with no public entrance, no markings to indicate its address or function, windows that are translucent but not transparent. For me, it conjures up the image of Cale in a Wehrmacht helmet, sunglasses and fatigues, screaming the merciless songs about war and apocalypse from his 1979 Sabotage (Live) album at a ragged bunch of guerrillas. I even heard the croaking voice of Rumsfeld: “As you know, you go to war with the army you have. . .”

Given Cale's legendary career, it is surprising even to be able to imagine him as a cultural terrorist; of the other legendary musicians he's worked with over the years, who else could credibly support such a fantasy, even if the fantasy is stupid? Certainly not Patti Smith, earnestly campaigning for the Green Party, or Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, practising T'ai Chi in Manhattan dance studios as medals awarded by the French Order of Arts and Letters swing from their muscular necks. Cale, though he has consistently made braver choices and bolder, deeper, richer work than most of the rockers whose albums and myths he has helped fashion, seems to have decided long ago not to seek the easy respectability so many of his fellows currently enjoy.

“I had indeed neglected my studies into Webern and the history of the polyphonic Mass, but I saw my future as a living composer rather than as a cataloguer of the dead,” Cale writes in his 1999 autobiography, What's Welsh for Zen, of his difficult college years in London in the early '60's. A gifted pianist and composer, Cale was supposed to have been groomed for a life in conservatories, and his teachers at Goldsmiths' scolded him for his baffling fascination with the avant-garde. In 1963, Cale used a Leonard Bernstein scholarship for passage to New York; once there, among Aaron Copland, Iannis Xenakis, La Monte Young, John Cage, at the heart of modern music, he had no intention of leaving. In the primordial muck of NYC bohemia, living on oatmeal, Cale founded the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison in 1965, which is surely not a story that needs to be told again. Kicked out of the band in 1968, Cale began to pursue his solo career. His first album, Vintage Violence (1970), revealed not only his great talent as a songwriter but also his startlingly beautiful and distinctive voice. Cale had a hand in many of the best albums of the 1970's: The Stooges, Modern Lovers, and Horses, which he produced, along with Nico's still-overlooked masterpieces The Marble Index and Desertshore; and his own Paris 1919, Fear, Slow Dazzle, Helen of Troy and Sabotage certainly rank among the very best rock albums ever made.

In the rehearsal studio, Cale and his band performed two songs from his upcoming album blackAcetate: (the title includes the colon). The songs, “Perfect” and “Sold-Motel,” were very loud, hard, electric rock that sounded to my ears something like a cross between Sugar and Johnny Thunders. Then Cale led me to an empty control room where we conducted the interview. His manner is hard to put a finger on; there are traces of a classical master's composure and distance, a producer's businesslike directness, and a New York rocker's easy way (“Hey, thanks, man”), but what came through most as Cale spoke, aside from his courtesy, was the restlessness of his mind. Cale is full of ideas, curiosities, interests and enthusiasms; the tape ended as he poured out his admiration for Dr. Dre's productions.

His official website is

PSF: When does the new album come out?

October 1 in Europe and November here.

PSF: It's always a month difference for some reason.

Well, it's really hard -- unless you've got a really big machine, it's really hard to organize. Because you go on your tours around them, you can't get a tour that starts in both places at once; you've got to give a month for one, and then go back, and if you're gonna go to Australia then that's another month. It'll be interesting, though. It's a new band. I'm really happy with them. They can do all different styles; we're just scratching the surface.

PSF: It isn't the same guitarist from your 2004 show at the Keyclub?

No, all of them are new.

PSF: That was a wonderful show. My only disappointment was that you didn't play “Mercenaries;” I thought maybe given the current. . . [Cale frowns]

It was all right in the time that it was done, but it's really a kind of a country song. I did a really morose version of it in Amsterdam with a lot of samples. That kind of worked, but, you know, when you rearrange something, it takes time to set it up, and it becomes a little. . . precious. It's not worth all that in the end. Yeah, it's a character study, anyway, of a guy who's a right-wing wacko. Unfortunately, the last verse would have to be [changed to] “let's go to D.C., take back the government,” not “let's go to Moscow.”

PSF: I remember reading that you follow the news pretty closely — is that true?

Try to.

PSF: What do you think of the government in this country and the war in Iraq?

It's pretty sad. We're really going after resources. It's. . . ugly. We set an example for everybody, and everybody's going to follow the example. If the most powerful nation on the globe starts ignoring international law. . .

PSF: Do you live here now?

I've always lived in the states. I came in ‘63. There was a little period I spent in London, I went back there, and I came back just after Patti, after Horses. New York is hometown. I've been out here for a long time because of the studio where I did the record, and records just take a long time. They're 13 songs but they're chosen out of like 48. You know, started in October, then we took a break at Christmas. It really didn't start falling together until the beginning of this year, and it was a journey where I did the tour, came back and everything changed. Everything got really funky. Those guys [Cale's new band] are kind of rock rippers, but they've got the funky things in there that are really nice. It's been really easier to do for some reason. With HoboSapiens, everything was very dense: full of depth and colors.

I've just done two and a half days here with these guys. We were working on the show at the street fair, Sunset Junction. I've gotta get more stuff done off the [new] album, and I don't wanna go into quite so much-- you know, when we did Hobo, we pulled all the stuff off the drive, off the album, and we locked into it and we did it. It was fine, we could pull it off. Now, I wanna use both in a way, and that's gonna take time. So I've just done two and a half days in rehearsal with a brand new band, did songs that they could really chew up and spit out; now we've got to bring in a little bit more of the electronics. I'm gonna do the song “Hush” off the album which is really tricky. It's very sexy, it's got no bass in it. A couple of things on the album are like that, don't have the usual lineup. But these guys can do much more than just slam it.

PSF: HoboSapiens is very much a studio album, isn't it?

Yeah, and no matter how much I tried to deconstruct it, it's still a creature of the studio. Going out on the road with it, with a lot of electronics was— we understood it, we did pretty well with it— you gotta keep working at it. So I changed my direction, I went into the funky side of things. The thing about MPC popped up; you know, we used it on one track, but. . .

PSF: MPC, what's that?

It's a sampler, a drum— when you hear Pharrell, you know, if your head starts doing this [nods to beat]? When your head starts doing this, it's MPC. If it does this [shoulder to shoulder], it's something else. It's just one of those things— you can't sit still with it.

I didn't know how it was gonna fall out. I mean, I was more interested in a funky feel to it than really doing hip-hop.

PSF: The new album?

Yeah, it's got a lot more funk to it. It has more of a feel going on than the beautiful landscape of Hobo.

PSF: Is the song “Things” [the chorus of which contains the line, “a thing to do in Denver when you're dead”] a tip of the hat to Warren Zevon [who wrote the song “Things to Do in Denver when You're Dead”]?

You know, it's embarrassing to say, but I didn't know that he— I was doing an interview in Belgium, the journalist walks in and says “Have you seen that?” and shows me Warren's [record]; it was obviously where the film had come from. It made a lot of sense: of course the film would come out of something like that, but I hadn't heard the song. I just felt taken by the film. It was a B-movie, and it had all sorts of strange elements in it: Greek choruses and stuff, the guy doing a commentary— that face kept coming, “Give it a name, give it a name.”

PSF: I thought “Learning about the difference between the North and the South / Keep your gun in your pocket and your tongue in your mouth” could have been a Zevon line.

Yeah, well, he's a master.

PSF: Was he a person you felt any sort of kinship with? As a person who studied with Stravinsky...

Yeah, a lot. But look, “Werewolves of London,” a movie came out of that. I get it the other way; I go to the Peckinpah movie and I get “Cable Hogue.” It's really a tribute to how simple lyrics can cover so much territory.

PSF: I wanted to ask you about a mutual interest of ours, Ezra Pound.

I just read an article by this guy Trotter—he's a professor of English in Cambridge—in the London Review of Books. He was reviewing the two new editions of the Pisan Cantos and the complete [Library of America collection]. And I thought, Oh, this is optimistic -- he's talking about the years in the pen, how [Pound] just came across African-American [fellow prisoners in the camp at Pisa, whom he befriended]. But then, the Pisan Cantos turn out to be like a Fascist book of the dead, or book of martyrs. And in the end, you know, he's lucky that he got sent to Saint Elizabeth's, and that's what the Bollingen Prize was designed for -- to keep him alive! You know, the Bollingen Prize is such a prestigious prize, and how could you put a guy in front of a firing squad after that? I mean, what he did when he got out was unbelievable. He went back, he flew into Italy. What was he gonna do? He was gonna go back to live his wife and lover. And he gets off the plane, and the first thing he does is give the fascist salute! This is like 1952 or whatever! Fuck!

PSF: I read a description of Ezra Pound as the last American to live through the tragedy of Europe, and I was wondering if it makes sense to see you as a European living through the tragedy of America.

I hope not. Listen, I'm a product of America. I know that if it hadn't been for Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, I wouldn't have come here, and the enormous generosity of what this country has been able to do— and when I look at the White House, I see somebody just dragging it down into the mud. You know, they make a big fuss about the rule of law and getting all this confirmed [by the United Nations], but they're most reckless themselves.

So what happened, did they suddenly discover, “Whoops, we don't have enough oil, we'd better hurry up and get it. There's a patch of oil over there, let's go get that”? What it really was, was about Saudi Arabia; they wanna get ahold of all of it. And Iran, they're already starting in Iran. It's a conquering mentality.

PSF: One of the things you write about in your autobiography is your interest in mathematics. Is there any connection for you between mathematics and music? Pythagoras stuff?

No; they're disciplines. La Monte has gone about as far as— at least, he understands it better than anybody. And Harry Partch, he had Utonality and all that. Tony Conrad's the one who really ties them pretty well. What I was interested in was logic, and logic was what brought me, via Bertrand Russell, into Russell and Whitehead, Principia Mathematica. What really did it though was Wittgenstein: Wittgenstein's reasoning in the lemmas and Tractatus. And then I realized that my uncle was right about people who read too much philosophy.

PSF: So you've put those books aside?

No, I love them because-- I can pick them up and read them because they have an atmosphere to them of my childhood, of real discovery and the beauty of the theory and all that. So I can look at them from that point of view, but I'd rather read Andreï Makine, the French writer; he's a novelist that's been done in translation, but you don't lose anything in translation, the translations I've read are really gorgeous. But I run around trying to find translations, because there's a lot more of them coming out. Publishers have discovered people in France that are not read here, really good writers. Snappy crime.

PSF: I was listening to Sun Blindness Music last night, a collection of your solo performances recorded by Tony Conrad in the '60's, particularly “Summer Heat,” which you play on the guitar. When you were doing those performances, did you ever expect anyone else to hear them? Or did they function for you more as studies?

Yeah, it was really a study in concentration: how do you develop something? You're sitting there, you're really trying to develop an idea; it's purely selfish. You sort of sit there and enjoy yourself and see if you can develop something, and you can always come back and see, because you know when you've [found something]. You know, it's improvisation. I got lucky; I got thrown in the deep end when I was about 12, 13, when I had to perform and the guy who had the music. . .

PSF: When BBC Wales came to record you, and you didn't have the sheet music for your composition, so you improvised?

Yeah. So, once you start you're a little incredulous -- naaah, it can't be that easy. But then you know that you've crossed the Rubicon, and classical studies always give you some kind of framework to think about. You plan ahead. Cage was good at that: you have a responsibility to think about what you're going to do. You may not think about what you're immediately gonna do, but down the line, keep something in mind. You always try and put a frame around it.

PSF: I ran into Brian Wilson a while ago on Van Nuys Boulevard [Cale is a great fan of the Beach Boys, and wrote the beautiful song “Mr. Wilson,” which appears on his album Slow Dazzle].

I ran into him too. I was on a political panel for CMJ. It was at the Javits Center in New York, and he was there with Van Dyke [Parks] and I didn't realize that Van Dyke had come up. He was there presenting Smile and all that. So I went to the bathroom, I got lost, I was looking for my dressing room and this door at the end of the corridor sort of opens and closes, opens and closes, opens-closes-opens-closes, doesn't know whether it's deciding to open or close, and this head pops around it and it's Brian. He's looking and looking. And then I go up and say, “Hi, Brian, I'm a big fan.”


PSF: Some of your fans on the internet talk a lot about a bootleg of the Velvet Underground called the “Gymnasium tapes”--

The quality of those tapes is just unbelievable to me. Somebody knew what they were doing. I don't know who made those tapes, but DAMN! You know, I saw a photograph of us the other day at Paraphernalia, ‘cause I was trying to figure out the layout of the Dom, I was trying to remember where everything was. And I called Paul, and I said “Paul, where did we get the PA from for the Dom?”

He said, “What PA? You didn't have a PA.”

I said, “What are you talking about?”

“No,” he said, “you never had a PA.”

“So where did the voices come out of?”

“I dunno,” he said, “your amps! Your guitars, your voices— everything came out of the amps!” And I remember that we were spending a lot of money on speaker cords, because we broke them all the time. We had the viola, the bass in one amp, a Silvertone, and there was another guitar in the bass amp, and I don't know where the voices came out of— you know, in those days, we used to think that if it's in a different channel, it's okay, right? But oh, boy, we must have sounded like shit! [Laughter]

The people that were there, Walter Cronkite and Jackie Kennedy, listening to Martha and the Vandellas' “Dancin' in the Streets,” that was easy; those were coming out of those little speakers on the projectors, there were three projectors. So, in general, what you're talking about is a pretty nasty sound environment.

PSF: The contention on the internet is that you have these tapes and you refuse to release them.

Look, believe me, there's a guy at Universal named Bill Evanson, and if there were any tapes he would have got ‘em out years ago. But the Gymnasium tapes are really good. “Walk It as You Talk It” is really crunchy. Great guitar sound. But no, I don't know where they are.

PSF: You've said that you find the cult of the Velvet Underground distasteful.

I don't know what I meant by that; it must have been in response to something. People are trying to pigeonhole you. . . it was just four guys, you know, that came together and did something for, like, three years? I'm proud of it. Really lucky to be around those people. You go looking for creative circles ‘cause you can't live without it. You've gotta find somebody in your trade. You know, I did it in London when I was in college; I used to go up to the West End all the time, there were artists and painters. But then getting to New York— when you saw it around Andy, you saw how he. . . nurtured it, in a way. Some people say he took advantage of it and controlled it. Valerie Solanas certainly did.

Also see an overview of Cale's solo career, an overview of his and Lou Reed's 70s output and an overview of Cale's wild late 70s years

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER