In his memoir, “What’s Welsh For Zen,” revealed in 1999, John Cale tells a narrative a few occasion that Columbia Information threw for Bob Dylan on the Whitney Museum within the mid-eighties. Beneath a financial institution of televisions displaying Dylan’s face, a staggering assortment of stars queued up for picture ops: Iggy Pop and David Bowie, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, Yoko Ono and Judy Collins. Someplace within the line was John Cale, very drunk. “It was one of many instances after I fully misplaced shallowness,” Cale writes. Lou Reed, his estranged good friend and former bandmate, walked by and shot him a glance, “as if to say, Fuck you,” Cale recollects. By the point Cale reached the top of the road, he was standing with Speaking Heads, “but it surely appeared to me that each one the photographers have been actually taking photos of Speaking Heads and Bob Dylan, and I used to be excluded.”
Cale, who has launched greater than a dozen solo studio albums—amongst them “Paris 1919,” “Worry,” and “Music for a New Society”—and composed the scores for dozens of movies, together with “Basquiat” and “American Psycho,” is one thing of a musical Zelig. Born to a miner and a schoolteacher in Wales, he took to music early, becoming a member of the Nationwide Youth Orchestra of Wales, as a violist, when he was 13. After finding out at Goldsmiths, in London, he got here to the USA with the assistance of Aaron Copland. Cale was an early fanatic for the work of John Cage and, in 1963, joined La Monte Younger’s avant-garde group, finally known as the Theatre of Everlasting Music. Two years later, with Lou Reed, he co-founded the Velvet Underground; the band got here to work intently with Andy Warhol. Cale has additionally produced albums by the Stooges, the Fashionable Lovers, and Patti Smith, amongst others. He’s performed an orchestra of drones and he has even walked the runway for Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto.
Regardless of all this, he appears oddly underappreciated. (David Bowie as soon as known as him “probably the most underrated musicians in rock historical past.”) Once I requested him about this lately, he stated it didn’t hassle him. “What I did was work very laborious and do as a lot as I might despite all of the difficulties, so I don’t have an axe to grind,” he advised me, on Zoom, from his recording studio in Los Angeles. Cale, now eighty, will launch “Mercy,” his first album of recent materials in a decade, this month. A slinky, nocturnal assortment evoking bombed-out buildings, seedy bars, and vampiric criminals, the album is steeped within the paranoia and insanity of latest American life. Additionally it is an affidavit to Cale’s enduring enchantment to youthful artists: Weyes Blood, Laurel Halo, Animal Collective, and others make visitor appearances. In late December, we spoke not solely concerning the new album however about rising up in Wales, his friendship with David Bowie, the methods during which he and Lou Reed’s legacies are ceaselessly entwined, and the rapacious urge for food for the brand new that retains him going. Our dialog has been edited for size and readability.
I used to be actually struck by how apocalyptic the brand new album is—not solely lyrically however even the sound of it, with the glassy synths on “Time Stands Nonetheless,” for example, or the droning strings on “Marilyn Monroe’s Legs.” How a lot of what was happening on this planet over the previous couple of years knowledgeable your songwriting?
Oh, very a lot so. I imply, it’s one thing that climbed up my neck. This album began about two and a half years in the past. I didn’t wish to go that route however in the long run it was not possible to keep away from it—what occurred on this planet took over. The medical facet of the world and the noisy facet of the world with weapons going off. A few of these songs weren’t a direct response to what was happening, but it surely had all the weather of it.
The opening traces of “Mercy”—“lives do matter, lives don’t matter”—recollects that interval, in the summertime of 2020, and the protests towards police violence that have been raging on the time.
You couldn’t keep away from it. The album was actually dictated by what was happening with COVID and the harm that everyone was feeling, and I simply went with it.
The album has these relatively sinister photos—melting ice caps and animals migrating and liquor and weapons. However amid all of this you handle to convey a way of hope as properly.
There was the reacting to the world facet of it, after which there was additionally the fantasy facet of it—like in “Marilyn Monroe’s Legs,” which got here from being within the studio with a bunch of string gamers. I used to be actually pleased with every little thing they have been doing. I had them improvise drones. There was a whole lot of depth in how they approached the duty. Ache and anger are stunning in the fitting strokes.
One other placing factor concerning the album is how up to date it sounds. Among the beats evoke hip-hop, and also you recruited various youthful artists to collaborate with you on it. What retains you pushing and difficult your self at this level?
There’s a whole lot of causes for going on this course. The method was to not write a tune after which have so-and-so take part. I knew a whole lot of these artists earlier than from collaborating in some Velvet Underground retrospectives over time. I assumed that the construction of the factor was one thing they might all method and luxuriate in.
What made you consider Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood for “Story of Blood”? It’s an awesome pairing, along with her voice form of gliding round yours, creating this spectral feeling.
Yeah, the vary—her vocal vary is nice. There have been many various features to the tune that have been actually pinpointed by how she sang it. She has a really elegant and passionate method to singing. It could be raining exterior, however her voice transcends all of that. Her tonality was the proper match to convey the darkish and the sunshine into the thread. Her appreciation of harmonic dissonance was precisely what I used to be after.
On “Moonstruck (Nico’s Track)” and “Night Crawling,” songs about Nico and David Bowie respectively, you conjure these expensive folks out of your previous and pay homage to them. Was there one thing particularly that compelled you to revisit them on this second?
Within the case of “Moonstruck,” I didn’t actually understand it was about Nico till I completed it. And it was bothering me that I didn’t fairly know the place it will sit within the album—however then abruptly there it was, I couldn’t keep away from it anymore. The principle character within the tune appeared bent on self-destruction, however all of the whereas she really left an inventive footprint that solely grew as time went on. I wished to light up her groundbreaking contributions to true independence. She craved respect however solely on her personal phrases. That’s after I knew it was about Nico.
I used to be considering quite a bit about how she evolved as a songwriter, and it slapped me within the face, desirous about these songs she wrote and the way they only acquired higher. And I began laughing about it—right here was this German nationwide writing songs in English. I used to be completely satisfied to see that she spent a lot time growing one thing that was, I feel, actually for Jim Morrison. She was at all times completely satisfied to speak about his function in her growth.
You’ve stated that “Evening Crawling” is concerning the instances you spent with Bowie in New York within the seventies, collaborating and partying collectively—and perhaps a bit extra of the latter than the previous. Such as you, Bowie consistently advanced. Did you are feeling a kinship with him?
Completely. He was somebody who was not gonna go away. He intentionally went for classes of songwriting, and there was a depth to what he did. He patterned himself after a sort of overt musical-theatre style, however deconstructed it so it grew to become one thing significantly his personal. He crafted his photos so rigorously, as particular identities the place these songs lived. They have been notated by character names, like Ziggy, Skinny White Duke, et cetera. So I wished to take that on.