Brussels Summer Festival: John Cale
Brussels Summer Festival: John Cale
(© Shawn Brackbill)
This summer the influential rock musician John Cale will play just two concerts – and one of the two will be at the Brussels Summer Festival. His new record, which he describes as “mischievous”, will not be released until early October. “But the most important thing of all was to get the grooves right,” says the seventy-year-old with all the enthusiasm of a young pup.
Cale, a classically trained musician from Wales, the child of a mining family, blossomed in the New York avant-garde scene of the Sixties. Together with Lou Reed, he founded the experimental art-rock band The Velvet Underground, which came under the influence of the pop art icon Andy Warhol and, in its turn, inspired just about half the rock world. Kicked out of the band by Reed, Cale went on to make a name for himself over the following forty years as a producer – of Patti Smith and Iggy Pop’s debuts, for example – and as an idiosyncratic solo artist. At the age of seventy he is still contrary and busy, he told us when we rang him in Los Angeles, where he had just emerged from the studio. The same studio where he recently had a ball with Danger Mouse, the trendiest producer of the day. Does he never stop?
Are you sure the new record is finished?
John Cale: Yeah, it does look like I hang around in the studio all the time. But there is always something to be done: an extra remix here, a special recording there. It’s one unending request.
You have scrapped almost your entire European summer tour. Only the performances in Brussels and in Trutnov in the Czech Republic have survived. Why?
Cale: The release of the new album has been put back until early October. So we have now clustered the concerts we were still able to postpone around that date. For the remaining concerts I am going to try to bring a few extra musicians along, maybe a string quartet, some vocalists, or horns. So Brussels has nothing to worry about.
Your old friend Iggy Pop will be on the same stage two days later. He has just released an album of French chanson, without any record company.
Cale: Really? [laughs heartily] Ha ha! Wonderful! Go Iggy go!
All the artists you guided at the beginning of your career as a producer, those who are still alive, are doing well. Patti Smith has an excellent new record out too.
Cale: It is partly luck, of course, but on the other hand: even when I worked with them for the first time I realised that they had talent. They were like rocks: like me, they felt an inner need and drive to make music and to keep expressing themselves their whole lives long.
Where does that drive come from?
Cale: A part of it is anger; an even bigger part is impatience. I’m impatient all the time.
And that new record that’s still waiting for a release isn’t making things easier.
Cale: No, but it’s not that. Even when that record is out, that doesn’t mean that I have solved my issues. There is always something to be done, and time is limited.
The new record is called Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. They say you have returned to your pre-Velvet Underground period on it. But what is so “shifty” and “nookie” about it?
Cale: Just about everything. There is a lot experimentation and travel, from one location to another. Each song presents a different activity. And as for the past, there is a lot of viola on it. But the most important thing of all was to get the grooves right.
The first single is out already: “I Wanna Talk 2 U” is a collaboration with the hip producer Danger Mouse.
Cale: A really interesting man. We spent two days experimenting in the studio. That particular track struck me straight away. But despite the underlying subject matter, I have tried this time, above all, to keep the interplay between the songs interesting. I get bored pretty quickly. For me, every new song still has to be almost the opposite of the previous one. I have always wanted to find new ways of doing what I do. That is one of the things I have hung onto from my classical training. As a young composer I was expected to follow in the footsteps and to write in the style of the influential music teacher and composer Nadia Boulanger. Aaron Copland, the Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott – you can hear her style in their work. But I didn’t want to make derivative music, so I soon found myself in the avant-garde, and after that in rock ‘n’ roll. But even there…
…you preferred to trust in your instincts and in improvisation?
Cale: Exactly. Usually I just sit at the piano and improvise an idea, which I then start playing with. Then I get up, as sitting too long at the piano also starts to bore me, and I try out other instruments. I’m crazy about the new generation of MPCs [electronic drum machines, with which, these days, you can also make samples and manipulate all sorts of sounds – TP], which are very handy for creating a particular atmosphere. I use everything my imagination comes up with. Take “Vampire Café”, one of the new tracks: it has a groove that rumbles on, lurching and staggering. Lots of hip-hop artists work with that sort of groove. It is the swing button on the MPC. Really infectious!
You could see that same mischievousness, which you’ve put into your new record, in your old mentor Andy Warhol.
Cale: Yeah, I see what you mean. Andy also had that impish side to him. He was a bit of a rogue; he liked playing games. But he was honest too: he let you do what you wanted to do. Unless it was important: then he would indeed come and tell you that. But in general he just let us do what we wanted. I think, moreover, that nobody had to tell Lou (Reed) what he should do, never mind me. The band was also fairly unconventional internally and, admittedly, a bit unmanageable.
But it was Warhol’s decision, wasn’t it, to add the photographic model Nico to the line-up as singer and frontwoman?
Cale: Yeah, everyone was shocked; but I could see what Andy was up to. He was creating an image. As far as that was concerned, it was true, we were nowhere. A blonde bombshell like that in the middle of a group of musicians dressed in black transformed the image of the band. That initial shock was soon forgotten, anyway, when Lou fell in love with her and wrote some beautiful songs about that.
Recently Lou Reed was in Brussels with some old favourites and some controversial numbers from his collaboration with Metallica. Have you heard that last album?
Cale: No. I think I heard one track, but I didn’t understand it.
It seems you’re not the only one.
Cale: Mmm, I’m not so sure about that. The record got a lot of publicity. I think the bad reviews got the album more attention than it could have generated on its own. Smart.
10/8, 21.00, Paleizenplein/Place des Palais
Brussels Summer Festival • 10 > 19/8, €35 (Pass 10 days)/€17,50 (Pass 1 day 10 > 12/8)/12,50 (Pass 1 day 13 > 19/8), Paleizenplein/place des Palais, Kunstberg/Mont des Arts & Magic Mirrors, 070-25.20.20 (Sherpa), 0900-00.600 (Fnac), www.bsf.be
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