INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
What's On NOVEMBER 14, 1990 - by William Higham
Musical bogeyman John Cale has a new album out with Brian Eno. He talks to William Higham about the new LP and when the chickens come home to roost...
John Cale is not a man to sit around twiddling his thumbs. A founder member of the hugely influential Velvet Underground, Cale has also recorded a vast number of solo LPs (ranging from avant-garde Classical music through punk and hard rock to introspective ballads) and collaborations with Terry Riley, Bob Neuwirth, and most recently, his old Velvets pal Lou Reed on the critically acclaimed Andy Warhol tribute Songs For Drella.
Born in South Wales in 1942, he was a child prodigy, performing piano pieces on the BBC at the tender age of eight. After three years studying musicology at London's Goldsmiths College under Aaron Copeland, he went to the US and performed with such eminent composers as John Cage and La Monte Young before meeting up with Lou Reed and discovering the heady world of rock 'n' roll in The Velvet Underground.
His latest project is an LP written and performed in collaboration with another musical all-rounder: Brian Eno. Entitled Wrong Way Up, the LP was originally intended as a stage performance where, Cale says, "There'd be two guys on stage, playing cards and talking about sexual preferences". But so far it hasn't progressed further than the vinyl stage. Such a performance wouldn't be out of the question, though - if time permits...
"There's just never enough time to do things right. We had only ten days to record the album because Brian had to go to Italy for the opening of his gallery video exhibit and I had to go to Bath to produce a Spanish band called Los Renaldos, then there was the Songs For Drella promotion and The Velvets reunion in Cartier."
Time, it seems, is always against him. Even during the interview he kept fidgeting and glancing at his watch, as if there was something much more important he should be doing elsewhere, rather than promoting this collaboration with Eno.
Cale met Eno in June 1974 when they took part in a special concert that also featured ex-Velvets chanteuse Nico and acclaimed folkie Kevin Ayers. Cale had heard of Brian's exploits as the feather boa-wearing keyboard player in Roxy Music, and after the ordeal of the hastily arranged concert - "I don't know how we got through that gig: no-one remembered any of the chord changes and there was so much attitude" - he invited him to play on his much-acclaimed album Fear. From then on he became a regular contributor to Cale's work.
"He used to show up with his computer in his case, looking like a bank manager. He'd put the briefcase on the desk and open it out and plug it in. The keyboard'd be really hard to play because it was so small. I'd say 'Come in on Thursday at twelve o'clock. I've got four empty tracks - plug into those and I'll see you at six o'clock.' He said he wasn't a musician, just a wholesale amateur, but he was very effective on a musical level and that's all that mattered to me".
The new album was recorded in Eno's residential studios in Sussex and has a correspondingly relaxed feel to it.
"The setting was idyllic. It was springtime: no wonder the album has that feeling about it. It was really beautiful. I mean, you don't normally even come across studios with windows in them!"
"We threw things back and forth constantly. Maybe with one song I'd get the whole verse, but Brian would add a lot of bits around that. We'd send tapes to each other and call each other up, saying try this or that. We did a lot more than ended up on the album. There's stuff that's still sitting there waiting to get finished."
Time permitting, that is. Indeed, it is probably because of his dislike of time-wasting that he views everything he does as a one-off performance. Many of his recordings, from The Velvets onwards, have been done in one take. Songs For Drella, for instance, was originally intended just as a single performance.
"When you perform, it's like having all the chickens coming home to roost. You have to let all the different parts of your personality stand up when you do that.
"With Cordoba from the new album, it was one of those cases where you turn the tape on and that's it. It was important to stand still while doing that vocal and not push it anywhere, so the words just sat there and presented themselves. That way everything that was going on around the track musically would colour what was happening in the lyrics, so there were a lot of overtones coming out of what were pretty simple sentences. That's the way a lot of my songs happen."
It's a form of premeditated spontaneity: setting up everything in the studio just right so that you can capture that special moment. Cale is clearly no stranger to the studio. Aside from his own recordings, he has produced a number of albums for other artists. And the producer's role, in Cale's eyes?
"When you produce a band you bring something out in them. It's like being a Svengali. You've got to show them a side of themselves that makes them feel stronger and also makes an image engaging and rich enough for people to find variety in them."
Interestingly enough, his most famous productions have been debut albums for artists who didn't find success until later on. The first albums by Squeeze, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop (with The Stooges), Jonathan Richman (with his Modern Lovers) and, most recently, hipsters The Happy Mondays were all Cale productions.
"I think those albums were more art statements than anything else, and I think there's more room for doing that on a first record, when a band isn't sure of themselves. What takes over with bands is the business side: I mean, they really want success. No matter what life extension properties you give their music by giving them an artistic level or sheen, invariably they're not as impressed by that than if the damn thing's in the charts!"
Chart success is not something that seems of great interest to Cale. The single from the new album - One Word - for instance, although a great song, is unlikely to be a hit. So what is it that motivates him these days?
"Anger. Generally that's my motivation. It has been for a long time. I try to get it out of my system, but I don't think enough of it does get out. I don't do it for an audience - I do it to get something off my chest. I do it to help me."
As the pre-arranged half-hour is over, Cale leaps up to make a business call from the nearest available phone. Time, it seems, waits for no one - especially not John Cale...
Wrong Way Up is available now on Land Records.