PlayLouder NOVEMBER 6, 2003 - by Cormac Heron


In the first of an irregular new series, PlayLouder got Cormac Heron, the weird Irish guy from next door to hook up with Velvet Underground legend John Cale and ask him lots of impertinent questions. Discover: why he fell out with Eno! How he met Andy Warhol! And the crying shame of how the girl's dormitory in Goldsmith's was pulled down!

Cormac Heron: Hello. How are you?

John Cale: Yeah, the average.

Cormac Heron: You're playing tomorrow night in Rotterdam?

John Cale: Yeah. I've got to get out of here tomorrow morning early.

Cormac Heron: How did you first get involved in music?

John Cale: I came from a musical background. My family was musical. My uncles were in the coal mine and they pulled their socks up and got into university and went elsewhere and y'know it was a musical household so I didn't have any problems immersing myself in music.

Cormac Heron: What did these uncles play? Were they Welsh singers or...?

John Cale: No. One was a violinist and one was of them was an engineer for the BBC. That was the background. My mother was a teacher so there was always this thirst for knowledge around. And a fascination with it like an inner awe and what more could you learn from the world. That was so fascinating.

Cormac Heron: Yeah. So why the viola? Was it a bit of a joke or was it because you were the ugliest kid in the class?

John Cale: Sheer luck. They didn't have any other instruments.

Cormac Heron: My mate Dave up in Leeds who is a double bass player wanted to know why you took up the viola.

John Cale: Those viola jokes are just like banjo jokes.

Cormac Heron: Hey, I play the banjo a bit!

John Cale: Oh, so you know some jokes there as well.

Cormac Heron: I didn't know there was any going around.

John Cale: Oh yeeeeeaahh there are.

Cormac Heron: I just know drummer jokes.

John Cale: Yeah, they're all the same. How many violinists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Cormac Heron: ...?

John Cale: There was a Russian double bass player that Brian Eno and I ran into when recording Words For The Dying. He had gigantic hands. He had hands like spades. I remember before I met him I was listening to the radio in New York and they played his record. He used to play Pagannini on the bass. I got to Moscow and I asked, "Do you know this guy?" And someone says "Yeah, he's in the next building. He works next door!" I told Brian about him and I said, "You gotta hear this guy play. He is just amazing! He plays the double bass but he plays Pagannini on this thing!"

So we set it up and arranged it and it was really sad. I mean the guy walked in a tuxedo and sat himself up and brought all the armors with him and set the armors up on chairs behind him in a semi-circle and he stood in the middle and he started playing the bass. We noticed there was something wrong and also we noticed that the people that worked with him were making fun of him. What was happening was the guy had a disease called lupus and his whole body was changing. You know the bones kind of crumble and they swell up. And his hands were gigantic. Very efficient in playing what he was doing but his face had altered. And he had this sort of distorted flat face. And it was horrible the way they were making fun of him.

We have him in the documentary - we decided to write a song with him. And we wrote a song called Year Of The Patriot. He plays on it.

Cormac Heron: You sort of set a trend by going to Goldsmith's University. Damien Hirst and half of Blur have been there since. What brought you from South Wales to London? Was it because your uncles went on to university?

John Cale: Yeah, well I was a pretty bad student. I didn't get the grades enough to go into university so I just got the best I could. I really persuaded the deputy warden in an interview that Goldsmiths was the right thing for me. I really wanted to be a composer and they gave me the opportunity.

Cormac Heron: What did you say in the interview to convince them you were the man?

John Cale: I talked about everything but music. I talked about sociology and philosophy.

Cormac Heron: Have you been to Goldsmiths lately?

John Cale: I did go down to Goldsmiths and I thought my God nothing has changed. I mean the traffic is still shit. The way the whole convergence outside the building and everything else. The women's dorm is gone which is a crying shame.

Cormac Heron: Why was that?

John Cale: Well, it was a crying... the women's whoa!!! ...I used to run upstairs up to the art department all the time. It was a lot of fun. They were all wearing mini skirts and you know, all the action was upstairs in the art department. I mean you're around all these different kind of influences...

Cormac Heron: Then you were awarded the scholarship in Boston. Do you think you would have gone to the States regardless?

John Cale: Yeah, I would have. I was determined. I just knew there was a twenty-four hour society.

Cormac Heron: Heh! Heh! That's why I'm in London.

John Cale: Yeah, ah ha ha! You know what I mean? Yeah, London's got a lot of energy. The Asian music departments especially. Harmonal. It's quite exciting.

Cormac Heron: So then you left Boston for New York and formed The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed. Exactly how did you meet Andy Warhol?

John Cale: He came to a gig, he saw us play. Said, "Hey I'm putting a show together. We want a band and so you look good." And then he started to put Nico in the band, we were thrown through a hoop. You get the idea from Andy that he really had an eye and ear for spectacular combinations. He put the right medium into the mix that would make it very interesting.

Cormac Heron: Tell me about the link between the psychologists and The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

John Cale: It was Andy! As soon as we attached ourselves to Andy and we became The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He was invited then to participate at several conventions. One of the conventions was for psychiatrists. Lou, having had a painful experience, a brutal experience at the hands of psychiatrists with shock treatment, was beside himself with glee at the idea of going and doing this. And we relished it. We went and did the show. We'd play in the grand ballroom, with candelabra, etc, etc. And we set up our amplifiers and we performed a blistering set and we assaulted their senses.

Cormac Heron: If Warhol was a workaholic and Reed a layabout, what were you?

John Cale: No! No! None of us were layabouts. Not a single one of us! We were all into working all the time. Playing all the time. I mean one of the benefits of going with Andy was that we got to play more. Otherwise we would have been languishing, waiting for gigs in coffee houses.

Cormac Heron: And he was getting you the gigs in the art galleries of course.

John Cale: Yeah, not the right venues for us but a good start for publicity.

Cormac Heron: At what point did you notice The Velvet Underground getting the praise it deserved?

John Cale: We got a lot of television around at Andy's. So Andy got the television and we were there part of it. When Lou wrote Walk On The Wild Side he got publicity for himself. But I always thought that whenever he got publicity for himself The Velvet Underground wasn't that far behind and it always rubbed off. Whenever I got publicity for myself it was the same. So there was always a trade-off.

Cormac Heron: Did you have any qualms about leaving the band?

John Cale: Who knows? There is no way of telling whether I actually helped the whole process along or not. I was not happy with the new manager Steve Sesnik. I thought he was a snake of the first order. I knew that Lou brought him into the picture to make the whole band subservient and break the deal that we had.

The Velvet Underground had a deal. Everybody got paid the same. And everybody got paid a percentage of the publishing and the royalties exactly the same. It was a very equitable situation. If you have a songwriter that really is not happy with that and thinks that he should get more because he writes the songs but you don't want to break the mould then you have problems.

I don't think he ever did break the deal with Sterling and Mo, though, when I was gone. When The Velvets reunited in 1995 that was attempted and he was shot down and he was really angry about it. At the end you know Sesnik turned on Lou and when he did I thought it was poetic justice.

Cormac Heron: After having left The Velvet Underground and recorded Vintage Violence, did you have any idea who your audience was??

John Cale: I had no idea. It was kinda really proving to myself that I could write the songs more than anything else. I did a lot of production too. I mean mainly it was really useful all the classical training and improvising. That you see things structurally and you listen to things in a structural way.

Cormac Heron: You produced Iggy and The Stooges around that time. Were they professional?

John Cale: Very! We didn't have time to mess around, we had about four or five days in the studio and completed it in that time.

Cormac Heron: Would you say that when Paris 1919 came out you were the most pleased with that than any other release you had been involved with up until that point of your life?

John Cale: I tell you, until I started performing live on stage in my own right none of that seemed real to me apart from Paris 1919. I was in a very difficult position. I was sensitive to the fact that I was A&R and a producer to Warners and being an artist on the same label is not a good position to be in. Van Dyke was in the same position which didn't work out very well. I liked being from LA and from that community but I was twitchy about having both positions with the company. One thing doesn't rub off on the other. And all the bad things from one does rub off on the other.

Cormac Heron: Was that the decision for you to quit LA for London?

John Cale: No, that was a decision to really go and confront my demons and should have gone to pot regarding performing the songs and putting a band together and going on tour and do what everybody else does.

Cormac Heron: What you're saying is that the music you had been making had only just become real at that stage?

John Cale: It was the experience of fronting a band myself and not being in a collaborative position like with Lou or anybody else.

Cormac Heron: It's quite interesting how the west coast of America is like a dream in your recording career.

John Cale: Yeah, it really was. It was a little surreal.

Cormac Heron: And now it's got Schwarzenegger as a Governor.

John Cale: Oh please! Don't go there.

Cormac Heron: So you moved back to London. Is it true that all you had brought with you was a case full of Beach Boys vinyl?

John Cale: I did actually. I lived in my basement flat in Shepherd's Bush and just stacked the turntable up with Beach Boys.

Cormac Heron: How do you see the trilogy of albums you released under Island Records during the years of 1974 and 1975?

John Cale: That was one of the most productive periods because I had a solid contract with the label. You know I knew that I had three albums to do. Ever since then it has become a little sporadic.

Cormac Heron: Do you ever listen to those records?

John Cale: Yeah, I do... I mean I do, I listen to them. There are some strange songs on there.

Cormac Heron: That's an understatement. Tell me about the production processes. How did you record those albums?

John Cale: It was pretty slap dash. I mean most of the songs were written in the studio, Engine especially. It was whatever you could do with a drum, bass, piano and guitar.

Cormac Heron: What's that song, The Jeweller?

John Cale: Yeah, that was to attempt to do what The Gift did. I had a written a short story and I thought it was very nice and I thought I'd record it.

Cormac Heron: So where did those sounds accompanying your story come from?

John Cale: That was Brian Eno.

Cormac Heron: How did you hook up with Brian Eno?

John Cale: Well, it was suggested by Island. I didn't know at the time. I had seen him when he was signed to Warners. I had seen them at the Roxy in LA and I knew Bryan Ferry so I remembered him from before. Actually that first Roxy album was something which I was up for producing but Chris Thomas got it.

Cormac Heron: My favourite piece of that entire collection is the guitar solo on Gun.

John Cale: It was done live. Phil (Manzanera) was coming out of the amp and into Brian's little suitcase synthesizer and it was being treated by Brian as he played it.

Cormac Heron: Do you know the name of the suitcase synthesizer?

John Cale: No, I don't. It was one of the earliest musical synthesizers that came in the form of a briefcase.

Cormac Heron: Music For A New Society is described as your horribly bleak masterpiece. How do you rate it as a disc today?

John Cale: Paris 1919, Music For A New Society and HoboSapiens are probably the strongest albums

Cormac Heron: None of the Island releases at all?

John Cale: Well, then you're getting down into a niche. I mean those stand out to me as very hard, very tough albums.

Cormac Heron: What was the deal with the Dylan Thomas' work on Words For The Dying? Did you write the music after having read the poetry?

John Cale: Well you can't miss the poetry growing up in Wales.

Cormac Heron: Did you choose the poems and then write the music around them?

John Cale: No! No! I actually sat down one night in a studio and decided I was going to set all of Dylan Thomas' poems to music so I went Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! and then chose which of them that actually worked.

Cormac Heron: In 1990 you collaborated with Brian Eno on Wrong Way Up. I have a quote here: "Cale is sort of a genius - my image of working with him is of him playing a part on the keyboard whilst talking on the phone to somebody and reading a newspaper at the same time. And he'll play great parts that way, too - music comes very easily to him, and he has to take up the rest of his intelligence by doing other things at the same time."

John Cale: Yeah, well that's the description from someone who approaches music from a very healthy point of view. He's not a musician but he likes the fact that he's not a musician and he enjoys it because it creates a distance between the task and the personality. It's kind of a German approach to things but it's a very healthy way of looking at it. Most people when they're doing music, they don't just focus on the music, they're making notes or they're thinking about what they're going to do that evening or whatever. It's not like brain surgery where you have to focus on just that one thing.

Cormac Heron: Do you find yourself drifting away when you're playing live? Do you think of things to do like...

John Cale: Hanging out the washing? Yeah, I do drift.

Cormac Heron: I think it's inevitable that one does drift.

John Cale: Until you've found out you've played the same song twice.

Cormac Heron: Or you've left a bridge out.

John Cale: Yeah, exactly.

Cormac Heron: Did you have a falling out with Eno after Wrong Way Up?

John Cale: Yeah, well he reneged on a deal. The whole idea was that I had just done Songs For Drella. I was interested in presenting plans with a fait accompli of an album and a show built around it. And we talked about it - that's where the album cover came from. We were trying to base it on a pack of cards. And I said "Look, y'know I had gone through this thing with Drella. We played it five times in its entire existence. I don't want to get involved in making another album and we don't perform it and I want to have your word that we will perform once in San Francisco, New York, Boston, London, Paris, Berlin and that's it." And yeah, he said "OK" and he sort of changed his mind about it and I got pissed off about that. I thought "Here we are. You know we've got a great album here and we're not doing anything about going out and performing it." He doesn't like performing so I can't blame him. He really has a problem with personal appearances.

Cormac Heron: In what way?

John Cale: He doesn't like getting up on stage. He likes being in the background. He likes being a producer. He likes being in a studio but doesn't like getting up on stage

Cormac Heron: Is it stage fright?

John Cale: No, I think it's fight between the private and public persona.

Cormac Heron: I put that album up there. I mean it has suffered a little in terms of dated production; it sounds very much like an '80s release even though it was recorded in 1990. Would you be tempted to redo any of those songs?

John Cale: I am not tempted to do redo very much of anything.

Cormac Heron: But there's some clinkers in there.

John Cale: Nyaa! Ha ha! Yeah, I think so.

Cormac Heron: You got into soundtrack writing in the '90s. How did that happen?

John Cale: I've always done a lot of it but a lot of it happened because of France. There were directors in France that were making films that were really well suited to solo piano. A lot of them were solo piano scores.

Cormac Heron: What was the order? Would you meet the director? Would you read the film? Would you have the musical ideas?

John Cale: Somebody would give you an outline. They'd show you the film and say, "We want music here, we want music there and there." And then they'd book you and on you go.

Cormac Heron: So you'd write the music in the studio?

John Cale: Sometimes, yeah.

Cormac Heron: It's not like you had ideas in your head and then you thought "Well that could work there."

John Cale: I think they wanted improvisation so that's why they asked me to do it.

Cormac Heron: In 1996 you released Walking On Locusts. Why had it been so long since you released a solo rock record?

John Cale: I had a studio in the meantime. I did a lot of film scores in the studio and I looked at the amount of time that my engineer was spending on tech support and then gave up the studio. In the meantime software got a lot more stable. Everything got a lot more stronger. As I did more and more film scores using the software I got faster at it and better at it and that's how HoboSapiens came to be, and 5 Tracks. 5 Tracks was finished last Christmas and HoboSapiens was finished in May. It could mean that we could move inside that technology that really determined how much work that I could get done. I got a lot of it done very quickly.

From Walking On Locusts onwards, it was the film scores in there that really helped drive the technology and the software and made me very familiar with it and I got fast at it and better at it. When it came the time to writing songs it seemed to be a piece of cake writing music. The way in which that genre of work... it was more suited to me and the way in which I like to work.

Cormac Heron: You mixed some samples from Eat/Kiss in with Walking On Locusts to bridge some songs. Are you aware of which songs I am referring to?

John Cale: Aaaaah... no. But I remember that there was some of that. I just haven't heard the album in a long time so I don't remember.

Cormac Heron: Set Me Free is personal favourite of my woman's...

John Cale: Have you heard the hidden track on HoboSapiens?

Cormac Heron: Yeah, I have. I am trying to get it onto my computer but I don't know how to do it yet.

John Cale: You can't do it. You've got to play it on the CD player. You've got to go back four minutes and forty seconds from the first track.

Cormac Heron: Yeah, well, I found out there was a hidden track but I didn't know what it was so I told my woman and I rewinded it and on comes her favourite song and she was beaming with joy, you know?

John Cale: Nyahh haha! I like the way "I told my woman." I like the sort of pioneering sort of spirit in which you talk about "my woman" like you got a wagon.

Cormac Heron: Man, you got to treat her.

John Cale: I hear it! "A beaming smile" you said, huh?

Cormac Heron: Yeah. So you've just signed a new deal with EMI from which both 5 Tracks and HoboSapiens have been released under. When will you do your next recordings?

John Cale: I don't need to do them until May/June so I have got a lot of touring to do and then I'll go into the studio and hopefully it will be just as quick and painless.

Cormac Heron: The original recording of Dying On The Vine has a somewhat dated production but then you play it on the piano and it breathes a new life into it. Do you see the same thing with tracks on HoboSapiens, that the songs are in their infancy and that you are going to breathe new life into them?

John Cale: I think I am about to give them new life tomorrow in Rotterdam.

Cormac Heron: I saw you perform on Sunday night at LSO St. Lukes for the BBC 4 special. Are you enjoying playing live now?

John Cale: Yeah, now that I have got myself a fresh new band that pay attention, it should be good. We were very young, that was like the third gig that you saw us at St. Lukes. They're going to get really good. They're all excellent players.

Cormac Heron: I notice that the drummer didn't have any cymbals.

John Cale: That has something to do with me. He asked me if I liked them and I said that I hated them and he said, "I thought so." They grate!

Cormac Heron: It's great that you're paring down to the bones of it.

John Cale: A little bit.

Cormac Heron: I love your electric guitar playing. I noticed that you only played one song on the electric on Sunday night.

John Cale: Yeah, I'm not bad as a rhythm guitar player I must say. Punch it out!

Cormac Heron: Oh, that was a thing! You ended the Sunday's gig punching the air shouting "STOP!" You should start a gig like that and then take it from there because you're killing people from the start you know?

John Cale: The way people approach the gigs is not enough. They want to either go on from there. That's the low-point and I managed to avoid that so far.

Cormac Heron: I was doing the usual post-mortem after any gig with my friends. We sort of established that you said on the last line of Thoughtless Kind, "The breast of times are the thoughtless kind."

John Cale: Yeah.

Cormac Heron: Was that intentional?

John Cale: It was a comment about all the difficult times of the past.

Cormac Heron: But you said "the breast of times."

John Cale: No.

Cormac Heron: Well I thought you did and then my friend said you definitely said it so...

John Cale: I didn't... I'm going to have to listen to the tape before they get it out.

Cormac Heron: I could swear that you actually said that.

John Cale: I did?

Cormac Heron: It was quite funny because you were so po-faced.

John Cale: Well, I don't know how they're going to change it.

Cormac Heron: I don't think they will you know? But you have a voice of a landscape, it covers so many tonal regions so it's hard to pick up the subtleties.

John Cale: Well somebody's been listening very hard.

Cormac Heron: Somebody's been listening for a long time.