Critical Writings

Interviews: MUSIC

John Cale

Phone interviews are always weird. You can’t see the subject’s face, read their body language. Happily, this does not present any great problem when I chat to John Cale down a line from LA, where he is currently producing an album for Brooklyn based contender Marcus Congleton (aka Ambulance Ltd). While never less than acutely articulate, some documentary interviews I’ve seen have found the Welsh maestro in measured, even taciturn mode. But not today, as the 64-year-old former Velvet Underground lynchpin’s rich Eisteddfod tones boom through the ether with the enthusiasm of a 16-year-old who’s just formed his first band. He is obviously on a roll at the moment, and speaks directly and honestly.

The context of this exchange is the release of John’s forthcoming album Circus Live (EMI) on February 5th next, featuring performances culled from shows last year in Munich and The Paradiso, Amsterdam, over two CDs, plus a live DVD. Cale and his band will play a ten date UK tour at the end of January in support of this new collection, which kicks off in Wrexham in his native Wales, and takes in The Village, Dublin, on January 19th – before heading off for a six week slog around Europe.




Although no stranger to these shores in recent years – since 1999 he has played Vicar St. twice, plus the National Concert Hall – those were all solo acoustic affairs, and so this is the first time since a TV Club (before your time!) visit circa 1985 that Cale has appeared in Dublin with a band. Any recollections of that outing, John?

“Nah. None. Wait, was that the one where I sang ‘Danny Boy’?”

Er, yes John, and you were very drunk. These days, the man is the epitome of sobriety, ‘workaholic’ being the only term from the lexicon of addictive behaviour that could be levelled at him. So, why does he tour so much?

“’Cos I like it. And I really like the musicians I’m playing with at the moment, which was one of the reasons for doing a live album now, to have a record of some of these performances.” The personnel he is speaking of are: Dustin Boyer – guitar, Joseph Karnes – bass and Michael Jerome – drums. Unlike 1979’s Sabotage/Live, an album of previously unreleased material recorded live with backing musicians in New York’s legendary CBGB’s, Circus Live is a career retrospective, a kind of electric companion piece to 1992’s acoustic piano/guitar live assembly of highpoints from his back catalogue, Fragments From a Rainy Season – but with only four songs carrying over from that cherry-picking of his total oeuvre to this one.

“It begins with a drone, and ends with a drone. I’m really into drones.” He’s referring to the viola (“the saddest of all instruments”) he uses for his radical rereading of old Velvets’ standard, ‘Venus in Furs’. Was choosing to perform this song, along with ‘Femme Fatale’ (which segues into the little-heard ‘Funeral Rosegarden of Sores’ on the record), both from his pre-solo days, a laying claim to songwriting credits he feels are rightfully his, I ask, hinting at his long-standing tussles with fellow ex-Velvet, Lou Reed. His reply is diplomatic,

“Well, it’s a laying claim to the arrangements. But all the songs on this album have different arrangements from the originals,” he continues. “With ‘Gun’ (from 1974’s Eno & Manzanera produced Fear) it’s like a new song, we don’t do it every night, because we don’t know where it’s gonna go.” “So it’s like jazz improvisation?” “Yeah,” he laughs, “Miles Davis territory.” It sounds like he feels he’s finally found the players to interpret his songs with new twists, new dimensions and new emotions. When he looks back, does he think in terms of albums, or individual songs, when he’s deciding on what set-list to play?

“It’s drama. The shape of the set changes every night. Sometimes the encore is ‘Hush’, sometimes ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, sometimes ‘Leaving It Up To You’.”

Have improvements in the technology, which he’s always kept up with, made it easier to replicate the range of effects obtainable in the studio in a live setting?

“Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get into the provinces on this tour, and play in smaller venues, because of the production. We have a lot of gear, and we wanted to be sure we’d be playing in places where it would work. I’ve got this great new piece of gear, which is gonna be a lot of fun to use on stage. It’s like this studio I’m working in now, it’s got these old machines – like an old Wurlitzer and an old Hammond organ, and they just don’t sound like anything else. You get a unique sound in each studio.”

Of all the production work he’s done (his credits include debuts by Iggy & The Stooges, Jonathan Richman and Patti Smith) what was his favourite experience?

“Nico. The Marble Index. She allowed my European sensibility to come through.”

So, which does he prefer, working in the studio or playing live?

“Live is always better.”

Given this attitude, you’d be thoroughly unwise to miss him and his band when they hit town. I finish up by asking does he ever intend to stop? “Why, are you gonna stop? Even the government doesn’t want you to retire these days. They’re happy if you keep paying tax.”

He is clearly a man who is doing what he loves.

First published in Magill, December 2006/January 2007














Critical Writings
Travel Writings