John Cale Interview

JOHN CALE: A musical journey from Xenakis, La Monte Young, Velvet Underground and back to his roots in Wales. (Interview fom 2001)

I had always heard of John Cale’s music since I was in the first grade in elementary school. We had the first We had the first album by the Velvet Underground with the now famous banana record jacket by Andy Warhol.

We often passed by when the Velvet Underground was playing in the Dom below New York’s famous dance club, Electric Circus. (I was also at Max’s Kansas City with my step-father and mother when the Velvet Underground were playing their last shows with Lou Reed). And when I was in junior high school, I bought and listened to all of solo albums from “Vintage Violence” to “Helen of Troy”. Along with the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed’s solo album, they became one of my most important influences as lyricist and composer.

A:Are you living in New York now?

JC: Yeah

A: And you often go back to Wales?

JC: Well, I have family there, so whenever I can.I just found that I have a whole side of family that I didn’t know about when I wrote my autobiography. On my father’s side. I found a lot of information. That I was wrong in certain things. And right in other things. Things that bothered me, when I was a teenager, which I am now clear about. There’s an extended family on my father’s side that I’d really ignored.

I didn’t like my grandmother very much at all. Because my grandmother, she blamed me for my mother’s illness in front of me. At the time, I didn’t understand. My mother had a bisectomy. And in that kind of society, it’s so conservative. Nobody talked about what that was. Nobody talked about beast cancer. It was forbidden. So nobody knew. Nobody understood. Nobody explained anything. And here is a 13-year-old boy who is trying tyo grow up, and is very close to his mother. His mother disappears. And he is at loss as to what’s going on. So then, on my father’s side, my aunt told me the other day that at my father’s funeral, my mother told her something very revealing. My father who worked in the coal mines came from Cardiff, which was English speaking, but when he married my mother and came to live with her in Garmont in South Wales, which is Welsh speaking, my grandmother banned the use of English in the house, so that effectively shut him up.


I was so disgusted when I heard that.

So you weren’t communicating with your father much

JC: Not in Welsh. I couldn’t speak Welsh to him because he couldn’t speak any Welsh. And I didn’t learn English until I was seven at school. There’s that period there when communication was a problem. That sort of cleared up that whole period where it was murky.

There’s a parallel here between language and music. Music itself is a language that can transcend English or Welsh, and the ease with which I could use it to communicate was a comfort I found nowhere else.

A:So when you grew up what sort of music did you listen to.

JC: Thev radio. A lot of information came across from the radio.

I come from a very strict part of Wales, where it was very religious. “Don’t play the radio on a Sunday.” “But it’s Bach.” “No.” In Wales, when I was 15, 16, 17, I used to lie in my bed with the covers piled up to bury the sound to listen to the Voice of America and Radio Luxembourg, just in awe of what is elsewhere.

That song in my CD, “Music for a new Society”, “Rise, Sam and Rimsky-Korsakov” . That’s Sam Shepard’s poem, but it really captures that frame of mind, when your entire information about the world comes from the radio. Just in awe of what was elsewhere. And I’ve always enjoyed going to dfferent places. Wherever I am, just listening to conversations and watching people, you get so much information about people and they’re basically the same all the world around, only expressed differently. But it fascinated me. Eavesdropping in restaurants, and so on.

A* Was there not much traditional Welsh music

JC: Plenty. I was part of some of it. I just hired as a viola player playing in religious services, for oratorios, Handel’s messiah, and all those things in local orchestras.

A: I meant jigs

JC: Those were the gigs. There were no clubs.

A: I meant Celtic Jigs

JC: No. That was an Irish thing. I think Welsh things were more singing.


Ayuo: What were some of your early music like before you went to New York City? Were your early compositions more melodic like the orchestral songs you would later set to Dylan Thomas’ poems in the 90s in your albaum, “Words For The Dying”?

John Cale: Dylan Thomas is like what knowing Goethe is in Germany. Because it played such a major role (in my youth), I wanted to tackle it. I came at it, not from a composer’s point of view when I learned it. When I was a kid at school, I was just overwhelmed by the noise of the language. What is in the language. So trying to put more music into something that has so much music already in it is like a tough challenge.

When I started working on those, Allen Lanier from Blue Oyster Cult and I went messing around in his studio and got the book The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. And the only way to deal with it was the way we did it. Which was to do all of it. We took the collected poems, and we did all the poems. We’re going to set all of them to music. We’re going to start on Monday, and we’re going it on finish on Friday. We’re going to go through the book and do all of it. And that way you just force your way into a pattern of having to solve a puzzle.

And yes. Most of the music I did before coming to New York was very melodic. And then it became very abstract. It was abstract because I was learning. You just hit out and you go through as much as possible.


While my father was studying composition with Xenakis, Xenakis told him about a student of his in Massachusetts who caused who caused a big commotion at a concert when he performed his piano piece, during which he suddenly whacked a table in two. This was John Cale. He had come down from Wales, UK, on a Lenard Bernstein scholarship, after being interviewed and approved by Aaron Copeland. In London, he was influenced by what he heard of the Fluxus art movement, and had started to do performances with the composer, Cornelius Cardew, who was 24 at the time. Xenakis took a liking to him and took him down to New York City, where his piano piece was being performed. This was to be his introduction to New York City.


John Cale: “Because I had studied a bit of the principles of mathematical philosophy including the Fourier series and probability theory before I met Xenakis, I kind of understood what he was getting at, but I felt that all this mathematics didn’t have much to do with the actual experience of listening to the music because he music’s great. It has this great noise. He knows how to orchestrate and its his orchestration that’s really thrilling. It’s also really strong contemporary Greek music. It’s national music. Bit in Europe, there’s a kind of mindset that you have to explain what you’re doing. What was great for me about John Cage was that he also had a methodology, but it was based in Zen. And it was a world view, not just justifying your activity. “


Xenekis first took John Cale to listen to a concert in New York City, and to introduce him to other composers and people in the music scene there. John Cale was pleased to go. He would later write that he didn’t know why he chose John Cale to go with him instead of other students. I think he must have sensed that John Cale was veru talented, and would come to play a major role in music.

The Lower Eastside scene in New York City in the early 60’s was a place where there were hundreds of people who called themselves poets, and everyone was connected through their work and their lovers. On any given night, any combinations of musicians, poets, dancers would show up to play in sidewalks, rooftops, piers. Films doubled as sets for dancing with music, which would likely be interrupted by poetry reading. He visited La Monte Young, who lived in a large loft where he kept a lot of turtles, made yogurt, and feasted on organic food. His place looked like a hashish den. Everyone was on the floor. He made a living by selling drugs, and John Cale became his assistant delivering his drugs. He joined his group. The Theatre of Eternal Music consisted of La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Terry Riley, Angus Maclise and himself. They spent hours experimenting with sounds. At first they were playing a raga-blues style of music, but when John started to improvise with the natural harmonics on his amplified viola, La Monte started to calculate a just-intonation system. It took a year and a half of collaborating to create the music of the Eternal Theater of Music.

During this time, fellow experimental music composer, Tony Conrad taped hours of experimental music and improvisation in his apartment with John Cale, and now these will be made available in a series of 3 CDs.

JC: There are 3 CDs. They exist because Tony Conrad was patient enough to sit down and go through them. There’s a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of stuff that you come up with when you’re sitting around the room with some friends, trying to make a noise. Some of are pretty funny.

One of them is on a organ. (“Sun Blindness Music.)It’s the Thomas organ that we used in the Velvet Underground. And I tuned it to La Monte’s Just Intonation. And I stuck the keys down, and improvised.

These are excellent examples of what early minimalism was, and what the mid-60’s experimental music scene was about. If you compare Cale’s “Sun Blindness Music” with electronic music by Xenakis, you can feel the influence he received from Xenakis. Xenakis’ music is calculated, but Cale presents a similar violent energy of sounds through improvisations with clusters.

John Cale: “The 3rd disc will have some pieces I recorded on a piano in the loft I lived with Lou Reed, and the piano frame left after we took it apart. The very last piece is when we amplify he piano frame and made a very large noise with what’s called a thunder machine. We lived above a fire station, and at the very end, a fireman comes up and the last thing you hear is him saying “That’s it. No more. You wanna do that kind of shit, go out to the countryside.” And so it’s a great way to end the CD.”


A: Velvet Underground is one of the most influential bands of 60s. A lot of bands in the 70s and mid-70s were influenced by the Velvet Undeground

They still haven’t sold a million. Crawling along. Lou says they’re just lying to us, but I don’t believe it. They haven’t sold a million records. It’s something like 600,000 I think.

But they have a lot of influence. Nothing else.

A: The relationship between the Avant-garde and Rock was talked about in the media


JC: Now it seems the avant-garde is in rock. What we used to do was to push down the boudaries of what you can do on stage. Radiohead are pushing down the boudaries of what you can do on record, which is the structure of the song. Which is really surprising. They have altered the way normally the song structures are. It’s very interesting what they do. Very expressive.

A: I haven’t gotten down to listening to Radiohead that much yet.

Are there any other groups you like listening to these days.


JC: I don’t know. Yes. There’s this one song on the new Leanard Cohen album. Alexandra Leaving. I love that song. it’s just a classic Cohen song.


From 1968, he produced and arranged a series of albums by Nico, which are in a genre of its own. The Indian harmonium (a hand pumped organ), forms the center of her songs and he made gothic ethereal arrangements with viola, piano, harpsichord, bass, percussion floating around her vocals, making the kind of music that sounds almost ancient or medieval, but was also totally new

JC: The concept with Nico was that she would put down the center piece, the anchor, and then I would do a lot of independent parts around it. Then we would take out the center piece which is the harmonium, and just let all these suspeneded parts work like a mobile in the air.

That was kind of what I tried to do in “Music for a new society”. We still eneded up with rock’n roll songs, which is strange. That was a lot more experimental. That was one with no second takes. You have one chance. That’t it.

A: The vocals are more emotional.

JC: Because you have to concentrate right there and then. And really, solving problems is when things come out of you that other wise wouldn’t. Because you’re under stress.


A: Your first independent album was a duo album with Terry Riley.

JC: The way I got to do (my first solo album) “Vintage Violence” was to do Terry Riley first. Their idea was to put in into the studio with some of the contemporary composers to maker them more popular. Give them a little more pop touch. So they wanted to do the same with La Monte. But they never got to La Monte that way. La Monte was too abstract. I remember the people at CBS was saying that we’ve been trying to get to La Monte, but that La Monte’s concept was like a circle becoming smaller and smaller and smaller and nothing they could do could pursuade him. But Terry was fine. I think what happened with Terry was that there were onlky 16 tracks in the studio, and we ended up putting two organ parts on one track, and he wanted to hear one of those organ tracks louder than the other, and he couldn’t hear it. And he was very disapointed because when you made one of the organ parts louder, You couldn’t isolate it. But otherwise it was fine


A: Do you have good memories of it.


JC: Yeah. It was fun. It was so fast.


A: Onre of the most well known bands you produced in tther 90s was Siouxie And The Banshees.


JC: That was a strange experience. It always seemed that everyone wanted to work on new materials, but nothing ever got done. It’s like everybody said “Yes, we want to do that”, But it never actually got done and I could never actually figure it out. Because it seemed these were people that reallly enjoyed living on the edge, and enjoyed experimenting and trying different things. Everybody was afraid of taking control. Or everyone felt that it couldn’t happen unless somebody was in charge. And nobody wanted to be in charge. And I was waiting. They ‘re a band and they’ve been together for 15 years, when I met them. That’s a record for a band. So we just got together and made an album, and that was it.


I learned from Patti that you really have to be careful with bands. They’re an organic whole. It’s a family.

A: And you learned this from Patti

JC: Well, when I first went into the studio with Patti, the first thing I said was “These instruments, they’re old, they’re warped.” The first day in tthe studio, I replaced all their guitars. And to them, it was horrible, and I didn’t realize that. I thought I was doing something good here. You won’t have to worry about the indstrument being out of tune because this is a good guitar. “Yeah but I love my old guitar.” You know what I mean. It caused all sorts of misundertsandings. So when I got into Siouxie, there’s a certain amount of respect for what they are into.


Nam Jun Pike had said recently that because we did so much in the 60s, I feel sorry for the younger generation.


JC: That’s a tough way of saying to the younger generation, get your shit together. You’re in no different position than when we were young. You just overthrow generations of thinking. Between La Monte and Nam Jun Pike, there were performances especially in Fluxus. Fluxus was the Premier location for performance art. that’s where it started. La Monte’s piece like Composition 1960 #3. I think what Nam Jun Pike was saying that because of what we did we made life tougher for you? Bullshit. There’s plenty of kids around who can dismiss Nam Jun Pike and say “That is not the academy.”

ABut the 60s was a period when people wanted to change things. People wanted to experiment to see what would happen.

JC: Yeah. And it was a lot of people. It wasn’t just one person . It was everybody. Because there was no progress being made. Progress was left to people like Lenny Bruce. The poor guy. He was fighting a lot of demons. But he was fighting them all at once. He didn’t necessary know what the demons were. And it ended up being the supreme court. This forces you into a Marxist frame of mind. The only way to fight the system is to form another one. You’d have no success unless you have a system within which you work. You need a support group. No. You don’t neeed a support group. I mean, I guess that the Vietcong and everyone else proved that you do need a support group. But that’s a different matter. That’s really formulating a government. What we’re talking about is overthrowing ideas. Like in the concert hall. And thinking about what is allowable in the concert hall. Taking an axe and smashing a table on stage was not allowable in those days, but they let me do it at Tanglewood. They didn’t want to do it. They refused for about three weeks. Until finally they said okay. But the main thing about it was the shock of it. So you really had to keep quiet about what you were going to do.


Starting from February, he will set the score to an hour and a half animation of the most famous myth in Wales, “Mabinogion”, with wall to wall music and songs in both Welsh and English. There’s another film called “A Beautiful Mistake” on which he’s involved as the music director, collaborating and playing with the Welsh rock group Superfurries, who sing in Welsh, and other bands like Catatonia and a lot of Welsh folk music. He also intends to work with a traditional Welsh bard (troubadour) to write songs in Welsh in the near future. Before all this, a new album of songs that he has been working on with Pro-tools equipment will hopefully be released in March.


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