John Cale

The Velvet Underground vet explores a modernized sound on his best LP in years

John Cale will forever be remembered for his founding role in the Velvet Underground, whose defining early years hinged on his droning viola and experimental inclinations. But Cale's rsum would win him work even without his tenure in VU. The classically trained Wales native arrived in the States in 1963 as a fresh-faced college grad on a Leonard Bernstein Fellowship ("Aaron Copland interviewed me for the scholarship and picked me up in New York," he recalls), and he soon fell in with maverick composers John Cage and La Monte Young, performing with the latter in the Dream Syndicate. Upon splitting with the Velvets in the late '60s, Cale launched a solo career that has included chic orchestral pop, minimalism and theatrical hard rock. He also made notable contributions to the sound of '70s punk, producing genre-shaping albums by the Modern Lovers, the Stooges and Patti Smith.

At 62, the longtime NYC resident is experiencing something of a creative renaissance: On Tuesday 7, Or Music will release HoboSapiens, Cale's first pop album in eight years. Recorded with a jumble of live instruments and samples—all topped by Cale's snappish, foreboding baritone —HoboSapiens culls assorted styles from throughout the musician's career but retains a detached contemporary edge. Phoning from a recording studio in Los Angeles, Cale spoke with TONY about his new album and the hitherto unreported magnanimous side of Lou Reed.

Time Out New York: You've been incredibly prolific in the past—why was there such a long gap leading up to HoboSapiens?

John Cale: I did a lot of film scores, I wrote some classical pieces, and I wrote the ballet Nico. So it wasn't a fallow period for me—it just wasn't one in which I focused on songs.

TONY: Do you feel that HoboSapiens benefited from that extracurricular work?

JC: One of the by-products of working on film scores is that I got to be very quick with the writing process. The songs on Hobo are different from my past stuff in that nearly all of them were written in the studio. I don't like being in the studio, so I'd try to get things done as fast as possible and run to the gym. New recording methods are gratifying—you get to where you want to go very swiftly.

TONY: The reliance on modern recording gives the album a slick edge that can be reminiscent of R&B.

JC: When I think about what I admire in records right now, I think of Pharrell Williams and the Neptunes—that's where the advanced thinking of rock & roll is going on.

TONY: Well, Brian Eno contributes to the record, and he's certainly no slouch in that department.

JC: He's not on it! His daughters are. They're about 11 years old. He had recorded a piece with them reading from a children's book, but while they're reading they start setting each other off and giggling. When I was in London he played it for me and let me borrow it. The best part of working with Brian is the practical jokes he'll play on people. He's so good at it. We'd hire a taxi and get involved in a conversation that would just set the driver's ears on fire: "Have you got the gun? Whaddaya mean you left it behind, you schmuck?!?"

TONY: Your record company bio describes how you completed internships with John Cage and La Monte Young, which brings to mind images of you Xeroxing and fetching their coffee.

JC: It wasn't quite the modern version. I'd wanted to work with Cage for a long time before I came to New York—I was a complete convert to Zen from reading his book, Silence. I realized the religious horrors of growing up in Wales in a repressed society. Working with La Monte was more in the trenches. We developed a very powerful theory of composition and rehearsed every day for three hours. We'd climb inside this noise that we made. But then it became an issue of who wrote what—at the height of that argument I met Lou and left. Lou got the blast about equal rights of collaboration.

TONY: Was it a natural progression to go from an experimental environment into the rock world?

JC: Yeah—I was crazy about the Beatles at the time. Getting into [rock] was like discovering another childhood. On top of it, I could continue the improvisation that had been so gratifying with La Monte with Lou, who would just improvise lyrics till the cows come home.

TONY: What's the nicest thing you ever saw Lou Reed do?

JC: [Pause] That's a good question.

TONY: You can take your time—sometimes it's hard to answer a question like that.

JC: [Laughs] It depends on who you're asking about. Oh, I know. When we played in Prague, we had dinner with Vclav Havel. The bus went the wrong way, so I arrived late. Of course, Lou was sitting there talking to him about this, that and the other, but he very graciously made a point to bring me into the conversation. When you're talking to the president of a country, you don't just point to somebody and go, "That's John, say hello to him." Lou was very classy about it.

TONY: You've got to understand—to rock journalists, Lou Reed is the nearest thing there is to Attila the Hun.

JC: [Laughs] Look—he can't help himself. I have to remind myself of the state he was in when I first met him, when his parents had just put him through shock therapy. It's awful, it's fucking bar-baric. You've got to think about what going through that does to somebody—it erases your moral compunction.

TONY: You're working on a screenplay about Warhol's Factory. That period has been covered so extensively—what do you hope to add?

JC: It's from my point of view—somebody coming from Europe very green and looking at this incredible art scene. It will be about one night at the Dom. I don't think Andy is going to be in there for more than a fleeting moment—I'd love Meryl Streep to play him. And Uma Thurman to do Nico. The scene had everything in it: art, aggressive rock & roll, Walter Cronkite dancing with Jackie Kennedy. It was that kind of scene.

 HoboSapiens is out September 7 on Or Music. John Cale plays Avalon October 14, 2004 as part of CMJ Music Marathon.