I found myself sitting in a closed hotel restaurant on the night before Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival was set to start. The back room had been opened just for us, for an interview that I never imagined I’d be lucky enough to be part of. While I was mostly calm, the thought that I was about to be sitting across the table from someone as monstrously talented and original as John Cale, co-founder of The Velvet Underground, producer of Patti Smith’s Horses, writer of Paris 1919, made impossible to have complete composure. So, I got a cup of tea to settle in with, when in walked that legendary mop of hair complete with that soul patch he’s been sporting. After a few pleasantries and talk of air travel, we began. And that’s when I realized, “I’m having tea with John Cale.”
Paste: It’s great to see you. We should lay it out: we’re in Knoxville, Tenn., for the Big Ears Music Festival, which really seems like a perfect spot for you. Cult icons and artists that are doing interesting things out of the mainstream. You’ve always skirted that line between the art person and pop writer in ways that few have done. Being around artists like this, does it inspire or challenge you? Do you use it as competition, like “that guy is doing something insane. I’ve got to keep up”?
John Cale: No, it’s refreshing to see other people pulling things apart and putting them back together in a different way. So Percussion, they’re really interesting, and Steve Reich! I met Terry Riley before I was aware of Steve Reich, and he sort of represented the California side of jazz and the avant garde. And now it’s not. Now it’s Williamsburg. It’s really burgeoning over there. It’s interesting.
Paste: Yeah, now I find it ballsy to find anyone who tries to incorporate the two worlds. Because you have to commit if you’re going to try to make a living.
Cale: Totally. Big Ears has put something really special together here.
Paste: So, we don’t need to do your history. We know it. There’s Velvet Underground, everything you’ve produced, and then the last time we heard from you was the Nookie Wood record in 2012. So we’ll take it from there and move forward because you were doing this really great electronic sound at the time.
Cale: Yeah, and I’ve grown that. It’s getting bigger. I like mixing the electronic and the analog with real drums sounds. You can make them bigger, but it’s not that you want to pile on one thing on top of another. I mean, if you want to learn from Pharrell, you empty it out. Some of the things that Pharrell does is just astonishing. They’re so effective, and you look at it and scrutinize it and see that there’s nothing there. Just one or two things going on.
Paste: You’ve been talking about Pharrell for a long time. I mean, this guy is on top of the world. He has the three biggest singles of the last year. It feels like it’s finally his time, even though he’s been around all these years, it’s finally his time.
Cale: Yeah, he’s all over The Guardian in England. It’s like watching the British press go ga-ga. But the most interesting production values to me were going on in hip hop. Once “Drop It Like It’s Hot” happened, I was just bowled over. And learning from what they did and what they were using. I mean, “Drop It Like It’s Hot” had a rhythm track with a spray can in it. I thought, “Yeah, this is urban art.”
Paste: For you, I think most people find that surprising, especially when you were talking about that during the last record, how big of a fan of hip hop you were, because when you look on the outside, “here’s a white guy in his 70s and he’s talking hip hop.” And it’s not that you just like hip hop, you know hip hop. You can talk about it poetically.
Cale: It’s just because it grabs me. I mean there are things that they use. The most important invention for me was the swing button on the MPC. You can get this funk out of it that came naturally to Dr. John and a lot of other people. Now I don’t go into the studio with anything finished. I go into the studio to start and then work my way down. When we did Black Acetate, I was trying to get to three songs a day. You get up before 10, and then by 12 you get the basics of something. One o’clock you go off to the gym and come back at 3, and by that time the engineer has cleaned the tracks for you so that everything is really neat and tidy, and then maybe you can finish it. But then this process sped up. From 10 to 1, you do not just one track—you do two and then three.
Paste: What a workload.
Cale: It’s fun though. I mean, if you just catch on to something, nothing better. I mean, that’s what my life is for anyway.
Paste: ‘Round back around to what we were talking about before, I’m curious as to how you see hip hop these days. It feels like you get to a point where hip hop hits a wall quicker than pop music does. “What are we going to do next? How do we reinvent this wheel?”
Cale: You know, it’s morphing. People are adding different things, jazz in here, or a softer side will be put into it. I can appreciate what that’s doing. Some of them have more R&B in it than others.
Paste: So you don’t see it as a genre that’s going to go flat anytime soon?
Cale: No, what was interesting is that it wasn’t a dance medium. It didn’t come out of Studio 54. You don’t dance to a 50 Cent song necessarily. When 54 happened, you had that disco beat. There’s something about the MPC that really grabs you like that. It’s vicious in a way, but it’s also great. So anyway, I don’t know where it’s all going to end up. I don’t have a vision like that. I think you just throw in as many different things as you can into it and still keep it simple. Still keep it down to three things.
Paste: Similarly, you’ve been with rock since mostly the beginning, minus the ‘50s I guess. Through the years, I’m sure you’ve seen all of the trends too, the way they always seem to roll over and come back. You see that this band is just copying this older band, who were just copying another band. How do we keep going forward? Because, again, we’re at a festival where I feel like we have artists who are trying, yourself included.
Cale: Yeah, what’s intriguing about it is the indifference between one band and the next. In the ‘60s it was funny to watch, like “We’re here. And you’re over there. You stay over there, and I’m over here and I’m going to do this.” And that’s always motivation for a young band coming up. The whole, “no, we’re not going to do anything the way the other bands did it.” But here in Big Ears, it seems to me that everyone has done it and everybody’s different. You have to respect that. It’s enjoyable and sometimes a lot of fun.
Paste: The way trends work now is even mind-boggling, because pre-Internet, you’d have time. Grunge could take effect over five years. Now as soon as a trend hits, there’s the anti-movement. One doesn’t have time to speak too long before the next one takes hold.
Cale: Yeah, they spot the niche. A lot of that is very fast. But it keeps going. The energy is there, and it keeps rock and roll alive and kicking.
Paste: So if rock and roll is always young, there’s always going to be a young person discovering rock and roll, I guess. And in that case, it doesn’t even matter for folks like us.
Cale: How old is Bieber now?
Paste: I believe he’s 20.
Cale: He’s too old.
Paste: And already a laughingstock.
Paste: I mean, everyone saw that coming. Even David Cassidy just had to check himself back into rehab. It keeps happening.
Cale: I like the deposition.
Paste: Alright, back on track. You were talking about making electronics bigger. You started that with Nookie Wood. How does it get bigger? I mean, that was a perfect time for you to do that. It was part of the sound that was happening. Even now, too. I’ve been listening quite a bit to the new Broken Bells record, which I know you’re a fan of. How do you make something cold like electronics not just warm, but bigger? What’s your plan?
Cale: You mix them. You mix them with other things, with real things. It’s that thing of parody. You parody something that’s going on somewhere else. And I think when you’re doing it live it’s much more fun than being in the studio, because you can’t really control as much as what you do live as you can in the studio. So there’s always going to be a fly in the ointment. There’s always something loose that you can’t put back in the box.
Paste: That’s the magic. That’s the jazz.
Cale: Absolutely. That’s what keeps everybody on their toes. I’m lucky that I’ve got a band that really enjoys doing that. For years, I really had a bad reputation for not doing the same things twice, and really with a vengeance. People would be like, “is that song?” It’s nice now to get people to expect that. I think I’ve worn a groove there that you don’t know quite what it’s going to be. But for me, I can’t go on the road and do the same things all the time. Drives me nuts.
Paste: It feels like that’s a great thing to have. To build that reputation would take a while, and to say, “you knew this part of me, but now…” But on the flip side, don’t you have to start over every time? I mean, Nookie Wood got great reviews. It even seems like it’s one of your best reviewed records. The fact that you’re not exactly saying that you’re going to do something completely different…
Cale: Well, you can’t do that with something as contemporary as Nookie Wood. I don’t think I could go out and tear that up immediately. We’ve got to wait a little bit and wait until the songs settle down. I don’t want to do another solo record. Solo touring, what was really good for me about that, I could take songs that stood in this particular category and really treat it like an exercise in acting, in method acting. Just change the demonstration of the song. Just change the persona behind the song. Now it’s a different guy. “Heartbreak Hotel” would be different slow on the piano than it would the heavy metal version. There’s always the other side of the coin, and if you can find the other side of the coin…I’m not particularly looking for that with Nookie at the moment. Nookie is very good for what it is. If you do “Pablo” and “Gun” at the end of a set, you build a set so that it does have a form to it. You push it in one direction. So you want something that will eventually replace “Gun” and “Pablo.” So Nookie came along, and it’s great.
Paste: If you don’t want to do the solo thing and you’re looking to stay with a band, does that mean the studio, too? You’re a multi-instrumentalist who I imagine likes to have control. Do you allow the other musicians to step in with their thoughts?
Cale: Yeah, I’ve got to do that. I don’t like to depend on machines too much. The guys that I work with are very easy at that. Especially on the road, if I want to change something in the middle of the afternoon before the show that night, they’re right up for it.
Paste: So what else happens this year? I’m told there are going to be some reissues. Are you part of that process?
Cale: Yeah, I’m working on doing some radio mixes of that stuff. It was interesting going back because I replenished them in a sense. I came at them from a different point-of-view, and I said, “I know what I did at that time. I know the state of mind I was in at that time. I don’t want to be in that state of mind, so let’s see what we can do.” It was fruitful.
Paste: I guess when you get to this point in your career you have to understand that you’re going to spend a hefty amount of time in your past, too. I say that with you being such a forward-thinking musician, I could imagine you being like, “alright, let’s work on these reissues because I know I have to do it.”
Cale: No, but in some cases the reissues are so strange the way they were and the way they sit, and I listen to them now and realize how unclear the whole image of what was being done there was. You know my idea at the time in some cases was to really improvise the whole album, so it doesn’t count unless the tapes are running. You go at it that way and come out of it with this mess. At the same time, you have something very valuable in them, which is passion. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so you do what you can with it, and you come back at it 20 years later and you say, “Yeah, okay, that’s painful to listen to. Let’s see if we can make it just as meaningful, but with a little bit more coherence.”