John Cale: Shifty Adventures in the Studio

Music Features John Cale

History has shown there are few artists who manage to keep the creative juices flowing late in their careers. It’s too easy to rest on your laurels, to fall into old habits, to “give the fans what they want.” Since his early days cavorting with New York City’s fringe along with the Velvet Underground, John Cale has remained inspired, even when the results weren’t as inspirational. At age 70, the multi-instrumentalist has just released his 15th solo album, Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood, a record whose title alone could be seen as avant-garde.

The sounds within show a sense of adventure, too. On Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood—his first full-length studio release since 2005’s blackAcetate—Cale plays around with a variety of genres, returning to the psychedelic haze of the VU, ’80s New Wave and even hip hop’s more beat-driven soundscapes. “They’ve just zeroed in on an incredible variety of sounds and noises,” says Cale of his proclivity for the genre. “And normally what’s taken as a simple groove and a riff, they’ve changed into something much wider, much broader. I like the expanse and the fine-tuning of the sound design.”

Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that Cale enlisted the help of Brian Burton—better known as Danger Mouse—on the album’s Princely titled first single “I Wanna Talk 2 U,” a song that mixes subtle sonic flourishes with straightforward guitar strum. Cale says the process, and ultimately his initial reaction to the mix, actually helped shape the song.

“During the course of a couple days of messing around in the studio with Brian Burton we were trying to finish up the song we started—but we couldn’t manage it. We’re in there cooking away and some of the stuff he came up with I didn’t like, and I sort of made my opinion known. When I got the files back I found that a lot of stuff I didn’t like at the time he put somewhere else on the track and made it a color. It’s part of a way of thinking, where everything that is an expression of someone’s personality is important—I mean you can use it somewhere.”

Despite his seemingly ardent attention to detail, Cale confesses that he doesn’t like being in the studio (“I’m kind of an outdoors person”). Cale produced the majority of Nookie Wood himself in addition to playing many of the instruments. The album isn’t particularly unruly, with more emphasis put on blending sonic layers with simpler song structures. “Hemingway” brings to mind the synth-heavy pop of Peter Gabriel. And in a move that might confound some listeners, Cale wrings his vocals though Auto-Tune on “December Rains” and “Mothra,” something he insists was simply what those particular songs called for. Then again Cale’s entire approach to songwriting has changed in recent years, particularly on Nookie Wood.

“It came from a different place,” he explains. “A lot of the other songs I’d sit down with a piano or guitar and write them when you have ideas. And this one I’d sit down with an MPC and get the drums all down first. And from that comes the idea for the song. The title doesn’t come until everything is finished. That’s also what determines the mood of the track. ‘Midnight Feast’ is a travelogue. It goes to a lot of different places and the music sort of carries you there.”

While Nookie Wood shows Cale in a playful mood throughout, “Mary” is noticeably more subdued in both its tone and its vocal delivery. There are no effects; in fact, the vocals were cut in one take in order to maintain the vulnerability of the song. “Oh yeah, ‘Mary’ is kind of personal,” says Cale. “It’s, um, it’s fragile. It’s something that stems from bullying and people getting beaten up—it’s a problem. And the only way I could do it was to talk about it from the student’s point-of-view.

“It needed to have a sense of being unfinished, of being a proposition rather than a statement. The hardest thing to do is to go back and stop yourself from delivering it. And harder than that is trying to go back and recreate that uncertainty. You sort of need to know when you’re not going to be able to do it again, so I left it.”

While Nookie Wood isn’t necessarily going to challenge hunched crate-diggers who align themselves with Cale’s less digestible work on 1982’s Music For a New Society, the new album sonically captures his soundtrack work over the past decade as well as his production on notable albums by Patti Smith and The Modern Lovers. It’s more about sounds than songs.

Cale says producing his own work is ultimately what keeps him most inspired. His 1973 album Paris 1919 remains arguably his best work. It’s also his most accessible, produced by noted knob-twirler Chris Thomas—who’s worked with everyone from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols. “It’s interesting because all of a sudden you’re not your own producer, so you have to learn to calm down and back off a little bit. Most of the albums are worked out in the studio—that’s kind of why the methodology is to write in the studio, because you get further down the production line, you get further into the idea you want to do.”

It was Cale’s work before the Velvets that he says informs his approach to making records in 2012. He’s the first to admit that his days with the Velvet Underground were even a little more rigid than he would have liked: “[The Velvet Underground’s] first album took a year, just playing every weekend, every weekend, every weekend. And you can see how things changed by listening to the box set. You can tell progress was made because we slowly veered away from the original style of the songs.”

Staying creative often comes down to putting yourself before the listener, or before the producer for that matter. It’s apparent that John Cale has no interest in repeating himself, which means another organic rock record like Paris 1919 probably isn’t in the cards—at least in the near future. “I’m having fun with rhythms right now, so I don’t know what that would be like,” he says. “But I guess we’ll see at the end of the year when I have to do it again.”

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