For nearly five decades, John Cale has remained a vital music icon and an uncompromising musical iconoclast. And the 70-year-old musician upholds both titles on his latest solo album Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood. Take, for instance, “Vampire Cafe,” which opens with the signature, minimalistic viola drone he pioneered in the ’60s when working with proto-noise rockers the Velvet Underground. Within five seconds, he punctuates it with a sampled drum line, buzzing synths and another drum pattern that doesn’t quite match up. “I had pressed the ‘swing’ button on the MPC, but it didn’t sound entirely accurate,” he says of the piece. “The whole thing lurches, and I wanted to really keep that lurch in there. The one thing that blurred the edges was playing trills on the viola.”
Cale hasn’t let go of any of lyrical bite either. The same Welshman who, in 1968, narrated the Velvet Underground’s touching love story “The Gift” (about a cuckolded lover getting a bloody comeuppance over droning noise) sings about school bullies on “Mary.” “I had to be very careful with that one,” he says. “I don’t like proselytizing. The kind of vocal I did there was recalcitrant and there’s no triumphalism there. There’s a little anger on the line there about shouting at the teacher from the back of the classroom. I think that’s the way to deal with the problem.”
Musically, the album intermingles disco guitars with Danger Mouse–produced beats on one song and his daughter’s falsetto over a funky synth line on another. It’s yet another side to the man who produced game-changing albums by the Stooges, Modern Lovers and Patti Smith and traversed experimental, electronic and even country music in his solo work. Cale explained to Hive how he arrived in Nookie Wood.
“You’re talking about the cooks of pestilence mixing up their bit of juice. You talk about a lot grimmer things than kissing up the girls on a Saturday night.”
The song “Nookie Wood” has an interesting air about it. What do you think of when you listen to it?
The movie Blade Runner. I didn’t realize it at the time I wrote the song. I saw the original director’s cut again [recently] and I was startled by how many of the noises and ideas the sound design in “Nookie Wood” have a lot to do with Blade Runner. Foreign languages being spoken a little bit, a Vietnamese girl making an announcement repeatedly. The atmosphere is very claustrophobic, and when I saw Blade Runner, I forgot how masterful the sound design was.
Where did the concept behind “Nookie Wood” actually come from?
I read an article in The Independent a while back about a place called the Sea of Trees in Japan. Since then I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a song about this particular story. On the last day of summer, people go to the Sea of Trees. Boyfriends and girlfriends, everybody makes the journey. And the day after, the police show up with the ambulance services because they find suicides in the forest, and they remain unexplained.
If you look at the demographic of the people who are found there, it makes no sense at all. This article was really well written; the writer follows the police into the forest with the ambulance people, they stop him at one point. One over there, one over there. It’s a really spooky story, I wanted to put that into a song.
How does that story apply to “Nookie Wood” the song?
The whole idea of “Nookie Wood” is that you go somewhere and do a naughty. But it’s a lot grimmer than that. You’re talking about the cooks of pestilence mixing up their bit of juice. You talk about a lot grimmer things than kissing up the girls on a Saturday night.
On another one of the album’s songs, “I Wanna Talk 2 U,” you worked with Danger Mouse. How did that collaboration come together?
I first worked with him on his project called the Shortwave Set. This time, I was trying to write something that had a little Motown to it on my own, and I couldn’t get it. We were trying with tambourines and it wasn’t working. Then I remember one of the songs we did another time was kind of like that, so I sent it to him and when I got the files back, it was interesting.
Some of the stuff I had thrown out and said I didn’t like, he doctored and used it in a different part of the song. But that’s how a producer works. His style is a very sweet, and he has a soft style of playing, which is different than what I do. I tend to hit it a lot harder.
There is a lot of the viola on the record. How often do you play it these days?
I know what I want to do, so I do it. The romantic viola playing that I used to do, that takes a little bit longer. I still have my Portuguese viola so, it still sounds nice and rich. I play it whenever the occasion arises.
Speaking of your viola playing, how involved you were in the creation of The Velvet Underground & Nico reissue that is coming out?
There’s not really much you can be involved in. I wish the quality of the recording was better. I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do about it. I don’t know if they digitized the masters or what; I’m not sure that would have improved it. Every time I hear it, it’s like listening through gauze. The fidelity of the thing isn’t really there anymore. They sent me some copies to listen to, but I just haven’t gotten to them yet.
What does that time period mean to you now?
From what I hear about Ludlow Street nowadays, it’s still a breeding ground for the same kind of experimentation. Ludlow Street looms large in that recording.
Getting back to the album, in the “Face to the Sky” video, is that your piano?
No, that was done in Glasgow. The ballerina was very good. What she was doing was quite difficult. Somebody told me after we had left that she owned a gun permit. How the hell does a ballerina get a gun permit?
I wondered about the piano because on the song “Hemingway,” on the new album, you pound on the keys at the end. Do you still experiment with prepared piano, like attaching things to the strings?
No, one thing I don’t have in my studio at the moment is a real piano. So whenever I can get in the studio and do it, yes. Usually you can find some software that will screw up a piano for you pretty good.
Did you used to experiment with prepared piano more?
The first thing I did with the piano was as a kid in grammar school for the closing ceremony at the end of term. The school assembles in the main hall and everyone sings a hymn. I got into the hall beforehand and made a long stream of paperclips and I put them inbetween every string of the piano, so when the headmaster came and the music teacher sat to play, it sounded like a harpsichord and he could not figure out what was wrong with it. The whole school is standing there tittering.
Were you found out?
Yeah they knew who did it, but the headmaster said, “I think I know who did this. He better come and see me to clear his conscience.”
Did you go see him?
No, screw that. The whole school was laughing. It was great.
How have your classical roots affected how you write your music?
My idea of form is really more attentive to the surprises that happen in rock and roll. Classical structure always doesn’t work in rock and roll. Being ready for different structures, that’s the best you can do. “Face to the Sky” is one of them. I know there’s a chorus there, but it’s really just rambling. I don’t try and prejudge it, generally I try not to fall into an opinion of what that song is going to be, and instead get lost until something happens.
Is that why you’ve been drawn to some electronic music?
No, that’s out of envy for people like Pharrell and Snoop for songs like “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” That song knocks my socks off. Damn, this song has no genealogy. I don’t know where they came from with this. It’s so original. In my case, anyway I just get jealous. I just go, “Shit, why didn’t I think of that?”
Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is out now on Double Six Records.