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John Cale Explains His ‘Shifty Adventures’

The prolific musician talks about his new album, making music on the iPad, and remembering Nico

John Cale might always be known for his work with The Velvet Underground, the trailblazing 1960s rock band that collaborated with Andy Warhol, defined the sound of an era, and launched its members—including Lou Reed and Nico—to fame. 

But in the more than 40 years since Cale left that group, he’s proved himself time and time again with solo records—this week’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is his 15th—production work, contributions to film (he covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelejuah” for Shrek) and art (he’s shown at the Venice Biennale). Oh, and he’s also an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

DuJour caught up with Cale to learn about his latest record, his upcoming tribute to Nico and why, after all these years, he still can’t stand the studio. 

What made you decide it was time for a new album? 

I started working about a year and a half ago. For the Venice Biennale, I had put together a little record studio—we were all on our laptops at that point. Then we started to get more serious and built incrementally the right kind of tools for expanding into a proper place where we could record.  

We started off with electronic drums and most of the songs are written on that. Then you simplify what you get digitally and you put on a real drummer and then you have some meat. It was an exploratory period; I was trying to find how to shape songs differently and ‘Face The Sky’ is one of the ones that was most abstract. It started off with an iPad with a piano on it. I played a bit and then it was something I had to live with afterward. I was just blue-skying it, trying anything, and slowly the mind starts putting some kind of shape to things and you move chunks around. It was the idea of having a song without the formal structure.  

That was something that grew as the recordings went on—not to have those structures. That kind of unexpected development in a song is something I really value. 

So were you working on a number of songs that happened to come together or were you consciously working on a full-length?

I go as far as I can until I think I know what a song is about and then I stop. Then I start another one that’s entirely in the opposite direction, different mood and elements. Every song is diametrically opposite. We worked until we had about 40 songs and then whittled that down to 15 or 20.

But instead of going back and trying to finish off songs we had left behind, we just kept writing and that really helped. I feel a lot better about the new stuff we were coming up with.  

This album was recorded mostly in Los Angeles. How did that locale impact the record?

I really don’t like being in the studio. I’ve been in Real World, Peter Gabriel’s studio, and it’s like paradise—swans and all. But I really don’t like being in the studio, so I try to finish what I want to do as quickly as I can. I broke up the day and would work, run off to the gym, come back and work some more.

Your song with Danger Mouse, ‘I Wanna Talk 2 U,’ was an impromptu collaboration. Do people just drop into your studio to jam?

That was a set-up. He asked me to help him with another production and I said yeah, but let’s knock around a few other ideas. So we spent about 48 hours doing a bunch of stuff. Later, I remembered one of the songs we did had this nice Motown feel to it and I wanted to finish it. When I got the files back, he had moved stuff I had dismissed into other parts of the song and it really made sense. That was a really important thing for a producer, to realize that anything that comes out of the creative process can be used in one way or another. It was very thoughtful. 

This is your 15th solo record. How have you changed as a performer since your first?

Years ago, there were certain things I was a lot more confident about. But I know now how to live with my discomfort; I’m a little bit more constructive about how I use the mistakes. 

You’ll be coming back to New York in a few months to do two performances of your 1973 album Paris 1919 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Rumor has it that originally this was going to take place in a circus tent near Lincoln Center. 

That’s true. We were trying to do it and there were various possibilities. And I liked the idea of a circus tent uptown, but there’s background with BAM.  

Why revisit Paris?

This is probably the ninth time I’ve done it. Everyone was saying I should but I didn’t like revisiting the past, but then these festivals came up—Madrid, London, an opera house in Paris—and they were special events that had funding and an orchestra right there. When you do Paris, you have 35 minute of programming and you need another 30 at least for a full evening. So every time we do it, I take it as an opportunity to pick up another song and add it into the set. My plot is that if I did enough of it, I could eventually just leave Paris alone. 

And you’re also doing a tribute to your late bandmate Nico. 

We started that in London. The interesting thing was that all of these young female artists were coming out of the woodwork. A lot of people wanted to come and sing ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ or ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ and I said no, this isn’t about that, this is about Nico’s songs. And as soon as they heard that, these young artists starting saying they loved Nico and it was shocking the number of people who wanted to be involved. Last time we did it in Rome, we had CocoRosie and Joan As Policewoman. There was a really good variety of artists, but it was the spirit in which it was done that was really great. 

As for your contemporary work beyond music, the video for ‘Face the Sky’ is pretty abstract. 

Yeah, isn’t that great? You can get lost watching that dancer because she’s so slow and meticulous. 

How do you reconcile revisiting these classics from your past but also moving in experimental, unexpected directions?

I don’t want to do something that’s been done before. 

Your work encompases such a wide breadth—what comes next?

I really want to ride this horse first and see where it takes me.