Conversation with John Cale

As co-founder of the Velvet Underground in the Sixties, John Cale's station in rock music has few peers. Although singularly unsuccessful on the charts, the VU and Cale's subsequent solo output nonetheless paved the way for countless musicians in every generation to follow. One such impression was made on Austin's Alejandro Escovedo, whose own influential music was shaped by Cale and his cohorts.

What a tribute then, when Cale made an under-the-radar appearance in Austin during SXSW 04 to play the Por Vida showcase at Las Manitas, benefiting the ailing Escovedo. The day after the star-studded affair, Cale lounged around the cool green foliage of the San José Hotel and ruminated on a variety of topics for his Internet fan list, Sabotage. This Q&A was adapted from that lengthy conversation.

Austin Chronicle: How did you get involved with Por Vida?

John Cale: Alejandro's always been gracious. Austin has a strange position for me, because it was one of the best places I performed in the Seventies. Then there's this history with Sterling [Morrison] and Alejandro; Austin's musical community is very different from the rest of the country. The way that whole [Las Manitas show] happened ... you don't get stuff like that anywhere. It's very casual, but very careful. And it's considerate. That's part of Alejandro's quality too. He's very gentle, caring, quiet – qualities not much applauded nowadays.

AC: How familiar are you with his work?

JC: I just zeroed in on two or three of his songs. "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore" was the one. I didn't know how it was going to work, but we sat down and put it together at a studio in L.A. It was very easy. Then it became apparent that it required something different out of me than before. It's in a certain range that really sits well with my voice, and I didn't know that until I sat down with it. I loved doing the harmony. There's tons of harmony on [Por Vida], so when it came to doing it, the chorus just got together and there it was. It was a little bit like the Gatlin Brothers. [Cale grins]

AC:"Set Me Free," the bonus track from HoboSapiens, was perfect for the Las Manitas set.

JC: Yeah – something easy, simple, and fragile. It's a fragile song.

AC: Do you like your music fragile?

JC: Fragile's not the word. I like it to be – insecure. I never thought I got anywhere unless I felt really unsure of what the song was going to be. When I was really unsure, that's when things started happening.

Like "Close Watch." I sat down one day and bong! There it was. "Magritte" was one of those. "Over Her Head" was one of those. "Things" is the only one really, on the entire album, where I sat down in a room, wrote on guitar, and composed. All the other stuff was written in the studio, so it grew, like carbuncles on the side of a boat from sitting in the salt.

I love working really fast, because I can get to the punch line and get it over and go to the next one. In general, I don't think I've gained anything until I get to this point where I'm really not sure of what the song is going to be. The main thing is subject matter. If I don't have that, I get very frustrated. It used to be that if I ever had any trouble I could go back to The English Patient, open any page, start reading, and bingo! There would be a lyric. Nowadays, because of all the books I read, it's a lot easier to come up with topics.

AC: When you say all you had to do was open a book and there would be a line or lyric, this is something you've done for years. The intro to "Mercenaries" on Sabotage

JC: ... was Machiavelli. On 5 Tracks and Hobo there are quotes from Alain Robbe-Grillet. He doesn't write a novel for 24 years. I'm writing little sob stories, murder poems. They're all vague and sort of drifty. Then he comes out with Repetition. It puts me to shame.

Unbelievable, this story. I open up the book, and in the first two pages, I've got two quotes. One is on 5 Tracks and the other is on HoboSapiens. It describes a French intelligence officer on a train in East Germany, traveling from Weimar to Berlin at the end of the second world war. He's in a carriage and everyone's sitting there on the train in this gloom. He's French, rather well-dressed. As he passes through the carriage, his appearance and his clothing set him apart from everyone else. When he opens his mouth and they hear his accent, it makes him feel even more foreign. That was exactly how I felt when I first got to New York. Nobody understood a word for the first nine months because my Welsh accent was so thick.

AC: On 9/11, you were next to Ground Zero. What was going on in your mind?

JC: I'd been out to get the paper and heard screaming, but I didn't know what it was. I looked up in the air and there was a beautiful layer of silver paper, so shining. The wind is blowing and it's like a shimmering light of paper. I thought, where is this coming from?

I got indoors and it went on from there, but it was a question of whether I was to go out or not go out. I heard about the Pentagon and all of a sudden it started to come together for me. I didn't believe it at first, but Sturgis [Nikides] was the one who said, "Get the fuck out of there, man, we're being attacked!" I was like, "Sturgis, c'mon."

Then I heard the noise come. It was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining. All of a sudden it went dark in the loft. I went to the window and it was like Christmas – white. People are staggering through it, Secret Service people, marshals with masks on covered in dust, groups of policemen walking purposefully – and then a pair of guys pushing a gurney back up the street. It was really weird.

AC: Is Bush going to get re-elected?

JC: If we're not careful. end story

John Cale guests at the Por Vida tribute to Alejandro Escovedo at the Paramount Theatre, Thursday, Nov. 4.

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John Cale, Velvet Underground, Hobo Sapiens, Alejandro Escovedo, Por Vida, SXSW, Las Manitas, She Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Sterling Morrison, Sturgis Nikides

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