‘Humanity hit a brick wall’: John Cale on the Velvets, Nico, Covid and a gun-ridden world gone bad

As he hits 80 and releases a softly raging album inspired by the ugliness of the pandemic years, the ever restless and eternally avant-garde musician unburdens himself

John Cale is wearing a priest’s black cassock and a string of pearls where the dog collar should go. A shock of white hair completes the outfit, which he proudly sports in the video to his recent comeback song Story of Blood. In it, he plunges his hands into red pigment as tinted photographs of burials and baptisms flicker by. “This is the story of blood,” he repeats, his weathered voice cradled by the warm alto of Natalie Mering, AKA Weyes Blood. “It moves all around, brings you down.”

“I was trying to suggest things rather than knock people on the head with it,” says Cale, speaking from his adopted home of Los Angeles. But, he laments, “I’m really bad at toning things down.” Death has been on his mind. His new video doesn’t quite have the shock value of his earlier stage antics (think hockey masks, chicken decapitations, blood-spattered mannequins) but Cale is the rare artist who is still surprising his fans, and perhaps himself, even as he enters his 80s.

Story of Blood sets the tone for the Welsh avant-garde musician’s 17th solo album Mercy. Written in the depths of Covid, it’s a brooding, softly raging record of murky torch songs, rococo electronics and hypnotic voices – a very different proposal from 2012’s impish Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, his last album of originals. “Many of these songs were written during a period of mourning and loss,” says Cale. “Everyone I know felt it. Humanity hit a brick wall. There was too much unchecked ugliness about.”

Cale has never shied away from ugly subjects. Despite his elegant exterior, bitterness and anger are always bubbling beneath the surface of his songs, once exacerbated by the drug-addled paranoia that was an occupational hazard for rock stars of the 70s and 80s. He’s written about grisly murders (Gun), suicidal women (Hedda Gabler) and terminal nihilism (Sabotage). At Goldsmiths, University of London, he appalled his tutors by taking an axe to a piano during a recital; he was voted “most hateful student” by the heads of department in return.

Velvet days … clockwise from lower left, Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Nico and Sterling Morrison.
Velvet days … clockwise from lower left, Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Nico and Sterling Morrison. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

But the mood on Mercy is more resigned than confrontational. He’s no longer angry – he’s disappointed. “What do you do in the circumstances that we’re dealing with?” he recalls asking himself. “Do you just get annoyed, and dress your annoyance up in a different kind of complacency, or what?”

Cale has never made the same record twice. Since his mind-altering 60s drone experiments and the seminal art-rock of the Velvet Underground, the band he formed with Lou Reed, he has created erudite chamber-pop, incendiary rock shows and orchestras of drones (the flying robot kind). Mercy counts as one of his most downbeat efforts. Amid sensual, soupy textures lurk memories of a lover’s footsteps and goodbyes to “the grandeur that was Europe”, now “sinking in the mud”.

Fans of Cale’s arch lyricism – references to Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare and Swansea; cryptic lines about “planing lakes” and “parrot spit” – will be struck by the album’s universality. The title track, a lament for a gun-ridden world gone wrong, opens with a statement as useless as it is political: “Lives do matter, lives don’t matter.” Bold phrases (“It’s not the end of the world”, “I know you’re happy when I’m sad”) get repeated like slogans. “I thought I was more direct on this album than I’d been in a while,” he offers.

That said, Cale has a habit of giving roundabout answers and leaving long pauses as his thoughts peter out or reroute. Asked about the religious connotations of the album title he claims there’s no connection; he chose Mercy “because it covers so much ground … It gives you latitude on the one hand and curiosity on the other.” His elliptical thinking almost resembles a string of Zen koans – a reminder of the intellectual waters in which Cale was swimming when he arrived in New York City in 1963, viola in hand, as a turtlenecked scholarship student from the Amman Valley.

After studying with the cream of the new avant garde, including Iannis Xenakis and Aaron Copland at Tanglewood College in Massachusetts, Cale swapped academic rigidity for the fervid experimentation of downtown Manhattan, and mingled with John Cage, Yoko Ono and Allen Ginsberg. Being exposed to their ideas about Zen “really took a lot of weight off my shoulders,” he says. “It helped me through.” He turns deadpan. “I mean, my background as a Welsh Presbyterian was not fed by any Buddhist ideas.”

A grounding in eastern religion also helped him grapple with the strange new music he was making with jazz saxophonist turned minimalist doyen La Monte Young and experimental violinist Tony Conrad in their ensemble, the Theatre of Eternal Music. “‘How abstract do you want to go?’ That was the rule of the day,” he says of their groundbreaking collaboration. “How do you maintain a drone? And when you have the drone going, where do you drive it to?”

Constantly curious … Cale in Hollywood in 1979.
Constantly curious … Cale in Hollywood in 1979. Photograph: Aaron Rapoport/Getty Images

He experimented with that question within the Velvet Underground, where his volatile songwriting partnership with Lou Reed briefly embodied the white-hot nucleus of the 1960s freak scene: the cold moon to San Francisco’s frazzling sun. Booted out after two albums, Cale spent the next decade writing some of his best-known albums, not to mention a round of hippy minimalism with Terry Riley and a classical set with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. His side hustle was as impressive, producing so many of the era’s influential records – including the first Stooges album, Patti Smith’s Horses and The Modern Lovers self-titled debut – that one can barely imagine punk without his contribution.

Perhaps his most innovative studio work appears on the four solo albums he made with Nico, framing that singularly haunted voice with arrangements of strings and bells. Though she died in 1988, her memory is very much alive. He pays tribute to her on Moonstruck (Nico’s Song), which even bears the echo of her wheezing harmonium in its shimmering two-chord lilt.

“What’s happened over time is that her songs appear to be getting better and better,” Cale says. Her music has a certain impenetrable beauty, I suggest. “I recognise that. But she worked hard on that, that impenetrability. And it worked for her. Her lyricism, you had to dig for it. You’re always wondering, what did she mean with this? And I never really wanted to question it, I just accepted it for what it was.”

If Cale’s contribution to the canon seems obvious now, it hasn’t been to him for most of his career. After leaving the Velvet Underground in 1968 he felt stranded between disciplines: should he pursue classical rigour, avant-garde experimentalism, dirty old rock’n’roll – or all three at the same time? His results were often out of step with prevailing trends.

The aim of the Velvets was “to hypnotise audiences so that their subconscious would take over”, wrote Cale in his 1999 autobiography, but he quickly moved on from that MO. “I’m still trying to master the details of making good melodies, good rhythms. I got taken over by hip-hop anyway,” he says. “What was going on in hip-hop was so much more interesting than producing rock’n’roll. It had a real inquisitiveness about it – and it was funny and I appreciated that. I thought, this is the avant garde of the day, so let’s just get going.”

In the last third of his career he’s overhauled his sound with digital tools and Auto-Tune, found inspiration in rappers such as Earl Sweatshirt and Kendrick Lamar, modelled for Comme des Garçons and draped himself in clothes by Rick Owens and Hood By Air (always in black, of course). Cale had been working on the songs for Mercy for two and a half years when he decided that they needed more “colour”, so he invited in previous collaborators including performers from the Velvet Underground 50th anniversary shows he put on in 2017: Baltimore experimentalists Animal Collective, electronic composers Laurel Halo and Actress, indie duo Sylvan Esso, pop singer Tei Shi and London punks Fat White Family.

Weyes Bloodcame on board before Covid. When she arrived at his LA studio, she was surprised to find that the only instruments were “a bunch of tiny little kiddie player pianos. No drums, no normal stuff, just these little baby pianos. I think at a certain point he smashed them all. He was trying to make a crazy sound. But he’s really obtuse like that, you know? It’s all very conceptual in some ways, but very raw in other ways.”

She describes Cale as “a real student of life”. Laughing, she adds: “I feel like he always wants to push the envelope. He’s not as nostalgic as I am, and I’m younger than him.”

As much as Cale’s output has shifted and modernised over the decades, he retains the same open-minded approach to discovery and creativity that kicked off his career. He recalls his early years in New York, when he was trying to figure out where his music fitted in relation to the Zen experiments of Cage and the drone sorcery of his mentor Young. “I learned,” he says wisely, “that not understanding the direction of their thinking was an easier way of dealing with it than trying to work it out, and work it out, and work it out.”

• Mercy is released on Friday 20 January


Chal Ravens

The GuardianTramp

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