Interview by Dave Thompson. Originally published in Alternative Press Magazine, 1995.
A full decade on from what he calls his last rock and roll album, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, John Cale is looking good. His latest release, WALKING ON LOCUSTS (Rykodisc), is the grown-up eldest son of WRONG WAY UP, his 1990 collaboration with Brian Eno.It's a reminder that no matter who thought he wore the trousers in the Velvet Underground, Cale was the one who best filled them out.
Recorded with a cast of dozens, from David Byrne through to Morocco's famed Master Musicians of Joujouka, the album comes as something of a shock to anyone raised on the old 200-decibel bluster that characterized, say, the albums compiled on the recent Cale anthology THE ISLAND YEARS. Still, there's an edge, and the man can crank out great rock songs when he wants to.
So, John, rock and roll has certainly missed you, but have you missed rock and roll?
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE was the last pop album I made, and it really fell by the wayside. I don't know what happened. It probably had something to do with my frame of mind at the time. It was right after the last album I did with Nico, CAMERA OBSCURA-- [I used the] same band-- and I think that's when I hung up the booze jacket. I do remember by the end of that period I was kind of burned. And then my daughter was born, and that changed my focus immediately.
Did your daughter have anything to do with your disappearance from the mainstream rock circuit?
No. I wouldn't put that burden on her. Whatever layoff is in your mind, what you're talking about is that I wasn't touring and I wasn't into rock and roll. But even between AI and WRONG WAY UP [1986-1990]. I was still working. There was a trip to Moscow, and "Falklands Suite" from the Dylan Thomas album [WORDS FOR THE DYING]. What happened was, I decided I didn't want to use drums any more; I wanted to go back to my background, and find out what it was that made me want to start in the first place.
Did you figure it out?
Yeah. The thing about WALKING ON LOCUSTS is that I'm comfortable in this genre. It was always something that was there, waiting to happen. I think I've got an MO down for it. I know how to work in this field. I had a lot of stuff happen in the studio around this time, where I used Moroccan drummers and a variety of very interesting musicians who were good people.
I started working in the house here, in the basement; I have a Pro-Tool system and a small but efficient set-up that allowed me to work on the computer and then take it from there into the studio and put the musicians on top of it.
I'd already worked with these Moroccan drummers for the CORSICAN CHOIR record [to be released next year]. After I'd done a bunch of string-quartet stuff that I thought was fine for the record, I went in and put on a rhythm track of just drummers. Then I took that back into the studio and wrote songs for [the drummers] on the keyboards. So what was not happening was, I was not strapping on a guitar and pounding out a lot of testosterone.
Do you miss doing that?
That happens on the road, when you get fed up and make up songs just to get out of the doldrums.
Talking of the doldrums, how do you feel about the Velvets reunion? Do you regret having done it?
Somewhat...no, what was really gratifying was that people got to see what contributions other people, other than Lou and I, made to the sound we had. That was very important. They saw what role Sterling had, and it really reinforced everything they understood about Maureen.
It was the end of an era as far as I was concerned. There was nothing there for me; it was basically set up as a tour that would encourage a complete new repertoire, and by the time we got going it had degenerated into the rehabilitation of a catalog and contributions to Lou Reed's bank.
What we should have done was gone out there and wrote a whole bunch of stuff and played that, and beaten all the odds. Which we could have done easily, but I think everybody got interested in material they hadn't played for years and how wonderful it was. There were three weeks of work to do, and by the time it had ended in a set that had all this other material in it, there wasn't room for other writing. There was so much nit-picking going on about what kind of guitar Lou was going to use on every individual song, on every verse. He was being so obsessive.
Will you ever do something like that again?
What, a reunion? I don't know what the future holds, but I don't see that as the brightest part of it. In a way, the new record is a reaction to all that: I'd had enough of collaborations which became instantly one-sided, and the only way around that was to go out and do something personal to myself, and I thought the time was right.
At the same time, a sense of looking back has permeated your catalog lately, with the SEDUCING DOWN THE DOOR and ISLAND YEARS collections, the FRAGMENTS live album, the Velvets reunion and boxed set...
But LOCUSTS is more conscious of where I am at the moment, and it has nothing to do with any of the rest of the stuff. I don't think it's a summation of anything, and it really comes from a different part of me.
Which is an interesting reversal of the usual position, where so many other artists, once the greatest-hits collections start to roll, make a conscious effort to pick up the thread with their new material.
But artists are usually really divorced from those decisions. They are mechanical business decisions made by the company. They don't have anything to do with the spiritual mood of the artist at the time; they're purely business decisions. It's nice to be at a position in your career where they'll want to do that, but it's not something that really benefits you one way or another. With the Rhino collection we talked about the ballparks we were in. We found some odd bits that had never been released before, but basically I left it up to them, and I think they did it fairly intelligently.
You are working on your autobio with author Victor Bockris. How did that come about? You were very conspicuous by your absence from his Lou Reed biography, trANSFORMER, after all.
The request from Lou was that no one [from the VU] participate in that, so nobody did. Actually it was one of the terms for the reunion: "Don't talk to Victor Bockris. He's a troublemaker, and I don't want to have anything to do with the book he's writing."
How do you think Reed will react to your book?
I don't know. It's very interesting, though; we've found some very funny stories coming from a variety of places, and we're doing the whole story, from growing up in Wales on. If nothing else, it'll clear up a lot of rumors and lies about me.
You're the subject of so many!
Yeah. And now you know why I ignore them.