John Cale: Music for all tomorrow's parties

John Cale doesn't care about The Velvet Underground these days. He's heading into the future, he tells Gavin Martin
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John Cale's restless artistic spirit has taken him on a fascinating odyssey over four decades and shows no sign of stopping. The 61-year-old founding member of The Velvet Underground was a Welsh child prodigy who played the local church organ in the strict Baptist community of his native Garnant while carrying on an illicit love affair with American rock'n'roll.

His musical studies took him to Goldsmiths College, London, where he worked with John Cage, and then on to New York. Once there, a collaboration with LaMonte Young put him at the heart of the city's early-Sixties avant-garde scene. Physically and metaphorically, he had crossed oceans before he even met frustrated Tin Pan Alley songwriter Lou Reed to form The Velvet Underground. Their short tempestuous adventure together would continue altering the rock landscape long after Cale was unceremoniously fired from the band.

"All that was a really determined ploy," Cale now insists, flashing a gold tooth as he grins. "I was a person who thought there was a way of putting Phil Spector and Bob Dylan together, I was interested in combinations that were guaranteed to set off fireworks and that's what I thought Lou Reed and I would do."

Sipping tea in a west London hotel, Cale is lean, tanned and looking younger than you expect for a man who spent a large part of his career on a destructive path fuelled by cocaine, brandy and heroin. But he is not about to rest on his laurels. In the past decade and a half, in line with the vow of abstinence he took when his daughter Eden was born in 1989, he has under-taken several projects, which have both faced up to and put his past to rest.

The 1989 Songs for Drella album brought him together with Lou Reed for the first time since the 1960s, as they paid tribute to the Velvets' mentor Andy Warhol. That, in turn, laid the way for a full-blown Velvets reunion, which eventually mirrored the collapse of the original line-up with Reed insisting on a controlling role but Cale unwilling to be subjugated.

In any case there was much more work to do. Words For The Dying put the poems of Dylan Thomas to music, and he provided the score for Nico: A Ballet, based on the life of the late model, former lover and Velvets femme fatale.

However, it is the 1999 documentary Beautiful Mistake that provides the key to the current revival in Cale's fortunes with his new album Hobo Sapiens. In the documentary Cale revisited his homeland to play with The Super Furry Animals, Cerys Matthews, The Manic Street Preachers and Gorkys Zygotic Mynci. It was this outgoing hunger and curiosity that led him to his first major label contract in seven years, finding a home at EMI alongside The Beta Band and Radiohead.

"It was a total surprise, I can't imagine how I ended up there but I feel I'm in the right place to do what I want to do for a long time. I feel there is a future here that I'm going to have room to work and grow and really pursue all I want to do. I think that's really all they want from me."

Produced by Nick Franglen of Lemon Jelly, Hobo Sapiens is vintage Cale. It is a place where mordant wit and paranoia intertwine, conspiracy theories and spiritual longings react to a world in turmoil and attractive melodies are laced with dark undercurrents from what Brian Eno has called Cale's "fountain of original ideas."

"It's been like a door opening into the future," he says excitedly, "because of digital technology I found I could work faster. I started to realise this when I got stuck into doing film soundtracks in New York. Out of that it became interesting for me to write songs around sound effects; that abstract approach interests me, as does having loud distorted guitars in the background or putting something played quietly upfront, that manipulation of perspective and scale is exciting.

"When I met Nick I realised I could take all this a step further. But it's not really a collaboration it's a product of the imagination, I've written and played nearly everything, it's pure Cale - that's where I'm heading now."

The album title comes from an unpublished article Cale penned about the relationship between The Velvets and Bob Dylan. But it also describes the creator's feeling of rootlessness and the sense of drift and displacement that characterises many of the album's songs.

"I feel it's a general condition. I never felt my environment was Welsh. Even as a child I always felt it was American or European. I've now spent more time in New York than I have in Wales but in my mind it still has an effect."

He admits that therapy has been helped him come to terms with longstanding anger felt towards his family. "For a long time I didn't want to embarrass my father by being successful - being reluctant to be successful and face up to what you're capable of doing was part of that. So I just said forget it, forget all the guilt and just do it."

He was nearby when New York's twin towers collapsed. The aftershock was dealt with in the Five Tracks EP, his first EMI release, earlier this year. But Hobo Sapiens makes clear his distaste for the way his adopted homeland has responded to the attacks. "No one seems to care, it's like the fourth estate just bellied up and agreed to spout Whitehouse propaganda. I think there is a junta in Washington that has to be replaced with something more beneficial for the country."

The political concern and the studious nature of his current live performances seem at odds with his drug- and drink-gorging "psychotic gargoyle" persona of the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, his shows and offstage behaviour were punctuated by drunken rages and unhinged, often macabre, theatricality. How does he regard his former self?

"It's a stage everyone goes through, don't they? You can't keep doing that for ever, the important thing to do is find another way of doing it. I don't go crawling around the floor chewing the carpet any more, but I try to go somewhere else. These days the shows have more of a mental catharsis."

The plan for the next three years is to keep busy. He wants to play longer shows than Springsteen, and write and record constantly. Alongside his own work he intends to add to his production portfolio. Formerly having helped birth classic albums by The Stooges, Patti Smith and Jonathan Richman, he is lined up to work with Mercury Rev. No wonder he has little time for the past. From previous interviews it appears that his relationship with Lou Reed fractured irreparably when Reed failed to attend the funeral of Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison. He shrugs.

"It's passing - I rarely see him. I heard that on his last album he'd done a remix of Velvet Underground stuff. Lou's just the man for the job, I wouldn't have the patience."

Does he resent it that Lou has become the custodian of their history? "No, he got what he wanted but I'm not sure that's what he really wanted. I really don't care. I had to drive across Frankfurt after a gig recently and all I had was my iPod with the new album on it. I listened to it. I very rarely do that after I've finished something but I could hear things that were still fresh to me. That's what's important to me, The Velvets aren't fresh to me now."

'Hobo Sapiens' is out now on EMI