When John Cale released Music for a New Society in 1982, he was coming off a decade-and-a-half hot streak. First as a member of the Velvet Underground, then as a solo artist and producer of key records by Nico, the Stooges, Patti Smith, and the Modern Lovers, Cale pioneered avant-garde approaches in rock music, profoundly influencing the direction of art rock, punk, and experimental sound.
Though he was no stranger to sonic intensity, Music for a New Society—recorded almost entirely on his own and mostly improvised—proved a challenge for Cale. In the following years, he’d refer to its recording as “madness” and “excruciating,” but 2016 sees the release of M:Fans, a newly recorded re-imagining of the album. Featuring the same group he utilized on his last solo album, 2012’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, and Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors, it’s a raucous update on the sparse original, but in line with Cale’s longstanding willingness to experiment and augment, and his ability to warp the expectations of his listenership.
“I didn’t mind it getting out of hand in that way,” Cale says of the bold new record over the phone with Aquarium Drunkard, reflecting on the sundown in Los Angeles before diving into his motivations for revisiting the painful record, discussing his relationship with Lou Reed, and weighing in on his recent hip-hop playlists. | j woodbury
Aquarium Drunkard: Music for a New Society was a difficult album to record. You called it something like “an agony.” Why revisit it?
John Cale: It was a bunch of things. First off, you’re trying to re-release an album, so you have the opportunity to go and remaster it and look at what the recordings contained, the difference between what was on the tapes originally and what was put out as an album. If you’re lucky, you find one track that was never put on there, and it’s pretty decent and it’s almost finished. All you have to do is put some violas and a voice on it and it’s done. [The new version] really has some hair on its chest. The first one has gargoyles in its backroom. You try and do things that bring an edge to it. Not the same one that was there before, but you’re showing people there’s some strength where you thought otherwise when you first put it out.
AD: Were you happy with the album when you initially released it?
John Cale: I thought it was very difficult. I think it was a difficult proposition for a lot of people. It was a solo album originally, they wanted me to do some pretty songs, but I went in and improvised the whole thing. I felt alright about the improvisations; it’s kind of like a little bit of method acting over music. Doing the [new version], I wanted to have some improvisation in there too. The way it came out was the first one was a very solitary experience and the new one is a very claustrophobic experience.
AD: When you did the original record, you did so mostly on your own. Had you worked that way before, completely solo?
John Cale: No. I was thinking about The Marble Index, which I made with Nico. She would write her songs with harmonium and we would try very hard to separate the harmonium from the voice, because she would sit at the harmonium [and sing], which was always an issue. So we worked hard until we finally [isolated] her voice. I would improvise arrangements around the whole thing and then pull out the center. The song would be floating in the middle of all this shifting tapestry of sound around her. I thought that was one way of doing Music for a New Society…but it got even more adrift than that. There are a lot of independent parts, and into the flow of those parts you put your vocals. Like “Sanctus”—it’s pretty untethered, and even though there’s a real hard track on the new record, it’s still pretty untethered. There are all these ghosts in there, flying around and talking to each other.
AD: The new version of the record is very dense and heavy, and while the original record is very sparse, both leave a lot of room for the listener.
John Cale: You’re almost arm wrestling yourself. I have a tendency to fill in the spaces. When you have a riff, you double the riff. You have another instrument playing with you. But I started to realize listening to a bunch of hip-hop that it’s very, very simple. I was listening to “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” there’s not very much in there. You’ve got this imaginative use of a spray can, and some harmony, and that’s it. A good rhythm track. It was this tussle, an argument [with the new versions]: Do you fill it in, put a lot of stuff in it, or don’t you? The result is the one you’ve just described. There’s still room even though it’s got more agents of change, as it were.
AD: What hip-hop artists are you listening to?
John Cale: Chance the Rapper. Earl Sweatshirt. Some of the more amorphous artists, whose ideas of songwriting are really vague. A lot of the stuff that comes out of Akon’s studio in Georgia. In terms of really elite production, Andre 3000. His new record with Erykah Badu is just unbelievable. I like Vince Staples [and] some of the Texas guys, like Chingo Bling. He made a record called “You Can’t Deport Us All” and one called “Fuck Arpaio.” Some hysterical songs coming out of there. Kokane also has a lot of stuff that has some wicked humor in it, but he’s got a lot of soul. Back 2 tha Clap has a song about Katrina on it, “When It Rains It Pours.” The voice is unbelievable. Just gorgeous.
AD: Are there rock artists that excite you?
John Cale: Not many.
AD: Do you find modern rock music uninteresting?
John Cale: There are a few [bands I like]. Animal Collective [note: Cale contributed to the band’s new album, Painting With] has a real niche they’ve polished. The problem is that not too many people chase after the sounds. I’m really sounding a little snotty here—and I don’t mean to—but [other artists] don’t chase after the sounds as much. The only guys that do that come out of hip-hop. You listen to those guys and they’re really street raw. Whatever they got on the record is what they’ve got. What’s a chorus, what’s a verse, what’s a bridge? Never mind all that. Some of it is unintelligible, and that’s fine.
AD: Does that interest you coming from an avant-garde, minimalist, and free music background?
John Cale: There’s something new to it. I’m listening and wondering, “What are they talking about? What are they saying? What is that word?” And in the end it doesn’t bother me if I don’t know.
AD: Though you wrote Music for a New Society on your own, you did collaborate lyrically with your wife at the time, Risé Irushalmi, and Sam Shephard.
John Cale: I was setting Sam’s opera to music, The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife. It’s a two-character opera. I was working with his director Woody Woodruff to try and set this up this Off-Broadway event. They were running around trying to do this, and I was talking to Sam, who was on the set of The Right Stuff. I asked him, “Have you got any other lyrics lying around that you think might work? Send me some stuff.” He sent me some lyrics, some which were finished, some which weren’t, whatever, and I took “If You Were Still Around” from that. I don’t know who Sam had in mind writing it, but…it seemed to me appropriate to do it for everyone that was at the Factory and is not around any more. I thought it was dignified and a good way of dealing with the issue.
AD: On the new record, there are two versions of “If You Were Still Around.” Does that serve as a way for you to reflect on your relationship with Lou Reed?
John Cale: Yeah. That’s always an issue.
AD: In the notes, you describe your relationship with him as “ill-defined.” What did you mean by that?
John Cale: Well, I think it speaks for itself, doesn’t it? I don’t know what it was. It was a really powerful professional relationship, and a personal relationship up until a point, and then it became aggressive. I gave it a number of shots. When Lou decided to break up the band, there were all these discussions about what directions the band would go in and we were all serious about it. But he seemed to really come down on the side of not wanting to do things like “Venus In Furs,” “Black Angel Death Song,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and “Heroin.” He didn’t want to do those—he wanted to do pretty songs. The two sides didn’t meet.
Then he fired Andy [Warhol] and didn’t tell anybody about it, and hired a new manager [Steve Sesnick] which I guess we really needed, because no one was really in charge. But we had this guy who walked in and said, “Hey, this is Lou Reed’s band, you’re all sidemen.” Big mistake. The four of us had all done it for the band, we were all in it for each other. What he did was just unconscionable. So I said, “You’re doing this, and you want to go back to folk music…we’re on the edge of doing something really valuable here.” And it ended there. I tried it a bunch of times. We went back and did Songs for Drella [in 1990], which was really successful. Anything we put our minds to, we’d really do it. We were fine with that, with the work, because we were both locked into the idea of what work was. For me, work was more fun than fun. As soon as you’re done with the work, then all this other ancillary shit walks in and it turns the whole thing upside down.
AD: “Ill-defined” seems like a good way to put it in that case.
John Cale: You can’t say it wasn’t productive. The worst you can say is “destructive by default,” but I don’t know. What’s the point of that? After all the creative shit we did? No. That would be a waste of all our creative energy.
AD: Music for a New Society was released on ZE Records, after the dissolution of your label SPY Records. What was your role like at SPY?
John Cale: I was running around New York picking up the most out-there records. The best one we did was by a band called The Sic Fucks. Boy, they were something. They had this song called “Toni Tennille Sex Appeal.” “Toni, Toni I want to fuck/Toni, Toni I want to suck/Toni, Toni sex appeal/I love you.” It was completely out there. So that’s what we started with, and we did some of my records and some of my productions.
AD: What caused the end of the label?
John Cale: It just morphed into being ZE Records. There was another partnership and I stepped out of the ring. I just decided I wanted to be more of a performer than a producer. I didn’t want to be a record man. I’d done it with Warner Bros. anyway and that was a real learning experience. But I realized performing was what I was really interested in.
AD: You released a single by Lester Bangs on SPY. What were your impressions of Bangs as an artist?
John Cale: Just the same as his writing—completely chaotic and out of control. But with so much energy. He was a performer. He’d really get up on stage. You’d better wear a helmet.
AD: M: Fans is a very energetic take on the record. You seem to be the kind of guy who’ve more forward looking, not prone to nostalgic moves, and this doesn’t feel like one. It sounds like you got in and tore it apart.
John Cale: Yeah, this is not a nostalgic mood. I was in the coal mine with a hammer and a chisel going at it.
AD: Are you excited by how it turned out?
John Cale: I really am. And these shows I’ve been doing in London, it’s like I’m carrying a studio beneath the stage. We get some really amazing noises up there. Some friends of mine were in the audience at the Roundhouse and they told me that they could sense the audience bristling at some of the versions. I did a really improvised “Close Watch,” and they were saying in the audience, “Why doesn’t he fucking sing that song the proper way?” I knew that was going to happen anyway. I don’t think my role is to do it a beautiful way, to do things the way they were. My role is to do things the way I feel like doing them in the moment.
AD: Do you take some pleasure in defying the audience’s expectations?
John Cale: You’ve got to understand: I don’t know what the audience’s expectations really are. I just imagine that any reasonable person would say, “Well, he’s going to do something like what’s on the record.” Somebody is going to get pissed off, but that’s not my point. Really, the expression is more my thing than parroting something.