As a solo artist, producer and member of the Velvet Underground, John Cale has had a hand in some of the most influential records ever made.
Few musicians-cum-producers can claim to have had quite as diverse or influential a career as John Cale. A founder member of the Velvet Underground, the band that launched a hundred thousand other bands, the 64-year-old Welshman has cut an almost Zelig-like figure in the music business over the past four decades. As a producer, he's birthed landmark albums by the likes of the Stooges, Patti Smith and the Happy Mondays, as well as maintaining a parallel solo career that has veered from avant garde to balladeering rock.
The story of how the young John Cale, from Garnant, South Wales, ended up travelling to New York and becoming a core member of one of the key groups in rock history is a fascinating one. Displaying a talent for piano and viola, he'd moved to London in the early '60s to study at Goldsmiths College, subsequently earning a Stateside scholarship. There he became attracted to the avant garde, taking part in John Cage's marathon piano experiments and joining LaMonte Young's drone ensemble the Dream Syndicate. In 1964, he met Lou Reed at a party and the pair resolved to form a band. Eventually they came to the attention of Andy Warhol, who became their manager.
The Cale/Reed-led line-up of the band recorded only two albums — 1967's The Velvet Underground And Nico (known as the 'Banana Album') and the following year's White Light/White Heat — before arguments between the two caused the former to quit. By then, the group were renowned for their proto lo-fi approach, which Cale claims was part accident, part design.
"You gotta laugh when you think the Banana Album was done in a studio [TTG in LA] where the floorboards were up... they were building it. We had holes in the floor, you had to step around them and be careful. We'd have the viola and the bass going into one Silvertone amp and the guitar and voice going into another."
Cale admits that in some ways the Velvets had a very definite aural aesthetic. "Distortion was something we were very interested in. In that day it was tube distortion and you had a variety of things you could do. I had a little bit of electronic juice from working with LaMonte. But we had far more opportunities with the Velvets to use that stuff. It was really a musical attempt to take those words and make them more novelistic."
Were there many overdubs on those records or were they recorded completely live? "There were a few overdubs. Backing vocals. That's what [producer] Tom Wilson managed to bring to it: we isolated the voices. We didn't really know what he was doing. Everything just sounded so much better and we were very excited.
"The second one was done at Atlantic [in New York]. Gary Kellgren was the engineer. He and Tom had to deal with a fairly disorganised unit at that point — we were all at each other's throats. We didn't have time and we didn't care, we hadn't rehearsed anything. He still managed to get some good things, like the backup harmonies on 'I Heard Her Call My Name'. I remember those, when he played them back. He nodded sagely and said, 'Yes, you sound very commercial.' We were 'Woah'. The first album was a year of slog, every weekend, and the second one was just kind of slapdash."
Cale quit the band and found himself on the receiving end of production offers, recording Marble Index with Nico and directing the sessions for the debut 1969 album by the Stooges. He's said before that he believed his job was just to capture their live energy. "Yeah. For a little bit, I was very concerned because I'd seen them live and I knew the energy level that was there and what a magical presentation it was. But when you have five days in the studio to do a record, you don't have time to worry too much about how does this compare to live recording, or whatever. I think we had three days of recording and two for mixing. Iggy was very together — he came in and gave me a sheet of lyrics that had been very carefully written out. I was trying to do something different but it didn't need it."
Cale's reputation as someone who could capture lightning in a bottle began to grow. His methods, though, were often unorthodox, resulting in the emotionally fraught sessions for Patti Smith's 1975 classic Horses, conducted at Electric Lady Studios in New York amid a blizzard of arguments. "It was kept together by a really stable engineer who watched all of the shenanigans going on and sort of hung onto it. Bernie [Kirsh], he was great."
One row developed when Cale asked the band to trade in their cheap instruments for ones that were actually in tune. "Yeah," he laughs. "But they loved them. When you try and replace them, they don't like 'em, they don't like the way they sound, they don't know how to control them. But we saved time basically. Which is not a commodity that you can explain to musicians. They were young and energetic people who wanted to get it done as quickly as possible. Having to wait around while they changed a reel of tape was a pain in the ass."
Perhaps Cale's most startling suggestion was the disorientating triple-pronged vocal assault in 'Land' — a result, he says, of "the Burroughs cut-up technique".
"It was in the mix that that came about. I sort of said 'OK, you've got these three tracks, let's put them all together in some way. But I don't think I'm the one who should be putting them together, you're the one who should be putting them together.' And so she sat with the faders, kind of afraid to move one or the other. Eventually it arrived at a place where you could make all three of them work together. You just sit there and listen to it as often as is necessary until a kind of Gestalt of it appears in your brain."
Aside from his studio work, John Cale still enjoys a prolific gigging career, the most recent results of which can be hear on his latest release, the two-disc Live Circus album. Recorded in Holland during March — in Groningen's Oosterpoort and Nijmegen's Doornroosje — it's a fitting career overview that takes in his electronically enhanced modern renditions of Velvets classics such as 'Venus In Furs' and 'Femme Fatale', along with key Cale solo tracks such as 'Helen Of Troy' and 'Gun'. The original plan had been to release an EP of live material, but the idea soon expanded.
"The record company popped up late in a nine-and-a-half week tour and said 'Let's do a full album.' We scrambled a truck out of Amsterdam when there were two weeks left. You look around and see which of the remaining gigs have the best facilities, which halls are really good, if they're clubs which ones have high ceilings over the stage for instance — because if it's a low ceiling, you're gonna have separation problems and a load of feedback.
"Groningen — which is the majority of the recording — is a beautiful art theatre. It has a proscenium and a high ceiling above the stage, very warm-sounding, so we did it there. Then we had no choice, we had to go to Nijmegen which is a punky little club that really sounded pretty good when it came to reviewing the results. But by Nijmegen we were burnt, we were crispy critters."
As Cale soon learned, mobile recording trucks are now a far more compact proposition than in the past. "We wanted to do a Pro Tools recording and there was one truck that was affiliated with the Paradiso in Amsterdam. Especially with Pro Tools, you don't have the 24-track machines there and you don't have the 24-track tapes piled up to have ready to go if you're in the middle of a number."
Gigs successfully recorded, Cale had the drives sent over to one of his favourite mix studios of the moment, the Dust Brothers' Boat Studios in Silver Lake, LA. The most appealing aspect of the studio, the producer says, is its Neve 8028 desk, built in 1969. "We chucked the drums through one side of the Neve board and focused on having them as the centre of the mix. Once we had that sound together, everything else followed and we made everything sit inside that." He's a devoted Neve man, it turns out. Not a fan of SSL. "No. Not really. They're kind of vicious. They're malleable and they're vicious... I don't know how to put it. I'd just rather have a good Neve board, the sound of it."
Despite his experimental bent, there's a part of Cale that is clearly the traditionalist who enjoys the 'conservative' approach of British-trained engineers. "Adam Moseley was the engineer," he says, "and he's been around the block. He used to work at Trident and you come out of Trident or you come out of AIR with that very conservative attitude of the Brit engineer. So we got there and we listened and organised the recordings. The Boat is a very pleasant place to work. There's one rectangular room that's very sweet-sounding."
Part of Cale's ethos was to leave the recordings untouched, in marked contrast to the post-production sleight of hand that became a characteristic of 1970s live albums in particular. "You know the story of the Band, the Scorsese movie [The Last Waltz]?" he asks. "They spent three months inserting single notes on the bass. It was pretty manic."
Matching the sounds between the two different gig recordings was the trickiest part of the process. "You can hear the difference in 'Buffalo Ballet'. The arrangement of 'Buffalo' is so transparent that the ambience of the room, you can spot it right there."
Elsewhere, Cale and Moseley actually killed the ambience tracks and mocked up a room sound at The Boat. "We set up a couple of Westlake Audio speakers and put two 87s at one end of the room and we recreated the ambience. But really we didn't do anything to it, we didn't overdub, we didn't edit, it all is pretty much what was there. I can hear stuff that makes me sort of twitch a bit. For the first two or three numbers there were certain things, like the snare mic ended up touching the snare. The overall thing was you've got so much energy going on here, you're not gonna throw it out because of something like that. It was something that was manageable. As long as it was manageable we left it alone and tried to deal with it as best we could."
In keeping with his musical past with the Velvets, some tracks feature underlying drones newly created for the live set. "I made up these turbine sounds," Cale says. "I have a friend who works in sound effects in Hollywood and he was working on this Superman project [Superman Returns]. They sent him out to do field recordings of the LA demonstrations for undocumented workers, so he was out in the crowd. Everyday he would have a file for me of strange noises, some really beautiful ship engines and a variety of atmospheric sounds. So I combined a whole bunch of them. 'Ready For War' was the one that was really bothering me, for a lot of reasons, so we put it in with the turbine drone and it seemed to work a lot better. The same thing goes for 'Hush' — it works inside this buzzing noise."
Back in the UK in the late '70s, Cale produced the debut album by Squeeze at Wessex in Highbury, employing John Wood as engineer, who he'd known from his sessions for Nick Drake's Bryter Layer in 1970. "John was used to my crazy notions, but he enjoyed them. It called for him to really participate in the performance and the creation of the arrangement. I would slam one chord very hard and he would bring the fader up and the rate at which he pulled the fader up was really part of the arrangement.
"With Squeeze, I used to like dubbing guitar solos and I'd say to Glenn [Tilbrook] 'OK, this song, you don't need a blues solo, you need a crazy guitar solo,' and he'd go all over the place. I'd say 'Right, do another one,' and I seriously thought there was something wrong with him to be able to do that kind of guitar solo twice."
Throughout the '80s, Cale concentrated on his solo career, before being asked by Tony Wilson of Factory Records to produce the Happy Mondays' 1987 debut, Squirrel & G-Man...
"It was like holding onto a bar of soap in the bathtub," he recalls. "The main thing I remember was getting bollocked for eating a lot of tangerines. I didn't know what role any of their chemical activities would have. I was on shaky ground because I'd just stopped drinking and all that, I was a father and the world was new and wonderful all over again.
"I couldn't tell you who wrote what. I know there was a piano player [Paul Davis] there and we had a stereo image of a Wurlitzer piano he was playing. He put his earphones on one day and just stared into space and tickled the keys and got all glazed. He kept on asking us to make the piano go 'all swimmy' for him. It was on the edge. You try and do a track of tambourine with Bez and you wonder whether the guy's gonna be able to hit the tambourine and stand up. Very rickety. Really hilarious."
Ask him what he thinks his role as a producer has been over the years — bearing in mind the fact that he has chosen mostly to work with a procession of misfits and outsiders — and he doesn't hesitate before answering. "At the end of the day," he muses in his still-strong Welsh brogue, "you've got to give somebody something that they can grow into. You've got to show them the way ahead. Also, it's nice to surprise them with another view of what they're doing. Sometimes they might disagree with you. But if you can do it, it's really good to hand somebody back a mirror of themselves that helps them move ahead."
As a mixer — time constraints allowing — Cale admits that in the past he has bordered on the obsessive, tweaking balances at high volume for days at a time. Those intense, stressed-out days, he insists, are long gone. "Yeah, I can't do that any more," he laughs. "I worked with an assistant engineer over at Ocean Way recently who'd worked with Dre. He said that Dre worked at 120dB, all the time. 120dB. Three woofers a day. He said he had to step out, he couldn't handle it. Then he got a job from Dre to frequency-analyse the room at 120dB and fix the fixtures and the lights in the ceiling because they were rattling. Apparently Dre, it just doesn't affect him at all. At that point I would think you're just feeling the damn thing and not hearing so much."
The key to successful music production, Cale thinks, is experience. Studio work simply gets easier the older you get. "I look at a track and where the problems might be and I try and avoid all the other stuff," he explains. "Sometimes if you don't pay attention to the problems, when you get to them, they're not as severe as when you first started. You've arranged all the rest of the furniture in the room and the lampshade doesn't really look as garish as when you first walked in."
With one eye always on the bleeding edge of technology, back in 1970, Cale was employed by CBS Records in New York to do quad mixes of their back catalogue, including records by Laura Nyro and Simon & Garfunkel. "Clive [Davis, CBS boss] had a relationship with one of the Japanese companies who offered him several million dollars to develop catalogue for quad. People got hip to all of this, this new format. It was very interesting. The problem was: how do you go from stereo to quad without screwing around with the image?
"The mixing board was very simplistic. This was when CBS Studios was run by the audio engineers' union and it was very powerful. It was like 'Don't touch the board, sonny.' But it was a question of 'How do you get pristine images?' You put the vocal on all four. One of the great tricks that we came up with was with an eight-track machine, we'd run delay from one to two, two to three, three to four. Then you bring each of these tracks up on different speakers and it'd cross the room. That was when you really got an idea of what could happen — when you had a delay that went across the room quickly, it was startling. You got this real vivid aural experience.
"We also ran into the engineering department's attempts to go over to 16-track, which was a plate that you attached and joined two eight-tracks together. It was primitive but it worked. The string section that they put on Simon & Garfunkel's 'Fakin' It' [from 1968's Bookends] was on a separate eight-track tape. The way they were sync'ed was with wax pencil marks on the tape, so you lined them up and pressed Play on both of them simultaneously and then everything would come together."
Why does he reckon quad didn't take off at the time? "I don't know. I was roped into a meeting with Warner Brothers film executives because Kubrick had just done a new movie [A Clockwork Orange] and he wanted the soundtrack in quad, which was the beginning of surround sound in film. All the heads of the departments were at this meeting and the issue was were they going to spend the millions of dollars necessary to rewire the entire chain of Warner film theatres to accommodate the new Kubrick film? I brought my quad mixes in and played some and they were seriously considering doing it. Obviously now it's got easy."
In recent years, Cale has produced Middle Ages-styled female vocal group Mediaeval Babes and Mexican folk-blues singer Alejandro Escovedo. Aside from The Boat (see box), his favourite studio is Ocean Way in Los Angeles. "You need different gear for different things," he reasons. "If I do an Alejandro Escovedo album, I can handle a nice wooden room and some Pro Tools recording, but then mix it at Ocean Way where you have a lot more analogue stuff that you can run it back into and make it a little warmer. That's really what you want, a little warmth to it. For recording, the back room at Ocean Way (B) is really something. Then there's D, which has all the gear in the world."
As someone who's been in the front line of technological developments for 40 years, John Cale embraces the digital age almost wholeheartedly. His last solo album, 2005's Black Acetate, was a Pro Tools-recorded affair that found him experimenting with electronic funk with — he thinks — mixed results.
"I was always suspicious of new stuff," he points out. "I stayed a respectful distance away from learning digital for a long time, but now it's getting a lot easier to do with your 002s and stuff. Black Acetate was kind of a one-man-band issue. We didn't have very many musicians on it, so we weren't doing ensemble playing, I was writing in the studio. We were working on making our own grooves. We stayed away from the MPC until 'Woman' and then I saw what the problems were. When we do 'Woman' live, it's very different and it benefits from just having a good rock & roll band whack it out, rather than trying to do hip-hop."
Monitor-wise, Cale likes to stick with the tried and tested. "You gotta rely on the good old NS10s in the end. I like some Ureis and I have a pair of mid-sized Genelecs, but I've never been let down by the NS10s. The stuff that I mix, you don't need to think of a nightclub or something."
That's not to say that he never works on heavy low-end music. A recent remix of 'Gravel Drive' from Black Acetate found him imitating the 'screwdown' sound of Southern hip-hop and highlighted the different benefits between working in the digital and analogue domains as far as his work is concerned.
"What they do down there — it's a really big movement — they sit around, drink a lot of cough syrup and turn the turntables very slow and then they rap. So we stayed in the digital domain for as long as possible, then copied it onto a 24-track and brought it back up through the board and it made a big difference. We made CDs of a mix and gave it to a DJ, and he DJed that and we copied that back into the system, and we mixed that in over the screwdown. The thing I like about digital is that if you really want to, you can carve it. On the remix I was working with Mick Petralia and he's such a great programmer. Watching him go to work carving some grooves out is really something."
Cale's back catalogue is now being reassessed. His classic 1973 album Paris 1919, a smooth singer-songwriter collection that saw him backed by Little Feat, was recently re-released, garnering wowed reviews. Perhaps surprisingly, he claims never to have much to do with the remastering process of his old albums. "I just think 'Is it clearer?' Probably is, but I'm so suspicious because it's another way of regenerating sales in something that's a little sleepy. I didn't listen to it, no. It's like 'Let's do it again in another hundred years when technology's moved on.'"
Like many audiophiles, Cale is sceptical of other aspects of the digital audio revolution, particularly home-based recording and MP3. Does he think there's a serious quality issue there? "Oh there is. You definitely can hear it on the charts. The fact that somebody can sit at home and do something, the standards are not as meticulously dealt with. But it really doesn't matter — if you've got a lo-fi record that reaches number two, it doesn't make it because it's lo-fi, it makes it because it has something else going for it. Rock & roll has got to have an open door for anything that happens, otherwise it's boring."
And that's certainly not something you can say about the music of John Cale.