John Cale is a pioneer of the rock viola, which may not have the cachet of the guitar but can generate a particularly unsettling, almost hallucinatory drone. On the first two Velvet Underground albums — especially songs like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin” — Cale evoked an intensely narcotic buzz that proved as distinct as Nico’s delectably off-key vocals and as menacing as Lou Reed’s deadpan jive. It’s the precursor to the ambient noise in a David Lynch film: stark, low, uncanny and deeply, almost existentially disquieting.
The viola has droned throughout Cale’s 40-year career, subtly threading his large and disparate oeuvre together. After he left the Underground in 1968 — or was thrown out by a paranoid Reed, depending on whom you believe — Cale embarked on a long and unpredictable solo career full of undeniable peaks (1973’s “Paris 1919”) as well as odd asides and one-offs (“June 1, 1974,” with Mike Oldfield and Robert Wyatt). With each record he has fashioned some new combination of straightforward pop and heady sound design, as if torn between his urges toward the accessible and the avant-garde. That he can produce something as immediately engaging as “Paris 1919” is offset by his ability to explore minimalist composition, such as “Church of Anthrax,” his 1973 collaboration with Terry Wiley.
These various strains intersect and intertwine on Cale’s latest solo album, “Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood,” which marks a period of deep retrospection: In addition to an upcoming reissue of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” and the new solo compilation “Conflict and Cathalysis,” Cale has been tinkering with “Paris 1919,” performing the album live with an orchestra for the past few years. A pan-musical exploration of time and violence, “Shifty Adventures” draws ideas and inspiration from seemingly every corner of the globe and every period in pop history: “Shaft”-era guitar abuts 1980s pop keyboards contrasts ambient and drone textures. The album varies wildly, as though trying to encapsulate the full breadth of Cale’s storied career.
Please tell me, what is “nookie wood”?
Nookie wood is just something that every teenager has. That’s where he goes when he’s chasing girls. The song itself is about a bunch of different things, and the sound effects in the song really had a lot to do with “Blade Runner,” especially the oriental drama that’s part of it. I have a Vietnamese person doing a speech. After I finished the whole album, the best way to wrap it all the way around and put a bow on it was to take one of the titles, and “Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood” was a nice playful way of dealing with how the album came together.
How did recording in your home studio affect the music?
A while back I was working on a piece for the Venice Biennale, and I started building a studio. By the time we mixed the new album, everything was in the proper place and we could depend on our mixes being the same in the car as they were in the studio. So we finished that up roughly last December, when we thought the album was coming out in May. The schedule shifted a lot, and I had three more months to go back into the studio and start writing again. Because we put out the [“Extra Playful”] EP in Europe [in 2011], all of a sudden there were more requests for extra B-sides. Any times they came looking for B-sides, it was something we could address immediately. We didn’t have to go back to unfinished songs, the ones we left off the album. We just kept on going.
Do you have a specific sound in your head that you’re trying to get on tape, or is recording more an exploratory process for you?
The latter. You pull out the MPC, you plug it in, and you see how far you get. And once you have a groove that works, then you start building the blocks — are you putting a synthesizer on there? Or are you putting on a real guitar? And even after you put on a real guitar, you screw around with it and use your software to make it sound like something entirely different. That’s how the songs grew. They didn’t come in the old-fashioned way of sitting down at the piano or sitting down with a guitar and writing a song. It all grew out of really using the studio. “Midnight Feast” is like a travelogue, and it really just opened up. Others took a little longer, but “Mary” and “Living With You” were both kind of instantaneous.
Speaking of travelogues, there seems to be a very wide geographical canvas on the album. The songs move from Vietnam to Havana to England and America.
That’s really something I love to do. It’s just a habit that I have. I enter the studio and turn it into a place or into a girl. “Hemingway” was my sensible idea that the difference between Hemingway in Havana and Hemingway in Guernica manifested itself in his face and in his features. It’s about how Guernica changed his features. He ended up with a thousand-yard stare. Shell shock. I don’t even know that he was at Guernica, but I know he was a war correspondent.
That song, especially toward the end, sounds so violent — both lyrically, with the hillside exploding, and musically, with the piano exploding. How do you match the music and lyrical tones?
Some of it’s subtle, but some of it’s more direct. “Hemingway” is more direct. “Vampire Café” has some of that in it, but it’s not as extroverted. It just happens sometimes. It depends on whether you want it to sting or whether your want it to explode. The viola works to create a tapestry, and then you can easily turn that tapestry into a really venomous atmosphere. And we tried to do that with “Nookie Wood.” That’s where sound design comes in. But the “Sandman (Flying Dutchman),” that’s the one song where I was trying to figure out what else to put on there and nothing seemed to work. I tried to put solo viola and maybe a little guitar, but nothing worked. It was better left empty and just left to the voices.
Looking through the tracklist for your recent solo retrospective, “Conflict and Catalysis,” the range of your work seems incredibly diverse, from Alejandro Escovedo and the Stooges to Danger Mouse [Brian Burton] to Patti Smith.
I don’t like to do the same things twice. I don’t like to come from the same position or mood or tempo. It’s always been diametrically opposed to where I ended the last song. If I’m satisfied that one song is finished and I start another one, I start on an entirely different side of the universe. I get more ideas that way. I may not know where I’m going, but something will happen.
How did you end up working with Brian Burton?
Brian Burton asked me to help with a Shockwave [NME 2011] set. I was happy to do it. We got into the studio and had some fun for a couple of days coming up with ideas. He’s a one-man band, and I’m a one-man band. The way my tracks turned out is a little more volatile than the way his turned out. He has a very sweet, gentle way of playing. “I Wanna Talk 2 U” had that Detroit thing I was looking for. I was trying to write a Motown type of thing, and I wasn’t getting it. But I like new artists who are unsure where they’re going. That insecurity is very valuable. It’s really what you need to focus on. Because formula is for “X Factor.”
In regard to that Motown sound on “I Wanna Talk 2 U” and even the very ’80s Asian theme on “Nookie Wood,” this album seems to toggle between very modern sounds and some older styles, as if it’s unmoored temporally as well as geographically.
There are always some overlooked niches in rock ‘n’ roll that you remember. Because you can nail the sound that they had at the time, really what you have to nail is the feeling. That’s the trip. I just listened to some old Gil Evans records lately. He has the series he did, “Live at Sweet Basil.” I remember going to those concerts. They’re very loose, but I like the way that he has these classic jazz progressions, and I think you could use some of that behind some hip-hop and it’d be very sexy. So there’s always something.
Is there a danger that it might curdle into simple nostalgia?
It’s impatience really. You finish one song, and the idea of starting with something that’s diametrically opposed is really refreshing. It gets you going. And then when you finish that one and you realize what that did. Now we go somewhere else. I have that impatience. I’ve always been like that. When I first started, Karlheinz Stockhausen and all those guys had theories to back up all this — theories that you had to plan change in the music. And then LaMonte Young went over there and took classes, and said hey, I disagree. You don’t have to plan change. There’s change in it already. You just have to listen to it. That diametrically opposite theory brought about the drone and everything else that was in in the ’60s, so this idea of what is change and what is static can go on for a long time.
Do old Velvet Underground or “Paris 1919” songs still have anything to say to you?
“Paris 1919” was a very specific situation. I was working at Warner Bros., and I had the opportunity to make a record. I had done “The Academy in Peril” [in 1972] and that was a blue-sky effort with an orchestra. I really got my druthers there and everything I wanted to do I could do there, but then it become obvious that I needed to write songs and do something that was more in the vein of “Vintage Violence” [Cale’s 1970 solo debut]. I wrote all the songs before going into the studio. It’s pretty much the only album where I finished everything before I went into the studio. It was very methodical and we got some really good players from the college orchestra at UCLA and [producer] Chris Thomas was very meticulous. Because the songs were prepared and worked on and manicured, it turned out that the whole thing was really about how much I missed Europe. This was the height of the Cold War. Now, what am I going to call this? Well, how did we get ourselves into this position? And I thought, the Versailles conference in 1919. All that stuff that was spooling around my nostalgia for things in Europe, and it made sense to call it “Paris 1919.”
Do those songs change for you, or reveal new facets the more you play them?
No, they don’t. We’ve done it a whole bunch of times with an orchestra, and it sounds fine. It’s 25 minutes in concert, so you have to have a second half. And I’ve always shied away from doing a rock ‘n’ roll second half. It didn’t jive properly, so we added songs we hadn’t done. We did a French song that I wrote for a film, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” from the “Falklands Suite” [from 1982’s “Words for the Dying”]. We did “Hedda Gabler.” They all benefited from the orchestra. One of the things I want to do is get some different arrangements for “Paris.” I think it’s time. I’m not thrilled with doing the same arrangements all the time. For years, everybody was asking me, why don’t you do it with an orchestra? So I said OK. I’ve done it with an orchestra. I’ve done it in Italy. I’ve done it in Melbourne. In London. So it’s just like the Nico Festival. All those songs are wide open for anybody who wants to interpret them. And the wonderful thing about doing the festival is that all these young female singer-songwriters who came out of the woodwork, they weren’t talking about doing “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” They love Nico for her songwriting — the right reason. And it was great, especially the one we did in Rome with CocoRosie and Joan as Policewoman.
You’re still performing older material like “Venus in Furs,” which you included on 2007’s “Circus Live.”
That one and “Heroin” and “The Black Angel’s Death Song.” When we did them, I knew that they were pretty strong. They weren’t going to change very much, because the role of the viola in the songs was to create a kind of elegant backdrop for what we were singing about. I don’t think we lost that at all. Any time we do them live, the viola works great.
Do you ever go back and listen to those Velvet Underground songs? Did you do that for the new reissue of “Velvet Underground & Nico”?
They just sent me a copy of what they had done, but I haven’t had a chance to listen yet. I was surprised by it. All of a sudden, I’m thinking, “What are they doing this time?” There’s a limit to what you can do with those old recordings, and that’s one of the things I wince about when I hear them.
Do you mean the new remastering? Or just the idea of repackaging that album again?
You can do that to a certain point, but the fidelity is not there. I don’t know how you put the fidelity back in. They’re old recordings. 1969? That’s 40 years ago, isn’t it? I see. Every time I hear that record, I feel like I’m listening to it through gauze.