In his 80s, John Cale is still (thankfully) releasing interesting music. He is a founding member of The Velvet Underground and a pioneer in drone music, as well as a producer for legends like The Stooges, Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers, Happy Mondays, Squeeze, and Sham 69. His recently released new album, Mercy, utilizes digital recording and modern production techniques in ways that might surprise the listener, and features guests such as Tony Allen, Weyes Blood, Animal Collective's Avey Tare and Panda Bear, and Sylvan Esso. Needless to say, John has long been someone we’ve wanted to talk to in the pages of Tape Op.
I love the new record, Mercy. There's something spooky and intimate about that album.
Yeah, I like that combination.
You work out of ARM Studios, your own complex?
Yes, yes. It's not complete. It's been that way for years. I have a lot of bits and pieces from all over the place, and I try and get as much as I can out of it. It's an amalgam of things that've been around for years. It's how I've been working, where I've been working, and all of that.
Is there certain recording gear that you've collected over the years? Like mics you like?
Yeah, there are one or two. I don't go crazy. They're dependable. It's a good day when I come out of the studio and there no noise is coming back at me. [laughs]
What were your early studio experiences in NYC like?
We'd drive down to the Bowery, walk up these stairs, and have no idea where we were. If the piano was in tune, we were ahead! [laughs]
With the Velvet Underground, the band was basically producing itself?
Trying very hard to do that. We were messing around with equipment that we didn't understand. What we'd come out with was really a toss-up. But once we got into Black Rock [the CBS Building in NYC] – if you got into CBS, then you're in business. Then I realized what a mishmash everything else was. CBS [Records] was several different studios in one building. I'd go downstairs at night, where I spent a couple of years working on quadraphonic mixing. Clive Davis [CBS Records boss] was very interested in attracting the Japanese market and going somewhere with it. The people that we had coming through the studios were really the elite. These guys were working on what was happening next in stereo. They'd show up with all sorts of gear. We never knew whether we were going to get the same thing twice. But they were fascinating. I sat down with them at lunch and talked to them about what my interests were in sound; they were full of information. I was never quite sure whether I understood what they were telling me. I listened to the way these guys spoke to each other, and I knew that they were in another universe. I was a lot of fun. All those engineers, some of them were the children of diplomats. There were all different kinds of makes of people. I was chewing on this stuff all the time. I wanted to hear more about what this was, and what that was over there. "Can I do this with that?” That kind of abstract realism.
The way you produced the Nico records [The Marble Index, Desertshore, The End...] was so dependent on multitrack recording. To track a multitude of instruments to create layers.
Yeah, I was into the layering. I took what I had, blended them all, and hoped that I had a good idea. Usually, it was hit or miss. Once I got an engineer that was interested in the same things as I was, then I'd be ahead.
Who were some of the engineers you worked with that you clicked with?
Oh, there were so many of them. They were all living in what seemed to me to be a surreal world. I wanted to try different things to see if they worked, and they weren't interested in that. They'd come back and they'd say, "Well, try this." We'd come to some agreement on what we were after. We were dependent on them!
There's a classic trope of the engineer saying, "No, we can't do that," all the time.
That was mainly their answer. That was the first thing that'd came back at me. I was trying to be a well-educated engineer. It seemed very important that if I didn't handle these bits of knowledge properly, then I would be just fooling myself.
How did you find yourself in a position to be a record producer?
First there was Nico's, The Marble Index [album]. I went at it with an engineer [John Haeny] that really took it on. We had piles of instruments in there. I wanted this. I wanted that. It worked. As soon as that happened, then the Nico vocals fit in nicely and I knew which ones would do what and how, as well as how abstract I could be with the musical ideas. I was lucky to have Jac Holzman as the boss of Elektra [Records]. When I took the first records of The Marble Index in to Jac, left them there for him, and came back later, the first thing he said to me was, "You know, I really like that record." I thought, "This guy's nuts. Are you serious?" It was worth it to have that camaraderie about the music. He was really into the music. That was very important.
That's what put you in the position to work with The Stooges [producing The Stooges] after that?
Yeah. It was considered a success to move forward with The Stooges. The Stooges really was a big question mark. I went to the concerts first, where James [Osterberg, Iggy Pop] would stand up on a table and run across the room on the tables. Immediately, I was thinking, "How the hell am I going to get that on a record?" Slowly, it dawned on me that they had their own way of dodging the cables. It worked out fine. When they walked into the room, James handed me a sheaf of papers and there were the lyrics. I thought, "Holy cow. He's prepared. He's done it." That's worth the world.
It's funny that they had such an image of chaos and looseness.
That was there, yeah. That was a big part of it. But it was so enjoyable.
A handful of years later, you found yourself producing Patti Smith's Horses. That's a similar situation of seeing her live and trying to figure out how to corral that energy in the studio.
That was certainly a part of it. But it was really all about Patti's appreciation of what I had done and what was possible in this world at the time. And, yeah, it worked.
Famously, you and Patti butted heads a bit.
Yeah. It was partly never quite getting exactly what we both wanted. But it was worth fighting for what we did get. So, we were ahead of the game and felt some accomplishment from it. It turned out to be more of a handling of the musicians. Patti was there; she was mother hen in many ways. She really handled everybody and brought everybody together. Luckily, she felt responsible for how everybody saw each other. That kind of psychology just rules the roost. You need that.
Like paying attention to everyone in the room, and what they’re heading towards?
Yeah. Trying to but never quite succeeding, I suppose. But hoping that that the musical connection was there. And it was there, mainly with Patti and Lenny Kaye [guitar].
Do you feel that when producing a record that you have to let it go at some point, but you’ll always think of what it could possibly have been?
Yeah. That's a good question. I try instead to think of the people that came along and who we couldn't have done as well without them. There were always young musicians and young engineers, and sometimes as soon as you let the door open, you got the cream of the crop. But not often.
And learning how to recognize when someone is bringing that.
I'd never clocked that you played on Nick Drake's Bryter Layter. What were those sessions like?
Very peaceful. A lot of it had been done already with John Wood, the engineer.
A great engineer.
John is really good. I did a lot of overdubbing. I mean, a lot of my life in the studio was as an "overdubber." That's how it worked. I had this urge to try new instruments, and always to try and get as big a sound as possible out of what we had available. And what can be, what is not, and what cannot be. That's always exciting to me. "Let me try this."
Your song, "Fear is a Man's Best Friend," has a nasty bass solo – one of my favorite moments on an album [Fear, 1974].
That was something that I wanted to conquer as soon as possible, in whatever studio we were in. I wanted to have that in my pocket.
And don't overthink it.
Yes, yes. I really want to let the natural be the natural.
One of the productions that I can't believe you worked on was the Happy Monday's debut album [Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)].
Oh, that was so hilarious. Hilarious.
Was that a pretty chaotic session? [laughs]
Superficially, it wasn't. I'd listen to this conversation going on among these guys in the studio, and then I'd go out to the pub later, clear my head, and think, "Is that really what…?" Bez [Mark Berry – maraca player, dancer, mascot], for instance, was like a mound of rationalism in what was really not that clear. So, I found someone in the group that had the right approach to what we were doing. I can't go much further than that. [laughter]
We were talking earlier about the quadraphonic era. Have you done mixes in surround and [Dolby] Atmos over the recent years?
I was about to do Mercy in Atmos and then COVID hit. It's on pause for a while.
Mercy is so immersive feeling already, with a lot of pads, drones, and atmosphere.
It wasn't something that just happened. It seemed to me to be a long time to where, "What exactly do we have to move to make this sound a little bit better?" All of that, day by day. It's exciting coming up with something that nobody else has done. That's the lifeblood.
Do you feel like it's a lot easier to experiment and be creative in the studio now?
Well, it's easy to break things. Not that that's what I want, really. That's not what my MO is. You have to understand that the breaking point of some of the equipment, and the breaking point of some of the ideas, they are very close to each other. It's important to appreciate all of that. That, and don't be abusive to the engineer!
A lot of Mercy was done with Dustin Boyer engineering, who also plays guitar with you, right?
Yes. He's a big part of it. We try to find the new ideas that are there already, and go with them. He was king of the roost at the very beginning of the sessions. He's very good.
Does he set sessions up to spark your creativity?
Well, no, not always. That's another important edge that you need to manipulate. You never know where an idea is going to come from. And you never know if you've really hit it right on the head. But the more you work with somebody, the easier it gets.
Like developing a shared language or anticipating.
Yeah, sometimes. But I'm sure that Dusty would agree that I don't use the shared language. A lot of the people that we work with don't have the shared language, and the idea of a shared language is kind of verboten here!
More like, “Can naive interface with the technical to create something new?”
Well, yeah. All the mistakes. As long as you have those mistakes, and understand what they are and where they're going, then you're gonna get somewhere.
You have a lot more songs in progress, I hear.
Sure. One of the things that happened when COVID hit was that we were locked in for a long period of time. I was able to go back into the studio and finish off this record, as well as finishing off a whole bunch of other songs. I was asking Dusty, "Where are we at with all this?" I want to know where the progress is. He said, "Well, at the moment you have 80 songs." Progress is happening!
With the way that you're working these days, are lyrics something that comes after the music?
Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn't. I don't have any rules. There are different kinds of lyrics that I have, and I address topics in different ways. But what do I avoid? Sometimes I don't want to talk about this, instead I want to talk about that. Happily, it's all hopping along.
Do you feel more people know who you are at this point in your life?
Yeah. Especially since the album came out, it's certainly been the case.
Well, John, thank you so much. This was really beautiful to talk to you, and I really appreciate you taking the time.
Yeah, it was interesting!