a+p: Your background is pretty much all over the board: a classically-trained violist and pianist, who studied with John Cage and then dropped into the whole Avant Garde music scene with LaMont Young and the Velvets. What do you think this diversity adds to your music?
Cale: There's a certain amount of discipline that I learned while I was studying that comes in handy. I mean the way musical structures work. Even if you're improvising, the fact that beforehand you know certain things will work helps you to make those improvisations successful most of the time. It really helps to have a certain amount of knowledge about musical structure.
a+p: How do you balance the electronic instruments that you use with the more traditional instrumentation?
Cale: It differs whether you're on stage or in the studio. In the studio you have pretty much Carte Blanche with whatever you're doing. You can turn natural instruments into electronic instruments. What I enjoy most about being on stage is that the natural instruments give you a greater variety of freedoms with texture. When you use natural instruments they have their own resonance and they really take account of the room that you are performing in. The nice concert hall will enhance natural instruments whereas they won't do much for electronic instruments.
a+p: Do you like working in smaller venues like St. Ann's (where Songs for 'Drella, his 1989 collaboration with Lou Reed, and Last Day on Earth were originally performed as works-in-progress)
Cale: St. Ann's is a special places. It is a very good place for putting on works-in-progress which was what 'Drella was at the time.
As a funding institution they have put themselves in a good position in New York to present new epics by a great variety of artists
a+p: The original Last Day on Earth was performed on-stage several years ago. What sort of changes were made to put it on album?
Cale: There was a certain amount of re-ordering. So that when you got the record it told you up front what the situation... [the first line in the liner notes reads "Last Day on Earth is a blueprint for theater"] It set you up for the piece. When we do it live there's a lot of things that you don't see.
We gave up on the idea of trying to make the record a good representation of the live performance. That's not what we wanted to do. We wanted to make something that would intrigue people to really want to see, or to invite them to use their imagination to see a theater piece around all these songs. Maybe there's more than one theater piece in there but there's certainly the way it's set up right now is better for a listening audience. There's no way we could have re-created what was on stage.
A+P How was it arranged on stage?
Cale: It was very simple. We had lighting and there were three of us... A percussionist Gerry Hemingway, and Bob and I, and we switched instruments... and there was some of it that was in computer.
a+p: What are some of the dominate themes in Last Day?
loss and time.
There's a number of songs about how time plays a role in almost every decision. And how some decisions define your attitude about time. And there's a lot of longing in this piece and that comes from... loss.
a+p: Why is it called Last Day on Earth?
Cale: We picked it as a good way of pointing the emotional impact of this piece toward a ??? landscape. To a Bladerunner situation.
a+p: I realize that these are fictional characters, but how much of John Cale and Bob Neuwirth is in these songs?
Cale: These are not personal songs for either of us. We wrote this for other people to sing. I mean there are things that reflect our views but there not special personal statements by us.
a+p: What was it like playing songs from after you left the Velvet Underground?
Cale: Well after a while it got a bit tiresome.
a+p: Do you have any regrets about the reunion?
Some yeah. It's over. It happened. It showed that it can't happen again and that's it.
a+p: What sort of influence did your work with John Cage have for you?
Cale: More from a Zen point of view. The way which his work spread out from art into life. This where I felt his strongest influence. And [his] attitude toward religion. Growing up in Wales was a pretty Draconian experience with religion. And the Zen attitude and his attitude of the incorporation of art into life was really very light and charming and not as heavy and portentous as it was in Europe.
Mention that Cage taught here...
Did he hold mushroom classes. [Interviewer confused] Did hold classes on mushrooms? He was an expert on mushrooms.
a+p: I think he was just teaching music.
Cale: That's fine, too.
a+p: You have worked with so many incredible people and done so many incredible things... Can you list some highlights?
Cale: I can't address myself to that. I am embarrassed to try to focus on it. I have no regrets about any of it and I'm really am happy that I've achieved whatever success I have. I'm looking forward to the work that I'll be working on in the future.
a+p: What do you think about the new generation of John Cale fans?
Cale: I am about to find out about them. I haven't toured here myself for a while. I can answer that in June.
I've been trying to follow what the audiences have done over the years and Mo [Maureen Tucker, VU's former drummer] has also noticed a change. It's like four years ago something happened and all of the sudden the audiences started getting younger and the spread of the attendance was really wide. And at the same time VU records started selling more. I think it's as a result of the records selling more that they started following our careers.
I mean Lou of course was above and beyond that. He had his own following and was well set-up in the star system of rock 'n' roll.
a+p: What's it like working with Lou? Is it rough?
Cale: laughter... what's done is done.
a+p: Do you think that some of the recent success is because of newer bands who show heavy VU influence?
Cale: I can't see that. The trouble is is that we had an opportunity here with the live album to really show what the band sounded like and it really doesn't give it to you. Some of the bootlegs that came out of the tour are almost a truer vision of what the band sounded like than the well recorded one, because the well recorded one really didn't take advantage of the ambiance of the room in the mix of the music. And that's what we were always pushing at. We wanted to fill the room up with this noise. Unfortunately it wasn't quite as present in the mix as I would have liked it to be or others would have liked it to be either.
I'm not criticizing Mike Rathke [the album's producer] for the production. I think Mike did what Lou expected him to do. He was in a terrible position. The only consideration I think from his point of view was not to show any partiality to any member of the band. We left the project to Mike. Mike on the other hand was not about to step out and do anything with the mixes that would be contrary to what he knew Lou's ideas to be.
I really can't criticize Mike Rathke. He was really a prince on the road and helped us a lot [deleted stuff about stage-managing and how levels kept rising]
Up to the point where we got to U2 it worked but then once you're out in those humongous stadiums it just became more and more pointless.
a+p: How did you end up hooking up with U2?
They were fans. They were always big fans of the Velvet Underground.
a+p: I was reading somewhere that during one of your shows in the '70s you cut the head off a chicken...
Cale [nonchalantly]: yeah, with a meat cleaver...
a+p: ...and then you were explaining to a group of vegetarians...
Cale: No, no. My band was vegetarian. They got all upset. And walked out and left me in the middle of a tour. It was a gesture at the time to the spirit [of the audience] to the gobbing and the slam-dancing that was going on. The chains and the spikes and **congress*.
a+p: Do you prefer a more sedate crowd?
Cale: No, I mean it didn't bother me at all but it was just a strange, a very awkward sort of mix happening.
Well, the band was one way and we were playing music that was another way and the audience was a third way. It was absurd the whole combination. And I thought, "well, you like slam-dancing, you like gobbing on the stage, you know all this pseudo-violence that's going on how do you react to this?" And I took out the chicken, cut its head off and threw it in the audience.
Did they like it?
Cale: No they were revolted...and the band split
The band split and I explained it as being a tribute to Col. Sanders.