John Cale was a founding member of The Velvet Underground, the hugely influential band that changed the rules of rock. After Cale and the band parted ways in 1968, he began producing other artists and releasing his own albums.
His eighth solo album, “Music For a New Society,” was released in 1982. It came at a tumultuous time in Cale’s life as he fought a well-documented drug addiction. He eventually cleaned up and continued producing and recording albums at a prolific rate.
Fast forward to 2013, when Cale was asked to perform the entire “Music For a New Society” album in concert. That led to him re-visit his original recording. The result, called “M-FANS,” has just been released.
John Cale joined The Frame's Oscar Garza to talk about making old sounds new again.
I want to go back to the time when you wrote and originally recorded “Music for a New Society,” which was released in ’82. What was your life like at the time?
It was a mess. Lifestyle, everything was kind of an assorted mixture.
Was it difficult for you to revisit these songs? Because in essence you were revisiting that time and whatever you were going through.
Yeah, I try to avoid it. But I think [the songs] stood up. It was the intensity of standing there and getting on with it, and finding the strands of the original album. Because it changed with every song. There were different personalities in every song. How do these personalities live today? I didn’t want to go back and visit those personalities necessarily, but I mean, there were things about them that really lasted. A kind of method acting with who are you today.
And maybe you can sing the same words and not be the same person. So all of that role playing happened again.
But you weren’t necessarily role playing at the time.
No, I mean, at the time… the role playing was really about survival. How do you express an idea? Is it an idea that you’re trying to express, or is it sheer anguish?
But you weren’t discounting the creative part of you that made those songs. Whatever difficulty you were going through. And was it personal? Was it drugs?
All of that. That’s what was still there, that I was using music as a way of working out of situations.
How did you decide on the process of going back in the studio and revisiting these songs and that album. Did you work with a producer? Did you have a sound in your head of what you wanted to achieve?
Well, we got down to it when we did the live show. It all stemmed from that — the string quartet work, the backup vocals work. I just worked at deconstructing it, pretty much. And using rhythm a little.
I got hooked on hip-hop. And I started using all sorts of electronic drums and stuff. But it was more about noise involved in the album. That noise created an atmosphere, which is something that [John] Cage knew about, that films [use] with sound design. And you always have room tone. So I tried to find different room tones.
There’s a song on “M:FANS” that wasn’t on the original. It’s titled “Prelude.” Why did it not make it onto the original and why did you decide to revive it?
At the time, when I spoke to my mother on the phone, she wasn’t really feeling well and I didn’t think it was fair to put it on the record. So I took it off. And now I put it back on because — well, at the time I called her because I wanted to learn a song I wanted to put on the record. A Welsh folk song. So now it completed the picture. The portrait of "M:FANS" began with reaching back to Wales. At the time I was really trying to figure out — it was before I did “Words for the Dying” — why it is exactly I ended up in rock and roll when my background was classical music. So that was a place to start.
There’s another song on the album I wanted to ask about. You’ve collaborated with so many people over the years in your career. On the remake of “New Society” you’ve collaborated with Amber Kaufman from Dirty Projectors on the song “Close Watch.” Were you a fan of theirs? How did you work with them?
Oh yeah. I was really happy to find Amber. The song itself was really perfect. Because it could use a ghost in it. This person is talking about this image. And putting a voice to the image was a good idea.
I was doing a lot of vocoder. Sometimes it gets out of control and you have microtones creeping in. And sure enough she sang the microtones. I thought, What? That was really interesting.
You said earlier you became a fan of hip-hop. Who did you start listening to?
Vince Staples. Chance the Rapper. Fifty Cent. Eminem. Especially Eminem for the poetry. Just the screaming poetry. It’s just relentless.
There are actually two new versions of the song “If You Were Still Around” on the record. One of them is with a gospel choir. I don’t know who inspired the song originally, but hearing it now I couldn’t help but think of your old friend and bandmate Lou Reed. Once you went back and decided to revisit this record, did that thought occur to you immediately?
Well, it was really something that happened later. And it seemed to be perfect because I don’t know who Sam [Shepard] was writing about in that poem, but it seemed to fit really well.
If we could go back for a minute to 1982 when you first made this record — did you think then, given that it was a hard time for you, could you see your future at that point? Could you see yourself doing this in 2016?
No better than realizing that music was the answer. And that, you know, if I could use this as a way of finding my feet, and realizing that life is not just a good melody.
"M:FANS," the reimagining of John Cale's 1982 record, “Music for a New Society,” is out now.