Q&A: John Cale

The Velvet Underground alum on his new album, 'Walking With Locusts'

John Cale, circa 1996. Credit: Brigitte Engl/Redferns/Getty

Compared with some of your previous records, this album is …
Lighter.

Did you set out to make an accessible pop album?
I didn't want to push it. I didn't want to get didactic. "Secret Corrida" was about Bosnia, but I took out all the references and made it metaphorical. I worked with these Moroccan musicians who were incredible, but you could never keep them down. I said, "Could you guys calm down a little bit?"

Why has it been so long since your last solo pop album?
I really got turned off to rhythm sections and went back to ground zero to find out what it was that made me get started. I went back to orchestral writing and Dylan Thomas. The phrasing, the incantation — it's very percussive.

What was David Byrne like to work with on "Crazy Egypt"?
We've known each other for a long time, and our daughters play together a lot. But I'd never been in a work situation with him. His studio persona is very calm. He made the whole mood of working better. I was really impressed. There wasn't very much said, but it was effective.

Describe the last time you saw Warhol.
We were exercising. The old Factory had been changed into a carpet manufacturer, and there were a lot of rugs there. In the back he had notes of how many lifts and curls he had done. He used to do that every day, so he was as strong as an ox. I did leg curls. He was on a bike. It was around the time my daughter was born, and I had stopped drinking and turned around my metabolism.

Tell me something funny Warhol said.
I had this album, and I said, "I don't have a title, and I don't have a cover." And he said [imitates Warhol], "Oh ... John. I'm very close friends with Yoko. Why don't you have your picture taken with Yoko and call it John and Yoko?"

What happened with the Velvet Underground re-breakup?
Everybody had songs they wanted to do, so we did that, and I was like, "Now let's do some new stuff." But instead we got into nit-picking about the guitar part on this song or that, and it got inane. And the level of abuse everyone had to take from Lou in the end was just abominable. There comes a point where he just wants it all. Whatever promises are made in the beginning are very quickly gone.

With all the success that he's had, why can't he be more generous?
I have no idea. When I first met him, he was a very fragile individual and also very volatile. Any situation could go anywhere. There was a generous side to him when we first met, and I prefer to remember that. I couldn't have had a better guide to New York and to the underbelly as well.

Victor Bockris' biography of Reed, Transformer, says that his parents tried to "cure" him of some of his personality traits by having him undergo electroshock therapy. Do you think that's true?
I know it's true. Some of that book, I don't know how he got it. No one in the band participated — that was one of the terms of going out on tour. I think Lou has a certain problem with the truth. Ninety percent of that book is true.

You produced Patti Smith's first album, Horses.
We had great fights. Patti has a way of connecting in conversation by shadowboxing. One of the things I did when I got there was take away all the band's instruments because they were all warped and out of tune. I spent the first day getting them all tuned, and then when they were in tune, the band sounded awful. So I got them all new instruments. I handed all these guys who were sensitive musicians completely new axes to do what they're used to doing. But the results were inestimably better.

What do you make of kids these days?
The Beck generation? Fucking fantastic. Best thing to happen to rock in a long time. I turned on Top of the Pops one day, and here's this guy loping around singing, "I'm a loser." I was like, "Where does this guy come from?" It worked in the way that rock & roll is supposed to work.

Have you ever surfed the Internet?
Yes. I've been looking for crime statistics in China. I want to find out about the problems they have there with youth. They have a serious unrest problem because of all the entrepreneurship and the disparity between different provinces.

If you had to give Lou Reed a job reference, what would you say?
Hard worker.

What do you want your epitaph to be?  
No talking in the library.