No stranger to taking music in experimental directions, John Cale encountered the worst possible problem with several of the songs that were to constitute his new album: They started to bore him.
Cale’s resume doesn’t lend itself to anything resembling staid. He cut his teeth in the avant garde underground with the Dream Syndicate in the early Sixties, before helping create the art rock band that launched a thousand art rock bands, the Velvet Underground that same decade. And Cale’s post-VU career has hardly been lacking edge: He produced the first recordings for the Stooges, the Modern Lovers and Nico, in addition to fashioning a three-decade-plus solo career that has pinged between lush pop and more searing experimentalism. The new HoboSapiens is Cale’s first record in eight years, and as a futuristic update of the music he has made on the path less traveled, it’s his best in more than twenty. That said, the record didn’t come easy.
Cale found a solution to his song fatigue by letting the songs that would become HoboSapiens take their entire shape in the studio, recording most of them in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks. As for the songs that predated his new working formula, Cale broke them down and built them back up with new parts. Working off some loops and samples provided by Lemon Jelly’s Nick Franglen, Cale found that the songs’ spontaneous creation and recreation was creatively invigorating. It also provided a new dynamic for the Welsh multi-instrumentalist, as he paired his electric sounds (like the trademark amped-up viola on “Magritte”) with some futuristic electronic ones. “I like that it was so fast and I could change my mind about things very quickly and move on,” he says. “The distance between the very first idea and the very end of it could be just three or four hours. It’s also a very easy way to make mistakes, but I find that fear factor is a great engine. It lent a certain hypnotic element to it.”
Franglen replaced several older drum loops that had begun to sound tired to Cale, including the ones that informed the opening cut, “Zen.” Franglen utilized a part by controversial drummer Bernard Purdie, who years ago earned the ire of pop aficionados for claiming that he had played parts on many Beatles songs that were attributed to Ringo Starr. “What Nick did with ‘Zen’ was really magical,” Cale says. “I didn’t like that song for a number of reasons, it sounded like a Gatlin Brothers collection to me. He had this huge suitcase of analog records and created this loop from a Purdie collection. Of course, he also told me the story about Purdie insisting he’d played on these Beatles’ records. Apparently [laughs] he gives lectures claiming that Ringo didn’t play a single note. But Purdie has a very warm, round sound.”
The pace for recording a song was so fleet that one song, “Things,” appears in two markedly different versions, though both have the same slightly humorous root. Cale snatched the key line, “things to do in Denver when you’re dead” from the 1995 neo-noir film, not knowing that the film had pinched the title from a Warren Zevon tune from four years earlier. “I found about Zevon’s song to my embarrassment about a year later,” Cale says. “I was in Belgium and an interviewer showed up and pulled out this CD booklet and said, ‘Are you aware of this?’ I guess I should’ve realized that that title itself was so Warren Zevon-esque. But I didn’t pick up on it. But hey, what’s good enough for the master is good enough for the man.”
Also on the set is the haunting “Letter From Abroad,” which takes a simple echoing beat and bathes it in dissonance and menacing percussion. Cale says the song’s inspiration came years ago from seeing Beneath the Veil, a television documentary about the Taliban in Afghanistan. “It sat there awhile,” he says, “because I’m not a protest writer. I don’t want to be topical.” With a vaguely topical tune on his hands, Cale did what any of us would do: He called Bono. “I thought that I’d get a second opinion,” he continues. “I finally got through to him and the whole time he’s talking about his trip to Africa with Paul O’Neill. Anyway, it was a problem for a little while and then 9/11 happened and the point of sending it to Bono never really came up again.”
Of course, all of these songs were available since 2003, but only at import prices in the States. The record came out in the U.K. last fall and garnered some of the best notices of Cale’s career. But as he hadn’t released a set of new songs since Walking on Locusts years before on Rykodisc, Cale didn’t have a label deal in place in the States. The Or Music label, which issued an Alejandro Escovedo tribute this year that Cale played on, picked up HoboSapiens, which now includes the bonus track “Set Me Free,” and will release it September 7th. It’s just one part of a particularly busy year for Cale. He’s planning a major-market U.S. tour this fall. He has also agreed to score About Face, a documentary about Jewish refugee soldiers who fought for American and British forces in World War II, and he’s writing a screenplay based on Andy Warhol and his years running the Factory studio. An eight-year gap won’t likely fall between HoboSapiens and Cale’s next record, as he is already at work on new songs.
Until then, American fans can bask in HoboSapiens, a record that finds Cale taking a different tact than bands like the Strokes, who were influenced by his work in the Velvets. HoboSapiens‘ clean, lush sound is a stark contrast to the muddier textures found in the current subgenre of garage chic. “I was looking at an old picture of the VU the other day,” Cale says. “We were standing around at the opening of the Paraphernalia store, where Andy [Warhol] sort of gave us our first gig. I called somebody and asked, ‘Where was the PA system on that gig?’ And this friend said, ‘There was no PA on that gig.’ He told me that the voices and guitars all came out of the guitar amps and there were only three of those. I thought, ‘Man, we must’ve sounded like shit.’ There’s still this level of lo-fi that seems to be inspired by that era. I guess the depths have yet to be plummeted on that one.”