Early in his career Welsh musician John Cale was involved in so many fascinatingly radical projects that he could’ve retired from music at the end of the 60s and left an indelible mark. He was trained as a classical violist and gravitated to New York’s avant-garde community, but before long he tempered his experimental impulses with populism—both by participating in La Monte Young‘s Theatre of Eternal Music in the mid-60s and, most famously, bringing the “art” to the art-rock of the Velvet Underground. After leaving that group in ’68, he continued to make interesting music in the pop realm—over the past 42 years he’s released dozens of records (including classics such as Paris 1919 and Fear), collaborated with the likes of Terry Riley and Brian Eno, and done production work for Iggy & the Stooges, the Jesus Lizard, and Alejandro Escovedo, to name a few. He still plays the viola, but he’s long preferred guitar or piano—and his sensibility remains much too expansive for the pop-rock world to contain. On October 2 he releases his latest solo album, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (Domino).
For this week’s Artist on Artist, Cale is interviewed by another musician who’s built a reputation doing unorthodox things with a stringed instrument: cellist Alison Chesley, who performs as Helen Money. She just finished recording her third album, which features Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder on four tracks, with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio. Though Chesley now splits her time between Chicago and LA, she’s maintained her long-running collaboration with local avant-metal band Yakuza; she’ll open for and play with them at the Empty Bottle on Fri 10/19. —Peter Margasak
It’s an honor to talk to you. How are you?
I’m great. How are you? I was just listening to your track. It was very nicely recorded.
Oh, thanks. I just finished recording at Electrical Audio here in Chicago with Steve Albini. It’s a great place. Do you have the same person every time you work?
Well, it’s just me and whoever the engineer is, actually. Oh, I see. It sounded really good. It’s difficult to record strings.
It’s difficult to find someone who knows how to mike a cello properly. Yeah. No, they sound punchy!
One of the things I’ve been thinking about you and your music, and one of the things I was gonna talk to you about is, as someone who’s worked in studios a lot, how do you feel about that whole process, about being in a studio, an actual studio, with an engineer? Oh, I’m not comfortable in studios. I don’t like being in studios. I’m an outdoors person. I did some time in Peter Gabriel’s studio in Box Mill in England. It’s a really gorgeous place. It’s got high ceilings and glass windows, there’s a pool, there’s a little lake outside the window with a swan in it. It’s all very gorgeous. But that was one place where you really got torn between staying inside and working and going outside and doing nothing! I just finished building a small little studio for myself. It’s very modest; it has the essentials. . . . You do your mix, you run downstairs, you jump in the truck, and you put it on the PA in the CD player and see how it sounds, and it’s pretty good. As long as that’s there, I’m OK. I’m impatient anyway in general, so I try to be more efficient about it.
So you find that it’s helpful to have everything right there where you’re writing and to just be able to produce it there. Whatever your ideas are, I think you get further down the pike into production if you just write in the studio. You sit down at a piano and you write a song, you sit down with a guitar and write the song, but if you’ve got an MPC machine and you get going on that, it gets further.
Yeah, I understand. I wanted to ask you about your viola, since I’m a cellist. Is yours a real cello or an electronic cello?
It’s a real cello. Good.
I noticed that you play with a real viola. Yeah, I have. I’ve gotten lazy lately, but it’s really because of the feedback issue. I use a small guitar amp; it’s a tremolo box really. That’s the amp that I use. I always play with a mute, so that cuts out the whistling a little bit, and then most of the other equipment is small. I just found this little Chinese electronics company called Mooer, and they make small little boxes. The thing about them is they’re real good quality. They have an octave divider.
So they’re like a pedal. They’re a pedal and they’re like $88 each. You get ’em on eBay. Maybe you ought to check ’em out; they’re really good quality.
I was wondering how you feel about manipulating your sound through pedals. I know the value of the backdrop, the tapestry of a drone. It really helps.
How old were you when you started to play your instrument? Was it primarily the viola? No, I started on the piano then went to the viola. I got the viola when I was 13 or 14. It was the only instrument left in the school, because the schools provided instruments for the orchestras.
That’s how I got mine. Is that the same one you still have?
No, this is one I got when I was in a band and we got signed to a label, in the days when that was happening. We actually got a bit of an advance and I was able to actually for the first time buy a decent instrument. That’s unheard of! You got an advance?
And thank God I bought a cello. Where did you get your instrument?
Well, there’s a workshop in Chicago, it’s actually one of the largest ones in the States. They handmake the instruments there and I happened to be working there, so I was able to buy one from them. It’s the first nice instrument I ever had and it’s just been wonderful. I love hearing the sound of it. It sounds really good, on the records.
Thank you. I read that you wrote this entire record in your studio in Los Angeles. Is that right? You know, you just start with the drums and then add textures.
I see. And then did you record it there as well? Yeah.
Is that the first time you did something like that, where you just did it all . . . Yeah, it’s a luxury, just being able to go in and just work. Even on Black Acetate I got it down to about three hours in the morning. I started at ten and then I’d go to the gym and I’d come back and I’d finish it off in another couple of hours. What we were trying to do was see how far we could get the writing, and we got it down to about three a day. Then you have to choose which ones you want finish, and we had about 40 we had to choose from. In the end, the lucky thing that happened was that last Christmas we found out that we didn’t have time to do the scheduled releasing properly. . . . It’s kind of tricky to deal with, because if you’re going to put the record out in September, you can’t do the press in August because there’s nobody in Paris in August, or July, because they’re gone.
They’re civilized, they all go on vacation. Yeah. So at the beginning of the year we found ourselves with three more months to work and it was great, better stuff.
I’m really excited to hear the whole record, I just heard the bits you have up on the website. Yeah, it seems like they keep asking for B sides. I don’t have any more B sides so I’m still just going to the studio and writing. It’s nice when you surprise yourself and say, hey, you can still do it, here comes another song. It’s really just as good as the others.
Do you find you just make yourself write every day? Well, I’m kind of good at spotting when to stop. I know at a certain point I’m not going to get any further on this track today. Maybe you push it a little, another hour on that song, but then you start something else. Whenever I start something else in the middle of an old track, there’s all this regret in there that maybe you’re just bored and you’re trying to enteratin yourself, but then again I guess that’s what the whole process is about anyway.
Do you ever visualize when you’re writing how you’re going to perform it? Yeah, always. That’s an important issue. I’m glad I did because now we’re rehearsing with a band—we have a drum pad and a lot of really important samples on it. Sometimes you just don’t want to do anything with the samples, sometimes the song is better off played simply and you use samples just to dress it up and give it some presence on the record. But when it comes to performing, it was a big issue. Every time we’d start adding other instruments I’d think, how the hell am I going to have this done?
You said you think about how you’re going to perform it, but is there a part of it that’s like, I’ll be able to figure out how to perform it? Yeah, but maybe I spend a little too much time thinking about it, because when you start the song, you add and you add and you add and you add, and then eventually you start thinking, how am I going to make this sound onstage? I always go for strange textures. They become an important part of the songwriting itself. They become as important as some of the lyrics.
Is there something about this record that you’re excited about? I probably appreciate this about every record: that it reinforces my conviction that I can write songs. And it’s really a bizarre thing—I try to write songs that are different every time. I don’t use the same mood and I don’t use the same rhythm. It always tries to come from a different place, and really trying not to be unidimensional. These kind of have something different about them. I’m glad they’re not like Black Acetate. I’m glad that it sort of encourages me to keep going. When I heard the record “Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Snoop and Pharrell, the thing about that track was I couldn’t figure out what genealogy that track had. I couldn’t figure out where it came from, and at the same time I was intensely envious of anyone who can come up with an original idea like that. That’s generally what happens. I get envious of an original idea.
I was just reading about a jeweler—a friend of mine buys a lot of jewelry—and I was reading a little interview with her, and at the end of the article she said, I feel like I’m making the same thing over and over again; I’m just trying to get to the essence of it. I wonder if you feel like that sometimes. Yeah, I try not to start with the premise that I’m doing the same thing over and over. I try to fight it and go, no, I’m going to do something else this time. The one place where you find that spot is in your insecurity. It’s when you’re unsure of yourself, the thing is to keep going being unsure of yourself until something happens, until something breaks. It’s like living with a stone in your shoe for a certain amount of time.
How do you feel like you get new ideas? Do you go to live shows? Usually there’s no controlling of it. Sometimes you hear a bus braking nearby, and you go, hey, that’s a good sound, let’s put that in.
I’m really flattered that I’m conversing with you as one artist to another because I have so much respect for you. You’re doing very nice work. Check out Mooer, you might find some interesting pedals.