With his back to large bay windows, the West London sun beaming in behind him, John Cale is sat opposite Clash, suitably silhouetted. From the shadows comes a gruff noise that’s somewhere between Noo Yawk aggression and Welsh bluntness; a gravelly bark that’s weary from jet-lag, wary of journalists, and weathered by a heavy dose of been-there-done-that. It takes a few minutes for him to warm up - eyeing Clash up suspiciously from the darkness - but pretty soon we’re in the throes of a conversation that’s as intense as his stare, yet wicked as his smile.
For make no mistake about it; despite his serious demeanor and potent presence, John Cale has a fiendish sense of humour - one need look no further than the title of his new album (his first for Domino Records): ‘Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood’. “It’s mischievous,” he admits, adding: “I mean, it’s got dark corners.”
But then what would you expect from a founding member of The Velvet Underground, possibly one of the most subversive rock and roll bands of all time? He begins to explain the concept behind the album.
“It’s a place,” he asserts, setting the scene of Nookie Wood, wherein the album’s characters and themes explore and adventure. “This place is kinda murky - once you get in, hopefully the songs work, they keep you in there, and you don’t surface. And there’s a lot of sound designs that makes it a bit claustrophobic.”
The idea of a claustrophobic environment had already formed in his imagination when a repeat viewing of Blade Runner confirmed his vision. “The song ‘Nookie Wood’ begins with a PA announcement of a Vietnamese girl, and the other day - I haven’t seen Blade Runner for years, since it first came out - it was on Box Office and I put it on and I realised that in those scenes down in the underground where he’s eating his soup and there’s announcements going on and taxis floating by - that’s a cloying atmosphere. It’s a futuristic blend that’s in there that I suddenly realised, ‘Hey, you’ve been doing that over and over again, and you didn’t realise that it came from Blade Runner’.”
The close conditions of Nookie Wood envelop twelve songs - a dozen oblique, dizzying landscapes that blend Cale’s dreamlike sound designs with a narrative that’s at times imposing, and others impudent. “This is a playground you’re in,” John affirms. “And there are all sorts of different characters in it. I think the atmosphere goes on a journey. In ‘Midnight Feast’, it’s a travelogue. You know what’s going on - suddenly you’re going somewhere, you’re finding somebody, you’re losing somebody... I mean there are events that happen. And in some of the others, the events are much more internal, much more mental. I think ‘Mary’ is about something you’re not sure what happened, but it did happen, and it’s how you deal with it.”
Discussing the songs,Clash demonstrated their protean meanings by misreading two of them - there is no reference to the monarchy in the title track, despite thinking we heard one, and the repressive tone of ‘Scotland Yard’ was not a reaction to the London riots of 2011. Cale, however, is fascinated by our misconceptions - we later analyze Clash’s thoughts and discover they’re just as relevant and appropriate as the author’s original impressions. “There’s enough misunderstanding out there already,” he notes, “and having some fun with it is a much better place to be.”
Words by Simon Harper
Photo by Oliver Hadlee Pearch
This is an excerpt from the November 2012 issue of Clash magazine. Find out more about the issue.