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Cale still at cutting edge 50 years on
Cale still at cutting edge 50 years on

Former Velvet Underground member and elder statesman of the avant- garde John Cale has his first full-length studio album in seven years - Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood.

"Nookie Wood is kind of a dark, imaginary place where bad things happen," the classically trained, Welsh-bred viola player states about the album's strange and intriguing title.

"The idea came from an article I read in 1999 about this forest in Japan called The Sea of Trees where a lot of visitors at the end of summer went to commit suicide. No one could explain why this happened.

"It was such a strange, mysterious situation I thought it'd be great for a song. A couple of years ago, after I started to build my own studio in Los Angeles, the idea became the start of the album. The other songs I wrote are all based on ideas that've come to me at different times."

The new record is a gloomy but not depressing collection of material. It shouldn't unduly bother any established fans who are used to Cale's sometimes surprising output. The songs are full of obtuse lyrics built around his restless and inventive arrangements and production style. "They didn't come from sitting at a piano or with a guitar," he explains. "They came from working with a rhythm machine called an MPC and building up layers of drum loops and textures."

On the tracks Mothra and December Rains he uses Auto-Tune (a studio device often employed to ensure singers' voices are in tune) to create eerie atmospheric vocals. While on Hemingway he repeatedly pounds the piano with his fists to create a huge, malevolent banging noise. The opening cut I Wanna Talk 2 U is a lovely mid-tempo funky rock song recorded in collaboration with Danger Mouse.

In June 2010 the veteran British rocker - who has lived in the US since 1960 - was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list. He said in a press statement at the time: "I'm stunned. It makes you think 'Well maybe I did something right'. Now I've got to figure out what that was. I thought I was too much of a tearaway."

Cale has been on art rock's cutting edge for five decades. He's famous for his internships with 60s atonal revolutionaries John Cage and La Monte Young and as a founder member of seminal NYC rock outfit the Velvet Underground. Since quitting the band in 1968 he's gone on to a fascinating solo career remarkable for bridging all different kinds of music.

In the 70s and 80s he produced records for the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Nico, Patti Smith and Happy Mondays and has created countless film scores (American Psycho, Sid and Nancy and Basquiat). Over the past 50 years he's released a formidable catalogue of more than 25 solo albums, including 1990's Songs For Drella, a tribute to his late friend and mentor Andy Warhol.

Since the release of his last studio album Black Acetate in 2005, Cale has toured the world performing his fourth solo record (released in 1973) called Paris 1919 - that is considered by critics to be his best.

"We did it in its entirety with a full chamber orchestra in a bunch of places (including Melbourne in October 2010)," he said. "It's still an ongoing project." They are performing it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in two weeks.

Recreating the exquisite soft rock of Paris 1919 live on stage is one of the few occasions where the 70-year-old musician has lapsed into nostalgia. "Yeah, I'm a forward-looking person," he says.

"I'm only interested in what I'm going to be doing next, rather than what I've just done."

Strangely, for such an inspirational musician, his reputation is dogged by an incident in April 1997 where he chopped off the head of a dead chicken with a meat cleaver on stage. His drummer, a vegetarian, and bass player walked off in protest. Shortly after the incident Cale issued an EP Animal Justice that contained a track called Chickenshit that was a put-down of his deserting members.

Equally as strange is that, despite his numerous stunning compositions over the years, his best-known song is a version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. He was the first person to record a cover version of the song and the lyrics are slightly different to Cohen's original.

"I went through Leonard's drafts for the song and picked out the cheeky verses," he says.

Leaving these aberrations aside, on the evidence of Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, John Cale remains one of the finest composers, arrangers, producers and musicians on the rock scene.