Friday June 15, 2007
The Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills is one of those dazzlingly white exhibition spaces that can make even three chairs arranged around a table resemble an art installation. In one of those chairs sits John Cale, who should feel right at home. Arriving in New York from Wales in the mid 1960s, he formed the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed and came under the wing of Andy Warhol. Since leaving the band in 1968, he has traced an unpredictable path between solo albums, film scores, and production work.
At 67, Cale looks simply extraordinary. The lines on his tanned face are sleek and bold, as if etched in stone, and his hair, bleached, tufted and partially dyed red, sticks out like a cockatoo's feathers. His baritone crackles and booms around the gallery.
Next to him is 37-year-old James Murphy, whose diverse dance-rock hybrids as half of Brooklyn-based production duo DFA and linchpin of LCD Soundsystem have made him one of this decade's most pioneering producers. Vaguely resembling a cartoon bear, he is a witty, garrulous conversationalist, only slightly cowed by meeting a lifelong musical hero. "This is a big deal for me," he tells Cale, who responds with a cheerful salute.
We have convened their first ever face-to-face meeting not just because LCD Soundsystem's current single, All My Friends, features a version by Cale, but because they have much in common, including New York, sonic innovation and a reputation for getting their own way. But it's equally interesting to note the differences between Murphy, the vinyl-fetishising romantic who feels he was born too late, and Cale, the ardent technophile gushing over internet radio, download platforms and the logistics of Daft Punk's live shows.
John, when did you first hear LCD Soundsystem?
John Cale: Daft Punk Is Playing at My House. Catchy. The great thing about All My Friends is that I could sing along with it. His range is exactly mine.
James, when did you discover John's music?
James Murphy: My best friend across the street had older brothers, so that was my first experience of Velvet Underground records. I like the mystery of rock. My whole education in music was hearsay and that has so much more power than being able to Google it. I remember the cover of [Cale's 1974 album] Fear really scared me.
JC: Those were some cheekbones. [Producer] Chris Thomas saw me in the studio and said, 'I'm worried about you. You don't look well at all.' And I thought I looked really nice and svelte. [Grinning madly] 'I'm fine. I'm having a great time!'
John, you've lived in New York on and off for more than 40 years. When you heard LCD Soundsystem's album, did the lyric, "New York I love you but you're bringing me down" strike a chord?
JC: Yeah, that's New York. I still love New York.
JM: How can you not?
JC: It's the centre of aggro. Michael Bloomberg has done a great job of cleaning up the city but man, ride the subway. Then you get it.
JM: It still smells like piss. No amount of money can change that.
James, you grew up in small-town New Jersey. Do you ever feel you missed the city at its best?
JM: All the time. Because I'm by far the youngest in the family. I remember growing up and thinking of my own birth year as comically recent. During my favourite era of music, I was too young or non-existent. When I look at 1968 to 74, watching everything getting turned upside down, and record companies run by weirdos, and genuinely strange music becoming hits ... [To Cale] Do you feel that knowing people who weren't musicians helped?
JC: I'll tell you the best thing [Allen] Ginsberg did for me. He came over to La Monte [Young]'s when we were rehearsing and I'd been in New York for like three months. I was very green. Very few people could understand what I was saying because I had a really thick Welsh accent. The first thing he said to me was, 'Have you got any friends?' And it was just like bam! [Mimes a deflating balloon] All the air went out of me. He said, 'In New York the hardest thing is to find friends. You have to go out and physically hold on to them. I remember that. I don't have a lot of friends from Wales and that's a studied pose, I suppose. My daughter is crazy about learning Welsh. I think she's bonkers. I don't know where it came from. She found [the Welsh community] in New York a year ago. I don't want to know! Please! I've been running away!
Let's talk about originality in music. John, with the Velvets did it feel like you were making something genuinely new?
JC: Yeah, it did. The minute we slowed Venus in Furs down from a folk song and had the drone in there. We went through a lot of drones and detuned guitars. We were perverse. [Smiling devilishly] I mean in a lot of ways, but we detuned the guitars so that nobody could figure out how the hell we did it. Nobody's going to come close.
JM: I don't even really consider originality. Outside of sampling, you don't get more brazen about influences than me. If I was to compare what I'm doing to Nina Simone or the Velvets or something that was creating space in a very different time, I'd be crushed. So I just try to be like, well, what can I do that makes sense to me in 2007? I can't play by the same rules as the music that I love.
Are you happy when you've finished a record?
JC: I'm really exhilarated, but it's mainly the exhilaration of finishing a crossword. It's always about the next one. You just plough ahead.
John, you worked as a producer on seminal records by, among others, Patti Smith, the Stooges, and Nick Drake. Was that as much luck as design?
JC: Absolutely. I was trying to get a gig. I didn't have a job. I was looking to pay for breakfast. And [Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman] said, 'Yeah, yeah, if the right thing comes along,' and sure enough the right thing was the Stooges. You look at someone and think, 'This is what this person is going to be.' There's nothing you can really change. They have a magic. Iggy had this way of threatening the audience and then embracing them the next minute. He was a chameleon. And Patti had a preacher's verve.
JM: I was a terrible, terrible producer through the entire 1990s. About eight bands in a row broke up after working with me. I'd bring in records and be like, 'Have you heard this?' And then two guys would be like, 'What are we doing? Our band sucks.' [Cale roars with laughter] So I was bad news for a long time. And then the Rapture [Murphy produced the band's 2003 album Echoes] was absolutely brutal. I was very aggressive and fucked up. I used to believe shit needed to get crazy for it to get good and I was going to bring the crazy. I think I did them an occasional disservice.
Do you have unusual ways of describing music?
JM: I remember watching a performance of Strange Brew by Cream on TV. Eric Clapton's all puffed up and playing like he's got a powdered wig. [Pulls a Lord Snooty face] And I remember thinking that's what the guitar sounds like! It's a little braggy but kind of foppish. It's like a rapier rather than a broadsword. That face is the gesture I come up with most. The other one is the monkey gesture. [Lets his arms hang down and mouth droop] The Stooges are kings of that.
JC: I remember watching the Searchers on [New York DJ] Murray the K's Christmas show, and he ripped this guitar solo that was just scalding. I remember thinking, 'How the fuck did he do that?' And that's one of the things about rock'n'roll. There's something that happened at that particular time and that particular place, and if you can get that down on record ...
JM: You have to make the space for it, though. I think there's more and more space for getting it "right" and less and less space for getting it special. That "momentness" is something I find less and less.
JC: Miles [Davis] would get you in the moment. He went destroying everything that went before him just so you could get to now. I really like that. I always try to invent something on stage that nobody's heard before. [I like it when] you don't know what you're doing.
JM: There should be fear there.
JC: Right, right. Because when something happens you are so over the moon. Bam! There it is. What I can't get enough of is that process of becoming something. I don't know what I want to become. I don't think it's important. It's the fear, the uncertainty, the blindness.
· LCD Soundsystem's single All My Friends is out now on DFA/EMI. John Cale's Circus: Live album is out now on EMI. LCD Soundsystem play the O2 Wireless Festival in London tomorrow and Leeds on Sunday