“If It’s Not Grueling, It’s Not Worth It”: John Cale, in Conversation With Michael Sheen

John Cale

John Cale, photographed by Madeline McManus.

Michael Sheen heard John Cale’s singular voice for the first time as a teenager in his bedroom in Port Talbot, Wales. “Someone cool must have given it to me,” he says of listening to White Light, White Heat for the first time. “I knew nothing about The Velvet Underground, I knew nothing about anything… Then I hear this voice on the song, ‘The Gift,’ and I’m like, ‘Hang on, that’s a Welsh voice.’” On his eighteenth studio album, POPtical Illusion, Cale, now 82 years old, is still possessed of that distinct, boundless instrument. Its emotional tenor, as Cale points out, is “snide,” and throughout the record, there’s an air of humor but also repressed rage boiling just beneath its poppy surface. The legendary musician wrote most of the album during the first Covid lockdown, averaging three songs a day. “I was really angry,” he told Sheen on a call earlier this month. “But I didn’t want the anger to really predominate.” To celebrate the release of Cale’s new album, the two Welshman delved into their respective creative processes, Cale’s relationships with Lou Reed and David Bowie, and the transformative power of public libraries.—JULIETTE JEFFERS


MICHAEL SHEEN: How are you?

JOHN CALE: I’m good. I’m just delivering an album.

SHEEN: I’ve been thoroughly enjoying listening to it.

CALE: Oh, really?

SHEEN: Yes, they sent me a link.

CALE: That’s good.

SHEEN: It’s absolutely beautiful, John.

CALE: Good. Well, are you in Port Talbot?

SHEEN: I was in Port Talbot until the weekend. I’m in London for a little bit now. I’ve just finished doing a play. I’ve been playing Nye Bevan.

CALE: Oh, that’s great.

SHEEN: For the last three or four months, we’ve been at the National Theater here in London. Then we did a couple of weeks in Cardiff at the Millennium Center last weekend.

CALE: Who wrote the play?

SHEEN: Tim Price, the Welsh writer. It’s a new play directed by Rufus Norris.

CALE: Very good. Glad to hear you moving on. I’m trying to remember a photograph of him when I was growing up in Garnant and he was a political heavyweight.

SHEEN: Oh, yeah. He’d started off working down the mines. He was a draft door boy.

CALE: That’s right. 

SHEEN: Both of you had fathers who were miners.

CALE: Yes. My dad was a fitter. You know what a fitter is?


CALE: A fitter is a guy who goes in and puts the wrenches and the bolts and everything together. He doesn’t go down shoveling coal or any of that. He just puts gear together.

SHEEN: Well, it’s funny, because listening to the album, I was reminded of a scene in Nye, where you see Bevan as a young boy going into the Tredegar Library. He had a terrible stutter, a stammer. The library gave him the opportunity to increase his vocabulary so he could use different words. Literally, libraries gave him power.

CALE: Listen, the library in Garnant gave me power. It was a little place stuffed with books, but they have these cards where, if you wanted a book that they didn’t have, you could fill out the form and they’d run off and get it. And not only that, they filled out forms for music. The music was attended to by the Marlborough-MA Public Library. If I put down Schoenberg, they would find the book.

SHEEN: Wow, that’s amazing.

CALE: I learned so much from that.

SHEEN: One of the most moving scenes in the play is this scene in the library because, of course, it gives Bevan his freedom. He’s able to talk. And on your new album, a line that really jumped out at me was on “Company Commander,” when you say “right-wingers burning their libraries down.” You think, “Here are the things that gave the working class in Wales power and now we’ve got people, as you describe, burning the libraries down.”

CALE: As a social activist, I’ve watched you approach that subject not just carefully, but penetratingly

SHEEN: Well, that line really jumped out at me. And I think the album is beautiful, disquieting, but I also found it incredibly moving at times.

CALE: Really?

SHEEN: Well, just seeing a song called “Davies in Wales,” immediately my ears pricked up, especially knowing that your name is John Davies Cale. I’ve listened to that a few times today. What was going on there?

CALE: It’s a laugh. You’ve got to have some of that in your life otherwise you’d die of boredom. “Shark-Shark” was one that really doesn’t have any sense to it at all. You just do it as a goof.

SHEEN: Am I right in saying that the very last word on the album is coal?

CALE: Code.

SHEEN: Code, right. See, my Welsh ears heard coal because I couldn’t help but be tempted into thinking of you floating down a river like a magical piece of coal, John. Is it too late to change it to coal?

CALE: For you? No.

SHEEN: But am I right as well in saying that in the space of a year you wrote over 80 songs and that this album has come out of that?

CALE: Yeah. The lockdown took over about a year-and-a-half ago and I just shut the door and took precautions and got on with some work. When I came out of that, there was an album already. At the end of the day, I had 80 songs. This is about finding poetry in the strangest places.

John Cale

SHEEN: Did the lockdown color the nature of the songs in terms of their tone?

CALE: Yeah, I had a lot of energy. I was really angry. I didn’t want the anger to really predominate. It was really about trying to find out what else there was around you that you considered as part of your persona. If you’re writing lyrics, you start with a lyric and then you go to the music. Or you start with the music, then go to the lyrics. You really don’t want to obey too many of the laws of poetry and rhyme too much. You don’t mind tripping over your own shoelaces. Making mistakes is really important sometimes, and I’m still growing.

SHEEN: Have you carried on writing at that kind of pace since then?

CALE: Yeah.

SHEEN: Wow. That’s an extraordinary creative explosion. Is that just to do with the lockdown conditions or is it also where you were at in your life?

CALE: I think so, yeah. I’ve had enough of certain things. But the whole process welcomed me like, “Hey, why don’t you do this?” You find the rest of your ideas by rifling around all the ideas you’ve had to the beginning of that lockdown and eventually, you don’t have a lockdown.

SHEEN: Well, it clearly wasn’t a kind of creative or imaginative lockdown. Did you know they were always going to be for a solo album?

CALE: No, the collaborations happened on the first of the albums. The rest of it was just me playing with my instruments. I just had a pile of instruments in my studio and off I went.

SHEEN: But this album feels so crafted and so textured. It’s interesting you said that you were very angry because maybe that’s one of the “poptical illusions” of the album, because it doesn’t immediately feel like an angry album. It feels incredibly lush. Even at its most lush, it’s never comfortable. There’s always disquiet there. My hearing is getting worse, and I’ve never been able to hear lyrics very well, so I have to listen over and over to get to the lyrics. As I listened to the songs more and more, you do start to hear the anger. It’s so rich and lush and textured and yet there is a darkness in there as there always is in your work, John.

CALE: Yeah, I appreciate that. “Snide” is an appropriate word.

SHEEN: It’s a good word.

CALE: It’s handy.

SHEEN: We were at a very particular time when we were in those lockdowns. You start to think about the western world over the last 10 years or so, and not only were we in that bizarre situation of being locked up in our homes, but we were also at a time in the world where things were and still are obviously unhinged in all kinds of ways. Is that what was feeding that sense of anger that you were talking about?

CALE: Well, people don’t want to be lectured. You don’t want to say anything because then you’ve got the responsibility of answering the questions. You want to see if you can get away with as much humor as you possibly can.

SHEEN: That’s where snide comes in.

CALE: It’s a good to have a sense of humor with some snide.

SHEEN: Well, it’s funny you talk about your sense of humor. The very first time I heard your voice, I was a young teenager in my bedroom in Port Talbot. I had my first record player. My musical tastes were fairly conservative when I was younger. But somehow I’d got hold of White Light, White Heat. An older cousin must have given it to me or something. Someone cool must have given it to me. I put it on and I’m listening to this album and it seemed like the epitome of the exotic for me. It’s American, it’s the coolest thing ever. I knew nothing about Velvet Underground. I knew nothing about anything, really. Then I hear this voice on the song “The Gift”, and I’m like, “Hang on, that’s a Welsh voice!” I couldn’t believe it. That’s when I discovered you and who you were and where you’d come from and all that kind of stuff. But that dark humor, that was my first introduction to you and dark humor itself.

CALE: When we did that album, people were wondering, “What is this about? What are these guys doing?” I thought to myself, “I have to wait until the end of the album to have a clear idea of where I stood in the European world and where I did not stand in the European world.” Most of the songs on a lot of those albums were reflections of what I was missing about Europe. Those were a lot of loose songs, granted, but a lot of the songs I came up with at the end of that period, like “Paris 1919,” for instance, were written from California.

SHEEN: When you were in New York in the ’60s, did you feel like a European in America?

CALE: I did, but I didn’t have time for it. It’s a weird position to be in. You’re sitting in New York and you’re hanging out with Andy [Warhol] and the factory and all those other characters, all just amazingly brilliant in their own way and full of ideas and kind and gentle. It was a nonstop fountain of inspiration. What am I trying to say? It was an artistic revolution in New York. A lot of it probably came from the sexual revolution that was going on. There was so much of that going on. I was really interested in a very specific kind of music that happened to have been started in 1963 in Stockhausen. But all of a sudden, I was with LaMonte Young in California, where he was a jazz saxophone player. He was moving to New York and he was interested in totally different things about drones. He took that influence with him across the water. Then Viola Monte Young starts introducing droned violas to the Velvet Underground and we have modern music, essentially.

SHEEN: Part of your extraordinary career has been about connecting and working with younger artists coming up, whether it’s The Stooges or The Modern Lovers, right up to Kelly Lee Owens and Nirvana. How do you stay plugged into that? How do you watch out for what’s going on and see who you want to work with?

CALE: It’s pretty easy. It’s all over. With the new technology, you can’t avoid it.

SHEEN: But if you’re writing songs, how have you got time to listen to other people’s music as well?

CALE: That’s one of the problems. It’s just one of those things that you run into in life. You can’t do it all the time. You can’t do it for very long. But it’s just knowing what’s going on, where and when. But the other stuff is, I can just keep going. I’m not fragile yet.

SHEEN: No, you don’t seem fragile in any way, John. Although I have to say, in some of the lyrics and some of the music on this album, there’s a vulnerability there.

CALE: An important characteristic of your creativity is how fragile you are in the process. You reveal more of yourself in that way. I think revealing more of yourself has no limit. I think it’s something you’ve got to recognize in the process.

SHEEN: I was talking about this recently, but when I was a younger actor, I thought good acting was essentially about showing off. I thought it was about working out how to be really entertaining and clever and funny and smart. Then, as I got older, I realized that the more uncomfortable I was when I was acting, that’s actually where the good stuff is.

CALE: Yes, absolutely.

SHEEN: That’s where the magical pieces of coal are.

CALE: Don’t tell anybody.

SHEEN: So a lot of people came out of lockdown having watched a lot of box sets on TV. You came out of it with multiple albums and god knows how many songs. I don’t know about this album, but certainly on the last album, you have a song like “Night Crawling” where you’re going back over stuff with David Bowie. Was there a lot of that happening in lockdown as well? I don’t mean reminiscing in a nostalgic or sentimental way, but a sense of drawing from the past?

CALE: Only when I wrote the song. It was something that happened. I was a little embarrassed about having to have a character in my songs that you can really appreciate for other reasons. I was trying to be kind and generous about it.

SHEEN: You’re bound to be aware. If you are writing a song about something that’s happened to you, and it involves someone that everybody knows, there is an awareness of the weight of that, isn’t there?

CALE: Yeah. You try to be generous with everybody.

SHEEN: If it involves going back to working with Lou Reed and everyone else, do you feel a need to make it slightly more cryptic? 

CALE: That happened already. That’s part of history. I dealt with it and I’m satisfied with it. I’m glad that we wrote Lou’s Drella together. When we finished the whole piece, I said, “Lou, we’ve written all these songs and they’re all about all these characters that we know and we love and lived through. But you didn’t write a single verse about the Velvet Underground.” He went away and wrote one and came back.

SHEEN: Well, I suppose it’s difficult. If you’ve lived a life like you have lived and you’ve been around the people, it’s going to be difficult to write any song without somehow involving people that everyone knows in some way or another. Do you remember when I came to New York and when there was that exhibition about the Velvet Underground?

CALE: Yes, that’s right.

SHEEN: You were surrounded by people the whole time, so I didn’t want to bother you too much. But before I left, I wanted to come up and say hello. As I was with you, Laurie Anderson came up to us and I totally embarrassed myself by suddenly going, “Oh, ‘Superman’ was such an amazing song for me.”

CALE: She deserves it.

SHEEN: She quite rightfully paid me no heed and walked off.

CALE: Really? I’m surprised.

SHEEN: I felt so embarrassed.

CALE: No, she’s a kind soul. I’m glad you did it.

SHEEN: More and more now, actually, I feel like I want to tell people when they’ve had an amazing effect on my life. There’s so much shit in the world. There’s so much stuff that makes you feel shitty. And that’s another reason why I find listening to your new album moving, because you are one of those people for me. Are you going to be touring this album?

CALE: Yeah. It’s starting in January. I’m doing a couple of gigs in Mexico. It’ll be interesting now that they’ve got a new Prime Minister.

SHEEN: Indeed. Touring and playing live, is that something that has become more important to you, or maybe less?

CALE: Oh, it’s always been important. It’s been like a life-giving source. You get an audience out there. There’s nothing better than that.

SHEEN: Is it grueling?

CALE: If it’s not grueling, it’s not worth it.