John Cale Muses on Poetry, Sobriety, and Hood By Air with Florence Welch

On December 9, 2016, John Cale will re-issue the classic "Fragments of a Rainy Season," a live solo album that was first recorded at the Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels in 1992. Featured on the new release are outtakes from the original, along with Cale's interpretation of the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah," and a new music video in its honor. To commemorate this release Document revisits this unique conversation from No. 9, available online and at select newstands worldwide.

 

Once Andy Warhol’s Factory house band, the Velvet Underground might be what John Cale is best known for, but the multi-instrumentalist’s 16 solo records and vast collaborations in the decades since—with proto-punk artists such as Nico and Patti Smith and experimental outfits like LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective, and more—have shaped the sound of several alternative movements today. Lauded by many as the godfather of rock, specifically its classical and punk transgressions, the avant-garde Welsh artist has defined a music theory of extremities: poetic lyricism overthrown by rapid change, be it through improvisation or, in many cases, a diversion of genre. Cale’s work extends from studio and live-written discography to the silver screen, and includes composed scores for cult films like Mary Harron’s “American Psycho,” Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” and Paul Morrissey’s “Heat.” In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2010 he was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

 

A listener of the Velvet Underground from an early age, Florence Welch lists Cale and his collaborators—the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, David Byrne, Lou Reed—as early influences. The singer/songwriter began her musical career performing at open mic nights in British pubs with friend Isabella “Machine” Summers, eventually forming the indie rock band Florence + the Machine. Recognized especially for her wide contralto voice range and gothic romantic style, Welch too has lent her voice to the visual arts, appearing on Baz Luhrmann’s soundtrack for “The Great Gatsby” motion picture and in a special project with video game franchise “Final Fantasy.” Bonded by literary favorites, Cale and Welch connected over old poisons and the curious depths of the artistic process.

 

Florence Welch—You know, I never understood how to be “girly.” I’ve always really enjoyed wearing men’s clothes.

 

John Cale—An oversized raincoat?

 

Florence—[Laughs.] Especially as a performer, I look to male artists a lot for what they are wearing. I’ve always felt envious of the fact that their stage personas and lives seemed very much on the same plane. I mean, obviously, Bowie was very...you know. But I’m kind of jealous of the simplicity of perhaps, say, a Nick Cave suit that he’d wear all day, everyday, and both on stage and off. I’ve definitely been looking at how to bring masculinity into my work. Everything is becoming more fluid, which is a really beautiful thing. The idea of inclusivity is something I would love to see us moving even more towards. The kind of fluidity that comes from love and the sharing of ideas. If we can start with clothes...

 

John—The thing that confuses me with those shows is whether you really get any leadership.

 

Florence—What? Fashion shows?

 

John—Yeah. The guys in New York, for instance, they’re really all over the place. It’s chaotic. Even they’ve realized that you can have this great line that’s ferociously individual and still, you have to put the “straight” garment in there, just so that everybody can say, “Oh, he knows.” You know what I mean? Don’t scare them too much. I mean, I’m not scared, I’m just thinking about the market. I like [labels like] Hood By Air. Gypsy Sport. But, mostly, brands people have never heard of before.

 

Florence—Alessandro [Michele] is doing really amazing stuff at Gucci, blending what is masculine and feminine. The kind of patterns and stuff—even for men—they’re incredibly flamboyant.

 

John—Do you know David Peace? He is from Yorkshire. He taught English in Japanese schools, and wrote a series of novels about West Yorkshire [the “Red Riding Quartet”] all about the miner strike and [Margaret] Thatcher. He came out with these two books about post-war Japan, life just after the bomb. He’s got this really ferocious style of writing. He writes dialogue—no descriptive prose—so you’re thrown right in the middle of what’s going on. I’ve been thinking about the Japanese clothes in Tokyo at the time, but I also just threw that out because I was wondering who you like to read.

 

Florence—At the moment I’m reading quite a lot of poetry. For one of my birthdays, my dad gave me his old school copy of T.S. Eliot, and it still has all these notes and annotations. It’s quite precious to me. He used to do impressions reading Eliot lyrics in a Bob Dylan voice. “Let us go then, you and I.” [Laughs.] “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.”

 

John—Very good. That’s a great upbringing.

 

Florence—And it worked! I reread “Everyone Sang,” which is a poem by Siegfried Sassoon. I re-came across it in an anthology about birds, and it’s about people singing in the trenches. He says, “horror/ Drifted away ... O, but Everyone/ Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.” It seemed so poignant.

 

John—Those wall poems, they get you. I just listened to “Poetry Please” this morning. There was an Eliot Weinberger poem, and they talked about how tribes and primitive people have omens. You know, the idea that if a bird whistles, then your friend will come. If the wind blows at midnight, then your horse will sleep. Things that are really disjointed. 

 

Florence—My friend Robert Montgomery does these big billboard poems that are just huge messages of words. They’re really powerful. I’ve been thinking about what a poem is versus what a song is. I had a poem that just became this huge list of things I felt I could never put into music because they weren’t beautiful enough. In fact, they were sort of horrible; these artifacts that were just sort of too bloody and ragged and, like, shameful.

 

John—Do you know the reason why most of those things don’t appear? That list, for instance, why wouldn’t they be parts of a song?

 

“It’s really a trick to be able to transform something realistic into something eloquent. And when it works, it works. I just wish you could do it more. But sometimes reality just takes over.”

 

Florence—Well, maybe they could now. Some of them didn’t rhyme. Some of them were words that I didn’t think were pretty enough. Songwriting in my teens and 20s was kind of super swampy, and I was quite troublesome. When I would write songs, it was almost like I could rewrite events; I would reimagine a situation that had kind of been, well, horrifying. Like some kind of really crippling hangover or something I had done when I was drunk that I really regretted. If I could reimagine it into this event that seemed grander—and more biblical, even—that had mythology in it, then I could sort of reclaim it in a way.

 

John—I think that’s what Weinberger had in mind. He just started with a couple of things that were really sort of local tribes talking, and then it took off. That’s a legitimate practice in literature.

 

Florence—It’s sort of turning the mundane into the magical. I think it’s good. I just put the word “carpark” into a song.

 

John—That’s a good way to start, actually. Find the words that you really can’t put into a song, and then put them into a song.

 

Florence—I was writing a poem about this sort of weird thing in my early 20s where my ex-boyfriend had turned up outside my house on Valentine’s Day and somehow tried to kill my then-new boyfriend with a shoe. That doesn’t seem very “song-y,” but if you put it into a poem it kind of works.

 

John—Yeah, you putting “kill” into a song is weird. Anyway, the idea of killing anybody is better done mentally than literally  saying, “His heart stopped.”

 

Florence—It was more that I would write about these things that would happen, but it would be in a very obscure way that was further from what had actually happened—almost as self-protection. You rewrite them in your imagination into something completely different. But now it’s all carparks and reality. [Laughs.] Not really, I’m still sort of half in…

 

John—It’s really a trick to be able to transform something realistic into something eloquent. And when it works, it works. I just wish you could do it more. But sometimes reality just takes over. Do you ever switch things up on stage? Do you improvise?

 

Florence—We’ve got so many musicians now, it can be quite maddening to do the setlist over and over again. Everyone has to become this one organism. 

 

John—Because you’re ahead of the band all the time? 

 

Florence—In some ways it’s good, because you get really slick doing the same setlist, but after a while it really becomes like Groundhog Day: you wake up, go to the show, and do the same thing. All my first gigs were improvised. I was, what, 19, super drunk, and there were all these open nights in clubs in London all the time. I would just get up and improvise whatever words came into my head. 

 

John—Did you like doing them?

 

Florence—I did, but it is like flying with the wind. You have to just go wherever. We’d pick a chord and just start. What was really interesting was a lot of my early songs came from that improvisational space because you’re forced to just sing words and create. I’m going to have to tell my guitarist and drummer, “John Cale says we’re doing one fully improvised song...”

 

John—Sure. Blame it on me! Yeah, most of my stuff is improvised. The guys I’ve got really listen all the time, and they just love it because there’s freedom. You have a skeleton and then you go from there. I really want them to be the Gil Evans Band live. Gil Evans did all the “Sketches of Spain” with Miles [Davis]. Those kind of dance harmonies. It’s never gotten there, but I’m not worried about not getting there. Just having the thing float in the air, maybe you’ll find something else. I started doing it on the road because it was driving everybody mad.

 

Florence—Doing the same thing?

 

John—It’s like the hole in the lid of a kettle that lets the steam out every once in awhile.  The thing about improvising is that there’s no beginning and there’s no end. Wherever you were before, you can still pick it up in the exact same place and it still makes sense. You don’t have to worry about a thread. I set [poet] Dylan Thomas to music once, and then I thought, “Let’s keep going.” The plan was to just drink as much as you can, open up the book of poems, and do all of them. There are tapes of me trying. A few of them are fine. Eventually, I finished off a suite of songs and recorded an album, “Words for the Dying.”

 

“The thing about improvising is that there’s no beginning and there’s no end. Wherever you were before, you can still pick it up in the exact same place and it still makes sense.”

 

Florence—That is really nice. You’re definitely making yourself vulnerable, which is good. We’re kind of obsessed with getting it really slick, so to really unravel in front of people would be something.

 

John—I think everybody would be amazed at it. I mean, you’ve got to set it up and you’ve got to prepare yourself for all that. But when you get uncomfortable, keep going. Don’t stop.

 

Florence—That’s a good message for life. They say when you’re uncomfortable creatively that that’s the best space—that’s where you’re supposed to be.

 

John—Absolutely. The number of times I’ve written lousy lyrics and come back and looked at them and been like, “There’s nothing wrong with these.”

 

Florence—My early songs were a lot like little stories I was telling to myself. Before I’d even gotten to the style of the way I write songs [today], there was this sort of meandering. 

 

John—I wonder what would happen if you decided to write a song about how you don’t know what you’re doing now and you don’t know what you’re going to be doing next, or afterwards. It’s really, I mean, to convince us of a state of mind more than anything else. 

 

Florence—Sometimes, when I’m writing I’m trying to find an answer to something—to some kind of question. And I guess sometimes I want to be like, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything.” But, yeah, it’s nice to feel ready to write again. I feel energized about it. I’m quite into structure-less things.

 

John—That’s great. A lot of songwriting ends up being didactic if you don’t do some of that. Country music does that to me. I don’t want to be told quite what’s going to happen in the first three lines. 

 

Florence—When you’re playing shows, do you think phones have an impact on the interaction between the artist and their audience?

 

John—I try to ignore it.

 

Florence—Really?

 

John—I have to, otherwise it would drive me nuts. Actually, there’s a greater danger of people on the street coming up and following you around with their phones. That’s much more aggravating.

 

Florence—Yeah. I just wonder, because I have a song now where I ask everyone to put their phones away. For the whole song. 

 

John—If I heard your voice asking to put a phone away, I’d put it away right now.

 

Florence—You just ask if everyone can be here and be together and experience this. I think, in that moment, people are kind of like, “Oh yeah, we can! It’s OK, we can just experience this as it is.” If I see someone in the front row super, like [phone in front of face], I actually have to say, you know, “Put it down.”

 

John—The worst ones were in Moscow. They had gigantic, old video cameras—you know, with real videotapes that you put in. Gigantic machines. And they’d come up right in front.

 

Florence—Once people put their phones away I notice they are like, “Oh, that was great. We really had a good experience.” I wonder if on my next tour there’ll be a no phone policy. It’s almost like a fear. All I want is an intimate exchange, and it feels like there’s such a barrier.

 

John—I drove all the promoters in Europe crazy. No smoking. [I performed] at Drum Festival, which is a tobacco company.

 

Florence—It felt a bit funny when I was playing BottleRock festival and I hadn’t had a drink in like two and a half years. They literally had bars in the crowd. I was like, “H-hi.” I was singing all these songs about trying to quit drinking. And I was like, “Um, this song is about the reasons why I quit drinking.” [Laughs.]

 

I thought I needed the darkness and I needed the pain of chemicals or alcohol. I thought that was my fuel. Really, I said that to someone when I first stopped drinking. ‘What if I lose, you know, the thing?’

 

John—Oh, really? You have a history?

 

Florence—Yeah, I have a serious history. I know it seems weird. I’m, like, demure, but no, I was a lunatic. I was a complete lunatic. I got famous when I was 21, and it all came with the territory. When I went on tour, I’d get to have a bottle of vodka a day, and that was deemed vaguely normal. I was always trying to keep up with the other bands.

 

John—I used to do all these chemicals—really that’s how I was driving my creative force. But then my daughter was born, and I cut it all out. I just went crazy. I started writing, writing, writing, and ever since then I haven’t stopped.

 

Florence—Yeah! I was sort of scared, because I thought I needed the darkness and I needed the pain of chemicals or alcohol. I thought that was my fuel. Really, I said that to someone when I first stopped drinking. “What if I lose, you know, the thing?”

 

John—The thing.

 

Florence—The thing! “It’s a trap,” She said, “Don’t believe that, it’s a trap.” And I feel much more open to the world now. The things I want to write about are much broader as opposed to writing about what I did when I was hungover or how I hate myself today. It’s quite narrow; you’ve only got your perspective and your world is quite small because it’s so internal. So I feel a sense of having cleaned up a bit.

 

John—Oh my god. Did you just say what am I going to do when I hate myself today? Wow. OK. Take two.

 

Florence—Take two. I was thinking that if I was ever going to write a book, I  know what my voice is in a song sense—I have a voice when I’m writing music—but if I’m writing a novel, what is the voice? Who is that person? I don’t know if I would ever be able to find that specific voice that could fill a book. What would that be?

 

John—It’s a lot easier to deal with verses than it is with pages. I mean, I’ve started a bunch. I’ve got one short story that is OK. I don’t know. It’s daunting.

 

Florence—I’m always worried I’d drown everything in metaphor because I’m so used to songs, interchanging the reality.

 

John—You know, there’s got to be a way. I’m kind of fearless when it comes to improvising lyrics onstage, so I really should man up and write something. Not that it even needs to make sense all the time. I got really angry with someone years ago and I wrote a poem, “Curse.” I was really into Middle Age phrasing and phraseology, and I showed it to this poet-friend of mine and he said, “I don’t know what you’re worried about. This is a love poem.”

 

Florence—Oh, wow! Yes.

 

John—And I said, “Dang.” It was really meant to go for somebody. You know, to hurt them.

 

Florence—They’re very close together, those two things. Love and hate. So much of my songs have dealt with relationships or how I relate to people. It feels like, in terms of my relationships, I’m sometimes just not very articulate at all. And yet, if I put down into a song what I’m feeling, this clarity comes through that I can’t seem to get or find [otherwise].

 

John—From singing?

 

Florence—Yeah, from singing. From the act of taking a pause and not fighting for the words to explain how you feel but just letting them come. If I could find a way to apply that to daily exchanges or whatever that would be really good.