“I tend to brutalize electric guitars, so anything I have in my personal stash stays away from the live stage these days”: John Cale opens up about AI, amp exploration and the emotional potential of effects

John Cale
(Image credit: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

John Cale may have made have made his initial mark in the ’60s as a member of the seminal proto-punk legends the Velvet Underground, but that wasn’t the sum of his career by a longshot (His Twitter/X bio cheekily states, “Alright yes, the Velvet Underground... good, next”). 

As a producer, collaborator and solo artist, he’s continued to push the boundaries of the musical avant-garde over the past few decades on soundtracks and albums like 1973’s Paris 1919 and 1982’s Music for a New Society right up through this year’s Mercy. The album mixes new/old beats with layers of swirling synths, strings and assorted drones topped off with Cale’s rich baritone.

Meanwhile, his groundbreaking work with the Velvets continues to inspire new bands to this day with his slashing, scything electrified viola and thunderous organ and bass playing on tracks like The Black Angel’s Death Song adopted as tonal touchpoints for countless neo-punk outfits. 

Guitar World caught up with Cale via email to ask about the songwriting inspirations on Mercy, artificial intelligence and his VU amp preferences. 

Some songs on Mercy are obviously contemplations about former colleagues and friends, but as an artist you’ve said you are always looking forward. Many of the songs seem to be meditations on the passage of time and how it impacts personal relationships and their connection with the wider world. Was there a general thematic thrust you were going for? 

“Originally, the album wasn’t necessarily built on any theme, but as time went on, I found I was in a position to be a better commentator of my own work if I just allowed myself to explore what it all meant as it was being recorded. There is genealogy to a song, as much as there is to an album. This album went through many iterations before I landed on the version you’re hearing now.   

“I do believe Mercy benefitted from being ‘in the moment’ and being completed at the right time. Everything changed in 2016 with the elections in the U.S.; discourse was no longer on the table. Nothing made sense and everything ugly came out of the shadows into full view. 

“I allowed myself to expose everything in these songs; I didn’t want to make them make sense – they just had to be real and honest. I wanted them to be exactly as they are – sometimes emotionally charged or sometimes angry or convoluted. If I wrote a love song, it’s a way to find the heart in the middle of so much pain. Perhaps that’s the hope that somehow peers through.”

Some bios call you a musician and composer but downplay your vocals, but I’m always struck by how melodically rich they are. Unlike the more straightforward presentation on 2016’s M:FANS, on Mercy you chose to layer them with reverb and add a great deal of depth. What was behind this choice?  

“My commitment was to embellish and pinpoint the emotion as much as possible. I use effects as a means to advance the immediacy of the emotion.” 

I’m not a guitar dude. I appreciate anyone who masters their craft and I respect where they feel comfortable. I like to take whatever sound inspires and push it to where I’m comfortable

You’ve said, “With most collaborations, you put two and two together and get seven.” What led you to seek out acts like Weyes Blood, Actress and Animal Collective to work with on Mercy? Is it just more fun? 

“It’s definitely more fun but also refreshing to come across other people’s means to your own end. All of the guest artists are on the album because they have a uniqueness that belongs to them. I didn’t start off saying, ‘Oh, I want to write songs and make an album with a bunch of guests.’ It was all very organic when the songs were coming together. 

“I would think, ‘Hey, wouldn’t this be good if Weyes Blood could sing these Swing Your Soul choruses with me – her voice is so pure – and this song is a bit hellish!’ I thought about how you play with opposites to mix up emotions.  

“Actress [Darren J. Cunningham] isn’t a traditional songwriter, and on Marilyn Monroe’s Legs I’d started a type of droney dreamscape and thought how infusing his brand of textures along with mine might be an unexpected collaboration. It was strange and perfect. I’d worked with some of the guests before, so there was a high level of expectation of how far we could go – and it didn’t disappoint! Everyone continued to inspire along the way.” 

With the plethora of effects and amp modelers available, there are endless ways to shape a guitar’s sound. When you play guitar of late, or work with collaborators who do, such as Dustin Boyer, do you prefer a guitar to sound like a guitar in the classic sense, or do you view it as more of a sound generator? 

For me, the downside for making the guitar sound like the guitar is I don’t want to seem as if I’m portraying something I’m not expert in

“I don’t think there are only two options here – to use a guitar and have it sound like a guitar or to use a guitar and have it sound like something else. I think there are many shades between the two poles that provide options. For me, the downside for making the guitar sound like the guitar is I don’t want to seem as if I’m portraying something I’m not expert in. 

“I’m not a guitar dude. I appreciate anyone who masters their craft and I respect where they feel comfortable. I like to take whatever sound inspires and push it to where I’m comfortable, so whatever that means at any given time is up for grabs. 

“It’s a big bonus with Dustin Boyer; he gets my uneasiness with anything too conventional, he doesn’t take offense when I push for something else – he’s happy to go there. It’s no different than what I’ve done with the viola. Sure, learn what you need to learn to master the instrument, but in my case, I like to see where else the instrument is able to go. How far can you push it? What else will it give you if you stay curious?”

You were musically active in the ’60s when the electric guitar was supplanting the piano and sax as the lead instrument for pop music. That’s obviously changed a bit. What’s your take on the role of the guitar of late and on your more recent albums? 

“I’m not a guy who’s ever been into that type of guitar sound. Yes, the likes of collaborators like Chris Spedding and Ollie Halsall had a wonderful craziness about them in terms of a more straightforward guitar sound, but even then, it was their level of curiosity that allowed me to get to another place. A learning process, if you like. 

“As much as things go in and out of fashion, it’s useless to try to predict what will and won’t survive at any given time. Take, for instance, Steve Lacy, H.E.R., Raphael Saadiq; they could one day wind up on ‘planet Steve Cropper.’ I’m not hating that!”

Artificial intelligence programs in the form of the recently released ChatGPT have been very much in the news. Do you have any thoughts on how AI might play out with regard to composition and whether you think it’s good or bad?  

“The idea of AI as a mode of creativity is as intriguing now as it was when Jonathan Demme suggested it as a title for my album in 1984. Emerging technology will always be exciting and frightening at the same time. As a musician and a composer, I’ve always lived by the mantra, ‘Mistakes are exciting because they’re inexplicable.’ I know machines will never replace humans; I don’t believe in correction that much.”

How did you get involved with Spalt guitars, and do you still find yourself using the Puzzle model? 

“I think it was an introduction by an engineer friend of mine. When I met Michael Spalt, I was impressed with the beauty of his work; moreover, I wanted to support the young Viennese guitar maker who had to climb the Fender, Gibson and Martin mountains to achieve success. He built a couple of prototypes for me, which I do use on recordings from time to time. 

“I tend to brutalize electric guitars, so anything I have in my personal stash stays away from the live stage these days. I have a vintage Flying V with a broken neck from literally bouncing across the stage at L.A.’s Sunset Junction Festival in Silver Lake. One of the crew was mortified when he realized what had happened on his watch.” 

On the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, The Gift bass line has a wonderful, growly tone to it that perfectly complements your groovy, chewy playing. Do you remember if you used a Vox Tone Bender to get that sound?

“No, I did not.”  

Various histories state you were using a Vox Westminster bass amp with the Velvet Underground, which I think must have been the tube-based Vox Foundation amp imported and renamed, not the solid-state one later made by Thomas Organ, but please set me straight.  

“Okay, this one is going to take some brain power here… Let’s clarify one thing from the start: we had very limited gear and we’d swap guitars and amps during the live shows, so there’s a good chance I played bass through any and every amp to be found. 

I’m sure I put that viola through any amp I could find, including my organ amp. It’s all about making something different

“I had a Thomas Organ and a Vox amp (it was definitely a tube amp, but I don’t recall it being a Westminster), but I think there was also a Silvertone guitar amp that was spread amongst all of us. My Vox organ was also played through my Vox Super Beatle amp. The last time I saw it was in [filmmaker] Tony Conrad’s closet!”

People fetishize vintage gear, but were you happy with it at the time? And did you use your bass amp with your viola? 

“Beggars can’t be choosers. And yes, I’m sure I put that viola through any amp I could find, including my organ amp. It’s all about making something different, so what better way to cultivate a lack of convention than with amps?” 

You have a time machine and you go back and play some of your current music to yourself as an early ’60s music student. What would that John Cale say?

“He’d say, ‘For God’s sake, leave me alone!’”

  • Mercy is out now via Domino.

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Bruce Fagerstrom

Bruce is a freelance writer of features and interviews for Guitar World and MAGNET Magazine among other titles. He's played guitar in numerous garage bands with much better musicians who sometimes laugh at his Ovation Breadwinner.