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Still the sound of the underground; Velvet Underground icon and leftfield auteur John Cale is back with a new album and tour. As he returns to South Wales, Dave Owens discovers why he's content to keep on pushing the musical envelope.

Byline: Dave Owens

IT'S 6.30pm in Wales, 10.30am in Los Angeles. John Cale has risen to a sweltering hot day, a fact he's not altogether too pleased with.

"It's going to be 95 degrees, very, very hot. I wilt under the heat. I stay in with the air conditioning on. I'll be locking myself away today," he tells me.

The 70-year-old former Velvet Underground legend from Garnant in the Amman Valley this week releases his new album, the wonderfully titled Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood.

He lets loose a throaty laugh, his voice rattling like black coal tumbling down a mineshaft, when I tell him it's the best album title I've heard in a long time.

Cale says its inspiration lies in his childhood home and one destination for romantic trysts in particular.

"The title came from one of the songs on the album.

"Nookie Wood is about childhood memories of places in Ammanford that you would go to on a Saturday night.

"I'd go there and meet some of the boys and hang out with girls. Everybody has a place that you go to as teenagers.

"My version of Nookie Wood was behind the arcade in Ammanford. It's very different now of course."

So do they get the word 'nookie' in America, I enquire.

"Partially, but you do really have to explain the nookie part in the States. I have to explain it more in France mind," he jokes.

Cale's last album, 2005's Black Acetate, signalled his final release for industry giant EMI.

Perhaps embellishing his status as iconic rock 'n' roll grandee, the musician has now found a home at one of the world's most successful independent labels, Domino Recording Company - home to the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Anna Calvi, Hot Chip, The Kills and Franz Ferdinand.

If early reviews of the album are any benchmark, it's a relationship that will pay dividends.

It's a characteristically bold and futuristic release from a man hell bent on looking forward, pushing the envelope and expanding his horizons - underlined by the following statement, which gives a glimpse into the spontaneity that fires his left-field mindset.

"Whenever I write in the studio, the next thing I start I make sure I begin from a diametrically opposite place rhythmically or in subject matter.

"Sometimes you just do something that is different without having any direction at all. Sometimes I like what happens in those times if you can hang on in there and do something long enough to irritate your mind you'll get somewhere really different.

"Now we've got technology that means you can listen to reams of experimentation and pick out the best parts. That makes things a lot easier. In the past I've sat down with a guitar, I've sat down with a piano, and started songs that way.

"This time I started with a rhythm machine and didn't go to the guitar or the piano, or decided this song is going to be in G and see where that goes."

This weekend sees the Welshman back on home turf, when his UK tour rolls into a venue he's more than familiar with - The Coal Exchange in Cardiff.

"I like the room. It's a really great venue," says Cale, who last played the city in 2009 when he ran through his classic album Paris 1919 as part of the Soundtrack Film Festival.

"Cardiff is always changing and always surprising me when I return."

He promises "a mixture of songs from the album and an hour and a half of known and unknown stuff essentially.

"There will be a few of the old stalwarts but I can guarantee it will be a strange and wonderful night."

Although he's taken to the stage in one form or another for the best part of six decades since his days playing viola in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, he's still amazed at the endless possibilities of live performance.

That said, he's not sure who turns up for his shows.

"I have no idea who my audience is by the way," he informs me.

"Although as soon as you've done one Velvet Underground song the rest of the evening is yours."

So is the ever looming spectre of the Velvets both a blessing and curse? "Yes, yes," he says, before he punctures a lengthy silence with, "Well no, no it's not.

"When you see the enthusiasm for the rest of the stuff I've done, it's still there."

But does it annoy him that The Velvet Underground was just a small episode in a career that has produced so much, but people will invariably want to talk about that time in New York in the '60s when the band plus Nico and Andy Warhol formed such an evocative backdrop to a musical and cultural uprising? "Yeah, but I don't decry it," he states. "I mean it was a great platform to start from. I learnt a lot in that period.

"We did something interesting back then and I don't turn my back on it. We tried to set a standard but when I listen to those records now they sound really old and tired. At the time they represented something visceral, but I guess you lose that after a while because of the quality of the recording."

While he may have spent his career living down the legend of The Velvet Underground, he's not adverse to the notion that his pivotal role in such an epochal moment in rock 'n' roll means that his legacy was assured a long time ago.

"It's also a reminder of what could have been.

"We did achieve something; we got up everybody's noses singing about subject matter that nobody wanted to hear. The social conscience at the time was aimed at the Vietnam War not at drugs."

The truth is they also got up each other's noses as well, especially Cale and frontman Lou Reed who fell out over the age old issue of musical differences.

Cale wanted to indulge his avant garde tendencies, while Reed believed they were better served heading in a more commercial direction.

The end result was Cale leaving in 1968.

"We all had minds of our own," he reasons, "but I don't cry over spilt milk, there's no point."

| John Cale plays The Coal Exchange, Cardiff on Sunday. Tickets priced PS20 from the box office on 029 2023 0130 or via www.orchardentertainment. Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood is out now

'There will be a few of the old stalwarts but I can guarantee it will be a strange and wonderful night'


John Cale
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 2, 2012
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