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In a gloomy side-room at the Barbican Centre in London, John Cale joins me at a small table. His hair is long, swept back and grey-white, and his face, with its tufty little beard, has a worn and windblown look. He walks with a bit of a stoop but looks fit and compact, younger than his 72 years. His accent fluctuates engagingly between the offbeat cadences of his native south Wales and the stretched vowels of his adopted US. “It’s like having a job interview,” he chuckles as he takes his seat opposite me.
In fact, Cale is here because he has already got the “job”: he is collaborating on a project that seems guaranteed to tickle the fancies of adventurous art lovers. First, there’s Cale himself. The son of a coalminer and a schoolteacher, he learnt piano and viola as a youngster. Then in the early 1960s he studied music at Goldsmiths College in London, becoming involved in the experimental Fluxus movement before moving to New York to plug himself into the avant-garde. There Cale found himself tuning musical instruments to the frequencies of a domestic fridge motor before becoming a founder member of the Velvet Underground, the prototypical art-rock band.
And then there’s Cale’s collaborator Liam Young, who, according to his biography on the Barbican’s website, is “a speculative architect who operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures”.
Together they plan to operate in a very particular space: the one directly above the audience’s heads. Over two nights in September, while Cale and his band play a set of specially adapted pre-existing material on stage at the Barbican, Young and a team of technicians will be flying a small squadron of drones – some carrying loudspeakers, some with lights, some with “costumes” – above the audience. “It’s not like a rock and roll concert,” says Cale. “It’s more like an installation. It’ll be something with a bit of mystery to it.”
One of the aims of the event, which marks the conclusion of the Barbican’s Digital Revolution season, is to reassess a piece of technology whose very name is freighted with a sense of dread. “The people who invented the drone didn’t have much imagination,” says Cale. “All they thought about was how to surveil and kill.”
Having seen them in action during technical rehearsals, however, Cale was surprised. “I’m sceptical but when I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s emotional.’ It was special. When you see something move, you attach emotion to it,” he says. “It’s like people with their pets – we attribute human qualities to them.”
Although Cale was heavily involved in “drone” music in his early years in the US, along with composers such as John Cage and La Monte Young (hence the business with the fridges; also, witness his spine-tingling viola playing on the Velvets’ “Venus in Furs”), the actual sound of the hovering drones – the drone of the drones – will not form a major part of this event. “We’ll use the sound of the drones because it’s not something that we’re pretending we can get rid of,” he says; their purpose, though, is chiefly visual, and in carrying sound from the stage through loudspeakers (the venue’s surround-sound will make the experience even more immersive).
When choreographing the drones’ movement, Young and the technicians will have to bear in mind such problems as downdraughts and battery time (if they run out, fear not: there will be a net to catch any falling drones). Cale, meanwhile, now has to go off and prepare the music before returning for three days of rehearsals ahead of the shows in September.
Cale is clearly smitten by the concept – which is typical of the man: he’s a formidably busy, restless, forward-looking artist (“I get bored real easy”) with an appetite for the new and the bold. I talk to him, for instance, about his memorable concert staging of his classic 1973 album Paris 1919 at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010. Would he think about giving any of his other works a similar “whole-album” treatment? His shoulders slump somewhat. “I’d rather go and present something new, something that’s raw,” he says. “It really wears me down, doing the older material. It just makes me feel old. I’d rather do something …” he tails off, shaking his head.
He perks up when I ask him about a typical day in his life in Los Angeles, where he has his own studio, replying briskly: “I get up and go to the gym, go the studio, come out of the studio, go back to the gym and go home. I’m very lucky to have a studio, to be able to constantly work.”
Cale’s driven nature, his appetite for work, manifests itself in his palpable anger and frustration – not to mention sadness – when I bring up the subject of Lou Reed, his old friend and partner in the Velvet Underground, who died last October from liver disease. Did Reed’s death come as a shock?
“It came as a shock even though I was resigned to the fact that he was doing himself in,” says Cale. “‘What the hell are you doing? It’s all about the work, not drinking a bottle of wine’. I don’t understand. He went out in blazing colours, I suppose. But it really pissed me off. It was always about how much work you could get done; at the Factory [with Andy Warhol, patron and manager of the Velvet Underground] it wasn’t fun and games – it was really hard work. Every day we were rehearsing, that was what was important. Work was more fun than play.”
There are few live recordings of the Velvet Underground while Cale was a member; what, I wonder, were they actually like as a live band?
“Annoying,” says Cale with a twinkle. “We were indifferent to the audience but then our indifference was really to focus on what we were doing, to make sure that the sound that we had was as aggressive and committed as possible. Sometimes we’d spend a long time just tuning. “As the group itself was disintegrating, we would devise ways of doing different performances. I would go up and put [a wedge of] paper into the keyboard and hold down a drone, Moe [Tucker, the drummer] would start a backbeat and Sterling [Morrison, guitarist] would go out and start playing, I would go out and start playing, and Lou would start playing. Sometimes you would get very interesting results but, really, what was happening was that there were four people who didn’t want to play together any more. Drugs got in the way far too much.”
Cale left in 1968, going on to produce albums by bands and artists such as the Stooges, Patti Smith (Horses), Nico, the Happy Mondays, and, curiously, Squeeze. Meanwhile, as a solo artist, he has consistently produced work of a high quality and formidable intensity, from the trembly paranoia of 1974’s Fear to the abrasive pop of 2005’s Black Acetate.
His current listening consists, he says, mainly of “trawling around indie, hip-hop, foreign indie, stuff from Malaysia”. But mostly, Cale’s life seems to be work, work, work. “I’ve got to have something that keeps me going,” he says. “I’ve got to have something that I can say, ‘That’s different, that has an idea.’”
Rock and drones: now, that’s different. Let’s see if it flies.
‘LOOP>>60Hz: Transmissions from The Drone Orchestra’ is at the Barbican, London, September 12-13, barbican.org.uk
Photograph: Chester Higgins Jr/The New York Times/Redux/Eyevine