The Argus: Brighton Festival Thumb

"In my brain, when I think about the ideas of émigré and being lost and found, everything that comes to mind is Wales,” says composer, producer, artist and genuine rock legend John Cale.

“Why I ran away from it, why I returned and why someone who was brought up in a Welsh-speaking family spent their life in America using English as a creative language.”

For Cale, his Welsh heritage goes hand in hand with his musical development. He cites the country as giving him the drive to go anywhere and do anything with life.

“Music in Wales – when I was growing up – was very small and fractious. I joined the Welsh Youth Orchestra and that really saved my life. I’d long for summer days with the orchestra, just playing music for three weeks – the rest of the school year was just passé,” he says.

“Coming from Wales to New York wasreally as much of a jump as going from Velvet Underground to what happened later.”

Co-founding the hugely influential, iconic New York band with Lou Reed, Cale’s time with the experimental rock outfit – his friendship with Andy Warhol, his battle with drug addiction, and the creative fallout with Reed that saw him leave in 1968 – has been discussed and analysed countless times.

For now, Cale is content and proud with what he achieved.

“We lived our own lives and we got some good work done. I came to New York really wanting to be a producer but I got the opportunity to be a songwriter, although it was pretty much like the Emperor’s New Clothes – I got really caught up in what I was trying to do,” he says.

The creative outflow that followed his departure from the Velvet Underground saw Cale record album after album of multi-generic music – moving freely from avant-garde “drone” to classical orchestration and militant rock via experiments in punk, dance, poetic and even folk styles, reinventing himself at each step.

Receiving an OBE last year (“That was a shock. You feel the people you meet there have contributed far more than you have to life – they’re just amazing people,” he says), Cale was asked to represent Wales at the 2009 Venice Biennale – the international festival for contemporary visual arts.

“Playing in Venice was amazing. I knew a lot about the art world in New York so I knew a lot of people who were there. There was one bar where you’d find all the artists, all the dealers and all the people you didn’t want to see. It was lovely,” he smirks.

“The Biennale itself was a zoo – I tried to make my piece as personal as possible but not everyone got that… too many choirs and too many castles in it apparently.”

With so much material to delve into, Cale remains tight-lipped about what to expect from his Festival gig – although having once said, “A song doesn’t survive if you do the same thing twice”, it’s certain that the master of reinvention will be reworking and re-tweaking his back-catalogue for a truly unique set.

“It’s going to be a mixture of the old and new. With my songs, it really does depend on the subject matter as to what’s suitable, although there are some obvious choices.

"It’ll be a combination of some acoustic stuff, some mixed and some band, and there are strings involved – I’ve just got to work out which songs I want to have them on. It’s always a good thing to present things in a new light.”

Debuting a number of new songs in recent gigs – most notably Hey Ray, a tribute to New York artist Ray Johnson – Cale’s new EP is out in July. His current musical direction of choice – experimental rock – completes something of an instrumental full circle for the Welshman, although, there’s always a twist.

“I’ve done a lot of work on the rhythm of the new songs. They’re perkier.”

He pauses.

“Now that’s not a word you’d normally associate with John Cale.”

* 8pm, tickets £18.50-£25, call 01273 709709.