"The gangster stuff I can take or leave, and the misogyny, but there's a lot of funny stuff out there that's really good," Cale says in his hoarse Welsh brogue. "There's a group called Not the 1's with a song called 'You Dress Like an Asshole,' all about fashionistas. Ching Bling in Texas, he's good. One of his songs is 'They Can't Deport Us All.' There's a guy named Kokane, out of Snoop's crew. He's the most musical of them. He has three voices when he does a track -- one high sweet falsetto, one low growly one and one in the middle, where he talks. He's got a wicked sense of humor. He has a song called 'When It Rains It Pours,' about Katrina. Really gorgeous, gospelly stuff."
Not exactly where you think a conversation with the Velvet Underground's founding cellist would go, right?
BRILLIANT CORNERS OF POPULAR AMUSEMENTS
Featuring John Cale and Zola Jesus (Sept. 21), Van Dyke Parks and Conor Oberst (Sept. 22), Helado Negro and Bobby Womack (Sept. 23)
• 7 p.m. Sept. 21-23
• Riverfront Theater, 650 W. Chicago Ave.
• Tickets: $25-$30; brilliantcornersofpopularamusements.com
Or maybe it's no surprise at all. Cale, 70, boasts a list of credits that look like an island chain -- each work an independent dabbling or masterpiece, each quite singular. Classically trained, he made his mark in rock with the Velvet Underground and then as a versatile solo singer-songwriter (his famous version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah") over nearly 30 albums (the great "Paris 1919"). He's collaborated with and produced a colorful cavalcade of artists, including Nick Drake, Brian Eno, Patti Smith, the Stooges, the Modern Lovers, Squeeze, Happy Mondays and LCD Soundsystem.
Classical, rock, pop, electronic, experimental, Cale's worn ruts in each road.
"I go hunting, you know," he says. "I need different points of view. ... Most of the time I write, I try to do something diametrically opposite to what I did before. The mood, instrumentation, everything."
That's the kind of catholic vision that makes him perfect for the like-minded lineup of Chicago's second Brilliant Corner of Popular Amusements festival, promoter Mike Reed's wide-reaching, vaudevillian sampler of comedy, cabaret and rock. Music headliners include Cale and Zola Jesus on Sept. 21, Van Dyke Parks and Conor Oberst on Sept. 22, and Helado Negro and Bobby Womack Sept. 23.
Cale got to talking about hip-hop as an example of the long-term influence of composer John Cage (now being celebrated in his centennial year by a new exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art). Cage's embrace of environmental sounds "brought the concert hall into the street," Cale says, and paved the way for sampling and the kind of postmodern sound design in which hip-hop thrives.
After the lean, taut Detroit rock of his last full-length, 2005's "Black Acetate," Cale's new album, "Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood" (due Oct. 2), steers him back to the electronics and overall sound design he's crafted before -- not quite as accessible as "HoboSapiens" (2003), not nearly as clean as "Wrong Way Up" (1990), his acclaimed LP with Eno.
Collaborating with Cale, though, isn't always easy. His creative relationships have been short-lived and fractious.
"That's the sad end point you get to," Cale says. "Whenever we have a deadline, had to get something done, we always buttoned down and made something happen. The creative process is never a problem. But life intrudes. Lou [Reed] feels he loses something of his soul when he collaborates."
Cale says his favorite joint sessions these days occur within Life Along the Borderline, his annual roving tribute concert to Nico (the German model-singer from the VU's first album, and with whom Cale worked for many years before her death in 1988). A diverse roster of artists gather to interpret Nico's music. The next one is scheduled for Jan. 13 in San Francisco.
"Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood," though, opens with his latest trendy pairing. The album's lead track and first single, "I Wanna Talk 2 U," was crafted with producer-DJ Danger Mouse.
"He called me in to help with an English band, and we had 48 hours before they arrived. So we messed around in the studio and came up with three or four songs," Cale says. "We worked very fast, and I left some things with him. When I got the thing back from him, some of the stuff I said was junk he'd kept and used in a different way, distorting it or whatever. I thought that was an interesting trait in a producer. He uses every single point of expression as part of the track. ...
"The song feels sweet and gentle. But the rest of the album is all me, and I tend to slam things."
An erratic -- and in one early chicken-hacking incident, notorious -- performer, how is it all coming together on stage these days?
"Sometimes I have the electronics, sometimes I just use the string quartet with four vocalists. That's wonderful. ... In Chicago, it will be the full band. We're quite together on it. We kick ass, I think."