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Artist on Artist: John Cale talks to cellist Alison Chesley, aka Helen Money

"Sometimes you hear a bus braking nearby, and you go, hey, that's a good sound, let's put that in."


Early in his career Welsh musician John Cale was involved in so many fascinatingly radical projects that he could've retired from music at the end of the 60s and left an indelible mark. He was trained as a classical violist and gravitated to New York's avant-garde community, but before long he tempered his experimental impulses with populism—both by participating in La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music in the mid-60s and, most famously, bringing the "art" to the art-rock of the Velvet Underground. After leaving that group in '68, he continued to make interesting music in the pop realm—over the past 42 years he's released dozens of records (including classics such as Paris 1919 and Fear), collaborated with the likes of Terry Riley and Brian Eno, and done production work for Iggy & the Stooges, the Jesus Lizard, and Alejandro Escovedo, to name a few. He still plays the viola, but he's long preferred guitar or piano—and his sensibility remains much too expansive for the pop-rock world to contain. On October 2 he releases his latest solo album, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood (Domino).

For this week's Artist on Artist, Cale is interviewed by another musician who's built a reputation doing unorthodox things with a stringed instrument: cellist Alison Chesley, who performs as Helen Money. She just finished recording her third album, which features Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder on four tracks, with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio. Though Chesley now splits her time between Chicago and LA, she's maintained her long-running collaboration with local avant-metal band Yakuza; she'll open for and play with them at the Empty Bottle on Fri 10/19. Peter Margasak

It's an honor to talk to you. How are you?

I'm great. How are you? I was just listening to your track. It was very nicely recorded.

Oh, thanks. I just finished recording at Electrical Audio here in Chicago with Steve Albini. It's a great place. Do you have the same person every time you work?

Well, it's just me and whoever the engineer is, actually. Oh, I see. It sounded really good. It's difficult to record strings.

It's difficult to find someone who knows how to mike a cello properly. Yeah. No, they sound punchy!

One of the things I've been thinking about you and your music, and one of the things I was gonna talk to you about is, as someone who's worked in studios a lot, how do you feel about that whole process, about being in a studio, an actual studio, with an engineer? Oh, I'm not comfortable in studios. I don't like being in studios. I'm an outdoors person. I did some time in Peter Gabriel's studio in Box Mill in England. It's a really gorgeous place. It's got high ceilings and glass windows, there's a pool, there's a little lake outside the window with a swan in it. It's all very gorgeous. But that was one place where you really got torn between staying inside and working and going outside and doing nothing! I just finished building a small little studio for myself. It's very modest; it has the essentials. . . . You do your mix, you run downstairs, you jump in the truck, and you put it on the PA in the CD player and see how it sounds, and it's pretty good. As long as that's there, I'm OK. I'm impatient anyway in general, so I try to be more efficient about it.

So you find that it's helpful to have everything right there where you're writing and to just be able to produce it there. Whatever your ideas are, I think you get further down the pike into production if you just write in the studio. You sit down at a piano and you write a song, you sit down with a guitar and write the song, but if you've got an MPC machine and you get going on that, it gets further.

Alison Chesley, aka Helen Money - FLYNN WORKS
  • Flynn Works
  • Alison Chesley, aka Helen Money

Yeah, I understand. I wanted to ask you about your viola, since I'm a cellist. Is yours a real cello or an electronic cello?

It's a real cello. Good.

I noticed that you play with a real viola. Yeah, I have. I've gotten lazy lately, but it's really because of the feedback issue. I use a small guitar amp; it's a tremolo box really. That's the amp that I use. I always play with a mute, so that cuts out the whistling a little bit, and then most of the other equipment is small. I just found this little Chinese electronics company called Mooer, and they make small little boxes. The thing about them is they're real good quality. They have an octave divider.

So they're like a pedal. They're a pedal and they're like $88 each. You get 'em on eBay. Maybe you ought to check 'em out; they're really good quality.

I was wondering how you feel about manipulating your sound through pedals. I know the value of the backdrop, the tapestry of a drone. It really helps.

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