INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
BBC FEBRUARY 3, 2005 - by Alan Moore
CHAIN REACTION: ALAN MOORE VS. BRIAN ENO
Chain Reaction was a simple idea for a highly entertaining radio series on BBC Radio 4. A well-known figure from the entertainment industry begins the series interviewing the person of their choice. The following week the interviewee becomes interviewer and chats to their chosen guest. And so on and so on. In January 2005, the comedian Stewart Lee interviewed Alan Moore. The next week it was Alan Moore's turn to become the interviewer. His chosen subject was some one who had obviously been a huge influence on his life for over thirty years... Brian Eno.
Alan Moore: Welcome everybody. My name's Alan Moore. I'm a comic writer and warlock, and I'm lucky enough to be interviewing somebody that I've admired for far too long... Brian Peter George St John Baptiste de la Salle Eno was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk in May 1948. Pronouncing his own name gave him the breath control that he would later employ to such startling effect upon his 1975 recording Miss Shapiro. Sprung from a long line of postmen, he received a 1960's education, experimenting with a tape recorder as his primary instrument, the young artist moved to London during 1969, before bumping into a former acquaintance named Andy Mackay, somewhere along the Northern Line. Joining Roxy Music, the new band with whom Mackay was currently engaged in playing saxophone, Eno burst upon public awareness as the central pillar of the decadent, inventive, glam rock period of British pop. Setting his stall out as a non-musician, he abruptly parted company with Roxy Music to produce a string of stunning and extremely influential solo albums, casually inventing ambient music, and the trend for sampling along the way, he has worked on pivotal productions with artists who range from Devo, David Bowie, Robert Wyatt and the new wave scene, to Pavarotti and U2. One of our modern fin de siecle most extraordinary minds, his interest gleefully embracing perfume, science, futurology and ladies bottoms. I am delighted to introduce... Brian Eno.
Brian Eno: Thank you.
AM: If you hadn't bumped into Andy Mackay, where would you have ended up?
BE: Well, I often think about this, because this particular meeting with Andy was really one of those little moments where your life can take two completely different directions. I remember standing... it was the Bakerloo Line by the way... erm, yeah, the train pulled in and I had a choice of going into that carriage or that one, and I chose the one to the left and that's how I joined a band. Now, I had been playing music before then, but I never expected to make a living from it. I was sort of imagining that I would probably end up teaching art and I think that is probably what I would have done had I got into the right hand carriage instead of the left hand one.
AM: That would have been a tremendous loss, because I think you've probably taught more about art in your capacity as a non-musician than you would have done as a teacher. Was the Glam period as much fun as it looked?
BE: I liked playing with clothes and make-up [laughing]...
AM: I remember.
BE: Many people have confessed to this, but never so publicly... and yeah, it was fun, but it didn't stay fun for very long. It wore off quickly and I realised that my time as a band member had sort of passed when I was on stage one night with Roxy and what I was actually thinking about was my laundry... [general laughter]... and I thought this is not the right job for me any longer.
AM: Speaking about Roxy Music, I can remember... and this is a personal confession... getting on for thirty years ago, I wrote a letter to you, asking if you could be so kind as to possibly answer twenty questions for a fanzine that I was thinking of doing. I didn't manage to get the fanzine out after you had sent me back this glorious ten page letter that was so generous...
BE: Bastard. [general laughter].
AM: ...and so I've been writhing... writhing in guilt for the last sort of thirty years easily. I remember one of the things that you said about Roxy Music was that one of the elements that was most interesting to you, was the tension. There was a tension between your vision of what the band should be about, and Bryan Ferry's vision... and I was just wondering, whether that was true of that period in general?
BE: Well, that period was the first time really that pop music had started to take itself seriously in a way. It had become self conscious, so pop music then was fifteen years old, something like that, which was just old enough for people to look back on people like Little Richard and Elvis and so on, as sort of historical figures and to start to look at them as stylistic ideas. So there was quotation from the past like that and there was also quotation from a kind of imaginary future based on science fiction and Star Trek and various other things like that. It felt like we were also trying to make a blend... I mean, I think that Bryan and I were very conscious of this... of the things that we had learnt at art school... he was also at art school, he had studied with Richard Hamilton, England's, and probably the world's, first pop artist... and I studied with a lot of conceptual artists, so I was very interested in dragging the conceptual world into pop music. He wanted to put pop into pop art. It called itself pop art, but it was rather staid by comparison with what we were doing.
AM: And not that popular!
BE: ...and not that popular. [general laughter]
AM: Your first actual solo album was Here Come The Warm Jets. How liberating an experience was that for you after having worked with a band?
BE: Oh, it was fantastic. I did it very quickly. It was just a burst of energy that came out. I don't remember, for example, ever stopping to write lyrics. I can't remember how those lyrics came about.
AM: You wrote the music first presumably, and then the lyrics afterwards, is that... ?
BE: Can't remember! [general laughter] I honestly can't remember how a lot of those things came about. They happened so quickly. I know, for example, with a song called Baby's On Fire that the title for that was the first thing that came along, and so then I wrote a song to justify the title.
AM: Is it right that that was written on the actual day that you left Roxy Music, or is that just apocryphal?
BE: No. I think that's true actually. Yeah. I was very, very high with the thought that I could now do anything I wanted. What I mostly wanted to do was to expose a lot of music that I didn't think many other people had heard. I was particularly interested in the English experimental music scene and so I then started my label called Obscure Records, basically to highlight a whole field of English music that I thought was absolutely fascinating and unique. That released Michael Nyman's first record. Gavin Bryars. John Adams. Harold Budd. I mean, I only released ten albums and about seven of them were first albums by a lot of people who became very well known.
AM: With your solo albums, you can gradually see the songs giving way increasingly to instrumental pieces. Given that you said that you loved writing songs... but obviously people love your songs... there seems to be some kind of ambivalence in your feelings about putting words with music? Have you resolved that?
BE: Well, I just... actually, just finished a new album which is all songs, funnily enough... the first one I've done like that for a very long time. Twenty five years or so. Song writing is now actually the most difficult challenge in music. It's very easy to make music now. I just bought a synthesizer the other day... a plug-in synthesizer... the sounds are so complex that you can just sort of hold a note down and you've got an ambient album... y'know, as long as you can be bothered to keep your finger down for thirty-five minutes. [general laughter].
AM: I'm sure we can come up with a lyric generator, or something like that...
BE: Well, this is a big interest for me... lyric generators. That's something I'm working on at the moment.
BE: Yeah. I think that's... lyrics are really the last very hard problem in music. Software... and hardware... have changed the rest of music dramatically in the last thirty, forty years. It's very, very easy to make pretty good music. I could take anyone in this room and within two hours we could make a pretty good piece of music. 'Pretty good' isn't very interesting, but 'pretty good' is possible. But writing songs is just about in the same place as it was in the days of Chaucer. Apart from hip hop. Hip hop is the only sort of break through in a way. Rap. Because it breaks away from the strict adherence to melody and beat structure and so on. But the problem of how you write a song that is in any way original is a really interesting one I think. And that's way I couldn't let it drop. I thought I can carry on doing instrumental records till the cows come home and I'd love to try doing this really hard thing and see if I can.
AM: I'm fascinated by this idea of a lyric generator. Because it will probably just like make me completely redundant and ruin my plans for a contented retirement. How far are you along with it? [general laughter] Let's get back to the beginning here. You were born in 1948. Your great grandfather, grandfather and father were all postmen. I can see the interest in communication being established there... [general laughter]... but actually, in light of your later ambient work, isn't the main thing that distinguishes a postman's life, those kind of gloriously long stretches of silent contemplation?
BE: Yes. I remember one of the only things my father, who was a very taciturn, Suffolk man, ever said to me about his own feelings was, I really love getting up early in the morning, and going and sitting on Broom Heath for ten minutes before I go to work and watching the sun come up, and it was such a funny comment for him to make because he didn't seem like that kind of person at all. But I think that was a line that ran through my family. My grandfather, funnily enough had a rather parallel career to me, because he was a post man, that was his main job, but his real interest was in repairing musical instruments, particularly mechanical musical instruments, which of course were the synthesizers of their day... things like hurdy-gurdies and those things that had huge brass plates that went round with waterfalls on them and so on. And he had a house full of these things. But he was also an organ repairer and he built several organs for local churches and when they scrapped their old organs he would take the pipes and gradually he built a six hundred pipe organ and the pipes were just stuck on to the ceilings and on the backs of chests of draws. There were pipes every where.
AM: His life was a balance between that silence of the postman and interesting noise.
BE: Yeah. Noise in either its presence or absence was a big part of his life... and of my Dad's actually. My Dad... I told you he was taciturn... well, when I was, I'd say, about thirty-five... so I'd been a professional musician for a long, long time, I said to him in passing, Did you ever play an instrument Dad? He said, Oh yeah. I used to have my own band. [general laughter] He'd never mentioned it before.
AM: Fathers are strange like that aren't they? They can just keep things to themselves.
BE: He was a drummer.
BE: He'd never told me!
AM: In 1975 you had presentiments of doom, not for the first time, which culminated in an encounter with what Allen Ginsberg called The Taxi Cabs Of Absolute Reality, I believe... On your way to hospital after this accident you felt quite strongly that you'd brought this on yourself. Which reminded me of William Burroughs' sudden premonition on the day before he accidentally killed his wife where he was talking about being possessed by what he called the 'ugly spirit'. Do you have any thoughts about these self destructive energies. I mean, what are they for?
BE: Yes, I do actually. I have a lot of thoughts about that. I started having a mid-life crisis when I was about eighteen... and it has continued ever since and one of the continuing narratives of that crisis is, Is what I'm doing worth doing... at all? Is there any point in doing this? And because I'm very interested in the sciences and I know a lot of scientists and I can see what they are doing and I can sort of understand the point of what they're doing ... I've spent a long time trying to figure out what the point of being an artist is. What does it do for us? What does it do for me? What does it do for anybody else? Could we do without it? Is it a useful job? Does it make any difference to the world?... those kinds of questions. Now, their answers quite directly affect me because I'm not intellectually dishonest enough to always answer in my own favour. So sometimes I come up with the answer... for several years at a time sometimes... where I say it really isn't worth doing. There are better ways of spending your time... and this is a sort of crisis, because then I don't know what to do and I think, Well, the only way to find out is by trying it again and seeing if I can get somewhere different this time. And if I find myself going down the same road again I think this is hopeless. I'm in such a privileged, luxury position I can do whatever I want and I'm doing the same thing as I did before.
AM: You talked just now about how purpose in art is something which has obsessed you. The ambient music... this was music with a social function... was this kind of a break through for you in actually finding a different way to apply music?
BE: Yes, well, I think I'd noticed that one of the things that characterises all new forms of music is an accompanying new way of listening. Every new musical proposition, is a new proposition about what you do as a listener. So, y'know, when Elvis came along and suddenly you are aware that there was a musician who actually was alive below his neck, y'know... the suggestion that music could have a physical function, a physical job to do to make you shake and wriggle. So I think that music always suggests new social roles for itself like that, and I had noticed in the '70s that I wasn't listening to albums any more the way that you're supposed to. I hated the way albums were put together, y'know... fast track, slow track, fast track slow track... as though every three and a half minutes you needed to be sort of woken up again because your attention span was so short. I wanted music that I could use like I would use light in a room. Y'know, you don't want the lights to keep flashing on and off and changing colour and sometimes strobing. You want light... and I wanted sound like that.
AM: Given the tremendous influence of those first ambient recordings, how do you feel about the way that the form has evolved and mutated since then with its influence probably more evident in chill-out compilations?
BE: No, I like the whole chill-out idea. I think that's quite a good contribution y'know to suggest to people that ...
AM: It did emerge from the actual environments at raves - what we used to call the St John's Ambulance tent... [general laughter]. Later, In 1975 you released Another Green World, going into the studio without pre-prepared material... which must have initially been quite nerve-wracking... Now I remember some time around this time you recounted an anecdote about getting lost on a high Scottish hill side at dusk, and stumbling across a swathe of flowers that were almost fluorescent in the failing light. This was quite a worrying situation being lost on a remote Scottish hill side at twilight... but you hit upon the notion that the element of risk may play some vital part in our appreciation of the beautiful. Does this tie in with the studio risks that you were taking with Another Green World?
BE: Yeah... well, I think if you're aware that your taking a risk, you have that thing I was talking about earlier of all your antenna are out. During that time I used to book a different instrument each day. One day it would be a cello, another day a marimba, trombone... anything. I couldn't play any of them but I just... as part of my kit, I would have a little idea I'd write for myself... Swing the microphone from the ceiling and Hire a trombone. So I've got two rules I'm going to use that day in the studio... and I'm going to try to make a piece of music. Now, those aren't very promising ideas actually, but the effect of that is that as soon as anything even remotely one percent promising starts to happen, you really jump on it with great enthusiasm and build on it quickly.
AM: Your choice of luxury on Desert Island Discs was, I think, initially a life-times supply of interesting drugs... and then you thought that would probably be boring and that what you would in fact would prefer was a giant man eating spider that would... [Eno laughs]... do you remember saying this?
BE: No, no... I don't think that's true.
AM: Well, that's a shame, because that completely blows my question. Let's pretend... [general laughter]... that you did say that your choice of luxury on the desert island was a giant man-eating spider to keep you alert... [Eno still laughing]... to keep you creative and to force you to think of new solutions to deal with the giant man eating spider.
BE: [still laughing]... I wish I'd thought of that but I don't think I did. I think I stopped at the life-time's supply of hallucinogenic drugs actually.
AM: That's where I would have stopped... but if you had said that... imagine... then given the current terror saturated global situation, have we all been given the luxury of our own giant man-eating spider?
BE: Yes. That's a very good point. Yes.
AM: ...and do you think that when the pressure's on that that does actually force people into novel and creative solutions?
BE: There are some novel and creative solutions growing now. As people have lost faith in politics... I think particularly in this country for the last few years... they're starting to realise that if they want to do things they had better get them done together and do them themselves. One of the most... in fact the most exciting thing to me about the internet is the birth of a new democratic culture which I think hundreds of thousands of people are now participating in... making new experiments in social innovations... government... I think this is all so much more exciting than anything that's going on in politics right now. Somebody just wrote an interesting essay called The Second Superpower, based on something Noam Chomsky said... Chomsky said that there are two superpowers now. There's the United States and there's World Opinion... and it's the second one that interests me really.
AM: I remember seeing a lecturer from the London School of Economics who was talking about the fact that the internet makes it much more difficult to regulate currency. He was saying that we could be looking forward in the future to a period with no currency and therefore no government.
BE: Well I think what we'd look forward to actually is something slightly more complicated than that... which is elective citizenship. So you might choose to educate your children in Sweden, to pay your taxes in Denmark, to support an English football team... that the only thing I can think of for England... [general laughter]... and so on and so on, and the idea that we are all nationals and this particular historical accident of our nationhood defines us I think is going away.
AM: I remember in this letter I've been wracked with guilt for, for the past thirty years, you also mentioned something which I thought was a wonderful way of using a library. You'd take along numbers...
BE: Yeah, well, I used to get the numbers from the car... I'd choose a car... the last car I saw before I went into the library, and then I'd use that as the Dewey number for pulling out a book.
AM: So it would be upon some subject that was completely at random, and would introduce you to an area of knowledge that you might of previously have been shying away from.
BE: Like breast feeding, for example, was one of them I remember... [general laughter]... I had been shying away from that actually... I hadn't faced up to my inner-mother.
AM: But I glad you were able to get over your denial there, y'know... In this same year, 1975, you teamed with Peter Schmidt, to publish Oblique Strategies, that were cryptic instructions that were designed to jolt the stalled creative mind out of it's rut.
BE: It started with me when we were working on the second Roxy Music album, I noticed that every evening when I went home I would think of things I had forgotten to remember in the studio. And these were not things like Put on a guitar solo... [general laughter]... they were more like things like If you listen from outside the door, you hear things you don't hear in the studio. Or If you listen to all the quieter details of something that's sometimes a nice way of hearing things. So I just started making a simple list of these. It turned out that Peter Schmidt, who was a painter, had been doing something similar, and we looked at our ideas and what was interesting was that they were remarkably cross applicable. So we started to think that maybe we could come up with a kind of universal set of cards that gave you some strategies you could use in difficult working situations to kind of knock yourself out of the furrow that you might have inadvertently got yourself into. Some cards... their ideas have entered the culture so much that you don't need to say them any longer. Other ideas still seem fresh.
AM: So Honour thy accident as your hidden intention that has...
BE: That was the first one for me...
AM: That is the one that has probably pervaded the culture more strongly the other ones. I've certainly used them myself for writing comics or for writing. Do you still use the cards yourself or...?
AM: So, your methods haven't sort of changed...
BE: In fact I pulled one out this morning. It said, Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency. Which is what I'm trying to do.
AM: Well, you're certainly doing that. That's fantastic.
BE: I didn't even change my clothes!
AM: In 1976, you commenced a string of remarkable collaborations with David Bowie, starting with Low. What was it like working together on those albums? Did you have a sense that this is something quite momentous?
BE: We played together in what must have been a great show I think at The Rainbow. He was headlining. Roxy Music was support band and it was a real sort of battle of the bands thing and all the music papers couldn't decide who'd been best. But it was a good show though. But I didn't know him well. He went through a very bad period in the mid-'70s with cocaine and apparently he said to me sometime later that he'd used Discreet Music as the sound track of his recovery. He'd only been listening to that one record over and over and so that was sort of the basis on which we started to work together. That was all done very quickly as well. It's very hard to remember in an detail what we did. There's an Indian saying, “The fruit ripens slowly, but falls suddenly," and I think there was some... a lot of ideas that he'd had and that I'd had that had been ripening for a long, long time and suddenly when we met in that studio... whoop... it all came together, really without any discussion or any argument that I can remember at all.
AM: Between 1978 and 1983 you were living in New York and you created your video paintings I believe, [Mistaken] Memories Of Mediaeval Manhattan? This was a response to what you saw as an escalating spiral of hysteria in music videos where every new music video had to have more nuns and Nazis and explosions...
BE: Actually it was not so much a reaction to pop videos, that stuff I was doing, it was more a reaction to what was called Video Art, which it seemed to me was entirely enslaved by Hollywood, either by trying to be like Hollywood or desperately resisting being like it in any way at all. So you got terrible Video Art shows where some not very attractive looking artist was staring at a camera, flabby and naked for forty-five minutes... of course in black and white because colour was Hollywood, y'know... so it was sort of reducing every thing to its least sensual and least beautiful... I thought what you could do with video which nobody had done, was to make paintings that happened to change, and that's where all my sky films came from. They were at natural speed. They weren't sped up or slowed down. They were of what I saw out of my window. And it was very interesting, when I used to make those things people would to come round to my flat sometimes, they could sit looking out of the window if they wanted to but they always sat looking at the video of the view outside the window... [general laughter]...
AM: From your guest appearance on Father Ted...
BE: A bit of a highlight that.
AM: ...from some of your comments in the diary [A Year (With Swollen Appendices)] that you kept for a year and also from many of your own lyrics, there is an incredible sense of humour, and its obviously something that you do have an interest in. British comedy - what are your thoughts?
BE: Actually, I think that is our great export, comedy. I think British comedy is really very good indeed. Much better than British football, actually. What I like about it is that it's very experimental. It really does pull in ideas from everywhere. If you think of The Goon Show which was radio Dadaism really. I can remember my Dad, a postman, being totally gripped by The Goons, and it was about as experimental as anything that was going on in the culture at the time... and then Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who are the two characters that Bowie and I always slip into whenever we meet... [general laughter]...
AM: That conjures quite an image.
BE: [In the voice of Pete 'n' Dud] We only ever talk to each other like this... so... done any new music lately?... [general laughter]. It's true. We hardly ever have a conversation in any other voice in fact... [more laughter]... so next time you listen to "Heroes"...[more laughter]... We could be heroes Dud... just for one day.
AM: [Also in the voice of Pete 'n' Dud] Funny how the ambiance seems to follow you round the room... [more laughter]
BE: [laughing]... That's a good ending!
AM: Could I have a very big round of applause please for the remarkable... Brian Eno.
[A very big round of applause]