INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Creem NOVEMBER 1978 - by Lee Moore
It seems that Brian Eno is always seen set against blank, white spaces. His publicity photos, intentionally or not, show him leaning against these huge expanses of nothing with the enigmatic half-smile of a technological Mona Lisa, a model of cybernetic transistor cool.
Those photos offer a visual counterpart to Eno's sense of musical mystery - his albums are full of quirky little tunes depicting some weird parallel universe where everything is implied and nothing is stated outright. Chuck Berry and John Cage hang out together to trade licks and science moves along the curve until it runs into mysticism. For Eno, that's apparently the ideal interface, a mixture of everything to be found before and after science - the middle ground doesn't interest him at all. Under the hammy hands of a Keith Emerson or a Rick Wakeman, synthesizers make soulless squawks - Eno takes that same collection of hardware and coaxes out poetry.
Sitting against the inevitable white, unadorned wall in his West Village apartment, Brian Eno didn't seem quite so formidable as his reputation would suggest. He turned out to be a pleasant, friendly little guy; very slight, with close-cropped, thinning hair and the air of a scholar.
About that reputation... a partial catalogue of Eno projects includes four solo albums, production chores on Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings And Food and the first Devo album; two LPs of electronic mood music done in collaboration with Robert Fripp; two albums with the German duo, Cluster; prominent roles on both 801 projects; guest shots on albums by John Cale, Nico, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Quiet Sun and Robert Calvert. Eno's presence on the last two Bowie studio albums spurred the Thin White Duke into creating his most interesting work to date and they're currently working on the third installment of that trilogy. He's the founder of Obscure Records, a label devoted to overtly experimental music of all types, and his own Discreet Music was one of Obscure's first releases. Since leaving Roxy Music, Eno hasn't stopped for a moment.
So where do you start with a guy like this? I figured I'd jump in with both feet by recounting a conversation I'd had with David Byrne of Talking Heads the day before - Byrne didn't particularly like the fact that the Heads have been tagged as an art band.
"I can see how he would feel that way," said Eno. "It's got tainted by so many connections with really dumb bands who've tried to make a kind of academic form out of rock music, and who've tried to subtract from it its sensual aspect. Their attitude is 'Well, all that is just base and vulgar, we should be more intellectual in our approach'. Of course, you can be more intellectual, but it doesn't mean at the same time you have to be less sensual. So the appellation art band normally has this connotation of trusting intellect to the exclusion of senses or intuition, whereas for me, a real art band would be able to make use of all these sensibilities without making them fight with one another. They don't have to be in disagreement.
"Art - and artist - are words that are very hard to use. I use them all the time because I'm not frightened of them anymore. I just decided that there's nothing else to describe what I want to say, so I have to use them. But I know, at the same time, that it evokes the most awful ideas in other people's minds - so I use the terms rather judiciously."
Eno apparently distrusts indiscriminate emotion - rather than creating intense emotional music, he goes for calculated pieces that do a little fine-tuning on the listener's bank of emotional responses. "There are some bands who want to give the illusion by their music that the music itself is the result of incredible, seething passions and turmoil from within, and all this music comes out as a direct result of that. It's a case of 'Boy, are we in a sort of emotional turmoil, here it all comes...'
"The way I work, and the way a lot of other people work, is to create music that creates a feeling in you. You set out in a rather deliberate way to do this by carefully constructing a piece that will evoke in you the feeling that you want. It's not the other way round, where you have all these feelings that then suddenly force this piece to exist in whatever form it takes. It's a matter of constructing a piece which evokes that, and evokes it time and time again. Every time you play it, it triggers the same thing - until you finally become immune to it, which you will at some time."
When Eno first came to public attention as a member of Roxy Music, playing the mysterious Peter Lorre mutant to Bryan Ferry's Humphrey Bogart, he referred to himself as a non-musician because he didn't play any particular instrument in the traditional sense. He treated the other instruments by funnelling them through his synthesizer and his solos, on tracks like Editions Of You, were both inventive and witty - the Editions solo in particular sounds like a demented police car, and the sound of metallic chipmunks mating can be heard on Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch, a cut from Eno's first solo LP.
"I've attained a certain level of instrumental proficiency now, almost by accident - and it's a funny kind of proficiency as well," Eno said. "I was working with Fripp recently on his solo album. He played a track for me and said 'What can you think of on this?' I said, 'Well, there's a section here that I'd like to put a melodic part on, and then harmonize it.' Fripp asked me what kind of harmonies I wanted to use. I told him I won't know until I play them.
"So you see, I can do this because I put the first line on, run the tape back, then put the second line on, working empirically, finding notes that I like. He listened to it when I was finished and said 'That's very interesting, because nobody would have arrived at that harmony by writing it out'. There's a wrong chord in it. Technically, had I known that, I probably would have dismissed it as a possibility, even though it sounded good. Retaining my lack of proficiency to a certain extent allows me to make interesting mistakes.
"The reason Fripp and I have always had a good rapport is because we stand at two ends of that spectrum. He's the virtuoso and I'm the idiot savant, if you like. The middle territory of pointless displays of skill and obvious next moves doesn't interest either of us."
Eno hasn't performed onstage since the time of the 801 Live album in September, 1976, and he isn't likely to get onstage again anytime soon. He regards the studio as his province, the one instrument on which he's a virtuoso. "A studio is a situation with literally infinite possibilities. There really isn't a foreseeable limit to the number of things you can do with, say, a guitar sound. As soon as the music is on tape, it becomes my medium and I'm really happy with it. That's when I can start working with it, because it ceases to be a purely temporal art, a performance art, and becomes a plastic art. You have a series of things wrapped up one on top of the other and you can do anything with them. You can turn them round, edit them together in a different order - it's much like painting or sculpture. You can add or subtract, slow down or speed up. It's a plastic substance that is always there to be chopped or changed, and if it doesn't work it can be taken back to where it was in the first place and begun again. That's a whole set of freedoms that you don't have as a performer, and those freedoms interest me."
Eno's fascination with the New York music scene led him to move to Manhattan for awhile, where he could often be found in CBGBs, recording various groups. With tape in hand, he'd then scuttle off to the studio to effect sonic mutations on some already strange music.
"What's going on in New York now is one of those seminal situations where there are really a lot of ideas around, and somebody is going to synthesize some of them soon. Somebody is going to put them all together. That's always been the way of rock music as far as I can see, this forming of eclectic little groups of disciplines. What I see happening in New York is that there are a number of bands which have taken deliberately extreme stances that are very interesting because they define the edges of a piece of territory. They say 'This is as far as you can go in this direction'. Now, you might not choose to go that far, but having that territory staked out is very important. You achieve a synthesis by determining your stance in relation to these signposts. There are a lot of research bands in New York who are trying these experiments, and it's very altruistic of them in a sense. It makes things easier for everyone else and gives people some real, solid information to work from."
At the time of our meeting, Eno was getting ready to start work on the next Bowie album. "I've written to him about it a couple of times. My feeling is that I want to do something radical with it. That's the way I feel about everything at the moment. I personally want to do something that is so positive that it can't be argued with. Even if you dislike it, it's really a positive and definite statement of some kind.
"Bowie and I both have the feeling that this next album is going to be the synthesis and more of the best ideas of the last two. I think it's possible, because he's working with the same band that he's been on tour with. They're extraordinary people who are bound to generate material that won't be commonplace."
The commonplace is one thing that Eno studiously tries to avoid at all times. His tool for eliminating preconceived notions is a set of cards he developed with fellow artist Peter Schmidt. Oblique Strategies functions as a kind of technological tarot deck, an oracle that can be drawn upon when you're stuck on a particular problem or just want to get a fresh perspective on a situation.
"They're like a series of axioms, if you like. I'll tell you a few. 'Discard an axiom' is one. Another is 'Honor they error as a hidden intention'. Then there's 'Short-circuit principle - a man eating peas in the belief that they will improve virility shovels them straight into his lap'.
"I'll read you a few of the new ones that I added," Eno said as he opened a notebook filled with small, meticulous handwriting. "'Not building a wall, but making a brick'. 'What are the sections sections of?' 'Always first steps'. 'Idiot Glee'. 'Put it where it will be found'.
"They're all really attitude things. They say take a different attitude, try this or abandon that. Some are open to interpretation, while others are more specific - one, for example, simply says 'reverse', which may imply reversing the tape, but it doesn't have to. Most of them have to do with questioning your approach. They're very useful. It's a tactic to keep yourself from falling into a rut."
Despite his unorthodox approach to music, Eno is basically a rock'n'roll fan at heart - and attempts to disown the past bother him. "One of the things I'm finding quite infuriating at the moment is the continuous attempt by middle-class critics to validate rock music. They're saying to people, You can't fucking hear anything because you're dumb, but this or that is terribly important. That's no basis for liking something. If you approach something on that basis, 'God, this is important', then it doesn't give you any real information.
"Rock music is such a liberated form, and will remain that way as long as the middle-class critics stay off it. It doesn't have any snobbishness about its development. People aren't afraid of just playing old Chuck Berry riffs still, twenty years later. There aren't all those petty restrictions about how you've got to innovate, it's got to be new."
What are Brian Eno's future plans? It's a little difficult to extract hard information from him concerning future projects, partly because he doesn't seem to know at any given time what he's likely to be doing. He said he's become a little tired of the conventional pop song format, and may move away from that for a while. After working with Bowie, he said he plans to take a six-month sabbatical to think out his next move.
"I don't mind very much at the moment if I fail," Eno added with a trace of a smile. "I'll just follow what I want to do for a while."