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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Financial Times JULY 1, 2011 - by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
Musician Brian Eno occupies a rare space in pop. As his new album is released, he tells Ludovic Hunter-Tilney why he has become an optimist.
Brian Eno has an acute sense of hearing. It has no doubt proved invaluable in his firty years as one of pop's most feted alchemists, concocting new sounds and devising new genres such as ambient music. But the arch-receptiveness of the Eno ears can also be a curse and this is one such occasion.
We are sitting outside his studio in a Notting Hill mews. The sun is shining down on west London and a group of people have emerged from a nearby house. Eno is rhapsodising about language: his new album, Drums Between The Bells, is a collaboration with Rick Holland, setting Eno's electronic compositions to the poet's verses.
"I like working with spoken word," he says. "I used to love BBC radio drama, especially the afternoon play. You're naturally drawn to another human voice. You want to listen to it and you can't help but flesh it out." Ironically the chatter from the group nearby, almost inaudible to me, disrupts his train of thought. A pained expression crosses his face. "I wish these people would go away," he mutters, looking round. "I don't know why they've just chosen to have this fucking conversation outside right now."
We retreat indoors but there, too, Eno finds himself distracted by unwanted acoustic intrusions. "I have a problem: if someone is talking I have to listen. I'm such a busybody. That's why I can't go to dinner parties with more than five people." Up we get again ("You must think I'm crazy") and move to his inner sanctum, the recording studio itself, where he closes the door, settles back, switches off his phone and returns to one of his favourite pastimes: talking about ideas.
Eno occupies a rare space in pop. He was born in Suffolk in 1948; his father was a postman who met Eno's Belgian mother during the war. Initially, he wanted to be an artist but, like many art students of his generation, he was sidetracked by music. In 1971 he joined Roxy Music, led by fellow art student Bryan Ferry. The band went on to become one of the most influential British rock groups of their era. Eno's contributions - he was involved in the then fledgling field of electronic music - are widely credited as the catalyst for their success. Yet he left after two albums amid disagreements about the band's direction: Eno didn't want to follow Ferry into more conventional forms of pop and rock.
The 1970s saw him chart a singular course between the avant-garde and the mainstream, which he remains on to this day. Albums such as 1975's Another Green World and 1978's Ambient 1: Music For Airports pioneered the soothing electronic landscapes of ambient music. A 1981 collaboration with Talking Heads singer David Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, made groundbreaking use of sampling.
As well as popularising new musical technologies, Eno also humanised them. "A lot of people approached electronics as the sort of thing you add to make it all seem a bit more exotic and new," he says. "But it wasn't for me. It was the thing I did. It has to serve all my emotional purposes. I've always wanted electronic music to be warm and comforting, rich and deeply coloured, as well as thin and cold and sharp and inhuman."
His solo work has gone hand in hand with a fruitful career as a producer. When music website Pitchfork published a list of the one hundred greatest albums of the 1970s, more than a quarter involved Eno. He co-wrote and played on David Bowie's so-called "Berlin trilogy" of Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. In the 1980s he worked with Talking Heads and U2. His production credits run from esoteric experimental work with Harold Budd to platinum-selling albums by Coldplay and Dido. Few have managed to tread the tightrope between small-scale and stadium as deftly as Eno.
He won't talk about Roxy Music, U2 or Coldplay, on whose latest album he's currently working. "When interviews go that way I think, 'Oh fucking hell, why am I doing this?'," he groans. Yet, counter-intuitively, he doesn't lament pop's insatiable appetite for the past, like the never-ending 1980s revival.
Eno likens this "retromania", as the music writer Simon Reynolds dubs it, to a "digestive process", a pause to look back and take stock after a period of bewilderingly rapid technological change.
"I kind of like it actually. Now I see people listening to the 1970s and 1980s again I start noticing things that I didn't spot at the time or that I had real prejudices against." Like what? "Pink Floyd. Couldn't bear them. You know, clean, rational, English grammar school boys worrying about issues like education. I thought this isn't what I want from music. But now I hear it through the ears of young people and I can see the point of it."
Eno's studio is more modest than his reputation for sonic wizardry suggests. Two large Macs occupy a table. Several African drums are on a shelf with files and folders. There are photos of St Petersburg where his wife has an apartment. His conversation stretches from Malthus's theory of population growth to Soviet monumentalism yet his image as a pop boffin doesn't quite strike the right note. There's no dryness in his manner and his bald head and a gold tooth give him an impish, rather than professorial, air. This is, after all, a man who once admitted to drinking his own urine out of curiosity. Apparently it looked like Orvieto Classico and tasted of almost nothing.
He's confident pop music can still be a medium for new ideas. Musicians' eclecticism encourages him. "People are working with a very large paintbox now," he says. The cheapness of studios is also liberating, while the music industry's difficulties are forcing record companies to "morph into something much more interesting". The days of churning out product are being replaced by more collaborative relationships between labels and acts, he says.
Last year Eno signed to the electronic music label Warp Records. The move has re-energised his music: his Warp debut, Small Craft On A Milk Sea, was hailed as a return to his 1970s/1980s heyday. The creative uplift has been accompanied by a dramatic change in Eno's thinking. "Just like nearly everyone in our civilisation, I was a pessimist," he says. "But in my old age I've become an optimist."
Albums made in his younger days were nostalgic about a future that hadn't happened. "There is a hopefulness in them but there's also a melancholy. They were imagining a future but, at the same time, knowing it isn't likely and regretting it. It's a very complicated emotion." Even the Earth-themed Small Craft On A Milk Sea had a downbeat ending, Eno's electronics twinkling into nothingness as he imagined our planet being irrevocably altered by mankind's rapacity.
"That kind of marks the change I've felt in the past year or two. I wouldn't end an album like that now," he says. Drums Between The Bells has a loose, funky feel; it ends with the words, "Everything will be all right". Eno's new-found positivity - partly sparked by eco-thinker and Eno friend Stewart Brand's book Whole Earth Discipline and popular science writer Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist - boils down to a belief that we've never had it so good.
"Cultures have a tendency to be pessimistic. The whole of the history of humanity is people going, 'It's all going to fall apart, my God it's looking terrible, we're not going to survive for another twenty years.' But, in fact, on average things have actually been getting better for thousands of years. It's like you're playing roulette in the casino and you keep winning and you think I've got to stop, this is not going to carry on. Well, it has been carrying on, by and large. Most of us in this country live a hundred times better lives than we would have done a hundred years ago. So things are getting exponentially better for us, and we can't believe our luck, so there's a tendency to say, 'It can't go on'."
Eno's gold tooth gleams as he smiles. If his antennae are picking up the right signals, then relax: the future's looking good.
Drums Between The Bells is out on Warp Records on July 4.