INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Future Music FEBRUARY 2004 - by Andy Jones
Brian Eno has achieved so much - from playing synths with Roxy Music to producing Bowie and U2, as well as cutting edge solo music and inventing Ambient Music - so he has always been Future Music's number one target to interview. After a ten-year wait, Andy Jones finally nabs him to reveal the problems with synths and computers and to find out why the next revolution in music will be the human voice...
God, where do you start with Brian Eno? A thousand questions, each and every one of them you just know he will have been asked a thousand times before. You could ask him about ambient music, the genre he famously 'invented' with his soundtrack albums in the '70s. You could ask him about David Bowie as he was responsible for producing arguably Bowie's best albums. Ditto with U2. And let's not forget Roxy Music, all those other Eno solo albums and the collaborations with Harold Budd, David Byrne and so many others. Questions, questions, questions, but which to ask...
And on top of this quandary there are those rumours about how the man acts when interviewed these days. There's the one about Eno getting so bored with interviews that he'd insist on giving the answers first and making the interviewer come up with the questions. Then there's the one about him getting the interviewer to ask him questions made up with sentences of random words. All utter bollocks probably and some possibly even made up by me as I approached the interview with reams of paper and a zillion questions, none of which I would, as it turns out, need to ask...
Eno's studio, tucked away in a workshop in a too pleasant part of London, is surprisingly just like yours and mine; it's a compact and utterly practical set-up. I think I was expecting at the very least to come across to come across a huge SSL desk surrounded by 15 Yamaha DX7s and several machines not yet released or from the future or something. I should have been disappointed but felt more relief. 'This man is no different from you or I really,' I tried to tell myself. Well, apart from the teeny matter of his production credits, record sales, collaborations, bank balance and social standing (he'd just got back from a jam with Jarvis Cocker when I arrived).
The second thing that puts you at ease is the man himself. No yawns when you ask him the obvious questions about the DX7 and an enthusiastic, if controlled response at all times. So those questions aside, let's get to it...
FM: [A bit too incredulously] So this is where you do most of your solo work?
BE: Yes, I mean actually I do everything here. It's very rare that I use an outside studio now.
FM: Is that because the technology has changed and enabled you to produce professional results with a smaller set-up?
BE: And also because my music has changed. Actually, for many years I have effectively been working in a home studio even when I made my first record. I made quite a lot of them at home and took bits into a big studio in order to add other musicians. Now I bring the other musicians here so I've always been a home recordist. That's what I started out doing: working with tape recorders more than anything else. The reason I stay with very few instruments is that I understand them and I get people to modify them for me or I modify them myself. I extend the instruments by what I add onto the end of them rather than buying new instruments.
FM: [Brian is one of the few people to get to grips with Yamaha's classic FM synth, the DX7, and probably the only person to have ever programmed a decent sound on it!] So how many DX7s do you have?
BE: I've got seven of those and several of them are modified in some way. This is something that equipment manufacturers haven't figured. The trend has always been to bring out completely new things whereas I think what users would like, is updates of things. Like the DX7 for instance. A million people or however many people bought one yet all they did was bring out that one [points to MKII] which was not a significant improvement over the first one. What they really could have done was kept updating like the way software people do...
FM: Talking of which, what soft synths do you use? [Not surprisingly, the answer is...]
BE: I'm very much a fan of [Native Instruments] FM7. That's the only one that I've used extensively. I also have that one called Plex which I don't find very interesting but FM7 is really, really... for someone who's used to FM and knows thee principles of FM that is really a dream that thing.
FM: So come on, how does the FM7 really compare to DX7?
BE: In all respects but one it is superior. The one respect that I think is not as good is for some reason it doesn't have as good attacks as the DX7. At least that's what I think: it seems to be slower on the attack. In every other way it's a great improvement I think.
FM: So have you got into it as much as you did the original DX7?
BE: As I say it's an investment I calculate before I start. Actually with FM7 I have got into for some depth because I became interested in bells, the acoustic structure of bells. I want to model some of them electronically and I wanted a synthesizer that would enable me to model those very complicated interacting harmonic structures and FM7 is really that, so I learnt that in the course of doing this thing with bells.
FM: So what's the main appeal with software like this?
BE: What's really fascinating to me is this: the first synthesizer I ever had was the EMS where you can route everything into everything. You didn't have this chain that all other synths have had since, you know, [adopts bored voice] oscillators, filter, envelope shaper... you know, always in that line. With the EMS you could send things in any kind of circle so you could send the output of the filter back in as an oscillator input and a lot of the noises I got from those things came from doing that kind of thing.
The thing that fascinated me about the FM7 software was that it had some of that feeling, the feeling that you weren't stuck to one route by which things had to follow.
FM: Do you think that soft synths emulate hardware ones too much then?
BE: I think there is a lot of work to be done with the grammar of the ergonomics of these things. Some of the controls are very, very crude I think. For instance on Logic the stupid rotary controls they have which work in a completely counter-intuitive. You know you push here and it goes down. They're very weird I think and you think 'surely wouldn't it make sense just to have a fader.' If you're trying to pan left to right just a line would be fine! They don't need to [make it so much like the hardware]. The hardware is only like that because it's physical and has to be like that. It's not because it's better...
FM: What about controllers? Have you ever used any?
BE: Well I had one (I still have actually) in the room behind here with my thousands of unused synthesizers! I have a huge controller for the DX7 which externalises every single control function of the DX7. It's as big as the DX7. It's an old one and was made by a German guy; he only made fifty of them, just hundreds of knobs and every DX7 function is on there; every single oscillator coarse and fine...
FM: You'd think a lot of people would be into that as so many were sold...
BE: It was very expensive and it keeps breaking down as well. In fact to tell you the truth I've hardly been able to use it as it's worked for such a short time; it's always blowing the power transformer. I got it when I already knew how to program the DX7, so it wasn't quite so essential for me but it's really been a pain to maintain. It was fantastic when it was actually working because you could really program and play and change things as you were playing which of course you could never do before and you could change two values at once which you can never do on digital stuff.
I thought 'why didn't Yamaha think of bringing that out or even a reduced version of it just, for instance, to be able to sweep the oscillators through their octaves when you're playing is absolutely fantastic and something you've never heard from the DX7 really.
If you look at this guitar... [points to a guitar in the studio] the crudest of electrical instruments, but what do they have, they have volume and tone don't they? The DX7 doesn't have a tone control. It is absolutely astonishing to me that you could build a machine like that and not have a tone control; just an overall control. And in fact on the DX7 what that turns out to mean is a way of controlling the group of operators that are modulating the signal, so it's an easy enough thing to do actually just like taking down the level of any of the operators that are operating as modulators, reduce their level and that become a tone control.
FM: So did you ever manage to feed any of this back to Yamaha?
BE: I understand FM as well as anyone I suppose. I really specialise in it and really understand the theory of it very well but Yamaha are kind of an impenetrable company for whom synthesizers are a very small issue.
I tell you man, I thought they were so silly in the way they... I often tried to get messages through to them about things that I thought would make sense to them. For instance I remember them telling me that 80 per cent of the synths, the DX7s that they serviced had never been reprogrammed and their sort of opinion was that this showed how pathetic the public were and I said: 'No it doesn't, it shows a design fault!'. It's that hard to reprogram that people don't even try... nobody has trouble reprogramming their electric guitar and trying the different pick-ups and so on, because it's very intuitive! I said that the thing is just too hard to program so I made a suggestion which I thought was a very good idea. I said 'first of all you have to hierarchicalise the controls. At the moment every control is given equal priority. In fact synthesizer manufacturers have only recently learnt this - that some controls get used more than others. So let's bring them to the front. This is what I said about the electric guitar, the two things you want to be able to change are volume and tone and on the DX you couldn't change tone without having to reprogram it. It was like having to restring your guitar, if you wanted the sound a little bit brighter. So I asked why they didn't do quite a simple thing which I thought all manufacturers could do, which is to include a little chip which is a memory chip that shows the use of the synthesizer. It shows which functions get accessed all the time, so every time they have these things in for servicing they build-up a picture of how people are using the instrument. All of these instruments don't exist for historical reasons, it's not like building a grand piano where you build an instrument to fulfil a historical destiny of some kind, you know. What you are doing is building instruments to make music that hasn't yet been heard, to make new music, so people are going to be doing things with it that you didn't predict. That's the whole basis of it; what you're giving them is a set of possibilities and then you want to see what they do with it but no one has a feedback mechanism to see what anyone actually does!
I would think it would be very easy to do but I think the reason they don't is because they don't have this concept in synthesizers of evolving a product. They just start again each time. It's a brand new thing but I think 'hold on'!
FM: So you are clearly very passionate about how both software and hardware synths are produced, but what do you think about the impact the computer has made in the world of music production?
BE: I have a friend who's an architect. He has a big practice in Rotterdam and he has banned computers from the early stages of the design process. He's not anti-computer but he says that the problem with them is that they create the myth of premature sheen which actually gets it perfectly for me. They make quite a poor idea look pretty good very quickly. You can very quickly get going. In five minutes I can have a nice loop going and there's a rhythm and there's this and it sounds pretty good and we've got nice cheap reverbs and blah blah blah and in a few minutes you can have something and you think 'Hm this sounds pretty much like music.' What happens then is that you've overlooked the fact that there isn't a very original part to it other than it sounds pretty good, sounds alright, could be on the radio? So, then what happens is people get to that stage very quickly and then spend a long time trying to find an idea to put into it. You know, 'what can we do to make this something?' Whereas I think, 'Why not start with the idea and then build the rest around it, rather than building this container and then finding an idea to force into it?' It's very restrictive.
It's like how they do perfumes now. I did this series of lectures a while ago called The Future Will Be Like Perfume because I thought that more and more processes were going that way. With perfumes, what they do is find the demographic first, you know: it's for women; twenty-five to thirty-five; professional A, B, C+ group; price point £28.50; package design bright red, black, silver; looks kind of oriental but modern... da da da. They've done all of that before they've designed the perfume and then they go to the person with the nose and ask: 'What do you think it should smell like?' The they don't even say that. 'We want it bit like Opium but a bit more sort of young, and a bit like this and that'. It seems to me that a lot of music production is a lot like that. Like put everything else in its place and then find the idea, then find the thing that people are actually going to be buying. People buy music not for the interesting kick drum or the clever loop but because they are moved in some way. The whole package is designed and then [it is asked]: 'Now what are we gonna put in there that's going to move people?'. I think this is sort of the wrong way around a little...
FM: And this is pretty much how pop/chart music works. Identify your market, fill it...
BE: That's always been part of pop music actually and it doesn't always produce bad results. If you think of Tamla for example, there were special reasons why Tamla worked. What made Motown work? They were very much a marketing operation and they were very concerned to have hits and never saw themselves as avant garde innovators, on the fringes of music but they had amazingly good players who came from highly evolved R&B backgrounds who really knew what they were doing. They had a very traditional evolved situation there. The classic stories about mics being nailed over the drum kit because over the ages (whatever ages means in pop music?), the engineer had found a drum sound that he liked, so said: 'let's keep it.' That's not particularly the way I work but it is actually the way I work with synthesizers. I keep trying to accumulate intelligence.
I've always thought that the rest of pop music has always been trying to find out new things, you know: 'How do you get new drum sounds?'; 'How do we make new instruments?'; and 'What can we do with this instrument that's never been done before?'. But the voice has just stayed constant. Very little change has happened. Think of the guitar, the fifty-year history of the electric guitar and all of the things it's been in that time - a huge spectrum of things - and then you think of the voice. I've experimented a lot on my own records in the past with trying to do other things with the voice, trying to see what else it could do lyrically and semantically, you know: 'Does it have to sing words?'; 'Do they have to make sense?'; 'What happens if you make songs with very few words in them or thousands of words in them?'; 'What happens if you have different words going along together?', and so on. That's been a continuing theme and that's because I find the content of most pop songs unbearably trivial and years behind the music. Of course, critics write about the words because it's their language so it's something to write about. It's harder to write about music, so people don't write about music so much. So, when I started playing about with this thing and with some of the things you have in Logic like Autotune, and so on, I started to think that there is a new world of vocal possibilities, Of course, the people who explored this most are actually, as always, in pop music, black R&B people. That's where the advances nearly always come from.
I've been doing that kind of thing and listening to what other people have been doing and I really think that there is going to be some amazing... the next big explosion for me in music, I think, is what people do with voices. The rhythmic era - which for me peaked with jungle and drum 'n' bass (how much can we make pieces that are just about rhythm) - I think has passed a little bit now. OK, we learnt a lot and settled down and now we're going to use all of that.
FM: So, do you listen to a lot of underground music now and does that influence your own music?
BE: It's sort of the other way round. I find that I'm becoming interested in something and that's what I want to be doing. I'd probably be worried if there was a very big gulf between what I was listening to and what I was doing. I always want to be making the music that I find the most exciting, so when I'm listening to those old gospel things or those old R&B things, I'm simultaneously enjoying them and thinking: 'I could do that better'. It doesn't mean I could do what they're doing better but I could make a kind of music that used some of those ideas and some others that can import from, other places, my own background, and make a new music from them.
To demonstrate, Eno then eagerly shows some of the vocal techniques which will be employed on his new album. Some superb old blues vocals are put through a chain of Kaoss Pads to amazing effect. Quite simple but quite mesmerising all the same. A few months ago he told Korg Magazine just why he loves Kaoss pads so much...
BE: I think these represent the other side of the electronic revolution. I thought that these were just the most brilliant new idea in electronic music because [of] what happened with computerisation. The computer thing is one side of it and it encourages a kind of cerebrallness. Is that a word? [laughs]. This has brought some things to music and filtered other things out. These things [the KP2s] catch what was filtered out for me by the computer revolution and they suddenly bring us back to the idea of physicality and motion and muscular intelligence and expressiveness, so these have been very, very important to me. As you can see, I have them all over the place. The things that are made for DJs in general have been very exciting to me. That's because DJs have to get results immediately, they're dancing, they have to be physical, the equipment has to be robust enough to stand that and they don't want to sit programming something for hours; they want something that works now.
FM: And the computer doesn't offer the same kind of immediacy?
BE: OK, start another way... you might have noticed I'm always thinking: 'how do you bring the most intelligence to bear on things?'. I'm talking about all kinds of intelligence, mental intelligence, physical intelligence, and emotional intelligence. How do you construct things so that you can utilise all of those instead of being stuck in one of them? The computer has very much inclined people to stay within one kind of intelligence, the mental, literary cut and paste mentality whereas the instrument there, that electric guitar, calls up quite a different kind of intelligence and a very subtle one. When I play things into a computer, I'm consistently, extremely consistently over the years, slightly ahead of the beat. I try to quantise things like everyone. It makes them sound better... initially. In the long run, it makes them sound more boring, I have come to realise!
When I play, I put the beat somewhere different now and I really like the results. After years I listen to these things and I prefer these things that have this signature of mine which is that I'm early on the beat. I don't know why I am but it's like some singers slide up the note or bend it a little flat like Sinead O'Connor for instance bends her notes flat. You could, of course, straighten all of that stuff out and it wouldn't be her any longer. So there's some kind of intelligence work in there which says 'this is how I feel it'. This slight difference [shows] how other people feel it is my contribution, part of my hand-writing in the thing. So I think that the difficulty with computerisation is that it very easily irons out those little personal things which you can't say why they are important or whether they are there. You don't even know!
Not surprisingly, Eno has embrace the web, but it's not really been used as a collaborative resource, more as an opportunity to spread the Eno word and deal direct with his large and varied fan base...
I must say that there is something extremely personal and satisfying about dealing directly with the customer. It really is a nice feeling. We just started this thing at the end of December [last year]. I do visual exhibitions as well and I used to do catalogues which doesn't make a lot of sense as the shows are very hard to photograph and music was a big part of them. So I started doing CDs of the music that was playing in the shows and they were just sold in the museums. Then people started getting in touch with us and saying 'can we get this CD anywhere?', so I thought 'well we'll print up a few more.' It started very innocently like that really by word of mouth. We were getting more and more inquiries and selling thousands of these a year and started the website and it's done very well actually.
LIST OF PRIMARY MUSICAL WORKS
1973 Here Come The Warm Jets (Virgin) 6/10
Eno's first solo album carries on from where Roxy Music left off and although many will tell you it's one of his best it does sound very dated (but then it is thirty years old!). The experimental minimalism was a couple of years off, although Eno does his best to mess with things behind the scenes and there are some fine, searing synth moments. You can just see the tight spandex now...
1974 Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (Virgin)
1975 Another Green World (Virgin) 8/10
You could partner many tracks on here with the Mungo Jerry/Manfred Mann type tracks on Before And After Science. Certainly, many of the same musicians appear but this is arguably the better work. Eno was going through something of a schizo period in the '70s with his minimal soundtrack stuff on the one hand and the more experimental pop stuff here. The album goes up a notch when the pop stuff stops (as that dates it) but the experimental instrumentals could have been released in any year since (and the future!). Many say it's his masterpiece, but the constant chopping and changing give it quite a demented feel, although it does get an extra mark for having that one that was used as the theme to Arena. Phil Collins and Phil Manzanera appear on drums and guitar as they do on later works.
DISCOGRAPHY PLUS SELECTED REVIEWS
1976 Discreet Music (Obscure)
1976 Music For Films (500 limited edition) (Virgin)
1977 Before And After Science (Virgin) 7/10
Arguably pop, arguably experimental, this album had quirky songs very much of the time - kind of cockney Roxy meets Sailor meets Talking Heads in places (only not as bad sounding!). Later tracks take on a more free-form feel and you can feel Japan must have listened to it at some point.
1978 Ambient 1: Music For Airports (Virgin) 9/10
Another of Eno's first forays into ambient with gentle piano, swirling vocals and low-key arrangements. One of those albums that can be enjoyed equally by paying attention to the close up detail or just letting the whole lot flow over you while you rustle something up in the kitchen. Influenced every ambient tech act of the early '90s and Budd and Foxx in the '80s.
1982 Ambient 4: On Land (Virgin) 8/10
Ambient 4 reached something of a peak and is usually regarded as Eno at his stripped-back best (although we'd argue that Apollo does the atmospheres with a greater melodic finesse). Indeed many of the tracks are so stripped-back you'd hardly know they're there. Artists featured on Ambient 4 include: Jon Hassell, Michael Brook, Daniel Lanois and Bill Laswell, all of who would go on to work on all sorts of similar projects (including works with David Sylvian) like some kind of rent-an-ambient crowd.
1983 Working Backwards 1973-83 [Brian Eno's 10-album vinyl box-set] (Virgin)
1985 Thursday Afternoon [compact disc only] (Virgin)
1986 More Blank Than Frank [cassette compilation] (Virgin)
1986 Desert Island Selection [CD compilation] (Virgin)
1992 Nerve Net (Warner Bros.) 7/10
Quite some attempt to get 'with it', some might say and there have been accusations that this is the album where Eno started to follow rather than be followed. However, there are glimpses of greatness here if you open your ears. The filtered and metallic effects employed in many cases were a few years before their time and while overdone were effective. It garnered much praise - Eno was at the top of his tree in terms of kudos then - although the backlash against it has been pronounced. As ever, it falls somewhere between, with experimentation levels as high as bandwagon jumping. A curio that demands more attention.
1992 The Shutov Assembly (Warner Bros.)
1993 Neroli (All Saint Records)
1996 Generative Music 1 [computer floppy disc only] (Sseyo)
1997 The Drop (All Saint Records) 6/10
The ambient tag was beginning to wear very thin by now with everyone having already ridden those laid-back beats with most having fallen or jumped by the late '90s. But actually this had far more than the ambient noodlings many criticised it for and, rather like Eno's earlier work, could be enjoyed on different levels. With so many other people experimenting with technology now available to the masses it was always going to be difficult for Eno to stand out but there are one or two great moments of success here.
1997 Lightness [installation soundtrack series] (Opal Ltd.)
1999 I Dormienti [installation soundtrack series] (Opal Ltd.)
1999 Kite Stories [installation soundtrack series] (Opal Ltd.)
2000 Music For Civic Recovery Centre [installation soundtrack series] (Opal Ltd.)
2001 Music For Compact Forest Proposal [installation soundtrack series] (Opal Ltd.)
2003 January 07003 (Opal Ltd.)
2003 Curiosities Volume 1 (Opal Ltd.) 7/10
The opening track is a frantic rhythmic affair that sounds like beats being mangled through a Kaoss Pad over a DX7 (and it probably is come to that). Further in and you get some odd-but-engaging vocal-based tracks and more dark, sparse instrumentals. It's about here then that we should come out with the stock 'not always a pleasurable experience but an interesting one' phrase but it's a bit more than that and, on tracks such as Circus Mathematics, Select A Bonk and the ambient (of course!) Groan Wash, a lot more than that. So much so that you start to wonder what these ideas would sound like as albums proper themselves.
1972 Roxy Music: Virginia Plain (Virgin)
1972 Roxy Music: Roxy Music (Virgin)
1973 Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure (Virgin)
1973 Roxy Music: Pyjamarama (Virgin)
COLLABORATIONS AND PRODUCTION
1976 801: 801 Live (Virgin)
1977 David Bowie: Low (RCA) 10/10
Eno and Bowie do the decent thing by splitting the album into one side of 'proper' songs and one side of experimental doodlings. Actually the latter is a whole lot more than that. Instrumental synth pop in places, shuffling electronica in others, this set a precedent bringing Eno's sound to a whole new audience. The last three tracks are like some kind of synth opera, but not in the Walter/Wendy Carlos definition thankfully. This was the kind of dark, futurist work that would launch a thousand Numans and is an essential purchase.
1979 David Bowie: Lodger (RCA) 7/10
If Low proved that Eno could do synths and pop (together and separately), Lodger proved Eno as the master producer who could make the most of a musician's 'sound' and skills. Rather than take over as he arguably did on Low (where he surely could have been listed as collaborator rather than producer), Eno takes the back seat on some songs, namely Fantastic Voyage and Boys Keep Swinging, letting Bowie do his thing. Mind you, his quirky arrangements are still there (African Night Flight and Yassassin) proving you can't keep a good Eno down...
1980 Harold Budd/Brian Eno: Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror (Virgin) 9/10
Future Music favourite and 'buddy nice bloke' Harold Budd's first collaboration with Eno carries on the superb treated piano (which would become Budd's trademark) from the first Ambient album. Thomas Newman must have listened to these kinds of things as a small child well before >Shawshank and American Beauty were written (probably) as they could back any contemporary 'arthouse' Hollywood film. If The Sun were to review this they'd of course have to say 'Buddy brilliant'.
1981 Brian Eno/David Byrne: My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (Virgin) 7/10
Perhaps it was that very Talking Heads-esque album Before And After Science that got these two together. Whatever, the results are one of the most talked about albums by obsessive Eno fans. They're likely to go all teary eyed as it basically contains elements of everything; world, electronics, experimentalism, mentalism... you name it. We're not sure which of Eno or Byrne gets overall control of the album but our money's on Byrne as the Heads sound is certainly all over it although Eno's quirks are also there...
1983 Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno: Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (Virgin) 10/10
From what we remember, this was produced for a BBC documentary but has now become a widely recognised landmark Eno recording. Run it alongside silent images of space stuff and you've got yourself the ideal chillout experience for 3am. This is masterful stuff, particularly An Ending (Ascent) which is still pawed over by TV execs to this day. 'Need a bit of atmos for some sci-fi/Panorama doc, get An Ending in there now!', they might say...
1984 Harold Budd/Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois: The Pearl (Virgin) 10/10
Budd and Eno reached a musical peak on this wondrous collaboration. The opener sets the scene for one of the most evocative works ever made [steady - Ed] although the mood is amazingly maintained throughout. It's treated piano again, but treated in such a way that grown men and the likes of Bernard Manning, Alistair Campbell, and US immigration officials could break down and cry within seconds of hearing it...
1988 Married To The Mob soundtrack: You Don't Miss Your Water (Warner Bros.)
1995 Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1 [with U2, Pavarotti, Howie B, and Holi] (Island)
2002 Brian Eno and Roger Eno: 18 Keyboard Studies (Opal Ltd.)