INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Garageband SEPTEMBER 2000 - by Garageband
Garageband: Welcome to garageband.com's live chat event! This month our guest of honor is Brian Eno! Brian has shaped the form of modern music, influencing genres from punk to techno to hip hop and new age. He glam-rocked as a member of Roxy Music and produced influential works with David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2. He is here today to answer your questions on the birth of modern music. Welcome, Brian!
Brian: Of course, I don't know any of the people who are calling in, and I don't know your particular interests, but I would like to state my particular interests. For me, the most exciting problem in music at the moment is also one of the oldest problems. What is it that humans specifically can do, which the technologies we create can't yet do? Of course, this translates itself into a problem of songwriting. Songwriting is the only thing I'm interested in, of course. But it is the one problem to which there have not been any interesting technological solutions. So, when I listen to people's tapes, I always ask myself, are there any interesting new solutions to the problem of songwriting?
Avatar-guest: Two questions. You have pushed bands like U2 into the BIG league with masterpieces like The Unforgettable Fire. Do you dream of doing it again soon? Second question. What types of effects would you typically use on Bono's voice or is this a trade secret?
Brian: The answer to the first question is, U2 has a new record coming out soon in which I hope you will find that they are pushed into another direction. Regarding Bono's voice, well the fact is that Bono likes singing in the control room, with the speakers as loud as are humanly bearable, so we end up using the cheapest microphones that you can get, which is the Shure 58, and we spend a lot of our time trying to defend his microphone against all the other noise in the room. With a singer like Bono, you don't need to do very much to the voice. Just a bit of compression.
plan9-guest: The new U2 project seems like a very BIG production - does this get in the way of the music creation process? How do you deal with the creative pressure that is placed on the band from internal and external sources?
Brian: The only interesting thing about production is trying to make the best music that you can imagine. That is always my only agenda. If I feel other considerations are getting in the way of that, I fight them. I consider that my position in such a project is to speak for quality. I consider that it is the job of other people to worry about how you sell the results. I also respect that talent! I just don't have it myself.
david: It appears that ambient music has gone in a different direction in the past few years, in that it has mutated into a form of club/dance music. Where is ambient going since something like your 1992 The Shutov Assembly?
Brian: Well, it's a little bit like having... suppose you were an astrophysicist, and you had a little child, and the child turned out to be a great swimmer, you would be a little bit surprised! Perhaps not disappointed. So, the seed called ambient, which I sowed in the late '70s, turned out to give rise to a lot of different plants. Some of which I don't really recognize as my own, but that's OK. I suppose I like a certain darkness to music, which perhaps is not everybody else's taste. I always want more darkness.
spam-guest: How did you first come to work with Roedelius and Moebius? And would you say that work influenced your work with Bowie on Low?
Brian: I met them in the mid-'70s, in Germany, when they were a band called Harmonia. We became friends, and as friends used to do at that time, we made a record together. I was very influenced by the German scene at that time, because I felt that there was a kind of rigor and discipline to that music that I personally enjoyed. I was especially keen on Can, and of course Kraftwerk, because I heard in them a sort of interesting alternative to the African root that most other music had taken. I like the fact that it was a music that seemed to come from Europe, rather from America. And I still like that. I'm pleased that the European infection that they represent has taken root in all forms of popular music.
babybluewheels-guest: Hi Brian. I've been enjoying your music for over 20 years. I don't know why, but I sense a rejuvenated interest in pop music from you. Is this true, and if so, what is triggering this happy rush?
Brian: Well, I've always liked pop music, it's not new for me to like it. This affection isn't new. I suppose that I was educated as a fine artist, but as time passed, I started to like more and more the things that came from the community of popular taste. I like things that grow from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.
aftersun-guest: Why has popular music taken such a turn for the worst? Why do the vast majority of people always ignore quality innovative music?
Brian: I don't think anything is any different from how it has always been. If you want to prove that statement, just look at the charts from twenty years ago, or thirty years ago, or at any point you choose. You will find in there two or three songs that you remember that are great songs, and then you will find thirty-seven songs that you remember as absolute crap. It has always been that way as far as I can tell. It's in the nature of a casual conversation, and pop music is a casual conversation. Most of what is said is forgettable, some of what is said is truly memorable, you need all the forgettable stuff, because it is the way in which the vocabulary is formed and exercised.
spam-guest: Are there any plans to re-master/re-release your 1970s catalog a-la the recent King Crimson reissues on Virgin? Perhaps throw in some bonus tracks?
Brian: Yes, Virgin are planning to start releasing those re-masters starting next year. With some previously unreleased tracks.
antoine_poncelet-gue: How do you think other forms of media influence modern music and songwriting?
Brian: Well, I know when I am working with people at the studio, I often draw their attention to films, or books, or television programs, to anything else that is going on, and say, why can't we make music like this? So I think what I'm doing when I do that is articulating the process that people do all the time. They look at one medium, and they look at the new possibilities that are opening in one medium, and then they think, why can't we do that in our medium?
boram-guest: I've heard the thirty second clips of the songs on All That You Can't Leave Behind and they are spectacular. It seems that you and Lanois are the magic touch. Coming from a very different angle than Danny's, how do you manage to work together? Have you ever had a major disagreement with him on the making of this album?
Brian: We have a very good working relationship, because we have an area of overlap which is that we both respond to the same thing in music, and that thing is passion. We both want to hear something deep in music. However, we both get to that in completely different ways, and in these ways we don't overlap at all. I was trying to explain this to somebody the other day, and I said, you have to imagine Danny is like the train driver, he will keep the train running, in the most difficult circumstances. I'm like the guy who operates the switches on the track, so I'm much more likely to say no, I think it should go in a completely different direction. So these are two separate talents, to be able to put something in a different direction, and to be able to keep something running, those are two different talents. When those two talents are combined, that's a very strong medicine.
toni-guest: What did you think of the film, Velvet Goldmine? What was your involvement in it?
Brian: I had no involvement in it. They used some of my music, which I was very pleased about. Well, it's very funny, looking at a period of history that you were intimately involved with, as seen through the eyes of somebody who wasn't. Of course, they miss out all the boring parts, of course no one remembers the boring parts! So in that sense, history is always a distortion. In that it just sees the highlights. It's a little like looking at a Raphael painting, and seeing only the little touches of white that he added after all of his assistants had filled in the background. But I think that is the process of history. It leaves out the everyday experience of somebody. For example, my strongest recollection of that period is not the fabulous stage clothes that we wore, but how much they stank after two months on tour!
estlin-guest: I believe I read in your diary that you were beginning to believe that background vocals could solve anything. I think that's the thing I struggle most with is coming up with good background parts. Any suggestions?
Brian: Well, ask me! That's my method, that's my strongest point, I think. Background vocals. I was just saying to a friend this evening, I was having dinner with someone in Frankfurt, where I am now, and I said I think I would be happy if I was never asked to do anything else but arrange background vocals for people. When I'm doing that, I feel as if I'm possessed by some other personality. I don't know where these ideas come from, and I feel like another person when I'm doing them. When you are trying to speak about background vocals, you have to think, what role are these vocals supposed to play? So I can suggest a few roles. One is the voice of society. An example of that is in the Shangri-La's song, Is She Really Going Out With Him? I don't know, let's ask her! So in that case, the background vocalist is in the counterpart to the main voice, it's another opinion. It is outside the head of the singer. It's a comment on the singer's position. Another role for the background vocal is the voice of conscience. So the singer is saying, this is what I am thinking, and the background vocals are saying, this is what you know is really true. So I'm always thinking of background vocals as the possibility of another voice in the song, another point of view.
hanil-guest: Many imaginative recording artists/producers make quite good chefs, IMHO. Would you ever consider working on and publishing a cookbook?
Brian: I'm quite a good cook! But my style of cooking is let's see what's in the kitchen, and think of something imaginative to do with it. Which is exactly the same idea one has as a producer. So as a producer you say, let's see what is in the studio, who's there, what they can do, what tools we have available, and let's see what we can do with it. The other way of being a chef or a cook, which is not the way I like, is to have a recipe, to get all the things that the recipe suggests. To carefully measure them out, follow the programme, and then to end up with the expected dish. That's sort of the opposite of what I do. Both as a cook and as a producer. I like the chemistry of the present moment, and that chemistry has as much to do with the limitations of the present moment as with its strength.
Later: My question is, do you think a more organic backlash to programmed music is inevitable (i.e. 'song' structure vs. 'linear' grooves a la current dance music)? PS. Do you still use Oblique Strategies?
Brian: There is always an interesting tension in pop music between linear, groove-based music, and shall we say harmonic, chord-based music. The first kind is very satisfying, because it has a lot of forward energy, and it's relatively easy to make in the sense that it gives you the chance of immersing yourself in a particular musical landscape, and really exploring the details of that landscape. The second kind, however, the chord-based kind of music, song-ish music, if you'd like, allows a much more interesting geography for a singer. It allows much more adventure for a singer to embark upon. So, this distinction pretty much divides current music, I think.
Although this distinction is blurred, there are two kinds of music. There is groove-based music, which is the kind of music that computers tend to produce, because it is easy for them to do that, and there's chord-based music, which guitar players tend to produce, because they like moving their fingers around. The interesting future for me is when these two things reconcile, and one good example of that, I think, as a matter of fact, where you get all the energy and the strange space of groove-based music plus the ability to support an interesting singing adventure.
I still like Oblique Strategies, and I still keep adding to them. And I am planning, soon, to publish the fifth version of them.
martin-guest344: First saw you live with Roxy in the '70s. Have you ever worked with or considered working with Philip Glass?
Brian: I've known Philip Glass since the '70s, actually. But we've never worked together. And I suppose it's because the interesting reason for working with people is when they do something that you couldn't do yourself, so there has to be some overlap of territory, but also a fairly big difference in territory. And perhaps we didn't feel there was enough difference for that to be a fruitful event.
jdk-guest: Interested in alternative ways of getting a group mind-set for both studio and live improvisation - Oblique strategies, games, etc. Do you have other suggestions?
Brian: Well, I published a book about five years ago which was my diary for the year 1995, and in the back of that, I included some role playing games that David Bowie and myself used in some of our recording sessions. Those are, I think, worth looking at if you want to think of some new ways of creating different mental conditions for recording in. But there are other techniques as well. For instance, starvation, sleeplessness, extreme financial pressure, social oppression, the very strong desire to change the world, all of those can create a group mind-set.
estlin-guest: Do you have a favorite project you've worked on? Also, what is out there now that inspires you?
Brian: One of the favorite projects I worked on was my own record On Land. I mean, I hate to blow my own trumpet here, but that record really, for me, stands alone, I don't know anything else like it. And I made it in a mood of complete isolation. I had no idea at all whether anybody in the world would be interested in this music. In fact, I really thank Robert Quine, who was the guitar player in The Void Oids, who was the first person who heard this music, who said, it's great! That's the first inkling I had that anybody else might find it at all interesting. So, I suppose that project means a lot to me because I know it came from me. It was like that story of the Ugly Duckling, which one day said, I am a swan!
Digital_Angel-guest: Since you were one of the originators of electronic music, what do you think of the electronic music being produced today, from the dance stuff to things like Nine Inch Nails?
Brian: Well, I'm very flattered to be called one of the originators of electronic music, but I think that I should point out that there were people doing it before me! From Edgar Varese to Jimi Hendrix, there was a lot of it about. I think there is some fabulous stuff going on, and I am particularly keen on the kind of music where people start to use the failures of digitalism as the language of their music. The sorts of distortion that are characteristic of digital equipment, for example. But as I said in the introduction, to me, the most interesting problem doesn't have to do with electronics, electronics is sort of easy for me. What's really hard, what's really interesting, though it is very old fashioned, is songwriting. That's the tough nut to crack.
MR_Soffil-guest: Speaking of new things, do you have any desire to take the ambient/space music concept into the realm of Mind Synch technology? What I refer to is creating a 'score' that is linked to a light synching brain wave system. You know those 'masks w/earphones' in the sharper image catalogue, that flash lights in synch to brain waves, etc...?
Brian: My experience with such technology, which is quite an extensive experience, is that they are so far very uninteresting. Because the relationship between what the eye does and what the ear does, for example, are very complex. They don't translate linearly, and they don't translate in any simple fashion at all. For example, you might decide to organize the notes of the scale as different colors, let's say, to represent the notes of the scale by different colors. If you do that, the melody will manifest as a sequence of color experiences. The only thing I can guarantee for sure is that the emotional experience of those colors will have no discernible connection whatsoever of those notes.
So, the problem with those kinds of translations is that they aren't really translations. They are translations at the most basic level. It's a little bit like saying every four letter word will be represented by a loud sound. So, in that sentence, the word love and the word kill and the word dial and the word link would all have the same value. Whereas a person knows in any meaningful sense, they don't have the same value. So, this is a whole long answer, but basically, I have no faith in these technologies. But I am willing to keep looking at them.
scotchy-guest: What do you think of the use of loops in modern music? Do you use any computer programs to help create layers of music when you produce? And would you ever consider letting someone use a loop from your music - say, from Warm Jets in their tunes?
Brian: I'm slightly bored with that. There was a time when I really loved that kind of repetition. And I loved it better than hearing a musician play the same thing over and over. This was during my German period in the '70s. Then I discovered that I liked hearing, I preferred hearing, what happens when a human being tries to act like a loop. I liked hearing the way they failed. Well, people have used loops from my music. I don't really think about it.
spam-guest: What was the inspiration for the lyric to Burning Airlines Give You So Much More?
Brian: That lyric started out as Turkish Airlines Give You So Much More. I wrote that song just after the crash of Turkish Airlines DC-10 outside Paris. Someone left the cargo door open on the plane, and there was depressurization, and they ended up in a field outside of Paris. This is all history to me, I don't think about it. I write songs, they are like conversations I have with myself, after, I can't remember much about them. I just remember a feeling. It is the feeling I remember of that, that someone from our world, from the West, shooting across China in a plane. And meanwhile, down below, in a rice paddy, is some old guy with long moustaches, thinking about the things that humans have been thinking about for the last 5,000 years. And, I think that was what that song was about, the difference between flying at speed through the modern world, which is the same world that this man inhabits.
Michael_Benson-guest: Brian, I'm wondering when we'll see a new release from you. It seems there has been a real scattering of interesting limited release material - white cubes (Come to think of it, I wonder if Apple stole that idea? But their cube is allegedly silent), double CD theater music import-only's from Japan, etc. But what about a more widely-released work, whether ambient or (maybe I shouldn't go there) vocal?
Brian: Yep. Well I should go there. I am working on something new, and something vocal. But, since I have set myself some very interesting problems of revolutionizing songwriting, it is taking me a little time to do it! But anyway, thank you for asking about it, thanks for reminding me that is what I ought to be doing.
estlin-guest: Do you think that music has a responsibility to culture and society? Or is it all art for art's sake?
Brian: That's a very deep question. Because those two things may not be opposed. You know, one of the interesting things about mathematicians, I mean research mathematicians, is that they work in the most obscure and archaic areas of number theory, which often have no imaginable connection to any human concern whatsoever. And then, it always turns out, twenty years later, or two hundred years later, that their mathematics have a way of solving a problem we really want to solve. Those people are just doing math for math's sake, and in that respect, a lot of the more obscure things that artists do often seem to connect in a very strange way with the things that people need to help them think their way through, FEEL their way through, the new world.
My problem with artists in general, myself included, is that we don't feel sufficient responsibility to articulate what we are doing and why we are doing it. We are lazy. We are incoherent. We are over-romantic. We love the image of ourselves as incandescent balls of passion, burning a hole through a world of bureaucracy. I hate that image! We've really got to start taking ourselves more seriously. Which is to say, we've got to start trying to figure out what it is we are about. This means asking a very difficult question. That is, what is the point of art? Why do people want it? What difference does it make to their lives? We need to ask that question because we can't coast along any more on the assumption that because we are artists we are automatically important. Perhaps we are not. Or, if we are, in which way are we?
Garageband: Brian, thank you for being here today. What final thoughts would you leave with the audience?
Brian: I just told you, those were my final thoughts! I can't think of any better ones than that.
Garageband: Thanks for spending some time with garageband.com Advisory Board member Brian Eno. Come check out the other pro producers and engineers who use garageband.com as the best place to check out the world's best new unsigned bands, at www.garageband.com/htdb/advisoryboard/index.html.