INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Guardian APRIL 17, 2015 - by Luke Turner
ENO MEETS EAST INDIA YOUTH: "I FIND SONGS SUCH A TIRED FORMAT"
One is electronica's elder statesman, the other a rising Mercury-nominated rising star. We brought them together to discuss technology, beauty and bananas.
Brian Eno and William Doyle only met for the first time an hour ago but are already debating which of them is the least proficient songwriter. "I increasingly see myself as a non-musician," claims twenty-four-year-old solo artist Doyle before Eno interrupts: "Not as much as me, mate. I'm a worse musician than you." This summit on musical failure is taking place in Eno's studio in Notting Hill, shortly before the release of Culture Of Volume, Doyle's second album as East India Youth. The record combines classic English electronic pop reminiscent of the Pet Shop Boys with strange, experimental diversions, a very contemporary take on how Eno's early solo albums combined wistful songwriting with inspiration from the avant garde.
After hearing rumours of mutual appreciation, The Guardian decided it was worth getting the cross-generational musicians together in the same room. Both men are instantly at ease with each other, and they lark around for the photographer with a giant spanner and a toy that's half-pistol and half-penis. It swiftly becomes evident, however, that they have more in common than an appreciation for Eno's studio tat.
Since he first appeared with a ludicrous mullet and spangly jumpsuit as synth player for Roxy Music in the early 1970s, Eno has advocated the idea that those without technical musical ability can potentially write the better songs. "What's interesting about non-musicians is that they don't know what shouldn't be done," he says. "I find I get a lot of ideas from seeing the things tools can do that they weren't supposed to do." It's an ideology that's neatly mirrored by East India Youth in the opening lyric of Culture Of Volume: "The end result is not what was in mind," he sings. Doyle, whose non-musician credentials include a proud fail at Grade 5 music theory, adds that: "Building in the margin for error, and making the decision to make that a part of your music, is really important."
As well as sensing a shared intellectual approach to music-making, according to Eno, it was the difference between East India Youth's occasionally austere electronic backing tracks and his way with a pop vocal melody that pricked his ears when he first heard him a few years ago. "I think it's a thrill to hear the contrast between the expressionless and grid-like with a beautiful voice over it," he says. "It shows up the vulnerability. That's definitely something I hear in Will's music. The arpeggiators he's using are very mechanical, but that makes the singing much more touching."
Eno saw Doyle play live for the first time at London's Bush Hall in April 2013, before the release of East India Youth's Mercury prize-nominated debut album Total Strife Forever. He'd done a spot of pre-gig shopping at a favourite Syrian supermarket and ended up leaving a bag of groceries with a friend so he could hotfoot it down to the stage to dance: "I didn't want to walk to the front with a bag of bananas; that's the sort of thing people comment on." Doyle interjects: "Eno's gone bananas!"
Eno has been an inspiration to William Doyle from the moment that, aged fourteen, he discovered Eno's 1978 ambient album Music For Airports. "It chimed with me straight away," he explains. "I'd just started making music with a computer and I wonder if the two things are connected." Eno's 1975 album Another Green World, which Doyle refers to as one of his favourites of all time, was next, before the former Roxy man's collaborations on David Bowie's so-called Berlin trilogy of albums opened the floodgates to everything else. "We're surrounded by Eno's work," says Doyle. "He's absolutely curious about everything, and he's probably had more influence on popular music than anyone still alive."
It's not just Eno's formidable back catalogue of solo material, collaborations and production that continues to inspire a new generation. Over the years, he's championed younger artists, such as involving Jon Hopkins in studio sessions with Coldplay and mentoring experimental musician Ben Frost on a 2010 project in Iceland. Unlike many other music veterans, who have a tendency to look back with rose-tinted glasses on the golden age of their youth, Eno is satisfyingly upbeat about the present. "Everything is fucking miles better!" he exclaims. "It's such a fertile period, there's such a lot going on; it's fantastically refreshing."
It's hard not to be swept along by Brian Eno's enthusiasm for new music and ways of unlocking creativity. You don't even require an invitation to his studio to benefit, as since 1975 he has been producing Oblique Strategies cards intended to help artists overcome creative impasses. These feature commands such as "Emphasise difference" and more philosophical questions such as "What would your closest friend do?" to encourage lateral thinking.
Doyle was particularly inspired by one card featuring the statement "Gardening not architecture", something that informs his creative process as East India Youth to this day. "People have the misconception that electronic music is architecture but it's not, or it doesn't have to be," he explains of how it doesn't just have to be about stark lines and rigid structures. "I'm definitely working with that in mind the whole time."
Eno agrees: "It's the difference between folk and classical music; classical is architecture. What we do is more like planting seeds, we get something going and then it takes us somewhere."
Over the course of an hour or so, their conversation wanders between the light installations Eno is making for hospitals, the rhythms of krautrock, further issues with classical music (described as "dead" by Eno) and why excessive "turd-polishing" frequently ruins records. There's a difference, though, in how perceptions of electronic music have changed over the years. Doyle says that listeners seem surprised at the emotion in his work. "People always want to know: 'How do you get the human element to it?' Well, I guess because I'm making it," says Doyle.
"I am a human, by the way!" says Eno in an faux-indignant tone, going on to explain that when he first got to grips with recording studios, the new-found technological possibility to sound inhuman was actually rather exotic. "I loved the fact that you could have a drumkit with no expression," he recalls. "No fucking cymbals, no rolls, just 'doof'. We'd had too much human at that point. It wasn't bad to have a bit of a change."
With a few minutes remaining before Eno has to leave with a bag of watercress for a dinner party, he has his recording engineer cue up a work in progress, one of a new series of "3D songs" named after extinct gods. Eno explains: "I find songs such a tired format, I'm always trying to find new things that you can do with them."
A great crumbling drone starts booming around the studio from a dozen or so speakers of differing sizes. Eno hands Doyle a guitar. He starts picking out notes as Eno lies on the floor, trapping fractions of guitar sounds with a Freeze pedal before adding them to the cacophony in the room. As a first collaboration between two artists separated in age and experience by four decades, it's rather impressive. Will there be more? As we leave, Eno unearths a bottle of wine from a rack piled with old stereo systems and bids Doyle farewell with an invitation to come back to the studio.
He grins and says: "I'm sure we'll have lots of fun."
Culture Of Volume is out now on XL.