INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Guardian JANUARY 17, 2010 - by Paul Morley
ON GOSPEL, ABBA AND THE DEATH OF THE RECORD: AN AUDIENCE WITH BRIAN ENO
He's been a Roxy original, the inventor of 'ambient', Bowie's muse, the brain in Talking Heads and U2's 'fifth man'. Now Eno tells us where he's heading next.
When influential music website Pitchfork listed its hundred greatest albums of the 1970s - which in certain other lists is calculated to be the greatest decade for rock music - the modestly immodest, driven, musical non-musician Brian Eno was directly and indirectly involved in at least a quarter of them, including the number one, Low, on which he collaborated with a nomadic, post-Fame David Bowie and the producer Tony Visconti. As an intellectually mobile loner, scene-setter, systems lover, obstinate rebel, techno-prophet, sensual philosopher, courteous progressive, close listener, gentle heretic, sound planner, adviser explorer, pedant and slick conceptual salesman, and devoted fan of the new, undrab and surprising, wherever it fell between John Cage and Little Richard, or Duchamp and doo wop, or Mondrian and Moog, Eno busily and bossily remodelled pop music during the '70s. He looked at what The Velvet Underground, Can, Steve Reich and The Who had done, went forth and multiplied. Eno created an atmosphere, and helped determine what the history of electronic music was between the avant garde 1950s and the pop twenty-first century.
He demonstrated - as an abstract part of the early and surreal Roxy Music, the evocative Bowie Berlin trilogy "Heroes"/Low/Lodger, the nervy NY Talking Heads, as a floating collaborator with Nico, John Cale, Robert Wyatt, Cluster, Robert Fripp, Kevin Ayers, Jon Hassell and Harold Budd, as stern futurist mentor to Devo and Ultravox, as discerning curator of the beautifully conceived contemporary music label Obscure, as careful discoverer of the pulseless, wordless, eventless, timeless music he lovingly called "ambient" - that pop music was where you could be the kind of artist he wanted to be. In 1981, he designed the influential sound and content of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne - the prestigious culmination of his solo and group work in the 1970s, the studio combining of inner space, other worlds, random impressions, scrupulous visions, found sound, taped memories, cut-up text, stolen rhythms, daring edits, painted space, original borrowing, inquisitive permutations, mutant gospel and electronic interference. Then there was U2 and recently, as if relishing the snobbish horror of those who dismiss U2 as pompous irritants, he's attended to another ambitious four-piece male rock group with delusions of splendour, Coldplay, producing their last multi-million selling album and now, at the age of sixty-one, finishing their next. A mischievous ghost of the glammed up art pop star Eno that was first noticed as part of the theatre of Roxy Music now haunts the sound and image of the two biggest rock bands in the world who would claim to be, in fact, post-Eno as much as post-punk. Coldplay didn't really belong anywhere before Eno apart from inside their own success. Now they have attached themselves via Eno to a very particular history of avant pop practice. Eno himself is prone to chuckle good naturedly when faced with bemusement at his connection to Coldplay.
He stays behind the scenes, more likely to curate an art festival or present a public lecture on something to do with pleasure, beauty, atheism, perfume or nuclear disarmament than appear to have anything to do with rock or pop music. If Roxy Music are ever spotted together on stage, he will be somewhere else, searching for something new to astound him. Much, naturally, has changed since the volatile, fussy, sublime Eno of For Your Pleasure, Here Come The Warm Jets, Discreet Music, "Heroes" and Once In A Lifetime, but he's still talking about what he does, and why, working out his place, the place of art, the history of progress, the enigma of meaning, the mechanics of creativity, the mystery of aesthetics, reluctant to think too much about his past in case, as he says, he starts to feel "useless awe towards his former self" but politely prepared to look back at his work if he thinks someone might find it useful. When you meet him to discuss something or other to do with his always perfectly organised research and development thoughts about something or other, you arrive as he is finishing one conversation with someone about, say, how technology changes the way our brains work, and as you leave someone else is arriving for a conversation about, say, the shrinking divisions between art and science. Or how Jeremy Clarkson almost moved into the house next to his office which was previously owned by Jason Donovan.
I talked with him as part of a series of conversations that were filmed for a BBC Arena documentary.
ON TALKING: 1
"I heard a recording that had been made of me thirty-five years ago chatting with some friends and I thought the tape must have sped up because I sounded so fast. When others spoke, they were at a normal speed. It was me, I was speaking so fast. What I find both disappointing and reassuring is that I was saying exactly those things I will be saying today. I don't know what to make of that. A few different references, but the basic ideas haven't changed at all. No difference whatsoever! I suppose it's good to see I've been consistent as sometimes over the years it seems as though it's all been a bit incoherent, a bit of this, a bit of that, a while doing this, then one of those, followed by three of those. It seems all over the place when I'm doing it. Listening to me now talking then suggests there has been a pattern."
ON THE INTENSITY OF IDEAS
"If you grow up in a very strong religion like Catholicism you certainly cultivate in yourself a certain taste for the intensity of ideas. You expect to be engaged with ideas strongly whether you are for or against them. If you are part of a religion that very strongly insists that you believe then to decide not to do that is quite a big hurdle to jump over. You never forget the thought process you went through. It becomes part of your whole intellectual picture."
"If you think of the mid- to late-'50s, when all of this started to happen for me, the experience of listening to sound was so different from now. Stereo didn't exist. If you listened to music outside of church, apart from live music, which was very rare, it was through tiny speakers. It was a nice experience but a very small experience. So to go into a church, which is a specially designed and echoey space, and it has an organ, and my grandfather built the organ in the church where we went, suddenly to hear music and singing was amazing. It was like hearing someone's album on a tiny transistor radio and then you go and see them in a sixty-thousand-seater. It's huge by comparison. That had a lot to do with my feeling about sound and space, which became a big theme for me. How does space make a difference to sound, what's the difference between hearing something in this room and then another room. Can you imagine other rooms where you can hear music? It also made a difference to how I feel about the communality of music in that the music I liked the most, singing in church, was done by a group of people who were not skilled - they were just a group of people, I knew them in the rest of the week as the coal man and the baker."
"It was a dilemma for me at the end of my time at school. Am I going into music or painting? The Who were important to me when I was working out whether I would go into fine art or popular art. I felt they had found an important position between the two. Then The Velvet Underground came along and also made it clear how you could straddle the two somehow. It helped make my mind up to go into music."
"I came out of this funny place where I was interested in the experimental ideas of Cornelius Cardew, John Cage and Gavin Bryars, but also in pop music. Pop was all about the results and the feedback. The experimental side was interested in process more than the actual result - the results just happened and there was often very little control over them, and very little feedback. Take Steve Reich. He was an important composer for me with his early tape pieces and his way of having musicians play a piece each at different speeds so that they slipped out of synch.
"But then when he comes to record a piece of his like, say, Drumming, he uses orchestral drums stiffly played and badly recorded. He's learnt nothing from the history of recorded music. Why not look at what the pop world is doing with recording, which is making incredible sounds with great musicians who really feel what they play. It's because in Reich's world there was no real feedback. What was interesting to them in that world was merely the diagram of the piece, the music merely existed as an indicator of a type of process. I can see the point of it in one way, that you just want to show the skeleton, you don't want a lot of fluff around it, you just want to show how you did what you did. As a listener who grew up listening to pop music I am interested in results. Pop is totally results-oriented and there is a very strong feedback loop. Did it work? No. We'll do it differently then. Did it sell? No. We'll do it differently then. So I wanted to bring the two sides together. I liked the processes and systems in the experimental world and the attitude to effect that there was in the pop, I wanted the ideas to be seductive but also the results."
ON BEING LIKE NOTHING ELSE
"In my house in Oxfordshire, we have this big, beautiful Andrew Logan sculpture of a lovely Pegasus with blue glass wings. When I get a taxi from the station, a driver will always comment on it because it is so striking. What they often say is, 'What does that stand for then?' Or, 'What does that mean?', based on the idea that something exists because it has to tell you something, or it refers to something else, and I realise that this notion is foreign to me. The earliest paintings I loved were always the most non-referential paintings you can imagine, by painters such as Mondrian. I was thrilled by them because they didn't refer to anything else. They stood alone and they were just charged magic objects that did not get their strength from being connected to anything else."
"I belong to a gospel choir. They know I am an atheist but they are very tolerant. Ultimately, the message of gospel music is that everything's going to be all right. If you listen to millions of gospel records - and I have - and try to distil what they all have in common it's a sense that somehow we can triumph. There could be many thousands of things. But the message... well, there are two messages... one is a kind of optimism for the future rather than a pessimism. Gospel music is never pessimistic, it's never 'oh my god, its all going down the tubes', like the blues often is. Gospel music is always about the possibility of transcendence, of things getting better. It's also about the loss of ego, that you will win through or get over things by losing yourself, becoming part of something better. Both those messages are completely universal and are nothing to do with religion or a particular religion. They're to do with basic human attitudes and you can have that attitude and therefore sing gospel even if you are not religious."
ON THE synthesizer: 1
"One of the important things about the synthesizer was that it came without any baggage. A piano comes with a whole history of music. There are all sorts of cultural conventions built into traditional instruments that tell you where and when that instrument comes from. When you play an instrument that does not have any such historical background you are designing sound basically. You're designing a new instrument. That's what a synthesizer is essentially. It's a constantly unfinished instrument. You finish it when you tweak it, and play around with it, and decide how to use it. You can combine a number of cultural references into one new thing."
ON THE synthesizer: 2
"Instruments sound interesting not because of their sound but because of the relationship a player has with them. Instrumentalists build a rapport with their instruments which is what you like and respond to. If you were sitting down now to design an instrument you would not dream of coming up with something as ridiculous as an acoustic guitar. It's a strange instrument, it's very limited and it doesn't sound good. You would come up with something much better. But what we like about acoustic guitars is players who have had long relationships with them and know how to do something beautiful with them. You don't have that with synthesizers yet. They are a very new instrument. They are constantly renewing so people do not have time to build long relationships with them. So you tend to hear more of the technology and less of the rapport. It can sound less human. However! That is changing. And there is a prediction that I made a few years ago that I'm very pleased to see is coming true - synthesizers that have inconsistency built into them. I have always wanted them to be less consistent. I like it that one note can be louder than the note next to it."
ON THE NAMING OF THINGS
"A way to make new music is to imagine looking back at the past from a future and imagine music that could have existed but didn't. Like East African free jazz, which as far as I know does not exist. To some extent, this was how ambient music emerged. My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to, not because I wanted a job as a musician. I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist. It's like having a ready-made formula if you are able to read it. One of the innovations of ambient music was leaving out the idea that there should be melody or words or a beat... so in a way that was music designed by leaving things out - that can be a form of innovation, knowing what to leave out. All the signs were in the air all around with ambient music in the mid-1970s, and other people were doing a similar thing. I just gave it a name. Which is exactly what it needed. A name. A name. Giving something a name can be just the same as inventing it. By naming something you create a difference. You say that this is now real. Names are very important."
ON TALKING: 2
"I like to talk about all sorts of things. I've never seen the downside of it. I've never minded the egghead tag. It makes sense with my physiognomy anyway. I've fought for years the idea that rock and popular art is only about passion and fashion and nothing to do with thinking and examining and if you do think there is something suspicious about you."
"Instead of shooting arrows at someone else's target, which I've never been very good at, I make my own target around wherever my arrow happens to have landed. You shoot your arrow and then you paint your bulls eye around it, and therefore you have hit the target dead centre."
ON A CELEBRATION OF HUMAN FRAILTY
"The other day I heard a band who had the worst singer, the most out-of-time drummer and most out-of-tune guitarist I've ever heard on a professional record, and I thought, at last, the reaction against Pro Tools perfection has set in. A Pro Tools engineer would have sorted it all out, but this band was an actual celebration of human frailty. It was so rough it was really encouraging."
"In the '70s, no one would admit that they liked Abba. Now it's fine. It's so kitsch. Kitsch is an excuse to defend the fact that they feel a common emotion. If it is kitsch, you put a sort of frame around something - to suggest you are being ironic. Actually, you aren't. You are really enjoying it. I like Abba. I did then and I didn't admit it. The snobbery of the time wouldn't allow it. I did admit it when I heard Fernando; I could not bear to keep the secret to myself anymore and also because I think there is a difference between Swedish sentimentality and LA sentimentality because the Swedish are so restrained emotionally. When they get sentimental it's rather sweet and charming. What really got me with Fernando was what the lower singer was doing, I don't know her name. I spent months trying to learn that. It's so obscure what she's doing and very hard to sing. And then from being a sceptic I went over the top in the other direction. I really fell for them."
ON FRANK ZAPPA
"Zappa was important to me because I realised I didn't have to make music like he did. I might have made a lot of music like he did if he had not done it first and made me realise that I did not want to go there. I did not like his music but I am grateful that he did it. Sometimes you learn as much from the things you don't like as from the things you do like. The rejection side is as important as the endorsement part. You define who you are and where you are by the things that you know you are not. Sometimes that's all the information you have to go on. I'm not that kind of person. You don't quite know where you are but you find yourself in the space left behind by the things you've rejected."
ON WORKING WITH U2 AND COLDPLAY AT THE SAME TIME
"It was fine. A few jokes. I felt like a philanderer who was with another woman and might make a slip and call her by the wrong name in bed. I had one computer that had all of the Coldplay stuff and all the U2 stuff. I had to very carefully label each folder because I was paranoid that I might end up with the same basic track for each group and I wouldn't notice until it was too late. There was a chance the same track might have appeared on both albums."
"Bono commits the crime of rising above your station. To the British, it's the worst thing you can do. Bono is hated for doing something considered unbecoming for a pop star - meddling in things that apparently have nothing to do with him. He has a huge ego, no doubt about it. On the other hand, he has a huge brain and a huge heart. He's just a big kind of person. That's not easy for some to deal with. They don't mind in Italy. They like larger-than-life people there. In most places in the world they don't mind him. Here, they think he must be conning them."
ON REPORTING IN THE 1990s THAT THERE WAS TOO MUCH MUSIC BEING RELEASED AND HE WAS NOT GOING TO ADD TO IT ANY MORE
"I didn't think it through to be honest."
ON THE END OF AN ERA
"I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn't last, and now it's running out. I don't particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you'd be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate - history's moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it."