INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian JULY 10, 2006 - by Michel Faber
THE BIG CHILL
When you need someone to soundtrack your story set in the Arctic, who better than ambient king Brian Eno? Author Michel Faber celebrates a collaboration full of surprises...
Gleaming metal doors slide open noiselessly at the touch of a button, and I step into the secret subterranean studio of Brian Eno. The atmosphere is frigid, the light fluorescent and subdued. Professor Eno himself sits at a mixing console, his impassive cyborg face bowed down to the controls as his eerie synthesizer sounds float around the room. He does not acknowledge my arrival. I decide to wait until there's a suitable break in the music before disturbing his concentration. But the ambient meisterwerk goes on and on, and after thirty or forty minutes I venture a discreet cough.
Does this scenario sound plausible to you? If it does, you've obviously been reading too many music magazines. In reality, Brian Eno is one of life's great nature lovers and bon vivants. He craves sunshine, convivial company, good food, exercise. I'm just off for a few days to Northumberland (lambing on a friend's farm with my daughters), he emailed me once. Or he's rushing off to Brazil, or a Malaysian rain-forest, or his favourite Italian restaurant in Westbourne Grove. The pale complexion of his Roxy Music days is long gone; his tanned fifty-eight-year-old flesh makes him look like the proprietor of a vineyard.
My first contact with Eno was in 1996, when I wrote him a long letter care of Radio 3, not to tell him I was a fan of his music (I didn't mention it), nor to urge him to read my books (I hadn't yet published any), but to comment on some remarks he'd made in a radio programme on ethnomusicology. In a polite sort of way, I accused him of cultural hypermetropia and told him why. Evidently this was a welcome relief from the usual Mr-Eno-your-synth-solo-in-Virginia-Plain-changed-my-life-so-please-listen-to-my-demo letters he receives, because he wrote back and we had an interesting conversation about Christian psalm-singing in Cameroon and so forth.
Years later, when my door-stopper The Crimson Petal And The White came out, my publisher at Canongate, Jamie Byng - a mutual friend - told me that Eno adored it. I was bemused. Brian Eno adoring a nine-hundred-page Victorian novel? He'd never go near something like that, surely? But Brian is full of passions and predilections that don't conform to the Eno stereotype. And the fact that he lived just round the corner from the house in Notting Hill, London, where The Crimson Petal is set gave the book added resonance for him.
Since then, we've continued to correspond, by email, about culture and sound. I love his records as much as ever, but now I have the added pleasure of access to his wide-ranging intelligence, sense of humour and quirky humanity. It would be nice to meet in person more often than we do, but the logistics of getting from the Scottish highlands to west London limit our opportunities. On one occasion I descended on his studio with half-a-dozen footsore German journalists in tow (I'd been taking them on a Victorian tour of London, as part of my effort to promote The Crimson Petal), and he played them soothing generative music through the studio's multiple speakers while I read them a story. The fat lady from Berlin snoozed, Kofi the cat padded up and down the spiral staircase, and Eno heard me read aloud for the first time.
Fast forward to 2005, when I got an email from Eno entitled Chillout Music. Jamie Byng had told him there were plans for a CD of me reading my story The Fahrenheit Twins. He asked me whether I'd like to ... he didn't finish the sentence before I said: 'Yes.'
That yes referred to the challenge of composing music to accompany my text. It was indeed a marriage - or at least an engagement - made in heaven. The Fahrenheit Twins is a fable set in a sub-polar landscape of permanent snows and perpetual twilight. It concerns the earnest efforts of two very weird children, Marco'cain and Tainto'lilith, to invent a suitably powerful ritual for disposing of their dead mother. A horror-story scenario, perhaps, but it doesn't come across like a horror story. It's suffused with affection, humour and awe for the sheer beauty of the world. Brian was already hearing the soundtrack in his head. It could be like the wind, he mused, dying out sometimes, rising and falling...
A few weeks later, I'm ready to be recorded. Naively, I'd assumed that I would simply dictate my reading at home, into my trusty cassette deck, and mail the tape in a jiffy bag. Instead, I'm railroaded to London in person. The recording studio, 18D, belongs to John Reynolds, a friend of Eno's. It's a home studio, set up in an ordinary Notting Hill house, if any of the houses in Notting Hill can be called ordinary. An enormous dog wanders from room to room, its claws pattering on the burnished wooden floors. Reynolds makes us welcome with tea. I know him only as the drummer with Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart, not as the producer of a slew of best-selling Irish artists. I wish I'd done my Google homework before coming, but it's too late now.
I'm deposited on an impeccably non-creaky chair in the middle of a cosy room that one could easily imagine being used as a brothel bedchamber or an opium den. A large poster advertising Take Me To God by The Invaders Of The Heart lends an air of solemn exoticism. A lot of Wobble's stuff was recorded in this room, says Reynolds, and I picture Mr Wobble himself occupying my space, playing one of his trademark uterine basslines (boo-boo-boom, boo-boo-boom, boo-boo-boom) for Sinéad O'Connor or Natacha Atlas to straddle.
The microphone that hangs near my mouth is a big square thing, the sort that Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters might have crowded round for one of their 1940s radio broadcasts. Reynolds proudly confirms it's as old as it looks, and assures me it will make my voice sound superb. I have a cold and a ticklish throat, so I rather doubt it.
Mindful of the fact that the unabridged story is too long to fit into the running time of a CD, I've prepared a special edit. It works differently from the one in the book, focusing more on the atmospherics. It's still more than an hour long, though, so I'm worried my voice will give out before the finish. Sure enough, after a solid forty-five minutes of reading, my throat develops a burr and I have to interrupt the recording several times to cough. I rally somewhat by the end. Later, when I hear the results played back, I'm astonished. That big old The Andrews Sisters microphone really is a marvel. It captures rich timbres that escape the naked ear. Is this honey-toned voice really mine? Blimey, I suppose it must be. If William Hague had had the foresight to get his speeches recorded in Reynolds' studio, his political career might not have been such a disaster.
Reynolds and Eno congratulate me on a job well done. The rest is out of my hands. I go home to Scotland, while Eno (after various detours to China etc) starts working on the music. His idea to release our collaboration as a DVD with randomly morphing visuals (I don't really know if this is possible) proves a non-starter, and progress on the music is slow. His early drafts are, to my ears, too quiet, too reticent. In music-industry myth, Eno is the great meddler, dragging Talking Heads half-willingly in directions they weren't sure they wanted to go, forcing David Bowie's backing musicians to switch instruments and play random chords. The Brian I know is almost painfully polite and respectful. Let's have more of your music, Brian, and louder, is the theme of my feedback to him as he tinkers.
The final mix is something very special. As Eno described it in an email to me, it's a matter of stretching a small amount of sound to cover a whole polar ice-cap. It's very cold and white and swept like drifting snow... But there are delightful, subtle organic touches, too, like the ghostly cuckoo noises that tinge the air when Marco'cain and Taint'olith discover their mother's secret love nest. And I love the low, looming sounds that come up when the twins reach the ocean at last. I can't pretend to understand the cutting-edge technology that went into the making of these cool, exquisite noises, but I know what I like.
And I have promised myself that before the podcast of our collaboration goes out today, I will definitely Google the word podcast and find out what it means.