INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Guardian JUNE 7, 2005 - by Alexis Petridis
EVERYONE IS ENTERTAINED TO DEATH
Brian Eno, AKA the brainiest person in pop, tells Alexis Petridis why his attempts to oust the Prime Minster were destined to fail.
The interviewer who feels slightly intimidated by the prospect of meeting Brian Eno is unlikely to be much reassured by the west London studio where, according to the diary he published in 1994, rock music's most celebrated intellectual regularly starts work at 4am. The problem is not the room itself. On the contrary, it is vast and light and welcoming, rather whimsically decorated with a series of ghetto-blasters attached to the walls by chains, a mirrored disco-ball hanging from the ceiling and a collection of foreign cigarette packets on a bookshelf: brand names include the promising-sounding Double Happiness and the more troubling Mania.
The problem lurks among the series of whiteboards propped against the bookshelf. Some merely contain the kind of things you would expect to see in the workspace of the man that journalist and broadcaster Stuart Maconie dubbed Professor Eno - From Hydrogen to Emergence reads one, above a diagram of something impenetrable. Another, which carries a list of Eno's appointments, is more worrying. It's not so much seeing your own name there, with the time of the meeting and its purpose meticulously noted in different coloured markers, but seeing the company it keeps. There's a lunch with Tom Stoppard. A dinner with Paul Simon. A meeting with Anita Roddick. Somehow, you get the impression that your interview might not be the highlight of an otherwise dull week.
Famously well-connected in the way that only someone who both produced U2's breakthrough album and recently lectured on Einstein's special theory of relativity can be, Eno has expanded his circle of contacts into ever more surprising areas over the past year. He produces a minidisc recorder, with which he intends to tape the interview. It's not because I'm going to check up on you, he says, it's a way I have of writing things. Because I speak fairly coherently, it's not difficult to transcribe them and you don't have to do much to make them print-worthy.
He removes a disc and hands it to his assistant. Can you label that one Frederick Forsyth? he asks. The thriller writer has become an ally in Eno's ongoing crusade to unseat the Prime Minister. They first met as part of the motley collection of public figures brought together in the Impeach Blair campaign: I thought it was a brilliant collection of people, actually, he protests. Corin Redgrave, Frederick Forsyth, Harold Pinter, Ian McEwan. The MPs were quite an interesting lot as well - Boris Johnson. You've got to pay attention when that group of people decide to go into a room together.
Forsyth managed to persuade Reg Keys, whose son was among the British soldiers killed in Iraq, to stand against the PM in his Sedgefield constituency. He came up to Sedgefield to speak on behalf of Reg Keys, says Eno. The disc I just took out of here was a recording of what he said, which was just brilliant. I'll do the first line for you, because I've heard it a few times. His voice takes on a strident, declamatory tone. 'Men. Women of Sedgefield. I am not of you. And you are not of me. I am from the south. And you are from the north. From the kingdom of Durham. Home to the Prince Bishops.' It was a fabulous speech. It really was like a Shakespearian speech, fifteen minutes long. I transcribed it afterwards, for our website, and the only thing I took out was a single 'um'. It was amazing.
Eno's own experience of canvassing in Sedgefield was more disheartening. He went knocking on doors in support of Reg Keys, and people pretended to be out. This must have been a novel experience for someone who has spent the past four decades being sought out and feted by everyone from the world's biggest rock bands to the Getty Museum, who apparently wanted his thoughts on how best to store their long-term collection.
I felt like a Jehovah's Witness actually, he says. In fact, I looked like one, because I had this black coat on - I must show it to you. He rushes behind the bookcase and emerges wearing a nondescript raincoat. I must say, if I saw myself knocking on the door wearing this, I probably wouldn't answer either. That may have been a mistake, but I didn't want to wear pop star clothes. I thought, that would really piss me off, if I was somebody in a house in Sedgefield, and some pop star comes knocking on my door. Of course, there were a few interesting conversations, but it was mostly extremely discouraging, in the sense that you thought: nobody cares at all about this. Did anybody come to the door and go, Bloody hell, you're Brian Eno? No. Nobody recognised me at all. I didn't think anybody would. It wasn't that kind of neighbourhood, you know.
He thinks the problem is that everybody is entertained to death. There's so much entertainment going on, there's so much to distract yourself and it all looks so much more interesting than politics. He doesn't own a television. I gave it up because I'm a potential addict. I know that if I had a television in my flat I would convince myself that everything on it was really interesting. I would say, 'I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here! is so sociologically fascinating that I think I'd better watch.' If I just start grazing, I'll graze forever. He grins a charming grin that reveals a gold tooth near the front of his mouth: a solitary, incongruous hint of bling in an otherwise sober ensemble of dark suit and cropped hair.
At fifty-seven, he has aged with more dignity than anyone who saw him in his brief but glorious reign as Roxy Music's glam era synthesizer wizard - a vampy transsexual jester in black ostrich plumes and heavy purple eye-shadow, as one history of glam rock put it - might have expected.
When I started out in music, people couldn't resolve the image with the fact that I was articulate, that I liked talking about ideas, he says. OK, here's this guy who looks like this, but he talks like that. He's supposed to be a rock musician, why's he so bloody brainy and worthy? At that time, part of the idea of the rock musician was 'I am pure unchannelled passion', The Rolling Stones idea that it just possesses you and comes out of you and you don't know where it comes from and you don't even want to know. But I did want to know - that was part of what I was interested in it for. So now, because we have that phrase, Professor Eno, egghead, everybody thinks, oh that's him, of course he would talk like that, wouldn't he? I feel very happy with that description.
Nevertheless, Eno's new album, Another Day On Earth, harks back to his past, if only by dint of the fact that it is the first time he has released an album entirely comprised of songs since 1974's Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). His decision seems to have been prompted less by reasons of nostalgia - a huge chunk of his remarkable back catalogue was reissued last year, but he declined to give interviews to promote it - than by a declining interest in the instrumental ambient music he invented in the late 1970s.
I started to notice that you could buy keyboards of such complexity that you basically press one note on them and you've got a career as an ambient artist. I thought, there doesn't seem much challenge in that any longer. Instead, he says, he has been trying to rethink the way songs are written. His voice on the album comes laden with effects, in an attempt to break down the idea that the voice represents the personality of the music and that that voice is my voice, speaking to you - I hate that idea.
He is also working on an extremely complicated-sounding machine that can generate song lyrics, with a friend of mine who's actually one of the world's leading computer scientists, so we might come up with a solution. Like most of his ideas it sounds fascinating, but not all of them have taken off. In the early 1990s, he confidently predicted that pop would soon be overtaken by self-generating music, made by computers with the minimum of human input. When the subject arises, he briefly brandishes his iPod - It lets an environment randomly create itself out of elements that I've chosen, I'd call that generative - then concedes: It hasn't happened as quickly as I expected, but then again ambient didn't happen as quickly as I expected. If you remember, it was a dirty word for about ten or fifteen years, whereas I thought, 'Everybody will catch on to this, it's so obvious, I'll be redundant and have to think of something else to do.' I'm sort of waiting for generative to catch up, but I think it is.
In the meantime, he has a new idea. I think we're about ready for a new feeling to enter music. I think that will come from the Arabic world. I just bought this record the other day, I don't even know the name of the artist, because I can't read Arabic. I heard it in a newsagent around the corner and thought, wow, this is the most sophisticated production. It's completely commercial, totally Arabic and totally viable for this world, just like the blues completely suffused the music of the early 1960s, woke it up and got it out of Cliff Richard and all this sort of thing and made it kind of dirtier and rougher and more lively and sexy. I think Arabic music is a similar prospect. He grins again. I'd love it if American kids were listening to Muslim music. Wouldn't that piss their parents off?
Another Day On Earth is out on June 13 on Opal.