INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Independent NOVEMBER 1, 2005 - by Fiona Sturges
BRIAN ENO: THE PROFESSOR OF POP
Brian Eno's reputation as the egghead of contemporary music precedes him. But while he can explain the links between architecture and doo-wop, he doesn't have a clue how to write a hit, he tells Fiona Sturges.
I meet Brian Eno, AKA the brainiest person in pop, at his studio in a smart West London mews house, a vast yet hospitable space full to bursting with guitars, computers, keyboards and endless expanses of bookshelves. Among the more peculiar decorative touches are a series of old-fashioned ghetto-blasters, mounted on the walls with chains, and a cluster of large painted-polystyrene rocks. A long crushed-velvet coat hangs over the back of a chair, a reminder of its owner's tenure as the flamboyant synthesizer wizard in Roxy Music. At once chaotic and ordered, the studio is the ultimate reflection of the mind of the man popularly known as Professor Eno.
We are here to talk about his thirteenth solo album, Another Day On Earth. It is a remarkable work, not least because it is his first collection of fully formed songs since 1974's Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). While the distorted instrumentals and shuffling rhythms echo ambient works such as Another Green World, there are also sweeping choruses and pop melodies. In the opening track This, Eno questions his place on the planet amid twitchy techno beats, while the new single How Many Worlds finds him reflecting on our little world turning in the blue. His voice then gives way to a string-laden instrumental passage of astonishing beauty. It's very easy to make music nowadays, says Eno, smiling broadly and offering an unexpected glimpse of a gold tooth. Well, songs are very exposing; there's no technological solution to song-writing. It's no easier now than it was in Chaucer's day.
Eno left Roxy Music in 1973 after, famously, he found his on-stage thoughts drifting to his laundry. Nowadays pop music accounts for a relatively small portion of a working life which also takes in writing, visual art, and talks on such rarefied topics as the links between architecture and doo-wop.
Among artists there are people who are the explorers or the pioneers, and the settlers, Eno says. And those are both very important jobs, but my thrills come from the pioneering side. I thrive on the feeling of being where nobody's been before. I don't thrive on the feeling of exploiting the territory once I've got there.
While Eno has certainly risen to the song-writing challenge on Another Day On Earth, he has also been at pains to disguise his singing. Pop music has always thrived on the idea that the song is a projection of the ego of the person performing it, he explains. This is quite different from theatre, for example. You never go to the theatre and assume that person on stage is the playwright. You just assume that the playwright invents personas and they interact on stage. This is what I would like songs to be like, where it becomes clear that you are no longer saying, 'This is me expressing myself'. The last thing on Earth I'm interested in is expressing myself. That was one of the big red herrings of the romantic legacy of art, the idea that artists have something amazing inside them that they have to expose to the world. It's no wonder, given his reluctance to bask in the limelight, that Eno's greatest commercial success since Roxy Music has been as a producer rather than as an artist, helming key albums by Talking Heads, James and U2. Bono famously said: A lot of English rock'n'roll bands went to art school - we went to Brian.
That's not to suggest that Eno is averse to singing, though. He is part of an a cappella group that meets just for fun once a week. Over the years he has provided backing vocals on other people's records under such aliases as CSJ Bofop. More recently he has discovered a passion for Arabic pop and, earlier this year, appeared in St Petersburg and Moscow as a guest vocalist for the Algerian rai performer Rachid Taha. Later this month he will be reunited with Taha for a rare London show in association with the Stop The War Coalition.
Still, it is with an air of disenchantment that Eno talks about music. At this point in his career, mainstream approval is something he neither desires nor needs. He may be able to teach a musical illiterate how to knock up a computerised tune, but he admits he hasn't got a clue how to write a hit. He is constantly receiving music from aspiring musicians for his approval or collaboration. Of course, what people send me is very much like what I've done in the past, which is the last thing on earth I want to work on, he says, with a sigh. If only hip-hop bands would send me things - I'd be much more likely to work on that.
Now, he says, the focus has shifted to what he believes to be the worst possible place: television. Eno is despairing of this development, so much so that he no longer owns a television. I am a potential addict, he confesses. I know I would watch anything. I think the medium itself is so seductive. Just the passivity that it imposes on you, you don't even have to turn a page. And then of course there's the physical quality of the thing. The colour of the light is lovely. People have always liked sitting and looking at bright things, be it fireplaces or sunsets. It capitalises on their desire to be visually stimulated and their desire to be relax. Asked what he does to relax, Eno looks momentarily baffled. I do quite a lot of walking and cycling, he says, after a long pause. And gardening, if you call that relaxing.
It seems that even in his downtime Eno is afflicted by the same restlessness that shapes his working life. From his early collaborations with the likes of Robert Fripp, Robert Wyatt and John Cale, he has wilfully blurred the boundaries between different artistic mediums. While the moods and textures in his ambient works have often had a distinctively visual feel to them, his artwork has long utilised sound and light.
He has been devising a piece of artwork in preparation for a show in Europe. It's hard to describe, but it's basically a three-dimensional environmental piece with generative music. Generative music is something I'm very interested in - music that makes itself as it goes along, so it's always unique. I very much enjoy doing that. Most of the people who've seen it say, 'Well, I've never seen anything like this,' whether they like it or not, which can only be a good thing. To me, art is a bigger, more inclusive form as it takes in sculpture, painting, music and text. I have used scent in the past with these things, though it's more problematic. It's easy enough to make a smell but I find it's hard to get rid of it.
Eno's last public exhibit in Britain was at the Sonic Boom show on London's South Bank in 1999. He would like to exhibit more in this country, but says that he rarely gets invited. In England there's this slightly bureaucratic approach where things are either in the art world or in the pop world. Nobody quite knows where to locate this stuff.
Or perhaps it's just that they don't know quite where to locate Eno. Is he an artist? A musician? A cross-cultural theorist? He will, of course, be forever associated with ambient music, the medium that he invented in the late '70s on records such as the groundbreaking Music For Airports. At the time many derided the genre as designer muzak, though David Bowie liked it enough to hire Eno to create the atmospheric washes on Low.
When I ask what Eno regards as his job-description, he laughs dryly. People often ask me that question and I never know what to say. When I was living in New York and travelling to Toronto a lot I would just make up a new job every time I met someone on the plane. If I said I was a musician they would say, 'Do you know Elton John?,' and the conversation would be downhill from there. On one occasion I told this lady I was a patents attorney. She said, 'Wow, so am I. Who are you with?' I spent the next hour and a quarter pretending I was slightly deaf while I tried to think of an answer to all her questions.
Prior to releasing Another Day On Earth, Eno added political crusader to his list of occupations: he took to the campaign trail trying to persuade disaffected Labour supporters to switch allegiance to the Lib Dems in protest against the war in Iraq. It was, he says, a depressing experience and one that he's unlikely to be repeating.
You saw the unchangeable loyalty that people feel to parties, and how much it takes to change someone's opinion about something they've invested in. People are very unwilling to abandon a position they've held because they think it invalidates their history. I wish I could change that mindset. What this country needs is a good opposition. I don't want to be a bloody politician - but I just think everybody else is watching Celebrity Love Island. It's up to us few who haven't surrendered to television to say, 'Hold on, there's a world out here and it's going badly wrong. Do we want to continue to be proud little partners of a bunch of medieval rednecks or are we going to choose to do something about it?'
At this, Eno's assistant calls time on the interview. He has a lunch appointment, then some phone calls to make, after which he needs to get some work done in the studio. There is a request, too, for a copy of the interview tape. Not because I'm checking up on you, says Eno, as I leave. It's just that I talk at length and quite coherently, and all this stuff can be useful for future projects. In my experience, you never know where the next good idea is going to come from.