INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Janturan AUGUST 23, 2016 - by Ramona Jan
MOTHER WHALE EYELESS: IN AND OUT OF THE STUDIO WITH BRIAN ENO
The night before we were scheduled to work together, I attempted to introduce myself to Eno at Max's Kansas City. It was a highly unpleasant meeting. Eno was sitting with Robert Fripp and I was sitting with my then boyfriend, Tom. We were all there to see a band called Monsters From Detroit. It was Tom who insisted I introduce myself - not something I would normally do and yet under pressure from the boyfriend I eventually walked right up to Eno, extended my hand, and said, "Hi! I just want to introduce myself. I'm Ramona and I'll be working with you tomorrow at Mediasound." Eno and Fripp exchanged glances, rolled their eyes and looked away - neither one of them shook my hand or said a word! I left the table embarrassed and somewhat aghast. The next day, while setting up for the session, Eno walked into the control room and stopped dead in his tracks, "It's you!" he said, "You're the girl who came up to me last night!" I duly gave him the cold shoulder because I only worked with chart topping stars and who the fuck was Brian Eno anyway? "But there are no female recording engineers," he stammered. I smirked and looked away. Eno began apologizing repeatedly then asked where he could wash his feet. That's when I noticed he was carrying his shoes and that he was actually barefoot. He told me that he'd just walked from 8th Street to West 57th without shoes because his feet were hot. I had to turn my head so he wouldn't see my grin. From that moment on, I knew we were kindred spirits. (I also had to arrange Eno's foot bath in Joel Rosenmann's third floor office because the bathrooms were still such a mess from the Phillips/Richards sessions).
I worked with engineer Ed Stasium and Eno on Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings And Food, specifically the track Found A Job, as well as Eno's Ambient Music 1 and 2. Stasium often started the sessions with spot on imitations of Steve Martin complete with the construction of balloon animals causing me to think that perhaps he missed his calling as a stand-up comedian.
From time to time, Eno, gamesman of the studio, liked to invent new and personal challenges for him to follow that always seemed to involve me. One morning, he called in advance of our session to say that he was making a 'rule to use only instruments that were already in studio A and then he paused and asked, "Are the tympani's there?" When I said, no, he told me to make sure they were there before he arrived otherwise he couldn't use them. (Obviously, he wasn't averse to cheating at his own game). At the start of almost every session, he ate lox on whole wheat toast with butter on one side and mayo on the other and one day he insisted on teaching me how to make a proper cup of tea. "Never dunk the bag up and down allowing it to hit the air. Once the bag is in the water be sure to let it steep covered for a full fifteen minutes." I had a lifetime of up and down teabag dunking making the wait for a proper cup of tea excruciating.
Eno kept a private journal filled with creative ideas on tape looping and the future sacrilegious use of all manner of recording devices. On occasion he allowed me to peer into the book where neatly penned block letters described his small but precise diagrams. Eno regularly ignored the proper use of all equipment turning knobs any which way to create the sounds and rhythms that pleased him. It appeared as if he'd rather not know at all how anything truly operated - reading manuals was not in his DNA, and neither was vetting musicians. Spontaneously, Eno asked me to play the Hammond B-3 organ on one of the ambient albums (Music For Airports) even though I was not, at the time, a keyboard player. I didn't turn to him and say, "Well, only if I get credit on the album," which is why you won't see my name anywhere on the album. Not even as Assistant Engineer. It was common in those days that not everyone got credited mainly because there was no one from the record company making notes at the sessions. And one really couldn't rely on the artists to do the administrative work. My only thought at the time was: I'd rather play an instrument I don't know how to play than sit around bored listening to the same song over and over again.
"Just don't hit the F sharp," he warned as my forefinger inevitably froze upon the note more than once. When happy with the underlying pulse of a song, Eno would do a small tight-fisted dance complete with jerky robotic movements unlike anything I'd ever seen before. I would later surmise through my own association with The Work that Eno was experimenting with sacred movements linked to Gurdjieff.
Eno confessed to a regiment of daily napping, which usually occurred in the early evening after our daytime sessions ended. He did this to prepare for 'clubbing' and staying up late. He told me I could nap, if needed, during some of our recording sessions. At times, instead of sitting at Stasium's side where I was supposed to be, I would lie on the couch and close my eyes, which must have been a tremendous annoyance to Stasium.
After I left Mediasound, Eno and I stayed friends. He shortened my name to 'Ram' explaining that everyone had a nickname in England and that Eno was long for 'E'. "The world doesn't need another pop song," he blurted as we listened to Bowie's as-yet-unreleased Eno-produced tracks from "Heroes". Eno expressed jealously about Bowie's notoriety and vocal control. Later, when we scrutinized my guitar work in Danger Zone (The Comateens), Eno said it reminded him of the incessant buzz of an electric razor and wanted to know how I did it. "I can't do it any other way," I confessed. "That's just the way it sounds when I play." Eno and I would stroll together in Soho where "Eno is God" was written on sidewalks and people would appear out of nowhere just to follow him around. One time he asked me how I thought the world might be if only the Japanese had won the Second World War.
"We'd all wear Kimonos," I answered.
Eno seemed to always have a new and sometimes strange idea popping into his head about which he'd be very excited. One day he turned a television on its side and played a video tape recording of some film footage he'd made of the clouds passing by his window. He was very thrilled with this concept which he named Five Views Out of Jack's Window. Eno's approach to making music was very similar. When an idea struck him, he'd forge ahead without question and try to make the best of it no matter what went wrong and often what went wrong, in his opinion, was right. He was basically a found-object artist of sounds, pictures and intellectual concepts. One of his favorite plucks was to change his phone number and tell the operator not to tell him the new number. Then he'd sit for hours at his phone and through mathematical reduction figure out the new number. "I've just changed my number. I'll give it to you when I figure it out. I know the exchange and now it's just a matter of 9,999 possible combinations minus the numbers that I already have," he'd say. It usually took him about a week.
He convinced me never to wear T-shirts with slogans on them. To this day, because of Eno, I cannot wear a shirt that has writing on it of any kind. When he gifted me a set of Oblique Strategies (along with a Fripp & Eno flexi-disc) he said they'd be worth money someday and in my young mind, I thought, "Yeah, sure." Of course, they are worth quite a bit of money today, and I still have both items.
As Andre and I were working on Eno's Mother Whale Eyeless, I wondered if the lyrics had any meaning or if indeed the lines were written in typical Eno fashion by just adding vocal sounds in the form of meaningless words to an existing track? Andre thinks the lyrics describe an actual event that perhaps Eno read about in the newspaper. My guess is that it's about Eno's dire frustration and obvious wish to escape an intimate relationship - possibly his first early marriage - and the idea that we are all automatons trapped in events of our own unconscious making; events that could not have gone any other way even in another country under another name.