INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Jocks & Nerds AUTUMN 2014 - by Chris May
Roxy Music. Ambient. Fela Kuti. Afrodisiac. Reickuti.
One day in September 1973, shortly after he had left Roxy Music, Brian Eno was wandering along Tottenham Court Road. Near the junction with Warren Street, he passed a small electrical supplies shop, Sterns Electrical. Among the radios, light fittings and hairdryers in the window, Eno noticed a handful of LPs, each by an artist whose name was new to him. Intrigued, he went into the shop and left, half an hour or so later, with an album that, he says, "changed my life". The album was Fela Kuti's Afrodisiac.
Fate dealt Eno a good hand that day. Back then, Sterns was probably the only place in London where you could have bought Afrodisiac - or, indeed, any African LP other than the academically-inclined field recordings available at a few specialist folk-music shops. Sterns received its stock haphazardly from African students at nearby University College London, some of whom would return from visits home with suitcases full of vinyl. Once an album sold out it was usually gone forever, Sterns having no system for reordering. If Eno had walked in a month later, Afrodisiac would probably not have still been there.
In the forty years since he discovered it, Afrobeat has woven itself through Eno's work - not so much, perhaps, in the massively successful albums he has produced for U2 (seven of them) and Coldplay, but in his solo projects, which he self-deprecatingly describes as "little ships on an ocean of indifference", and more left-field collaborations. He cites Afrobeat's synergy with the algorithm-created "generative" music he has helped to develop over the past decade; it is at the core of his latest album, High Life, his second collaborations with Underworld's Karl Hyde, released this summer, which uses a compositional approach Eno calls 'Reickuti' (a contraction of Steve Reich and Fela Kuti). In 2011, he co-produced Seun Kuti's album From Africa With Fury: Rise. On September 29, Knitting factory Records will release a seven-album Fela Kuti vinyl box set compiled by Eno (which includes, naturally, Afrodisiac).
Eno was born in Suffolk in 1948. He studied art at Ipswich Civic College with cybernetic art pioneer Roy Ascott, then at Winchester School of Art, where he became interested in electronic and minimalist music. At the prompting of an ex-college friend, reed player Andy Mackay, he joined Roxy Music in 1971, first behind the mixing desk, and later as onstage synthesizer player and electronicist. Roxy singer Bryan Ferry is said to have become jealous of Eno's scene-stealing outré appearance, and in 1973 Eno left the band. He released his first solo album, Here Come The Warm Jets, in 1973.
Since then, Eno's output has been prolific and, also, seemingly effortlessly avant garde. He has released seventeen solo albums, sixteen ambient installation or video albums and twenty-seven collaborations with fellow adventurers such as Robert Fripp, Kevin Ayers, Nico, Jah Wobble and David Byrne. He has produced a further fifty-odd albums, for Talking Heads, John Cale, John Cage, Ultravox, Laurie Anderson, Devo, David Bowie, Baaba Maal and Grace Jones. He almost single-handedly created ambient music in the 1970s, and has been at the forefront of his generative music since the mid-1990s.
I'd love to know how you came across Sterns. If you blinked as you walked past it, you wouldn't have noticed it.
I was trying to remember that when I wrote the introduction to the Fela box. I don't remember anybody telling me about it. I think I just walked past it one day and - I always had a taste for the exotic - I looked in and thought, gosh, I haven't heard any of these albums. I'd moved to London not long before, in 1969, shortly after finishing college, and like most people who move to a new city, knew more about it than people who grew up there. I was fascinated by the richness of culture and determined to find out as much about it as I could. I just used to walk around looking at shops and thinking, gosh, I'd love to see what they sell. Sterns was one of the discoveries.
Once inside, what prompted you to buy Afrodisiac? Was it just the cover?
It wasn't just the cover, though that appealed to me. It was the size of the band. When I looked at the back cover it listed all the musicians, and I thought, god, three conga players, that's got to be good. Not long before that, I had been to see the Philip Glass Ensemble at the Royal College of Art. Again, there was a duplication of instruments, which I found very interesting. The Glass concert really alerted me to that. I discovered years later that David Bowie was at the same show, though we didn't know each other then.
So I was looking for bands where you got the possibility of an intricate weave of music. I think I was looking for bands where the normal pyramid of musicians - singer at the top, lead guitarist, rhythm instruments, bass and drums at the bottom - where that didn't apply, where there was a more interesting ecology, as it were, between the parts. And as soon as I saw Afrodisiac's list of players, I thought, I've got to hear what that sounds like. I bought every Fela record I could find. I've been a huge fan of [Africa 70 drummer] Tony Allen ever since. I think his playing was at the deep heart of the band.
Were you also listening to other styles of African music at this time?
There was some east African stuff as well. There was a Kenyan guy I liked, I think his name was David Obunga. I had quite a few east African albums and what was interesting about those was that the bands were very, very light and sprightly, compared to west African bands. And I liked that as well. I noticed that when you saw pictures of the players, the guitars were all worn down at the top end of the fret arm near the pickups. The bottom end, where most western players were playing, was brand new. None of the east Africans ever played down there; all the playing was way up high, to play those beautiful high melodies. I just love differences like that - someone deciding to use an instrument in a completely different way from the way we do.
Why is it that seminal African records still sound so vibrant forty or fifty years on, despite the very basic conditions under which most were recorded?
I think it's partly to do with engineers working with very limited resources and really understanding them. If you've only got two mics, one compressor and a couple of pre-amps, you really know what they do, because you're using them every single day. It's like an artist who is extremely good with watercolours. It's a very limited medium but you can become incredibly good with it, if it's all you have. As a record producer, it makes me wonder about the whole direction recording has taken. I've noticed certain things have passed their peak. For example, I think string sections reached their peak of recording quality in the 1960s and '70s I don't think it's just me being nostalgic. What happened in recording since then is that we have multiplied options, so we have millions of possible ways to do anything, but we did it at the expense of the deep rapport people can have with a more simple tool.
Those old African recordings, and a lot of old rhythm 'n' blues and early doo-wop and so on - in many respects they were incredibly limited in recording tools. Nonetheless, the people who were using those limited tools had a real rapport with them and knew how to get exciting results. I once recorded in west Africa with a Ghanaian band called Edikanfo [on 1981's The Pace Setters]. I worked with an engineer in a little studio that was a joke by western standards. he had a really random bundle of microphones. One of them was from a Sony cassette recorder, a really cheap mic, but he used it brilliantly. he put it over the drum kit and he got a really vibrant, lively sound. If you'd shown that set-up to a western engineer they would have laughed at you. And the same with the instruments. Sometimes the guys were using really crappy old electric guitars, but they knew how to work with them, how to get something special out of them.
In your introduction to the Fela box, you write about playing Afrodisiac to Talking Heads in 1977 and saying it was "the music of the future". You go on to say you still believe it. This seems at odds with statements you have made elsewhere about generative music.
Perhaps I should have said it's "a music" rather than "the music" of the future - the future will have a lot of different musics in it. But I think the Afrobeat story has really only just got going. It's been a very long prelude but now I find more and more of that influence in other things I hear. It's interesting that people are cottoning on to it now. I meet very young people, eighteen, nineteen, who are talking about Afrobeat with this amazing sense of discovery I had forty years ago. Have you heard this! In fact, I met a young guy only the other day who said to me, Jesus, I've just heard this drummer, you'd really love him, he's Nigerian but with a weird name, you must listen to him, he's called Tony Allen.
The other thing is, among popular musics I think Afrobeat is the closest there is to "generative" music. The way it works is there's a loose set of rules, of ingredients, in place, and then everyone starts playing. You don't have a structured composition in quite the same way as you get with a pop song. The thing is infinitely elastic, sections can go on and be reintroduced and so on, and my impression is that it's done pretty much on the fly. They're not playing songs in the sense we think of them. Each composition is a kind of recipe and it's baked differently each time it's made. I find that's quite a strong connection and it's one of the things that drew me to Afrobeat. I though, here is a music that's like jazz, which I'd never been that keen on, but which, as my friend Robert Wyatt said, is "jazz from another planet".
You've used the word 'Reickuti' to describe your approach to the music on High Life. What does the album take from Steve Reich and Fela Kuti?
From Reich, the idea of repetition for its own sake. The idea that if you just keep repeating something, it keeps changing. Which is a way of saying that your mind is an active composer, it's doing a lot of work, hearing things and reinterpreting them from a lot of different angles. So, for me, the big revelation of Steve reich, when I first heard his work, was in realising how active the listening mind is. Actually, the piece is co-composed by the composer and your mind. It's the opposite of the classical idea of the listener as an entirely passive receptor - who sits in a chair and doesn't cough or anything, who just receives the composition. So with reich, the idea of staying in one place but constantly moving was very important to me. And I think you hear that clearly on High Life, which has much longer pieces than my previous albums have.
From Fela, of course, what fascinated me was the rhythmic-melodic interplay. When you listen to Tony's drum parts, you hear implicit in them thousands of other parts, both rhythmic and melodic parts. You only have to listen, and you thin, the bass is going to go something like this. I don't know the internal life of the band well enough to be sure, but I assume Tony was the ecological landscape from which the music grew.
When you started listening to Reich and Philip Glass and other minimalists in the late 1960s, you weren't that keen on jazz. Were you aware of Teo Macero's work with Miles Davis, the way he used tape manipulation to create repetition?
It did influence me, yes. The things I started listening to by Miles, that really grabbed by attention, that fascinated me with the concept of how music could be, were albums like Bitches Brew and On The Corner. When I started discovering Teo Macero's role, how active he was in making those albums - in the sense of active as a contemporary record producer - I became very fond of them. I'd loved some of the earlier albums too, such as Sketches Of Spain - they were lovely records to listen to, but they didn't excite me so much, conceptually.
In some respects, doo-wop, early R&B and early African music are the polar opposite of modern, tech-rich music, which has Auto-Tune and other devices to edit and recalibrate recorded sound. How do you keep the humanity in music amongst all this technology?
It's very difficult, and it's continually under debate. It doesn't just apply with African recordings. It's a problem everybody is having at the moment. Do I resist the temptation to perfect this thing? What do I lose by perfecting it? It's difficult. because now it's possible to mend anything, correct anything. The rhythm's a bit out on that bar? OK, we'll stretch it a little bit. We can quantise everything now, we can quantise audio so the beat is absolutely perfect. We can sort of do and undo anything. And of course, most of the records we like, all of us, as listeners, are records where people didn't do everything to fix them up. So the question that everybody's asking is, is it getting any better as a result of all this?
But it's such a hard temptation to resist. You're recording a song and find a note that is really quite out of tune. In the past, you'd have said, it's a great performance, so we'll just live with it. What you do now is retune that note, so you're always asking yourself, have we lost something of the tension of the performance, of the feeling of humanity and vulnerability and organic truth or whatever, by making the corrections? And of course, there are all sorts of reactions against it. You have Jack White with his studio in Nashville, which is all analogue, he doesn't have any digital equipment in there. And I've worked with bands who've said, "We're going back to tape." They've got in all the stuff, twenty-four-track recorders, all the gear - but within half a day they're saying, "Fuck, we can't edit this stuff." They're just not used to working that way.
There's a very interesting exercise, I don't know if you've tried it, not to use cmd-Z when you're writing something. I write quite a lot on a Mac and, like everybody, I go back and change things. If you say to yourself, today I'm going to write exactly as if I was sitting in front of a piece of paper and writing - Jesus, it's a whole different mindset. Because you have to start thinking before you start writing. It's really hard to go back to that. I'm not saying there is any advantage in going back to it, it's just interesting to try it, to remind yourself of how completely you are now part of this new technology of writing.
Do you think musicians should feel threatened by generative music and other aspects of digital technology - by the advent of citizen music-makers and apps - as some photographers and designers feel threatened in their fields?
Well, it's the story of culture, I'm afraid. Take writing again. If you think of when printing came along, until then, writing had been the province of a very limited number of people, both as writers and readers. Printing democratised the reading process and after a while it democratised writing as well because, suddenly, anybody who had a few quid could get a book published. The eighteenth century was the story of people putting out books, most of them now forgotten, generally on their own account, self-publishing. There weren't the filters of publishers and so on. A similar thing happened with music. If it was art music it was filtered quite strongly by whichever dukes and counts were the patrons of the composers and the court ensembles. he who paid the piper called the tune. Then, in the 1940s and '50s there were suddenly thousands of radio stations that wanted stuff to play, and making a record was very cheap. So you got the birth of doo-wop and rhythm 'n' blues, where bands really off the street corners came in and made records and suddenly sold a million copies. It's exactly the same process today. There are always periods when a group of professionals with genuine expertise control something, and suddenly their expertise is not so important. And of course they feel upset. They've invested a lot of time in it.
You have defined ambient music as "rewarding attention but not being so strict as to demand it". Listening to Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, you might only consciously hear random words or phrases, but still get the message. Can verbalised music work in the same way as instrumental ambient music?
Definitely, and lyrics kind of get written like that. Like a lot of songwriters, I start out not with verses of poetry, but with rhythms and grooves and melodies and so on, and the lyrics grow out of that. I start out just singing nonsense, sounds rather than words, and sometimes a word pops out and you think, oh, that's a good word, that's a phrase, yes. David Byrne writes in exactly the same way. So does Bono. You find a song in the rhythm. In fact, I don't know anybody, with the possible exception of Elvis Costello, who write from lyrics. If the words don't sound right on the rhythm, you haven't got a song, basically. What I often notice in the studio is that people have a great idea - a great groove, a fantastic hook - and you say wonderful, wonderful. Then they finally write the words and they are clumsy and awkward and don't fit. And you have to start again, basically, because it doesn't work unless it holds together.
You seem effortlessly to have remained avant garde for four decades - which is rare for an artist in any field. Are you conscious of that, has it been effortless?
It's nice of you to say that. If it's true, it hasn't been effortless, Or rather, I should say, I don't spend a lot of time relaxing. That's by choice. I don't feel like I'm in a race or anything, I just keep wanting to try things out. And working is a habit for me, it's what I do every day. I love being in my studio. Every day I go in there and feel so lucky to have a life where I can play around all day. I'm easily bored and I think that's actually quite a good quality. I really don't like doing things again and again. I have to feel I'm doing something I haven't tried. I don't like repetition, in that respect. The only repetition I like is the repetition of the feeling of discovery - of thinking, hey, this is new, how did I get here, what do I do now?