INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Launch JUNE 2001 - by Sylvie Simmons
MAN VERSUS MACHINE AND THE BATTLE OF THE INDEX FINGER
This is where I spend most of my time, says Brian Eno, showing LAUNCH around the small 19th century house in London's Notting Hill that has been converted into a studio and workshop. By the front door there's a comfortable recording room - a moment ago he was sitting in there, improvising some music on a bass guitar. Now J. Peter Schwalm, the young German DJ with whom Eno collaborated on his first album in four years, Drawn From Life, is sitting at the control desk, manipulating the improv into something new.
Next we come to a screened-off area with two computers (I sit here pretty much day and night), one playing an Eno program of ever-changing shapes and colors, the other a program of ever-changing sounds. The room opens up into a white-walled gallery space, hung with a number of identical, cheap ghetto-blasters - each with a separate CD of Eno material set up to play endlessly and at random, sounds drifting in and out of each other, creating at every new moment a unique and unrepeatable combination. It's part of an experiment to make self-generating music, music designed to have a life of its own, Eno explains, as he scribbles diagrams on Post-It notes, still every bit the eccentric computer wizard we expect him to be.
Except that he is dressed - somewhat incongruously, in this calm, white space, where a blackbird above the skylight sings along with the music - in army camouflage.
Then, since releasing his last album, 1997's The Drop - between creating sound-light installations (the most recent for San Francisco's Modern Art Museum), writing a book, producing bands like U2 and James, and working on too many other projects to detail - Eno has been fighting a war of sorts. And a rather unexpected war at that: against computers' dominance in music.
Starting with the Battle Of The Index Finger. If you watch any good player, they're using all different parts of their body and working with instruments that respond to those movements. They're moving in many dimensions at once, and a lot of those dimensions are really meta-rational, begins Eno. The basis of computer work is predicated on the idea that only the brain makes decisions and only the index finger does the work. Does one want to make music that draws on one's whole being - physical, intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, spiritual - or only on a small part of it? I've been trying to solve that problem. I've always wanted to include as much as I could, and I just got so bored with the little part of my being that was being used working with the computer. And computers are so badly designed!
When a friend gave him a copy of Schwalm's first Slop Shop album, Eno recognized a fellow soldier, and they met up. He knows the problem and feels the same way about it. He's someone who's come at it from the other direction. Whereas I came out of organic music towards computers and found problems there, he came from computers to starting to play live and improvising, and also wants to make some workable amalgam of the two.
A lot of the kind of research we've been doing, apart from the music we've been making, is evolving new ways of working, where we can do exactly what you saw us doing - playing just like people have always played - and then we can make choices at any point, whether to go into computer world for a little while or come back out of it into live playing world. To be able to flow freely between them is what you want to do, without excluding either possibility.
A complex explanation (sadly too long to go into here) involving the computer's rapacious desire for things to be divided up into even-length sections shows just how difficult that is, and that what the computer wants, it usually gets. If you are working with a band and there is a computer in the room, you know for sure that ultimately, the composer of this record is going to be the guy in the faded 1982 Rolling Stones World Tour T-shirt sitting in front of the screen, who hasn't seen anything but pizza for 12 years, and the band is going to be sitting there leaving it in its hands. He might be a genius - in which case, you're fine - but in likelihood, he won't be as interesting as the band.
Eno and Schwalm have been working together, jamming as well as individually recording pieces of music that they send to each other (Schwalm, an avant-garde hip-hop DJ, has his own studio in Frankfurt) for yet more additions and manipulations. We meet every so often for two or three days, every couple of months, and just play together. He'll go to Germany with his copy, I'll stay here with mine, and I'll take a little bit and cut it about in the computer into some kind of structure or put it into my little loop-making machine and try working on top of it, so the next time he comes back, I've got another proposal ready based on something we've already done, and that will get cut up and played over, and on and on. Some of the pieces on Drawn From Life have been through this redigestion or distillation process six times, at least.
Soon after first meeting, Eno and Schwalm played onstage together in Germany in 1998 - Eno's first concert performance that decade. There's talk of some more live shows, which seems to negate the reasons Bryan Ferry gave recently for Eno's refusal to join this year's Roxy Music reunion tour: that his former colleague detests playing onstage.
I hate the rock music tradition. I can't bear it! admits Eno. I like the idea of playing live in very unusual circumstances - we're doing one show on the side of Mount Fuji, and possibly a show at the Acropolis and in some caves in Slovakia - but I think generally playing live is a crap idea. So much of stage work is the presentation of personality - 'Oh, that's him!' - and I've never been interested in that. And musically, it's hopeless. We could never hear what we were doing. I had no idea what we played in all those Roxy Music concerts - just this clatter of noise.
And, apart from that, as shown by his experiments in constant change, Eno does not like repeating himself. I don't live in the past at all; I'm always wanting to do something new. I make a point of constantly trying to forget and get things out of my mind. Because I'd rather be here - even though this is a bit of a mess, he laughs, surveying his studio, and trying to see where 'this' is.