INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker FEBRUARY 14, 1981 - by John Orme
ENO: THE ELECTRIC BOOGALOO
An issue of NME late last year contained one of the most lung-bursting yet unintentional pieces of rock humour yet created.
The feature was a question-and-answer interview with the guardian of one of the most formidable pair of frontal lobes in the rock world - Brian Eno. Early in the interview he expounded at length on one of the many topics close to his electronic heart, and ended with a slightly equivocal answer.
Oh, came the next question, do you have a theory on that? Dear God, Eno has theories like other people have daydreams or dandruff. Theories curl through his pores like mental perspiration. Throw him a subject, like under-arm bowling, home taping or the neutron bomb, and he'll toss up a reasoned debate like a seal nosing the balance of a ball.
That, at any rate, is the theory about Brian Eno.
In reality, and a phone call to New York must count, he exudes a reassuring practicality, and even the discreet unbuttoning of a self-contained concept like primitive futurism explains itself in the context of his conversation.
Our context was, unsurprisingly, his recent work with David Byrne that led to the Talking Heads' Remain In Light album and the Eno/Byrne album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. The album is interesting not only for itself, an experiment in the bonding of found voices, taken from the radio or other records, with Eno and Byrne's music, but also as a bridging work that straddles the release of Remain In Light.
The Eno/Byrne album was recorded before they went to work on the Heads' but parts were re-recorded after a legal problem over the use of a found voice, allowing the record to be substantially altered after Remain In Light was finished.
"Certainly. It was planned as a fore-runner, and a version was finished, but we had to suspend it for legal reasons, which turned out to be fortunate.
"Some parts of the original were weak, and when we worked on the Talking Heads' album it became possible to solve some of the problems we had faced.
"My perspectives on my work are always distorted by my proximity to them in time - first excitement, then extreme doubt, which if powerful enough will lead me to scrap it - the legal problem with the original is very handy as an excuse - and then I get to a stage of liking it, generally.
"With Remain In Light, I think at the moment that the experiments that particularly interested me worked, but I feel we didn't take them far enough. For instance, the idea of the layered vocals - I wish I had gone a lot further with that. It is an idea I've been fascinated by for some years, and will explore further in the future, but we only really grasped the idea near the end of recording, and as the songs on that album developed very late in the recording process, there wasn't the time to extend the layered vocals idea as far as I wanted.
One of the other main things we started developing that pleased me was the interlocking instruments idea - instead of having a few instruments playing complex pieces, you get lots of instruments all playing very simple parts that mesh together to create a complex track - for example there were five or six basses on Born Under Punches, each doing simple bits that tie together.
"There's one track on that album, Listening Wind, that has a lovely feeling and is closest to my current mood - it has a mysterious, dark, slightly lost quality, and there is some of the feeling on Bush Of Ghosts.
"The most obviously different idea about that album is the use of found voices, although I don't feel it to be unique any more."
Eno and Byrne's technique on Bush Of Ghosts is to use a number of voices they came across - a Lebanese mountain singer, an indignant San Francisco radio host, an exorcist, a radio evangelist and others - and sew them into the fabric of the tracks as lead vocals rather than background sound effects.
They also used various found instruments - ashtrays, garbage cans and so on - to supplement the meagre supply of regular instruments they had with them in Los Angeles, and the tracks were built up with a careful regard to the creative possibilities of arbitrary, rather than random chances.
Eno and Byrne started collecting interesting voices before recording, and began combing through their new-found library to select their recordings from radio or other records to enhance or create musical moods.
"We are both fairly disenchanted with ordinary song structures - the voice you record is invested with your own personality. What we wanted was to create something more mysterious, and by taking voices out of context, but featuring them dominantly as the main vocal performance, you can go on to create meaning by surrounding the voice with a musical mood.
"In a way it was an experiment to see if you can create fairly sophisticated moods with voices outside their linguistic meaning. Basically I'm so fed up with reading reviews of records that concentrate on the lyrics, quoting them as if they had some great relevance, but ignoring the music.
"How they'll get on with Bush Of Ghosts with some unintelligible and some foreign vocals and no lyric sheet, I don't know!
"The two tracks that work really well for me are Moonlight In Glory [a brawny percussive track with vocals from the Moving Star Hall Singers from Sea Island, Georgia, whose declamatory style is close to Byrne's] and Regiment - [an open, loping drum pattern overlaid by a vocal from the Lebanese mountain singer that sounds like an early call for the Ayatollah].
"I think those are the two real achievements of the album, and I think my synth solo on Regiment is possibly the best I've ever played. People think it's a Fripp guitar rip-off (they certainly do), but it really is me on synthesizer.
"In fact I remember Fripp once saying something like I was the best guitar player he'd heard, and I didn't even play guitar. The broad, rolling style of drumming that typifies the first side of the new album makes a direct link with the beatier tracks on Eno's Before And After Science, but it was not, said Eno, a conscious link.
"When I make a record, it always seems fairly unrelated to everything I've ever done. But looking at it retrospectively, I can see a piece's antecedents. You're right that Before And After Science is an antecedent in the rhythmic sense, and at the same time, on Kurt's Rejoinder, I used a found voice for the first time.
"Following antecedents, if you look over the Talking Heads' albums, David's singing style has become more and more preacherly, more declamatory, and we found we both have a background in the ideas behind that - the use of single phrases, often apparently or actually unrelated, to replace a conventional lyric and that led us to our work with voices on the album.
"Also we are both keen on black music and its rhythmical interest, which comes out strongly on the album. That's another ingredient - a movement towards the spiritual that you can sense around. I don't mean spiritual in the back to Jesus sense, I mean in the way it's used in African music.
"There is no distinction between the music you can dance to and music that moves you on a spiritual level. We particularly wanted to be working in this strange area of mood and spirit as well as action or dance."
Looking for clues to current intentions in past achievements is always a treacherous business, but Eno responded agreeably to the idea that the use of normal sounds like radio voices or other people's recorded voices sits at no great distance from his previous work in the realm of ambient music - music to surround and unobtrusively support everyday activities.
"I hadn't thought of that particular connection, but it's right. I'm particularly fascinated by radio, especially in America. It's extraordinary just how out of control it is.
"In Britain or Europe the presenters are picked for their qualities of calmness and obvious rationality - over here it's the ranting fringe that seems to get on the airwaves. It sounds such a mess compared to the ordered delivery you get in Britain.
"Here you get the nuttiest people in charge of the airwaves - it's fascinating.
"It seems to me that radio in America states the boundary conditions of madness - you have a constant source of extreme points of view on tap!"
With that radio babble on endless stream, Eno has found America, and particularly New York, an ideal workplace.
"I've been living in the U.S. for some tune now, but legally I am a visitor, and my psychological status is that of a visitor as well. If you are working, New York is a great city, but if you're trying to think, it's the worst place in the world.
"The whole accent is on action, go go go, rather than contemplation. At the moment I have an apartment in Maida Vale but I'm looking for a house over there. In the future I shall do my work in New York, and my thinking in England!"
An integral part of that thought and work at the moment is Eno's involvement in video development, a technical craft seen as a life profit-giving miracle a year ago by a music business that had bloated itself into financial panic.
The video disc was to come with the call and thunder of the Seventh Cavalry to save and revive a flagging market - and there, it seemed, the thinking stopped.
The massive problem is finding something that people will want to watch hundreds of times over, the way you listen to music. Blondie's Eat To The Beat way is exactly wrong - a dead end. The strictly illustrational approach just isn't going to work.
"Neither is the Todd Rundgren way of taking the most advanced computer techniques to create devastating visual psychedelia - that isn't going anywhere either.
It's like fireworks - astonishing effects that will please you for a few minutes - but they are just effects and not bonded to a deeper structure.
"I have been doing a bit of work at home on this recently, filming a lot of different things, and observing my reactions to them, and trying to work out what held my attention. There are, I have decided, two worthwhile areas.
"One is to think of video as a static rather than an active, thing, regarding it rather like a painting. You look at it where it is for what it is, not waiting for the next episode or piece of action.
"I have been working with the screen vertically, and filming land and sky scapes that change and evolve very slowly, then putting music to them as an idea for a video disc. They are interesting not for what is going to happen but what is there - like looking out of a window.
"The second approach I have been working on is the idea of dance. I think the great revolution that will come with video discs is that they will make dance a mass form, as records did for popular music.
"Dances and dancers can be watched endlessly and have their own musical form, and I think in a few years you'll have dance groups who just dance rather than music groups who just play - obviously it will have its Pan's People side, the MOR end, but there can be some incredibly exciting things on the fringe between dance and performance art.
"At home I have a video of a ten-man black dance group who just get together and dance in their spare time. They have developed an extraordinary dance called the Electric Boogaloo, which is exciting, very intricate and includes some unique moves and steps I've never seen anywhere before.
"It's a lousily-filmed video with shaky camera work and poor sound, but each time I watch the video I am more and more amazed by it - it is totally engaging."
On top of his video work, Eno is recording and developing various musical ideas that will probably end up split onto different albums.
One direction is forming that is at an awkward, clumsy early stage. The main influence on it was a Miles Davis track called He Loved Him Madly, on Get Up With It, which has a very strange atmosphere, as if you are standing in a clearing hearing different instruments at different distances from you. It was mixed with that feeling of distance, and that interests me a great deal.
"While I was in Ghana, I spent a lot of the time with a stereo mike and a tape recorder with a set of those tiny headphones. I would just sit outside at night, often for hours, listening to the environment around me amplified and through the headphones.
"Listening to a highly-amped world is extraordinary, like looking at things under a huge microscope, and I am trying to work out ways of making music with that feeling of relatedness and unrelatedness."
Such extensive work with music and visuals - and, most of all, ideas - brings mail and other communications to Eno in doormat measure. Just before we spoke Eno had finished a day at his office answering the regular flow of letters from interested listeners and viewers.
"I had one today that particularly pleased me from a psychotherapist in Chicago, who wrote to tell me how she has been using ambient music with the children she looks after.
"One child who everyone thought completely deaf started responding to Discreet Music, and for a long time only appeared to hear that, but is now slowly responding to other things.
"Another child she wrote about hadn't slept for two years. They tried everything but nothing worked. The first time that child slept after two years was when they played Discreet Music, said a contented Eno. I think that's a compliment."