INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker JANUARY 12, 1980 - by Richard Williams
ENERGY FOILS THE MAGICIAN
After spending the last decade redefining rock music, all Brian Eno wants now is an honest job of work and a place to lay his head. Hand in hand, he and Richard Williams wade through the Mire of Options.
One day, perhaps after the heat-death of the universe, historians may find a small pile of black-bound notebooks filled with graphs, calculations, epigrams and helpful suggestions, all inscribed with a fine-nibbed pen in a careful hand. The notebooks of Brian Eno will tell them, if they're interested, a great deal about rock music in the 1970s.
Brian Eno is, without question, the music's foremost theoretician. In the eight and a half years since his name first appeared in this paper, he has assisted the work of any other artists in this capacity: some of them are Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, Robert Fripp, John Cale, Talking Heads, Devo, Cluster, Robert Wyatt and Ultravox. The list of those who have been influenced by his strategies is enormous and would include Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Throbbing Gristle, James Chance...
Many of those outside the art-rock field still consider Brian Eno to be a dilettante, an elitist, an inventor of concepts, lacking conventional integrity. They ignore the fact that his theories of the genetic structure of music apply equally well to heavy metal or R&B (or to painting or dance, come to that).
On April 23, 1978, Brian Eno flew to New York. He planned to master Talking Heads' second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food, at a cutting-room in the city, and to finish a chapter for a book of essays being edited by his acquaintance Stafford Beer, the cybernetician. It was his intention to leave New York within three weeks by his birthday, May 15.
Seven months later he was still there, having been seduced into staying by the vigour of the local art-scene and also (it must be admitted) by the way that scene's members feted him.
On Christmas Day, 1978, he flew to South East Asia. Arriving in Bangkok, capital of Thailand, he checked into a hotel. He planned to stay there for several months, hoping to sort out his tactics for the future. The following story came from Phil Manzanera at the beginning of 1979, when Eno was still in Thailand:
On Brian's first evening in Bangkok, he left his hotel for a stroll around the town. It happened that his hotel was on the edge of the red-light district, so naturally Brian wandered into it. He passed several bars, and through the open doors he could see many girls sitting around the edges of the rooms. When he came to the third or fourth, he looked in through the door and, beyond the girls, at the end of the bar, he saw a disc jockey playing records. Above the disc jockey, pinned to the wall, was the sleeve of For Your Pleasure, Roxy Music's second album. Of course, Brian went in and tried to talk to the deejay, who was Thai and didn't understand when Brian tried to explain that he was on the record pinned above the man's head. Brian was just about to walk off when another man suddenly appeared from behind the deejay's desk - he'd been kneeling on the floor, mending the amplifier. The second man recognised Brian immediately - it turned out that he was German, and had been a big fan of Roxy. He'd seen them every time they'd played in Germany. He owned the bar... and the girls. When he discovered that Brian was staying in an hotel, he invited him to come and stay with him instead in his apartment above the bar. So Brian checked out of the hotel and moved in with the German... and his girls. A few weeks later, the German told Brian that he owned another, similar place, up in the mountains and he was going up there for a while. Would Brian like to go there with him? So Brian spent the rest of his weeks in Thailand in this man's establishment in the mountains. Board, lodging and girls, all free. Typical, isn't it?
In April, 1979, Eno returned to New York, having failed to resolve his future. He produced the third Talking Heads album, Fear Of Music, embarked on several albums for his Ambient Music label, started recording some music of his own, and began working with videotape. In October he returned briefly to England, seeing friends and doing some recording. The following month he went to New York and, on New Year's Eve 1979, at the turn of the decade, he flew to California, to an unspecified address, planning to spend the year there.
The following conversation took place during his most recent stay in London.
NEW YORK CITY
I thought we might start by talking about why you went to America to live in the first place. I was trying to remember if you went first, or if Robert Fripp went first.
It was Robert, but I don't know if he committed himself to living there at the time. He did much the same us me: he went there just for a little time, initially, and he ended up staying. I went there to do a couple of specific things, and I thought if I go back to London I'll get distracted, so I'll just find a place here for a month. But it turned out that I happened to be in New York during one of the most exciting months of the decade, I should think, in terms of music - it seemed like there were five hundred new bands who all started that month.
The first thing that really impressed me was that within two weeks I already knew and was having conversations with really interesting people... a lot of creeps, too, but the opportunities for meeting people are infinitely larger than they are here. And for meeting a really wide range of people.
Another thing is that people are just much more willing to talk to one another, because everyone is desperate for an idea. People really regard it as important that they should find out what everyone else is doing, and surely part of the reason is that they want to incorporate whatever they can into their own work. That seems to me to be quite healthy, as opposed to the English situation, which has tended to be... there's the new wave scene, and the theatre scene, and the modern dance scene, and you never get any real collisions between them, except rather contrived ones.
That inter-disciplinary activity must be very interesting for you.
Well, what's interesting about those kind of conversations is that they're very rarely on the level of talks that musicians have between themselves. If you meet a bunch of other rock musicians, what do you talk about? guitars, tuning... you talk about things to do with the craft of what you're doing.
Now if you meet a dancer, for instance, that's not going to be of any interest to him, just as the technicalities of dance aren't going to be of much interest to me. So you tend automatically to slip into another level. You either just chat, social chat, or else you're talking about something to do with why you do what you do, what the inspiration is behind it. And, for me, that kind of conversation is much more interesting. Talking about tools doesn't interest me, really.
What do you think you've got out of it, beyond the enjoyment of talking to a lot of people who do different things?
First of all, I got a lot of encouragement... much more than I've ever got here. Now that cuts both ways, because encouragement is always encouragement to carry on with what you're doing. It's not usually encouragement to do something that you can't explain, or that you only have a vague feeling about. But, on the other hand, it is very nice to be encouraged. It's really nice to be in a situation where people are actually interested... not only interested, but influenced by what you do. So you can see extensions of your own work carried out much more thoroughly, vague ideas in things I'd done being approached much more rigorously.
The negative side, which I think will turn out to be positive is that having seen that done, I thought 'I don't really want to do this any more, it's superfluous now.' And so it really started a kind of feeling for me, which is getting stronger, which is that I don't want to make rock records any more. By that, I mean I don't want to follow the format I've used in the past, which is writing songs and working in a particular way with regard to studios and so on. There are lots of people doing it, and doing it very well, and consequently that territory is covered.
So what started me off thinking about that was... well, New York's a great place for having ambitious ideas because they all look feasible there. As soon as you come back here, they suddenly look impossible. But there, for instance, you can actually start thinking about Music For Airports as a real idea, and the idea of getting it into airports looks possible. Whether it is or not is yet to be seen, but people manage to do such extraordinarily complex things there that immediately the bounds of possibility are set further away.
For instance, I started doing videos. I just bought a video colour camera and a recorder, nothing special, sort of 'your first video kit', and I thought, 'this looks interesting, I'm just going to fiddle around with it for a bit'... because I was moving towards thinking about videodiscs. So I thought that if I ever did get to make one, rather than surrendering it all to somebody else, I'd like to know what was going on. In fact I'd like to make it myself.
So I started tinkering about with it, in much the same way that I tinkered around with synthesizers at first, with a real feeling of fun - you know. 'Oh, this is really lovely, all these beautiful colours' and within two weeks I had my first video exhibition. And I wasn't working to attract that. Now you can't really conceive of that in this country somehow, can you?
The exhibition was kind of flawed in a way, it was just like somebody's first attempt, but at the same time, to have it exposed as quickly as that was very useful to me, because I knew that two weeks later I'd have been saying, oh, that's child's play, I'm going to do something much more interesting.' But actually having that child's play exhibited, and seeing that it really did look nice, made me take it much more seriously, so now I've retained some of that child-like attitude to making videos.
Most video art that I've seen is so defensive... it's determined, for instance, not to be seduced by the medium, so it's really grim. Even black and white... you know, the refusal to use colour because it's too seductive. It has this kind of Teutonic seriousness about it that I don't like very much, and it struck me as refreshing to see something that was done by somebody who'd obviously been seduced by the medium and wasn't too embarrassed by it.
LEAVE ME ALONE
You wrote from New York in 1978 that the momentum of success there can be dangerous.
Very much so. That's why I keep getting out again. New York is so energetic and self-contained that it's easy to forget that the rest of the world exists. So there are a lot of artists in New York who work only in terms of that situation, and whose work outside of that context is really not interesting. The danger is that you hurdle along on a path that seems to be getting wider, but is actually narrowing. The other danger is simply that of getting big-headed, of thinking, 'Oh, I can do anything... I'm real smart, they like me.'
You must have been pretty much lionised when you got there.
Oh, very much. And you notice it there because people tend to come up and talk to you without introductions or anything like that.
Part of you would enjoy that...
Oh, yes. It's very flattering. The particularly good part was that other artists come up and start talking. In England, I often have this feeling that there's a real pride among artists... it's almost like the boy/girl situation, 'I'm not going to talk to you first.' As if it demeans you to go and say to someone that you really like their work. In fact, the times that I've done that in England, it's really taken people by surprise.
But the problem is that there's a kind of filtering operation, which is the inverse of the way you'd want it to work: if you're a celebrity and you're getting no end of hassle, the people who're actually interesting tend to stay out of it. So it often happens that you meet the pushiest people, rather than the most interesting ones.
In Europe, you tend to deliver hints that give the impression that you don't actually want to met anyone at the moment and so on, and those hints are generally taken. In New York, only a straight 'no' means anything. And I can't say it, you know. I can't get into the habit of saying, 'Leave me alone.' So every time I'm there, the first few weeks are really interesting... and then it builds up again, everyone has my phone number and I'm getting tapes given to me everywhere. Everywhere I go, people are running up with cassettes. The first five weeks I was in New York this time I had a hundred and eighty cassettes given to me. One hundred and eighty! That's staggering.
About a year ago, you told me that we'd be able to recognise the first band of the next wave simply because they wouldn't ask you to produce it. They don't seem to have appeared, do they?
Well, my feelings about rock music at the moment are quite mixed up.
That's why I was surprised when you came back from Asia and wet straight in to produce the Talking Heads. I'd got the impression that you were giving it up.
Well... I nearly didn't, actually, because I'd said to them that I'm not going to do any more producing. The thing is that I like them so much as people... I really do... I think they're about the nicest four people I could ever hope to meet. I like working with them, and I like their music too.
I thought quite hard about that decision to produce them. I thought well, if I do this, what will probably happen is that I'll get sucked back into what I tried to get away from. But then I thought, why should I be so timid about it? You know, if I've got any strength of will, I'm going to be able to resist that as well. So I went ahead and did it, and I really enjoyed doing it, too.
It was also because on the first record we did together, towards the end of it, I thought we were really starting to understand how to work together. Between the five of us we'd developed a group identity, a recording identity. It shows on that album on the tracks that were done last the ones that were least complete going into the studio came out best for me. Now on this album there were even fewer complete songs, so for me that was obviously an interesting situation. I want to do their next one, as well... it's about the only thing I want to do producing-wise. I've had so many offers recently, from the most weird people... but you mustn't print their names, because people are very annoyed if they're refused publicly.
And you're refusing everything?
Yes, I am, really. It's just not what I want to do, very much.
So you really are less interested in rock music?
Yes. The thing is that it doesn't seem to be 'world music' any more. My interest in rock 'n' roll at one time, apart from the simple fact that I liked it, was that it seemed to me to be the 'world music' of the time... you know, if there was any folk culture that spread over a lot of the world, it was rock music. It doesn't seem to be that any more... it's a small-scale operation, or something.
But I think it's partly because I've got interested in pop music from other cultures, particularly North African, and I find that absolutely beautiful. Arabic singing is so developed that it makes me want to give up... presumably they don't have a history of harmony, so the whole musical energy goes into developing the single line, making that more and more interesting. So I listen to that, and I think nothing we do is anywhere near it, it just isn't interesting on that level.
Now, of course, not everything is going to be interesting on every level... but the other thing I've found myself liking doing reluctantly, actually is the slow, droney, atmospheric things. I really resent this change taking place, and I think, 'God, who wants this kind of music? Why do I want to do this?' One is so imbued with the myth of progress that to step backwards, which is what it looks like to me, is very difficult. Yet that's what I feel drawn to... so I just have to trust that actually it isn't going backwards, that in some peculiar way it's forwards.
ARTIST / ARTISAN
One of the continual dilemmas I have is the distinction between the artist and the artisan. It's only in recent years that the idea has been held that the artist is the one who innovates and sort of did it on his own. Prior to that, people were artisans... and they were better or worse artisans. They were largely told what to do... given specific tasks, and they did them. It was like a job. One wonders whether rock music is like that, like building a piece of a cathedral... you're just doing this gargoyle, and you do it well, and nobody expects great passion from you or anything, and you don't complain about not feeling great passion all the time. That's your job, you do it.
I don't know whether it's that or whether it's designing the cathedral on your own... that kind of 'I got the idea' kind of thing.
Now the latter one demands the big creative act, while the former one demands that you just get on with your work. Lately I'm very attracted to the just-getting-on-with-your-work idea. But of course that's a kind of backward step, in a way... all right, I'm not going to expect the process of working to be a constant barrage of thrills, me-on-the-tightrope... it's my job, and if that happens now and then, it's great. If it doesn't, you carry on nonetheless.
But again, that's all right if you're working in a position where your tempo is slow enough, where you don't mind wasting five days on something that you then chuck away. But the recording studio becomes your real enemy. One may not mind wasting five days, but wasting £5,000 is quite a different issue.
The artisan style is attractive because most of the interesting ideas anyway seem to arise out of a kind of humility about what you're doing. They don't arise from sitting down and thinking, 'Okay, this is The Big One.' That was one of the problems with Before And After Science... there was a wave of expectation, a 'his time has come' kind of thing. The oddity was that since everyone seemed to think that it had, that record sold better than any of the others... quite unjustifiably, as far as I'm concerned.
Again, so many aspects of your personal power are conferred on you... They have nothing to do with the condition you're in at all. So having that feeling around made me nervous, and when you're nervous you don't work well. You naturally stay on a path that you're fairly sure about, that you can defend.
So there it was... it came out with all this conferred greatness, and consequently sold as though it were the best of my albums. The sales charts now indicate a different story, though. What interests me now is that, in terms of catalogue sales, my records rank exactly in the order of my preference. Honestly, isn't that wonderful? Discreet Music, Another Green World, and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)... those are the three that sell best. That's a real encouragement because Discreet Music is still the one that has some mystery for me.
And it was the cheapest to make?
Yeah, well, I like economy, you know.
When the first Velvet Underground and Roxy Music albums came out they were the result of people making collisions between things that seemed incompatible, with all sorts of interesting side-effects. Now all the implications seem to have been explored as far as possible... all those bands who form one week and play the next and record the next, they've each taken one small aspect as far as it can go.
That's right. In a way, that exploration is really interesting because each one concludes a particular area. My feeling about most of the new-wave stuff... well, actually it's also what I felt about The Beatles, that far from the beginning of something, it was really the end of something. It's saying: we recognise all these ideas, if you take this one it can go this far, and the next one can go this far and so on... and really that's the end of that. So now what do you do?
Which is why Sgt. Pepper was their least interesting work, being the most explicit.
Exactly. My feelings too. Things are always least interesting when they're most clear, in a way, when everybody understands what's going on. I suppose the quality I've always liked in music is the sense of being baffled... 'God, I like this, but I don't know why!'
I was talking to David Bowie about this. We were talking about the records that first affected us and I said that the first one that I can really remember being awe-struck by was Get A Job, by The Silhouettes, because I'd never heard doo-wop or anything like it, so it was a mystery, and really thrilling as well. He said it was either Eight Miles High or Mr Tambourine Man for him, that sound just made him shiver.
As you get older, you get fewer and fewer of those kind of thrills because you learn what the context of things is, so I can listen to The Silhouettes now and say 'Oh yes that's New York doo-wop,' or whatever... and just being able to place it like that immediately reduces it, knowing that it's one of many similar things, rather than being this strange singularity. I said to avoid that I suppose one of the reasons one becomes a composer is that you want to recreate that thrill for yourself. You want to do something that makes you say 'God, where did that come from?'
And he said a great thing. He said 'Sometimes I write lyrics and I don't really understand them.' I knew exactly what he meant, because sometimes you do something that is, for want of a better word, meaningful, and yet you don't know what the meaning is. That's the thrill.
Now in a way it seems to me that, in rock music, I do know what the meaning is. I know where it comes from, where it's going to, how it's made, what the aspirations and philosophy were, and so on. So I suppose I'm still searching for that sense of mystery, and I find it in a different place now. I found it, for instance, in those Arabic pop songs. Hearing those for the first time was just like listening to The Silhouettes.
The rise of pop music coincided with the appearance of certain kinds of technology which made new effects possible very frequently, didn't it? Maybe that's the one really special quality about rock 'n' roll that Arabic music or Western classical music have never possessed...
You rely on technical innovations a great deal in rock 'n' roll, I think. In fact I gave a lecture once where I traced a history of rock music entirely in terms of how recording studios developed. It was an artificial concept, but actually it turned out to be not such a spurious theory as one might think at first. Rock music is very much to do with people getting excited about sounds, and the generation of electronic sounds is obviously to do with technology. But I did another lecture called The Development Of Sound As A Language, where I wanted to explore the idea that contemporary music, having freed itself from the finite set of sounds that orchestras and classical instruments have, was concerned not so much with structure and melody and rhythm as with the overall sound quality of the track... in much the same a that David Bowie said he'd never heard a sound like that 12-string guitar.
Actually, something similar happened in classical music when Steinway brought out the third pedal on the piano. Debussy wrote a whole set of pieces for that piano, because the sound was so thrilling to him. Similarly when other instruments have been invented... of course, in classical music this happened very slowly, you could expect something as revolutionary as that only maybe every thirty years. Now in pop music, every year...
Well, every week at certain points in time...
That's right. Suddenly there's a whole new area... it's like discovering a million new colours. Imagine if that happened in painting... there would be a whole new breed of painters who'd concentrate on colour. In fact it did happen in a small way in painting when acrylics came out... but it's such a commonplace in pop music that people don't even think about it any more. You don't think that it's a music: that's very much to do with technology.
Well, now... I didn't think of this before, but I suppose this brings me to my disenchantment, because I suppose I explored this technology as much as anyone else... I've made a conscious decision, that's the area I work in, but the situation is one of diminishing returns, now, because although I can still go into studio and do things that surprise me, it happens less often on that level. So now I'm starting to get interested in different uses of technology.
One example is that I'm interested in multi-channel sound. It's a very awkward thing to be interested in, because it necessarily confines you to one particular area. I've been working conceptually not practically yet, very much on the idea of constructing an environment that has... for instance, if it was this room, it would have a speaker in each corner, and each one of the speakers would have a different noise coming from it, so that your position in the room would give you a particular mix. Technically, it's very easy, but to reproduce it is a different issue, so in a way that gets you away from making records. It means that you start constructing environments that people go to, rather than making your records that go to people. It's a different orientation.
Video, again... there isn't really a market for video yet, so you're working in a much smaller area. And I want to take next year (1980) off, and I want to live in California and experiment with these notions.
But haven't you just taken the best part of a year off?
I know. I need another one. I've realised that that was just the start of it.
Why did you take that first sabbatical?
Well, I was stuck, really... in a funny way. Stuck with more offers to do things than I've ever had before. Some of them were interesting but the momentum problem was going to arise... It would be 'just one more' and then 'just one more' after that.
The reason for doing it was that I thought I should spend some time alone. I spend nearly all my time with other people... what I'm involved in is a social art, I'm a social kind of person anyway. Yet I find that if I can live through the initial tedium of my own company, which usually lasts about four days, I find it very interesting to be alone. I start thinking in a way that's extremely acute. I'm thinking about different things, I think better and faster, and I'm much more courageous in what I think because as soon as you forget the society that you're part of, it's much easier to move against its norms.
So I thought I had to do it again, because the first time taught me that I don't want to go to an exotic place to do it. At first I thought, well obviously the way to do it is really to get out of the West and go somewhere completely strange. Actually, it was so strange that it was a bit overwhelming, and I didn't actually do what I wanted to do.
I just wanted to think, and think out a new direction for working.
You didn't plan to work on anything specific?
No. And I know I won't do it if I'm continually replugging in to the Old Me, whatever that is. Any identity that you assume has a kind of inertia beyond the point at which you want to drop it, and it just takes a long while for that to get out. So my going away was a deliberate celibacy in a way. I took four books, I think, and a few things on tape, which I selected very carefully...
[Three of the books which Eno took to Asia were Beyond Spiritual Materialism, Objective Knowledge, and The Class System In India. The tapes included music by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Bulgarian singing, the slow movements from all Beethoven's late string quartets, Harold Budd's Obscure album, one cassette featuring thirty seconds from every record in his "very small" collection, and a BBC record of spoken English dialects.]
The spoken English record led to something quite interesting. I really started getting interested in the way ordinary people talk, and in the musical aspect of their talking... particularly country people. In any country dialect, there's a lot of what in scientific terms would be called 'redundant information', which is thrown in for musical reasons, so there's a whole bunch of words that keep getting used with the sole function of making the thing sound nicer.
I started thinking abut that. Mentally, I'd already given up the idea of writing songs... one of the reasons being that, after hearing those Arabs, I'm less interested in the sound of my own voice. God, I feel like a two-year-old in comparison. So I started thinking that these things the dialects are already music, and you could point to that fact by putting them in a musical context. You heard the thing with the phone-in conversation...
[Eno had previously played me a new piece which revolved around a fragment of speech recorded from the radio in New York, in which a politician, was replying to a caller.]
...and I've been working mostly in that direction, mostly taking radio voices because they're easy to get hold of, and putting them to music. I like this direction very much... it seems to me a useful area to be involved in. It satisfies a lot of interesting ideas for me. One is making the ordinary interesting, which I've always been interested in doing. The other is finding music where music wasn't supposed to have been. And another is finding a pre-delivered message, which you put in a context so that the meaning is changed, or the context amplifies certain aspects of the meaning.
I haven't done enough to these to be talking so authoritatively, but sometimes in a single sound-source, like a voice speaking, there's everything you need. You can find it all there, and you don't have to go to complicated extremes. I'm now coming back to that position of thinking. Well, sure, there are all these studios with half a million pounds' worth of equipment, that's one way of doing it, but another way is taking something very simple and finding it in that. And it kind of suits me more at the moment to do that.
I'm sick of working in studios. I want to do something... well, the truth is that I want to do something painstaking. That's the thing. The day before yesterday, I went to see Peter Schmidt, who'd been living alone in Scotland for a while, painting in water-colours. I was very impressed by one water-colour that's grass and rocks, and he'd just done all these little blades of grass. I thought 'God, I really want to abandon myself to something where the time doesn't matter, were I don't begrudge spending that much time on something, I just sit down and it becomes almost automatic.'
That sounds more like mental therapy than anything else.
Yes, it is a therapy, but it's also useful because you can charge yourself up during the time you're doing something like that. The Japanese method of doing calligraphy, or so one hears, is to spend almost all of the day grinding your inks, preparing your paper, cutting your brushes, all of which is a long ritual with a particular time of the day for each task, and then at the end of the day you go... [makes slashing movement] ...and that's the work done. I've seen those calligraphers at work, and they really do work fast and seemingly almost faultlessly, and it's as though that long process of doing all these routine jobs is a way of getting the charge... and the ease as well. It's a balance of those things.
Now I think that going into the studio, all you get is the charge... £60 an hour! But you don't get the ease, it's too pressurised a situation to operate easily in, for me anyway. So I want to be involved in something where it doesn't really matter if it takes six hours to do something that's only going to be a tiny detail. I suppose I'm looking for a discipline, really.
THE MIRE OF OPTIONS
Looked at coldly, all that stuff about wanting time and ease sounds horribly like wanting to get yourself together in the country.
I know. That's why I say it's a frightening move, because one has seen it happen so many times when what it actually means is the time and ease to be conceptually lazy. I just have to trust that it won't happen to me. I'm too much of a worrier for that, I think.
You see, I've been working in one way for quite a long time, and another way of working it seems to me is is struggling to get out. But it just doesn't have the time to emerge. This is indicated by the disparity in what I make and what I listen to... those two things tend to be quite far apart. Now I think maybe they should get a bit closer.
When you're in the studio, the things that convince you that you're achieving something are the things that give you this charge of energy. When you're doing something like Music For Airports, it's so laid back that it's hard to convince yourself that you're doing anything. It's not until you take it home and realise that you really enjoy it, and that that's the mood you want from music... something as slow as that.
I have a theory that, as a maker you tend to put in twice as much as you need as a listener. It's the symptom of contemporary production. That's why old records are interesting, because they don't have that problem a lot of the time. With the facilities that you have today, you tend to plug every hole... you're always looking for that charge, so you put more and more in to get it. But as a listener you're much less demanding... you can take things that are much simpler, much more open, and much slower. It's often happened that I've made a piece and ended up slowing it down by as much as half. Discreet Music is an example: that's half the speed at which it was recorded.
One of my theories about why new-wave music gets so fast is that you get the charge from it at that speed. But the thing about rock music is that it gives the illusion of being incredibly urgent and fast-changing, so your overall time-scale tends to get more and more compressed... to the point at which you're thinking, 'Fuck me, a week? I can't afford to take a week off... I've got to have a record out within two months or everyone will have forgotten me.' I don't like living at that speed very much. Well... I get a charge from it as well...
It might be nice to be able to vary it...
That's right. You want to be ale to live on a number of different time-scales at once. At present, my life is all in that fifth-gear time-scale. It's partly because I don't have a place to live. I haven't really had a place that I regard as home for the past three or four years, I'm always shifting about from place to place, so the only continuum that I have is my work. And I think that if you want a realistic continuum in your work, it has to reflect one that's in the rest of your life. But the rest of my life is all over the place, especially in New York.
When I'm there, every day is unique and quite different. I get up at a different time, I eat breakfast at a new place, or not, I see different people, work with other different kinds of people, on different kinds of music, or video, or this or that, or giving lectures or writing or whatever. Well, that's all very admirable in one way... one flatters oneself with the image of being the Renaissance Man or something, but I really would like to be somewhere for a while. The central problem of my life.
So are you trying to deliver an album on time before you go away this time?
Well, actually, no. I was... but I just abandoned a whole lot of work. I thought it was turning out to be 'more of the same', and I don't... I even think it would've been a good record, it's not that, but I think what I might deliver is an EP, because think I've got enough material to make an album with four really good tracks on it, therefore I've got enough for a truly great EP. So that will be my output for this year.
What aspect of your work do they represent?
Three of them were made in New York (with David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, David Van Tieghem and others), and one was made here. But they're all the phone-voice type things, so they're a coherent body of work. The first in that series was really the thing I did with Snatch, RAF, on the B-side of King's Lead Hat. I like that very much... I was even thinking of re-releasing it on this EP. Listening to it now, I really think it's got something. John Peel played it once, and he said a very nice thing about it, that it reminded him of John Heartfield's collages. I thought that very nice company to be placed in.
Can you see any specific projects to be done when you come back from California?
The truth of it is that I'm in a dilemma. In what the Buddhists call the Mire of Options, where it seems that every possibility is open to me. Not that I don't know which one to do, but the one that pulls me most strongly is the one that everyone else is least interested in. So I know I won't do it as long as I'm in the company of other people who're always encouraging all the other aspects of what I do. Going away is just to see what'll become of this niggling undercurrent if it's left to its own devices.
THE THRILLING GAME
Aside from your diminishing interest in rock music generally, I can't imagine that you've been particularly captivated by what's been in going on in Britain over the past couple of years.
Not really. There seem to have been so many false prophets here... and there too, actually. It's obvious to me that everyone desperately wants The New Thing to happen, and yet... so, consequently, you get these poor innocent people who suddenly get this status conferred on this in a week: suddenly this is the band, those are the ones! And, of course, it's bad news for them, too.
What do you think about Gary Numan?
Well, let me think ... [long pause] ... I heard about him a lot before I ever got to hear one of his records. I heard all these descriptions of him, and... I must be quite honest... I was a bit disappointed when I heard the albums. Again, it seems like a conclusion, you know? If you take all these ingredients and put them together, they're all quite attractive... I really didn't like it a lot. I didn't dislike it, either, but I suppose I was disappointed. When you see three albums in the Top 20, you think something must be happening ...
There really seems to be a contemporary update of what you and Kraftwerk and Bowie have been doing for the past few years. All those people hanging around Blitz in Covent Garden...
Yeah. I can't get too thrilled about it, actually. I think it's possible that... rock music has to be made by young people. I've never thought that before, but I do now. I think it requires enthusiasm, energy, and speed... natural speed. Jon Hassell put it well: he said that the tendency of rock music in the past few years has been towards irony, in the sense that it's either pastiche or parody... deliberate poking fun at rock itself. The Tubes are a paradigm of that. He also said, and I agree with him, 'What I'm really interested in is its sincerity'... which is the opposite pole from that.
I really want to believe that the music has resonances below being a kind of thrilling game. Consequently this idea of Fourth World Music that Hassell has, of making something that's culturally distinct, so you're not sure where it came from and that could be listened to by people from lots of other cultures, is an interesting aspiration.
But the other thing is that this music will be vulnerable, in a way, because it's sincere. You can't attack something that's in the ironic mode, because it's already taken that step by attacking itself. I was listening to the new Zappa album, and I thought, 'This guy is so talented, and such a berk at the same time.' He just can't stop not taking himself seriously... he refuses, he's frightened of taking himself seriously because as soon as he does, he knows he's going to be attacked.
It's true: as soon as you drop that witty clown attitude, you expose yourself... because you're saying, 'This is actually what I really believe in.' Zappa is a paradigm of somebody who never takes that position. He writes beautiful tunes sometimes, which he destroys in the next bar.
A lot of people might say that you and Roxy Music were responsible for inventing that sort of self-referential rock, what one might call "metarock".
I think so, too. I suppose my disenchantment with that, and with some of what I did, was from the same feeling. In fact I suppose that's a good way of making the division between the work I'm doing. There are two separate strands going on: sometimes I describe them as 'the slow stuff' and 'the stuff with a beat', but actually a more accurate division would be 'the ironic stuff' and 'the sincere stuff'. The 'ironic' mode would be about distorting the currency of rock music in some way so that it's a very conscious working within a tradition, and it relies on people having a good knowledge of that tradition to understand it.
Most records that go out these days from new bands don't work at all unless you know a great deal about the tradition of rock music.
Yes, it really is culturally inbred music now. One of the great things about rock music has been that what comes out actually is an overall sound for the times. I heard Da Doo Ron Ron on the radio today, and I thought, 'God, that's so identifiably of its period, everything about it has the feeling of that time... and if I'd never heard it before, I'd be able to place it in time very accurately.' With that placement, you can place a whole lot of... well, lifestyle attitudes that go with it.
But of course we didn't have people saying that The Crystals were the saviours of Western culture at that time. Two aspects of this go hand in hand: just as Roxy and Bowie and others produced the metarock thing, so the critics were equally responsible... because they all wanted to say, 'Look, this is more than just a game... there's some Big Deal going on here'.
It would be interesting to know what would've happened to music if a lot of people hadn't felt that way in the early '70s. But it isn't just critics who think like that. A lot or musicians seem to operate as critics in a sense. In fact that's virtually what metamusicians are.
That's right. They're already playing the part of the critic as well when they make the work.
And implicit in what they do is a critique of other people's music.
Yes... each piece of music stands as a re-evaluation of rock music to date. It says 'This it is okay, this isn't.' Re-evaluation is an idea that interests me a lot. It's normally assumed that the artist is the one who innovates... but actually, if you look at what artists do, maybe four per cent of their work is innovation, then there are a whole lot of other things.
For instance, they ignore a whole lot of available options. They re-evaluate a whole lot of other things that already existed from the whole history of their medium, and they choose to repeat these ones. They definitely condemn other aspects. So 'ignoring', 're-evaluating' and 'condemning'... three different ways of dealing with your history to date and re-using that history. And I think what's problematic about criticism is that it always wants to concentrate on that little four per cent (of innovation) without seeing the hole of the rest of the work.
I wouldn't be a critic, for sure. I couldn't do it. I would hate to hurt people's feelings. I really would.