"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno

Musician OCTOBER 1982 - by Kristine McKenna


Music theorist Brian Eno, who first came into prominence as a member of Roxy Music, has been a powerful bellwether of popular music for the past decade. One of contemporary music's most inventive and controversial producers, Eno has done collaborative projects with some of rock's most exotic figures and is largely credited with introducing synthesizers and African rhythms into the new wave vocabulary, yet his own compositions have grown increasingly unpop as the years have passed. For the past six of them, Eno has been investigating what he refers to as ambient music. Atmospheric aural washes that exert a subtle presence akin to a slight shift in the weather, this music has not been very popular, perhaps because people misunderstand its intent and measure it with the same yardstick they'd apply to a Rolling Stones record. Eno contends that music can be used in a variety of ways and these records are not designed to occupy the center of one's attention, as do most rock records. They're to be approached more with the frame of mind one might bring to a panoramic view or a leisurely trip by car. Eno's latest exercise in ambience is called On Land and he feels it's the best work he's ever done. On March 19, 1982 we talked about this record, time, space and gospel music.

MUSICIAN: What's the most widely held misconception about your work?

ENO: That it's cold and unemotional. Many people think that, probably because it doesn't have the sort of obvious passion of The Clash or The Rolling Stones.

MUSICIAN: Do you think that's passionate music?

ENO: No, I don't. It's obviously dramatic but there's a difference between drama and passion and this stuff of mine, particularly my new record, isn't very dramatic - if anything, it's melodramatic. But for me it's far from cold and unemotional.

MUSICIAN: Are there taboos in music?

ENO: There are social taboos, for instance, going soft is taboo. People often say of composers who, like myself, started off doing things that seemed wild and manic, then do some things that aren't wild and manic, that their music has become escapist and has nothing to do with the world we live in. My reply to that is we live in many different worlds and can to some extent choose which world we live in. And acknowledging only the harsh urban reality, the grit, grime and struggle, then you create that world too. You don't just reflect it, you make more of it. If I insist on living in a world that's more mysterious and diffuse than that, then I create that too - not only for me but for other people who also agree that that world exists. Most taboos are ideological positions that people fail to realize are merely temporary positions. The one I just referred to - the harsh urban reality - assumes that it can't be music unless it has those abrasive qualities, but that's just not true. This is something of this time and place and plenty of other music has existed without any of that aspect at all.

MUSICIAN: Why are the ideas of newness and innovation so valued in art?

ENO: They're overvalued really. Or, I should say that they're valued to the point where they become a target for people to aim at and that's a self-defeating proposal. It's like calling someone up and saying, Look, next Friday we're going to get together and have a really interesting conversation. Really brilliant now, we're going to think some really new things! Then you call a few days later and say, Don't forget Friday, this conversation is going to be really interesting. You build this up and by the time Friday comes of course you're tongue tied because you daren't say anything that's clumsy or familiar. You daren't do any of the things that are likely to open you up into a new area. New ideas are nearly always slight shifts of things that are already very familiar to you.

MUSICIAN: Then the reverence for originality is the very thing that prohibits its surfacing too frequently?

ENO: Definitely. One of the things that's interesting about nearly all ethnic music is that it doesn't have that idea. In reggae you hear the same riffs year after year in a shifting context. The idea there is to use a thing for as long as it still means something. The idea in the fine art culture is to drop something as soon as you can no longer claim it as only yours. As soon as other people are onto it you have to drop it and go elsewhere - and that's such a stupidly childish attitude.

MUSICIAN: How do you intend for your new record to be used?

ENO: The way I use it, which isn't necessarily the way anyone else has to use it, is I sit in the little soundproof room I have at home - a luxury to begin with - with the lights dim, and I listen and imagine I'm in the places that the music represents to me.

MUSICIAN: I read an essay you wrote about the making of On Land wherein you inferred that the record is concerned with the realm of memory. The past seems to be a source of great unhappiness for most people - sort of a one-way ticket to melancholy - yet you seem to be presenting memory as a source of pleasure.

ENO: First off, the record is very much connected with thinking about my childhood again. I agree with you that the past is a source of melancholy but I like melancholy and have never found it to be the same thing as moroseness or sadness. I've always enjoyed being melancholy, perhaps because that mood is very much a feature of the environment where I grew up. It's a very bleak place and most visitors find it quite miserable. I don't think it's miserable but it's definitely a sort of lost place in a lost time - nothing has changed in this part of England for many hundreds of years.

MUSICIAN: Do you think most people took back fondly at their past?

ENO: I think they do but they also look back regretfully, as though they can't tap into it anymore. One of the things I wanted to do with this record was to find out if, in fact, you can tap into the past and make use of those feelings again. Instead of looking back and saying, Those were the days, it's all gone now, I view it as, Those were the days and they're still present in my mind if I choose to call them to my attention.

MUSICIAN: The music on On Land strikes me as a bit spooky. Was that intentional?

ENO: Yes, a little bit, a nice kind of spooky. It sort of gives you the willies, you know, that slightly thrilling sense that you're almost in some other time, not quite in touch with the present. I've been thinking a lot about that sensation of not being in touch with the present and that's a sort of misleading description of the feeling because what's really happening is your sense of the present is actually expanded beyond what it normally is. For instance, when I'm in New York and I use the word now, what I mean is sometime between yesterday and tomorrow. When I'm in the place where I grew up and I use the word now I'm referring to a much more extended time period that goes back a long way and into the future a long way. I think peasant-type people commonly feel that, because they're in touch with their relatives and ancestors so there's some kind of reality to that continuum they belong to. I think their sense of now is nowhere near as crisply defined as the urban sense of now.

MUSICIAN: In your essay you used the phrase listening to the world in a musical way, and I assume that in one respect this record is intended as a tool to teach people to enjoy non-musical sounds. But most ambient noise - in the city at least - is filled with anxiety and tension - the very things we turn to the artificial language of music to escape.

ENO: I agree. If you listen to city noises close up they are very hard to take and are filled with angst and trauma. But if you listen to anything in the city at the right distance, you cease to hear the individual event and it becomes a kind of hum that I find exciting and not threatening in the same way. When you're out in the country you hear sounds that seem quite lovely and pastoral but those too are probably the sounds of emergency. That little bird singing is probably sounding some kind of an alarm and the screeching monkey has probably lost his mother. So it's really a question of your mental proximity to the source of the sound. If you're slightly removed from it, you hear it not as an individual and terrible emergency, but as part of the fabric of things, which is composed of joy, pain and everything else. So it's a feeling of moving back from it a little bit. The same applies to the videos I've been doing. I recently realized that what made them nice was the fact that they show everything at a distance. It's as though they push the city away in order to restore it to the kind of mythical place it once seemed - a mysterious hive of activity with all sorts of curious human interaction going on.

MUSICIAN: Do you still find New York a creatively stimulating place?

ENO: Lately I've found it more so. I went through a period where I was very unhappy in New York but I got through that and now I'm quite enjoying living here. I think that's partly because I have my little soundproof room, which is a most crucial counter-balance to the rest of the city for me.

MUSICIAN: How much time do you spend in this room?

ENO: A terrific amount of time. If I'm not in a recording studio or in some other country, I spend between six and twelve hours a day in there. It's a small room - about eleven by twelve feet - but it's somehow got a very nice quality about it. I don't know why but I still get excited when I walk through that door. I feel that I'm entering a sort of sacred space somehow.

MUSICIAN: What prompted you to build it?

ENO: When I lived in London I had a tiny room which was half the size of this one. I had my tape recorders and whatnot in there and I used to spend a very long time in that room as well. I always looked back on that time and remembered how much I enjoyed working in that room. I didn't enjoy it all the time - working is sometimes very boring - but my overall memory of that period was sitting in this little room and doing things that interested me. So when I bought my loft in New York, it was large enough to build a large studio and my first feeling was, Oh, good, now I can have a big room to work in. Then I thought about it and realized that I actually like small spaces. I can keep a small space tidy and well organized, whereas in a bigger space I end up with heaps of unfinished things sitting in corners and the room loses its quality of being purposeful. So I thought, There's three things I need in this city; silence and darkness, and this room I can make totally dark and nearly silent. The other thing I wanted was to be able to make noise that nobody else could hear. That's quite important as I hate thinking that people are listening to me make a fool of myself.

MUSICIAN: Will working in this room make your next record very different?

ENO: Definitely, although I don't know how different because On Land came out of this room in a way. Although I started the work some time ago, the assessment and finishing of the thing really came from being in that room and listening to it over and over again. The thing about this room is that it's a controllable environment where I can change the sound, light, smell and temperature. So I started experimenting, listening to things to see what effect it had to change the conditions in the room. What's the difference between listening to something in total darkness and bright light? The difference between a warm room and a cold room? One of the things I realized is that there's really a need to clarify what various pieces of music are for. Records all look the same, are sold in the same places, packaged in the same way and played on the same equipment, so the inclination is to think that it's all the same thing, which is a mistake. It's like thinking that everything that has printed words on it is a novel. In the printed word format we have ready-made distinctions, newspapers, books and whatnot. We have ways of knowing what the intended focus, mood and endurability of the work are. Records are presented as though it's all the same stuff, and I realized in fiddling with the conditions in my room that it makes an enormous difference in how you treat music as far as what you'll understand from it.

MUSICIAN: But a record buyer is fiddling with parameters in the editing process he or she uses prior to making a purchase. I'm sure that someone buying one of your records assumes to a degree what they're going to get - and whether it's there or not that's probably what they hear.

ENO: Yes, there's definitely an interplay between one's expectations and what the work actually provides - and any piece of work that's good will allow expectations to operate to an extent.

MUSICIAN: Which is stronger, the tools available to a musician or the preconceived ideas and experiences that the listener brings to a work? Whose will is apt to reign?

ENO: In between those two conditions is the work itself. You have a set of intentions and tools that produces this thing, then you have this thing that triggers a set of expectations. It's possible to imagine a piece of work that is completely transparent in either of those directions, where all the listener hears is the tools and ideas and it's very apparent to him that that's all that exists. A lot of the most doctrinaire avant-garde music is like that. All you hear is somebody's musical system being worked out on tools that are deliberately non-evocative, so the work has a diagrammatic quality. That's one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum, the one that interests me, is the possibility of the listener being presented with music that he has no idea what it relates to. My early musical experiences were a lot like that. When I first heard doo-wop I was really young and I had no idea where America was, let alone where doo-wop came from. I can remember the fascination I had with this music that just appeared without any ancestry that I knew of. It was like discovering some animal you couldn't dream of, with two heads, one leg and a big eye.

MUSICIAN: Do you think that the more we're able to intellectualize a thing, the less power it has over us?

ENO: If a work is presented in such a way to make intellectualizing happen more than anything else, then I think it has somehow failed. More and more I find myself wanting to have experiences with music that are sort of religious. That doo-wop experience was sort of religious for me.

MUSICIAN: What was the last religious musical experience you had?

ENO: I'm embarrassed to admit it, but with my new record. It sounds a bit arrogant to say it, but I listen to this record almost with bated breath. I find it really moving and actually think it's the best work I've ever done.

MUSICIAN: How do you feel about your early records?

ENO: I don't discount them, but they all seem to be pointing towards whatever I'm most excited about at the moment. I can say, yeah, that's good and fine, I like it and it had to be that way at the time but the real thing is this one now. Actually the real thing is the one I'm going to do next.

MUSICIAN: Are you working on another record now?

ENO: Yes, before I finished On Land I started thinking about a new one. Something that made a big difference with On Land was the notes I took long before the record was finished. They weren't originally intended to be notes for the record and I wrote about 25,000 words on general thoughts about music. In doing that I started getting a much clearer idea of what I was doing than I've ever had while I was actually in the midst of making a record. Usually I just sort of stumble on things. I'll find myself intrigued by something so I'll carry on with it until there's a result and I release it. This project started that way but at a certain point it came into consciousness in a way things don't normally do until they're finished. So I began to think not only of this record but of what could happen after it.

MUSICIAN: Are there specific issues that are best addressed in music?

ENO: I think there is something that particularly belongs to music and that's the way it allows you to monitor the changes in your perceptions over a period of time. This is, by the way, only true of recorded music. But in listening to a record repeatedly, you're hearing something that you know is identical every time it's played. It doesn't change, so if something seems different a change has clearly happened in you. So as you listen to a piece of music over a period of years and it assumes different levels of mood, connotation and meaning, what you're really hearing is your own shift going on.

MUSICIAN: I've always felt you have an appealing voice and it's something I've missed on your recent records. Why have you eliminated your voice from your records?

ENO: I like singing very much. I always have done and still sing a lot in my soundproof room. But singing on a record is a problem because with this record, and some of the others I've done, I didn't want to have a personality in them. I didn't want singing in the foreground.

MUSICIAN: Will a voice always upstage whatever else might be going on musically?

ENO: I think it's very hard to arrange it otherwise. It's only a really great singer who's able to use the voice to point up what the instruments are doing. Van Morrison is an example of someone who's able to work that way.

MUSICIAN: Do you think of yourself as a classical composer?

ENO: That term has so many unfortunate connotations that I'm a bit reluctant to use it but I suppose I am starting to think in those terms. I certainly lean more in that direction than in the rock direction. For a start, I don't think of my work in the short term, which I think is one of the differences. I don't think of On Land as an early 1982 record, or even an early '80s record. I hope it has a quality that it won't be earmarked as being specifically of this time.

MUSICIAN: It seems that your compositions are very dependent on your own idiosyncratic skills. Do you have hopes of your works being performed by other players in the future?

ENO: Somehow I don't think that can be. I think of them as having the kind of position a painting has. The records are objects in themselves and in a way have nothing to do with performance. A painting is what it is. Someone else might do an interpretation of it later on, but that doesn't necessarily relate to the intentions the first painter had when he did his. He thinks of his as being the definitive statement.

MUSICIAN: What step in the music-making process most often proves to be the undoing of a musician?

ENO: That's an interesting question. I would say the first step - having a solid idea and commitment to begin with. So much of the music I hear has all the right ingredients but none of the soul. The solid idea, the beginning, is soul of some kind. It's believing that working in this medium will benefit you spiritually and will somehow free a part of your spirit that is otherwise locked up because it can't find a convenient place to exit in the normal, day-to-day world. I guess it's what people call conviction. If you have that, you can work with any set of ingredients no matter how rubbishy they are. I've been listening to a lot of gospel music recently and some of the recordings I have are atrocious. The acoustics are dreadful, the pressings are filthy - everything is wrong. They've got none of the ingredients normally considered to be part of a successful work, but they have so much of that other ingredient that you don't even notice the lack of those other things. What I hear with so many of the new English synthesizer bands is all the ingredients for contemporary pop respectability. You can check them off: use of the studio in a creative way, electronics, modern rhythms, clean productions, slightly meaningful lyrics, correct haircuts, the right ideological stance - the whole bag of bananas. They have all that stuff but they miss because they don't convey any sense that doing music is really critical to their lives.

MUSICIAN: What governs whether or not a person has that magic ingredient?

ENO: I know it's not a matter of ambition. That's not to say you couldn't have that quality and be ambitious as well - that's obviously quite possible. I think it's particularly a matter of stubbornness.

MUSICIAN: That soul quality seems to be connected with having the strength to reveal vulnerability.

ENO: That's right - daring to expose something. Nearly all the music I like now is totally exposed. It's so open to criticism, it's as though it's let its pants down. Everything's wrong with it and yet somehow the music just rides above all that.

MUSICIAN: Does innocence equal soul?

ENO: That's part of it. In a sense, innocence is deciding not to concern yourself with certain considerations. For instance, one of the interesting things about being an artist now is that there are two very obvious ways to get critical acclaim. One is to be safe and within a format, but to work rather well within that format. The other is to be radical. Those are both easily defensible positions. With one you can say, I'm doing my job, I'm doing it well, people like it, it's cool. People will criticize it within those terms and say, Yeah, it's a great dance record - which is fine. There's nothing wrong with a great dance record. With the other safe position, the radical, avant-garde stance, you say, I'm staying true to my ideas and principles and they're terribly important to me blah blah blah. People will rally round and say, God, it's so great, I can't understand it. The difficult position is to be somewhere between those two poles and most of the music that interests me falls in that middle ground. It isn't radical just for the sake of it and it's innovative, radical and familiar almost by accident. It happens to connect with things within one. This is the area where the critics will hit you because they think you've not made a commitment to either pole.

MUSICIAN: What would be an example of that? Not gospel music - that doesn't even enter the realm of criticism.

ENO: That's why - because it's in exactly that area. Gospel music is very innovative but it doesn't intend to be. You don't imagine gospel groups sitting around talking about Steve Reich.

MUSICIAN: In the essay you wrote you listed the rules you set for yourself in the making of On Land. Does it free you creatively to impose arbitrary boundaries?

ENO: It did in this case. I think I'd gotten a bit blase about the use of the studio, in fact, I think everyone's pretty blasé about the use of the studio at the moment. This is one of the major problems with contemporary rock records. Studio technology allows people to work with a kind of semi-commitment because they know they can erase their mistakes and try again. That's all very well but what makes live recordings and old records, where they didn't have that option, so exciting is the feeling that that person was actually on the line when they did it. That's a kind of spiritual quality you can't quantify but I'm convinced you hear it in music and see it in films when it's there. In listening to the music that I love I've come to realize that the common thread that runs through it is the fact that at the moment these people made these noises, that was their reality. They weren't thinking I can do it again later or fiddle with it in the mix. This was it, this was the moment for them, and that sense that the thing was real when it was being made is what communicates in a piece of work.

MUSICIAN: Then one of the primary pitfalls of success is knowing you'll always get another shot?

ENO: Yes, I think that's a very dangerous area to be in. And if you're in that position, you must construct ways, sometimes quite contrived ways, to foil that thing in yourself.

MUSICIAN: Do you still use Oblique Strategies?

ENO: Yes, but now I use them in a much more discreet way. I remember most of them now so I don't often go pulling them out of the pack. They're sort of in my mind now and they frequently come to mind when I'm working.

MUSICIAN: What percentage of your work and ideas do you discard?

ENO: Of the work, quite a lot. The discarding is often temporary in the sense that I'll throw something away but then it gets actually physcially built into something later on. I use the same pieces of tape and take little bits out of them, or play with the speed of them. At first making of something I'd say I discard about eighty percent and sometimes it goes up to a hundred percent. But I don't discard many ideas because I don't idly pursue ideas. If something excites me once, it continues to excite me, and nearly every idea I've ever had has been built into something somewhere. Some of the ideas in On Land are absolutely years old and were among my first musical ideas. And they just waited in line until they were used.

MUSICIAN: Now that you've employed them in a way you find satisfying, are you finished with those ideas?

ENO: No, I really feel that I've just started. That's why when I was doing this record I was already thinking about the next one. The reason I'm so excited about this and so anxious to tell the world about it is because I feel like I've stumbled into this really rich territory that's full of possibilities. I must say, I'm more excited about this than I ever have been about anything.

MUSICIAN: How do you expect On Land to do commercially?

ENO: Very poorly compared with my other records - which haven't done too well either. My reputation is far bigger than my sales. I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself thinking that some things generate their rewards in a second-hand way.

MUSICIAN: The music on On Land is very evocative. How do you see this music in relation to film? Are you interested in scoring films or do you see this as an entirely separate pursuit?

ENO: No, I don't see it as a separate pursuit. I'm really interested in scoring a good film and I've been sent many scripts but they haven't been that interesting. Unfortunately people send me scripts relating to what I was doing six years ago. So they're all films about punk rock and I'm supposed to write witty new wave tunes.

MUSICIAN: What steps do you take to edit the input you get from the world?

ENO: I don't see or hear that much, so I guess I do edit a lot. That sounds like an ostrich activity but concomitant with that is the fact that I really value what I do see and hear. My main input at the moment is not from music but from paintings and films and I spend a lot of time looking at both of those. The way I look at paintings is perhaps a screening process. I go into a gallery and walk through it very quickly. I don't try to look at everything but if something catches me I stay with it and just look at that. I take a little folding chair with me to the galleries. My idea right now is rather than trying to absorb everything, which is an impossible, tiring and rewardless task, to concentrate on fewer and fewer things. For the past few months I've been playing the same three records: gospel music and a record of an Arabic man singing the Koran.

MUSICIAN: What would you like to change about your life at this point?

ENO: I wish I had a place to live in a quiet, isolated place. It's just stupidity that I've not organized that yet. I think my little room is sort of a substitute for that. I'd also like to change the fact that I'm quite easily distracted. I like walking and I walk a lot in New York because when I'm walking I can sort of take over and think in a nice slow way. But I also have to look at everything that passes. I wish I weren't so fascinated by every little phenomenon that comes my way.

* Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards described by inventors Eno and the late Peter Schmit as over a hundred worthwhile dilemmas. Some sample strategies, to be drawn at random to consider a problem: Discard an Axiom, Cluster Analysis, Mechanicalize Something Idiosyncratic, Do Something Boring, Overtly Resist Change, You Can Only Devise One Dot at a Time and Water.