INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New Musical Express JULY 20, 1980 - by Cynthia Rose
BRIAN ENO: INTO THE SPIRIT WORLD
THE WHITE MAN'S GRAVE LOOK TO AFRICA
If there's one thing this corner of the late '70s and early '80s seems unlikely to be remembered for, it's naked enthusiasm.
The topics which preoccupy rock today - consumerism, imperialism, the vicissitudes of fashion, the victimisations of love, social deviance, 'rock culture,' apathy to the left and apathy to the right - may filter through formats which range from the punkish and impassioned to the futurisms of syntheseizure and reggae fusion. But somehow the patterns of this rich and shifting fabric make you think less about things like these than about how the musicians in question feel in relation to them.
Most of their feelings seem to presume some final collapse either as imminent or (at best) inexorable. At the Spandau Ballet end of his spectrum, this means acting on the worst sort of received decadence. At another end - say Joy Division's more Wagnerian moments - it means that artistic suspense and artistic mystery themselves may mutate into something more monstrous.
People feel pressed for time. And their hunger for images can't hide the sharper longing for substance, and the nagging sense of spent forces, which lie behind it. All together, these have succeeded in creating a climate of new Puritanism - suspicious of discovery and worried about anything which doesn't know its own name and parentage.
It's a climate which has lionised Brian Eno (who was handed, mailed, or planted with almost two hundred demo tapes during his first week in New York last year) as an icon of "cybernetic transistor cool" - the architect of a rarefied career in special effects. His succession of groundbreaking production jobs (with the original Ultravox!, Devo, the No New York bunch, and Talking Heads) which clinched the 'modern' reputations of the bands involved; his contributions to Low and "Heroes"; the ongoing series of explorations represented by Obscure Records and Ambient Music - all have contributed to a picture of Eno as rock's gadfly, continual refiner and re-definer of the role of theory in making rock.
That theoreticians can only make elitist musicians has been the persistent criticism of his detractors. Almost as persistent has been the deluge of oeuvres bogged down by sub-Eno conceptualising and technologising, from Throbbing Gristle to Gary Numan.
It has taken until this year for a critic (Billy Altman) to make the point that the essential wit of the original Roxy Music was due to Eno's inclination towards anti-tech chaos. Not that he put the litter in glitter. Just that he managed to transmute that certain je ne sais quoi of the early Roxy straight into a peculiarly twentieth century musical methodology, tucked it under his arm, and departed for more sacred spaces.
• • •
Eno has just spent most of the first year of the new decade in California, and the past month in Northumberland, where he isolated himself from music completely. He's deeply tanned, as fit as any San Diego jock, and the possessor of a pretty worldly pair of sunglasses with tortoise-shell frames and smoked lenses. In four days, he will fly back to New York. Within four months, he hopes to have set up residence in the place which has attracted so much of his attention over the past two years: Africa.
Eno feels good about that possibility, about his recent work, and about his present state of mind.
He explains that Time Out earlier requested his 'palm print' as the hook for an investigation of palmistry and they have now sent him a tape with the reader's rundown. As the palmist will later predict on the tape, he's "very interested to hear the analysis" and he settles into a black leather chair, scrutinising the furniture and smiling as the palmist reveals that he "has a streak of caution; he does not like taking risks" and "he is not simple enough - whatever he does is done well but he doesn't do it cleanly enough". Each of these assessments is greeted with a cry of "It's true!". But Eno amends the palmist's estimate that he could fall "deeply and classically" in love as much as "two or three times in his life" to "two or three times a week."
"He seems to be describing someone very like me but not quite me; that's what I think. I don't think I do fall obsessively in love in the way he means there, in the classic sense. He has to define things in terms of the relationships he recognises and maybe he just hasn't come across this thing I have.
"He says a very interesting thing in there, though. He makes a distinction which I've made myself but which no one else seems to see the difference between; he says that I am 'highly intuitive but not very imaginative'. And most people seem to think they're the same thing. I feel very relieved to learn that I'm not very imaginative! He does say that 'some sort creativity could be quite possible'... Yes! Most interesting. I haven't heard the whole of this tape but the girls in the office have and they say he goes into descriptions of things I've done, and gives dates for them. There are only two real mistakes in what I've heard... He says I'm well-built - ha ha..."
Does he mention what you were doing in California?
No! but I did some lectures and then I moved up to San Francisco and lived there for a while. Most of the lectures I gave were around San Francisco and the UC Berkeley. The Berkeley ones were eight hundred and fifty people per night; there were there of those and there two others which were quite big, about six hundred people.
What were you speaking on?
'The Recording Studio As A Compositional Tool'. There were two strands in the talk: one was talking about the special compositional possibilities that the recording studio offers as distinct from any other compositional mode, and the other strand was saying that this is actually a new art form, just as film was a new form of art.
I want to talk at an interesting level about how technical possibilities give rise to conceptual possibilities and vice-versa. For instance, how the possibility that you could completely reorganise the dynamic structure of a piece of music gave rise to funk. The fact that you could have a bass and a bass drum extremely loud in a way that wasn't possible in an ordinary playing environment can give rise to a whole form of music anchored round those two things, around the rhythm section.
Did you talk about how that evolved?
Yes. The lecture was in three parts. The first was history, technical history. The second was subsequent possibilities, and the third part was talking about my own use of the medium and my feelings about what kind of future that offered and also the interesting artistic question of Why This Now? That's always the question critics should be answering and hardly ever do. Why should this form evolve now rather than then?
It's not only technical possibilities, you know; there are clearly strong cultural reasons why things appear at a time. Not only why they suddenly appear, but why everyone suddenly likes them. Look at the ska revolution. I can remember listening to Prince Buster in '64; it's been there for ages and ages. Then there's a shift in public consciousness which makes it the form people want to hear.
What's your theory about that?
Well, first of all, I've always assumed that culture is a unity. I assume that cultural events don't happen in isolation from one another and that if a whole series of things are happening at one time, it's interesting to try and make a complete picture of them and to try and include everything in that picture. For instance, my cultural picture of England at the moment says ska - a return to a particular style of clothing which is a low fashion rather than a high fashion sensibility - Conservative government - disenchantment with labour structures - you know... Any created picture should try to accommodate all those facts rather than just pop music or what gets called rock culture.
Things happen for one of two reasons: either because people want them or because they don't want the alternative. Governments obviously often happen for the latter reason; whenever the choice is simple and binary you get a lot of that negative thing. The other factor is time lags; certain things like fashion are very rapidly-changing forms...
Rapidly ENGINEERED to change anyway.
Yes, I agree.
What we were talking about earlier - the readiness to accept credentials and the pressure to display credentials which is fashion - seems peculiarly endemic here.
I think it's because in this country everything is seen as ideologically linked. I was thinking about this the other day - actually I was responding to the (Ian Penman) review in NME of the Harold Budd and Jon Hassall records I've just done and I as thinking why does this piss me off? It didn't piss me off a lot, but before those records were released I wrote what I though was a mock-NME review as a joke while I was talking to Harold. Some of it I got word for word, and I thought, Fuck me! I've been away from this country two years and I can still make accurate predictions about what's going to happen on the 'fashionable' level.
I though, well, it's not interesting, and then I thought again - well, why isn't it interesting? And I decided what I thought had happened is that all the papers have got involved in a fairly local ideological struggle. They've all taken new wave and punk much more seriously than any musicians I know. For the musicians it was not even a defined term as such. No one who was working in that area saw such clear boundaries and definitions and meanings as writers have. And it seems to me now they have made such a heavy emotional investment that they have to put a lot of distance between themselves and anything which does not fit into a certain area - as those two records obviously don't.
But that investment has been made because - as you observed once yourself - many people hoped punk was the token of some possibility for a new social order.
Well, one of the criticisms I knew would be implicit in anything written about those two records was that they don't address the harsher realities of life... the popular illusion of what new wave did and is doing. My own answer to that in this case is it's true that they don't, but harsh realities are hardly the only realities worth looking at. I'm not saying the review was reactionary, just reactive.
What I was going to say before was that what happens here more than anywhere else is that every aesthetic judgement you make is immediately contrived as a set of ideological judgements. I say "Boy I really like that Michael Jackson record", the one we were just playing here, you know, and people would say "Oh yeah, that means he's into that, and doing that, and wants this." Now clearly there are ideological patterns at work in any choice one makes and you can't make choices without that being assumed at some level, but the problem with the media is that they never state their ideological assumptions - and they assume a tacit level of agreement backing them up, a cognoscenti.
Well, they try to enforce a tacit level of agreement to feed off financially. It's a political delusion... But then just look at the growth of something like the gossip press in recent years.
Well, the function of gossip in society is to continually re-discuss a moral position. And that's not such a bad thing to do, but the sad thing is that it always masquerades as another type of work being done.
It would seem, though, that there is a tacit desire to participate in that.
I think that's because there are more moral dilemmas to be dealt with these days. It's because the sense of community gossip has broken down a lot, especially in cities. So the community becomes a community of the culture, and instead of Mrs Smith down the road, it involves Sonny and Cher and Anthony Tennant. Although you don't know these people at all, they're watched closely for their social manners to see what they're doing, and the discussion is really about whether or not this is a propos. Though of course it's never put that way, it's nearly always put in terms of condemnation. The other tacit acceptance in gossip is that what's being condemned now is being condemned because it's fascinating, and that fact means it will soon be taken up.
But people here also relish reading about Bloodstained Nuns in Mercy Dashes to an extreme - because it protects them from the real news which looms up from just off the page.
Yes. Robert Wyatt said a smart thing, as he often does. He said, "Well the papers have to come out every day and the headlines always have to be the same size and it's as simple as that." It doesn't matter what the scale of an event is, you have to make it look as though something big is happening every day and of course the really big things, like the drought in Sudan, rarely happen on a single day! Those events involving huge numbers of people simply aren't like the tube crash last night, with a nice round number of people led whimpering out of the tunnels. The format of newspapers just isn't suited to real news - it isn't suited to giving the background, the present and the possible futures of an event. It's a newspaper thing; I don't know what you can do about it.
Well, you can educate people to recognise it but that sort of critical faculty isn't being much-encouraged today. In the '60s people had to learn it by default, but they observed the difference between what was happening and what...
Was reported as happening, yeah. Times are more hostile now, though, and people want to be orientated more. When your whole sense of the future is quite optimistic, your sense is also that you can afford to take risks. And the main kind of risk is to longer believe what you're told. That's the biggest personal risk you can take, to decide that you're going to make your own assessments, not just choose a side. It naturally puts you on uncertain, possibly correct, rather than certain, and almost certainly wrong, ground. If things are looking really rather grim, you tend to take whatever messages are being sent out and to choose from among them; you think "Well we really don't have an option but to trust" until things reach a point of terminal grimness. I guess that's a kind of revolutionary condition, but I don't think it amounts to revolution in the end.
The whimper rather than the bang?
What you said about the papers, I think that's interesting in a wider social context, and as an industry consideration - especially when dealing with people's taste and their choices about leisure. I'm think about the phenomenon of people being pushed down a chute towards the Next Big Thing and if that doesn't materialise being told 'Well there's just not much on, but here's the Next Big Thing' and being presented with that
Have you heard of the fire hose analogy, do you know about that? It comes from a Pentagon analyst who was describing Nixon's war on Cambodia. He said what really happened the air force had an allocation of so many bombs a year and in those kind of services if you have an allocation you have to get rid of 'em and if you don't your allocation is out...
Like the Arts Council.
Exactly. You don't return unused bombs. So, he said, what happens in defence is a fire hose situation where you have this much water coming out all the time - it just gets pointed at different places. So Cambodia was massively bombed for a total loss of maybe a hundred and sixty Viet Cong. Millions of acres bombed.
The firehose analogy is equally interesting in terms of the media - what happens is that there is a standard, a constant amount of attention coming out all the time and this sort of barrage of hype, and they have to be focused on something. If there isn't anyone interesting around, they'll get focused on someone less interesting. What would happen if one week the NME decided nothing genuinely interesting was going on and came out four pages long?
• • •
Well, among other things, it would be unable to record Eno's ecstatic embrace of his latest discovery: Northwestern Africa. Our talk has been intermittently recharged with roomfuls of the magnificent flamboyance of Fela Ransome-Kuti and his Africa 70 ("That's his seventy wives, the lucky fucker! He lives in a principality in Nigeria with all his wives"). Back on the black leather after an extended bop to Zombie, Eno humbly proselytises on behalf of his hero.
Maybe I can make the people of England forsake their new wave records and rush out to buy Fela Ransome-Kuti. Actually, I just hope people listen to it. He's one of the leading exponents of High Life music, but then there are plenty of others. It's a beautiful music - it's so thrilling to me. I could work twenty-four hours a day on this music. It's rhythmically sophisticated in an interesting way; it's perfect for dancing because it leaves holes in all the right places - it pulls your body in a most interesting way. Like the great revolution of reggae was that it left a hole somewhere where rock music always puts it in. And that poises your body on a precipice so you're constantly kept in motion. This leaves two hole generally...
You listen to this and you can't help but think, "What do we have? The fuckin' Jam!" I've had this record since '72 or '73, but lately I've been listening to High Life and African pop music quite a lot. There's a very good book I've been reading, too - African Rhythm And African Sensibility by John Miller Chernoff, I think it's University of Chicago Press. David Byrne and I started getting into African music and culture; well all the Talking Heads did, but David and I started work together which was very consciously influenced by it.
I like the idea of David doing the High Life!
Well, David's playing style is so akin to this... Oh God! I've got something else you should hear! You must have a quick listen to this while we talk. If you want to hear how well David fits into this area, listen to the guitar work on this song - this is Fela as well. Of course! But this sounds exactly like David Byrne (Eno stands and mimes along in an approximation of that Byrne playing style which caused him to nickname the Heads' work 'hoovering music'.)
What's interesting is that the playing is so accurate you don't get that sense of a lot of people playing. It's got all the energy of a small group. That's what makes small groups so attractive: there's no muddiness about anything. These guys play so beautifully rhythmically, that you have that sense, plus every rhythmic option. These pieces last a whole side of an album and the great thing is that the singing doesn't come in for at least twelve minutes. It's the other way round from the way we arrange things - all the singing then all the instruments going through all their permutations and changes and suddenly, by the time you've completely forgotten that there might be a song involved, suddenly the voice comes in. It's a big thrill
It's really slick, too. It's certainly as slick as that Michael Jackson.
Yeah, exactly. That's what I say (Eno is down on the carpet, animating the full-length album cover shot of Michael Jackson into a dance routine. The electric white socks Jackson is wearing bob up and down). I think that he's the other side of the coin. I think Michael Jackson made much greater cultural breakthroughs than anyone else who's around at the moment. But of course there are various ideological reasons why a young Englishman shouldn't like a record like Off The Wall - won't go down at all well with the boys.
Actually, yesterday I decided not to talk about Africa, you know. My thoughts on it are only from a perspective of my mind as I haven't been in black Africa at all. I've been thinking about it so much and my thoughts are unclear. So perhaps I should stick with something I'm more able to discuss. But I hope to be there in two to three months. I hope to live there for a while.
How did you get interested in it originally?
Well, the truth is it was through two things - African music and black women I met. Seeing people who never have any doubts that their being was completely linked from the head to the toes and that there wasn't any separation, and that sexuality was a thing of the mind and body, not just the body and not just the mind.
And the universe was a place charged with erotic possibilities - that's really the sense I get and it seems the sense they have.. Also the sense of sexuality being something... sublime, inseparable from every other social function. For instance, you see girls involved in the High Life dances in Nigeria and they're doing incredibly sexy dances, but what the records are singing about are ethical and religious problems and they're very serious records.
But there isn't a dichotomy there. People don't think, why's she dancing like that when there's this music on? It doesn't work like that, there is a continuity there which I find very attractive. And which I probably won't measure up to, I'm sure. I'm not of that frame of mind, I'm just an admirer of it at the moment. Maybe it's something which will develop.
Women have immense power in Ghana and Nigeria.
They do all over Africa! And they do it by the opposite technique from that feminists are adopting, in that they recognise and enhance their separateness. It would be unthinkable to them to educate men and women in the same way. It would be ridiculous! I mean, what happens in our schools is that children are sent to primary schools, actually a feministic educational system, so the boy's suffer there; then after that they're sent to universities which are very masculine in their educational orientation, so the women suffer from that. It seems to me that what we really should be thinking about is educating people in an interesting way tailored around their differences,
You mean with reference to assumed differences in their aims?
Observed differences in their aims, needs, and wants. Not that I think the aims of men and women are opposed, though. I think they lock in a very interesting way, the problem in the current power struggle that the type of power which is being usurped is male power. Leave that to men! Female power is the one to start working for.
I think one of the big cultural problems we have - which I've certainly contributed to and suffer from - is an uneasiness about our sexuality... a fear of being male or being female. Because both of those things are a little bit scorned, they're almost parodies. Like the pretty girl with the flowery dress and lots of scent is considered 'feminine', and the locker-room Joe knocking around on nights out with the boys is a masculine polarity of that. Of course both of those are strange perversions and neither of them really represent anything other than -
Yes, that's right. But the fact that they exist scares people away from looking at sexual polarities frankly. We live in an age of extraordinary Puritanism disguised as liberalism, whereas in Victorian times people were Puritan in a sense we recognise, putting covers on piano legs and all that.
I'll tell you a long anecdote which gives you an idea of what I mean. I was giving a lecture in New York and somebody asked me a question after the lecture. They said, How do you find working with women? And I said, Well, I haven't really worked with that many women and consequently, I don't think I can make any generalisations because they were all quite different, the few I have worked with. And I was chattering on about this and I said, I don't know there are any differences in that situation from a normal situation - and when I said ' a normal situation' everyone went OOOOOOOhhhhhhhh, uuuuuuuuhhhhhhhmmmmmm - as if I'd just given myself away. "Oh, so he thinks women are abnormal", you know? And I just thought, you stupid - Really! Clearly it is a normal situation for me to be in a studio full of men and it is an abnormal situation for women to be there just on a percentage basis. But their immediate interpretation of that was that I meant something loaded by normalcy.
I gave them a lecture about Puritanism then and there, because what that sort of stifling attitude results in is people becoming afraid to say what they mean because they've got all these little political considerations they mustn't offend. I've spent quite a lot of time recently re-evaluating all of these sort of bete noirs or betes noir, of polite society at the moment. Like 'the role of the female' or the role of aristocracies and hierarchies... various things; education is one of them. Things that one's always assumed oh, you can't discuss that, it's taken for granted that that is the case. I don't take it for granted anymore, or rather, I try not to!
The first thing, though, is to identify those things.
Yeah, it's very hard to identify your own assumptions. It's easy to see others' but your own ones are harder.
Do you find that through work you can do that more easily?
Certainly it's a tool in terms of discovering your operational strategies and assumptions. The interesting thing about being an artist, for me, is that it's the only system of knowledge I can make use of... every other system is an adjunct to that. You know, I read a lot, I do all of the other things that intelligent young people are supposed to do. But the actual real test of where I'm at at any one time is something I can discover through work more readily than any other form of behaviour. And the way bit's discovered is by deliberately creating a situation which, like real life situations, isn't covered by the techniques and codes you already know, and then to see if you can fumble and make it up or whether you manage to have the... confidence to make the right leap in the right direction. All those sorts of things.
I take it as read that anything that's fun is educational. David Byrne said that in one of his songs: "I look out the window, I call it education, I see my friends, I call that education". That's exactly my feeling at the moment: that you're constantly in an educational position, all you have to do is recognise it, and not deny its usefulness.
Going back to the educational system, the extraordinary idea that children have lessons and then 'playtime' and this playtime is sandwiched in between as a sort of favour to them! Whereas in countries fortunate enough not to have educational systems there is no distinction - it's play.
I think one of the reasons people are suspicious of what you do is in what they see as a real recycling - taking everything in and making something out of everything... finding a value in everything. Also lifting side effects up into a new prominence.
What people really mistrust about me is that they think I'm an intellectual.
• • •
Eno's latest work is the as yet unreleased album with David Byrne, "consciously affected by" the African music in which both have immersed themselves, though Eno insists that he can't say "it's as good as that is". Like Robert Fripp's "indiscretions", a work-in-progress which deal's with people's voices recorded in public and private saying indiscreet things (the first indiscretion is the "your house/my house" argument on Exposure), Eno and Byrne's new music uses "voices taken from other places".
Anyone who figures to have Eno already pigeonholed will get a shock when the contents are made public. The record moves to rhythm patterns which are obviously not bland, overlaid with a thinking man's sense of strong melody... and much Enoesque humour.
"That was a mountain girl from Lebanon," says Eno, explaining as we test each cut. "It's just taken off another record, and it's a recording of her singing a solo fishing song: no backing. We just dropped it in.
"This one here is taken from a New York phone-in on the radio." The track is a declamatory, prophetic American male who was holding forth originally about Iran. "America is waiting for investors of some sort or another," he intones over ca chorus of electronic soft-shoe music, embroidered with tweets and missile sounds. The rhythm seems played on razor blades. "Again! Again!" laments the speaker. "I haven't seen any any any citizen over there stand up and say HEY, JUST A SECOND!"
The unknowing contributors are treated as major instruments in the music and the idiosyncratic qualities they express - pique, mystery, or pure craziness - are exploited to the full. The mood of the music (which features Mingo Lewis as well as Tubes drummer Prairie Prince) is of a fairly vast and dark landscape throwing up sharp and striking conflicts. Real upbeat funky butt music, too complex and compelling to seem at all apocalyptic.
The lost truths-found art use of voices is epitomised on the track Into The Spirit World, which features the voice of California spiritualist and faith healer Katherine Kuhlman. Eno had made the tape of her voice before finding out she was already dead.
"She looks amazing too. Very old and... I had a picture of her with her arms stretched out and head tucked in; she looked like a turtle. At one point we were going to put her on the cover of the album but her estate won't let us use the voice at any price. Not for a million dollars, they said. So we'll have to re-mix it. We did all these songs first, then we went and asked about the rights."
Kuhlman's voice is spine-chilling in a down-home way that suggests the best Southern Gothic as it weaves in and out of a suspended funk punctuated by a stinging guitar signal. "Sit down by my side," she purrs, "Tell me all about that won-derful experience, when you were the possessor of that won-derful gift, whereby you were able to see into the spirit world!"
Found voices on other tracks include Samira Tewfik, an Arabic Top 10 popular artist, as well as another American from another phone-in whose "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I made a mistake! I made a mistake!" creates a Brooklyn Babylon effect, a rapid-fire punctuation over another heavy Afro bassline. The construction of these songs - ephemera recycled into art - suggests the art circles of New York rather than California, where they were finally assembled.
Well, New York is very energetic, there's a lot of change there and you can just sort of pick it up. It's hard to do that in London, where you have to be very much your own generator. But there are many pitfalls in New York as a place to work. One of them is that it's such a self-contained system - nearly everything done there is done only in terms of a New York scene. It doesn't choose to be exposed anywhere outside of there, nor would it survive the exposure in a lot of cases. Because just as soon as it's removed from the context of all those cultural assumptions peculiar to New York it doesn't look so great.
The benevolent way of looking at it is saying it's a village community. It is, in a way.
It's been particularly obvious to me in video art, so-called. This is perhaps the dullest area of human endeavour at the moment, I should think. Because what's happened is all of the people who've gotten interested in it at the moment, like the people who first got interested in synthesizers, are technicians, so what they're doing are technically very sophisticated things and visually very tedious. Or there are the other people who go and say, "Ah, whatever happens I'm not gonna bloody well be seduced by this medium - I'm not gonna have all those pretty colours, I'm gonna do something serious!"
because they assume that the rest of television has been people being seduced by the medium, which isn't true. The people who make television shows aren't sensitive enough to be seduced.
So when I started work in video, like whenever I've worked in any medium, I was doing it completely on the level of, "Oh God, look at this - look at those lovely colours!"
Eno has always sought out strong collaborative relationships with visual artists. Before the tragic death of his friend painter Peter Schmidt, the two had been involved in numerous joint projects, including the development of the Oblique Strategies, Schmidt's water colours were often exhibited with Eno 'Subliminal Music'; at the time of his death Schmidt's work was in Europe with Eno's new videos in an exhibition entitled 'More Than Nothing'. And for the past three years Eno has been working with London artist Russell Mills on a book which will feature Mills' illustrations of Eno's lyrics, a text composed of Eno's lectures, and an album of new music.
Two Fifth Avenue, Eno's first video exhibition in New York, was held at The Kitchen from September 27 to October 30, 1979. It was a four-channel installation with music, originally intended for Newark Airport. "Is it music, is it sculpture, is it video, or some strange personal hybrid of all three?" asked a nervous Village Voice. "Whatever, it's like seeing Monet's Rouen Cathedral happening in real time - the buildings appear like constantly woven and re-woven plaids and ecstatic chanting, like scores of unseen angels, gives the ensemble a more spiritual aspect."
What were you doing with video?
Shooting films of buildings across the street.
When did you start?
A year and a month ago today! What happened was that Talking Heads were in the studio with me and someone walked in and said "I gotta deal on this video equipment, get it real cheap" and I thought oh, I'll have one! That's always been the way I've bought equipment. I didn't know about cameras or anything, and it just happened that the camera was a real beauty, the best bone I could have bought. It's one of the only cameras that's non-automatic: you have to adjust the light level by yourself.
Which means of course that you can make absurd mistakes on it, which was the impetus for what I was doing. I just started filming very simple things and really thinking, "Oh! That's just beautiful" at these colours I was getting by twiddling the knobs. And as usual I was completely seduced by the medium.
Robert Fripp said you were working on ambient video...
That's right. That's what they are. Nothing much happens and they're very slow, but they're amazingly beautiful colours, like a massive building against a green sky with brilliant ultramarine windows and pink clouds moving across behind it... It sounds crummy, doesn't it? It sounds just 'psychedelic'. Well, I don't care. I like psychedelic.
It sounds like a Hopper painting.
That's right. Actually, I was looking at him quite a lot at that time. What's interesting about these things is that they have a feeling of incredible silence about them, 'cause there's nothing really moving in them except sometimes you see a reflection of a cloud, or a bird flies very quickly by, or a curtain moves a little bit. But it's this strange feeling of this building which you know is located in the most bustling city in the world, but it's just still and silent and it has this sort of crystalline, really weird quality.
It's much weirder than anything you could achieve by setting out to do something weird. i set out to... Well, actually what happened was that I didn't have a tripod, so I put it on the window sill, which was the only flat surface that pointed somewhere, and I got the building across the street. I though umm, it looks alright - and the camera was at a funny bangle because it wouldn't sit straight and I just started fiddling from there.
This is a strategy, you see! That's a strategy in the sense that someone who was in inverted commas 'getting into video' would say, Now I better read the handbook, now, how does this work? and I'd better get a decent monitor, and uh, I must get a tripod... Which I didn't have. They would immediately have cancelled - in the first ten minutes of thinking about it - everything I've done!
I get colours that you just don't see on television or around ever. Very bright colours - or sometimes just incredibly rich, like these beautifully deep purples. They have to be seen in slightly dark rooms. The richness is what's lovely.
What have you done with it since?
It's in LaGuardia now, the video are in with Music For Airports. I've never seen it installed but I've had good reports. People say that bit is absolutely lovely in airports, that it's exactly the right place to be ambient, because you can just sit and rest your eyes on this screen.
Why does psychedelia appeal to you right now?
It has always appealed to me. I never lost the sense that it was an interesting style to use. The difference is in the amount of prominence one gives it. You can either feature it or you can use it within a context, so it's like it has a sort of geographical function. Right now I have a psychedelic African vision.
That's very optimistic (pointing to the new record).
Oh yes! That's what happened! David Byrne and I both discovered Africa and that is the optimistic future. I mean, these countries aren't. What kind of optimism can you have about these? But suddenly discovering this whole continent of people who have a different and optimistic outlook... And who look as though they're not making such a big mess... That's really given me a different feeling.
I think whatever answers we're going to find in the next few years, a lot of them will come from Africa. You know, just as the east was a very important influence for the last fifty years or so, I think Africa will become that important an influence. God, I can't wait.