INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
New Musical Express NOVEMBER 27, 1976 - by Miles
"ZING!" GO THE STRINGS OF MY ART...
...as Thin and Serious people gather to make music. The luscious but committed Brian Eno has been in recording with the skinny but deranged David Bowie and herewith discusses this and other projects.
Then he told me where the name came from. When he was in New York City some time back, he had a dream in which he heard a girl singing the lines: "We are the 801 / We are the central shaft", lines which he later used in The True Wheel on his Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) album. It turns out, of course, that 801 in geomantic terms is the central shaft - Eno must have heard it somewhere.
Anyway, it's a good name and he was going to use for something called the "801 File", a file of information on approach, where subscribers would receive about twenty items of information a year from various people involved in various involved in various approaches to various solutions to various problems. However, before this ambitious scheme got under way, Phil Manzanera and his buddies copped the name (or number, to be precise) for their group, so Eno'll just have to find another. "Maybe I'll call it 'The Central Shaft'", he said hopefully.
Eno had nothing to do with the production or mixing of the album because he was in Germany at the time, doing some recording with a few of the new electronic groups. But before I get into that, I guess what you really want to know is the poop on Eno recording with David Bowie in France, eh? It sounds like David has been going through his ch-ch-ch-changes.
RCA don't want Eno to talk about the new album too much.
Eno had been talking about the kind of music that doesn't clam too much of your attention unless you want it to. "I'm getting interested in things that let you off the hook - if you want to - that you can just have playing there quietly. That's what Discreet Music's about really. That's what my new record is hopefully gonna be about, and Side Two of the Bowie album's a bit like that.
"Oh Boy! That's a good album, I'm pleased with that!"
We'd been talking about how words contained in a piece of music immediately become the focus of your attention. You can't ignore them. He explained how Side Two of the Bowie album bypassed this theoretically iron-clad rule.
"Two of the tracks have got a bit of singing on, but they're almost like the reverse of the normal song-structure. So instead of having a lot of singing and an instrumental, there's a lot of instrumental and a tiny bit of singing. It's so isolated and so lovely that it comes as a very pleasant surprise and it's very well laid into the music, so it doesn't have this narrative sense which is what claims your attention.
"Oh, and the other thing is, it's not words... it's phonetics. It's not lyrics, you see. But I don't know whether he wants people to think they're lyrics or not. He's just using very nice-sounding words that aren't actually in any language. And it works very well. It's something that I've always wanted to do but have never convincingly been able to, so I've always scrapped any attempt I've made at it because it sounded bogus, you know?"
"We worked very well together, actually. There was a lucky break that took place. Well, first of all, we both work in very different ways. David works very fast. He's very impulsive and he works like crazy for about two hours or sometimes three-quarters of an hour - and then he takes the rest of the day off. And in that time, he does an incredible amount, very well, very quickly and faultlessly. He just puts on track after track and they're all just right and then he goes away, and that's it for the day. Quite often that's how it works.
"Whereas what I do is - quite slowly - build things up over a period, you know. Since I'm using a monophonic synthesizer, it's incredibly tedious putting on one line at a time, 'da-da-da-da...', like that. Very slow. So I get terribly nervous about working with other people around because so little seems to be happening.
"It's a very slow way of working, particularly with David who works quite the opposite, and the other thing of course: I keep taking things off and putting something else on instead - or I put six tracks and take away the first three and that sort of thing. So I like to work alone, really.
"Well, as it happened, there were, there were two days when we were at the Chateau d'Hérouville - being at the Chateau meant that we had it booked all the time, you see - there were two days when David had to go to Paris to attend this court case or something like that - and the studio was still booked and it was still there so I said, 'Well, how about if I get on? I'll carry on working and I'll do some things and if you like them, we'll use them, and if you don't like them I'll use them myself', see, which struck me as an ideal deal. That meant that I could work without any guilty conscience about wasting someone else's time. Because if hadn't wanted to use them, I would have paid him for the studio time and used them on my own album.
"Well, as it happened, I did a couple of things that I thought were very nice and he liked a lot. One of them's a long piece, about six-and-a-half minutes long, and it's a very long, grave, solemn instrumental thing. David came in and put all the voices on it in about twenty minutes. There's about a hundred-and-ten voices on it!
"That was a perfect collaboration, you know. It was just right because I had all the time I needed to do this very tedious job of building up quite a big-sounding thing from single notes and it was all there for him to come and work as fast as he wanted to on top of it. So that worked well.
"All the instrumentals on that track are by me and all the vocals are by him, so it's like I wrote and played all the music and he wrote and sung all the vocals."
I wondered how the collaboration came about in the first place.
"He liked Another Green World a lot, actually, and he said he was quite influenced by that... it's quite a courageous album because Side Two is all these very slow, quiet pieces that at first hearing sound a bit like soundtrack music. In fact, two of the pieces are from the soundtrack he made for The Man Who Fell To Earth and he added things and remixed them. The soundtrack was never used because of some kind of contractual difficulties."
All this sounds to be quite a contrast to the first side, which Eno described as "seven quite manic disco numbers, Station To Station carried with gritted teeth. They're quite vigorous numbers really, they're all really short and they've got very interesting shapes..."
For these, Bowie used the Station To Station band, minus Earl Slick who has been replaced on guitar by Ricky Gardiner who used to be in Beggar's Opera. Added to this lineup comes Roy Young, an old-time rocker piano player formerly of Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers who supported Cliff Richard in the early days and used to be a regular on Oh Boy.
The huge difference between the two sides of the album is something of which Eno is rather envious. "He's done something that I should have done but I backed out of doing, which is just split the album into two halves and said, 'Well, here's all the fast songs - and here's all the other things that I also like'. I've got this same problem coming up again now. Because it's even more polarised. I've got on the one hand some really manic songs. Oh dear, they sound so bizarre I don't know what I'm gonna do with them. They sound a bit like Captain Beefheart or my version of modern jazz or something like that.
"On the other hand, there are these very quiet, delicate instrumentals. The only way I can see of doing it is either releasing two albums simultaneously which are quite different from one another, or doing this thing of splitting it, one side of one thing - and one of the other, which doesn't seem like a very satisfactory solution to me.
"There's a complete distinction between music that one can enjoy making and music that one enjoys listening to. The things I enjoy listening to are uniformly quiet and undramatic but nI get a terrific buzz out of making these fast, manic tracks and I don't somehow see them on the same album."
I can see his point. A few days latter I dropped in to Island's Basing Street studio to see how he was doing and to hear some of the tracks.
Eno seems to work in an inspired muddle. The names of the tracks are constantly changed, the old ones forgotten and incomplete track listings kept. They thread a two-inch tape onto the Studer and Eno plugs in his trusty Starway. After setting levels both Eno and the engineer are surprised to find vocal and instrumental tracks already on the tape.
You can't really tell much about the way that a piece will eventually turn out from backing tracks alone, but some of them are very raunchy discoid numbers using the same lineup that he had on Another Green World (Phil Collins on drums, Percy Jones on bass and Paul Rudolph on guitar). To these he has added Fred Frith from Henry Cow on guitars. The tapes suggest that the new album will be a more austere, hard-edged version of Eno-music than Another Green World was. Some tracks reminded me of Zappa's Hot Rats, another suggested The Stones Satanic Majesties...
Eno's concern is still to synthesise rock and progressive music into a viable new music - something he began on the first two Roxy Music albums. The idea is still giving him trouble but he played me one very short piece where it really works. He described it to me: "It's about two minutes long and I really think it's very good. It made me jump up and down with joy because I think something really happened there, something definitely came together. But it took a lot of work and a lot of happy accidents as well and I'm not really sure how it came about yet. I've really got to listen hard to it and find out how it happened and then do some more of it. Because two minutes isn't really sufficient to stake a career on, I think."
The piece has a very solid beat, but there are also strange rattlings and buzzings from the bass which give it little jewel-like details and make it oddly memorable.
Eno doesn't play too many instruments and so he "finds" his music by rather chancy operations in the studio itself, identifying and developing small passages generated by his musicians. He began this on Another Green World and at first found the strain of putting all his ideas into practice almost did him in. "Making the last one was almost unmitigated hell. It was terrible. Ritva will tell you. I used to come home and cry. It was absolutely awful.
"I'd set myself this constraint. I'd written a few songs and things beforehand and I said, 'I'm just fed up with that way of working. What I really believe in is reacting to the studio situation. That's what I've been telling people about all this time, so what I'm going to do is abandon all those songs and walk into the studio without any starting point and generate it all there.' But in fact, as you can imagine, this didn't always work out. I was very unsure about this experiment and studios are terribly expensive. They cost you £420 a day whether you do anything or not.
"The first three or four days I didn't get anything done and I was really frightened. I felt terrible. Then, very slowly, it started to happen. I think I started about thirty-five pieces and some of 'em were really clutching at straws in real desperation. But it's interesting, sometimes that kind of desperation gives rise to things that would never happen any other way. It really does force strange things out of you.
I tried all kinds of experiments, like seeing how few instructions you could give to the people in order to get something interesting to happen. For example, I had a stopwatch and said, 'Right, we'll now play a piece that lasts exactly ninety seconds and each of you has got to leave more spaces than you make noises', something like that, and seeing what happened from it.
"The thing is that the musicians were so interested in each other, because they were so odd to each other. that it worked out all right." Eno chose people from very different musical backgrounds so that they would interact with each other. Paul Rudolph used to play bass with The Pink Fairies before joining Hawkwind. Percy Jones and Phil Collins play together in Brand X and are very involved with strange time signatures and uptempo jazz rhythms.
The success of Another Green World made him continue with the same method on his new album. Thee same group of musicians - with the addition of Fred Frith - were brought in and the same worries and fears began to beset him.
"I forgot all about how to work with groups of people. I hadn't recorded in this way with people for eight months or something like that and I went into the studio and like a fool, I started off by saying, 'Well, there's this number, it starts like this...' and it was terrible, it was really terrible. I thought, 'Oh God, I've really goofed this time. The group isn't gonna work.' But then gradually through the afternoon it came back to me how you had to do these things.
"What you have to do is just wait for something interesting to happen and as soon as it does, you jump onto that and you follow it with all the steam that you can muster. You just abandon any concept of where you wanted to go. You start off by aiming somewhere but as soon as you find yourself deflected, you forget where you were aiming and you go that way."
Eno is very much his own man. With no firm commitments to any existing group, he is able to follow up any ideas which are suggested to him. Recently he has made the soundtrack for Derek Jarman's movie Sebastiane, most of which he made at home. He has written a scholarly article for Studio International magazine called Generating And Organising Variety In The Arts which will appear in this month's issue. And he has been in Germany working with the Cluster/Harmonia/Neu group of musicians.
"They are three of the new wave of German bands. In fact they are all composed of the same few musicians - a lot of those German bands are. I just went over to try some projects with them with an idea to try to make an album with them. It was quite successful. We did some quite nice things together. Very quiet - I suppose it could called electronic music really..."
He's produced three new albums for his Obscure label, one of which, Jan Steele and John Cage's Voices And Instruments, features Robert Wyatt singing Cage's Experiences No.2.
Eno also co-produced a rock and roll band called Ultravox. "The music's interesting because it's transitional. They were a very early punk rock band. They started two years ago and they were into that thing and gradually they matured. This album sounds very much like the early Roxy ones - not in terms of sound but in terms of juxtaposition of things that are definitely going somewhere very interesting with things that are the remains of something else."
Meanwhile, back in the studio, Eno prepares to add a piano track to a slow piece. After slowing the master-tape down to bring it in tune with the piano, Eno writes numbers on the piano keys in Chinagraph, chuckling to himself. His off-mike voice drifts up to the control booth. "Did you see the notice downstairs after one of my sessions? It said, 'Steinway piano with numbered keys for beginners'."
The engineer comments, "It's an incredibly dull piano sound."
Eno sighs. "It's going to be incredibly dull playing it. I'll wake you up when it's over." The tape rolls and Eno begins the slow process of adding a new line to the backing track. The studio cat rolls over - and sleeps. When the synthesizer strings finally come in it's apparent that the piano is wildly out of tune with them. The engineer politely speaks over the intercom. "With all due respect, don't you think you should get in a professional to do that?"
Eno agrees. He knows what he wants but it's sometimes difficult to get it on tape. He describes how his music should be: "What I've been interested in is having this texture rippling along, with a few tasteful, nice events taking place. I want to have something that Discreet Music hasn't got, which is that at particular moments, a beautiful, complicated little ornament would happen and then it would disappear. It wouldn't happen again. In a while later, another little thing, like a jewel in the desert sort of thing.
"Like the Nevada Desert, where there's just miles of sand and then there's a beautiful mountain that's alternate strata of green and red or something like that. Where you enjoy not only the space but also the isolated beautiful event which becomes more beautiful because nit's on its own.
"I want to get something like that: empty and interesting, but which at the same time highlights any little choice moment."