"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New York Times MAY 13, 1981 - by Robert Palmer
BRIAN ENO, NEW GURU OF ROCK, GOING SOLO
"Eno is God," say the graffiti spray painted on the walls of Greenwich Village and SoHo. Why Brian Eno? In the past, rock musicians were considered worthy of deification only if they were powerfully sensual singers like Elvis Presley or virtuoso instrumentalists like the guitarist Eric Clapton. But Brian Eno sings only occasionally and self-consciously, and he is not a virtuoso on any instrument. Or perhaps he is. His collaborations with David Bowie, the Talking Heads, Robert Fripp and other artists, and his own electronic compositions have established him as rock's most creative conceptualist and sound processor; the "instrument" he can be said to play is the recording studio.
The fact that some rock fans want to deify a thinker and systems manipulator like Mr. Eno at a time when rock gods of a more physical kind are in short supply is of considerable interest. It confirms the thought that rock is becoming more concerned with ideas and less concerned with the immediate gratification of a hard beat, a shouted melody and a couple of loud guitars. It also worries Mr. Eno, a thirty-two-year-old Englishman with wispy blond hair that recedes slightly from his high forehead.
"Adulation is annoying because it creates a false momentum in you," he said the other day as he sat sipping hot spiced tea in his sparsely furnished SoHo loft. "If you know that people have been absolutely overwhelmed by something you did, you are much more inclined to repeat it, even if you have doubts about it. That restricts your experimental freedom."
A visitor suspects that Mr. Eno hasn't been unduly restricted, however. An open-ended contract with an independently distributed record label, Editions E.G., allows him to create freely in the recording studio. He does not have to worry that an unsympathetic executive will pronounce his work insufficiently commercial; the label issues everything he deems worthy of release. He is also free to collaborate with other artists for other record labels. His most recent album is My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, a collaboration with David Byrne of the Talking Heads, which was issued last week by the Warner Bros. Sire label. He also produced the last three Talking Heads albums for Sire and worked on three of David Bowie's most impressive RCA albums. On Editions E.G., he has collaborated with the avant-garde composer Harold Budd and the composer-trumpeter Jon Hassell, among others.
WORKING IN A BROOKLYN STUDIO
Now Mr. Eno is working in a Brooklyn studio on what will probably be his first solo album in several years, with a group of New York-based musicians that include the jazz trumpeter Olu Dara and members of the band Material. The future of his relationship with New York's Talking Heads seems uncertain, but he does plan to continue to work in New York, a city he finds conducive to getting things done. "It's too fragmented and distracting for doing much thinking," he said, "but it's very fast, efficient, well equipped and compact; if you have an idea in mind and want to execute it, there's no better place to go."
Some critics have painted Mr. Eno as a kind of Svengali who seduces rock musicians into unproductive intellectual byways. His relationship with the Talking Heads has been particularly controversial. Since he became the group's producer, the music of the Talking Heads has evolved from its beginnings as rock minimalism into a densely layered, African-influenced brand of funk. On the most recent Talking Heads album, Remain In Light, Mr. Eno and the group's lead vocalist, David Byrne, wrote all the songs but one and seem to have called most of the creative shots.
The group had to be augmented by guest musicians on its recent tours because the music created by Mr. Eno and Mr. Byrne in the studio was too thick and complicated to be played by the four original members. Remain In Light sold reasonably well and was critically acclaimed, but it also left the Talking Heads on the horns of a dilemma. Mr. Eno's expansion of the group's musical horizons may result in its dissolution. Now they are not sure whether they want to continue as a four-piece rock band.
"We haven't talked about making another album," Mr. Eno said about his work with the Talking Heads, "and I don't know what state the group is in at the moment; David is the only member I've seen for a while. But at present I'm not much inclined to work with other musicians in situations where I'm not clearly in control. I feel that I've spent a bit too much time working with other people recently, and at this point I really want to do something on my own."
"THESE PEOPLE ARE DOING IT BETTER"
Mr. Eno's recent interest in African music, and his exploration of it with Mr. Byrne, has struck some of his critics as a shallow infatuation. The sophistication of the rhythmic layerings on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and Remain In Light belies such characterisations, but a recent trip to Africa did convince Mr. Eno that he still had a great deal to learn about polyrhythmic music making. "When I was there," he said, "I thought, well, these people are really doing it a lot better. I ought to leave it alone until I understand it a bit more."
So the new music Mr. Eno is making with a shifting cast of New York musicians is, in some sense, a return to the dreamy, slowly developing drone music on which his reputation as a composer largely rests. Examples of this work can be heard on his albums Discreet Music and Music For Films, which have recently been reissued, as have his two mid-'70s collaborations with the rock guitarist Robert Fripp, by Editions E.G.
"These drone-type pieces have to do with creating imaginary landscapes," he said, "landscapes that are more or less unpopulated, in which nothing much happens. They're much easier to do than pieces that are complex rhythmically; sometimes they come out almost automatically. For a long time I was suspicious of things that were easy, but I finally decided that that wasn't logical. If you're a good football player, you don't switch to tennis because football is too easy."
BRIDGES FROM CONCERTS TO ROCK
Mr. Eno's drone music uses repetition and apparent stasis as two of its basic premises. In a sense, Mr. Eno is a bridge linking the rarefied world of today's concert music to the cutting edge of rock, and he is not unaware of his role as a carrier of avant-garde concepts and techniques into the popular consciousness. To his detractors, his willingness to perform this function makes his music essentially derivative, but his ends are not the ends of most "serious" composers.
"I try to make pieces of music that are fun to listen to," Mr. Eno maintained. "For example, a record that was enormously important to me was Steve Reich's It's Gonna Rain, a composition which argued for the proposition that a very simple piece of material has in it whole worlds of music. That's an important point, but It's Gonna Rain isn't a record I'd rush home and put on. Once you understand the point, you can use it to make music that's fun, music that you want to hear.
"I was taught in art school that process is everything, which is another way of saying that having an idea is enough. Since I'm basically lazy, I liked that idea, but I no longer think it's true. The structure or process that I used in Discreet Music is almost identical to the structure of Reich's It's Gonna Rain, for example, but the sound of the two pieces is very different. So an idea really isn't enough; a piece of music should also be seductive or move you in some way. A composer, or any artist really, is a kind of curator of feelings."