"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Observer OCTOBER 23, 1983 - by Tony Marshall
THE LIFE OF BRIAN
Since he quit Roxy Music and went to live in New York, Brian Eno has moved on from rock star to cult hero. Tony Marshall visited him in his loft in SoHo.
The writing on Manhattan's subways proclaims 'Eno is God'. The deity in question is Brian Eno. The ex-Roxy Music synthesizer player, the man who helped lead Ultravox, David Bowie, John Cale and Talking Heads' David Byrne into the limelight, is, at least in America, regarded with awe as the foremost theoretician of popular music.
It is a reputation gained through mastery of the recording studio, which has taken his work beyond anything dreamt of by the composers to whom he willingly acknowledges a debt, John Cage and Erik Satie. He makes anew kind of music, manipulating recording tape like a painter or sculptor, creating images in sound. He dabs away at the controls, overdubbing and editing until the sounds acquire a sense of place. The result he describes as 'ambient music'.
A modest, soft-spoken ex-Winchester Art College student with a sardonic sense of humour, Eno has now settled in New York and makes few return visits to Britain. His sparsely-furnished apartment is a 13-th floor loft above an old factory building in SoHo. He takes refuge behind the soundproof door of a cubbyhole crammed to the ceiling with video and hi-fi equipment.
Perched on a tubular steel chair between shelves stacked with tapes, records and the smallest TV set in the world, Eno teases a tune from a $150 Omnichord, his latest toy, an electronic zither shaped like a banjo without strings. 'Making music is the central activity of my life,' he says. 'I'd be happy if I could produce all the work I do just sitting in this room.'
He now leads an ascetic life, drinking tea and rarely smoking. From the Astroturfed roof garden of his apartment he has fine views of Manhattan, including the New York Telephone Exchange's windowless building. 'It is made of concrete to withstand a one-megaton blast. All the phones in Manhattan will have fused, but the exchange will go on working,' Eno comments wryly.
To the south is Wall Street, where he wins, and more often loses, thousands of dollars gambling on the Stock Exchange - his one vice. 'I once made $4,000 in 20 minutes.'
'I don't think about Roxy Music any more,' he confesses. 'I dislike rock music because it's so familiar to me - I'm not surprised by it. It's all right for young people growing up, but I'm no longer young.'
Eno is 35. Born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and educated at the De la Salle Order's Catholic school, he went to Ipswich Art College, then, after two years, left for the college in Winchester. In 1971 he was paying a few pounds a week for a dilapidated London garret when he met Bryan Ferry and embarked on pop stardom. A couple of years later Roxy Music were selling millions of records, 'but we were millions in debt'.
Eno's last record with Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, came out in 1973. In that year clashes with Ferry caused him to quit the band - and he made the disc that began the Eno cult, a highly individual LP called Here Come The Warm Jets. His increasing popularity in America - and eclipse in Britain because people associated him with Roxy Music - made New York a magnet. He worked with The Velvet Underground and established a reputation as a talented but wayward record producer and co-writer of million-selling records by David Bowie and Talking Heads. Meanwhile his records on his own Obscure label continued to sell a respectable 100,000 to 150,000 - not too many to destroy his cult status.
'Most of the things I collaborate on are very successful,' he says. 'The record companies think, sure, here's someone with a lot of talent. And they hang on in the hope I'll realise the error of my ways and bring out a really hot record.
'On one level it's like a kid playing with paints - if it stopped being fun I'd know there was something wrong. And if I released a record that sold only 25 copies I'd think I'd probably made a mistake. I'm not so confident that I can soldier on in the face of mass public scorn.'
Eno's last really commercial record was My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne in 1981. A spin-off of the pair's visit to Accra to study African musicianship, it's a record to set the feet tapping and has already sold over a million copies. 'At that time I enjoyed producing. I don't think I do any more,' he says.
But whatever his present view of pop, over the years behind the glass screen and control panel of the recording studio, Eno has refined the composer's art. 'If I can play one instrument, it's the studio - that's my forte. I don't find machines formidable or threatening like a lot of people. You fiddle about with it in the interim, but basically it's a passive device. For me, it's the centre of the whole business, it is the heart of the music - my major concern is how I shape the material.
'I want music to be environmental, existing all around you and creating an ambience in your surroundings,' he explains. 'Most stereo records are mixed as though they're cinematic spectaculars - something you sit in front of and are presented with - so you have the image of horns there, girl singers there, bass down here and that order doesn't change.
'I like the idea of drifting music. You happen to be sitting inside it, but it's something you can move in and out of, like a mood you either examine closely, just have on in the background or completely ignore.
'But people are frightened of the idea of background music. They think it's not serious if you call it that.'
Nowadays, Eno's work has become even more introspective, turning towards a new spirituality. Collaborating with avant-garde composer Harold Budd, he released The Plateaux Of Mirror in 1980, which breathes peace and tranquillity. The follow-up, which is out in two months' time, took three years to complete and is imbued with the same quality. Eno made the records away from New York, in the small Ontario town of Hamilton, where there are few distractions.
'Production costs depend on anticipated returns,' he says. 'The New York studios are very production-oriented, I want to be able to abandon it after two or three days if it doesn't come up to par. Harold and I know the returns aren't going to be mega-bucks, so we keep it on a cottage industry basis.
'That's one of the reasons I work less and less with synthesizers and more and more with natural sounds. I don't go in with a vision of the music, where all the notes will be; I go in with a feeling and I'm either getting closer or further away from it. Once it's on tape a sound is no longer ephemeral and transient - it's actual, physical material- something you can cut and squeeze and stretch. You're no longer working with something that disappears. That puts you in a position no composers before recording studios could ever be in.'
As a composer Eno seems to have found his god in the machines.