INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Q NOVEMBER 2007 - by Dorian Lynskey
The backroom boffin's backroom boffin.
What would you say has been your major contribution to music?
Well, I can make a few guesses. I think I've made well-spoken, articulate white boys a respectable possibility in popular music. And something that a lot of musicians say to me is that I made them think about composing in a different way. Because I can't play anything, I'm a natural minimalist. Generally, minimalism is for people who can't do maximalism.
Who had the biggest impact on your ideas about music?
It was a funny combination. A lot of the ideas for the structure of what I was doing came from experimental music - Steve Reich, Cornelius Cardew, John Cage, people like that - and a lot of the sonic interest came from pop music - people like Phil Spector. I didn't want to leave anything out. Also, I was working as a visual artist. I was thinking, "I want to make art, and if that happens to come out in the context of pop music that's fine", but I thought of it as art.
If you hadn't gone to art school would you still have gone on to do similar things?
No, definitely not. I don't know quite what would have happened. When I went to art school I discovered that what I was good at was synthesising things from different places and making something new. I couldn't play anything, I wasn't great at art, I wasn't a great singer. But what I was good at was listening to what was around - what ideas were in the air - and realising what would happen if you took an idea from that place and put it with that one.
You left Roxy Music after two albums and haven't been in a proper band since. Did you dislike the clichés of being in one?
My objection really wasn't that as a form. It was just the demands of touring; all the other things in your life that you might have an interest in just disappear. Also, it's so easy to get into a success rut, because everyone encourages you to do more of what you're good at. And it's hard not to. Things always look better in retrospect, so things you did years ago look so polished and finished as they drift away into history, and the new things you're working on always look clumsy and new-born. But my thrill is from doing new things.
You've worked on several albums that became hugely successful and/or influential: U2, Talking Heads, David Bowie. Did they ever feel like leaps in the dark that might go horribly wrong?
[Laughs] Nearly always. When I started with U2 [on 1984's The Unforgettable Fire] I didn't know what would happen. I thought it was a pretty strange idea, to tell you the truth. I thought, "What do they want me for?" I remember having a phone call with Bono and I said, "If I come on board I'm going to change a lot of what you're doing." And he said, "That's exactly what we want." On both sides there has to be a recognition that we're getting together to do something that will surprise everybody, including us. On this record [Eno is currently working with U2 again], we didn't start out with the idea, "OK, we're going to make another U2 album." We're just going to make music. And what we've done so far doesn't sound like another U2 album, but I think it will do.
You're also working with Coldplay. Is there a certain quality that all the bands you work with have in common?
Ambition. It's never "This will do" or "That's OK". They're thinking, "I really want to do this and I really want to do it well." The important thing is being obsessed, then noticing when something more important that your obsessions comes along.
Has the way you work changed significantly over the years?
I've become more explicit about what I'm good at doing. I want to talk to people on the stylistic/aesthetic/philosophical level rather than on the detail level. Also, I want to operate as a composer. I think it's part of my job to talk about the structure of the songs and even to co-write them.
Is there any opportunity that you regret turning down?
I was asked to produce Perfect Day - that version with all the different singers [for Children In Need, 1997], which I've always thought was an amazing achievement. I didn't do it because I didn't fancy having to deal with thirty-five egotists. If I'd done it, it probably wouldn't have been as good. What I regret more is not spending more time on my own stuff. That will change. Hopefully.
You've been a prominent opponent of the war in Iraq and Tony Blair. Were you glad to see the back of him?
Yes. I like the fact that Gordon Brown is the first Prime Minister you could describe as an intellectual for a very long time. It's refreshing, after ten years of posing, to have somebody who says, "Look, I'm just no good at posing. Sorry."
You've predicted a lot of musical developments, such as the popularity of African music, the rise of ambient music. Is there anything that's taking longer to materialise than you first thought?
Generative music [music that continually generates itself according to a set of predetermined rules, without any input from the musician]. I realise that will take another generation. It requires a suspension of ego and at the moment pop music's very much connected to the presentation of ego. Generative music is somewhat egoless. But it will happen.
Despite all the other things you do - visual art, writing, lecturing, political campaigning, etc - is music still your biggest love?
No, it isn't, actually. I could quite easily imagine at some point just not doing it any more. It's a very populated field and I like being in fields that nobody else is in. You can always be the best in that field - top of a very, very tiny heap.
Could you imagine ever retiring or are you compelled to work?
Yes, I am, but I think work might transform itself into more writing, talking and thinking. I love working. The thrill for me has always been to do something where you think, "I've never heard anything like this before, I've never seen anything like this before."