INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Ritz OCTOBER 1977 - by Caroline Coon
Today, sitting for this interview at a white, formica-topped table in his Maida Vale flat, Brian Eno looks clean-cut enough to pass for the most effete of prelates. Fleetingly you might imagine him to be a man easily satisfied with simple pleasures and homely innocence. And yet, when he concentrates, half closing his almond eyelids, this wholesome presence dissolves into controlled sensation. His lips open slightly, the line of his body suggests both male strength and female tenderness, his fingers brush the surface of his face and he is transformed into the lasciviously decadent creature we knew in Roxy Music five years ago.
When Eno left that much missed band (allowing Bryan Ferry an unrivalled limelight), everyone presumed he would capitalise on the status he'd achieved and, by playing the show-biz game, he would become another archetypal rock superstar. Instead he systematically stripped off his glamour image, confounding both critics and fans. Since then, inspired by an optimistic vision of the future, Eno's music has been brave, luminescent, consistently experimental, always richly lyrical and immaculately produced. Tracks like Driving Me Backwards, Swastika Girls, Evening Star, China My China and Energy Fools The Magician are some of the most exhilarating, singular pieces of music of any kind.
In fact, what Brian Eno and his colleague/admirers like Robert Fripp, Chris Spedding, Kraftwerk, Phil Manzanera, Robert Wyatt and David Bowie have done in the last four years, is create the foundation culture, the attitude and the style for the next era of modern music.
Eno is difficult to pin down. In conversation he gropes lengthily towards concepts, using interview questions not to state resolved views but to further explore tentative ideas. This leaves him vulnerable to an accusation of pretension - especially when he explains himself in 60's Art School Intellectualese. For instance, to keep the press informed of his plans, Eno's publicist sends out 'biographies' which are meant to be 'serious and meaningful'. More often they are wincingly obscure - if not unwittingly funny. The latest missive states that he was educated by Nuns and Brothers of the De La Salle Order.
CC: Now Eno, exactly what kind of co-educational monastery was that?
BE: Well, that's not quite clear, he replies with familiar understatement. It was the Nuns first and Brothers later.
CC: Johnny Rotten had a Catholic education which is quite evident from his lyrics. Did your religious education rub off on you?
BE: Yes, I think so. It certainly creates unbalanced personalities. By that I mean Catholicism instils a tremendous amount of guilt. One of the maxims is that you dedicate everything to Christ. The idea is that you're meant to be constantly in mind of Christ. Now, if you think that your every action carries that kind of weight and relevance it really does instil guilt. It takes the fun out of things. Couple that with my Art School education, which gives you the impression that you should be doing something very serious all the time. Well, you get into a state very frequently of not being able to relax. I always have this feeling that I should be putting out. I have to be working all the time. I can't relax and enjoy things easily.
CC: What you write and say in interviews makes you seem not only very insecure but careful to the point of inhibition. Do you ever lose yourself in unconscious creativity?
BE: I sometimes manage to do that. The reason I continue working is because I get to that stage now and again. In fact, I don't think a work has really succeeded unless it goes through that period. There has to be a period where you surrender your rational controls, where you become a servant of the work rather than master of it. If that doesn't happen - well, with very rare exceptions, the work hasn't really taken off. I was reading an essay last night by Roy Ascot. He's interested in the creative interplay between reason, passion and chance. He believes that art activity is that. And so do I. Except that I'd want to replace passion by intuition.
CC: Yes, you would!
BE: They do mean the same thing. But the trouble is that passion is a risky word to use because it implies, er, an emotional outpouring which isn't the same thing as intuition. It's possible to be intuitive without being emotionally overpowered. It's possible, I suppose to be intuitive and remain in control.
CC: You've become very rationally disposed recently. What I miss most in your work now is passion.
BE: Well, there's deliberately less of it I think. You see, in rock music there's always been a very high percentage of passion - particularly in all the black derived music - a moderately high percentage of chance and a very low percentage of reason. There's nothing wrong with that contour as a musical system. On the other hand, you have avant-garde music with a very high percentage of reason and a very low percentage of passion and a fairly low percentage of chance - except where it is contrived chance dictated by reason.
Well, it just happens that what I'm interested in at the moment is slightly reducing the passion and slightly increasing the reason while allowing the chance element to be a real factor - neither one to be scared of nor one that you sanctify.
I know a lot of people think that I'm trying to elevate rock into the Fine Arts, sort of taking it away from what it is, something that people enjoy as a widespread social-tribal activity, into being haute culture. Well, in fact I'm actually more interested in doing the opposite. I'm more interested in relegating the Fine Arts from their sanctified position into something that people enjoy doing and seeing, something which forms a part of their social behaviour and social discourse - in the way that, say, painting doesn't at the moment. Painting isn't an art for people now in the way that rock music is.
CC: But surely today there IS more people's art than ever before? Popular painting, posters, t-shirts. What distinguished people's art from high art is technique. And an academic rather than an intuitive understanding of the medium.
BE: I don't think I agree with that. The problem with technique is that it has a lot to do with manual dexterity. But you don't need manual dexterity to operate technology or a recording studio. You can be club footed and half blind and you can still simulate all those complex instruments. I can't play guitar but I can play complex guitar solos with technological trickery. Well, it isn't trickery, it's part of the way of making music. So anyway, my decision not to play tricky guitar solos isn't because I can 't play. It's because I don't want to.
CC: However, you tend to use thousands of words to rationalise your work. This obscure intellectual debate, which never reveals itself in the music, ultimately weakens your output. You know Tom Wolfe's essay The Painted Word? Well, often it seems to me that you're guilty of The Written Note.
BE: I know what you mean, and I sympathise with the criticism. I'm more aware than most others, I think, of the dangers of intellectualism; having suffered from them all my life. Nonetheless, intellectualism is a very powerful tool. It can do unique things.
First of all, when you're asking me to talk about my work, you're deliberately asking me to use that part of my intellect that is concerned with analysis, categorisation and generalisation. And it gets used. It gets used to occupy as much territory as possible! I deliberately stretch ideas and concepts until they don't hold anymore. Now what you're suggesting is that this kind of intense, rational thought should go in to making music. But it can't. Making a work isn't to do with that kind of rational thinking. As far as I'm concerned, making a work is deliberately putting yourself into an area that you can't defend.
But it is important to remember that all my ideas are generated by the music. The music is the practice that creates the ideas that generate the discourse. If there wasn't that practice, however simplistic it seems, there wouldn't be any discussion. I 'm not a thinker in the sense of someone who does so in the abstract. My thinking is always related to my own behaviour.
CC: Since you left Roxy Music, you've released five solo albums and collaborated on half a dozen more and yet, I've never read anything to suggest that you're pleased with what you've done. Is it easy to live with a high quotient of dissatisfaction with your own art?
BE: Certainly I can live with a high quotient of uncertainty - which can either manifest itself as surprise or disappointment. For example, as often as I do things which disappoint me, I do things which surprise me as well. And I kind of think that one's reaction is conditioned less by the work than how much you're prepared to put up with the uncertainty of your own behaviour - or the uncertainty of the work as a whole... er, well, I'll have to make some more tea before I get into that one... And he goes through a beaded wood curtain into the kitchen. "By the way," he says, while the kettle boils, I'm not a Behaviourist as claimed in the New Musical Express the other week. They said I'd be happy to be described as a Behaviourist..."
CC: In the Skinnerian sense?
BE: I guess that's what was meant. Well, I wouldn't be.
CC: It just goes to show how many people think you're very unemotional.
BE: Oh, everyone does. They think I'm Mr. Cold. But I'm not really you know. You see, the prime interest in being an artist for me is that it's a system of knowledge, it's a way of investigating the world. It's different from rational investigation of the world because it proceeds simply from excitement. And what I think is most interesting is that when you work, you deliberately find yourself moving towards an area of uncertainty.
CC: Doesn't the uncertainty diminish with experience? Don't you use experience to enable you to express yourself better as an artist?
BE: You see, I've never thought art was anything to do with self expression. Or rather, I don't think it is any more than any other activity.
CC: OK. But I wasn't thinking about self-expression exactly. Doesn't experience help artists lessen the doubts they have about what they do, by enabling them to externalise their ideas better?
BE: But then, I don't think art is about self improvement, either. One of the great insights of Tibetan Buddhism is the idea that you stop trying to improve yourself. Don't do that. Instead start looking at what you are.
CC: Excuse me again. We were not discussing improving oneself but improving one's output.
BE: All right. But improving anything. Trying to make things better can lead you into some very infertile territory. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in seeing what I'm doing now. And don't think acceptance is just passively saying 'Oh whoo, great, that's how it is!' Acceptance involves incredibly complex refigurations of your own perception. To be able to see what's going on - and that phrase has many different levels of meaning, but I'm using it on one of its lighter levels at the moment - to see what's going on requires real examination, first of all your own perceptual mechanisms which are related to your own survival needs and your own environmental context and so on... so it involves a Critical Examination of all those things. Which is immeasurably difficult to do as it's always under review. Umm. That in itself involves a life work. Now, if on top of that you want to graft the idea that 'I'm going to do things better', well, I don't know how you're going to handle so much extra work... Because what you run up against is having to make definitions about what a 'better' work would be. You know, what does 'betterness' consist of? It's so impossible to dictate because you're trying to create a standard of betterness in view of an unknown future...
CC: I don't think you really have to be quite so sweepingly universal. Somewhere you said that before you make an album you ask yourself the question 'what kind of music would I like to hear?' Which is a good starting point, surely. Once you've decided on the music you like, you work towards making it. All I'm asking is whether, with experience, success and failure, you become better able to do that. But, if I understand you, that kind of assessment doesn't apply to you because you don't start a work with a definite idea of what you want it to be.
BE: That's right. Would you like a cigar?
CC: No thanks. Not at this time of day.
You're rather ambivalent about success, aren't you? You want to be a Top Ten recording artist. And yet...
BE: I wouldn't actually. At best, I wouldn't mind. And really, that is at best. Often I think success carries as many problems as freedoms. Like another problem that keeps coming up in my life. I earn much more than I spend. I don't spend anything really.
CC: So what do you do with all your unspent money?
BE: Give it away.
CC: Didn't you once have a list on the back of your kitchen door of the things you would do if you were broke? Somewhere at the top was 'Releasing A Single'. And third from the bottom was 'Making Porno Movies'.
BE: Yes, I used to do that once - for a little while. But it's not worth talking about. It's too much Ritz fare. So far this interview has been very interesting...
CC: Ah! But you've been trying to come across as a very dry, calculated rational being when I have this piece of information about you and porno movies which slightly alters that image. There was a period of your life when you got up to all sorts of exotica. What's happened to that side of your character?
BE: It's a hard period for me to think about really. What happened in Roxy Music was that a particular aspect, a really quite small aspect, came into the open and got an incredible amount of encouragement. And it sort of blossomed, if that's the right word, at the expense of a lot of other parts of me.
CC: So you ran away from it?
BE: Yes. To some extent. I had 'disciples' and I didn't like that. Now I have critics who write and discuss my ideas. What I'm doing now is less obviously sensational but it's much more to my satisfaction because it has encouraged a discourse rather than blind faith.
CC: I still can't figure out why you need to divorce yourself from the passion and sexuality which was once such a successful part of your music.
BE: I haven't retreated from that area entirely. In fact I think my rational, self-examination stage has gone too far in the other direction. The big problem for me last year was to try to moderate things, trying to find a way of working which cooled things down to the level of experience again. But I haven't succeeded yet and the problem is still being worked on.
CC: Why are you so suspicious of your emotions?
BE: I'm not. I'm suspicious of my reason!
Talking to Eno about ideas, while he swivels in his chair or paces around the room, is fun. But all the while, in case you haven't noticed, I've been trying to get him to reveal himself on the more mundane level of man about the house. My subtle hints in that direction being unsuccessful, I now try the direct approach by asking whether it's true he eats health food muesli for breakfast. For a moment I'm afraid I will be shown the door. "When I heard about this interview, I thought Ritz would ask questions like that," Eno responds with disdain. "It took me quite some time to think out how I could answer questions like that. And I must say I didn't come to a solution..."
CC: [In retreat] That interview in the Evening News...
BE: Wasn't it terrible!
CC: You sounded very depressed.
BE: But I must tell you why. The woman who interviewed me... Well, dear me, it would be in the interests of womankind if they eliminated people like her. Really! She was so ultra dumb. She started the interview by saying 'I suppose I better ask your name...'
CC: I don't think only woman reporters are like that.
BE: Of course. Absolutely. But she fitted an archetype very well. An archetype that people think exists. In fact it's very rare.
CC: Oh the archetype exists all right. The myth is that only women are like that. Men don't like to admit that the male equivalent exists too.
BE: Yes. In fact I had an identical non-interview with a man from the Sheffield Evening Post the same morning.
CC: That's why I was picking up on the chauvinism of your original sentiment.
BE: Actually I would, er, claim that I'm not very chauvinist.
CC: What about being pushed around the block in a wheel chair by Ritva so that you could read and get breath of fresh air at the same time?
BE: That didn't work very well. We've still got the wheel chair...
CC: To me that's the ultimate in male chauvinism...
BE: Well ask Ritva about it. It was her idea. She got me the wheel chair for Christmas.
CC: The lengths women go to please...
BE: And men should do things to please too. There's nothing wrong in doing that is there? I don't see why one should stop oneself from being servile at times. Or from being superior at times.
CC: Why haven't you lived with a woman who was as ambitious about her creativity as you are about yours?
BE: I have actually. I lived with...
Knock, knock at the garden door. Oh, it's Curley Claire. Come in, Claire. Ritva is in her sewing room.
...in fact, most of the people I've ever had a long relationship with have had that kind of independence. Because I find that rather attractive. I'm not interested in, not for long anyway, adulation or adulatory relationship. Errr... What was the origin of that question? Before the wheelchair?
BE: And I said I didn't think I was very chauvinistic. I said it tentatively because there might be aspects of my whole behaviour that are so deep-rooted that I don't even notice them anymore. And for all I know they might be terribly unpleasant.
CC: You were the one who advocated the 'elimination' of 'dumb women'.
BE: The thing is she was doing her job badly. She kept asking questions which had nothing to do with my previous answer.
CC: That seems a very good way of avoiding an interview which would otherwise be forty pages long!
BE: That's the risk you run if you interview me.
CC: You must find it easier to live with someone who isn't very ambitious because it leaves them with more time to administer to your needs.
BE: Er, that's a hard question to answer. I don't like to think about relationships too much. It's not quite that. It's just that their lives are less problematic to them than mine is to me. They therefore have a surplus of grace that's useful. And at the same time men have such a large built in limitation that they need it.
I do think the feminine side of one's personality is useful in this period of history. Therefore I think women are at a natural advantage. Men, or shall we say, creative men, or men who are alive, are desperately trying to nurture that side of themselves. It's a real concern of mine.
CC: You won't find the female part of your psyche if you're always choosing to live with women who are more servile than you.
BE: You said that! I propose that there's an agreement between two independents and that the balance of power can shift all the time. In fact it does shift. It certainly does in my relationship here.
You see, when I talked to that Evening News lady journalist, she kept trying to say things... She said 'You once lived with two women.' And in fact, I only lived with two women for a very short time. And I said 'Yes. And I have nothing of interest to say about that. Except that it failed.' And she said, 'Well, I would have thought living with two women was every man's dream.' And I said 'Most men are pretty stupid in what they dream.'
CC: What did she say then?
BE: I think she sounded surprised and said, 'Oh. Are they?'
CC: That's an illuminating piece of dialogue about women's chronic sense of insecurity! You know, we are subtly conditioned to believe that one woman isn't enough - most men would much prefer two of us.
BE: Umm. I hadn't seen it like that - as an observation of her view of men.
CC: [laughing] And not only do we feel inadequate because one of us isn't enough, much of the time we're led to believe men would prefer us painted and trussed up in uncomfortable garments as well!
BE: Well, I don't.
CC: Then why don't you say so more often? If you said you preferred a less stereotyped woman it could have a resounding effect...
BE: But that's why I've never said that before. I think it would be too dangerous. I just don't want to impose that kind of choice on people. I don't see why I should. Which goes back to what I said about gathering disciples.
CC: Isn't it difficult to be an artist without disciples? Aren't they a given in the situation?
BE: Sometimes disciples are blind. They can be led. I don't believe it's any use taking someone's decisions for them. It's only useful making decisions yourself... and I must have a pee. This tea goes right through me.
While Eno is in the bathroom I find myself humming Here He Comes, a track from his latest album. It reminds me what a fabulous musician Eno is - sharp, visionary, accessible, always romantic and ever imbuing listeners with the intriguing sense of future possibilities yet to be revealed.
When he returns, I wind up the interview. Ritva takes Eno's picture and then he works all afternoon before spending the night in Basing Street Studio recording with Snatch, Judy Nylon (the third in his brief ménage à trois) and Patti Palladin.
There are depths to Eno's character which he withholds. Restraint, a paring down of his imagination to its tightest frame, is what most characterises his present stance. He sometimes appears distant and cold. But on closer inspection, everything about him is directed and white hot. And naturally, part of his charismatic charm (that smile!) emits from the light humour which always saves him from pomposity. However...
CC: You do make statements which are so obscure that it's necessary to refer back to you for thousands of words of 'explanation'. Sometimes this is very exasperating.
"Well," says Eno, throwing out a cool challenge, "you don't have to refer back to me. You can draw your own conclusions about what I say. I mean, sometimes I leave statements loose on purpose. I want to evoke a set of considerations rather than solve anything."