INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mentor & Protégé NOVEMBER 2011 - by Paul Morley
THE NURTURER AND THE HUNTER
What happens when you bring together two iconoclastic artists pushing at the very boundaries of their art, one of them globally celebrated for several decades, the other destined for world renown? Music critic Paul Morley investigates.
1. Both Brian Eno and Ben Frost, one born in 1948 in Suffolk, England, the other in 1980 in Melbourne, Australia, love their studios. This is where I interview them, inside rooms that are, in the end, just four walls, a small amount of space, a chair or two, some equipment and a door that shuts out the rest of the world. Inside modest, ordinary buildings, they sit relatively still and stare at computer screens, or into space and manipulate atmosphere, and look for clues and invent shape and seek order or mesmerizing disorder, leaping to conclusions that logic does not reach.
2. "It was all about the mentor being Brian Eno. I wouldn't have jumped through the hoops I had to for anyone else. Brian is the sort of expansive, imaginative thinker who could be the mentor for any artist or scientist in any field, because of how he is always trying to make sense of a changing world, and think in new ways about art and society. This isn't really about music. If Brian and I share anything, it is an obsessive curiosity about the world and being alive in it."
3. Frost's newly built studio is in Reykjavik, the surreally scrupulous capital of hushed, explosive Iceland, where he moved in 2005. He loves Reykjavik because "it is like nowhere else on Earth and you are at the edge of everything." Eno's unassuming studio, which he loves the smell of, is discreetly tucked away in relentless, mutating London. Eno's job, if it can be defined, is to imagine or predict what is going to happen next, musically and culturally, and then find ways to make it so. This is what he has done since the 1960s, systematically slipping from idea to idea as inquisitive art student, cultural theorist and conceptual thinker, pioneering futurist glam-pop star with Roxy Music, ingenious post-classical composer, inspiring musical collaborator and record producer with Robert Wyatt, Robert Fripp, Cluster, Nico, John Cale, Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, David Bowie, Devo, Talking Heads, U2, James, Coldplay, David Byrne, as scientist, philosopher, academic, painter, writer, analyst, one who likes to actively engage with new technology, new people, new thoughts, leading to new perceptions.
4. "I had three choices presented to me as a potential protégé, and I ended up choosing the person who was closest to what I do. I could have chosen a musician who might have taken me in an unexpected new direction, but with Ben I felt I could go somewhere new that I haven't been before in the area that I already inhabit, which is ultimately more interesting."
5. Eno met Frost through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, but it might have happened anyway, not so much because they both make compelling post-rock or post-minimalist electronic music with, in Frost's case a menacing, fearless kick, and, in Eno's case, a celestial, detached caress, and sometimes vice versa, and sometimes simultaneously, but because their stories, so far apart, separated by geography, chronology, psychology, biography, are, to some extent, the same story. Even if that just means they base themselves in recording studios and meanwhile travel the world, for work, adventure, audiences and pleasure, for whatever happens next, even if that means following irrational thoughts absolutely and logically.
6. "Brian never, ever directly answers a question. He always comes back with another question, and I love that about him. He never solves anything for me or proposes anything or gives a straight answer - it's always about creating a dialogue. I'm here as much for him as he is for me, I think. He came to me in Iceland, interested to see where and how I work. I have always loved the Renaissance idea of the pupil and master, anyway, and one person passing on experience and learning to another, which is something about this process I like - to have the chance to get close to a different perspective and all that incredible experience without commercial pressure."
7. On the surface, Frost is wild, an uncompromising, gutsy hunter of wild animals, who likes his music allconsuming, violent and bloody, but then the nurturing, noticeably milder Eno appreciates noise and commotion, even though he is famous for conceiving and naming the serene, protean lessness of ambient music, and Frost has a definite vulnerable side. Eno is the mentor, with an astonishing reputation as record producer and sonic consultant who has comprehensively influenced the evolution of intelligent, explorative, electronic music, and Frost is the protégé, with his own distinctive, intrepid history as a musician, engineer, remixer and performer, as mobile, intelligent member, with Valgeir Sigurðsson and Nico Muhly, of the acclaimed Icelandic collective Bedroom Community. Frost's own music is hostile, beautiful and dramatically subtle, where process controls the ego so that something pure and startling breaks through.
8. "I have had Eno's 'Oblique Strategies' creative aid on my computer as long as I have had a computer, and the thing about all his by-products, as well as his music and exhibitions, his schemes, projects, programmes, theories, aphorisms, lectures, apps, is that they one hundred per cent encapsulate who he is. His work always suggests things, it never closes you in, or shuts you down, it always leads you on, encourages you to make connections and move into totally new spaces."
9. Frost has been releasing albums since 2000, when he lived in Melbourne, working in an independent record store where he learned about the history of music. After a bad experience being part of a band, he learned to make music alone, using the computer, totally controlling his own musical environment. He discovered classic Eno music by working backwards from the Eno-influenced '90s music of experimental post-dance electronic acts on the Warp label - Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards Of Canada - which is where Eno now releases his records. Drawn to the dark, tormented rock of Joy Division, The Cure and Swans, as well as Penderecki, Arvo Pärt, Nine Inch Nails and Deftones, for the swashbuckling grandeur and/or the granular sensuality, Frost has made a series of electrifying, self-produced albums, including Theory Of Machines and By The Throat that are connected to the sort of ambitious, carefully sequenced, two-sided, long-playing records that Eno regularly made in the 1970s. When the hundred greatest albums of the '70s were decided by on-line magazine Pitchfork, twenty-five, including the very best, David Bowie's uncanny Low, involved the direct or indirect involvement of Brian Eno.
10. "Producing and teaching and mentoring, all of which I do, are aspects of the same thing. If you teach someone, you have to articulate what it is you know in a way you usually don't. It's often just vague stuff in your head. Articulating it to others makes it new in your own mind and opens up other dimensions. I'm as interested in what I can find out about myself as I am about what I can teach others. The more I find out the better teacher I am."
11. Now that Eno and Frost have shared the year of mentorship - two bold, self-critical and extremely observant artists who hate to waste time, who love to plan, make connections, solve problems, distress the familiar, look forward, compile information, wonder aloud, work with others, think for themselves, compose music they don't think exists anywhere else - how did the relationship work? Was Frost the passive, diffident apprentice, Eno the secretive, omniscient master? Did one merely hang out in the background, while the other one worked, played, travelled? How did they decide what happened next? Was it all left to chance? Ideas do not necessarily progress in logical order.
12. In his room in Iceland, Frost says: "This whole process was sometimes just like a long conversation that wasn't even about music, a simple cup of coffee, an occasional word of advice, a visual contribution to a project based around the Solaris film I was collaborating on. He made it clear, though, that he wanted to make a real difference to what it is I do, rather than it be me just follow him around like a shadow. Don't get me wrong - part of me is a bit curious about that side of his life, and how it works and what he does. I'd love to hear him conceptualise with Bono! But this is all about the work we do, who we both are at this stage of our lives and the fact we have come together in this way out of the blue."
13. In his room in London, Eno says: "I never assumed the point of this was for me to produce a Ben Frost album. I wasn't necessarily against that, but it's not what happened. What was far more preferable was that we set out to achieve something in some form that doesn't even have a name yet, where we curate, edit, oversee something that suits our own desire for originality, that is more than just a record, is very much part of the post-Internet world, and that works as the result of us being together, not me working or doing whatever it is I do and him just looking on. Even if I had just ended up critiquing one of his records and giving him clues about what he did next, it would still have been worthwhile. But the relationship is more than that. We can perhaps come up with a bigger, better idea together about what music can be than we would separately."
PORTRAIT: BEN FROST
Multimedia music artist Ben Frost was born in Australia and now lives in Iceland. He works in controlled isolation, the isolation that still, turbulent Iceland is a geographical manifestation of, and he also works in close collaboration with others, in groups, studios, ensembles, on international projects, including dance, opera, installation and film. Frost recently composed the music for Sleeping Beauty, a provocative new film set in Sydney, the directorial debut of Julia Leigh, inaugural literature protégée in the Rolex Arts Initiative. In 2006, he formed the Reykjavik-based Bedroom Community record label/music collective with Valgeir Sigurðsson and Nico Muhly. An obsessive, darkly charismatic, noise-loving child of technology who hunts and fishes, he makes incendiary, deviant music that is categorized as electronica, but is more an unclassifiable form of visceral sonic sculpture. His critically lauded albums, splicing mind-blowing volume with dazzling structural complexity, have been influenced by the cryptic machine music of Autechre and Aphex Twin, the diseased, desperate rock of Joy Division, Swans and Nine Inch Nails, the riotous poetic metal of Deftones, the lonely immensity of Arvo Pärt, the lavish minimalism of Eno, Reich and Glass, and the dissonant musique concrète of Stockhausen, Varèse and Xenakis. For all these reference points, Frost's single-minded intention is to create accessible, challenging music that does not yet exist.
INTERVIEW: BEN FROST
On his biography, as the son of two police officers: I was conceived in the back seat of a police car in the streets of Melbourne. My Dad's family are very aggressive, very bold and up front. They were the sort to get really fired up around the Christmas table. You'd see the best fights ever at Christmas. On the other side, my Mum's family were quite the opposite. They were devoted Catholics and it was a very quiet household. I am the by-product of those opposites, but ultimately more my father's son.
On moving from living in Australia to living in Iceland: It is moving from one extreme to another. I suppose I thought that something dramatic was inevitably going to happen. That was a result of reading about the clichés of Icelandic music, that it was glacial, bleak, epic, and I imagined I would be affected by that. The more I travel, the more I realize that, in fact, I have very distinct boundaries in terms of what I'm interested in aesthetically and that doesn't really change wherever I am. If anything, Iceland supplies an absence of environmental information, which I like. What really counts in terms of where I am in the world is my reading or listening habits. They don't change much between Australia or Iceland or wherever I am, in whatever hotel room, airport or different country.
On whether he wants to create the musical equivalent of "like nowhere else on earth": Absolutely. In that sense it's chasing the essence of romantic music - not Hugh Grant romance, but something Wagnerian, creating something that is the ultimate version it can be of itself and the creation of something that is not a reflection of the world as it is, but of the world as you imagine it to be.
On Brian Eno: Brian likes to imagine future world histories where people are looking back at genres that in fact as history turned out never really happened. He creates an alternative future history and tries to make music from these genres that never were. It's a great way of making the sort of music that doesn't already exist and I'm very much interested in making something new. I don't understand making a facsimile of music that already exists. I don't understand musicians who are happy to make music that already exists. It really disturbs me actually. I find it offensive. There is a lot of music around at the moment, and I'm not saying that everyone should do what I do, and I'm not saying what I do is obviously better or anything, it's a genuine frustration I have that I don't understand what their real motivation is. Yes, it is obsessive, and I admit I do get obsessed about the integrity and originality of music. My girlfriend tells me to calm down. She has the ability to have the iPod on shuffle, which I just hate, and when a piece comes on that to me seems wrong, I have to leave the room. She says it's just music. I'm going: no, it's not!
On the violence of his music: I've always been attuned to the dark side of... anything really. It doesn't matter what it is. I've often wondered if I am into aggression because I am an aggressive person or I am an aggressive person because I'm into aggressive things. The music I like most is always the most visceral. I like to play my music really loud. That's as close to God as you can get.
On hunting for food, sounds, on fear and danger: I hunt. I quite like it. I don't do it for the sport. I do it for food. I would never kill anything I was not going to eat. There is something about hunting that fires the same neural pathways that go back to when we were living in the darkness of caves, scared of what might come in through the opening. It gets my blood going, getting back to a natural state of being. When the (Eyjafjallajökull) volcano was erupting on Iceland (in 2010), I went to the very top and I was genuinely scared. I realised that it was the first time in my life that I had been genuinely terrified of something. It was something completely and utterly old that you could not reason with and you couldn't change it or protect yourself against it. It was so much bigger than anything you could possibly grasp. It could just end you in a moment without there being any pause. It's like playing the guitar in front of a mountain of amplification. It's the process of losing control to the point where it could be dangerous to your hearing and the audience's hearing, where the electricity flowing through everything becomes real. You become a little less human, or more human, certainly more naked. I remember travelling up north of Iceland to go fishing and I'd lost my knife, but I didn't want to stop fishing. I dragged this trout out of the water and then, without thinking about this big fish thrashing about in front of me, I grabbed a rock and crushed its skull. Nobody trained me to do that. I didn't read about that in a book. It was something that came from deep inside me and it was a little bit shocking when it appeared. And then I ate the fish. It was great.
INTERVIEW: BRIAN ENO
On his latest album, Drums Between The Bells, a spoken-word project in collaboration with poet Rick Holland, released in 2011: I have used spoken word before on and off, from Dead Finks Don't Talk on my first solo album to something on the Everything That Happens Will Happen Today album I made in 2008 with David Byrne. I have used spoken word as part of my continuing fight against singing. I love singing, but I hate that thing that happens in pop music of the identification of the singer with the lyrics they sing. It seems to me so childish. You don't for a minute imagine that Hamlet is a manifestation of William Shakespeare or that Tom Stoppard is actually like Rosencrantz And Guildenstern. You understand in other art forms that you can construct scenarios or characters that are separate from you. That's what I like to do and some people I have worked with have been very good at it - David Bowie is an example - where you treat each work as a theatre piece and in it there appears this character - the Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust or whatever and, of course, Bowie is clever enough to play around with the idea that people will think that it is really him.
The interesting thing to me is not that it might really be him, but that he is constructing stories and scenes and legends. That's the problem with singing in rock music, the sincere school of criticism, the need for everything to have to have personal meaning and emotion, that the psychological intention of the singer is the most important thing. I would love to see critics write about what the drummer is doing as though it is as important as what the singer is singing, which it usually is. It's at least as significant as the lyrics to a song how one chord becomes another. You can view the rock song through the prism of the words, but you can also view it through lots of other prisms. That's why I've been keen to explore other ways of using the voice. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, that I made with David Byrne, is a prime example of when you say what happens when you don't have a singer, and we made it clear that the voices we used were not done for that song, they were found and stuck on. As soon as you put voices found from anywhere into a musical context, then they become singers, and they are the singer of songs whether they know it or not. It is like Duchamp putting a toilet into an art gallery and calling it art. So I am interested in the different ways you can use the voice and make that into singing, even if it is not. With spoken word you can do things that you cannot do with singing.
On the idea of a whole new way of composing, packaging and distributing popular music that continues the recent twentieth-century narratives, but that belongs to the flexible new spaces and transitional, pulsating dimensions of the post-Internet twenty-first century: I want to think that it is possible. That somehow a piece can be made that enters the world and somehow inside the world it is constantly refreshed by how people interact with it and actively change it because of how and where they listen to it. So that a piece of music is changed by its contact with the world and yet is recognisably still that piece of music, like a remix but beyond.
On Ben Frost: I had three choices presented to me as a potential protégé and I ended up choosing the person who was closest to what I do. I could have chosen a musician who might have taken me in an unexpected new direction, but with Ben I felt I could solve the... not the problem... but this self-imposed challenge I have given myself about what a different form of collaboration might be in this new world, one adapting to post-Internet circumstances and possibilities. Where can I go now that I haven't been before in the area that I already inhabit? The fact he was already established as an electronic musician was attractive to me. I knew how he did some things, and other things he did were a mystery. The intention was then that we would together create something that we could not have done separately. Together we would produce a bigger idea.