INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Scotsman JUNE 5, 2005 - by Aidan Smith
ENO'S NEVER ENDING STORY
The sonic wizard behind Roxy Music tells Aidan Smith why life's too short for nostalgia.
There are many men - and they're mostly men - who have made it to their forties despite their lives taking a turn for the worse back in 1973 when classic-era Roxy Music lost their sonic wizard.
And when Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno emerges from the shower after his morning run, picks up the cup of tea made for him by his assistant Marlon and then does something almost anathema to him - sits still for a few minutes - he finds himself confronted by one of them.
I'm not stalking him. Eno has invited me to his recording studio in Notting Hill - mews-small on the outside, Tardis-dimensioned inside - to chat about his new album. But I have an ulterior motive: to get him and Roxy back together for a reunion concert.
Aged fourteen, I loved Roxy more than anything. Others loved them even more - enough to want to form groups of their own. Earlier this month, Roxy were hailed as the second most influential band after The Beatles.
A glance at Eno's giant planner shows he still keeps himself busy. Never mind the section devoted to his electioneering on behalf of the Lib Dems, or the song list for the previous night's meeting of his a cappella group, the diary proper is a felt-pen frenzy of cerebral names, places, lectures, lunches, openings and happenings you could only describe as Enoesque.
Last week Eno was in New York, producing Paul Simon. Later today he's giving a talk on why artists should be more like scientists. And if it's Thursday it must be St Petersburg. He's Russia-bound next for a gig to be performed entirely on laptop. Thirty-two years ago, he perched behind a synthesizer the size of a cow.
But my biggest problem looks like being the determination of rock's favourite lateral thinker never to repeat himself. He refuses to look back; just doesn't do nostalgia. Brian won't want to talk about U2, his press officer Lisa warns me beforehand. Don't mention U2, confirms Marlon, while we wait for the great, bald, jogging avant-gardist to show up.
Eno - who has indeed produced Bono's band, collaborated with David Bowie on his Berlin trilogy and sprinkled his fairy dust over Talking Heads, too - thrusts himself centre-stage with Another Day On Earth, his first album of conventional songs, and the first to feature Singing Eno, since 1990.
I sing all the time - that was Bowie I was singing in the shower - and I actually think singing is the key to human happiness, he says. I've spent a long time doing instrumental music but as the technology has got more advanced, it has become less and less interesting to me. In the Roxy days, synthesizers only had one note. Now I've got a synth where you hold down a key and you've got yourself an entire ambient career.
Eno pioneered ambient and later would plant the flag for a generation of samplers. But does he now think the synthesizer has failed? It's suddenly the easiest thing to do, he says. Synths might have reduced from cow-size, but a bovine sluggishness has come to characterise their usage since Eno first provided the otherworldliness behind Bryan Ferry's croon.
What, then, does he think of the young band with the most Roxy references, Glasgow-based art-rockers Franz Ferdinand? I like them, they're very smart. Then on my notepad he scribbles the headings Guitars and Electronica, two musical styles which rarely converge. If I had one piece of advice to them it would be to turn their heads in this direction, he says, pointing to the Electronica camp. It sounds like they need an Eno, I say. Well, I do think they need a fifth member. I'd only be available for a few days but I could show them what to do. (Admit it, guys - you're intrigued.)
It is easy when Eno reels off more of his hectic schedule - the recent lectures in California against the theory that music is a universal language, the forthcoming score for a Michelle Faber story - to arrive at the conclusion that he's come a long way from the retro-futurism of Roxy. But on the fourth track of the new album, Caught Between, he sounds like Ferry.
He laughs. That wasn't my intention but I'm flattered by the comparison. Bryan is a great singer. But maybe I want to believe in some sort of distant connection because after Eno leftRoxy, they stopped being wonderfully weird. At the start of my Roxy obsession, because of tricky typefacing, I thought Eno's name was END. There were rumours it was his head on Amanda Lear's body on the cover of the For Your Pleasure album. Was he, in fact, a she? Was he, as he claimed in Sounds magazine, an alien?
He might be an intellectual and an idealogue now, but according to a recent biography of Roxy, he used to be such an athletic appreciator of groupies that he suffered a collapsed lung. Certainly no one else in the dreary, be-denimed early 1970s looked like the peacock-plumaged Eno.
He and Ferry suffered a clash of egos, but in 2002 they recorded together for the first time since the long Ta-ra fade-out on the second Roxy LP. It was lovely working with Bryan again, he says.
Ferry had run out of songs for his Frantic album and was, well, frantic. Eno does a funny impression of Ferry's semi-legendary diffidence. I said to him, 'I might just have something for you'. Then he reaches for a what appears to be a fun-sized zither and picks out the melody to I Thought. Not bad for a self-professed non-musician, who the first Roxy producer Peter Sinfield called one of the world's most brilliant frauds.
Did Ferry fulfil all his early Roxy potential? A long pause. No, but then neither did I. This is a sad story, really, and I was talking about it with a chap I met on my run this morning. He told me about a friend who was a terrible alcoholic, came out of rehab, founded a make-up company and now he's a multi-multimillionaire. It's funny how people who have one tiny idea do a lot better than those of us who have plenty.
Photographs of Eno's two teenage daughters from his second marriage adorn the walls of the studio and there's also one of him, aged fifteen, in his native Suffolk, with three chums: The Black Aces, his very first band. I was the drummer - and look, I had hair then.
The faded snap jogs the memory because even anti-nostalgists possess one, and now he's rooting around in a box of seven-inch American R&B singles. There was a US military base near his home and this was the music on the jukeboxes. He plays me Life's Too Short by The Lafayettes and remembers the first time he heard it.
That was the first record to excite Eno, who was useless at games, only ever scored one complete mystery goal at football and now believes sport only exists to be funded by governments as a way of funnelling off the revolutionary energy of men. Then he reveals that the last record he will ever make is not far off.
I had better move fast if I'm to corral him back into the field-beyond-leftfield once inhabited by Roxy, with or without his cow synthesizer. They've already announced plans to regroup for a summer festival performance on the Isle of Wight.
Rock music was never more thrilling than Eno-period Roxy, I say. It was thrilling, then, he counters. I probably wouldn't mind doing the Isle of Wight if I could take the train down, wander around and go, 'Oh, they're on'. But it wouldn't just be one day's work.
Of course, you try not to repeat but you do, all the time. He begins each day trying to recapture the new sensation of old Roxy but, he admits, rarely succeeds.
When you're young you have nothing else to do. Nobody's calling you or asking you along to the Royal College of Art. You're alone with your ideas and that's a luxury young bands don't realise. When you achieve success it's easy to coast along and your biggest enemy is your need to be distracted: by e-mail or anything else that's going on. It's a great discipline, when the work isn't going well, to say, 'I'm just going to sit here and face up to my absolute incompetence'.
When Eno starts having too many days like that then the rest of us really will be in trouble. Inevitably, I have failed in my mission to get him to rejoin Roxy, but an hour in his company makes me want to rush home and read that difficult book I've been putting off for ages... or at the very least stop watching Celebrity Love Island. Eno, of course, got rid of his TV three years ago and for him I seriously doubt if there will ever be an END.
Another Day On Earth (Opal) is released on June 13