INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Sound On Sound OCTOBER 1996 - by Paul Tingen
ROGER ENO: CHANNEL LIGHT VESSEL
In addition to his respected solo work, Roger Eno has been involved in collaborations with brother Brian and other musicians, and is now part of Channel Light Vessel, also featuring the talents of Bill Nelson, wind player Kate St John, and zither player Laraaji. Paul Tingen talks to him about all his musical facets.
It's interesting to note how negatively we often judge those who become famous or successful by association - Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney, for example. People with a famous relation are apt to be unfairly treated even if their work is perfectly competent and successful in its own right. Comparison will always be made with the achievements of the better-known relative, which will usually be seen as superior.
Still, there are examples of famous relations respected in their own right, and not dismissed as having ridden to success on someone else's coat-tails - Tim and Neil Finn, for example, or Michael and LaToya Jackson. Or Brian and Roger Eno.
Roger has been living his career as a recording artist in the gigantic shadow of brother Brian for well over a decade now. Yet despite the fact that he came to prominence much later than Brian (he's eleven years younger), was undoubtedly helped by the association with his brother, and has enjoyed no more than a fraction of Brian's success, he has generally reaped critical acclaim. He may still be identified first and foremost as his brother's brother, but he's nevertheless respected for what he does in his own right. This is no mean feat, and what makes it even more amazing is that the two brothers have for a long time been associated with the same area of the musical spectrum, making what Brian Eno christened 'ambient music'. This makes it even harder to define the distinction between the music of the two brothers, and for Roger to forge a public image and musical identity of his own. Moreover, Roger Eno's recording career was launched by two ambient projects on which he collaborated with Brian: Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (1983), and his first solo album, Voices (1985), an instrumental affair influenced by impressionistic classical music and featuring treatments by Brian Eno.
Soon afterwards, however, Roger Eno's work started to diverge from Brian's, when Roger began to put his classical music education (at Colchester Music College, where he studied euphonium and piano), to more extensive use on solo albums such as Between Tides (1988, produced by Michael Brook), The Familiar (1992, with Kate St John and produced by Bill Nelson), and Lost In Translation (1994). They all feature different forms of acoustic chamber music, occasionally enhanced by subtle electronic instruments and treatments.
During the last two years, there's been a further move away from ambient and semi-classical music. Firstly, there's his participation in Channel Light Vessel, a collaboration between Roger, guitarist Bill Nelson, Kate St John on wind instruments, zitherist Laraaji, and cellist Mayumi Tachibana. Their largely instrumental debut album Automatic (1994) is a bizarre cocktail of pastiched musical styles, held together by Nelson's busy drum programming and weird electric guitars, Laraaji's zither, and Eno's elegant, unhurried piano, accordion and horn playing. Early 1996 saw the release of a second Channel Light Vessel album, the excellent Excellent Spirits. More song-based and high energy than Automatic, it's a highly entertaining concoction of original musical ideas that has to be heard to be believed.
And then, this September, there's the release of Roger Eno's fifth solo album, Swimming. For the first time laying the emphasis on his voice, and playing all instruments himself, Eno opens the album with an uncharacteristic up-tempo folk dance on accordion, piano, banjo, mandolin, piano and drums, before moving into introverted, folk-influenced and acoustic guitar-based song territory, with the odd bit of synthesizer enhancement.
The pending release of Swimming resulted in Roger Eno and yours truly sitting themselves down at either end of a table in a North London pub, tape recorder and some drinks in the middle, for one of the inevitable round of promotional interviews that comes with a record release. Eno is in a cheerful, jovial mood. His dark hair tightly cropped, with a slightly rounder face than brother Brian, and eyes bright and alive, he comes across as younger than his thirty-six years. My first question concerns the striking transformation his music has undergone recently. Eno: "I felt it was about time that I delved into my love of English folk music. You know, it's easy to continually do what you're comfortable with, and in my case that would be simple, curious little piano pieces. So I was toying with the idea of doing another record like that, and thought, 'oh really, this is just boring, going over the same ground again.' Folk music has influenced me for ages, and I've never really exploited it very explicitly. I've always used folk music modes and scales, and early music has also been a big influence, so I decided to make those influences the basis of a whole album. And I also wanted to sing this time, which I'd only done a little bit on record so far, on Lost In Translation and with Channel Light Vessel."
As far as his involvement with the latter is concerned, Eno explains that the band came together "by pure chance. I was doing concerts promoting The Familiar with Kate St John in Japan. Laraaji, Bill Nelson, and cellist Mayumi Tachibana were on tour with us, and we'd all play our solo spots. As an encore, we started to jam spontaneous pieces with all kinds of different influences thrown in. To our surprise, these were the bits that the audiences liked most. Things somehow melted together, and because they were encores we weren't over-extending ourselves. It was suggested to us that we make a record on that basis, and that was exactly how Automatic came into being, with everyone throwing in their influences: Bill's hi-tech electric stuff and serious guitar playing, Kate St John's love of French chansons, Laraaji and his spiritual zither, and so on. We put it all spontaneously together in the studio in about three weeks. The second album was also made like that, and with the same speed, though for that a few ideas had been prepared, like some rhythm tracks and tape loops, and a couple of songs. It's easy for me to depart from my own style in a situation like that, because the whole point is to be open to other people's ways of working and other people's influences. I think that's very valuable."
Channel Light Vessel's Excellent Spirits, which was made without Tachibana for logistical reasons, is an unexpected delight, made all the more amazing because of the incredibly short time span over which it was recorded and mixed (Eno: "Four weeks maximum"). It's also an interesting departure from Eno's own style. Though with such disparate influences as folk, medieval, impressionistic, chamber, classical, rock, ambient, and electronic music present in his solo work, one wonders how Roger Eno himself defines his 'own style'. He happily agrees that a lot of his solo work has many elements of pastiche, and partly consists of near-collages of other styles, interpreted in his own personal way, with added radical twists that enhance its Eno-esque identity. So Voices was "unashamedly influenced by my favourite composer, Eric Satie", whilst Roger Eno's sense of melody and Brian Eno's electronic treatments gave the album its identity. And The Familiar, for example, drew strongly from the works of Vaughan Williams and Delius. Roger comments: "When I started out with my recording career, I was strongly influenced by the music and ideas of Eric Satie. He wrote and coined the phrase 'furniture music', which is music that you don't really need to listen to, that you're not really supposed to notice. Brian had been developing ambient music, which was rooted in a similar philosophy. So when we worked together on Voices, our ideas were quite similar. But since then, our ideas have gone in opposite directions. I still like the idea of furniture music, but I've become more interested in music that you can listen to if you want to, that's not just designed to be in the background, but that does have a melodic content and curious harmonies and all that sort of thing. That's what I've tried to achieve with Swimming. It's quite a difficult balance to get."
Apollo and Voices are the two main musical projects that the Eno brothers have worked on together, and Roger has also appeared on some of Brian's records. Mention of his famous older brother does prompt the inevitable question, the one everyone wants answered, but usually is reluctant to ask: what's it like to have a brother who's that famous? Roger Eno laughs out loud: "Well, it's a real problem sometimes. You're always first and foremost 'brother of...' But I guess it's also opened doors for me. Ever since picking up a cornet at secondary school, I knew I wanted to make a living from music, but it took a long time before I found out what form that would be in. After music college I busked for a few months in London, and I played in restaurants and clubs as well. I also had a job for over two years as a music therapist in a hospital for the mentally handicapped. And then with Voices I became a recording artist and have made a living from that ever since, with the addition of doing concerts and composition for TV, theatre and advertising.
"I think my connection with Brian did help, because I don't know whether EG Records would have been interested in putting out Voices had it not been for that connection. But I knew that I would somehow be a professional musician one day, and this just happened to be the way it turned out. So I'm grateful. The other side of it is that he's so successful that, to be honest, I sometimes get quite envious. I don't like that in myself, being envious of anything. But Brian is in the remarkable position that he's wanted for everything that he does, whereas I get these short periods of people being interested in what I do, when a record comes out and I'm doing some interviews, for example, and then I'm left alone again for a year or so. And finances and your own enjoyment aside, the reason you make music is to communicate, to relate to other people. So there are also times of frustration during which I think: 'Oh, God, what am I doing, I'm playing in a sandpit'."
MORE THAN EIGHT TRACKS? WHAT'S THE POINT?
Eno's last remark, though obviously a figure of speech, does have some ironic relevance to reality, for the place where he records most of his solo music is the back garden of his house in Woodbridge, Suffolk, the village where both he and Brian were born. Roger Eno's home studio is affectionately called The Shed, and exemplifies his whole low-tech approach to music recording and composing. Inside this "tiny little place" are almost all Eno's musical instruments: lots of guitars - classical, acoustic, semi-acoustic - all his brass, accordions, piano, mandolins, harmonicas, whistles, and so on. Modern technology is represented by a Korg M1 and an Emu Proteus orchestral module, which, remarks Eno, is "fantastic. If you know how the actual instruments work, you can make it sound exactly like a real player. For example, if you're playing a flute with it, you can simulate the taking of breaths and get a really accurate sound. I program sounds on it as well, and use it for the harsher electronic noises, things that sounds like demented bagpipes or something."
Gentler electronic noises come from Eno's M1. It's an interesting parallel between the Eno brothers that they have both decided to focus most of their programming attention on one synth only - in the case of Brian, it's the DX7, while Roger favours the M1. The latter explains his involvement with the Korg: "I'm not sure what attracted me to the M1, really. I think it was simply the first real synth I bought, and I never felt like getting another one. A lot of what I do is acoustic-based anyway, so what I need is something that's good for atmospheres and beds, and these are quite easy to make on the M1. Just like Brian with the DX7, I've re-programmed almost all the noises on the M1. Some of my favourite noises appear on virtually every record of mine. I always felt it was better to get to know an instrument really well, rather than jump from one instrument to another. Bill Nelson thinks the same way, and it's partly why the Channel Light Vessel albums were so quick to make. He also only uses instruments he knows well. It cuts down on time. He often says: 'if you have anything that you know how to use, bring it'."
According to Eno, the most crucial piece of gear for the making of Swimming was a Roland VS880 digital hard disk recorder with effects. A recent addition to The Shed, it replaced a Fostex eight-track reel-to-reel and a mixing desk that had been the heart of his setup ever since he bought it from the royalties of Voices. Eno: "It just wore out, so I got the VS880 instead. It has eight digital tracks and sixty-four virtual tracks, so Jon Goddard (the producer), and I could do a lot of different mixes. The effects are some of the best I've ever heard. It's a truly astonishing piece of gear. We didn't actually use the virtual tracks much to do vocals, comps and stuff. We actually used the VS880 very crudely. I generally found eight tracks to be enough. I thought: 'what's the point of more?' I mean, if eight tracks aren't enough to record these fairly simple songs on, there must be something wrong with the songs!"
Roger is nevertheless planning to buy an Atari ST with sequencing software, for recording M1 and Proteus parts, keeping his eight tape tracks free for acoustic instruments. No sequencers were used on Swimming, with the exception of the internal M1 sequencer, just occasionally. Other than the VS880, there's remarkably little high technology in Eno's shed - a couple of DAT players, an Alesis Microverb ("noisy, and not half as good as the effects in the VS880"), a never-used Portastudio, and a few good microphones, such as an AKG C3000. And that's about it. Eno: "Modern music technology doesn't really interest me; the music I'm making doesn't demand it. I generally try to strip things away, rather than add things. I think a lot about what makes a piece, about what's essential, and what's not. The trap that you can fall into with technology is that the more things that are available to you, the more things you're going to use. So I restrict what I have in The Shed, and if I need something I'd rather make a phone call. But usually it's more a live instrumentalist or an instrument than a piece of gear."
Eno is clearly very proud of the spartan simplicity of his home setup: "If you saw where the album was recorded, you would not think it possible", but insists that this is not the result of some deep-rooted Luddite tendencies, or fear of technology. An illustration of this is his readiness to embrace digital technology, and his bewilderment with the analogue lobby, who keep insisting that our current digital systems are inferior to analogue, because the resolution is too low and the frequency spectrum too narrow, and the sound quality cold - and so on, and so on. When I put these points to Eno, he shakes his head: "I have pretty good ears, and I can't tell whether something has been recorded on digital or analogue. I don't really understand these analogue people... they're forever working at improving the quality of analogue, with bigger tapes and faster speeds, all to get more clarity. And then when something like digital comes along, that's clearly better, they don't trust it. It's ridiculous. I'm not inherently interested in technology, but I'm also not anti-technology. But their arguments are really anti-technology."
Eno's relaxed attitude towards technology is also indicated by some of the technical tricks that went into the making of Swimming, such as on the beautiful, short accapella tracks Amukidi and Hewendaway. Eno: "Hewendaway sounds like a Hebridean folk song, with fictional words. I suddenly got the idea that it might sound good reversed. So Jon Goddard digitally reversed it, and it came out as Amukidi. It's exactly the same piece, with a slightly different mix and a slightly different vocal arrangement."
The two Channel Light Vessel albums also feature an abundance of technological trickery, mainly due to Bill Nelson's busy drum sequences and weird tape loops. Eno remembered that there were computers used, but couldn't say which ones. Laughing: "I have no idea. It's not the sort of thing that interests me, so I'm afraid I'm not very helpful here... "
Eno does nevertheless shed light on some aspects of the magic ingredients that went into Excellent Spirits. Bizarre instrument credits on the inlay, like 'spookshow keyboards', 'falling stars', 'space birds', 'lickety loops' and 'bagpipes from Venus' were the product of Bill Nelson's fertile imagination, while some of the wackier repeated vocal samples on the album, like "make your vision your mission", or "accordion night" were all courtesy of Laraaji, who apparently is heavily into spiritual things. The track Accordion Night, which features the aforementioned Laraaji sample, and is made up of Spanish and dance hall music elements, serves as a good example of how the four members drew all these disparate elements together: "Laraaji had to leave before the end, so we tried to get everything off him that we needed before he left, including several vocal samples. We took the "accordion night" one, then Bill would have a tape loop, I may have given a chord sequence, and Kate a melody.
"After that, one thing sparks off another. The pieces write themselves really, although I know that sounds a bit stupid. But we're really making it up as we go along. It's like knitting without a pattern, and then suddenly you realise it starts to look like a glove." [Laughs out loud.]
One last question. What's the significance of the name Channel Light Vessel, then? Eno grinningly reveals that it's the name of an automatic weather station in the English Channel, called Channel Light Vessel Automatic, which is read out during the shipping forecasts on Radio 4. This explains the title of their first album, Automatic. Eno adds that the shipping forecast is "one of the last traditional things on British radio" and with that, neatly ties Channel Light Vessel and his own solo music together, for the latter is inspired by "a kind of natural spirituality. I like country walks and quiet evenings, and in the town where I live is a lovely river. My music is closely related to the inspiration that the British landscape or weather patterns can give you."