INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Telegraph APRIL 28, 2001 - by Caspar Llewellyn Smith
PRETENTIOUS? IT'S A COMPLIMENT
If there is such a thing as a pop-culture intellectual, then composer and artist Brian Eno is it. He talks to Caspar Llewellyn Smith about music, theoretical physics and women's bottoms.
No one would suggest that the competition is terribly strong, but Brian Eno can lay claim to being pop culture's great intellectual-in-chief. Aside from creating the concept of ambient music, he has produced some key texts, including albums by David Bowie and U2, whose singer Bono famously said, "A lot of English rock'n'roll bands went to art school - we went to Brian". An artist himself, who has exhibited widely, Eno has also made himself into something of a cultural theorist, wont to expound on such subjects as the connection between architecture and doo-wop music.
Born to a Suffolk postman and christened Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle, he seems to have been alive to the dangers of pretension ever since. But the fifty-two-year-old egghead (his hair is pretty thin) has "decided to turn the word 'pretentious' into a compliment... My assumptions about culture as a place where you can take psychological risks without incurring physical penalties make me think that pretending is the most important thing we do."
Those words first appeared in the appendices to his diary for 1995, which Faber & Faber published. The book is full of such stuff, but it also revealed the happily married Eno's fondness for women with big bottoms, and a terrific sense of humour, which most observers had previously failed to identify in him and in his work.
In a characteristic passage, his entry for August 26, he wrote: "Pissed into an empty wine bottle so I could continue watching Monty Python, and suddenly thought, 'I've never tasted my own piss', so I drank a little. It looked just like Orvieto Classico and tasted of nearly nothing."
We meet over coffee in his expansive offices and studio, tucked away down an expensive mews in Notting Hill. The FR Leavis of the male-eyeliner generation proceeds to explain the thinking behind his first album for four years, Drawn From Life.
"I'm always trying to make music I want to listen to," he says. "That comes out of a process of listening to things and thinking, 'I wish this was a bit more like this, or that was a bit more like that.'
"So all the time I'm designing in my mind the kind of music which I wish it were, which means as a listener I prefer things that are good failures rather than wonderful successes. Something that fails in an interesting way gives you a lead as to what you might do next."
The album, he says, is based on some of the harmonic ideas of jazz and an interest in chamber music from the first half of the last century. "I've not spent a lot of time listening to jazz or European classical music, but I recognised that they suggested a territory that was fertile, one that I thought hadn't really been properly mined. Though that's a very arrogant thing to say!
"The other thing was to try to fold into that some of the feelings I've been developing about music as a kind of sonic landscape. I've been trying to bring that back into a kind of music that is rhythmic and melodic, because for a long time I was making that kind of music without obvious rhythms or easily traceable melodies."
Eno made the album - it might be described as a bit of a grower, which I suspect he would take as a compliment - piecemeal over a period of about three years, together with a German DJ called J Peter Schwalm. Schwalm is based in Frankfurt, so every two months or so Eno travelled there for a few days in the studio, or Schwalm would come to London. "It's a very modern way of working."
Surprisingly for someone so very cutting-edge, a recent beef of Eno's is the uselessness of computers. "This project would have been inconceivable without them, but then we would have done something else. You will work with whatever tools exist around you."
But if someone such as pioneering British pop producer Joe Meek had had computers, surely he would have been able to create much richer soundscapes?
"That's like saying if Rembrandt had had Photoshop software he would have done better portraits. But I doubt he sat there thinking, 'Why don't I have a computer? Why is it the fucking seventeenth century?"'
The main effect of computers on pop music, he continues, is to immerse people in detail, which is a very bad thing. "Forget a guitar performance - you can now manipulate the atomic structure of each note from the guitar." This means that most bands spend hours labouring over pieces of music, something that Eno, who tends toward the impatient, has little time for.
"I don't like that way of working. Partly because it moves the energy of the act of composing into the person who's clicking the mouse. And that's usually the least interesting person in the studio. That's the guy who's been eating pizza for the past fourteen years and doesn't get out and about."
So what does Eno do in terms of getting out and about? Though clearly he keeps up to date with the latest pop and art shows - a promo copy of an Air CD and a catalogue from the Settings And Players show at White Cube2 sit on the table between us - he says that most of his inspiration comes from reading about science and from talking to other brainiacs.
Recently he has been engaged in an e-mail dialogue with Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist interested in evolutionary cosmology. "And strangely enough," Eno says, "it translates into a view on music."
Eno tries to figure out how that process works. "I'm interested in trying to demystify as many things as possible. There's a prejudice against this in the arts community, the idea that if you poke around too much you'll burst the balloon and all the magic will be gone. My feeling is that if you can make the magic disappear, you should. It'll appear somewhere else - you can't get rid of it.
"So when I'm working I'm always alternating between two frames of mind, and they are quite different. One is the delighted child wandering around gasping with pleasure, and the second one is the reflective person saying, 'Why am I excited by that?'
"I don't just want to be the reactive child, which was so much the history of early rock'n'roll. It was so frightened of losing that feeling of delight and wonder that it just looked the other way when it came to adulthood."
Eno was one of the original members of Roxy Music, but left after their second album in 1973, and will not take part in their imminent reunion tour. While he enjoyed wearing a feather boa, he always thought of himself as an artist who used music and art, rather than a conventional pop star. Hence his development of ambient music on records such as the ground-breaking Music For Airports (1979), his early use of sampling technologies on the record that he made with David Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981), and his more recent work, distinct from the new album, on what he calls "generative music" - music in which compositional "seeds" are grown by a computer.
In fact, ever since a conversation he had as a teenager with the mother of the woman who was to become his first wife - "she said, 'I don't understand why someone with a brain like yours should want to be an artist'" - he has been keen to think that the work he does has a serious purpose, akin to that of scientists.
"When artists self-consciously try to make stuff that's analogous to scientific work," he says, "it's nearly always tedious.
"What in fact seems to happen is that everyone, all together, cross-culturally, is developing a different sense of how things work, how things are organised, how they organise themselves. This manifests itself both in the imagination of scientists and in new kinds of art work.
"I love moments when things connect together in a different way, and I think that the movement that's been happening for the past ten or twenty years is this different understanding of how things come into being, how they become in the first place, and how they are organised once they exist.
"There's a whole body of thought about that - evolution is one thing that's had a lot of interesting work in the past twenty years, complexity theory is another, but generative music is another example of that. Because it asks the question 'Where is the composer?', which is actually the question that evolutionary biology is asking, that complexity theory is asking. Of course, the answer is, 'There isn't one'."
It's this kind of thing which makes an interviewer feel like he has stumbled into a seminar. But then we retire to his studio, a small room filled with keyboards, a bass guitar, plenty of computers, a gizmo that allows Eno to produce sound by waving his hand over it, a painting that looks like the work of an Outsider artist, a map of the northern hemisphere, a CD with Noam Chomsky's name on it and a calendar with a picture of a woman's bottom.
Peter Schwalm is also there, and the two start jamming together, leaping from one machine to another, before Eno picks up the bass and starts playing. "All I need now to look like a real jazzman is some beard to suck," he laughs.