INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Telegraph FEBRUARY 27, 2009 - by Tom Horan
BRIAN ENO: AN INTERVIEW WITH THE PRODUCER OF U2'S NO LINE ON THE HORIZON
No one in the UK has taken pop music closer to art than Brian Eno. As his new U2 collaboration No Line On The Horizon is released, he talks about working with 'the biggest band in the world' and with Coldplay on Viva La Vida.
Have you ever wondered where the burst of music comes from that announces that Windows on your computer is springing into life? It didn't just write itself. It lasts 3.25 seconds and is surely one of the planet's most widely recognised noises. The man who composed it is the same man who defined the sound of the biggest-selling record in the world last year, Coldplay's Viva La Vida. He's the creative technician and visionary whose first collaboration with U2 in 1984 signalled their arrival as The Biggest Band in the World. Whether this is a title they still hold will be decided on Monday next week, when the Irishmen release a new album, the sixth he has produced for them. Right now, however, his creative energies are focused on getting my Dictaphone to work.
Brian Eno slides his glasses to the tip of his nose and peers over them at the recalcitrant machine. Through the glass roof of his mews studio in Notting Hill the bloodless light of a February morning bounces off his shiny pate. He is sixty years old, about five foot six, and exudes an aura of almost underwater calm. I'm pretty excited that someone who has done so much to explore and define what's possible in the field of sound technology is casting an eye over my recording equipment. A good deal more than 3.25 seconds passes. I can hear his breath rise and fall, and the low drumming of rain on the glass overhead. "Probably needs new batteries," he says.
After art school in the late '60s at Ipswich and then Winchester, Brian Eno joined Roxy Music as their keyboard player. Even then, amid the eye-shadow and the lamé loon-pants, his hair loss was well under way. But as Roxy frontman Bryan Ferry recalls it: "I did all the work. Brian did all the girls." The son of a Suffolk postman and a Belgian immigrant mother, Eno stayed with Roxy through their innovative early years, as they injected a considered artiness and panache into the monochrome cultural life of early-'70s Britain. Then he had enough and left to do his own thing. This consisted mostly of making abstract and experimental computer music, along the way inventing what he called "ambient" music. This low tolerance of boredom, coupled with the ability consistently to generate new artistic ideas both on his own and as a collaborator with acts such as David Bowie and Talking Heads, has defined his long and prolific career.
So how is it that such huge mainstream rock acts seek out the services of a man who in 1975 launched an accurately named label called Obscure Records? "When people reach a certain level of success," he says in soft tones that retain the flavour of East Anglia, "there are a lot of people encouraging them - nearly always to do more of the same. And when you're working in the studio as a band, it is cheering when things come up that you recognise: 'Oh, great! We know how to do this.' But at the same time little shoots keep appearing of stuff you don't recognise. They look promising but pretty clumsy, because new ideas always look clumsy at first. And you don't know what to do with them, how to connect them. And I'm the one cheering for those things. 'Let's not do what we've done before, let's do these new things!'"
The dynamic he describes is audible throughout the new U2 record. Across the eleven tracks of No Line On The Horizon there is a strong creative tension between sounds and structures that are recognisably U2 and ones that are new and unusual - and recognisably Eno-ish. "I'm very opinionated," says Eno. "When I was at art college, the teachers who helped me were not the ones I agreed with, or the ones who encouraged me, but the ones who took very strong positions. Because if someone does that, you can find your own position in relation to it: what is it that I don't agree with? In the studio I want to articulate a position clearly enough so that other people can use it - or chuck it away if they don't want it."
This unusual ability to have forceful views but to accept their dismissal with equanimity has earned Eno a kind of honorary membership of U2 since he first worked with them on the massive-selling The Unforgettable Fire in 1984. "U2's chemistry relies on their empathy and respect for each other, but also on something intrinsic to Irish society - the attempt to keep everyone included. They just don't let things fall apart. So if somebody starts to feel they're not part of the process they are quickly brought back in. U2 have that tribal attitude: if you get ill it's not just your problem, it's the problem of the entire tribe. They do it not simply out of generosity but because that's how you get a good working community."
So is it an extension of this Irish capacity to keep everyone included that has made them The Biggest Band in the World? Is their success rooted in including the whole world in a kind of universal Irishness? "It is fascinating to make records with them because they look at such a range of targets for their work. They are absolutely unsnobbish: they don't think that any forum is unworthy of their attention. So we think of our own interests as artists - what's the best we can do? how can we make this amazing? - but also, how can we get this on Radio 1?"
Yet for all the millions who line up to feel that Irish embrace, U2 - and in particular Bono - also attract a lot of vilification. Why does he think this is? "Snobbery, primarily," he says, smiling to reveal a solid gold incisor worthy of a rap star. "It's most pronounced in England. There's a tendency for people who are in the business of art - critics, writers, people who consider themselves insiders - to distrust anything that is easy to like. There's an assumption underlying this that people are quite stupid, and if a lot of them like something then it too must be quite stupid.
"Also with Bono people say, what right does he think he has to do the moral and political stuff? It happens to any non-politician in England who does something that fringes over into politics. But what right does any politician have? They're rarely any more expert than you or me. Yet if you look at the questions that Bono is interested in, debt and aid, he is very informed. He got some of the best economists in the world and said, teach me about this, I don't want to be caught out. And so he made himself an expert.
"One thing that drives his philanthropy is the idea that someone ought to do something useful with creativity, in particular with the social power and wealth it brings. It seems ridiculous to say: I'm just an artist, I don't know what's going on in the world and it's of no interest to me. But I think in England we really distrust dilettantism. You can't have two jobs!"
If having two jobs makes you a dilettante, then lord knows what that makes Eno. He has shown visual art installations in every town from Tokyo to Lanzarote; he has designed programmes that create what he calls "generative" art - music and images that reproduce themselves differently a near-infinite number of times; he has designed an application for the iPhone; he has produced a set of cards called "Oblique Strategies" that offer suggestions for the creatively blocked; he has written A Year, the hugely enjoyable diary of his life in 1996; he works for the charity War Child; in 1998 he even appeared in the final episode of Father Ted.
So what happens, I wonder when rivals to The Biggest Band in the World decide they want some of the Eno magic? Was it seen by U2 as a defection when he worked with Coldplay? "I realised it could have been, but there was no friction on either side. First of all they know each other. Bono said he thought it was a good idea. But I felt sensitive that in one computer I had all the work I was doing on Coldplay and all the work I was doing on U2 and I had to mentally keep them apart.
"But what I do can work for any artist. In modern recording one of the biggest problems is that you're in a world of endless possibilities. So I try to close down possibilities early on. I limit choices. I confine people to a small area of manoeuvre. There's a reason that guitar players invariably produce more interesting music than synthesizer players: you can go through the options on a guitar in about a minute, after that you have to start making aesthetic and stylistic decisions. This computer can contain a thousand synths, each with a thousand sounds. I try to provide constraints for people."
For all his devotion to creativity, Eno says he may give it all up. He has begun to wonder whether being an artist should be a job for life. "I'm writing a book at the moment that asks, why do people make art? Why should one have stylistic opinions and feel so strongly about them. All cultures have these feelings about non-functional areas of activity. And the more time people have on their hands, the more they commit it to those areas."
All that remains, then, presumably, is to save the planet. "Well, actually I've been thinking a lot recently about giant umbrellas in space that will stop the sun's rays hitting the earth..."