"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Telegraph JUNE 16, 2005 - by Robert Sandall
THE QUIET MAN OF POP ROCKS OUT
Brian Eno, pioneer of gentle, ambient music, tells Robert Sandall why living in the country has made him want to get noisy...
Sitting in the conservatory of his new country spread near Didcot, Oxfordshire, Brian Eno looks out on a few acres of tranquil walled gardens and, being Eno, has an interesting thought. Could it be that living in this secluded manor house for the past year has altered the way he makes music?
Given that he's just released Another Day On Earth - his first album of songs since Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) in 1974 - this is not a purely academic question. That the apostle of floaty, ambient soundtracks has suddenly reverted to singing melodies and lyrics with real musicians, notably a rock guitarist and funky drummer, counts as a real puzzle. Eno, no stranger to puzzles, thinks he has the answer.
One often makes music to supplement one's world, he says, recalling the time in the early '80s when he lived in downtown Manhattan. While I was there, I made my quietest record, On Land, precisely because I was living in such an noisy place.
He gazes across a lawn the size of a small cricket pitch and utters words unheard since he hung up his boa and quit Roxy Music in 1973. Living here seems to have made me want to rock out.
Strange as this sounds coming from him, there is no doubting the man's sincerity. The day after this interview, Eno explains, he is due to fly to St Petersburg for a week. The high points of his trip are a couple of concerts in which he will sing backing vocals for an Algerian rai performer, Rachid Taha. (Arabic pop is Eno's new passion, one shared by another veteran of 1970s experimental music, Steve Hillage, who also appears in Taha's band.)
Eno's presumed aversion to live performance - the last time he played in Britain was back in 1975, and no, he won't be rejoining Roxy for their shows this summer - hinges only on his dislike of spotlights and being a star turn. He sang behind Taha in Paris earlier this year and was enthralled to be part of a hybrid he describes as an uptempo urban thing, like Destiny's Child in Arabic.
It turns out that Eno has for years led a secret musical life as an amateur vocalist. The first pop records that he sang along to as a teenager were by the American R&B harmony groups of the early '60s. As well as producing the likes of U2, Talking Heads and James, over the years he has contributed backing vocals to other people's albums under aliases such as Ben O'Rian and CSJ Bofop.
Then there is his own little side project, an a cappella group which meets once a week in his west London studio.We do it for fun. We'll never do it for another reason. The thing that put him off singing on his own records in the past was the idea that it was meant to be a confessional on the part of the singer, because I'm not interested in talking to anyone about my life. I want to make puppets, basically.
Just to make sure nobody confuses him personally with the vocal presences on Another Day On Earth, he has taken a number of precautions. These range from electronically treating his own voice so that it sounds like a Dalek, or a chorus of extra-terrestrials, to recording the voices of acquaintances such as his Lithuanian cleaner and Polish bookkeeper. Everything has been edited and looped so that even the most tuneful numbers have a dusting of strangeness.
As his splendid new country premises imply, Eno has not made this album of songs because he feels a pressing need to improve his sales figures. If I tried to make a commercial album, it would be a complete flop. I have no idea what the world at large likes. He started paying attention to songs again, he says, for two reasons.
One was the realisation that lyrics are the only thing to do with music that haven't been made easier technically. Lyric writing is pretty much what it was four hundred years ago, whereas it's easy to throw together a piece of music using stuff you can buy in any music store. Hold down one note and you've got a career as an ambient artist.
The other reason he focused on songs again was his appreciation of the art of songwriting, reawakened while he was producing Paul Simon's fantastic next, as yet untitled, album. I came up with musical landscapes to support his songs and that give him a place to go, lyrically. I think I'm good at that. He then recounts the beginning of their relationship, a sublimely high-powered - though probably quite routine for him - conversation at a London dinner party that also included David Hockney and the producer Joe Boyd among the guests.
Eno insists that his new interest in songs doesn't mean that he wants to stir the emotions; he concedes only that certain melodies grab something that occasionally makes his eyes brim with tears when he sings them.
However interesting it sounds, this is splitting hairs. Another Day On Earth contains many career-best moments that contradict the general suspicion that Eno might be better at talking about music, and helping others to realise their ideas, than he is at making it himself.
The most striking track on the album, Bone Bomb, is based on two newspaper articles he came across - one the confessions of a young female suicide bomber, the other an account by an Israeli doctor of how the bones of the bombers get turned into shrapnel by the explosion. I was just trying to understand what might be in someone's mind when they do something like that, he says, modestly.
It's an extraordinary piece of music from a man who has a confession to make. I hate talking about music, to tell you the truth. If I'm not listening to it, or doing it, I'm thinking about something else. Once an album's done, I don't want to hear it for the next six years. In short, music is a gateway for Eno, rather than a destination.
After an hour of cerebral fireworks during which I probably talk more about his new album than he does, he concludes with another of his big thoughts. The most important thing humans can do is to imagine how things could otherwise be and make choices about them. That's the key to our evolutionary success. The experience of music and culture in general allows you to do that.