"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Telegraph NOVEMBER 22, 2010 - by Ben Thompson
BRIAN ENO: "LADY GAGA'S MEAT DRESS? I DID IT FIRST"
Fashion disasters, electronic music, even the Lib-Con coalition... The super-producer and former Roxy Music wizard saw it all coming.
It must be strange being Brian Eno. Few living Britons have had a more significant impact on contemporary culture.
From the annoying music emitted by those miniature games consoles that you see children glued to on the train, to Lady Gaga's spectacular outfits (prefigured with eerie accuracy in the oft-seen archive clip of the exotically be-feathered Eno playing Virginia Plain with Roxy Music in 1972), to the experimental collaborative mechanisms of the Cameron-Clegg coalition, this impish sixty-two-year-old music producer and artist can be said to have had (at the very least) a hand in a long list of modernity's most inescapable manifestations.
Yet such is the subliminal nature of Eno's influence, that when he goes out into the world - for example, campaigning in Tony Blair's constituency of Sedgefield to have the former prime minister indicted as a war criminal during the general election campaign of 2005 - he often finds that nobody recognises him.
His capacity for regular shape-shifting is the foundation of Eno's public image as an enigmatic Macavity figure ("I can tell that he's kind of smiling, but what does he know?" ponders the song recently titled in his honour by fashionable Brooklyn rock band MGMT, "We're always one step behind him, he's Brian Eno").
And the Eno I meet on a sunny afternoon in the well-appointed Notting Hill mews workspace that is his operational nerve centre is satisfyingly at odds with the one I was expecting. First off, he looks different; both leaner and slightly meaner.
Allied to his piercing blue-eyed gaze, Eno's closely shaven head, black, Harrington-style jacket and glinting gold teeth give him the sort of vaguely menacing air one would more usually associate with the leader of a gang of early-'80s football hooligans. This effect is slightly - but not entirely - undercut by the fact that he has just eaten a gluten-free chocolate cupcake. "It's very sweet for the time of day," he warns. "This is definitely going to have an impact."
While Eno exhibits no obvious symptoms of a potentially life-threatening sugar rush, there does seem to be a surprising amount of edge to much of what he has to say. Consider this account of a recent trip to the cinema:
"I went to a movie the other evening," Eno notes, crisply, "and it made me think a lot about the danger of editing. Editing is now the easiest thing on earth to do, and all the things that evolved out of word processing - 'Oh, let's put that sentence there, let's get rid of this' - have become commonplace in films and music too."
"There used to be a sort of barrier," he continues, with mounting intensity, "because it was a physically destructive process. When you were actually cutting film or tape, you did it with some forethought and care, because those steps weren't so easily revocable, you couldn't just put it back. Whereas now editing is like a disease," he concludes exasperatedly, "it drives me completely mad."
So was the film he went to see eight minutes long where it would have been better at two hours? "No," Eno admits warily, "exactly the opposite, to tell you the truth. I don't know whether I should really say which film it was..."
Oh, go on.
"I will, actually," he decides, after a brief pause for reflection. "Why not bite the hand that fed me? It was Wall Street 2, which in fact has a fair bit of my music in it - chopped about in the most cretinous manner, in my opinion. But it's not only my music that's chopped about, it's the whole film. You just know there's some fat twat in the production suite saying [Eno adopts a Hollywood big-shot-style American accent]: 'It's a little slow here, Ollie'."
As our conversation continues, a clear theme seems to be emerging, which is that the more options technological progress seems to give people, the harder it becomes for those applying those innovations to follow a single line of creative thought to a worthwhile conclusion.
"You know what it's like when you go into a Chinese restaurant, and you're quite hungry and you feel like sweet and sour pork," Eno explains, with the inclusive plausibility of a skilled stand-up comedian, "but then the menu arrives and it's sixty-two pages long and you think: 'Should I have the bean sprouts with duck?' And you end up not ordering the thing you wanted, because you're just baffled by the choice?"
"Well, one of the things I always try to do when I'm working with a band in the studio [Coldplay and U2 being two of Eno's best-known clients] is to cut out choices, because there are too many."
Strangely, one of Eno's highest-profile recent endeavours, 77 Million Paintings - a "generative audio and visual software project" - culminated in a virtually endless series of possible combinations of coloured slides and music being projected onto the Sydney Opera House. Eno proudly recounts a taxi ride to see this grand and vivid spectacle, while showing me tourists' shots of it on his laptop. "Seen that thing they're doing with the roof?" the driver unknowingly asked the man behind the whole event. "Bloody clever bastards!"
At first sight, projects such as 77 Million Paintings and Eno's award-winning iPhone application, Bloom - which allows users to "utilise a whimsical, inviting interface to manipulate their own musically and visually cascading tone poems" (or make pretty music by touching their mobile phone screens, to put it in layman's terms) - might look like willing plunges into the abyss of infinite choice.
But as far as Eno is concerned, it is restriction rather than abundance that is the lifeblood of these programs. "As far as I'm concerned," he insists, "Bloom is not a tool, because a very narrow stratum of possibilities is offered. So I think of it more as a single piece of music that everyone who uses makes a slightly different version of."
Someone who wished to hazard a guess as to what's been on Eno's mind in recent years - and make no mistake, something does seem to be eating at him - could do worse than suggest it might be the pursuit of a meaningful set of restrictions. This is not the kind of quest with which he has traditionally been associated.
The last (and also the first) time I interviewed Eno was in 1996. At this point, he had just published a diary of his previous twelve months' activities - the bestseller A Year (With Swollen Appendices). The entry for August 26 described him sipping his own urine to see what flavour it was ("It looked just like Orvieto Classico and tasted of nearly nothing"), and the impression left by a face-to-face encounter was of someone whose natural curiosity was so all-consuming that no subject was off-limits.
Eno's compulsive candour seemed to stretch into all areas of his personal history, up to and including the touching details of his parents' courtship. Eno senior, it turned out, was a Suffolk postman who had been billeted with a Flemish household at the end of the Second World War.
There he found himself falling in love with the girl in a family photo - the daughter of the house, who'd been away in a German forced labour camp building Heinkel bombers.
When she finally came home after the war, she weighed just five stone and had a one-year-old daughter, but they still got married, moved to Woodbridge and - the way Eno told the story - lived pretty much happily ever after.
Fourteen years on, the atmosphere established in the run-up to my second visit to Eno's west London HQ has been a good deal less relaxed.
Prior to the interview, his management had stipulated that we should not discuss any past projects other than those mentioned in the official PR for Eno's current release - a meticulously crafted album of instrumental music called Small Craft On A Milk Sea, written and recorded with younger electronic disciples Jon Hopkins and Leo Hopkins. What's more - and here was a level of control-freakery that even the media minders of J-Lo or Tom Cruise might baulk at - no approach should be made to those Eno has previously collaborated with for quotes about his working methods.
How might this strange transition from carefree, full disclosure to rigidly structured reticence have come to pass? It would be understandable if Eno had grown bored of talking about his now far-off work with Roxy Music or David Bowie (among others).
But earlier this year, while promoting a slightly grouchy appearance on a long BBC television documentary about his work, Eno hinted at a more fundamental unease with the balance between his past and his present, referring to the perils of feeling "useless awe towards his former self".
Anyone with as many achievements as Eno could be forgiven the odd concern as to how he was going to top them. And in his case the situation is complicated by how many doors he's opened for other people.
The suggestion has even been made in Wired magazine circles that Eno might have been "disintermediated" by the internet, which would mean that the role he once had as a conduit isn't there any more. In other words, there used to be things that only Eno knew, and he would tell Bono, but now everyone knows those things already because they've seen them on the web.
When Eno sees Lady Gaga on television, does he ever think: "She's wearing my outfit?"
"I was a bit fed up about the meat dress, I have to say," Eno grins ruefully. "When I was at art school in the late-'60s, I was at a college [Winchester School of Art] with a big textiles department. I took a picture of the back of a butcher's van with all the meat hanging up, printed it on some cloth and had a shirt made, which was basically a flesh shirt. I must admit though," he concedes graciously, "her garment was a bloody sight better than the one I made."
In the past, Eno has described himself as "someone not overly concerned with the proprietorial pride of authorship". But isn't it a strange feeling when concepts he road-tested over long periods of time, and often to widespread bewilderment - for example, ambient music in the '70s, or generative music programming (now a staple of the computer games industry) two decades later - suddenly take off?
"The only thing which is strange about that to me," he replies cheerfully, "is that it took so long, because quite often I've found an idea - or even had an idea occasionally - and thought: 'This is so obvious, everybody's going to be doing it within a month'. And then it takes thirty-five years."
Some people have seen Eno's decision to sign with an actual record label (the irrefutably Eno-influenced electronic imprint Warp) and release an old-fashioned album as a strangely nostalgic thing for such a famously forward-looking person to do. But perhaps in attempting to forsake the free-form pathological over-sharing of the Facebook era for something a little more discreet and controlled, Eno is actually as far ahead of the pack as he has ever been.
"I do sometimes look back at things I've written in the past," the 2010-model Eno confesses, "and think, 'I just don't remember being the person who wrote that'. It's funny," he continues, gravely, "because you didn't notice that person leaving either." To demonstrate, he picks up one of the innumerable notebooks full of ideas and drawings he's kept since he was fourteen years old. "A lot of this is incredibly boring," he insists, opening at a random page.
On one line are the words "Pearl" and "Session", with a space in the middle for the word "Jam". On the next are the words "Estelle" and "Dancing", with a space in the middle for the word "Morris".
After several moments' anxious pause - "I can't even figure out what these words were clues to" - Eno remembers organising a treasure hunt for his two grown-up daughters Irial and Darla (names he made up). One of them owns a Morris Minor, in which her father had hidden some jam.
With that mystery solved, the sugar rush finally hits him. Our time is up. Eno jumps to his feet, listens to an Iggy & The Stooges song at gold-tooth juddering volume, then walks out of his office and off into the street at road-racing pace. The rest of us still have a bit of catching up to do.