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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Age MAY 10, 2014 - by Nick Miller
MIDAS OF MUSIC WHO ONCE SACKED COLDPLAY'S CHRIS MARTIN: MEET BRIAN ENO
Brian Eno has been ignoring creative boundaries for years, and as Karl Hyde plays along, anything could happen.
"Get ready to be bored stupid," says Brian Eno. "We're playing with some ideas."
Fair enough. I mean what could possibly not be stupidly boring about spending the afternoon in Eno's Notting Hill studio, listening to him jam with Underworld's Karl Hyde?
Brian Eno. Roxy Music's synthesist, Talking Heads' guru, U2's Svengali, trend wizard, prog-rock sex symbol, art-rock pathfinder, ambient grandmaster, electronic prophet, the professor of pop, the Midas of music, the platinum-fingered producer who once casually sacked Chris Martin from Coldplay during a recording session to teach him a lesson (he let him back in afterwards).
Yeah, this is just going to be stunningly dull.
The old scar on Brian Eno's bald head (the story goes that he was crossing the road, got distracted, got hit by a taxi, went to hospital and while he was slowly recuperating he invented ambient music) catches the light as he bends over his work.
He waves his hand like an alchemist above a blue upturned techno-alembic thingo that somehow turns gestures into sound-twisting filters.
A metre or two away Hyde, his guitar slung over his shoulder, reads lyrics from a small black notebook whose pages are held open by his iPhone, two-note-chanting in that voice so instantly recognisable to anyone who's raved their arses off to Born Slippy, arguably (c'mon, actually) the best dance tune of a generation.
A drum-pad-drummer and lead guitarist fill out the session, while a techy chap watches a computer monitor and another takes notes. Samples loop in and out, cued from Eno's deck.
A female voice recites a poem, her voice distorts. Beats echo over atmosynthpherics. Hyde finds a slot for his guitar riff. The music builds. He sings, his plaintive monotone distorted by Eno's waving hand. They sing. The music comes together and falls apart on the precipice of inspiration. Ideas pop in like heroes and slink out, defeated, or build to almost-pop cohesion, or drift into mesmeric repetition. Eno draws it together or deliberately tears it apart, sending it in a new direction, bending guitar and voice into atonal agony.
Drawn away from his work, Eno is a sixty-five year-old, bearded, white-stubble-haired prof in blue shirt and jeans, glasses and impish face. He could be about to give a physics lecture.
Instead we talk about what he's doing. I'm here as part of the promotion for Someday World, the first album from Eno and Hyde's work together. This jam is part of the process for their next project. Things are clearly going well.
"It was a complete liberation starting to work with [Hyde]," says Eno. For two decades he has occasionally sat down and created a "sonic and rhythmic world" then just put it on a shelf and started something else.
"I felt that they wanted to be pieces that were played by a big live band, a [Afrobeat pioneer] Fela Kuti-style band. When I started working with Karl I would throw these things on and he'd just start playing along with them. Immediately, just the fact of having one other person with their interpretation of rhythmic feel and their tonality and so on multiplied the value of the things by about ten for me.
"There was a conversation, where it had been a monologue... I thought 'OK we can go somewhere with this now'."
Hyde says he loves the process of responding to Brian's ideas, beats and grooves with his own guitar loops and lyrics. From the start, "something magical was happening", he says.
"We're both art school kids, we're both still making visual art. It's got to be led by instinct. Intellect gets in the way. Whenever I'm working, I know when things are going wrong is when I've got a preconception about what people will like and what a gallery will accept and what will sell - that's when the bad work gets made.
"The same thing is applicable to music and that's something that I admire in Brian's work. When we work together we both instinctively know when we're making something that 'sounds like' an imitation or sounds like a pop record or sounds like people will like it - and then we just stop it."
Though Eno was among the first to tout the "studio as a compositional tool", he says much of his inspiration comes from making music physically with another human being, rather than knobs and buttons, a mouse and screen.
"[Hyde and I] chose to work this way because we believe that the music made by physical engagement, the engagement of a group of people with each other is a different kind of music."
As a youngster, what Eno didn't want was an ordinary job. He went to art school and assumed he would be a visual artist of some kind, then he joined Roxy Music and "my destiny was made".
"But I really joined that band because I was free... I had been fighting against getting tied down. So I was really navigating in the negative.
"And I think you can do that with music as well. You can say 'I don't know really what I do want yet, I'll smell it when it comes, but I know I don't want that and I don't want that'."
Eno describes creating music as "building a little world".
"You're just feeling your way into this place, this musical space... And once you're in this world you know that [this] would not be the right thing to do, while that sort of feels right."
It's a process of surrendering, he says, a "dance between control and surrender".
One of his greatest strengths is that he can still hear songs as the audience will hear them. He has said: "In general, the listener wants much less than the creator. When you're creating something, it's very easy to get into a nervous state and think 'Oh God, here's a whole bar where nothing happens', and try to get more stuff in. But as a listener you're quite happy with these open spaces."
So how did this afternoon go? As expected?
"Some of it was boring and some of it was promising and a couple of little bits were quite beautiful, I thought," says Eno.
"When you're doing it you think 'wow, it's amazing how that worked'. Sometimes it sounds good afterwards as well.
"One of the things we did, I thought 'that's a very catchy pop song'. There was something Karl was singing, I thought 'that's a real hook. That could be a hit'. It could, you know. But we will resist making it into a hit."
Hang on, what?
"I would think 'oh here we go again'. I'm trying to do something else."
Hyde and Eno had started with a different plan. They wanted to make an album of four fifteen-minute tracks, repetitive grooves "that go on a trance-like journey", says Hyde. It was going to sound kind of like Afrobeats meets minimalism pioneer Steve Reich.
That's why they're back in the studio. "The album we started out making, we never finished. This is the finish to that. This other experiment is still waiting to be done."
Hyde finds writing with Eno exhausting and exhilarating. "I'll go home at night, my kids will go 'come on dad you look knackered but you look happy, you've been working with Brian again haven't you?'"