INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Zigzag JANUARY 1978 - by Danny Baker & Kris Needs
AN INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN ENO
You could say Brian Eno was pissed off on the day the dynamic Zigzag interviewing team were supposed to be interviewing him. Quite the opposite mood to what we'd expected. I mean, that week saw the release of the long awaited new album two years in the making and the unpredictable Eno seemingly getting the publicity and acclaim which had avoided him for some time. All eyes and ears were on Eno following his work on last year's two classic Bowie albums, "Heroes" and Low in which he had played a major part. So why wasn't he happy? Well, there's a number of reasons, but basically, he doesn't like all the hype and publicity (which includes being lumped in with some Cold Wave New Musick), and what's more, he doesn't see Before And After Science the new album, as the final fulfilment of the blossoming Eno we'd been led to believe.
As we walked into publicist Tony Brainsby's office Brian was trying to convince his press people that he didn't want to be the subject of a superficial, look-kiddies-ain't-we-up-with-the-times article in the Daily Mail. Seemed to sum it up, really. We talked for about one and a half hours during which Brian explained the reasons behind his current pessimism, his dissatisfaction at becoming a record company's product and, much more excitedly, got onto his future projects (which may include more work with Bowie). Not knowing his mood though it looks like we kicked off on the wrong foot!
ZZ: What makes you laugh?
BE: What makes me laugh. Let me think of what has made me laugh recently [pause]. I've actually been sad for the last few months, so I guess I haven't been laughing very much. Bowie makes me laugh a lot because we have a... we've developed these two kinds of characters that we play, who I guess are loosely based on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, but a rather more extreme version of them, and he's incredibly good at it. He can really... He's the only person who can really make me cry with laughing, where I'm actually aching and begging to stop because I can't take any more, and it's a side of him that I never expected, you know, because he doesn't come over in any way as being a humourist, far from it.
ZZ: If anything, that's the image put forward of you, like with this new Ice Cold Music of the Future craze in Sounds and all that.
BE: I know. I didn't agree with that. I didn't think it was ice cold [laughs]. You see, it doesn't derive from that bluesy feel, and people are so used to that, you know, the whole tradition of The Stones, that kind of it's-all-felt kind of movement, and I don't drive from that very much but nonetheless I don't think that what results is therefore cold, it doesn't have that particular kind of warmth...
ZZ: Bowie's lumped in it too, and you've linked with Bowie after the last two albums...
BE: Yes, I'm a bit fed up of it... I'm a bit annoyed at the moment, well not annoyed, just... I'm fed up with myself a bit, that's what it is really.
BE: Well, the way I like to live and work is... first of all I like working more than anything else. It's the one thing that gives me the biggest buzz of all, and when I'm working I'm definitely at my most happy, and it affects everything else that happens in my life. It's all contingent on whether I'm happy or not in my work. If I'm feeling happy in my work I feel very happy otherwise. I feel bright and lively and all that. Lately I haven't been feeling very happy in my work because I've had the feeling for a year or two that I'm ready to undergo a change of some kind, but it hasn't happened yet.
ZZ: A musical change?
BE: Yes... Well, more than that I guess really, but certainly a musical one, and probably to do with a lifestyle as well. [Pause] What happened was when I first left Roxy I had a very good time for a period because I was just available, you know. If someone was doing something interesting they could ring and say they were doing this, do you want to join in? I really like joining in with things, you know. I'm not keen of permanently being in the role of thinking up the project, then getting it together, then organising it, all the work that goes into making a record, where you're involved in every stage from beginning to end. That way of working, which I've been doing now for a couple of years has, has really drained my energy. That's why I enjoyed working on the Bowie things so much, because he was someone else with a lot of energy and with his own movement which I could jump on to and slightly divert or follow, whichever I chose to do, so...
I rather think I fancy doing some things where I keep further back from being the focal point of what's happening; where I take a much more subsidiary role. I did those concerts with Fripp a couple of years ago, which I liked very much. It was one of the last things I did which I really enjoyed a lot, and that was because what I did there was just provide a background for Fripp to work on, so I deliberately wasn't having a lead role.
ZZ: You said you haven't been very happy for a little while. Most people the week their album is released are jumping all over saying Look me new album's coming out: Doesn't it make you happy that Before And After Science is coming out tomorrow?
BE: No, not especially. No. I'm not sure what I feel about the record.
ZZ: Well, its certainly got the biggest publicity push out of any of your releases...
BE: It's a great shame [laughs]... Well, its a peculiar position where it's as if the market or the business has just caught up with me, cos that push is not voluntary, I didn't organise that, it just happened, and it's as though the market has caught up with me at a time when I really could have done without it really.
ZZ: You could have done with it two years ago?
BE: That's right, yes. Or not at all.
ZZ: I s'pose this Big Push was started with the Bowie thing.
BE: That's right. It's just that of all the albums I've released, I have less confidence about this one than any of the others. That could be for a number of reasons, quite apart from whatever the quality of the album is, which I can't assess at the moment at all. It could be that I worked on this for such a long time that it's just not fresh for me anymore. I can't hear it as somebody who just listened to it for the first time would. All I can hear is months and months of hard work. I put it on and I think Oh God, I remember how long it took to do that, and so on.
In fact, the only nice surprise I had recently was when I switched the radio on and Peel was playing one of the tracks and, and suddenly hearing it on the radio, with all the other music each side of it, it suddenly sounded good, because it was there out of my hands, it wasn't my record anymore, it was just a piece of music, and that sounds OK. That was the only encouraging thing that happened really, lately.
The other thing is, as I said, I'm at a kind of mental and physical low which I've been in for a few months, and it makes it really difficult to muster any enthusiasms about it really. All I want to do is get on and do something new now and, and to be honest, I would happily not have anything more to do with this album, which is not to say that I dismiss it, it's finished now for me, I finished a long time ago really. It's out of the way, a finished job, and now I want to get onto the next one because I think it'll be much more interesting really.
I've two or three plans for ways of working which I think may break this barrier I'm feeling up against at the moment. At the moment I feel like I've exhausted a series of ways of working. There's all these ways of working that for a long time paid off and produced good results and still surprise me. But now most of those have dried up, like most ways of working do after a while. You either have a choice of just plodding on and producing more records that are substantially the same and just getting more polished, which I don't want to do, or else you have to say I'm going to abandon that way of working and I am going to start experimenting with new ways. Now, if you make that kind of experiment, you do it at the risk of failing, of course. The new ways might not work either. So, I'm moving into a rather nerve-wracking time.
One project I have is: I'm going to record some songs with Aswad, and I'm looking forward to that. They won't necessarily be songs, they'll be pieces that I shall do something else over the top. What I imagined was if you had a long dub piece, like ten minutes long, and over the top of it you had very beautiful, slow kind of melodies, very long and slow. So you got this really interesting, intricate backdrop and these lovely floating things over the top, which hasn't really happened yet in reggae. It's something I can always hear when I listen to dub records, but they don't do it, and I want to try that. I'm thinking of trying it in collaboration with Robert Wyatt, who is a master of these kinds of melodies.
ZZ: You'll probably get all the hacks saying there he goes jumping on the reggae bandwagon...
BE: I can actually anticipate what the critics are going to say before I've made a note of music!
ZZ: You should enclose a review.
BE: Yes. Good idea. I could enclose two - a good review and a bad review. Please choose! That's one project. Another one is: I'm trying to assemble a group of ten musicians, which would be the largest I've ever worked with, and would be quite a daunting prospect. What I want to do is - it's hard to explain - I want to work on found material.
For example, I was in Morocco a little while ago, and I recorded these two blind men sitting in the streets singing and they had really incredible voices, not like Western voices at all. Deghdeghdegh [emits deep guttural rasping noise], that kind of voice, you know, very deghh! Real nasty voices, like John Cale tries to achieve sometimes. After a while this little girl of six came along and she started singing with them, her voice was about fifteen octaves higher. This was really a beautiful little piece, and one of the projects is to take that piece, stick it on a piece of tape, and then add instruments to it so that you actually orchestrate this piece that was never intended to have any orchestration, and to just treat it as a found melody and work from that, so that you'd have a full ten part band with these old men singing over the top and this little girl. That's the kind of project that I'm interested in at the moment, but they're not easy to organise because apart from being costly, they're all ways of working that are not commonplace. There aren't techniques for doing that kind of music readily available.
ZZ: Polydor can hardly launch a full scale advertising campaign on two old men singing in the street, can they?
BE: Good. To tell you the truth I don't like advertising campaigns, they make me nervous, because I think all that can happen when you do that is you disappoint people. I have a built in reluctance to listen to stuff which comes out with all this razzle-dazzle. All this does is encourage the wrong mode of listening. They're waiting for something to happen. All my favourite albums I've discovered by accident.
ZZ: How long did the new album take?
BE: I started thinking about this in August 1975, I think. Yes... and it's been a real trial. One of the real problems about it has been: there's been so many interesting things going on, really exciting things and I think, Shit, what have I got to offer? What can I add to all this? That isn't humility or anything, it's just I feel embarrassed to get this kind of attention when I know there are things going on which are at least as interesting and probably more. Because I have a background or a reputation I automatically start three steps up the ladder as regards attention, and it just doesn't seem fair to me. If my record is any good it will survive. If it isn't, it won't. It's difficult to calculate exactly how long it took because it took a long time and I was two weeks in, then time off, you know. It took a long time.
I think the reason this took so long was because a lot of the time I was struggling against the way I work, which has previously always produced results that interest me and surprise me. I didn't do that this time, but I still haven't formulated another way of working. I really got into a state about it, you can't believe how ill I got, thinking about this record. I couldn't sleep because I'd be thinking, Oh shit, I've got to do something about that track, and just lying there all night making notes about things. I thought, I've got to set a deadline, get this record out for better or worse, whatever it's like I've just got to get it out because its just... it's like when a relationship is breaking down between two people. You can keep talking to each other, doing all this stuff to keep it together, but at some point you have to say, Look, we gotta split.
I had this thing with the record to release it for better or worse whether I was confident with it or not. That was why I would have preferred a low-profile marketing campaign that almost said, Don't just buy this on trust, listen to it in case you don't like it, and the whole point of the Obscure label was to say that actually. It was to say, These are records you might not like. I think it's always better for something to be heard for what it is rather than for reputation or any-thing like that. It's just really embarrassing, you know. I just don't know what to say to people. (I'm sorry I'm so pessimistic at the moment. I'm just going through a rather pessimistic time... you'll have an exclusively pessimistic interview... I don't lie in interviews. I keep back things that are inconvenient. My present sense of pessimism, for example, which is contingent on a whole number of personal things, so it's not strictly speaking of interest to other people. On the other hand, I can't be bothered to play games any more.)
ZZ: If this took two years that means you started it before the Bowie albums, but as it's come out after, people are gonna think you were influenced by 'em. Were you at all?
BE: Well, I was to a certain extent. I had got into a way of working which was very dry in a way. It was like, over-calculated, and it wasn't funny anymore, cos the things I enjoy most are always things that are done in a spirit of quite light-heartedness, and even if they're fairly heavy or sombre the mood of doing them is nearly always as exciting, and then the next step suggests itself.
That's when it's really exciting, when the work pulls you along, so the thing starts to assume it's own life and you just follow it and you just do what it wasn't. For me always the best things have arisen from that. To do that successfully you have to have a tremendous amount of energy, because there's a period early on in the work when it's just nothing, so you have to be really full of energy and self-confidence to push it through that period until it starts to assume some life of its own and then it takes off.
But I've been so physically exhausted for such a long time that the energy kept giving out. I'd have to come back another day. It was all in steps. Traditionally I'd go in a start a track and by the evening it'd be finished. So what was interesting about working with Bowie is that he wanted me to work with him specifically because he knew that that was how I worked and that was how he wanted to try working. The funny thing is, when I went to work on his things, because the ultimate responsibility for the thing wasn't mine - it was his, his name goes on these things - I found it very easy to do that, and once again I had all that energy, and coupled with the fact that he was there too, so there was a double input of energy! Anytime I slacked off he would take over, you know, and vice versa.
I suddenly realised that what I really liked doing most of all was working with other people. I really do, it's the thing I enjoy most, and I don't really care what capacity I'm in. I don't care if I'm just the fucking roadie eventually, I think what other people do is more interesting.
ZZ: Are you going to do another album with him?
BE: I think we should do another, I'm not sure. We never talk about it.
ZZ: He just calls you up, doesn't he?
BE: That's right, we don't discuss it in advance, because it wouldn't be wise to. Who knows, in three or four months time he might have found someone else to with who can do something else for him, and I wouldn't be offended by that, or anything like that, it's his prerogative.
ZZ: Are you gonna do gigs with him?
BE: Well, he did ask me. I gave it some serious consideration. I don't like doing gigs very much, but I think there are a few people I'd like to do them with, and he's one of them. I think they could be interesting, but the trouble was he was talking about a long tour, and I'm just at a period where that wouldn't be the right thing to do. I must strike again, that's the thing. I want to do something quite soon and the tour would just cover that period. It would mean that I wouldn't be able to work again 'till the summer. It's a five month tour he's talking about, I mean fucking hell [laughs] that's a long time!
At this point we had to curtail because the Evening News wanted to interview Brian for the paragraph they used in London Scene a few days later. Baker and I both agreed that Eno is a good geezer who when it comes down to it just wants to get on with quietly breaking sound barriers and is pleased if you wanna come along for the ride. As we left he promised to keep in touch on those appetising future projects and you can safely bet we won't keep it to ourselves.