The Argus APRIL 3, 2010 - by Ian Ray


Egghead, theorist brainbox, boffin... rarely is anything written about Brian Eno without at least a whisper of his reputation as the nation's foremost cross- cultural Captain Clever. Meeting him, there's little doubt it's justified. He's sharp and articulate, but the fusty scientific labels he's given leave scarce room for the sandpaper-dry humour and impetuosity that drive his every sentence along. He's less like the tweedy university lecturer buried in research and far more the leather-jacketed, passionately evangelical professor the female freshers find strangely alluring.

One of the few people allowed to call his friend the U2 frontman "Bongo", Eno was a founding member of Roxy Music before helping to propel the likes of David Bowie and Talking Heads into their most inventive territory. With a nifty sideline as a pioneer of ambient music and his forays into visual art, he's a bold and interesting choice for guest director of this year's Brighton Festival. He has a huge, eclectic train set of his very own to play with, but how important is it that visitors "get" what he's trying to do with the programme?

"Well I hope they like it, most of all," he says. "That's the main 'getting'. There isn't a message or point in the sense that I've come here to make people aware of global warming or something like that. I want people to like it or be moved by what we're doing. The worst thing would be if people came and said 'I didn't think much of that'."

A key element of his stewardship of the festival opens this weekend at the Fabrica Gallery in the shape of 77 Million Paintings. The digital installation will see hundreds of Eno's hand-drawn images randomly selected, projected, and layered up on screens in a collision of colour.

"I'll never see every combination myself and I've watched this thing for really long periods... thousands of hours, really. The repeat time is so long - several million years - that you'd have to be very unlucky, or maybe very lucky, to see the same thing twice.

"It's all about combinatorial mathematics. That's why people bet on the National Lottery: they have no idea how many combinations of six numbers there could be."

From his beginnings as an art student to his work as innovating producer, ambient pioneer and video artist (via his stint as androgynous knob-twiddler in Roxy), Eno's career has been packed with big ideas. Much like his bookings for the festival (comic/musician Reggie Watts, performance artists/musicians The Books), he has fallen between stools of all shapes and sizes down the years, and says he's now settled on the catch-all "artist" as a definition.

"I've always put something anodyne like that on my passport," he laughs, adding that as a nation we're often sceptical about people moving between disciplines.

"You'd think they'd have got used to me by now, but I still get that suspicion. It's this British thing - 'What right does he have?' - which is funny because in Europe people are fascinated by the fact you could be a visual artist and a musician and somehow try to relate the two.

"Over here if I say to people I'm a musician, they'll say 'Oh that's interesting'.

But then if I say I'm an artist as well I can the see word 'dilettante' flash in their heads. It's like, 'He doesn't know what he's doing'."

He's also had a hard time in the past from those unable to reconcile his ambient work and more esoteric projects such as 77 Million Paintings with his role as producer of mega million-sellers like U2 and Coldplay (along with big commercial commissions such as the start-up theme for Microsoft's Windows).

"People can be uneasy, but that's because one of the ways the fine arts defend themselves is by saying: 'We're so deep, profound and complex that of course people won't understand us'. That can sometimes be true, but it's too easy to use that as a defence.

"I think one of the reasons the fine art establishment is slightly nervous about popular art is because they suspect some of it might actually be good. It's easier to dismiss if it's crap."

It's not the first time Eno has curated a festival; some of the events taking place in Brighton will be expanded, 2.0 versions of the diverse programme he brought to the Luminous Festival in Sydney last year. He laughed off a brief brouhaha in the Australian press that he was too cerebral a figure to front the festival, and it's clear he wants Brightonians not to feel daunted by our event.

"I would like it if people felt qualified to form any opinion they liked about what they saw. It's very interesting that when you look at pop music, nobody has any qualms saying 'I hate that record' or 'I love that record'. Everybody knows they're entitled to their own opinions with pop, but present them with a contemporary painting and they might say, 'Oh I don't get it. What am I supposed to see?'. In reality, you can just take the same head to it all and say you don't like it, or you love it. Don't be embarrassed by your reactions to anything - don't be ashamed, and don't think there's something there you're not getting."

His own events at the festival include a live performance of his silvery, spare ambient record Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, conceived to soundtrack Al Reinert's 1989 documentary about the moon landings (somehow the record sounds just like you'd expect the moon to). His ambient work, including Discreet Music and 1978's Music For Airports is one of the best-known strings to Eno's bow. The latter's calming, spacious sound was inspired by a visit to a newly-built airport in Cologne, where he felt the piped-in muzak was an aspect of the overall design that hadn't been considered. Is this more pertinent today when music booms out of every shop, television advert and website?

"Yes, because I think very often, the music hasn't been conceived for the use it's being put to, and therefore doesn't fit the use very well. For instance, that airport was just beautiful, a fabulously designed building, but the music was probably just some cassette one of the cleaners had brought in.

"I just thought it's amazing you can spend two hundred million dollars building an airport, getting all the architectural details correct and then slapping on any old music.

"It'd be like spending hundreds of pounds on a fabulous suit and then you go out with like a stupid tractor hat turned sideways... well that might look quite cool, actually."

He's particularly optimistic about a festival talk on the importance of optimism.

"Most of the news is bad, most of the time. We have a whole media structure dedicated to telling us what's going wrong and it'd be nice for someone to say 'Here's the good news'.

"Cynicism is very easy to do, in the same way it's very easy to write sarcastic, funny, bad reviews. It's quite hard to write a constructive, good review that doesn't come over as gushing, and I feel the same way towards thoughts about the future. It takes real perception to winkle out things and say, 'I think that's going really well'."

Eno is feeling positive about going along to some of the festival events as a punter.

He talks energetically about the chance to see his hero, iconic Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen (an early present for his sixty-second birthday the day after) and he's enthused about This Is Acapella, an evening of unaccompanied singing that finds its inspiration in his own love of the form (he has his own amateur singing group, comprised of a boxer, a dancer and a barrister, among others).

Wanting to see so much at the festival has prompted him to spend its entire duration as a Brighton resident.

"I like having the excuse to spend some time here. I don't think I would have wanted to curate a festival in any other city, actually. I wouldn't, to be perfectly honest, want an excuse to spend a month in Hull, for example.

"If you live in London most of the time as I do, coming down here is like going on holiday. I like the fact it's a small, quite intimate city you can walk across a couple of times in a day, but most of all I like the fact that there are still lots of independently-owned shops around."

So what's next for Eno when the festival closes its doors? He's reportedly at work with Coldplay on a follow-up to 2008's Viva La Vida, with rumours abounding that he banned singer Chris Martin from the studio during early sessions to shake up their working methods.

He politely declines to talk about his production work, and it's clear from decades of interviews that this is a man not terribly comfortable talking about himself, however passionately he talks of his work. However, his reason for being tight-lipped on what he's up to next is a purely practical one.

"It always gets me in trouble if I talk about the future. If I mention something and it doesn't come out, then I'm answering questions about it for the next fifteen years."

77 Million Paintings will be at Fabrica, Duke Street, Brighton, until the end of the festival (May 23). Entry is free.


Born Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno in Suffolk, Eno went to art school before a chance meeting with saxophonist and oboe player Andy Mackay led to him joining the nascent Roxy Music. He would bring inspired treatments to the band's recordings and a mile-wide streak of androgynous showmanship to their live shows, but quit the band in 1973 after a clash of egos with singer Bryan Ferry (they're now pals again). His solo work would veer between wonky pop and his celebrated ambient work.

In the mid-1970s, he hooked up with David Bowie in Berlin, helping create some of Bowie's most revered work. Throughout his career in music, Eno has drawn on his art school background, and in the late 1970s he began experimenting with video art. His work with the likes of Talking Heads saw him become an increasingly sought-after producer, and in 1975 he co-created a pack of cards, drawn at random and designed to resolve creative blocks. The most famous instruction is perhaps "honour thy error as hidden intent". He reluctantly agreed to produce U2 in 1984. The Irish band ventured into more expansive ground and the relationship still stands today. In 1988 he married his manager Anthea Norman-Taylor, with whom he has two girls. Eno was asked to oversee Coldplay's 2008 Viva La Vida record, and the following year he took up a post as artistic director of the Luminous Festival in Sydney.