The Argus APRIL 30, 2010 - by Ian Ray


There was an oddly thrilling moment as I sat down for a chat with Brian Eno, when one of the world's most celebrated record producers tried to get the best microphone position and signal for my humble voice recorder.

"It won't pick up very well down there - would it be better if I held it?" he asked. The man's a pro, and this would be the closest I'd ever come to joining the likes of Bowie and U2 in being produced by him.

In case you've not heard, the songwriter, producer, visual artist and Renaissance boffin is this year's guest artistic director of the Brighton Festival, a role he's pushed a little further than his predecessor Anish Kapoor by booking bands and talks to complement his own art installations and live performances.

He's a bold and intriguing choice for the job; having first crashed into the public consciousness as the feather boa-wearing knob-twiddler in Roxy Music, he's continued to navigate a path between the immensely popular - as producer of U2 and Coldplay - and the quirkily esoteric.

The festival brings together elements of both, with talks on the nature of art sharing space with joyous, energetic Afrobeat performances.

Eno's place in musical history as the "Godfather of ambient music" isn't neglected either; there will be a live performance of his gorgeously spare record Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks tomorrow.

"The group of instruments that will be used [for the performance] is very unusual,"

Eno says. "They're not electronic instruments, which of course is very different from the original where much of them were. I think it's always really fascinating when people try to recreate electronics with acoustic instruments. It makes something that isn't either, something totally new."

Eno's ambient work is made up of a series of wonderfully discreet albums that include, er... Discreet Music and Music For Airports (1978). The latter's chiming, spacious sound was inspired by Eno's visit to a newly-built airport in Cologne, where the dreary piped-in muzak couldn't have been further removed from the elegant design around him.

Are these ideas even more pertinent today, when music booms from every shop, website and TV advert?

"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 in Germany was just beautiful, a fabulously designed building - but the music was probably just some cassette one of the cleaners had brought in. 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."

Eno's passion for Afrobeat finds its expression at the festival in the dream line-up of Tony Allen and Suen Kuti (son of the influential Fela) - and the gig is on May 14, the day before Eno's sixty-second birthday.

"I first heard Afrobeat in 1971 with the first Fela Kuti album," he explains. "It's one of the few times in my life I've thought there might be something to the idea of reincarnation. I felt so strongly that I already knew it and absolutely belonged with it."

Afrobeat was one of the key influences on Eno's work with Talking Heads - a searingly inventive period for both parties - but one of his most cherished musical loves will almost certainly never make it to record.

His resolutely amateur a capella singing group has vowed never to record or perform, but he's visibly excited at the prospect of the May 7 date from The Persuasions and Naturally 7, who replicate the sounds of instruments with their voices.

"People stand with their jaws open watching them," he says. "Unaccompanied singing is such a demanding form because there's nothing to lean back on."

Eno himself will be taking to the stage for This Is Pure Scenius!, an improvisatory series of musical performances that will see him joined by Underworld's Karl Hyde, guitarist Leo Abrahams, synthesizer player Jon Hopkins and Australian improvisation group The Necks.

"We set up the stage as a kind of senior common room - there are sofas and so on," he laughs. "The idea is that you don't feel you have to play all the time, which is what improvisation usually consists of. If you don't create a space for musicians to sit down and have a cup of tea, they'll play all the time!"

This kind of considered randomness neatly encapsulates a career that has thrived on spontaneity and surprise. When Eno's long-time collaborator David Byrne (of Talking Heads) last visited Brighton, he was touring the songs they had written and produced together. He told The Guide: "Brian's said more than once he doesn't care much about the words of songs - I think he's waiting for the day someone can help him come up with a software program that can generate words for him!"

Eno says this is something he's actually been looking into. "I have been trying to work on that problem. But the idea isn't that you'd have a piece of software that finishes the words of a song for you, it's just a tool to come at lyrics in a different way. I've used crude versions of it before, when David Bowie and I used to do cut-ups [literally writing individual words on bits of paper and shuffling them] together.

"Essentially, what I'm interested in is surprising myself. I don't have a message, in the sense of there's something there I've got to get people to understand.

I want to find out what I want to say in the saying of it."

His hope is that the software will take the lyrics off in unusual directions and do much of the work singers do when they're grasping for words to match their melodies. "When people are in the studio they'll just sing sounds to begin with," he says.

"When I'm working with U2 we call it Bongolese [laughs]... because we call Bono Bongo, and so Bongolese is the strange singing language he uses."