INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music OCTOBER 1984 - by Chris Everard
THE LIFE OF BRIAN
Brian Eno, so long a major influence in the diverse world of electronic music sits relaxed in a photographer's studio waiting to begin the interview. Eno, on his ambient work, was the first person to imbue his music with a feeling of Englishness, a pastoral approach that offered an alternative to the German experimentalists. Eno's work however has constantly changed emphasis and style and is probably best heard in his collaboration with Talking Heads' guitarist and vocalist David Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts which combined found sounds taken from American radio and TV, with conventional guitar, bass, keyboards and 'found' instruments.
More recently he's been producing U2 and has just released an album, again of an ambient nature, through collaboration with American Harold Budd entitled The Pearl.
At present Eno lives in a Paris hotel and returned to England to talk to us about his unique style of working.
We begin with a query as to what musical instruments he owns, and why?...
"What do I own?... um... I own a Suzuki Omnichord, I like that a lot, I own a... what else do I own?... a Pro One, I got that because it enables me to play Arabic solos, it has that arpeggiate feature, which I can play Arabic solos on... I like Arabic music a lot and I can play it on that..."
Is that the sole reason why you bought the Pro One - not because it was a mono version of the Prophet Five?
"I don't like the Prophet Five... I like the Pro One though. I've also got a Casio 202..."
(Interrupting the interview, I withdrew from my bag a Casio PT80 which I had taken to carrying around with me.) I said I particularly liked the PT-80 because it structures everything you write into it in an orthodox way and allows no room for mistakes, good for experimenting.
"Yes, I like that one too... I really like the sounds on the 202, I'd say that there were about fifteen good sounds on the 202."
I described the Casio CT6000 to him and the conversation came round to FM.
"Speaking of FM, I have been playing a DX7 a lot, I don't own one but the studio I work in Canada has one."
Is this the place near Ontario?
"Yes, it's in a town called Hamilton... it's a twenty-four-track, it's called Grant Avenue, it has an MCI desk, no total recall or automation though - just a good ol' honest desk! As far as electronic instruments go that's all I've got - apart from an old, old Farfisa organ - it used to belong to Pink Floyd."
As far as electronic musical instruments are concerned, what are you going to buy next - now that you've been playing a DX7 are you going to buy one?
"No. I've got my own programs stored on two RAM cartridges - the studio has the keyboard so I just turn up with my little RAM [laughs]..."
So there's nothing definite you'd like to acquire?
"No. I'm not that interested in buying instruments really - I don't have anywhere to live, I'm only staying in a hotel in Paris. I have two instruments which I love, one is a copy of a 1957 Stratocaster, a Fernandez copy, it's a brilliant instrument, beautiful guitar, which Bob Quine, Lou Reed's guitar player, selected for me in New York. He'd already bought three or four Fernandez guitars himself, he's a Stratocaster fan.
"A Fernandez copy costs the same as a brand new Stratocaster, but they are perfect copies of, perfect copies - like they do a '53, a '57 and a '61 and I have the '57. It's an absolutely identical copy, you can't get a '57 Strat now that sounds good for less than fifteen-hundred dollars. My one's a beautiful, beautiful instrument."
What is it that gives them their appeal to you - is it the tones that come from the pick-ups?
"...It's just a totally inspiring instrument - that's all I look for in instruments [laughs]. Even if they only make one sound... if when I pick it up and I find myself doing things that I like then that's an instrument I want. That's why I've never got into things like Fairlights and Synclaviers and all of those sort of things."
What are your opinions on a keyboard that costs fifty-five-thousand dollars?
"I think they're... boring! I'm just thrilled by them you know, I mean I can appreciate the beauty of the technical feat that they represent, but as instruments they bore me. The other instrument I have that I love is an old fretless bass guitar. It was a fretted guitar but somebody had taken the frets out. I went into a music store one day in Shepherds Bush and said I was looking for a fretless bass and the guy said; 'Oh, well... sorry we haven't got any,' anyway, another guy who was in the store said; 'Oh, I've got one in the back of my car!' [laughs] He was just a customer, so I went out to this car and there was this bass guitar which I bought on the spot for £35!"
What year was this?
"'76 or '77 - thereabouts. It's called an Ansonia, it's a copy of a Gibson I think, a Japanese copy of a Gibson but it's just an inspiring instrument and I love it [laughs]. I always come up with good things on that instrument."
Have you tried any Wal fretless? They have a sort of dry, biting tone to them - Jaco Pastorius uses one.
"Oh yeah I know... I haven't ever tried a Wal. I'm not into bite much in basses, the type of bass playing I like is the kind you get in South African music or in Reggae or in old Soul records where the bass is very definitely a bass, it's a big, deep sound. I'm sort of pretty anti-lead bass at the moment..."
You don't like Stanley Clarke then?
"He's just about the antithesis of what I like [laughs]. He's at the other extreme!"
In the past, I believe you've lectured in the States on the subject of using the recording studio as an instrument in itself - do you look upon different studios as different instruments, the same as someone would say a Steinway was very different from a Bösendorfer?
"Very definitely, yes. Since my work is so dependent on studios and since it couldn't exist without them, you know it's not the kind of thing that could be done in some other way - it's work which is really born of a studio like a piano concerto is born of a piano. And my work is born from whichever studio I happen to be working in... normally I turn up at a studio without any instruments at all [laughs] and I just start using what's lying around."
Is this when you're producing or just doing your own work?
"Both! I walk in and I see that they've got this and they've got one of them and I say to myself; 'Well, they haven't got one of them so I won't be doing that sort of thing etc'. So the studio very definitely is like an instrument and learning about it takes a little while... finding what the strength and sound of that instrument is takes a little time."
Have you ever, or do you ever plan to record in a digital studio?
"I'm interested in digital recording for the most boring technical reason, which is that a lot of my music is very quiet and the lack of background hiss you get in a digital studio set-up really makes quite a big difference. Especially since I very often work by making a piece out of a number of very quiet elements and then I'll take a section of that and loop it or something like that and that'll become the basis for another piece, so within one piece there might be sixty or seventy generations of tape hiss because I'm always collaging from other pieces. Hiss doesn't bother me too much most of the time, but it does put a limit on how far I can go when I'm doing things like I've just described.
"So really that's one of the main reasons I'd be interested in digital recording. The thing I don't like about it at the moment is that for me one of the most important things is having a wide range of speed change available to me. I don't know of a digital multi-track machine that can give more than about fifteen percent and that's just not enough for me.
"I work in a very wide range of speeds, like recently I was doing a piece where I was using within the piece from 45ips to 3ips, so I was recording and playing back at all different speeds and then I frequently will mix at a completely different speed from what most of it was recorded at."
What happens as far as the harmonies are concerned when you're recording at different speeds within a track?
"Well it all works out OK, I have all of my mathematics worked out on lots of different charts so if I wanted to go up by an octave and a flat fifth for example, I just run along two rows on the corresponding chart and it gives the speed at which I'll be able to achieve the harmony I want - as long as the multi-track is accurate, then you're OK..."
What sort of multi-track machines have you been working on?
"Well in Canada we have an MCI which has a very wide range and a good readout and it's reliable at all sorts of speeds, it's a very good machine, I like the MCI a lot. The MCI two-track is also a lovely machine. The other multi-track machines I've worked on recently are Studers which are beautiful machines technically - they were A80s. At Windmill, I was working on an Otari MTR90 MKII twenty-four-track machine, great machines but they have one serious problem very, very stupid and that's the fact that you can't bounce onto adjacent tracks. I bounce a hell of a lot on a twenty-four-track doing sub-mixes as I go along and it's awful because it forces you to plan ahead all the time and slows down how fast you can get things completed.
"Also on the twenty-four-track, if you're bouncing on tracks that are very far apart on the tape, then you do tend to run into problems of azimuth and phasing, which I really noticed when I was doing the U2 album. It's a very demanding thing for a tape recorder - very demanding to actually expect phase to be maintained at high frequencies over a gap that big. So what I try and do is bounce down to two tracks which are close together and which are preferably in the centre of the tape. You see what I often do now is if I'm working on a track and one day, it's not a finished track mind you, but it sounds really good and I've got something going with the treatments that I like, what I do then is I run that mix onto two tracks of the twenty-four and then in the future, afterwards, I can alter that mix, obviously by adding in more of the original individual tracks that are there, but also by subtracting them by putting the original out of phase. So say that I've put too much bass in a twenty-four-track mix, well I've still got the original bass on a discrete channel so I just switch it out of phase and feed it in to cancel it - this is my new style of mixing! [laughs]"
Amazing, is it total cancellation?
"It's very close - it's not total... well, actually, sometimes it is total. It depends on the frequencies, but it's good enough to make a very significant decrease in the level of something and one of the very interesting things about that is that if you'd had a treatment on the original thing - say some digital reverb or delay - whatever, you're still left with the original signal and you can't cancel the echo, so you have to be aware of the likelihood of that happening when you start using this method..."
Did you use what you've just described on The Pearl?
"I can't remember whether I used it specifically on that record, but I got the same effect I know - I just went about it in a different way. That phase cancellation technique was something I just developed because I've noticed so often in mixing that in working on a track, because I use treatments so much, in very complicated ways, like I'll be sending something into a Prime Time and then sending one of the two outs into an AMS for a pitch change and the other into a digital reverb, then sending that reverb to another pitch changer... these sorts of routes are just too involved to ever be able to recreate, so I think; well... down it goes, onto the twenty-four-track! It always used to be a problem to subtract from these twenty-four-track mixes, but now I have very good control over almost everything by putting things out of phase!"
If there had been as many synths around as there are today when you recorded Here Come The Warm Jets and your earlier albums, do you think they would have sounded different?
"That's a good question... I wonder... Because, as you probably know there is a vast quantity of synths available now and all other forms of equipment... Well, I'm not all that interested in equipment as you would have probably realised from the scant amount of which I own [laughs]. If I find a couple of things I like I am very happy with them, and I'll just work with them.
"For instance, one thing I loved on those early albums is an old guitar which I used to have called a Starway which I bought for nine pounds fifteen shillings in Portsmouth fourteen years ago - no, sixteen years ago! Anyway this guitar I had had strings on it when I got it and I never changed them for years, it was a sort of policy never to change them because I used it with an old fuzz box - a Project Wem Fuzz Box... Good Lord we're going back some! Yes [laughs, gesturing with hands to show an invisible box about a foot long and six inches square on the table] It was at least this big! Anyway, to get the best fuzz sound - for me anyway - you need to feed in a sound which contains no or little harmonics, then you get really excellent fuzz sounds, it doesn't sound like fuzz guitar any more, it's like some other new instrument..."
It sounds very synthy - I was always under the impression that the sound you've just described was done on a Minimoog or something similar.
"I suppose it does sound synthy, yes, a pure, soft sort of middle frequency sound. It was one of the most important sounds in those earlier albums. It was the sound I kept working with and returning to... I never had a Minimoog at that time, I didn't get a Minimoog until about... 1976."
What did you think of it?
"Well I'd always resisted them before because the sounds I'd heard from them were so disgusting, because you've got to remember that when I started playing with synthesizers what people meant when they said 'synthesizer' was weeeeeaaaaarrrrrnnzzzzz! [laughs] EMS and the like, just those sort of awful sounds, well..".
I seem to remember seeing an old film of you with Roxy, I think it was The Old Grey Whistle Test or something similar, and you were playing what seemed to be an ARP2600, is that right?
"No, I tell you what that was, it was essentially an EMS VCS3 synthesizer built into a unit that I designed. With Roxy you see, a lot of the time I was taking live instruments and feeding them into the synthesizer and treating them, so what I had was the basic synthesizer with some extra bits to help me... they are quite rough though, those early synths."
Harold Budd was introduced to Eno through British composer Gavin Bryars. Eno was duly impressed and went on to produce Budd's The Pavilion Of Dreams, an album that contained four pieces covering the years '72-'75. Budd then went on to contribute to Eno's 1978 release The Plateaux Of Mirror.
Although Budd is now recognised as a pianist, his musical career began as a jazz drummer in the late '50s, but during his time spent at Los Angeles University, where he studied composition, he was drawn towards the more experimental aspects of music, feeling constrained by the confines of classical construction. A self-taught pianist, he went on to teach at the Californian Institute Of Arts and was quoted around this time as saying, "at thirty-six I am an avant-garde composer."
His reunion with Eno marks the fruition of an association that goes back eight years and on The Pearl his melodic, sympathetic style of playing complements the atmospheric electronic backings offered him by Eno. Essentially the collection is tranquil and reflective, mirroring the lustrous nature of its title.
"Yes, I think it is. Perhaps it could be viewed as a definite refinement of The Plateaux Of Mirror. I really like it. There are three or four pieces in particular but I feel the whole thing has turned out to be successful, probably the best piece of work I've been involved in. The production quality is great, even the sleeve is just perfect."
Do you think it was essential to record the album on twenty-four track?
"Well, if the facility is there, you tend to take it for granted and record things quite lavishly... it's funny, I never really thought about it much, but I think that as far as The Pearl is concerned, we could have achieved the same textures and sound on sixteen-track."
How do you and Brian approach work in the studio?
"There's no formula, we've never really decided to do things in any particular way. Really, if we have agreed on something - it's to keep alert in the studio and watch out for any unique moments really.
"Mind you, we have several different ways of working. Dark Eyed Sister was just something I recorded at a small studio, and then sent the tape to Brian, he added everything and did the whole thing without me - the next time I heard it, it was finished! But that's quite an extreme version of how we work, the rest of the tracks were done in a marathon two week session at Grant Avenue in Cananda.
"Lost In The Humming Air was recorded all in one go, there was no overdubbing, Brian was in the control room with the CS89 creating these humming sounds and I was in the studio listening to it on cans at the piano. I started to improvise to these humming noises and it began to all come together - someone had the sense to turn the tape machine on, and a couple of minutes later there it was!"
Do you have recording facilities where you live?
"No. I've got two teenage kids - the place would get really messed up if I started recording here. I haven't used this piano for about six months - first time I've really thought about it for a long time. I don't need manuscript or an instrument most of the time - I'm reasonably good at pitching tunes in my head and composing stuff like that, I can even visualise what sort of textures of sound I'm going to use."
Are you planning to work with Brian again in the future?
"Well, to be honest, there are no definite plans, but I'd really like to get into doing some film music with Brian - we've discussed the whole thing at length and I think it would be great to do a soundtrack together.
"Being an ex-percussionist, I'd really like to start using drums in a much better way than anyone else has ever done. There's been some good work done with percussion in the past, I like Nick Mason and Phil Collins' work - but you must always be careful not to create a cliché. I'd like to start using symphonic bass drums and everything else that's not at the moment being explored... I suppose if I do use percussion in my next projects the way I'd really like, it'll turn out to be a major contrast to The Plateaux Of Mirror and The Pearl... but right at this point in time, I have no real definite plans, I'll just have to sit and wait and see how Abandoned Cities - my new solo album - goes... it's amazing, this is a two album month for me! I just can't believe it!"