INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Making Music NOVEMBER 1990 - by Steve Xerri
Brian Eno wants the simple and the great, and not just in his synthesisers. Steve Xerri has a rare chance to meet the thoughts behind the face.
What everyone and their uncle knows about Brian Eno is that he's clever, and that he talks a lot - not in rock star mumbles but in elegant and coherent paragraphs, displaying knowledge of everything from art theory to evolutionary science. This intellectual reputation seems to fit hand in glove with his general image as a boffin, an electronics wizard who purports to be a non-musician and creates cool linear music designed to slow your heart-rate rather than quicken it.
When the record-company person who greets me at the door of Brian Eno's London flat tells me, "Brian's on the phone to New York, but he'll be with you shortly," it sits perfectly with the lifestyle you might imagine for a man now less pop star than busy entrepreneur, fosterer of the post-glasnost Soviet rock scene, and creator of video installations in Tokyo, Paris, Milan and assorted cultural hotspots the world over. I couldn't help but wonder whether he would have been made remote by eighteen years as a public figure, inhabiting the Eno persona. Surrounded as he is by whole systems of corporate people metering out his time - management company, record company, PR company, all of whom I've had to talk to for six months to get here - will he be unapproachable in person? I remember back to 1973: I am in the front row of an Eno and The Winkies gig shortly after the release of his first solo album. In the middle of Blank Frank a pertly pouting Eno, in full make-up and a fetching off-the-shoulder lurex top, approaches his synthesiser - a delicate-looking affair with more connecting leads than a telephone exchange - and, to my shock, proceeds to whack hell out of the thing. For some reason, I find this memory comforting. I am further reassured when a burst of mock-operatic singing announces that his phone-call is over: and by the time a smiling Eno has clucked "check-check-check" like a hen into my tape-recorder to test for level, I know it's going to be fine...
Widely regarded as a technical innovator, Brian Eno recently came out with the rather surprising remark that he thought synthesisers made too many noises, and that a bit of simplifying wouldn't go amiss. Does that mean he hankers after the old days of the EMS in a suitcase? "I still have one," he laughs. "I not only hanker after them, I still am in those days in some parts of myself." He pauses. "If I can now refine those comments, what I would like is a synthesiser which, as soon as you switch it on, does something interesting and great: the major activity of most musicians now is changing little things or trying to find the sound that will save the world. It's hopeless, this thing of first scrolling through twenty pages to find what you want and then changing it, and then finding that wasn't what you wanted to do, scrolling back through another nine pages... It's just so pathetic, so primitive. My argument for simpler synthesisers is not that I want to strip away all the sophistication: what I want to do is to present the levels of sophistication differently."
Eno draws a contrast between synthesisers and audio equipment such as the H3000 Eventide Harmoniser ("a fantastic toy") which offers the user layers of expertise: "One of them is a very simple level, and it does very obvious things, like you turn the knob and the delay gets longer or shorter. Then there's another level that says 'expert' which is harder to grasp because it changes the whole architecture of the program - the sequence in which things happen and what modulates what. The problem with synthesisers is that they've mixed all this up together; it's a hopeless jungle. So what you find is that you're always dealing with the construction of the whole synthesiser each time you want to work. To change timbre on a DX7, for example, is a huge job; it takes you half an hour."
Most people, he says, therefore work from sounds that come with the instrument, or from a program bought off the shelf. He doesn't: and despite his reservations, he uses a DX7 a lot. "It's my main synthesiser by far, and I find it more and more interesting," he says. His reluctance to let go of it in favour of the latest hardware seems at odds with someone famed for his pioneering mentality. Eno gives a slightly sheepish laugh and adds, "I keep thinking, 'God, I must get something else.' I mean, the DX7 is pretty prehistoric now, but I've become familiar with it."
That familiarity is important for the way he makes music but, typically, he goes to another art-form for a metaphor, explaining, "If you draw, then you know what a 2H pencil is like as opposed to a 2B, say, and the more you understand the characteristics of it. I never - or really very rarely - get into that situation you see most people with synthesisers in, of going through five hundred sounds and finding that most of them don't work. I listen to a piece of music and hear a kind of niche; I think, 'I know a sound that would work really well in there', and that will direct me to a group of five, maybe six, similar sound programs, and I'll find one of those - that's usually the most difficult part because my note-keeping is so disorganised - but I will eventually find it and then I'll modify it, tweaking it this way and that to fit precisely."
Tool, work: to hear Eno use demystifying words like these reveals something of his attitude to his music and the machines he uses to make it - the description of his hard-won skills with the DX7 isn't meant to set him apart from the rest of us, but to show how the ordinary activities we all go through, like learning and labouring, can place the machine at the service of the musician rather than the other way round - if the machine is a good one. "Someone at Yamaha told me that eighty per cent of the synthesisers returned for maintenance work had never been reprogrammed in any way at all," recalls Eno. "And I said, 'Well you shouldn't blame people: not all musicians are stupid - they're quite bright, a lot of them! But if the machine is in its very construction a disincentive to those kind of changes, then it's your fault; it's a design problem not a user problem."
Hence his vision of the ideal synthesiser having echelons of control; this wouldn't prevent access to deeper levels of programming, but would hive off a really basic top level of general controls - he likens the whole business to the tone-control and switchable pick-up positions electric guitars have. The synthesiser is in any case for Eno only one element in a chain also involving sound-processors, miking-up procedures and the acoustic of the room he's in. I suggest that half the fun with old synthesisers was that you changed things in performance or could just try twiddling something to see what happened. "Exactly," replies Eno decisively, "and that's what it should be again, I think."
Curiouser and curiouser - can this really be Eno, that champion of the new, urging a return to the past? What does he feel about sampling, then - surely a great temptation to someone legendarily supposed to thrive on treating sound? He laughs, "A friend of mine said to me a little while ago, ' The interesting thing about you is that you're either years late or years early.' I've been quite negative about sampling in the past, not because of its possibilities but because of its general usage. What I find objectionable is this confusion - a sort of literate way of working on music. Horns - you see this word horns, so you think you've got horns: that's nothing to do with listening. If you listen, you see that it isn't horns; I don't know what it is, but it isn't horns! It's not to do with fidelity: who cares whether it's a 20K bandwidth or half a K? That's not the issue. Once you start actually listening, you stop going through that codified behaviour that says, 'Horns - they do this kind of thing; strings - they do this kind of thing.' It's just lazy."
The longer we chat, the clearer it becomes: it isn't the cold mechanics of music-making that compels Brian Eno's interest, but the human activity of which it is one example. In that, he is on the side of the angels, rating something which was useful or something which might in the future make better use of our resources (even if it's only our ears) above something designed to be fashionable now which is inconvenient or obstructive in use.
So it is with sampling: notice that it's not the principle itself that he rejects ("A lot of the potential of samplers is something that I look forward to...") but the limit it all too often places on the creative thinking of it's human user. "I'm very frightened," he confides, "of the kind of fix that a lot musicians get into, where they spend all of their time just pissing about with new equipment, and their understanding of it is terribly scant. I realise, of course, that scant understanding is sometimes a very good basis for doing things. But what seems to happen is this dreadful situation of people going through the manual all the time, going 'How does it work? Oh, I can't... Oh well, that'll do."
The phrase 'that'll do' simply isn't part of Eno's vocabulary: unless he can find a proper use for something, he steers clear of it. "Some people have done interesting things with samplers - but I'm thinking particularly of Jon Hassell [American trumpeter who blends together a completely new amalgam from what he calls ' digital snapshots' of music from many global sources]. He's someone that has really understood the philosophical implications of sampling - what it means in terms of how we think about music and other things. When I'm ready to enter on that level, I will."
It is his own exploration of the philosophical implications of ways of making music that gives Eno sufficient poise to follow his own inclinations and methods. If he is content to work without sampling, it isn't because the DX7 will do, but because he understands how it's imperfections are useful to him. Again he explains it in terms of visual art, where a few deft strokes can be made to say more than an infinity of fussy details: "The old idea of technology is that you increase options all the time, you increase fidelity, you increase range. But decrease is also a powerful way of working - like sculpture, taking things away." Another much-vaunted aspect of digital technology is its ability to remember and reproduce sounds precisely. Eno treats that with caution too, preferring to put his effects to tape rather than add them at the mixdown stage. "I'm very convinced of this point of view that says, 'If it sounds good now, get it now.' I either take it then or I abandon it and do something else. To try to repeat is very soul destroying, I think."
Over and over, Eno's replies have emphasised the human part of the relationship with technology - the interest, the immediacy, the sheer-enjoyment. He dropped out of doing pop songs "when I had felt for some time that music was not such a thrilling activity as it had been" and he has now returned to it after an absence of twelve years "mostly because I felt like singing." The new material features some familiar Eno devices, such as using the rigours of partnership with John Cale as a trigger on the new Cale/Eno Wrong Way Up LP, or creating shimmering soundscapes on the two ambient albums now in preparation. But there are new elements, too: a looser and wilder rhythmic feel was in evidence on the rough mix I heard of the instrumental Juju Space Jazz, and Eno's vocals on the Cale collaboration show that he has discovered a previously-hidden relaxed vibrato.
I ask Eno what he thinks about the proliferation throughout the 1980s of relatively affordable home recording equipment. "I think it's fine," he replies. "A lot of people criticise sequencers and sure, sequencers have produced a lot of uniform music, where everything is locked right onto the beat and it gets very tedious. But more importantly, they allow people to think in terms that they might not be able to do otherwise, to create structures and shuffle them around, like on a word processor. All these tools are a great gift."
He then tells me a story about his cousin who runs a music course for kids in Birmingham on a shoestring budget. Eno helped out by donating some stuff he no longer needed, including an RX ll drum machine. The cousin was wary of what he saw as a gimmick. "And I said", recalls Eno with evident delight, "there aren't any gimmicks. Either everything is a gimmick or nothing is. If you give this to an interesting child, they'll do something interesting with it. You should go for as many gimmicks as you can," he continues, with laughter surfacing as he speaks, "fill the classroom with things that will make people think 'Wow, this is great, listen to this, cor!', and something good will come of it."