Metropolis JULY 2001 - by Dan Grunebaum


Brian Eno, a man who needs no introduction, will close this year's Fuji Rock Festival. Dan Grunebaum gets the inside track on Eno's new band, his Fuji Rock set and his take on the industry.

As an early member of Roxy Music, as producer of giants from the Talking Heads to U2, and as the founding father of ambient music, Brian Eno has helped define the trajectory of popular music. But don't ask him about that. Eno wants to talk about his new project, Drawn From Life, the band he formed with German percussionist and DJ J. Peter Schwalm, and their just-released album, Eno's first in four years. He's also delighted to chat about his first live show in virtually two decades last month in Portugal, and his closing set this Sunday at the Fuji Rock Festival. With a bit of help, Dan Grunebaum tracked down Eno by cell phone on his way to catch a train in London, to discuss his new project and the general state of music in the 21st century.

How did you get together with Peter Schwalm?

There's an obvious and boring answer which is that he gave me a CD, I liked it, and got in touch with him. But more interesting is that when we first played, it was an immediately comfortable and synthetic playing relationship. My biggest problem with improvising with people generally is that they retreat into a safe place too quickly for me, and he didn't do that. Sometimes we would get into rather a strange musical place, some emotion that hadn't really been felt before.

Your website describes Schwalm as a percussionist, but the album sounds like it's composed mainly on keyboards. I didn't hear a lot of percussion on the album...

Well it's as live as anything is these days, but our live show is much live. We've got a drummer and percussionist, so those elements are much more powerfully stated in the live show.

Is this the band that you'll be bringing to Fuji Rock Fest?

Yes, it's a seven-piece band-half English and half German.

I gather you've already done a bit of touring with the new band...

Well, we've played one show. It was very good, very successful, and everybody seemed to like it.

Will you be following up the album with a full-on tour?

No. The word makes me nauseous quite honestly. I just don't feel like doing it at all. I don't mind playing one or two shows and making it real, but the production line nature of touring doesn't suit me.

Japan is quite fertile territory for your music and for electronic music in general. Do you have any sense of affinity between Japan and Britain, which has also been a center for electronic music over the past decade or two?

Yes, I mean the affinity is that Japan is not a big rock and roll nation in the sense that the kind of music that triumphs in America, the sort of testosteronal grunge stuff, doesn't seem to appeal quite so much in Britain, northern Europe, and Japan, where there is a somewhat more restrained feeling. So yes, I think they probably appreciate the subtlety that's involved in that music.

Is there anything particular you've been listening to, any Japanese music?

I am in a bit of a non-listening phase at the moment. For about the last four or five months I just don't want to hear any more music. This usually happens when I want to think something out myself.

What have you been trying to think out?

There are two things that interest me, and they're quite different from one another. I've become interested in the harmonic structure of bells, so I've been trying to see what the psycho-acoustic dimension is. The other thing is I've been writing some new songs, some of which I'll perform during the show. I'm using the concerts as a way of developing them, as a way of pushing them in a way they wouldn't go if I was in the studio. Partly I got fed up with writing in the studio. You know I was one of the first people to say modern music is born from the studio. But this has become completely commonplace and is what everybody does all the time, and I am absolutely bored with it. I want to generate material which has its own strength before it goes into the studio. I did this recently with the band James. I produced their new record, and we decided to do something nobody has done in 25 years, which is to write all the arrangements and lyrics, and then play the songs live, and then record them. It's almost the reverse of what most people are doing now.

How did that work out?

Probably the best album I've ever produced, it should come out today. It's called Pleased To Meet You.

Is it more of a rock thing than your individual music?

Yes, it's definitely pop. But it's actually quite unusual because the structures of the songs are not normal, and the singer, Tim Booth, is really one of the best and most talented singer-songwriters in England.

How does the more cerebral music that you create by yourself fit in with the more popular bands you've produced?

It's not difficult for me to accommodate those. I do a lot of different things, and they don't have to be entirely consistent with one another for me to want to pursue them. I see them all as separate experiments in separate things. For instance, I do quite a lot of lecturing, and that often has very little to do with my music. And I do a lot of visual work, installations and so on. I just like to keep life as interesting as I can, really.

What does the title Drawn From Life refer to, and was there any particular concept you were working with on the album?

The expression has two meanings. In painting, when something is figurative, you say that picture is drawn from life, so it's informed by your experience of a real object in front of you. The other meaning, though, is taken from the experience of life, drawn out of life. So it was those two meanings I was playing with.

You've been called the father of ambient music. What do you think of the explosion of that music recently?

I think it's all 20 years too late. I expected it so much sooner. It takes such a long time for anything to happen. It's amazing really. You know I've been working for the last ten years on something else which I call generative or emergent music, and I've been thinking for ten years: When are people going to catch on to this? And they will, but I will be an old man by that time. Then I'll be called the father of generative music.

Could you have imagined there would be chill-out rooms at raves where people listen to ambient?

I told people that's what would happen. I remember saying in the future - and I was thinking five years in the future - there will be clubs where you can sit and think. People thought I was completely eccentric. I didn't think it would be 20 years in the future, I thought it would be five years down the line, so it's a slow world.

Now that musical technology has become so democratized, and everyone can produce and burn their own CD in their bedroom, has that been a positive thing for music and unleashed creativity, or has it created a lot of mediocrity?

Both actually. You know, one of the success stories of pop music is that it constantly invites in a lot of talent, because there isn't a huge skill barrier that you have to scale before you do anything. Classical music is set up to exclude almost anyone from taking part in it, because it's technically so difficult to do. This is why classical music is in a bad state of health generally, why it's fossilized and not going anywhere. Well, pop music is constantly refreshed by whole new generations of people with new ideas about how music should be made and listened to, so I think that's all a very healthy process. Of course the downside is there is too much stuff to look through. It's a little bit like the story of the Internet - Jesus it's tedious to go through it all, so you end up relying on complete chance or the good fortune to have friends who recommend things to you. I suppose my main feeling about the overproduction of music is that there is a lot of good stuff that isn't being heard because it didn't make it to the top of the heap.

Do you feel like the message is getting lost with the growth of technological mediums?

No I don't, because I feel that different messages come up with different mediums. I'm a McLuhanite in that I think that the medium is a very big part of the message. If the medium changes there are different messages, and I think there are a lot of stimulating and interesting things going on, things that weren't imagined before. In terms of music, who would have predicted (except for me and I did), that guys shouting poetry would become the most popular form of music? That's basically what hip hop is.

In that case I'd better ask you: What do you think the next trend will be?

Well, it may not be musical, but I certainly think generative music has a big future.

Speaking of the Internet, where do you stand on the Napster debate?

It doesn't affect me very much, but I have to say that if people want to listen to multi-million dollar albums, then they have to be paid for. The paradox is that people say music should be free, but they don't download music that is cheap to make, they download very expensively produced music. If people want to get for nothing things that are very expensive to make, well, the result of that is people will stop making expensive things because they can't afford to any more. And that's O.K. I wouldn't mind a future where big budget albums and big budget films were no longer made. Those are already becoming redundant, operatic in their dimensions. The problem with the Napster debate is people think we can just plug Napster in and things will carry on as before. They won't. Everything will dramatically change and won't change back. That's fine as long as you are willing to accept it. Well I have to go as my train is coming...