INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo DECEMBER 2012 - by Mark Paytress
MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
From 'Planet Xenon' to the royal palaces of Europe, via airport and iPad, Brian Eno's ambient odyssey resumes with a new album rich in halcyon blooms of sound. But what's it got to do with sex, religion, carpeting and Lou Reed? And will his tea poison Mark Paytress? "I've always liked lava lamps," he reveals.
The first thing that hits you on entering Brian Eno's west London HQ is music. Ostensibly, we're here to talk about Lux, Eno's first solo album in seven years and an inspired restatement of the 'barely music' ambient sound he's been exploring since the mid-'70s, but there's something solid, almost ecclesiastical about the fanfare that accompanies the long walk to an appointed seat at a large wooden table.
The organ-like sounds issue from an Apple computer operated by a familiar shiny-pated gure, his back to us, lost in music. Elsewhere in this vast studio space, technological gubbins spill out from behind shelves of books and CDs. Paintings that are probably the work of the owner (one sits half-finished on an easel) bring intermittent splashes of colour to the tall, white walls. Just beyond the shoulder of the man now routinely described as a 'sonic alchemist', a slumbering black cat embodies the room's unhurried air.
"I keep wanting to change the carpet," says Eno, joining us finally. "But I daren't because I know as I soon as I put in a new carpet she'll piss all over it to establish that she lives here."
There's a suspicion that reclaiming territory might also be the subtext of Lux. After all, ambient's come a long way since Brian Eno first unleashed it on an unsuspecting and suspicious world. Its landscape is now rich, varied and widely respected, not least at his latest home Warp Records, which might easily regard Brian Eno as the label's founding father.
"Not my intention," insists modern music's most articulate trailblazer, "but I think some other people are very relieved that I've done another ambient album." True to form, he insists that Lux marks another kind of breakthrough. "Something happened compositionally on this that was quite new," he beams.
Lux, we are told, started life as an installation piece commissioned for the Great Gallery at the Palace of Venaria in Turin, Italy. But on arriving there, Eno met with "an interior space with huge windows and very sensitive to the change of light. It was as 'outside' an interior as I've ever been in," he says. It posed a new problem.
"Traditionally, the ambient music I make is meant to be like a painting," says Eno, animated blue eyes complementing casual blue attire. "It stays still, and you move through it. Now, for the first time, I found myself thinking, How can I make something that has the homogeneity of my ambient pieces but that also has this nuance, this morphing from feeling to feeling?"
Lux radiates purity, light and compassion. Indeed, Lux is 'light' in Latin, though the title's other connotation - soap - evokes the controversies that once greeted ambient's difficult birth, where uncharitable critics lambasted the style's perceived 'muzaky' blandness. The musical equivalent of a lava lamp?
"Well, I've always liked lava lamps," Eno rejoins. "I've always liked that disdained and sneered-upon proletarian area of art, the idea that you would just go (pulls zombie-like zonked-out stare). We're not supposed to like that because the twentieth century left us with a legacy of art as disruptive, that art is supposed to take you by the lapels and shake you, make you rethink your life. But a lot of the art we like is what just makes us go, That's amazing!"
Besides lava lamps, Eno cites wind chimes, lights, carpeting: "all the taffeta of our life that we enjoy which has never received any serious attention".
In some ways, ambient's soothing balm was the antithesis of Eno's stance at art school in the '60s, where he turned up his nose at the abstract colour painting - the St Ives School of Patrick Heron and Trevor Bell - then prevalent in Britain. "I thought, They're just making pretty pictures! What's the point of that? That's one of the reasons I got into music. Music seemed much more revolutionary to me."
But not to his tutors, several of whom believed he had a bright future as a fine artist, and who held pop music in disdain. "I wasn't gonna say, I like it but it's trivial," says Eno. "I didn't care if it was trivial. I wanted to do it."
Infiltrating the pop realm with Roxy Music from 1971, Eno appeared bent on subversion but claims, "I didn't have a grand plan or a strategy." What he did have, however, was one of those new-fangled VCS3 synthesizers. "It was a new instrument that nobody had played before," he says, "so a complete beginner like me had as much right to say I'm a synthesizer player as anybody else did."
The synth alerted Eno to the enormous "sound expansion" possibilities of pop. "It was like a whole new set of colours had been invented," he says, "as if somebody walks into your art studio with a briefcase and says, I've got four thousands colours that you've never seen before. They don't have names! They're not even in the spectrum! That was what pop music was like [to me]. I thought, Why would you not want to play with that?"
Despite his 'boffiny' reputation, Eno has always stressed the importance of play. Midway through the interview, he announces that his cup of tea tastes of washing-up liquid, suggests that it's been stirred with a spoon he's just used to empty the cat-litter and insists the milk's so old it's "Napoleonic". In 1972, he joked that he came from Planet Xenon. Gawping at pictures of the impish man with the golden locks, matching lamé trousers and ostrich feathers, a generation of teenagers was happy to believe him.
What to expect, when in July 1973 he quit Roxy after one too many ego battles with main-man Bryan Ferry? Eno's painterly atmospherics and general mischievousness had been crucial to Roxy's superfast rise to art rock supremos. But where, in the era of the rock virtuoso, could the band's self-professed "non-musician" go?
A song title on (No Pussyfooting) - the late '73 synths, loops'n'treated guitars collaboration with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp - offered a clue. The Heavenly Music Corporation suggested a bridge between the Muzak company behind 'elevator music' and what Eno would soon dub ambient music. Discreet Music, released two years later, was its first true realisation.
"I think Discreet Music was revolutionary in a way," Eno says. "Odd it should come the same year Lou Reed released Metal Machine Music. In a way, both of those records were brackets around the world of pop at the time. Lou was saying, (adopts gravelly voice) 'It can be a lot fucking nastier than it is! I'll show you what extreme is!' And in a quieter, more English way, that's what I was saying, too: I wanted the quietest, stillest musical experience that still was worth listening to."
From that simple brushstroke a vast landscape of sound has since flourished. 1978's Ambient 1: Music For Airports coined the term that's since been used and abused by everyone from texture-seeking stadium rock acts to new age charlatans. Add soft, dubby beats and ambient becomes illbient. Transform it into a post-party lifestyle option and it's chill-out. Turn it into an iPhone app - like the Eno designed Bloom, Trope, Air and Scape - and you can do it yourself. Ambient's drift has been huge and expansive.
Eno, too, has refused to let the idea stay static. Just as Music For Airports would be piped through New York's LaGuardia Airport, so extracts from Music For Films ended up on screen. On 1993's Neroli, Eno touted a new idea, Music For Thinking. He insists the concept is not entirely interchangeable with ambient, though there's less than a cigarette paper between them judging by today's definition.
"People tell me they like these [Music For Thinking] records, because they create, well, an ambience, an atmosphere," he says. "And there are no annoying things like people telling you their thoughts about love and sex and what have you. They create a sort of acoustic cushion around you, but without filling in the spaces where you want your mind to be working. I think that's a contribution to the world!"
But is there anything more to ambient, and to thinking music, than simple utility value: a sound bath to soften a hangover, enrich moving images or a gallery experience? Yes, perhaps. A glut of recent writing on the supposed evils of religion compelled Eno to question his own long and keenly held atheism. In turn, that's offered a fresh perspective on music that some still preface with the adjective 'boring'.
"I realised I was a lapsed atheist when 'the Four Horsemen [of New Atheism]' started writing their books - Dawkins, Dennet, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens," he explains. "They all wrote books that were very, very anti-religious and... I baulked. I love gospel music, you see. I probably listen to it more than anything else. And I thought, What am I actually liking? It isn't the celebration of God or some form of belief. What I'm enjoying is hearing people surrendering, letting go and becoming part of something.
"And if you think about the great human desires - sex, drugs, art and religion - what are those except different ways of surrendering, different ways of saying, I want to be other or more or different from just me?"
Eno wonders if our inclination to surrender to ambient music's ebb and flow might not be a spiritual decision of sorts.
"When I started thinking about this surrender thing, I thought, OK, so [taking] control is associated with action and activeness, whereas surrender is associated with passiveness," he reasons. "But actually, isn't 'passion' from the same [etymological] source?
"It really needs to be rethought, because surrendering is something you actively choose to do. It's an activity, a passion. And when we think of the word passion, the Passion of Christ, for example, it's the point at which Christ is out of control and has to surrender. I'm now thinking of changing the word 'ambient' and calling it 'passion' music!"
Though he doesn't believe in "the stories" ("I don't even believe that anything else happens to us after this life"), cumulative discomfort with the Dawkins' camp's militant atheism has opened up new dimensions of transcendence and hope in his thinking, which extends to the future of creative life in the twenty-first century, where musicians and other creatives are increasingly redefined as 'content providers'.
"By the late nineteenth century, when there were millions of novelists, and publishers who indeed needed 'content providers', it didn't mean that suddenly there were no longer any good novelists," he says. "It just meant there were quite a lot of bad ones, too. I think that's how it is now." What are most needed, he adds, are curators "to tell a story through the culture, draw a thread though it."
Having hosted arts festivals in Sydney, Brighton and, more recently, the Punkt event in Norway, Brian Eno can confidently add curator to artist, musician, painter, conceptualist, political advisor, producer, futurologist and all those other esoteric labels that have been attached to him over the past half century. But even the founding father of ambient can sometimes forget his first principles.
"Lux started out as a twenty-four-speaker installation," he says, winding up. "But the speakers in the gallery looked horrible so I thought, Maybe I don't need so many. I halved the number and couldn't hear any difference, so I thought, I'll try that again. And I took it all the way down to one speaker, and that was the first time I heard a difference. After all that, I only needed two speakers."
It's a lesson even 'Brain' Eno wasn't too smart to learn: "Always go for less if you can."