Option MARCH/APRIL 1991 - by Mark Frost


The stage at the Wadsworth Theater was cozily set with two large armchairs and a small coffee table bearing refreshments. Within reach of one of the chairs was the sort of home hi-fi rig that might have been present were this actually someone's living room. A slide projector and screen, never really utilized during the course of the presentation, sat incongruously behind the chairs.

As if this public chat, advertised as a "conversation", were an intimate evening to which they had been invited, fifteen hundred of so eager listeners faced the two men sitting onstage with their ears and minds receptively engaged for some new insights. A disappointed few might have been hoping for clues to the then-unsolved murder of Laura Palmer, as the "host" of the evening was Mark Frost, co-creator with David Lynch of the offbeat TV series Twin Peaks. Most were more interested in the highflying notions of composer, producer, musician and occasional singer Brian Eno. Frost began the session by being as conversationally accommodating as possible.

What did you do today?

Oddly enough, I had a very interesting day today. I've been sent to America to talk to you. This is because I won't go on tour and play music live, so I have to go around talking to try and persuade you to buy my records by sheer force of conversation. This always fails, but they send me out every time again. Yesterday I thought, I can't stand a month without doing any music. And I thought, anyway, what am I going to talk about after a few more weeks of this?

Yesterday I said, why don't we do some recording tomorrow? In fact, why don't we do some recording in every city we go to? Just put a band together and see what happens? So we put together a very, very interesting band this morning, chosen mainly because they have the most fantastic names I've ever heard. We had Sugarfoot Moffett on drums, Romeo Williams on bass, Benmont Tench on keyboards, and Gregg Arreguinn on guitar. I think Romeo and Juliet have played before together - Romeo and Sugarfoot (chuckles). But the others had never met. And I had only met one of them. So it was kind of a different situation. It could have been potentially a difficult situation. I only had booked four hours of studio time, because I had to get ready for this in the evening. So I had to brief them very quickly. I'll play you one of the pieces we did, actually. It's only a few hours old. I'll just play you a bit of it. It's a long, semi-improvisational piece. It's probably the best group of musicians I've ever worked with, I think. So this piece, you have to understand, is in a very raw form. It's literally six hours old and needs a bit of snipping. [At the touch of a button, a tape of funk-based vamping plays for about a minute.]

Now can you explain what this had to do with Japanese robots?

In order to get everyone in the mood to play in this kind of way, I explained this idea for a new form of dance music I've been thinking of, which I described as broken African-industrial-robot dance music. I'd just been in Japan a couple of weeks ago, and I was doing something for Toyota - knocking together a few cars for them. They showed me the factory, and they have these lines of robots that do these really beautiful dances - and when the car was done, they'd do the dance again, you know. And of course each time they contact, there's a big BZZT!, like that. I was watching this factory at work, and I thought, it would be nice to do music for this. I've been thinking of some kind of messy music like this for a while. In fact I've done a few other pieces in this direction. But these are the first ones I've done with real humans playing. They've cottoned on to this idea very very well indeed, I thought.

I've always found your music to be very original, provocative. I'm curious to know how you've been able to do that in an industry which has never really openly embraced or encouraged that.

I guess one of the reasons I like rap is because it asks a lot of really interesting questions about originality, and about who con make music, what is allowed, and where it can come from. It uses such strange materials. It uses other people's material. That's a great idea (loughs).

I in a way didn't have a choice because I didn't have the skills to copy anybody very well. To copy someone, you hove to be able to play something right. I couldn't really do that. So it was sort of by default in the first place. But also, I think the thing that drew me to music was working with tape recorders and those kind of things as musical instruments. At the time I started doing that, if wasn't a very common thing in rock music anyway, but of course people had been doing it in avant-garde music for a long time before. The idea of using tape recorders and even synthesizers were very new at that time - as your primary musical source, it was quite unusual. I think in a way the breakthrough was realizing that synthesizers weren't any good for what they were designed to do. At the time I started using them, they were being made as though they could substitute for musical instruments. However, they couldn't stay in tune. They were very hard to program. They had crappy sound quality. They just made weird noises, you know. I think I was one of the first synthesizer players who said, oh, here's a device that makes weird noises. Wonderful! And it doesn't stay in tune as well - what a bonus!

At the time, that was a fairly original thought, I think, because people were using synthesizers as extended organs. So I got into that fairly unexplored territory at the time - tope recorders, synthesizers, and recording studios. This was just at the time when recording studios were going multitrack, where it become possible to start painting with sound, really. Where instead of having a situation where a band would go in and rehearse a song and get it all written and essentially the studio was a place which transmitted that song onto vinyl, as we had in those days, you instead had a situation now where you could go into the studio and start really painting, start putting this sound down and seeing what this sound did with it, then take that sound away again and odd something else.

So the process of making music actually underwent quite a radical change in the early '70s. And it was a change that people didn't notice much at the time, I think. They still expected music to be kind of a repertoire of the live performance, which it hadn't been for some time, with Phil Spector and The Beatles and so on. There was no possibility that those things could ever have been done live. But onward into the '70s, and even more now, people were creating music that couldn't have existed in any other space than the recording studio.

I remember listening to Another Green World in about 1976. I can remember sitting and listening to this album a very eccentric British couple that I knew was playing, they'd brought it over from England. It was not available, I guess, in Minneapolis at the time... and probably still isn't. It's only green for four months out of the year. I started to listen to this album and said, this sounds like how I feel inside. I don't know how he does that. He's not telling me how to feel, he's somehow replicating it. He's showing me a landscape that has identifiable emotions in it. That to me was a gigantic sort of new thought for what music could do. There were no sort of guitar chords that told you what to think.

"Landscape" I think is the important word there. The first few records I made, which were Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain, I'd started de-emphasizing the vocal part, and building up more and more of what would have normally been called background. 8ecause again at that time the situation was such that you saw the vocal as the central event in the song, and everything else was sort of a support organism for that, and so a lead guitar solo came, which took over the role of the vocal. There was very much a simple picture of how songs were constructed. What I started finding was that I was getting more and more interested in what had been called the background, the landscape really. I wanted to play down the role of the voice, because I wanted that to be less the center of attention. I say this all now as if I had it all thought in advance., but I think in retrospect that's probably what I was doing. At the time, I was just doing things I liked the sound of.

I've just done a new record. This was a real big problem for me for a long time, the voice element. The reason it was a problem was because I really felt that having a personality there destroyed the attention to the rest of the sound. I just decided to leave the voice out for a long time. I tried various strategies of sort of "depersonalitifying" the voice, like My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, that's really how that started out. It was an attempt to use voice as it didn't come with my personality, and came with mysterious and unusual personalities. For a while, I tried things like that. I tried writing songs that were so fast that nobody else could sing them, that just had obvious strings of nonsense so that nobody could believe for one moment the voice was saying anything meaningful. I tried all sorts of things to try to make the voice into a different thing.

Anyway, a few years ago I found I was still singing a lot, but mostly in the bathroom or when I was doing the vacuum cleaning. I carried on singing and singing and singing, and I thought, maybe I should make a singing record again. So this year I was working with John Cole, and I'll play you a bit. [He plays Lay My Love from their album Wrong Way Up.]

This was the song that broke my three cardinal rules of songwriting. One was, never write a song in the first-person singular. The second was, never address a song to someone else. And third, never use the word love. I thought, since I'm breaking the rule of not using my voice, I might as well break all the other ones.

On Another Green World, which I think most people consider on album of songs, there're fourteen pieces, and I think five of them are songs. It was rather a clever trick, actually. Because it got treated as a song album. Releasing instrumental albums is a kiss of death. If people think it's instrumental, they're not interested, because people connect to lyrics, to voices. Yet somehow that record managed to kind of convince people, because a voice appeared here and there at strategic moments, that it was a song record. But really, it was a landscape record.

Would you like to play a cut from that album?

Sure, why not? I'll play one of the less well-liked cuts. [He plays one of the album's instrumentals.]

For a second I could have sworn I was in Minneapolis. There's something that that kind of music induces in people. I would call it in myself a sort of passive-receptive state. I'm sure there's a brainwave that goes along with it. I'm curious to talk about that, because they've discovered that watching television also puts you into a passive-receptive state, but it makes you hostile and confused at the some time. Do you think that's worth exploring?

I find television quite narcotic. I didn't have a television for years and years, because I find it so addictive that if I had one I would just switch it on and watch. Then I got one for a while, and I decided I had to make it hard for myself. So I used to take the plug off every time I'd finish watching. So if I wanted to watch again, I'd have to screw the plug back on. But I got really good at putting that plug on.

I think television is just starting to come alive. It seems interesting to me that radio has closed down, and television has opened up. Someone coming from Europe and seeing a continent that has four thousand radio stations, you would think that every possible radio station would be catered for. There couldn't be anything that you couldn't find on the airwaves. But in fact, the radios have become very precisely formatted, with a few exceptions, with the exceptions being a few of the listener-sponsored stations and so on, which manage to keep some kind of individuality.

But what has happened is that cable has really opened up. I'm sure the fifty or sixty cable channels that you can receive anywhere represent a much broader range of material than the perhaps a hundred or two hundred or six hundred radio shows that you can get. That's kind of a mystery to me, why that should be so.

It's also given birth to a whole new sport, this thing of channel surfing. I don't know if you're familiar with that. I find when I watch television, I tend to watch fifteen or twenty programs at the same time. There's so seldom one that can hold your interest.

I remember seeing a BBC television documentary about the man who invented cat's eyes. Do you call them that here? Those things they have on the road that reflect headlights. They were invented by a man from Yorkshire a long time ago, in the '20s I think. It was actually the only idea he ever had in his life. But it made him phenomenally rich. He gets a royalty on every single one. All he'd done with his wealth was he'd bought a huge house, which he'd completely neglected. He lived in one room, which was the kitchen. And he had several television sets, which showed every available channel at the same time. He didn't have any furniture even. It was just broken boxes and so on. He'd just sit there watching TV the whole time, waiting for his next idea.

Wasn't he seized by these strange impulses to buy products every once in a while?

We don't have shopping channels in England.

That brings up the whole point in this country of how television programs reside with the advertisements which interrupt them and very often improve upon them. It's my secret feeling that network television for years had been giving us programs that will cause no rise of real interest in a person, except just to keep them glued to their seat in preparation for the advertising, which is going to immediately seize them with the desire to have something. One of the things we've been accused of in Twin Peaks is creating a show that people actually have to pay attention to, as if this was a radical or subversive act. Your work doesn't have to sort of stand side by side with those sorts of blatant commercial messages quite as frequently. How do you feel about that?

Well, I don't know... when I go into a record shop, I go through and it says Eagles, Eric Clapton, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Eno. You can tell I do that a lot, can't you? The Eno rack is always empty. There's sort of forty-eight copies of Brain Salad Surgery. In records, it's much easier, because we don't work on such big budgets. It's more difficult now, because every record shop has to carry three formats. This is something I think people in general don't realize has made a huge difference to the record business. You have record shops which are essentially the same size as they were, but now they have to carry this, if they carry it at all, in three different formats. That means they have one-third the space, actually. So it means that they probably carry one-third of the range of material that they used to. It's really forced record shops, except for the ones who make a point of being adventurous and keeping sort of outside things, to specialize in a much narrower market. And that hurts the small artist like myself. It means that there's a whole lot of shops where you wouldn't find the kind of stuff I do. I don't mind particularly; the people who want my things probably know not to go to those shops anyway.

I guest it's symptomatic of this mercurially American preoccupation with how big things are. We don't really talk about how good the movies are anymore, we talk about how much money they made over the weekend. People don't call up on Monday mornings to say, I really liked the show on Saturday night. They call up to say, you got an 18 (rating). It's all sort of translated into numbers and quantified.

Yeah, I know what you mean. Bigness is the lost symptom of Renaissance thinking, the old way of thinking. I recently did a conference for Nissan, I like these Japanese car companies. Nissan had posed the question, what would cars be like in the future? What would people wont from cars in say fifteen, twenty, thirty years time? My argument was to suggest that a lot of those things that we had been led to believe were automatically better, bigger, faster, stronger, all glamorous. more and more this, more that, were in fact starting to become eclipsed now. There were signs, I felt, optimistically, that people were starting to think that reduction was also on interesting idea, that increase was one idea, but there's another idea called reduction, and balancing those two trends in one's life was what was interesting.

To get back to the question of how do you define beauty for yourself, how do you put beauty in your work so that people can take that away from the experience of seeing or hearing it? Very few people know how to define what's beautiful to them. We did a documentary for American Chronicles this year on the Miss Texas Beauty Pageant, which is sort of the granddaddy of state beauty pageants. We asked this question repeatedly of all the contestants, and we didn't really get a single satisfactory answer. We got one person who sort of had a complete psychotic breakdown and rambled for about ten minutes, to say that if she had leprosy and had to have her arms cut off, her parents would still think she was beautiful. And undoubtedly they would. But those people who we assign beauty to were not themselves able to say why they were found beautiful.

I certainly couldn't think of a definition. One of the reasons is because we're always changing it. In fact beauty, or the sense of what's exciting shall we say, is the most malleable thing you con imagine.

I think it happens in the art world a tremendous amount. There's a feeling by which confidence can be created, charisma con be created around an artist. And suddenly, his work looks good. And it really does look good. It's not a trick in the sense of everybody's had the wool pulled over their eyes. If you get away from the idea that what makes something beautiful is intrinsic, is something that belongs to that, and you start thinking in terms of what makes something beautiful is how everybody else thinks about it, what is conferred upon it, then it becomes quite possible to imagine situations where beauty is created, and beauty is uncreated as well very quickly.

So you hove a situation now in the art world, particularly in the painting world, where an artist can suddenly become important by it being said he or she is important. And the funny thing is, they really are. It's not a hoax. It becomes real when it's stated. This is one of the great mysteries of the late twentieth century.

It suggests some sort of weird network between people that can suddenly give rise to meaning once agreement is reached, that people, by agreeing to feel a certain way about something, create the beauty that you're talking about.

That's right. Meaning is a consensus really, it doesn't belong to things. It's conferred upon them.

That gets into the area of the unwritten, unspoken contract between people who produce works of art or music or theater or film, and the public. That's a contract that was written in stone, literally, for hundreds of years, that certain things were expected of an artwork, and artists were rewarded for giving that certain thing. And all of a sudden it seems to me we've kind of thrown that contract out, and we're starting over to examine it, almost case by case.

I agree with you. If keeps getting renegotiated. My last contract with Warner Bros, was seventy-eight pages long. The reason for all that length is because a lot of things are up in the air. There are a lot of things to talk about, actually. Thot's what I assume is the reason, anyway. I must say I con't understood most of it.

When you get to a point where, in our industry, it takes usually three or four times longer to write the contract for a film than it does to actually write the film... you can actually be shooting the picture and there are still contracts appearing, like new editions of a book that you're supposed to catch up on. It's kind of phenomenal.

I knew something was different when I went to Russia. I've been to Russia a few times, and I've released a couple of Russian albums. One of them was a rerelease of an album that had been released in Russia ten years ago. The contract for that was about that long [he holds his thumb and index finger a short distance apart] and I thought, why, it's medieval here. In a sense, it was very nice to do something that simply. But it also rang a bell in my mind, and I thought, they're actually living in a simpler world. To be able to have such a simple agreement, they're living in a simpler world. One of the things that's interesting about most record contracts now is that they don't only say United States and the rest of the world, they also say something like, and any other planets. It's fantastic. I like the idea that people think within the lifetime of one of my records, it might be selling on Mars. It's a little bit like that feeling you get when you look at the financial pages and they say treasury bonds for 2019 are selling. And you think, oh, great, somebody thinks we'll still be alive in 2019.

I like gardening because it makes you think in terms of long processes. This became very clear to me a few years ago, when I bought a little meta-Sequoia called the down redwood. It was just about this high, it was two or three years old. The down redwood's a very slow-growing and very long-lived tree. This one I'd chosen because it was actually a split trunk, there were two trunks going up. Only about that high, and the trunks were narrower than my finger. That afternoon, the local tree surgeon, whose name's Alan Lancaster, who knows every tree in my hometown by name, he came over and said, who sold you that? That's bloody disgraceful. I said, why, what's wrong with it? He said, "In eighty years time, you're going to have nothing but trouble with that - it's a double trunk."

I was very impressed by the thought that gardeners actually think in terms of well past their own lifetimes. I started to think of gardening as a very sophisticated form of sculpture, where you're thinking not only of how does it look now, but how it will look in autumn. How it will look in autumn 2010. How it will look in winter. What happens when this one goes brown, do we have anything there that will make up the space? Landscape gardening is a very underrated form of sculpture, I think. Also, it's a way of thinking, of cooperating with natural processes that I find interesting as well.

Let me ask you about something that we've played with a lot in the soundtrack and scoring of Twin Peaks as we go along. Angelo Badalamenti, who's done all the music for us, has basically given us a vast library of cues that have the usual pedestrian soundtrack names like "scary orchestra music," or "Laura dead." One of the things that we discovered in mixing the pilot and something that's been very interesting to pursue as we've gone along is that we've started to layer tracks over each other. I know this is something you've played with a lot and you're still toying with. But I had not really worked in film music that way before, where you were able to create a sort of bed that gave you a basic feeling. And then in laying these subsequent tracks over it, you could manipulate that effect any number of ways. I think that's kind of a new way of looking at the function of music, particularly in film.

This is something that's really made music a new medium. What's happened with this particular technique of being able to lay things on top of one another is it's really turned composers into painters of some kind, sound painters. This is a more accurate description than you might think, it's not just a whimsical name for what people are doing. What we've seen in this century, and particularly in the last forty years, is a change in the things that composers attend to, and the things that they think make a piece of music. When you think of someone like Wagner, the kind of choices that he was dealing with concerned a fairly limited group of instruments, a fixed location, a piece of music that would probably only be heard once or twice by its audience, that was linked to a time and a place and a very complicated setup, those pieces were not thrown off lightly.

Now we're in the situation where we have an infinite array of instruments. There really is no limit to the timbral possibilities that are available to us. If you still write scores, you can't say "synthesizer." It's meaningless. That means a million different sounds. You can't say electric guitar even. That's meaningless too, it's too broad a category. Whereas you could say clarinet. You know what the parameters of that instrument are pretty well. So you have now composers dealing with a hugely expanded sound palette. So suddenly sound, as an item itself, as a study, becomes what composers do as well. Some composers work only with sound. That's what heavy metal is about. Heavy metal is pure tone music. That's why I think it's the closest thing to ambient music actually, 'cause that is also pure sound music in a way. I like heavy metal. I don't like Mozart, but heavy metal I like (laughs).

I guess I'm into the idea of heavy metal sort of on principle rather than in practice. But I like the idea of stepping into a sound, which is what those bands represent to me. New age is like the kind of billowy cloud. Heavy metal is like a big motorbike. But it's the same kind of experience. It's music as a form of transport. The idea of music as something you step into, not necessarily a place for hearing melodies or beats or chord patterns or anything like that, but a place for experiencing the structure of sound, the quality of sound.

One of the things I was interested to do with the ambient series was to break away from the idea of making a music that forced a particular listening position. I think that composers and people who make records and so on have always worked on the assumption that there were certain possible listening positions. You danced to it, you ang along with it, or if you were serious, you sat between your speakers and paid a lot of attention to it. What was happening was that people were listening to music in all sorts of different ways. They would put on a record and then start vacuum cleaning, or get on the phone to someone. I thought at the time - this was in the mid-to-late '70s - that people were listening to music in a lot more ways than composers were allowing for. Composers were always working to these few sort of defiant ideas of what music could be. So I thought, why not make a music that accommodates the kind of needs that people have for music? Why not make music that people con use in their lives? And if they want to use it like wallpaper, because this was very criticized at the time, because it kind of made music less important, it seemed - suddenly, we were just interior designers instead of great composers.

What I want to say is that music was being used as part of the interiors that people built for themselves, just like they used curtains and fabrics and fashions and styles and carpets and everything else. I didn't think it was dishonorable to acknowledge that. I was happy with the idea that people would take this stuff and do whatever it wanted to make it work for them. On that record On Land, I suggested a configuration of speakers that people could use to make their musical environment more interesting. I'm sort of interested in the idea of developing music not as something that is fixed in the way the composer had a notion of, but as something that you then participated in, and you make use of in whichever way you choose. I think this is something that composers should stop resisting, generally. Once people buy the record, it's theirs. They can do what they like with it. You're not there to defend it any longer, and you have to accept that.

On Land, had a lot to do with... I was very much thinking in each one of these to try to recreate the sense of the place, so I wanted to make the listener feel not so much that they were listening to music, that they were in a place and these were the sounds of that place. It's a fairly abstract record. [He plays on excerpt from the album.]

This is the time when I was starting to get interested in using a lot of sounds that really roamed the fringes of music. I'd been thinking a lot about musical instruments and what they do, and I'd sort of come to this idea that there was a continuum of musical instruments, from the purest to the least pure. And I was watching the way that those were being used in music. The purest sound of all the musical instruments we have, I guess, is the flute. I dislike flutes. I was actually secretary of the Society To Melt Down Flutes. I think they are too pure. But if you move along the scale from flutes, you start to get to more raspy instruments, like strings and brass instruments and so on, all the way over till you get to the percussion instruments. I'm talking about the orchestral group. And you find that the percussion instruments are always used to signify danger, the sinister, the intrusion of the outside. So those pure instruments always have to do with music, with sweetness, with some kind of psychological containment, I felt. Safe situations. If you wanted to introduce a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of danger, you started to move towards the right-hand side of the spectrum, towards the percussion instruments.

So I thought, what happens if you go further in that direction? What lies outside of that range? I started working with funny noises, like chains, sticks, stones... sticks and stones I really got from Christian Wolff, who was a composer I had studied with several years before. He did several pieces that used sticks and stones. Even though they were very quiet pieces, they had a sort of undertone of aggression to them I liked. I started to think, maybe expand the use of the palette, and start including instrumentation that wasn't part of the normal musical lexicon. Something I did with John (Cole) a long time ago also had this same feeling of being on the edge of somewhere between music and something you could have heard somewhere.

Where do you get your ideas from?

You always set out with big intentions - I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to try and do this. And it's all figured out in some form or another in your mind. As soon os you actually touch something and start working, something else happens. Now you have a choice there. You can either ignore it and soldier on to your goal, or you can pay some attention to it. This happens all the way through a process of making something. There're always things that seem like distractions, side issues, side effects. Well, start from the point of view that there are no side effects. Everything's an effect. And so take everything seriously, is my attitude.

I used to hold the opinion I guess to some extent that things came through you. But I don't that's unique to the people who call themselves artists. I think things come through everyone. What on artist is doing is probably dabbling with a small part of one percent of all of our human experience. It's this tiny little bit of a clock that we're tweaking. It reminds me of this thing I read the other day that we are 98.4% genetically identical with chimpanzees or 97.6% with baboons or something, I can't remember what it was. So there's this tiny little bit, which is actually our kind of cultural antennae, that's what those bits are. It's not all the other parts of our life that we agree about, all the animal parts and all the social parts. It's a little tiny bit we're tweaking. And that little port is the part that kind of points us this way rather than this way in how we deal with our futures.

I also think in politics and certainly a lot of show business, the similarity to apes creeps a little closer to 99.9.