Propaganda AUTUMN/WINTER 1995 - by Propaganda


Brian Eno has been working with U2 for more than a decade. But this time, as a Passenger, he is in a new role. Propaganda tracked him down to talk about this latest work with U2 and, after several months of chasing, we eventually found him at the headquarters of Independent Television News in London, where he was being interviewed about his work as producer of the charity album, Help. In the car, on the way back to his own studio where he was putting the finishing touches to one of five albums he has been working on recently, he talked about Original Soundtracks 1.

Brian Eno is one of the busiest people in his life. Or anyone else's. Along with the likes of Bono, Adam, Larry, Edge and Howie B., he is a key member of the collective known as Passengers. Unlike them, he is also behind a clutch of other albums that have been hitting the shops in the space of a few weeks this autumn. The new David Bowie album, 1. Outside, is a production of his - the first time they have worked together in about fifteen years. He has also completed a new album with Jah Wobble, Spinner. He's got one of his own in the can and he was the executive producer on Help, the compilation album by new British bands for the charity War Child, working in the former Yugoslavia: "Help is doing incredibly well and rightly too," he says, looking justifiably proud. "Apart from the fact that nearly six pounds of the price is going to this charity, it's a really good record."

As Propaganda caught up with Brian Eno, he had just returned from a couple of days resting in Italy - well, not resting exactly. More like playing with half of U2 in front of 12,000 at Luciano Pavarotti's charity concert, also raising funds for War Child. They performed One and Miss Sarajevo, a song from the Passengers album. Eno's been playing with U2 for years of course, but never with more than about four or five people in the audience and always in a studio. It wasn't just the first time he'd played a live set with U2: "It's the first time I've played live for many years."

"It was really funny," he recalls. "It's such a big event and such an incredible feeling standing on stage with an 80-piece orchestra, something else. A great orchestra, mostly young people, and so enthusiastic - not like an English orchestra. There was a real feeling of this is a great thing to be doing."

Propaganda: When did this new record first peek out of the womb?

Brian: Well, it's quite easy to answer that. We did two weeks of improvisations in November '94, in Westside, in London. The idea was to do something together and find some new musical territories that don't actually belong to just me or just to U2, but some sort of hybrid. It's something we had accidentally done on a few of their records. This was a little bit different in that I was a writer in from the beginning and not just the producer or the person who adds things after it has started. It was very nice to be in that role and to be able to bring things in that I had already started at home - sequences and things - and suddenly have them come to life when the band worked with them.

How is the record linked, if at all, with Zoo TV, Zooropa and that era?

Zooropa was a sort of transitional record as well, moving out of a certain image of a way of making music and towards another. I think that progress is more conspicuous on this new one actually. One of the problems that often happens to very successful bands is that they are not allowed to make mistakes anymore or they're not allowed to experiment anymore. They feel confined by the fact that everyone is expecting a great huge mega this and that, whereas that isn't always what you want to make.

You could say, "Well, you could still make those other experimental things, but just not release them. But releasing is part of the experiment as well. Releasing something is when you understand what you feel about it. When it's just more music out there with all this other music, then you start to see what it is, what it stands for. So one of the reasons we invented this entity Passengers, is to allow U2 to be somebody else besides U2, I suppose. To allow them to use records to explore music in a more uncompromising way than on their mainstream albums. Part of the point of having the name Passengers is to say, "This is not a U2 record." It's as simple as that. But all credit to them for being thoughtful about something like this. They don't want people rushing out and getting something and thinking, "My God, this is a bit weird, this isn't the U2 I know and love." And it's possible that some people would do that.

Is Passengers simply an easy way of saying that it's not a U2 record?

It's not only that. Passengers has become a concept that I think we'll use in the future, the idea of a loose association which will probably have us at its core. It doesn't have to have all of us at its core on each song and it can absorb other Passengers as well. So, for instance, we have Pavarotti on one song, we have Howie B. on several songs, and those are fellow Passengers. We have one song which is just Bono, Adam and Howie B. We have another song which is just myself and a Japanese singer, we have something which is just me and Edge.

There are all sorts of different combinations of even the group of five of us, actually, and what we're doing. Part of the deal is that we don't intend to make it a sort of proper band where we've all got to be on every song and it's all got to be hunky-dory. It's a container. Passengers is a sort of brand name for a collective of some kind.

Is it an excuse for U2 to get all their left-field avant-garde experimental stuff onto one non-U2 album and out of their way?

I don't think it's that exactly, but a way for them to experiment in public, and really, the only experimentation worthwhile is that which you do in public. You don't know how you feel about something until you take the risk of exposing it to someone else. They want to experiment - and they want to do that on their U2 records, which aren't safe necessarily - but they recognise that there's a limit to what you can describe as being part of the identity of their band before you just overstretch credibility.

They're sort of saying, "Ok, well a lot of people have a handle on what U2 is - fine - let's leave that identity, which nonetheless does keep changing and expanding, and let's invent another one for doing other kinds of things." You can be quite sure that a lot of the ideas generated on this record will feed onto the next mainstream record.

Have the creative dynamics been different to a U2 album where you're producing?

Yes, very different. On a lot of these things I started them myself and so, because it was an equal collective, I felt much more inclined to work on things on my own, to say, "I've changed the structure of this song and edited it this way." I wouldn't autonomously do that on a U2 record, only in collaboration. In this case I felt free to work on these things on my own, then present the results. Because it is still a group of people I wouldn't say, "This has to be this way," but at least this way round, I'm not afraid of saying, "This is my work." Nobody is offended by the fact that it's clearly my work.

Describe the contribution of Howie B.

Well, he's a very nice presence to have in the studio and a part of the reason he's such a nice presence is that he's so open to music. He just loves listening to music. Now that may sound odd. You may say, "Don't you all?" but if you're spending a lot of time in studios, your enthusiasm for the thing does flag a bit and it's nice to have someone who's saying, "Wicked, mad." In fact, those are his only two adjectives. So first of all, he contributes a lot to the whole vibe of the place. Now that is an unquantifiable, but very important contribution, and it's one I think I make as well. I make a certain vibe when I'm there - not a happy one necessarily like him, but of a sort of level and pace at which I expect to be working. I don't hang around.

The second thing is that he came into the project quite late, very late really. He's very self-confident and very confident about his own feelings about things. It's always good to have someone like that. So we gave him these tapes we'd been working on and he'd just mix them in a way that none of us had thought of doing. Often he'd leave out most of the things that had been put on the tape. This was quite shocking at first. In fact, I can honestly say that Howie B. is the first person I've been genuinely puzzled by musically, in a very long time.

I just thought, "What's going on here? Have I completely missed the point here or is he completely mad?" And I decided that both were true. Now I think I've got the point and he is still completely mad.

So Howie B. is mad, but also a key creative player in Passengers?

He's somebody who came in and really showed us something in a completely different light, radically different in some cases - sometimes too different, and we didn't accept all the results - but nonetheless, he was a real refresher. One of the contributions he made was the creation of space within the music. When you're in the studio the tendency is to add things - it's automatically what you're inclined to do, you tend to fill up all the gaps. That is often not a good idea - part of the attraction of these things in the first place was that you could hear everyone, they were simple and clear in a certain way. When he came in he left out huge elements that we had thought were very important. Just left them out. Suddenly that's very refreshing. You hear it very well on a piece called One Minute Warning. It's a sandwich, a mix I did, which cuts into a mix he did and back into a mix I did. It works very well because mine is quite dense and busy and cut into his and it has this kind of charged electric space with really very little going on, but with a lot of tension. In fact, if you look at the record as a whole thing, his mixes are quite important to the feeling of the record because they have this tingling emptiness to them which I really appreciate a lot.

The album is called Original Soundtracks Volume 1 and so it remains "music for films" - to quote one of your experimental ambient recordings?

The important link is that if you hear music and even imagine it's connected to some visual counterpart, you start imaging that visual counterpart. As soon as you do that you're automatically lumped another part of the brain into the experience and that's why I think film music works so well, because even if you've never seen the film it belongs to, it triggers, it asks you a question - where is this? What is going on? All those sorts of things. As soon as you start imagining all that, you're having an enriched experience.

How are U2 different in the ten years and more that you have been working with them?

Probably the most important way as far as I'm concerned, is their sense of the size of the landscape they're working in. My feeling is that it's expanded no end and they now see themselves as players in the whole culture rather than just the music scene. That's very interesting because it makes a big difference to what you will do musically - if you think your constituency is all sorts of people, a lot of whom don't ever listen to music, it liberates and opens up and focuses what you're using music for, and I think they've really become much more aware of themselves as cultural levers of some kind. Partly because they know they have a big effect. If you do that you either become responsible for it or pretend it isn't happening. They've sort of become responsible for it.

That's a slightly daunting notion, and yet they continue to play around on the edges rather than stay in the centre of the culture.

I have long thought they are a brave group, but I think it's now more the case than it was before. The other area I think is worth noting is their own attitude to belief or sincerity, which has changed quite a lot. One way of believing in things says that if we don't all believe in this the world will be never be right. Another way of believing says, "I believe in this and I really do. You believe in something else and you really do." The two don't have to be reconciled. We can still work out projects between us that we can carry on. We don't have to reconcile whatever our own private universes are. I think they've moved from the first position, which I would call the absolutist position, to the second one, a relativist position. I don't think they've all moved equally, but I think they've all drifted that way. If anything, Bono has driven that way.

Are you gonna be involved with the U2 record?

You'd better ask them.