Steve Berlin Johnson OCTOBER 11, 2011 - by Steve Berlin Johnson


The Innovator's Cookbook, new on the shelves this month, features a number of conversations with creative minds from technology, business, education and the arts, talking about their methods. For the next week or two, I'm going to be featuring some of my favorite exchanges from those conversations, but I encourage you to go check out the entire book, which also includes many foundational texts about innovation, plus a new introduction that I penned for the collection.

Here's Brian Eno on some of his techniques in the recording studio:

Steve Johnson: One other interesting thing about your career is that you've had such a big influence as a producer, in a sense coaxing new musical ideas out of other people. What strategies have you developed in that kind of context?

Brian Eno: First of all, the very fact of having somebody who isn't in the band and who is suggesting new ways of working is in itself very powerful. Because that person is not part of the political/diplomatic situation within the band itself. You know, any band that's been together for a very long time has done it partly by being polite to one another; a certain level of decent human rapport. So it's very difficult within a band if somebody does something and you don't think it's a very good idea - it's still quite hard to say, "Look, that's no good. Let's not bother with that." You're duty bound to go through the process of exploring it until the person himself says, "Yeah, it's not that good is it?" Whereas having somebody from the outside coming and looking at a piece without any particular loyalties or prejudices, and saying, "Well, that's working, but I don't think this is working. And this bit over here could work..." People are much more ready to accept an assessment like that from somebody that they know is not personally engaged in the work. So the producer as outsider just in itself is important.

Steve Johnson: We've talked before about your technique of having the members of the band play one another's instruments in the studio. I love that idea.

Brian Eno: One of the other things that a producer can do is to think of ways to get people out of their habits. Any group of people who has worked together for a long period of time tends to fall into habits about how things are done. One person always tends to be the person who leads the process; another is the one who supports the leader; another, the one who comes in late and who doesn't say much until the very end; and another one is the stubborn one, counterbalancing the enthusiastic one. And that's all fine - that's part of the chemistry of a group of people working together. But it gets very habitual and it gets quite boring, so I think of ways of upsetting that, turning it into a game actually. So saying today, "You are going to give all the orders; and you, the person who normally does all the talking, you're going to just do what you're told. And you are going to play this instrument that you normally don't ever touch, and in fact that you can't play." [Laughs] So sometimes that does actually yield an immediately usable result. But what does very often happen is that it loosens people up. And it enlarges the envelope of possibilities within which they navigate. I mean, if you tell somebody else to play drums, you have a very simple drumbeat normally, because the person who has taken over the drums isn't the drummer, and, therefore, you start writing and thinking in a different way. It just immediately takes you out of the normal course you would have followed.