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The Telegraph JULY 23, 2016 - by Rob Hughes
BRIAN ENO: "WHEN HE SANG, DAVID BOWIE BECAME A DIFFERENT PERSON"
Brian Eno is Britain's favourite cultural polymath. He contributed a chime for a clock that will ring once every ten-thousand years. He wrote a soundtrack for an experimental video that would only work if you turned your TV on its side. In fact, such is his currency as an offbeat national treasure that he was once the subject of an April Fools' hoax which declared he had been commissioned to write a new ambient theme tune to The Archers.
Indeed, Eno has followed an eclectic path ever since he left glam-rock band Roxy Music in the '70s. He's worked as a composer and producer alongside David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2. As well as several gloriously odd side projects (as above), he's a serious ambient pioneer, best encapsulated by such albums as Discreet Music (1975).
He's also described himself as a non-musician, a term which has been called into question with his new album The Ship, in which he returns to singing for the first time in a decade. "I found that I was able to put together two strands of work that have been separate for a long time," says Eno. "Which is the sort of atmospheric, filmic, scenic stuff, but with singing. I don't know why I didn't think of it before, but I tried it and went, 'Bloody hell, it works!'"
For Eno, the vocals come last. He says it's not unusual, that many artists he has worked with felt this way, too. It was certainly the case with David Bowie, a great friend with whom he collaborated on the much-lauded "Berlin trilogy" of the late '70s, as well as 1995's 1.Outside: "David would have an identity in mind. He'd know who the person singing it was, and their attitude. And when he was singing, he'd take the pose. It might be this [Eno puts his hands on his hips and gives an air of loucheness] or sometimes it was another kind of person [he buries his chin in his neck in a stiff manner]. I remember him recording I'm Afraid Of Americans and saying, after one of the early takes, 'No, he's got to be more self-doubting than that.' His feelings about who this person was were quite specific. And he was quite clear about what difference that would make to how this voice should be. This is something that good singer-songwriters understand."
In the past, Eno has been scathing about singers who try and project themselves through their music. He once said: "It's that ridiculous teenage idea that when Mick Jagger sings, he's telling you something about his own life. It's so arrogant to think that people would want to know about it. This is my problem with Tracey Emin. Who fucking cares."
Now he tells me: "A lot of people think that singers should always be sincere, that it has to be their own soul coming out. That's bullshit. What you're really doing is working like a playwright. You're making little plays and the singer is the lead character."
The Ship is informed by the First World War and the sinking of the Titanic - two events that set the tone for what he calls the "hubris and paranoia" of the last century, while also serving as a pre-echo of the current one. It feels like classic Eno, rich with rolling ambience, treated sounds and fascinating detail. It's also his highest-charting solo album since his 1973 debut, Here Come The Warm Jets.
The Eno of today is, of course, a different spectacle to the flamboyant peacock of the '70s when he was in Roxy Music. At sixty-eight, the married father of three looks casual-cool in navy sweater and black boots, his features framed by red-rimmed glasses. He's urbane, funny and articulate, a natural communicator with an endlessly inquisitive mind.
This sense of exploration, allied to a shining intelligence, has been at the heart of his creative life. Eno is many things to many people and there's a good chance that you have some Eno in your life, even if you don't realise it: he applied his ambient aesthetic to the iPlayer and iPhone and composed the start-up music for Microsoft's Windows 95.
Most of these endeavours feed off, and into, one another. What he's always been concerned with, he says, is the idea of slowing music down to resemble paintings, while animating paintings to become more like music. "I was always so interested in both subjects," he explains. "So I thought, 'Why can't this form have what that form has? And vice versa?' When I began working with video, I basically started doing very slow-moving paintings. I was living in a loft in New York and the first thing I did was make a whole series of films of the rooftops of Manhattan, where I didn't move the camera at all. It just sat looking out from the windowsill. This camera had amazingly radical colour controls, so you could saturate everything in shades of red, for example. And whenever I found a picture that excited me, I'd write a piece of music for it."
This idea of a constant dialogue between different mediums continues to excite him. His latest venture is The Zenith. Created for this weekend's Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, it's a spectacular light installation which will be projected onto the Lovell Telescope.
The Zenith plugs directly into Eno's innate sense of childlike curiosity, an aspect of his character that often goes unnoticed by those who see him as a highbrow strategist. Actually, he says, it's the key to everything he takes on. "Children learn through play, adults play through art," he elaborates with a gentle smile. "Making things is a direct continuation of what we all do as children. We know that playing is essential for development, but at a certain point in our lives we think we have to stop all that and get serious. I say that you don't ever have to get serious."