INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Trouser Press JUNE/JULY 1977 - by Paul Rambali
BRAIN WAVES FROM ENO
Too smart for rock 'n' roll, too weird for anything else
"At the one extreme I am a singer/songwriter (as on Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain) and at the other a sonic experimenter (as on Discreet Music and Evening Star). All of my work, however. has a constant characteristic: an interest in using all the facilities of contemporary electronics without lapsing into the quirky gimmickry that normally characterizes this pursuit. Much of the work attempts a happier liaison between electronic and 'natural instruments' than is usually achieved; complementing, rather than replacing, the old with the new."
Thus Eno describes himself in typically even tones on the sleeve notes of Music For Films, a curious collection of released and unreleased material, twenty-seven tracks in all. "That's a sampler album I put together. I just printed five hundred of them. It's because I started getting asked to do film music and the idea was that I would lust have an album that was a glossary of all the things I could do. Surprisingly it's gathered a few fans."
Eno's distinct eclecticism has gathered, over the years, a coterie of fans sufficiently large to enable him to pursue his singular artistic ideas. Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain were, after all, hardly your usual commercial fare. They were oblique collections of unlikely and absurd images. Eno's dry, humorous but humorless voice contrasted with the inventive, compelling and diffuse sound textures. I would have expected to meet a very strange fellow indeed, but Eno turned out to be gracious, self-effacing and slightly nervous. Deliberately clear and precise in his speech - occasionally even sprightly - his demeanor and the tidiness of his demurely furnished North London flat both seemed to reflect the calm, quiet mood of Another Green World and Discreet Music. In fact, one of Eno's main preoccupations at the moment to creating homogenous, somber, and calming music. I doubt that there will be any return to the mellifluous chaos of his earlier albums.
In a recent interview Eno noted, "What I've been interested in is having this texture rippling along, with a few tasteful, nice events taking place. I want to have something that Discreet Music hasn't got, which is that at particular moments a beautiful, complicated little ornament would happen and then it would disappear. It wouldn't happen again. A while later, another little thing, like a jewel in the desert sort of thing." More perspicacious readers will have noticed that the first side of Low owes quite a bit to this idea. As Eno pointed out, when music was performed but not recorded it was necessary to repeat themes for people to become familiar with them. However. a lot of people are going to buy a Bowie album and listen to it, so you can depart from that, which to what they did. Much of Low contains isolated musical events that happen once and don't recur. Many British reviewers have given Eno most of the credit for Low, something which he was anxious to disclaim when I spoke to him. His ideas had an undeniable influence on the album's direction, but listen to Golden Years, Word on a Wing or Kraftwerk's Komet Melodic and you'll see that it wasn't as strong as one might think.
The marked difference between Tiger Mountain and Another Green World and Eno's current orientation came as a surprise to me. The latter LP seemed much more personal, devoid to a great extent of whimsical humor and mechanized mania. Instead it was a careful and subtle collection of sound pictures. For the first time Eno seemed to be making an album not because it was time to make one, but because he had something to
"I got myself prepared for Another Green World in the normal way that I use; which was that I had written a number of pieces and they were all demoed on tapes I made here at home. I had a fairly good idea of what they were going to be and how they were going to come out, but about a week before I just abandoned them all and decided to go into the studio without a single pre-organized idea. I was just going to go into the studio and start working and just follow whatever started happening, and that's what I did. It was a nerve racking way to work because I had no guarantee that anything was going to come out of it. The reason I started working like that was because with the old method you shut out lot a lot of possibilities, you're not responding quite in the way I wanted to what's going on now; you're responding to a mixture of that and what you want to happen.
"I made thirty-six pieces of music, and put fourteen of them on the record. There are still some from that time that I shall use again. I also started working with musicians in a different way. I gave them as few instructions as I could to make them do something. I didn't want them just to jam, and I didn't want to tell them exactly what to play. I tried to give them just the right level of instruction so they would do things that are very much their own and yet things that I can use as well. Little exercises like, "This piece is going to be ninety seconds long and you must only make ten noises in it." These experiments are very quick to do, and that allowed me to have a lot of material to choose between. I had chosen the musicians very carefully from different disciplines so that they wouldn't be able to predict what the others were going to do and something odd would happen.
"In the old way of working, the surprises were in the material rather than in the execution and I wanted to move my focus into the studio, which is now the way I work.
"One of the interesting things about Another Green World is how precisely controlled the overall flow of the album is, right down to the unusual time gaps between tracks. "It took a very long time to put that together. I had twenty-two different versions. My approach is that I want albums now where a whole side is very similar."
Like Discreet Music? A long, quiet synthesizer piece of slight variations on repeated themes, endlessly woven together and deliberately recorded at near inaudible volume.)
"Yes, I made that for myself originally, just because I like that kind of mood. That kind of slightly melancholy, slow mood. I like just sitting down, reading something and having something very, very slow and gentle going at the same time."
Brian Eno has a quirky fascination with systems. Systems and methods. Possible ways of arriving at conclusions interest him far more that possible conclusions. "Arts of process rather than arts of product" is how he puts it. The clearest manifestation of this interest came in 1975 when he collaborated with painter Peter Schmidt (responsible for the Tiger Mountain cover) on an unusual concept called "Oblique Strategies." It was a set of cards; not conventional playing cards but plain white cards printed with succinct instructions applicable to any situation. "Strategies" is designed to provide the impetus towards solving problems by opening up avenues of thought.
"It's a way of foiling that situation you often get into when you're working - just having a very fine focus. When you're concentrating on something, by definition it means you're blinkered to other things and the point of 'Oblique Strategies' is to suddenly throw you outside of that so you could watch yourself in there and see what other options were still open to you. For me they still work; I still use those cards, use them quite often." When I told Eno that some enterprising souls are selling them for the better part of fifty dollars (they originally cost five pounds) he was annoyed but I suspect not a little flattered.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
It was, in fact, this interest in methods of working that motivated his entry into the world of rock music, though not entirely the main reason.
"I was involved in experimental music. That started at art school, first in Ipswich, then at Winchester. I spent five years at art school altogether. At that time the art schools in England were the cradles of experimental music. There was no other place where it happened really. I was at art school from '64 to '69. Music colleges weren't and still aren't interested in contemporary music of any kind and had a very snooty attitude about it. I got into it almost by accident. My intention was to become a painter but whilst at school I became progressively more frustrated with two things about painting. First of all it was part of the art world, which meant that it was subjected to a whole lot of restrictions, quite a lot of which were to do with the marketing difficulties of painting. The second thing was that painting wasn't a social art; it's something you do on your own and I've never been very good at things like having an idea and struggling through with it, then presenting it to a fairly unsympathetic world, which you do with painting. I got more and more interested in collaborations, in things that you do with other people. My music thing started with working on scores for painting, ways of involving lots of people in visual events."
Scores for painting?
"Yes. For example, I would give a specific set of instructions to four different people, who each had a canvas exactly the same and they weren't allowed to look at each other's pictures. They would each do a picture, following the instructions as closely as possible. Then I would fix all four of them together, often with quite interesting results.
"Since I was working with groups of people it became obvious to me that music was an art that dealt with groups of people and there was a whole mechanism that already existed for doing that. I had always been affected very strongly by music but I had never even considered it as a possibility because I couldn't play any instruments. However, partly as a result of the technology that was around, it was just becoming possible to get tape recorders that multi-tracked - it seemed very easy to move into music. One could actually start to do things with tape recorders without having to go through this period of learning notation and learning to play things.
"Another thing was that I began to get frustrated with the slowness of painting, whereas music is a very immediate art form. What you're doing now is the piece and as soon as you've done it, it's gone. Also I was interested in arts of process rather than arts of product, arts that dealt with periods of time. First of all. I tried all kinds of things to integrate these ideas into painting. It took quite a lot time for me to realize that all these things I was doing were quite similar to what musicians do, what composers do. So the transition was fairly slow; after about four years of dabbling with music I realized that this was what I would probably end op doing - but I've always had this thing of not having a long-term view of what I'm doing.
"Back then I think I was probably doing more talking than listening. I had a sort of gap in my listening habits. In the early '60s I was very into the U S. girlie group syndrome: Shirelles, Mary Wells, that sort of thing. The thing that impressed me always was the production. But I wasn't conscious of it because I didn't know anything about how studios worked. Spector and all those kind or things were very formative. When I went to art school I got very snobbish about rock music because I was still suffering under this distinction - which I think is a false one - between the fine arts and the low arts, and so for a couple of years I wasn't really listening to rock music at all, or I was listening to it grudgingly. I liked The Who very much at that time: I was a big fan of theirs and used to follow them around. But that was partly because they had the sanction of the art department - two of them studied under the same teacher I studied under, so it was alright to like them.
"The next big breakthrough musically for me was The Velvet Underground. That was when I suddenly realized that there wasn't a distinction, that the two things could and would come together. There were lots of reasons that made them important, one of which was that their music was very uncompromising and obviously wasn't part of the commercial world in the strict sense that I considered rock music to be. Also, they were connected with Warhol. The third thing was that they were non-musicians - they weren't making a premium of being great players and I found this very interesting."
Of course, Eno must have heard people like Terry Riley and John Cage...
"Yes, a great deal. In fact that's about all I was listening to for about three or four years. I used to go to all the concerts of experimental music. I was very devoted to it and used to travel around the country going to these concerts. I used to spend all my grant money traveling around art schools finding out what was going on musically."
A ROXY ROLLER
Which should bring us around to Roxy?
"Not quite. What happened was that I did this concert of experimental music at Reading University. They asked me to play and I met Andy [Mackay] there, who was also interested in experimental music. Then we didn't see each other for a couple of years, until I met him again at a Cardew concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and found out that we were both getting quite interested in rock music. About a month after that he met Bryan Ferry, and they both approached me. That's how Roxy started - that was in January 1971."
Roxy Music's existence has been sufficiently well-charted elsewhere. Suffice it to say that when Roxy burst into the media eye back in the early months of '72 with their decadent time-warp stylizations and avant-garde sax solos, nobody was quite ready for the group, much less Eno, looking like some kind of androgynous waif with his long blond hair, make-up and emotionless expression. What really confounded people, though, was that he only played synthesizer and tapes. In those days, nobody just played synthesizer; some keyboard players had mellotrons and maybe a few had synthesizers but nobody played synthesizer only. On top of that, he claimed to be unable to play any instrument, not even keyboards. His entirely novel approach has since become almost a trademark, but at the time it caused a great deal of surprise and confusion.
"With Roxy, anytime anyone heard a sound that they couldn't identify they assumed it was me. I actually got credit for a lot of things that I didn't do. Phil Manzanera was very interested in the electronic possibilities of his instrument and so he had an independent array of things at well. I had all the instruments linked to my synthesizer so I could switch an instrument through and fiddle around with it, but it was very rare that I had more than one instrument going through at any given time.
"When we first started playing, I wasn't even on stage. I would be at the back of the hall with my synthesizer, mixing and playing. When I got on stage we had an external mixer and there would be two things going to him: the instrument direct, and another feed from me. Phil joined the band by a very strange route because he came along first of all to mix. We had auditioned him as a guitarist sometime before: it was between him and Dave O'List [originally with The Nice], and we chose Dave. We wanted a mixer and Phil came along and mixed a couple of gigs for us. Then Dave left for various reasons and we invited Phil to play guitar.
"On Roxy's first album we used an old fashioned way of working, playing live and then overdubbing one or two thing. Ever since that time I've done most of my work in the control room because I like to be close to the desk, which I regard as an extension of what I do anyway. But we were quite naive really about recording studios. None of us had spent any time in the studio and we didn't really know the possibilities. Also we were keen to get the album done cheaply because we didn't have any money.
"The second album was done in a more standard style. You put down a backing track - bass, drums and rhythm guitar - then add all the other instruments later. Towards the end of that we got more into the idea that the addition was the interesting thing, the overdubbing. So we put quite a lot of attention on that aspect."
Since Eno's departure from Roxy in July '73 he has been involved in numerous projects, both on his own or in collaboration with others. His first venture after leaving Roxy was the No Pussyfooting album with Robert Fripp, followed in February '74 by the release of ha fast solo album. In the latter half of '74 Eno attempted a short-lived tour with The Winkies as a result of what he calls a "standard rock decision."
"After my first album I was quite confused. I didn't really know what direction I was going in. So I thought I would take the album on tour, something I've never thought since.
"Some time after I had made my album I saw The Winkies playing in a pub. They were very good and I was keen to get away from all the shit and over-sophistication that characterized a lot of music, so I decided to go on tour with them. I collapsed a lung on the fifth concert so the tour got cancelled anyway. It was the only project I've been involved in during the last few years that I would say was abortive. And it wasn't their fault at all. I must give them all credit because they were very, very good. It was my fault for not thinking straight about it, not thinking the thing out. I don't like touring and I don't have any inclination to be the leader of a group, it's just not my role. I was the lead singer, the focal point. What I enjoy very much if I am on stage is setting up a context for other people to work in . That's what I did with Fripp, for example. When I worked with Fripp [a European tour, late '75/early '76] I just had all these tapes and loops and synthesizers and so on and it was just a very interesting bubbling undertone that he could play in, something for him to jump off from. I like that role, but as it's something which isn't recognized by the rock press there isn't a name for it. Someone who normally likes setting a foundation for other people to work on top of."
Eno also appeared live in '74 at the Rainbow with Kevin Ayers, John Cale and Nico; with Cale at the end of '75; and at the 801 concert (and subsequent live album) of '76, a project he was not very enthusiastic about. He has also, of course, contributed to all of John Cale's Island albums and also to the Nico album, which Cale produced, on Island.
"John Cale influenced me quite a lot. The way he works with musicians is very interesting. If you do a session for John it's the most harrowing experience because you get in there, you've just got yourself set up and the tape's suddenly rolling! You're playing and you don't know what the number is, you don't know what's going to happen; you finish, he says 'great/ and that's it, that's you're take, finished, done. Because, and this is something I've picked up, if you catch someone on their first time through they do some very odd things, before they start getting to know and polishing it up. You get this kind of liveliness to it which is a mixture of a sense of danger and excitement. I also picked up Cale's sense of arrangement. I started listening to the kind of instruments he uses; he uses a lot of orchestral instruments and he's one of the only people who uses those instruments in a way that doesn't sound trite and sloppy."
Eno has also played on Phil Manzanera's Diamond Head album and with Quiet Sun, Manzanera's pre-Roxy band who reunited to record Mainstream on Island. He contributes "direct inject anti-jazz ray gun" to Robert Wyatt's Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard. He produced Bob Calvert's Lucky Leif And The Longships on UA in '75 and recently finished producing new band Ultravox's first album. The peripatetic Mr. Eno has recorded unsuccessful demos for New York's Television (in '74) and worked in Germany with the Neu!/Cluster circle of musicians. As befits such an inventive individual his sphere of activities has often taken him outside of the traditional rock world: he is increasingly involved in soundtracks (he wrote music for Sebastiane, a soft-core gay film of the saint's life with Latin dialogue); he once did a lecture tour of universities and still occasionally gives lectures; and, of course, there is the Oblique Strategies project.
Finally there is Eno's own Obscure label, a vehicle for him to expose similarly unusual musicians and give them a chance to put their ideas onto vinyl.
Eno intends to be prolific over the next year, releasing, he hopes, around ten albums: a couple with Fripp, another one with Bowie, some more on Obscure and whatever else his fertile imagination can concoct. So far, though, the only certain one is his next solo album. Due this spring and tentatively titled Natural Science, it was recorded with the same musicians he used for Another Green World but with the addition of Fred Frith (from Henry Cow) on guitar.
Balding and diminutive, Eno makes a most unlikely rock musician. I get the distinct impression he is just beginning to feel comfortable with his chosen means of expression. The feeling of self-consciousness which marred his earlier albums to a certain extent has now vanished, replaced by a lot more confidence and a clearer view of what his aims are. While his music occasionally sounds pretentious, it certainly no longer sounds contrived. That he is more comfortable with his music is borne out by the fact that he is now less afraid to experiment and attempt new means, methods and types of music; progression, in other words. In Eno's case, his fascinating eclecticism makes that process of continuous refinement and redefinition well worth the attention.