Uncut AUGUST 2001 - by Paul Morley


After he left Roxy Music in 1973, Brian Eno became a key figure in the development of electronic music in the '90s, NME dubbed him 'the most influential man alive'. Paul Morley meets the self-deprecating big-head.

Random excerpt from an interview with Brian Eno, that if printed in full would fill fourteen pages of Uncut. This piece, as well as being freshly laid out in the pages of Uncut, will take its place as the latest addition to the thirty years' worth of archived interviews on the Brian Eno web site (Enoweb via; reading through this archive, we will know by now all about Eno and Roxy Music, Eno and Bowie, Eno and Fripp (or Fripp and Eno), Eno and Television, Devo, Talking Heads.

We will know all about Eno and Byrne and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. We will know about Eno and Harold Budd, Laurie Anderson, Jon Hassell. We will know all about Eno and Ultravox, Cluster, U2, James. Eno and Cale! Eno and The Portsmouth Sinfonia! Eno and Blair!

We will know all about Eno's fast and slow run of rhyming chiming solo sing-song albums that tartly strum and strangely flow from Here Come The Warm Jets to Before And After Science, and his slow-motion run of atmospheric instrumental albums that fly, or ooze, or dream, from Music For Airports to Thursday Afternoon. All about Eno and his Obscure label, Eno and his smells, Eno and his full name, Eno and his fifty odd years, Eno and his invention of ambient music, Eno and his head, Eno and his strategies, Eno and his lungs (collapsed), Eno and his fascinations, Eno and his art, Eno and his history of music that he has thought up and made true (and attractively false), Eno and War Child, Eno and his bottoms, Eno and his senses and the way he comes to them.

We will know that Eno likes to talk, at length, about, not necessarily himself, but certainly ideas, and his relationships to and with and beyond them. So, an excerpt from an interview early one morning in March 2001 with Brian Eno, who has done all that he has done, who is doing all that he is doing, and who we drop in on as he talks. (And talks.) he has just finished cycling around the Notting Hill area of London, where his offices are located. We might imagine him thinking some of these thoughts as he cycles happily around the streets of London.

We might imagine this is excerpt (from an interview) number one. Further imaginings might involve the way Eno talks, which is sort of casually fussy, or fuzzily precise, or softly sharp, or hesitantly doubtless, or vaguely definitive.

"There's a certain level of conversation that I'm just not interested in. I was sitting having my breakfast this morning, and someone came up to me who I don't know very well, and she said, 'Ooh, I hear you're going on tour.' Oh, God! Of all the things I want to talk about in the morning, me is not one of them, and I just shooed her away, really. I really don't have anything interesting to say about the personal side of things. Ideas are different, they're always changing, and there are ways of looking at them afresh. But biography? Ugh! That's for other people to do. Other people to write."

At this stage I must write that Eno's offices are mid-way between Peter Mandelson's house and Salman Rushdie's house, so there are always plenty of policemen hovering around his door. One policeman came up to him and said it was a rum thing, Roxy Music reforming. The policeman said that he supposed he would go, but that it would no doubt be crap. "That says it all," says Brian.

Excerpt number two, which catches dream-catcher Brian Eno responding to my query as to the difference between returning to record with U2, which he has done, and returning to Roxy Music, which he is not doing.

"It's the difference between making something that you hope is going to be new, and remaking something that you know isn't. Of course, these might both turn out to be not true assessments of the future."

(Pause. In this pause, imagine Eno pulling a face that takes on the shape of the phrase but I doubt it).

"I've never liked the idea of touring, but the idea of touring old music I just couldn't face it. I don't want to put them down for doing the tour. If they want to do it, that's fine. But where's the pleasure?"

(Cut to a look on Eno's face that says it all when it comes to the idea of Roxy Music becoming like a post-modern cabaret combo putting off death by repeating themselves.)

"I was never actually asked directly. It was known that I'd say no from the start to any such idea. Not only does touring makes me slightly nauseous, but just talking about touring makes me slightly nauseous. But doing U2, that doesn't feel like repeating anything. Sometimes with these guys things can drag on endlessly. Sometimes exciting things can happen."

Excerpt number three from an interview with Eno, musical scientist, in which he is circling the notion that he sniffs out new music.

"If I am close to something new, I can smell it in the air, and even though whatever it is doesn't stay in the same place and it changes as time goes on, I know when I'm close to it because I can smell it in the air. Sometimes the smell is a bit faint and it's buried under a lot of other things. But if I give myself time I can find it again."

The fourth excerpt from an interview with Eno, weirdo, daddyo, where Eno is mulling over my suggestion that great music tells fantastic lies about itself and the world around it.

"At least, it provides a platform upon which fantastic lies can grow. It's like seeding a crystal you start it off and hope that something accumulates around it. When you put a record out, you're hoping that people will pick up on it and take these things more seriously than you ever did. It's like Music For Airports if that hadn't had crystals growing around it, I wouldn't think about it once. I've done stuff that didn't crystallise like that, and it's just forgotten."

Eno is giving this interview today to promote his newest album, Drawn From Life, made with a new partner, the German musician and DJ Peter Schwalm. It's a gorgeous string and beat soundtrack to the pauses in life and the subliminal causes of the pauses. His mind is a little bit on that, and other new things he's up to, so conjuring up the past causes most of the pauses in this interview.

In coming up with a definition of what it is Eno does, apart from the obvious, then it must be said that he is definitely a restless futurist. You can see it in his eyes. The future and the rest (lessness). He thinks of a neglected part of his art and design work from over the years. "Well, there's the perfume. I put a lot of time into perfume, and nothing really came of that apart from the lecture."

The lecture he gave about perfume eight years ago, which also involved a talk about David Bowie's wedding, and other things, was the last "live" performance, if you don't count installation works in museums around the world and bike rides around his neighbourhood.

I mention that I'm surprised that there isn't an Eno perfume available at airport duty-free shops, called "Discreet", or "Perfume For Wearing".

"Well, actually, as you were saying that, I've just thought of another way of writing my name. En'Eau."

I'd buy it. It would smell like his new record, Drawn From Life. Smell like a moment in time, with a phantom suggestion of late Miles, and a cryptic nod and a near-wink to Schoenburg and DJ Shadow and Common and Jan Gabarek and Fila Brazilia and Meredith Monk. Mostly, it would smell of Eno.

A knowing, known and unknown smell that's as pleasant as you want, and light and dark, and something else. Enophiles will recognise it if they're familiar with the odour of Evening Star, the ardour of Before And After Science, the colour of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, the dissolved edge of Low, and the pallor of The Drop.

They'll know the float, the beat, the curve and the way an image of sound reflects itself in the mirror of time. What's new is the fact that all that Eno has learnt about space and rhythm and tempo and illusion and peace and noise is moved together in one vast, intimate location. So, yes, it smells like Eno, but an Eno who has just stepped out of the shower in a hotel room in the nearest city to a jungle, or a desert, or a frozen wasteland, or a far-fetched coast. He music is as modern and as poignant as your next breath. And within that as tentatively tense as a breathless moment.

The fifth excerpt from a morning interview with Brian Eno, nosey bugger, centred neurotic, surprising fantasist, where he considers a kind of bliss involving the mouth.

"I like singing. It's one thing that makes me really happy. I particularly love singing backing vocals. I've got a great voice for stacking. It's very thin. You can't stack Bono. His voice occupies too much space. A good singer can't do backing vocals. Bowie is the exception. He knows how to thin out his voice. My voice, being like an engineer's pencil rather than a paintbrush, you can really build it up. It's the biggest thrill for me, actually. I could happily spend the rest of my life being a backing vocalist."

Excerpt six, split into seven edited sections, of an interview with Eno, moody sonic chef, tricky architect, thieving saint, who is talking about his new record, Drawn From Life which can be seen to be withdrawn from life, or right in the middle of it, or somewhere changing between the two as we speak, or listen. Eno moves towards calling it "space jazz", and then with a body swerve that's all in the mind, moves away from that thought quite quickly. There is no mental movement at all around the description "Fripp hop".

Mind you, it's a return to making the kinds of records Eno made some twenty years ago, but in the context of the music world now having categories such as post-rock and trip hop and new age and ambient this, that and the other categories Eno predicted, and now merges with, and then, around the edges or the horizons, transcends.

A: "It wasn't ever really going to become a record. I met Peter, a friend of a friend, in Germany, and we just played together. I hadn't 'just played' with someone for a long time. It was nice for there to be no intentions. Then we realised that what we were doing was going to become a record. It sort of crept up on us.

"In my position it's very rare that you work with someone other than in making something to keep. There aren't any informal ways of working with people. Informal in the sense that it isn't going anywhere. It can be crap one day and great the next, and no-one feels panicked by that. If you work formally, there's the feeling it must work, you have to do your best to produce something good, which means you tend to cut off the failing end of the process. But if you lessen the failing side, you lessen the success side as well. You weaken the general dynamic overall."

B: Do you feel stuffed with your own past at times?

"There are an awful lot of things I don't want to repeat. Sometimes you do something, and you think, 'That's nice,' but I've been in that territory before, and now so have a lot of other people. It's not so bad exploiting your own ideas if they haven't become common currency. And often the people doing the things secondly, second-handedly, do them better, because they can sort out the best bits. In terms of listening experience you often get a better result from the copies as opposed to people making the originals. In intellectual terms the original is better, the originals have more stress in them.

"It's like with Moby's Play, that's like My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, but it renders the disparate things we did on that record harmless. They don't fight with the music at all, they're absorbed into it. As a pop album, Play is much better than Ghosts, it's a great listening experience, but as an idea, as a comment on what the people he used are doing, it's nothing."

C: "The two things you lose when you've been working for a while are innocence and focus. By making this record by not thinking I was making a record, I regained a kind of innocence."

D: "I managed to keep last week almost free. I thought, 'This week I am going to invent a new kind of music.' I had been thinking about it some weeks in advance, getting myself in the right state of mind... (pause as Brian's face takes on the amused, excited shape of the next sentence)... and I think I did! There are hints of it on the new record..."

E (where Eno circles the notion that he sees music): "If I can just be free, and I can have all the colours available to me, and I can put this one here, and that one there, and it's great, and I have no worries about whether it fits into this category, or that one, or, 'Have I been there before?'. Because I have been a lot of places before, but not necessarily all at once at the same time. It's like with Drawn From Life, I managed to do the atmospheres and landscapes, but also a deeper kind of melody, and at the same time add rhythms, which is where Peter is so useful, because he's a trained drummer.

"There are so many atmosphere records now. People are really good at them. Why compete? I don't want to. I don't need to. I want to find new combinations and make something new that I want to hear and that I don't think exists anywhere else. Plus, I want to play the bass. I like playing bass."

F: Will it get in the way of people hearing this album, that it's by Brian Eno?

"Having such a track record means that people come to it full of certain expectations. Perhaps it should say it's by Peter Schwalm and Brian Eno, rather than the other way round, so that it was a newcomer's record, and I was just helping him out. But I do think that this is one of those records I've made that will get better as time goes by."

G: "Us people that don't do units claim that we do leverage instead. Leverage is much harder to determine than units. It may not be the case at all, but you do hope that the music you do that doesn't sell well will make a kind of difference. Music For Airports hasn't sold two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand copies in twenty years, but it has given me a lot of leverage, and that's very satisfying."

Excerpt number seven from an interview with Brian Eno, thinker, self-deprecating big-head, which is the beginning of his response to my wondering how U2's application to be the best rock and roll band in the world connects with the anti-rockist, non-literal mantra that created the zone for Achtung Baby to emerge. The corporate zeal of the new output seems at odds with the usual Eno-ish philosophies.

"I'm not interested in that application, but what I am interested in, still, is, funnily enough, writing beautiful songs, and there are definitely lots of those on this record. The response ends with the sentence, Whereas we come out of the white romantic tradition where we still expect revolution, and we respect Tracey Emin over... say Cilla Black... No, that's not quite right..."

Imagine how he went from the first sentence to the last one.

Excerpt number eight of an interview with Brian Eno, stern producer, abstract consultant, theoretical motivator, where he sums up from the funny side the experience of producing the latest U2 album.

"There had been an intense period of phone calls to and from presidents and prime ministers, which is the case with Bono. We weren't getting anything done. This annoys me, although it does seem to be rather small-minded to say, 'Get off the bloody phone and come and work on these lyrics.'

"But I went up to Sam, the receptionist at the studio where we were working, and I said, 'Sam, please don't put any calls through to the studio, whoever they're from... nothing. We've got to get something finished today...' just for the sake of moral, because things were dragging on. So we had a couple of hours of no interruption, and we were getting on really well, and then the door very timidly opened. There's a worried-looking Sam, and he whispers to Bono very quietly 'It's the Pope.' As a good Catholic boy, it was one of the worst dilemmas of Sam's life."

A ninth excerpt from an interview with Brian Eno, father, where Eno talks about what his children think it is that he does. Whatever we think it is that Eno does, demonstrating a kind of versatility and vision that is not that common in this stuffy unarty nation, it is his children who will perhaps best reduce Eno to his essence. On the other hand, Eno says people only know him for the big production numbers, which occupy a small amount of his time most of his time is engaged on analysing, or bringing to life, the relationship between art and reality in ways that involve all the senses. On the other hand, his ten-year old daughter's version Eno is that "I work with U2 and I know Robbie Williams."

Excerpt ten from an interview with Brian Eno, ambient celebrity, art starlet, deviant preacher. This is a reduction of twenty-five minutes of discussion about beauty, art and perception to one sentence: "That which is possible in art becomes thinkable in life."

Excerpt number eleven, Eno as an expert in aesthetic espionage. We are talking about the lengthy pauses that interrupt, or continue, the music on Drawn From Life. Eno says he would like a CD to consist of song, indeterminate pause, song, indeterminate pause, song... "It's a shame we think we just have to pack CDs solid with songs from one end to the other." (Pause)

The twelfth excerpt is from an interview with Eno, serial synthesist, play-activist, sensual polemicist. His reasons for being ironically suspicious of recent computer music are reduced to no sentences at all, as there is no space. His expert fifteen-minute compression of the Popstars phenomenon is also reduced to nothing, apart from the line: "Not that I watched any of it." No space for his consideration of space.

A last bit of space for an excerpt (12a) from an interview with Eno, the man who would be himself if only he had the time. The excerpt is a conclusion of sorts to this addition to the Eno archive.