INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut MAY 2020 - by Michael Bonner
"WE'RE GOING TO DO BUTLINS IN THE WINTER"
Deep in a west London studio, Brian Eno and his brother Roger make for an unlikely double act. As they prepare to release a new collaborative album, the siblings exchange family reminiscences, views on Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and the importance of Roy Orbison's Blue Bayou on generative music. Ambient banter? "We have a name for ourselves," Brian confides to Michael Bonner. "The Elderly Brothers..."
It is lunchtime at Brian Eno's Notting Hill studio. On the menu are takeaway gyoza and noodles. The food provides a welcome break in Eno's busy schedule. But he is not dining alone. Sitting opposite Brian at an oval-shaped wooden table is his younger brother, Roger, up from his home on the Norfolk borders.
Even during downtime like this, their conversation constantly shifts and changes, stretching from the tabloids' treatment of Jeremy Corbyn to ideas for colour-coded crossword clues. Today, Brian - calm, eloquent - is dressed in black shirt and trousers and a navy gilet, with red-framed glasses and purple socks adding smart flashes of colour. He looks every bit the urban ideas man, comfortably ensconced in his studio - a large, white space decorated with his own minimalist artworks and abutted by bookshelves. At one point, Brian demonstrates a favourite new gadget: a prototype for a double pendulum. Twice the spinning arms means twice the physics fun, he explains. Brian Eno being Brian Eno, he has two of these devices.
Brian, now seventy-one, could not look more different from his younger brother. Roger is dressed in a green shirt, waistcoat, brown cords and brogues, with an earring in his left ear. Cheery and jovial, he pushes his glasses up onto his forehead as he tackles The Times' small crossword.
"'Exponent of record with a beat you can hear'," he says, reading a clue aloud. "Well, log is a record, beat is a rhythm..."
"...and a logarithm is an exponent," adds Brian.
"Then we got it!" Roger beams.
The siblings make an interesting combination. The bohemian composer visiting his stylish academic brother. But it transpires that their physical and behavioural differences are complementary. Roger's gregarious charm softens Brian's fastidious, scholarly manner. They laugh, a lot, in each other's company.
Although Brian's career has been more prolific - from Roxy's peacocked synthesizer wizard to ambient pioneer and A-list producer - nevertheless classically trained Roger has spent three decades producing bewitching piano-led albums, steadily expanding his remit to incorporate classical composition, chamber and folk music.
The brothers first worked together in 1983 when Brian and Daniel Lanois enlisted Roger's help on Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks. They have worked together again more recently on Mixing Colours - a new collaborative album that plays harmoniously to their strengths as Roger's piano is given texture and shade by Brian's electronic treatments.
A teapot of Palanquin Red Bush spiced tea is placed on the table between them and the brothers relax into a wide-ranging and digressive exchange. Amid talk of vintage Revox tape machines, their father's favourite piece of ambient music and Britain's eroding coastline, Brian also reveals a pet peeve... "My horror question when I'm at parties or anything like that, is when people say, 'So what are you working on at the moment?' I think, 'Oh fuck. You don't really want to fucking know, do you? You're just trying to make conversation...'"
UNCUT: Are you happy with Mixing Colours?
BRIAN: I'm completely happy with it.
ROGER: Very much so, yeah. We didn't know what was going to happen, because we didn't know it was going to be a record. We were just doing things and then it came together that this is something worthy of release. I was doing these sketches and sending them to Brian and they'd come back as full colour.
BRIAN: There's no friction about it, at any point really, because we were doing different parts of the process. Roger does his thing and I like it and respect it; I do my thing and he hates it!
Can you talk us through the creative process? When did you start work on the album?
ROGER: Brian thinks 2005.
BRIAN: Those were the first MIDI files I got from you, yeah.
ROGER: Brian is among people to whom I send things that I'm doing at the time. I sent them as postcards of where I am. He hung on to them. He's better at logging things than I am, for a start. There'd be some sort of system in his library, as it were, which quickly gave an idea that they were worth working on.
So what happened next?
BRIAN: Around the beginning of last year, I had well over a hundred of them in my archive. I thought, 'Why don't we put together a collection of the cinematic ones and pass them round to film directors and see if they pick up on them? ' I started making a file called 'Roger Film Music'. I said to our manager, Ray [Hearn], 'Here, who shall we send this to?' Ray said, 'This is a really nice album.' I hadn't really sat down and listened to it like that. I would play individual pieces sometimes, but I hadn't put together a group.
It's released by Deutsche Grammophon. Brian, wasn't your very first recorded appearance also on Deutsche Grammophon?
BRIAN: It was Cornelius Cardew and The Scratch Orchestra.
ROGER: Oh, yeah. What was it? The Great Learning?
BRIAN: Yes. When I first lived in London, I was part of The Scratch Orchestra. We did that piece in the first studio I ever went into. I should retire now, shouldn't I? Now I've made the full circle.
Why call the songs after colours?
BRIAN: Mostly because we didn't want them to have a particular reference to something or other. It would have meant a lot of shitty titles. Lonely Moonlight. I'm fed up with those titles; we both are.
Makes a change from water motifs, I suppose. You both do that: what's that all about?
BRIAN: For me, ships often come into my songs. A ship is a community and the ocean is the randomness of things. You have destination, departure point and so on. It's a very strong metaphor, you can build a lot of things into it.
I always assumed that was because of where you both grew up in Suffolk, near the coast?
ROGER: In my case, it's a lot to do with that. I spend a huge amount of time on the coast, all times of year.
BRIAN: I recently have been spending much more there because my girlfriend has a flat on the sea in Lowestoft and I have a little house sort of on the same river Roger is on, four miles away. We both like, or are I suppose moved by, this coast because it's disappearing. It's really changing quickly now. I think the last four years or so, huge chunks of it have gone.
ROGER: It's bonkers, really. Week by week. There's no real stone to speak of where we're from. There's a chalk bed. But above that it's all sand. It's so friable, it just takes a storm to whisk another four yards off overnight.
Were you close as children?
BRIAN: There's eleven years difference, so when he was a baby I was living at home and knew him very well. Then when I left to go to art school, there was quite a long period when I would not see so much of him. Those were the days!
ROGER: Yeah, they were great.
ROGER: It's very strange to say, but all my friends just thought, 'Oh, that's your brother.' It wasn't like, 'Can you get me his autograph?' But he was extremely positive in that it allowed our parents, who were working-class folks, to see that you can make money out of the arts. By the time I started playing and went to music college, it was perfectly dandy because it was possible I could make a career out of it. I was absolutely determined to. The only criteria I put on myself at twelve was that whatever happened, I would make a living out of music.
BRIAN: My version of it was the negative of that. One evening Dad came home, really tired, and he fell asleep over his dinner. I remember thinking, 'I'm never going to have a job.' So it was the same thing, making a decision about how my life is going to be. I thought, 'I'll turn to crime sooner than have a job.'
Brian, you found a glamorous escape route with Roxy Music. Were you aware of Roger's musical interests while you were being a successful pop star?
BRIAN: Oh, yes. The interesting thing, of course, is that he was a proper musician - which I wasn't. I never spent one second trying to learn to play an instrument. I was interested in having smart ideas about music and then trying to see what would 1 happen if I did them. So it wasn't about playing music, in a way, for me. It was about making I music exist in some way or another, whether it involved playing or not. And if it involved playing, it was usually someone else doing the playing.
Roger, you were sixteen when Discreet Music came out. How much did that record inform your own outlook as a musician?
ROGER: It would be disingenuous if I said no. That showed another way of looking at music that | I enjoyed. My big influence was Satie, whose idea of getting rid of most stuff in music was getting down to the skeleton of it. Brian was working in a different way - he was working in a slightly fluffier skeleton; it was slightly tangible and had a nicer feeling to it. The more you can get rid of and leave something of substance, beauty, whatever you wish to call it, that's what I was interested in.
BRIAN: My version of that was: what's the least you have to do to get something good? That's why I got fascinated by things where you'd put together three or four different loops that are not of the same length, so they keep creating new combinations. I thought, 'Christ, that's so efficient! You can get so much out of that. Coming out of the early '70s, when people were just getting into twenty-four-track recording and into this whole gothic period of rock music, of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and so on.
ROGER: Fuck, I hate that shit.
BRIAN: It was so overwrought, so dense with filler. There was nothing I wanted in it, really. Like Roger said, Satie or some of the new Californian composers who were working with very simple sets of rules, producing pieces that were different and wonderful, I thought, 'God, there is so much more in that.' So I started thinking more and more about this idea of the composition being a kind of seed that could have manifestations. I didn't think of, 'I am making a finished piece now.' I always think, 'I am making the start of something. It will grow.'
Back then in 1975, how do you, Roger, discuss these ideas about music? Over Sunday lunch at your parents: "Pass the potatoes, please, Roger. By the way, I've just come up with this idea for ambient music..."
BRIAN: I don't think we ever talked about it.
ROGER: And we still don't. We still don't talk about what we're doing or what we think about in terms of music. We'll talk politics, art movements, this and that. But I feel a bit like a car mechanic sometimes. This is just what I do. You don't want to talk about, 'Fuck, I've found this new spanner. It's great. You can do this with it, it calibrates...'
BRIAN: Metric or imperial?
ROGER: It's always imperial for me, particularly post-Brexit.
The first collaboration you released was Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks. Were there any earlier pieces you collaborated on?
ROGER: No. What Brian would sometimes do is give me his old equipment. He gave me a Revox, I think? There was some means that I could multitrack on this.
How did Apollo come about?
ROGER: I remember I sent Brian a ninety-minute tape of stuff I was doing. Hardly anything happened for an hour and a half. It was virtually empty, static music. But perfectly suited what he was up to. I thought maybe he would like to hear where I was up to.
BRIAN: I was asked by the filmmaker Al Reinhart to do the soundtrack. I was working with Dan [Lanois] at the time and I thought it would be nice to have a proper musician in this as well - so I thought of my brother.
ROGER: I remember playing this piece to our dad and I said, "What do you think of that?" He said, "There's not much happening there, boy" - something really "What can I say that's not going to completely upset him?" He liked fairground organs and brass bands.
BRIAN: Shall I tell you a funny story? I was talking to Dad once and he said, "You know the record of yours I really like?" He didn't talk about anything much, he was quite quiet. I was quite interested to see what he would choose, assuming it would be one of the more conventional musical ones, like my early song albums. He said, "That's that Discreet Music. I really love it. When I listen to it, I can see hills going off into the distance..." he went quite lyrical. I was very surprised as that was one of the least like an ordinary piece of music that he could have chosen.
But being able to tell your parents, "We're working together." That's a nice thing, right?
ROGER: I can't remember their reaction at all.
BRIAN: They're very non-reactive. I realise now, since I live in an area where every child is surrounded by parents who are too over-engaged, what a gift it was to have parents who were loving but just not that interested in the detail of what we were doing. [Pauses] "There's not much happening, boy, is there?" [Laughs] What did you think when Dad said that? Can you remember?
ROGER: It's indefensible because he was right! I didn't bother to get into, "Well, that's the intention." Because that's another way of saying, "Yeah, you're right."
BRIAN: What about Mum?
ROGER: Mum was a difficult one, wasn't she?
BRIAN: In the sense that she listened to music non-stop. I remember one day, she fell in love with Blue Bayou by Roy Orbison. We had one of those players that takes the needle back to the beginning of the record. We got up one morning to go to school and she had Blue Bayou playing on repeat. I came back from school that night, Blue Bayou was still playing on repeat. I blame her for a lot.
ROGER: I recorded it in the same studio as we did Apollo. So for me, being my first solo recording, it made sense to use the same team. So Dan was there, engineering it. It was a natural progression.
BRIAN: To tell you the truth, I didn't even remember that you recorded that at Grant Avenue.
ROGER: Well, it's a guess. Because I can't!
BRIAN: Hopeless. Ask me questions about the past, mate? You might as well ask the dog.
What are the pros and cons of working with each other? Intuitive? Competitive...?
ROGER: I don't think we're competitive, because I'm frankly not in the same match as Brian. Honestly. If you look at our relative fame, I've deliberately not done much in my life because I like being by the seaside and I like riding bicycles around the country. It's not exactly networking if you're in a cow field, is it? If it was a question of competition, I haven't got a fucking hope. But the pluses? We completely trust each other and, I think I can say for Brian as well, admire what we do. So that when it came to this, I could send Brian stuff and know I can just leave it. Because what he's going to do is going to be good, and if it isn't good I'll be able to tell him because his ego isn't fragile. And equally, he could say to me, "Well, I thought that one was a bit of a duffer," and I'm not going to hide in a cupboard and cry.
BRIAN: "There's not much happening, boy."
You're not quite the ambient Gallagher brothers...
BRIAN: We do have a name for ourselves though. The Elderly Brothers.
ROGER: We're going to do Butlins in the winter.
BRIAN: If I could do an album of four-minute pop songs, I would! But it's very hard to write a good song. I think I've done it on a couple of occasions, but I don't feel like doing it now, really.
Is your brain no longer wired to that way of thinking?
BRIAN: It's partly that, but the interesting thing, I think, is that you notice that you acquire talents and you lose them as well. It's not that you keep adding to them; you lose some. One thing I've noticed with a lot of songwriters in their twenties up until they're about thirty-five - words spurt out of them like fountains. I don't know why that is. But then it suddenly dries up. I always say to young songwriters, "Write down every idea you have, because they will stop at some point!"
You could always do jazz reinterpretations of your early catalogue...
BRIAN: Anybody who wants to is welcome...
"THERE WERE A LOT OF PRANKS..."
I was busy running a studio with my brother in Toronto. I was pretty successful, I had hit records in the charts in Canada. But when Eno came into my life, I couldn't believe someone would put the time into something so far out and obscure. I liked that he was devoted to this and I just jumped in with both feet. I was impressed that he was committed to something that seemed very uncommercial to me!
"We started working together on The Plateaux Of Mirror with Harold Budd. We really hit it off. We made Budd's The Pearl, On Land, then two or three others. Apollo was part of that chapter of ambient music.
"Mostly, it was just Brian and I became his apprentice, you might say, to this ambient music. We were very, very committed to processing and manipulating sound. Eno came up through the art world - he was very advanced that way. I was an accomplished technician and musician by the time I met him, so I was able to help speed things along for him. I could facilitate his ideas. It was a nice meeting of two minds.
"On Apollo, Brian felt this might be the appropriate time to invite his brother to be involved with his work. Because myself and my brother ran the studio, he saw the brotherly connection. Brian was living at my house in Hamilton, Ontario, so he invited Roger to come out. We were all pretty excited about two sets of brothers living under one roof! Roger is very funny, so we had such a laugh. There were a lot of pranks. We were all kids at heart. We enjoyed everyone's company. There was a whole social thing, it was an amiable setting and an harmonious time.
"They're very different people, but not that different in terms of commitment. I have maintained my note-keeping since then; I got very good at keeping notes and making diagrams and I have to thank Brian for allowing me to be one step closer to a PhD!"
Mixing Colours is released on March 20 by Deutsche Grammophon