INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Beat Instrumental FEBRUARY 1978 - by Gary Cooper
ENO BEFORE AND AFTER SCIENCE
Sit down comfortably, put your feet up, adjust the lighting and relax... The first step in getting anything at all out of this article must be to abandon your preconceptions. Don't expect anything, least of all an interview with yet another sweaty rock 'n' roller; this is an interview with Brian Eno, you see, and you can't expect anything even remotely predictable from that.
This, of course, stems from the fact that Eno is, by the dictates of his nature, unpredictable. Like his records, his words are deceptive. Just when you think you've grasped his meaning, you realise that he's thrown in a totally revolutionary idea which you, in your naivety, have accepted and swallowed whole. So you stop and try it on for size only to find he's thrown yet another at you.
Eno's music (and this is as true of him as it is of all great musicians) is a statement about who he is. His words and his music are agents for the powers of disorientation, and for him that's fine.
Before And After Science, his latest in a line of challenging and quite brilliant LPs, will open up to new dimensions. That's what he's there for and he would find that an acceptable way of behaving. So do I but don't expect revolution to be painless; like birth, it's a big strain that frequently tells on the artist, in Brian's case painfully and fairly frequently. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he doesn't just dash off as album and then abandon it. Each recording is followed with a detailed analysis of the intellectual ('science') processes in it and the unconscious forces which motivated it (hence the 'after science').
The upshot of this consciously intellectual process is that many people regard him as something of a circus freak. Interviews with Eno tend to read like a dissertation by a professor of obscurity, something which is aided and abetted by journalists out to try and mystify his words, a function which is, of course, the antithesis of what journalists are really there for. It's a problem Eno appreciates.
"The reason I get into trouble," he says, "is that I like talking like this. Now people think 'that's a fucking dumb way for an artist to talk, how can he work like that?'. The answer is, of course, that I don't. Something seems exciting to me so I do it. The trouble comes afterwards when I ask why it was exciting and why I did it. That line of reasoning leads you into a discourse that the conscious part of the brain is very good at dealing with.
"The reason why I get so intellectual about my music is that it's simply an attempt to organise my experience so that I'm not left completely baffled by everything that happens to me.
"A lot of musicians suffer because they hedge off their brains from what they're doing by saying 'oh, if you let the brain intervene, it'll do all sorts of damage to the music'. In fact it could very positively help for most people to really think about what they're playing and why they're playing it."
This may seem like heresy to readers brought up in the tradition of rock music which tends to say that feeling is more important than logic, that intellectualisation of rock leads to its eventual downfall. The whole New Wave nihilism which says 'don't think, look what that did to the hippies!'
I cite that argument to Eno, suggesting that a band like Black Sabbath would hesitate to think too hard about what they did for fear of destroying the essential nature of it.
"Yes, but if they thought about what they did then they might well talk themselves out of doing it and I tend to believe that if you can talk yourself out of doing something then it might not have been worth doing at all.
"Mind you, I'll accept that you can develop the critical part of yourself too far. A friend of mine is so critical about his own work that he immediately classes anything he does as crap. The only way that he can do anything is to totally abuse and beat up his consciousness, get totally out of his head so that it won't intervene in what he's trying to do."
Although it might be hard to deduce from the end result, Eno's albums tend to be recorded in the most unorthodox ways. There's been a lot of talk about him being a 'non-musician' (quite untrue) but he certainly seems to work in an unusual way, relying on accidents and random factors to produce what others arrive at as a finished product from within their own minds.
"I rarely work with results in mind. I don't start by hearing a finished product in my mind and then set about recording. What happens is that I stick something out into the little world of the studio and ask 'right, what can I do with this pathetic piece of crap?' which is what I tend to think about my initial ideas. Then a few operations take place and if it's going well, suddenly, from being a number of separate things, there's a pattern there that wasn't previously in my mind, at least not consciously. Then the pattern starts suggesting its own decisions, which is the stage I'm happiest at, when the work goes along virtually free of any conscious intervention on my part."
What this means, in practice, is that Eno doesn't go into the studio with any ideas about what the eventual song he's working on will be. This process of evolving experimentation is costly and taxing but the end result is fascinating and, from a musical point of view, quite as revolutionary as the process by which the music is made. In fact Eno might well go as far as to say that the process by which the music is made is the music.
I asked him to give me an example of the way in which some of these initial ideas might come about. "Well, it could be setting up a particular echo delay on a tape recorder and then hitting a piano note thereby creating a rhythm, or else it could mean something as arid as starting with a set of numbers, say 6, 10, 15 and 28, counting out a piece of tape and making some action at each of these points on the tape.
"These beginning points are sometimes so dry that they don't offer any future but frequently they work well.
"Another good beginning, and one that I often use, is to get a group of musicians to gether and tell them that they're about to record a piece of music that is to go as a film soundtrack. Actually you'd better not print that, it's a secret technique of mine."
I question that, get his agreement to blow the gaff, so here it is: "In fact there's frequently no intention whatsoever of making a soundtrack, it's just a device to get people to do something that happens to have some sort of compositional tension to it rather than just having pure improvisation." In some cases, the original impetus which Eno floats out into the medium of recording tape can end up being absent in the final mix.
"It's quite feasible that the original idea could end up getting wiped; on the other hand it could stay, it's just a regular and very predictable piece of graph paper."
Much of the confusion about Eno has arisen from statements he made, or is purported to have made, about the obstacle that skill can provide in the creation of music. What "I tire quickly of things that are too coherent." Brian Eno has said has not been an assault on technique itself, but rather an attack on technique as an end in itself. "Techniques are a way of behaving predictably which is one of the reasons why you develop skills, so that you know when you do such and such a thing, certain predictable results follow.
"Now that's fine and there are certain contexts where that's useful but there are other contexts where you might want to deliberately provoke behaviour in yourself that you can't predict.
"If you're a skilled person that's sometimes very hard today because of the habits of patterns that you've got into. Look at a blues guitarist as an example of that. He's probably marked for life as a blues guitarist because of the way he almost instinctively moves his fingers from note to note. It's a major conceptual break for him not to play like a blues guitarist and he may well prove to be incapable of doing that.
"Hence what I mean about there being an awkward stage you get to where skill in doing something can actually be an impediment rather than a help. There is, however, a state beyond that where your view of your own skill becomes such that it doesn't interfere.
"The way I play piano and the kind of chords that I play are affected by the fact that my fingers stretch very far. The songs that I used to write were affected by the fact that I used to have to ignore the black notes on a piano because I couldn't handle them - all my songs were written using just the whites notes."
If you think that's a pathetic excuse for passing off amateurish performance and limited expression, listen to the early work of Eno and you will see that what he has done is turn his inabilities to advantages, the seemingly divine skill of rolling with the punches.
"I was thinking recently about a lot of the New Wave bands that I've seen. I've been very excited by some of them and a lot of the elements in that excitement have been the way on which they've handled seemingly accidental factors. A lot of things are caused by accidents like this guy's got a crumby guitar which has a peculiar sound and he doesn't suppress that sound but uses it as the basis of his playing. That's the sort of use of accidents that I mean."
"A session man is the antithesis of that approach - he uses a system and a formula to predictably and safely handle a musical situation. I think that all session men ought to be sent on a compulsory six-week look at the New Wave bands just to see that there are other ways of approaching the playing of instruments."
In the mind of many writers, Eno has recently been associated with what is currently dubbed the New Musik, the German renaissance heralded by bands like Kraftwerk (one of Eno's favourites), Tangerine Dream, Can and other teutonic abstractionists. To what extent this association is valid is a debatable point. Certainly the association has been reinforced by his having worked closely on the last two David Bowie albums (two records which seem, to me, to show the genius of Eno rather than that of Bowie, but still...). As both of those were recorded in West Germany and show the strangely Germanic stamp of cleanly abstract lines, clinical appreciation of intellectual precision and a total lack of 'feeling' in the sense of down-home blues, the theory runs, they are New Musik and Eno moves one stage forward in the 'let's pin a tag on him' game.
In fact 'revolutionary' is a far better term (if one must descend to such unnecessary labels) than a New Musikian. Eno places great emphasis on the value of revolution in music and not in the sense of music which carries some half-baked pseudo-socialist sentiment in the lyrical content of a song which has the form of the most conventional country and western number.
"All music is potential in some sense or another, although it need not be a conscious thing. A piece of music exists in a certain relationship to culture and that relationship is either confirmatory or revolutionary. It either goes along with culture or it goes against it. It's not a conscious thing.
"If you choose to make music which you know will appeal to six avant garde music critics and a group of your friends, well, that strikes me as being some sort of political statement. On the other hand if you decide to make music which is unsophisticated and deliberately invites a large audience to take a part in, that strikes me as a political thing too.
"When people talk about politically committed music they immediately think that somebody sits in a room and says 'right, this is my political view' and then commits that in some semantic form into the music itself." One doubt about the accuracy of the information about Eno which is contained in this article must be that, with someone who is consciously permanently reappraising their work, no statement can be regarded as fixed and perpetual.
he was obviously in a state of extreme depression during our conversation, warming to the intellectual subjects we discussed and incapable of handling (by his own admission) the tid-bits of technical information which one usually tries to glean for a Beat article. So depressed was he that, shortly after the interview was over, he collapsed on the couch in his publicist's office (I hope I didn't bore him into it!) and fled the country for the States a few days later.
The cause was, most probably, a post-natal depression after the release of the new album which was itself followed by exhaustive introspection regarding his working methods.
"There's a thing the Buddha says about 'Erase personal history' and I'm very much in that position at the moment, trying to wipe out all the things that have gone before in the hope that something new will come along. "When I work, what I do has very strong connections with my personal life and it doesn't just attempt to answer musical questions. The kind of questions it answers are questions about my own behaviour. Now I find that there are increasing areas of my behaviour which are not charted by my work and so I have to do something new. If I can't think of anything better to do then I quite probably won't do anything at all." What this suggests is that Eno will now change his whole approach to recording. We briefly discussed the way in which he traditionally works at Island's Basing Street Studios and that he has made great use (albeit an unorthodox one) of all the facilities there. Quite possibly his next project will take him into a situation where he actually decides what will be recorded before he gets into the recording stage, a project involving a relatively large number of musicians and, quite possibly, the abandonment of the ultra-sophisticated electronic recording equipment.
Either way, the result will be progression because, by virtue of the intellectualisation process whereby he constantly challenges every concept in his head, Brian Eno cannot stagnate. To date the result has been several years of music which is delightfully ambiguous. You can accept much of what he has recorded as mere good music. On the other hand, if you look that little bit further, it can move you into a challenging process of continual revolution in both a musical and intellectual world. Now how many rock and rollers can you say that about?