The Guardian MAY 19, 2006 - by Richard Williams


The secret to recording with Paul Simon is sending him out shopping, British galleries won't take him seriously - oh, and Roxy Music are back together, Brian Eno tells Richard William.

"I never get asked to show things here," Brian Eno says with a tone of gentle exasperation as a series of painterly images succeed each other on the jumbo-sized computer screen in his studio in Notting Hill. The fifty-eight-year-old composer, producer, anti-war campaigner and all-round thinker is bringing an interview to a close by displaying the material that had formed the basis for an exhibition called 77 Million Paintings By Brian Eno, recently on show in a Tokyo gallery. Still photographs illustrate how, on a series of screens, a basic selection of images constantly combine and reconfigure themselves under the influence of software created by the artist.

"England has much more of a class structure in its art world than any other country," Eno continues. "I'm a pop musician, so I don't deserve a place in a proper gallery. I show in Italy, Japan, France, Germany, everywhere, and nobody raises an eyebrow. But over here it seems to be quite a political issue, whether a real art gallery should be allowed to show this stuff by a musician."

He may not be asked to show his artworks, but he is not short of other kinds of invitation. On the new album by Paul Simon he is credited as the provider of sonic landscapes, a function he has fulfilled in the past for David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2. He has also contributed to the first album in almost twenty-five years by Roxy Music, the band he helped found in 1971 only to leave two years later after a clash of egos with the lead singer, Bryan Ferry. Later this month he will appear at the Bath music festival, collaborating with the pianist Joanna McGregor and Bath Abbey's forty-piece choir in renderings of lute pieces by John Dowland, a gospel song recorded by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet in 1938, and extracts from Music For Airports, the album with which, twenty-eight years ago, Eno invented the notion of ambient music.

That invitation came from McGregor, who is in her first year as the festival's artistic director. They met two years ago, and have been collaborating on music that involves a midi device conveying the sounds from her piano to his synthesizers. "So you have a real piano sound, plus anything you want to do with it," he says. "I had the idea that it would be very interesting to look at some Dowland pieces she'd transcribed. They sound different on the piano, for a start, because the instrument has so much sustain. And I said, 'Let's try those, but very slowly - like one-tenth or one-sixteenth of their real speed, so they become really quite abstract.'"

"When the idea of Bath Abbey came up, she suggested trying to do it live. And then it blossomed into a bigger project in which we're trying to link early Elizabethan music with the twenty-first century. It's the opposite of what the early-music people do. They try to do the most faithful rendition of what it would have been like; we're extrapolating as far as we can, trying to make it sound like music of now rather than music of then."

Given the availability of the excellent Abbey choir, Eno produced an old gospel recording - a very free-form, deep, sinister song called Listen To The Lambs - which McGregor also transcribed. "She scored it all out. There's a bar of 7/4, 5/8, 3/4, 4/4 - every bar is a different length. The choir had never heard it or read the score before, but what they did was amazingly good. It didn't sound like the Golden Gate Quartet, but it had that same feeling of tension."

There was tension of a different kind when Eno and Paul Simon spent their first day in the studio together, working on the pieces that became Simon's new album, Surprise. The two had met at a London dinner party. Eno's feelings towards Simon had been affected by his reaction to the success of Graceland, the album in which Simon used African musicians. Eno, who had pioneered the absorption of African rhythms in his work with Talking Heads and their leader, David Byrne, found it hard to suppress a feeling that his space had been invaded.

"I realise now that what I was feeling was envy," he says, briefly collapsing with laughter. "It was like I'd found this wonderful private beach, and suddenly Paul Simon moved in and brought all these people along with him. I was sort of annoyed, but whenever I happened to hear something from Graceland, I found myself liking it. And I found out from one of the percussionists who'd worked with him that, contrary to my initial suspicions, he hadn't exploited the musicians at all. In fact, he'd treated them extremely well."

Looking for a new approach, Simon invited Eno to work with him. The first session, however, began unpromisingly. "There's a bit of trepidation the first time you work with somebody. It may be the chemistry just doesn't work and then it's embarrassing, like having a date with someone and after five minutes you discover that you don't have anything to say to each other. It wasn't like that. But what happened was that when I got there he was trying a guitar overdub on a drum track, over and over and over again, and I couldn't hear the difference between one take and the next. I thought, gosh, how long are we going to be doing this? The way we'd planned it, I wasn't supposed to be spending long on this record. But on we went with the guitar overdub. He'd occasionally say, 'What do you think of that?' I'd say, 'I don't know - I don't know what it belongs to.'

"It was like going into a field with someone who wants to build a house there, and all they've got is a single brick in their hand, and they keeping moving the brick around and saying, 'What do you think?' You have no picture of what the house is, so you can't make any useful comment.

"I explained this to him, and one of the really nice things about Paul is that he has absolutely no ego at all, in the sense of being completely willing to change direction. He doesn't insist on a position. It's really very surprising - on the one hand he's so controlling and so anxious to get everything exactly right, but if you say to him, 'Well look, I think you're wrong about that, why don't we try it this way?' he'll say yes and do it with complete commitment. So after this moment he said, 'OK, you work on it, you play something.'

"I set one of my keyboards up, and I said, 'OK, roll the tape.' I was standing there with my hands poised above the keyboard, and Paul was standing right next to me, and suddenly he said, 'That's not going to work.' I said, 'Why don't you just wait and listen to it?' He said, 'It's not going to work. It's a D9 over an E7,' or something like that. I thought, I'm not going to get anywhere like this.

"So then I had a brilliant idea. I said, 'Isn't it Mother's Day next week?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'This is quite a good neighbourhood for shopping...' We both knew what was going on. Off he went and while he was out I just worked like a pig to get something that was really substantial. So he came back and heard it and he said, 'That's fantastic - I think I've got an old song that would work with that.' He played it and suddenly we had a whole new piece. So this became the working pattern. And he's got a very good sense of humour. That night he said, 'Any time you want to send me out shopping...' It became a very good relationship after that."

The most anticipated of this wave of collaborations - if not, perhaps by Eno - has been his return to the Roxy Music fold. For the band's album, scheduled for release in the autumn, he provided two songs, at the band's request, and ended up making a keyboard contribution to other tracks. "The strangest thing," he said, "was that they all called me Eno. In those days I was always Eno. I rather liked that. When I was at art school no one called me Brian. It was only when I went to America that people thought it was rude to address me by my surname. So I became Brian."

Working again with Ferry, Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and Paul Thompson, there were other reminders of Roxy's heyday in the early 1970s. "The band hadn't changed one bit in terms of its internal dynamics. Just the same chemistry. It made me wonder if people can ever change the chemistry between them. After all that time, the relationships seemed exactly the same."

But he will not be joining them on stage. "They didn't ask me, I think because they know I wouldn't. I don't fancy it. I basically don't like playing live and I'm also worried about people saying, 'Oh, right, he's going back to the old band, then.' It was a big decision for me to do those two days in the studio with them. Not that I don't like them. I like them all. They're nice people. But because I thought, 'Oh, fuck, I'm going to have to spend years talking about this, and it was only two days.'"