INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
3JJJ FM OCTOBER 8, 1998 - by Richard Kingsmill
Brian Eno is sitting at his computer working on his latest project...
BRIAN ENO: I'm just going to turn something down. Sorry, I'm just running some tape copies, but I don't need them to be loud.
RICHARD KINGSMILL: What are the tapes of?
BE: I'm using this very interesting system which is basically a music generating machine which allows me to stipulate certain rules for a piece of music. Like what mode it will be in, how fast it will go or how slow, what kinds of harmonies are permissible, what kind of timbres and tonal changes are allowed. And then I just press go and I see what I get. And it's making some fantastic music!
RK: Different from what you've created in the past?
BE: That's right. New stuff. It sounds like me - because I guess I'm making the choices - but some of it sounds fairly different from me as well.
RK: Is it more fun doing it this way?
BE: Oh, it's great! These pieces are endless. Every time I put them on they're different because there are quite a lot of chance elements involved, so it does slightly different versions every time. It doesn't just repeat the same piece, it plays back the same set of rules but they don't always unfold in the same way. A bit like genes.
RK: So there's still that element of chance there? Because I always thought that with your ambient albums you were always very much into that chance element.
BE: Yes. In fact it's a very straightforward extension of that ambient work in many ways. Because those also used machines for generating pieces of music. I don't mean physical machines, but they used systems I designed and I would just let the systems run, essentially. And whatever came out was the music. But of course then I used to record the output and put a bit of that recording onto a record. But what I want to do with this new stuff is to actually sell the system itself so what people buy, instead of buying a piece of music by me, they buy this piece of software that produces the music and which will always produce original music. It's a rather interesting new way of writing music. Instead of specifying it all note by note, you just write all the rules and then the music writes itself out of those rules that you've provided.
Sorry, I shouldn't go on talking about this. It just happens to be what I'm working on at the moment, which is always more interesting to me. Anything that's over a week old is history for me. [Laughs]
RK: Have you got an example?
BE: Actually most of my records I think I haven't really gone back to analyse them for two or three years afterwards. I think part of the reason is that I can listen to them without hearing all the things I thought I was doing and instead I hear all the things I was doing. When you've been working on something, you're so aware of all the ingredients that you often miss the shape of the cake itself. It's a little bit like after you've been cooking you remember all the things that went into it.
RK: And when you do reflect on what you've done, are you generally happy with what you hear back all those years later?
BE: [Pauses] Usually I am, yes. Embarrassing to say so. I should probably be more critical, but usually I am pleased, yes. Usually I'm more pleased than I was when I finished it because very often at the point of finishing things I feel a sense of, 'Right, now I know what I should do, I'll get onto the next thing.' I feel a sense of not having quite got there with the thing I've finished and now I want to get onto the next one.
RE: Do other people's opinions matter to you?
BE: Yes. Quite a lot. Always have done. I actually don't believe people who say otherwise. People say, 'It doesn't make any difference to me what people think.' I don't believe them because you want to feel like you're part of the current cultural conversation. I don't mind necessarily if people hate it, and of course I like it if they love it, but what would worry me - and what has worried me occasionally - is when it doesn't make any difference at all. That's very dispiriting. You think, 'Am I really completely out of touch with everything? Or am I ahead of my time?' Of course you don't know at the time.
The reassuring truth for Brian Eno is that he's more often been ahead of his time than out of touch. It wouldn't be hyperbole to go further and say that the magic and freedom of his ideas have helped shape the course of music over the last three decades.
Starting out as a founding member of the glam pioneers Roxy Music, Eno embarked on a solo career in 1973. The self-described 'non-musician' created some amazing albums over the next decade, including Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974) and Before And After Science (1977). The textures of those 'pop' releases were envied and subsequently copied by many. Alongside those song-based albums, Eno became famous for crafting a series of (as he coined them) ambient albums. Discreet Music (1975), Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978) and Ambient 4: On Land stand among the best.
As a producer, Eno found new intuitive approaches that enlivened and elevated many careers. Using a series of instructional, tarot-like cards called Oblique Strategies, new pathways of working were found that didn't need to rely on conventional techniques of songwriting and recording. With simple pieces of advice written on the cards that ranged from 'Do something boring' to 'The most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten', studio dilemmas were solved in lateral ways.
It obviously worked wonders if you consider some of the albums Eno's helmed for artists such as David Bowie (Low, "Heroes", Lodger), Talking Heads (Fear Of Music, Remain In Light) and of course U2 (The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby). With U2, he initially knocked back the Irish quartet's request to work with them in 1983. 'I'm not really into your music,' he stated frankly to the band. 'That's OK,' replied U2. 'Nor are we.' They needed to change to survive and they sought out the advice and skill of the changemeister.
At the time of this interview in mid-November 1995, Eno had just finished a very productive period. As well as creating Generative Music 1 - Eno's 'generative' diskette using the Koan software described above - he had collaborated with U2 on the one-off Passengers album, and had produced David Bowie's first decent album in years, Outside. Working with Bowie resumed a studio relationship that stopped in 1979 after three consecutive masterworks with the singer.
RK: When you knew you were going to be working with David Bowie again, did you reflect on the albums you did with him in the late '70s and listen to that stuff again?
BE: No. Not at all. I mean, had listened to it in the interim sometimes but one of the first things we agreed we weren't going to do was a repeat, so we wanted to start out somewhere else. In fact, we spent quite a long time beforehand figuring out exactly what that would be. Or where it wouldn't be, I should say. What we didn't want to do.
RK: What do you think brought you two back together again?
BE: Whenever we work together, sparks fly to a certain extent. It's always very exciting because we both work pretty quickly. And we both have our own territories and I think I can always provide musical settings which he like and he can always do things with them that I would never have dreamed of doing. As soon as he starts singing over a musical background I've made, I think, 'Wow! No one else could've done that.' So it's a very good relationship like that.
RK: So you think you bring out something different in your musical personalities that you think others may not be able to bring out?
BE: Yes. I can make music when I'm thinking that he's going to be singing over it that I wouldn't do otherwise because I can really think about what he needs, how he sings and what kind of musical adventure he likes to make in a song and I can build all of that without the problem of what do I do with it next. [Laughs] Because he does that!
RK: It's interesting that you stopped working with him in 1979 and it wasn't until last year that you started working with him again.
BE: Well, I had quite a long period of not being interested in pop music at all. I didn't really feel like doing much for five or six years. I did some producing. Remember, I didn't release any kind of a song album of my own for ten years actually, and then I released Nerve Net in '92 and he released something which I liked very much which was the soundtrack to The Buddha Of Suburbia . And when we respectively heard those two things we realised that our paths were crossing again. So we weren't avoiding each other or anything. We were just doing different things.
RK: So it was a pleasing project to work on?
BE: It was great. I really enjoyed it, yes. It was very condensed. There was not a lot of time wasting. The initial recording period was very fast and very exciting. Something new was coming out every day, whole new songs appearing. So it was very, very frenetic in a nice way.
RK: Was that atmosphere similar to the way you worked with Bowie back in the '70s?
BE: There's two atmospheres we normally seem to end up with. The first one is an improvisational atmosphere, which involves a lot of people trying to get something going with a few people at once. The second one is where I work on my own, put something together musically without David being there, and then he comes in and works on top of that. And the second one is lately proving fruitful as well. You see, I work quite carefully. I'm quite a patient, careful worker in a sense, and I like to leave a piece of music without too much junk in it. So I try to really make it sharp. And he responds very well to those things, but he doesn't make things like that himself. He's much less patient, so as soon as something sounds good he'll work with it. I want it to sound really, absolutely right [laughs] before he gets it.
RK: What about with the Passengers album? That seemed to come out of nowhere. HAs that been on the drawing board for a long time?
BE: Yes, in a way. When we worked on Zooropa together, towards the end of that record, we generated some of the songs out of improvisation, which is a way U2 is used to working. They've done that a lot in the past. The difference in this case was I said, 'Why don't we actually treat the improvisations as the finished tracks, and work on top of them, rather than thinking of the improvisation as a way of generating ideas.' Because I more and more get to like the sound of people not knowing exactly what they're doing in th studio. Generally music moves in the other direction. So since that experiment on Zooropa was successful, we put it in the back of our mind to sometime try and do a whole record like that. And this is what that was. So it was thought about quite long ago.
RK: But given that totally spontaneous nature and getting the music down fairly quickly, were any of the members of U2 nervous about putting themselves on the line like that?
BE: Yes. It was... Well, I think the nervousness was not about the musical situation, but about the difficulties of trying to release something that was not obviously a mainstream U2 album without throwing the world into confusion. Because when U2 release records, there's obviously quite a lot of attention and they wanted to put a kind of health warning on it to say, 'Hang on! This isn't a U2 album. This is a collaboration with Brian and before you run out blindly and buy it, you should check whether you like it or not'. Which isn't to say we don't like it, [just that] it might not be to the taste of every U2 fan.
RK: U2 have always prided themselves on changing and keeping a step ahead of themselves. So when I heard it and liked it, I wondered why they didn't call it 'U2 with Brian Eno', or vice versa.
BE: Well, business-wise, I think that would have been a hard decision for them. I probably would have done that myself. But I don't have so much to lose. [Smiles] I came up with the Passengers concept because their record company was very worried about the perception of the album, especially because they're releasing a mainstream U2 album next year sometime. [Pop came out in 1997] So I think they probably made the right decision, because if people like it they'll think, 'Oh Yes, it's another good U2 album.' If they don't, they can blame me. [Laughs]
RK: Are you proud of it?
BE: I love it, yes. I think it's really good.
RK: I think there are some fantastic moments on it. I love Miss Sarajevo. How was working with Pavarotti?
BE: I didn't. Edge and Bono went to Italy to work with him. He came to our studio in Dublin for a visit, but I didn't actually do the recording with him. However, I know a lot of pasta was involved.
RK: I can imagine. I hope Bono and the Edge like pasta.
BE: They certainly do now! [Laughs]
RK: Was there any suggestion for Bono and Pavarotti to duet on that track?
BE: Yeah, but we didn't like the idea of that. In fact there was a point in the original format of the song where their two voices were singing together, but I didn't think it worked. In fact I'm sure it didn't work. 'Cause one of the interesting things about opera singers is that they have rather focused, thin voices. If you listen on that record, if you listen to the difference with Bono, with his big, close-up, breathy voice which entirely depends on a microphone, then you listen to Pavarotti with that sharp line his voice represents, it's hard to mix those.
RK: But it sure would have been interesting though to hear it?
BE: Well, yes, but I think the way that something like that works... It's like in a film, you flip to a different scene - to a long shot, or a different place. I think mixing them together wouldn't have been a success. When we first recorded Pavarotti, we just had his voice against the backing tracks, so all that had happened was that Bono's voice had gone and Pavarotti's had arrived. But that didn't work. Pavarotti needed more context than that, which is why we added the orchestra and that really made it happen. Him coming in after Bono actually sounded rather weak. Now that sounds a strange thing to say, but it's to do with the use of microphones. Opera singers don't really use the microphone in the same way as popular singers do. So Bono knows how to get a full, breathy, intimate sound, which is great. Then when he steps out there's a great big hole left in the track which is not filled by an operatic tenor. That's why you have all those strings - because they take up all that space.
RK: Is it true that Bono wasn't that keen to work with Pavarotti at first, but his own father and the Edge's father convinced him?
BE: They said, 'How could you possibly turn it down?' They're both tenors themselves. Not professional, but they both, at some time, belonged to choirs. And for them, the idea of not singing with Pavarotti was unthinkable.
RK: What about the next U2 record? Do you have any idea what it will be and will you work on it?
BE: I don't think I will work on it 'cause I desperately want to do some of my own work right now. I've spent all this collaborating with other people, which has been fantastic and I've thoroughly enjoyed it, but now I need to go back to the 'laboratory bench' and do a bit more... I think of my own work as research and quite often the application of the research is on other people's records, but I need a bit more research time now.
RK: I've heard the next U2 will be very much a rock & roll record. Have you heard that?
BE: Yes. I think that's what they're aiming for and that's one of the reasons I'm not so keen to be involved, because I'm not actually in the mood to do a rock & roll record right now. I don't think I could contribute much to that. My feeling is - if I were them - I would say we should go on now from the Passengers record. The idea of making a rock & roll record doesn't seem like a very exciting step to me.
U2 perhaps heded Eno's warning and took a different direction, but Pop still turned out to be the band's least successful album of the '90s. Perhaps over-zealously described as a techno album, it fed off the electronic dance sounds then proving popular for the likes of The Chemical Brothers and Underworld. They were to team up with Eno again for the release of 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, which was ironically more rock that Pop - and twice as successful.