"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Korg SPRING 2003 - by Gwen Alexander
Over more than three decades Brian Eno has invented musical genres, worked with some of the most famous musicians around and has become arguably the most innovative and creative musical force the UK has ever known. We meet the man to talk gear, pop and KAOSS...
In this age of the pop idol and the manufactured band, there are very few people who you can rely on to push the envelope musically. And in today's music industry there are very few people who last longer than their allotted 15 minutes of fame. The whole scene has become so disposable that today's chart star will be tomorrow's forgotten has-been, at best gleaning an income from daytime TV appearances.
It is a surprise, therefore, that anyone has ever managed to be both cutting edge and popular and who has, more importantly, lasted the course. Brian Eno is one of them, if not the one. He's the 'strange-looking' bloke who played keyboards with Roxy Music over thirty years ago, the man who helped Bowie create some of his most outstanding albums (Low, "Heroes" and Lodger) and the producer who gave U2 some of their finest moments throughout the '80s and '90s (The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby). He's also a respected solo artist (producing anything from dreamy soundscapes to hard-edge techno drum n bass fusions) and has collaborated with everyone else from Jarvis Cocker to Harold Budd. Oh, and he also invented ambient music. In fact, with Brian Eno, where do we stop? This man almost defines cutting-edge music and has more irons in more fires than anyone else we can think of.
With thirty-odd years of studio experience behind him he knows a thing or two about gear too. He is famed for being a champion of FM synthesis and he's also been at the cutting edge when it comes to sampling, rhythms and multimedia presentations. So what does a musical genius like this take into his studio after more than 30 years at the top?
Why a Korg KAOSS Pad of course. Or three to be precise...
Korg Magazine caught up with Brian just after a workout with Jarvis Cocker and friends ("They asked, would I come along and play on something, so I just took all my Korg stuff. I didn't play, I just did things to them!"), and while writing and recording his new solo album. But while Eno might be a fan of technology and the new Korg range, it's quite clear he has some strong opinions on the way music equipment is made today. His whole ethos with equipment is that he likes to get to know bits of gear well before deciding whether to keep them or not. This has meant he has ended up with a relatively minimal set-up.
"People always look surprised and disapproving when they come into my studio because I don't have a lot of equipment and a lot of it is quite old," Eno explains. "My feeling has always been to work with a few things and get to know them, and I really don't know sometimes whether to bother to learn a new piece of equipment. I'm not really interested in switching it on and just getting the stock things out of it.
"For me to get a relationship with a piece of equipment means actually being able to program it and change it and so I really have to decide. I often buy synthesizers and give them away! I decide that, OK, it's not worth the time investment and I'm not interested."
Brian is well known for his love of all sorts of gear and for his experimentalism, but he has strong views on the way he thinks hardware was developed in years gone by. "This is something that equipment manufacturers really haven't figured out," Brian opines. "The trend has always been to bring out completely new things whereas I think what users would like, or at least my kind of user would like, is updates of things. What they really could have done was kept updating like the way software people do, like Photoshop for instance. You don't abandon the whole idea and come up with a totally new program, you build on the successes of the first one." An interesting opinion and that could possible catch on.
With this theory on evolution you'd think that Eno would be a huge fan of software, which, as he states, can be continually updated. But while he is a fan of some programs, particularly some plug-ins and virtual instruments, he is not really a fan of computer music-making in general.
"I think it's a little bit like what happened with cameras," he states. "In the nineteenth century, taking a photograph was technically and physically a very difficult thing to do. Most people couldn't do it. Not only did you have to organise this complicated structure of plates and so on, you also had to know how to develop it. What's happened [now] is that everyone's got cameras, in fact further than that, they have their auto-focus, auto-everything way of making music too.
"That's fine... I'm happy that that's happened. I certainly did more than most people to show that you didn't need to be a trained musician to make musician!" he laughs. "The only problem with it is it's now possible to make music that sounds reasonably competent reasonably quickly, so it fools you into thinking you've got somewhere when you haven't."
Furthermore, deeper analysis into this train of thought reveals Eno's theories on computer limitations and ultimately why he is such a fan of the Korg KP2.
"Musicians have a bundle of talents," Eno explains. "Some of them are to do with intelligence, some of them are to do with taste and some of them are to do with muscles... dexterity and physically. What happened with computerisation was that people have ended up using less and less muscles; in fact, they ended up just using one: the one that controls your index finger!
"The whole emphasis of music as being something produced by your body sort of started to disappear, and if you watch good musicians playing, you see that they are physically involved over their whole bodies. In fact, if you play, then the thrill of playing is that you are sort of dancing with the music. That's quite a different thing from cutting and pasting. OK, you get nice results, I'm not saying don't do things like that! But it's like wasting a big part of the intelligence of a musician."
So what is exciting to Brian in terms of gear? "These [points to the KAOSS Pads] without any doubt. I think these represent the other side of the electronic revolution. I thought these were just the most brilliant new idea in electronic music because of what happened with computerisation. The computer thing is one side of it and it encourages a kind of cerebralness... is that a word?," he laughs. "This has brought some things to music and really filtered other things out. These things [the KP2s] catch what was filtered out for me by the computer revolution and they suddenly bring us back to the idea of physicality and motion and muscular intelligence and expressiveness, so these have been very important to me. As you see, I have them all over the place.
"The things that are made for DJs in general have been very exciting to me. That's because DJs have to get results immediately... they're dancing, they have to be physical and the equipment has to be robust enough to stand that and they don't want to sit programming something for hours; they want something that works now."
And the KP2s are being used to great effect in Brian's new work as he demonstrates to us by chaining three together and using them to control, distort and rhythmically trigger some vocal samples from some old '30s and '40s a cappella tracks. In fact, the vocal side of things is going to be very important in Eno's forthcoming new album, as he explains...
"I'm very surprised because I suddenly got interested in singing again. One of the issues I've always been interested in is what you can do with singing, not only lyrically but also sonically. The next innovation is the voice and what we do with voices and trying to straddle this area between natural voice and synthesized voice.
"I have a couple of songs that sound confusingly slightly inhuman. But I haven't made them like those R&B things where they go very inhuman, very vocodery. What I've tried to do is keep it like a human, but a rather over-perfect human in one case and in another I've made it extremely frail. I found a way of making the voice almost fall apart so it almost turns to breath some of the time and it's a very, very tender, sensitive sound."
And the KP2s look like providing the backbone to many of the tracks on the album. "There is actually a lot to get into with these KP2s," Eno explains. "As you can see, I use them in a chain so what I'm always thinking is that I have groups of programs that work together and then I'm kind of doing this [demos triggering a KP2]. It's really something new in terms of instruments I think, especially when you group them together so you're cross-fertilising them, as it were. I can do amazing things with these. Really, I think I've got these down in a way that nobody else has."
And what about other Korg gear? Korg Magazine spies a Triton in the corner on one of Brian's keyboard stands. What does he think? "I've looked at it enough to know that it's fairly complex," he laughs, revealing at a stroke the hidden depths of this do-it-all workstation. "There are a couple of the stock sounds on it that are brilliant and that I really like using," he adds with a smile.
AND THE FUTURE?
So what's next for Brian? He's probably one of the world's most prolific musicians, so after three decades, is there anything left to do, or anyone left whom he wants to work with?
"There's one artist I've always wanted to work with and will do next month called Michelle Andevio Cello who I've thought was the greatest talent around for ten or twelve years. I just love her music so much... her approach to rhythm. I think she has made a new form of music.
"I suppose, when I think about it," muses Brian, "the kind of music I listen to for ideas comes from two areas. One is modern R&B, particularly the girl-group style R&B; as I said, because of that interesting vocal thing this is where it's happening and the advances are being made. I've always been interested in backing vocals in their interaction with the fronting vocals, and in some of the things I've done I've tried to change the relationship between them so the backing vocals become the foreground.
"On the Talking Heads record, Remain In Light, where I did a lot of the backing vocals, I was trying to make the point that all the vocals are backing vocals basically (!) and I want to make a tapestry between those. A lot of this new R&B stuff is doing exactly that. If you listen to Toni Braxton stuff, for instance, sometimes all she's doing as the lead vocalist is 'uh', 'ah', and this incredible intricate song is being woven around her by the backing vocals. That's one thing I'm listening to.
"The other thing I've been listening to a lot is a cappella gospel stuff from the '30s and '40s and sort of for the same reason because of the intricacy of the vocal arrangements."
SOME FINAL OPINIONS
And what about the current pop scene? Is there too much manufactured stuff around and not enough people breaking ground? "I don't think it's that bad or that different from the manufactured pop thing that's gone on from the very beginning; you know people putting together groups based on haircuts and minimal singing competence," he laughs, "so I think it's all part of the ecology of the pop scene. In fact it sometimes surprisingly produces very good results. For instance, I really liked that TATU [UK number 1 for four weeks in February/March], and I'm sure that's a put together band..."
With producer Trevor Horn in the production role, of course...
"He did a great job. He's a very good producer and he's interesting because, in a sense, he's at that end of the spectrum, on the manufactured end, but I think he does fantastic work. I always like to see it as an ecology. You need the pioneer species who go out there and make a piece of territory fertile for the other people to come along.
"You know, in agriculture, you have this idea of a pioneer species, getting things to grow where nothing else will grow and in doing so, making the land suitable for other things to grow. I suppose I'm in the pioneer species category." Indeed we'd probably agree with you, Brian.