"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo JUNE 1998 - by Andy Gill
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
He bleeps. He whirs. He has been reinventing the language of sound for over half the fifty years since he was first switched on. Who better to probe his workings than a fully charged Brian Eno? Andy Gill reports...
These days, you have to catch Brian Eno as and when you can. Always peripatetically inclined, he now spends even more time abroad - partly, he explains, to escape the stultifying sense of ossification which, despite the brief shaft of optimism last May, still hangs like a dark cloud over Britain. Other countries, he feels, seem to have a much more optimistic sense of the possibility of meaningful change.
Most musicians lead international lives purely by dint of touring obligations, but in the case of Eno - whose last performing gig was probably his 1992 appearance at Sadler's Wells, where he delivered a trio of illuminated lectures on the apparently related subjects of perfume, defence, and David Bowie's wedding - the urge is more personal, and more likely to involve general artistic projects than anything specifically musical. Last year, for instance, he spent several months in St. Petersburg, soaking up the atmosphere and exhibiting an installation in the Pavlovsk Palace, then darted off to a few other countries.
Which is why I meet him, wrapped in a long leather greatcoat and hunched over Nabokov's Essays On Russian Literature in the bar of Dublin's Clarence Hotel, on a brief stopover, before he jets off to the South of France the next day. You must hear this, he enthuses, reading aloud a passage in which the circuitous elegance of a sentence by Gogol is reflected in the equivalent elegance of Nabokov's commentary upon it. Not exactly the kind of thing which excites most pop musicians, but then Eno isn't exactly your run-of-the-mill musician. For despite having served as midwife to some of the last few decades' more innovative and biggest-selling records from U2 and Talking Heads, Eno's presence in the music industry has always been as more of a marginal irritant, rather like the tiny piece of grit which stimulates oysters to develop pearls.
His reputation as pop's resident egghead, the Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brian That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld, has been well earned, if occasionally something of an annoyance. At times, it's seemed like he's operating as an undercover agent, smuggling in ideas, approaches and sounds which seem anathema at the time - ambient music being the most obvious example - but which usually find acceptance several years later. In the mid-'70s, he became a patron of the avant-garde when he persuaded Island Records to fund his Obscure label, whose output included the ground-breaking first releases by Michael Nyman, John Adams, David Toop and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, as well as the original (and best) version of Gavin Bryars' Sinking Of The Titanic. Lack of commerciality, in addition, has never determined which production commissions he accepts and has been irrelevant to most of his own recorded output, which, as Eno's fiftieth birthday approaches this May 15, is what concerns us here.
Like his roving gaze, Eno's discourse is always on the alert for new sensations, roaming across related topics and tangents at will, but with a clarity and penetration that reflects the depth of his interest. Unlike most musicians, he never seems surprised by a question or a twist in the conversation, as if he's already considered all these matters long and hard beforehand and has the footnotes to prove it. Eno once described himself as a non-musician, and he certainly thinks far too much to be a successful pop star, but it's undeniable that without him tinkering away on its fringes, modern music would be a far, far duller place.
Roxy Music (1972) Roxy Music
Like many people's first records, the first Roxy album was material that we had played and rehearsed so often that going into the studio was a fairly straightforward business of just putting it onto tape. I don't remember there being that much overdubbing and fiddling around. We had rehearsed for a year and a half before we even played a show - and that was at some guy's birthday party. We had only played between half a dozen and 10 shows before we started recording, and the only recording we'd done together before was a John Peel session, which caused enough of a sensation for us to get a record deal. We knew we didn't sound like everybody else, but we thought we sounded like everybody else plus something. What we didn't realise was that there were actually quite a few things missing from what everybody else would have been doing! We weren't sophisticated enough to make it sound more normal than that - we probably would have done, had we realised.
For Your Pleasure (1973) Roxy Music
It's the same with all second albums: you make the first one, then if that's a success, you spend the next year touring with it and never really get time to write more material. A few things like For Your Pleasure and In Every Dream Home A Heartache had been written, but they hadn't received anything like the attention those on the first record had. Also, we - particularly me - had started to become more aware of the studio as a place where you could do things that you couldn't really imagine before you got there. So we deliberately left more of the record to be made when we got to the studio: we were prepared to go in there with much less firm ideas, which of course became my style of working. I think when I left, two things happened: firstly, the band had consolidated its identity and their sound had accordingly moved more towards the centre. Secondly, without me a lot of the weird noises left! In retrospect, I think it was the right decision for everybody that I left when I did - the way Bryan was writing, the transition they made suited his new style of song. Mother Of Pearl, for instance, wouldn't have sounded as good with me on it.
Here Come The Warm Jets (1973)
What I wanted to do was focus on this new way of making music in the studio, so I started making my own records, which in retrospect sound pretty weird as well. I saw the studio as a place to study sound, invent sound, craft it in ways you couldn't do with live instruments. The main thing on Needle In The Camel's Eye, for instance, is Phil Manzanera playing a riff on rhythm guitar; meanwhile, I'm banging his whammy-bar, beating it in rhythm. We did three or four tracks of him and I doing exactly the same thing, so you're getting four rippling guitars pulsing against one another. That was one of the things I learnt about multi-tracking at the time: that rather than add different instruments, it was much more interesting to layer the same instrument several times, maybe changing the pitch slightly - you can get some really amazing ringing sounds, and a lot of the tracks on the first album were done that way. The title Warm Jets came from the guitar sound on the track of that name, which I described on the track-sheet as warm jet guitar, because it sounded like a tuned jet. Then I had the pack of playing cards with the picture of that woman in there, and they sort of connected. That was one of the other things that was going on at the time: this idea that music was still tied to some idea of revolution, and that one of the revolutions was a sexual revolution. I wasn't making a big political point, I just liked having fun with those things. Most people didn't realise for a long time - it was rather deeply concealed!
Fripp is one of my great collaborators, a brilliant and totally original musician who worked on a lot of my records, a well as the Bowie albums. On No Pussyfooting, I'd invented this long delay echo system which he played through, building up these huge fugue-like pieces, dense carpets of sound. I've heard other people trying to use that system, and they just don't have the musical brains to do anything interesting with it - it's very easy to just get stuck in a kind of drone rut, but he was clever enough to know how to shift out of one mode to another. On Evening Star, we did less of the loop thing, and I played synthesizer; those were more like compositions, really.
I was attracted to that idea of an art that wasn't about I love you, which I thought was the biggest limitation of most popular music. My response was just to ban the first and second person singular from my songs. I thought, if you write songs without using those words, you're bound to end up somewhere different! I wanted to make something that was like the voice of a group of people who had done something together, or were about to do something together. Then when I was in San Francisco's Chinatown, I bought a pack of postcards called Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, from the Chinese opera of that name, and I thought, that's the kind of thing I'd like to write music about, that side of inventing contemporary myths and legends - because Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy is the almost totally untrue, mythologised account of a Chinese military victory, presented in heroic dance - fabulous Maoist propagandistic stuff.
I liked this first-person plural approach because it de-focused the personality of the singer, which fitted in well with my other project which was towards creating landscapes rather than portraits. The way most songs were recorded then was with the subject, the singer, in the centre, and everything arranged around the singer, framing them, with occasionally backing vocalists looking in to represent the voice of society. Since I'd got much more interested in the background than the subject, one of the ways of approaching it was to take the central figure out and replace it with the backing singers. It was a way of switching conjugation, altering the angle of the song. Ultimately, this led to a realisation that in many ways, I was happier when the singer wasn't there at all, and neither were the chorus!
That was a live document, it wasn't worked on in the studio. We did three or four concerts, and this was recorded at the last of them, at the Rainbow. It was a good line-up, because Robert Wyatt was part of it as well.
Another Green World (1975)
Over the course of those first four island albums, the relationship of background to foreground changed. If you think of the singing being the foreground event, that was certainly true on Warm Jets, a little less so on Taking Tiger Mountain, much less so on Another Green World, and about half-and-half on Before And After Science. I was getting more interested in painting the picture, rather than the personality that stood in the picture. On Another Green World, there are fourteen pieces, of which only five are songs, although most people think of it as a song record. The title track became the theme for BBC2's Arena - £24.50 a week for fifteen or so years.
Discreet Music (1975)
I was preparing for some live shows with Fripp which incorporated films by Malcolm Le Grice, and I wanted to put on tape some atmospheric backdrops for him to work against. I made a tape for him and slowed it down to half speed, just to hear what it sounded like, and I liked it so much that I left it as it was, and it became Discreet Music. What I liked about it was the idea that, by fading it in at the start and out at the end, you get the impression that you've caught part of an endless process. That's always been a key condition of ambient music for me, that it's something that is going on anyway, which you enter and leave. Also, the idea of sounds being out of earshot, so you can hear things near and far away and, you suspect, there's stuff going on outside too. So you're hearing a partial experience, in two senses.
Music For Films (1978)
I realised that what the studio was really good for was making pictures, creating new landscapes and time and space contexts. And because it was the only tool I had, I naturally started to move more in that direction. Music For Films, like Discreet Music, was an important record for me.
It was a limited edition at first, which I had pressed up just to send to film makers Discreet Music, but my secret hope was that people would listen to it and say, Hey, this is a nice record, which is what happened. I knew that to release a record like that in the contemporary critical climate of English rock journalism, you'd just be shot to bits, because it was so contrary to what was going on - these little lost snippets of something or other, very unaggressive and unattacking. One of them has been used about twenty-five times in different programmes - it's about thirty seconds long, and it took me thirty seconds to make.
Before And After Science (1977)
Kurt's Rejoinder on Before And After Science was the first time that I'd really used that vocal collage technique, in this case of a Kurt Schwitters poem. It was another experiment in how to have voices without the focus of the singer - how to have all the value and tension and drama of language, and that kind of meaning, without having the bloody singer holding the poxy microphone and shaking his balls around. I thought you could do it by using people who were self-evidently not singing, not part of the music. It was that, of course, which then informed My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. The watercolour prints included with Before And After Science were by Peter Schmidt - an attempt to see if we could parasitise the record-distribution system to start selling prints, to introduce the notion of going into a record shop and buying a suite of prints the same way you would buy a suite of songs. Another brilliant idea that never quite took off!
I'd been interested in German music for a long time, and met those guys in Hamburg, I think, where they invited me to stay at their place and work with them for a while. A very nice period - we worked as the mood took us, and came up with tons of stuff. Then we recorded at Conny Plank's place, too he was inspired, he thought that the job of being an engineer was highly creative, so he was very much a contributor to the things that came out of that studio.
Music For Airports (1978)
A lot of things like Music For Airports came out of that Borgesian idea that you could invent a world in reverse, by inventing the artefacts that ought to be in it first: you think of what kind of music would be in that world, then you make the music and the world forms itself around the music. This American ensemble called Bang On A Can have done a live, musical facsimile of Music For Airports, and what they've come up with is so moving: because you know it's humans playing it, it's suddenly invested with all this concentration and feeling that isn't really there in the original. When I heard it, I actually had tears in my eyes, and I couldn't understand why. Then a friend who saw it performed in New York left a message saying it had moved him to tears; then I read a review in The New York Times, which described it as tear-jerking; then Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson went to the New York show, and they said it was heartbreaking! Everybody had the same response to this music, which was originally conceived as deliberately austere and unemotional.
Jon Hassell had a very specific agenda, which was to make what he called future primitive, or Fourth World music; his other description of it was a coffee-coloured classical music. His idea was that the musical cultures of the world were a huge resource that the snobbery of western classical music had obscured and not taken seriously enough. He had studied with Pandit Pranath, the Indian singer, and as a result was very clear about the value and complexity of other musical traditions.
Harold Budd's intention was to make what he called eternally pretty music, and his way of composing was to write a piece of music, then take out all the notes you didn't like! It was essentially a kind of minimalism - he'd come up through the California minimalist school, and had made a very hardcore minimalist album before doing The Pavilion Of Dreams, which was quite a classical record, for my Obscure label. So his trajectory was away from what I call the standard NEA minimalism, that style of music guaranteed to get you a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, because it's totally respectable, modern, defensible and unobjectionable. Harold moved from that to live improvisation on The Plateaux Of Mirror and The Pearl: I would set up a sound, he would improvise to it, and occasionally I would add something: but it was mainly him performing in a sound-world I had created.
I had this idea of music being a net which traps things that happen to be passing through at the time; and at the time of Bush Of Ghosts, I was living in New York and I was so shocked by American radio because it was so opinionated with these completely cranky, right-wing Klan members hosting their own radio shows. I was amazed at how I could sit in my apartment and just listen to all these ghosts in the air, all this madness that was America. I started recording it, without any specific intention of using it on a record. This was the beginning of sampling, and of the whole sampling problem: it was only after we'd had the record pressed and sleeves made that we learnt the estate of the radio evangelist Elizabeth Coulman would not permit this thing to be used for a million dollars - not surprisingly, since it showed what an obnoxious creature she was. So we had to junk all those albums. Then about eight months later, we got a letter from the World Council of Islam saying they were going to bring injunctions against this record, because one of the tracks used some Algerian Muslims singing The Koran, and though it was not intended in any way disrespectfully, it didn't matter, because The Koran is the word of God and hence is itself a holy object. We had to promise that we would remove it from future pressings, which we did.
Ambient 4: On Land (1982)
On Land was an attempt to create something almost like a documentary film - each piece was an emotional documentary of a place I had been, music as figurative as I could make it. One of the big freedoms of music had been that it didn't have to relate to anything nobody listened to a piece of music and said, What's that supposed to be, then?, the way they would if they were looking at an abstract painting; music was accepted as abstract. I wanted to try and make music which attempted to be figurative, for example by using lots of real noises. So on On Land, a lot of the sounds don't come from instruments but stones, chains and wood, all sorts of things which make the complex noises that real things make - because most instruments make extremely focused noises. Classical music is weighted very much towards purity and distinction from normal sounds - what makes them musical is that you know they deliberately don't sound like anything else in the world. What pop music keeps doing is shifting the other way, absorbing more and more of the world. Rap is interesting from that point of view, because it works with such chaotic bundles of information, by sticking together samples that don't really fit, so you get an effect of something like a real world noise - it's not organised and exclusive, the way that classical sound is.
Apollo was done in relation to a film which was made entirely of real footage from the Apollo missions. When I was asked to do the music for the film, I discovered that the astronauts were each allowed to take a cassette with them on those missions, and they nearly all took country and western songs. I thought it was a fabulous idea that people were out in space, playing this music which really belongs to another frontier - in a way, seeing themselves as cowboys. So the idea was to try and make a frontier space music of some kind. The album did quite well when it came out, but the money it earned is absolutely nothing compared to what the single song from it that was used in Trainspotting has since earned.
Thursday Afternoon (1985)
Thursday Afternoon and Neroli are the purest expressions of what I thought ambient music should be: endless, relatively unchanging moods. Both those pieces are as long as I could fit on the record, basically. Thursday Afternoon was the first CD-only release, because I wanted it to be that long. Just one of the ways I've kept the sales limited - I wouldn't want to become over-popular! There's not much to say about those things, other than that they're very much studio-made.
This was an assembly of stuff by different people, so it's very much an album, there's no unifying theme or style.
I thought Wrong Way Up was more commercial than it actually turned out to be. It includes one of my favourite songs of those written, Spinning Away, and others like Empty Frame and The Man From Cordoba. Cale is sort of a genius - my image of working with him is of him playing a part on the keyboard whilst talking on the phone to somebody and reading a newspaper at the same time. And he'll play great parts that way, too - music comes very easily to him, and he has to take up the rest of his intelligence by doing other things at the same time. It was nice, but very fractious at times - since we didn't use an engineer, we didn't have anyone else to blame: it was just two producers, two songwriters, two singers, both in the same room. Two chiefs, and absolutely no indians!
Nerve Net (1992)
My Squelchy Life was a record I finished for release in September 1991, but then Warner Brothers said they couldn't release it 'til the following February. I hate it when people do that, because if something's finished, it's timely for release now. I said, If it's going to come out in February it can't be that same record. I was already starting to work on new things that I wanted to be released the next year. So I withdrew it, perhaps inadvisedly in retrospect, because some of the things on My Squelchy Life I really like now. Some of them did get released eventually on a box set: a song called Under, another called Over, and a third called Some Words. Those three were left off Nerve Net, which became less songy as a result, more instrumental.
The Shutov Assembly (1992)
These were originally proposals for orchestral pieces; what I wanted to do was make them, using my normal tricks and devices, and then present them to an orchestra and ask them to try and copy them accurately - so if this sound goes dnnngeeeee, you might need to have a damped tubular bell and a violin player working together to make that one sound. I thought it would be an interesting way to use an orchestra, to force it to use its instruments in a different way. Bang On A Can have done that with Music For Airports.
Neroli is just a single keyboard piece, played with a sound I made very carefully. At that time I was interested in Greek modes - the Lydian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Hypodorian - and I wondered what would happen if you built an instrument (a synthesizer, in this case) which observed only the harmonics which fit into the mode you intended to play in, so each note was a sort of baby recapitulation of the whole piece. I played a Moorish sort of melody about two minutes long into a primitive sequencer, a Yamaha Y7, then split the keyboard into four or five regions, and got the sequencer to play back the top part which would correspond to the top notes of the right-hand - at normal tempo, over and over again, and the lower parts at incrementally slower tempi, each looping individually. It starts out in its individual form, as I played it, then the parts slip apart, like tectonic plates. I like that place where systems and humans meet, because what's the point of systems music in the age of the sequencer? There's something weirdly amiss in doing things that machines can do much better. But that's never been my intention - I've always been more interested in what happens when we and our systems collide, when our tastes and frailties and passions and mistakes meet up with systems that are supposed to iron them out.
Spinner wasn't really a collaboration. I had done the soundtrack to the Derek Jarman film, Glitterbug, but didn't think it stood up on its own as an album, without the film. Somebody suggested I let Jah Wobble have a go at it. I presented him with my original stereo mix, which he worked on top of . Some of the tracks he left alone, others he added to - rhythms, bass parts, and some orchestrations. So some pieces started out as landscapes, but ended up completely rhythmic.
Several of those pieces started with things begun in my studio in Kilburn. Part of the impulse was U2 wanting to touch on things which they didn't think they could do within the container 'U2' - their fans are often young people for whom the cost of a CD is a serious thing, and they would feel really bad if people felt they'd been deceived. They were also interested in the idea of impressionistic rather than song-led music.
The Drop (1997)
That was my computer record, a lot of it was made with sequencers. I was trying to re-think melody in a certain way. There had been a lot of music in the last five years that capitalised on things that sequencers do well - making beats and grooves, repeating cycles - and very little in relation to solving the other problems, like constructing interesting new melodies. I described it as what would happen if you tried to explain the sound of jazz to someone who'd never heard it, who wasn't very clever, and your description wasn't very good.