"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork NOVEMBER 1, 2010 - by Mark Richardson
Brian Eno's impact on music over the past four decades can be easy to overlook because it reaches into so many different areas. As a solo artist, he essentially invented the idea of ambient music and changed the way that people thought about electronics. As a collaborator, he was a catalyst for brilliant work by Roxy Music, David Bowie, Cluster, Harmonia, Talking Heads, U2, and Coldplay. His dual role in experimental and popular music is without precedent, and his influence on the music scene as a whole is difficult to overstate.
In the past couple of years, we've been hearing about Eno mostly through his collaborative work. There was the fine 2008 album with David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his work with Coldplay and U2, and the apps Bloom and Trope, created with designer Peter Chilvers, which allows you to create generative music on your iPhone. This year, the big news from the Eno front was a new solo album, an instrumental record called Small Craft On A Milk Sea, created in collaboration with keyboardist Jon Hopkins and guitarist Leo Abrahams. In addition to being his first solo album in five years, Small Craft On A Milk Sea was exciting because it's being released on the legendary UK imprint Warp, who have done so much to define the sound of electronic music in the last twenty years. That Warp was to be home to a new Eno album just seemed too perfect, as his music has served as an inspiration to a wide swath of artists on the label.
In mid-October, we spoke to Brian Eno about his new record and ideas about music, listening, and technology. He'd recently been working with a band he didn't want to name, and spoke to us from the garden outside of his studio.
Pitchfork: Is there any part of you that asks, "Why release albums at this point?" What does it mean to you to release an album now when music is changing and things are possibly moving away from the idea of albums? Does it still have an appeal for you?
Brian Eno: Well, actually it has a huge appeal for since I still do mostly listen to CDs. I think that every format really is a different way of listening. If you take a different sort of psychological stance to it - like, I think the transition from vinyl to CD definitely marked a difference in the way people treated music. The vinyl commands a certain kind of reverence because it's a big object and quite fragile so you handle it rather carefully, and it's expensive so you pay attention to how it's looked after. And, of course, very importantly, it comes in twenty-minute chunks, and after twenty minutes you have to do something - listen to it again or whatever. So, I think it's a big difference from having a CD, which you can play on random shuffle and which is going to play for an hour or more. And then, of course, that's quite different from downloads, where you can listen infinitely without knowing often what you're listening to.
So, everything is a different way of listening. But also I think that there's something that I still like about the fact of a package, like the latest report from somebody. "Okay, this is what they're up to now; this is what they're doing; who's working with them?" It infuriates me that stuff from the Internet routinely doesn't include all the credits. Because as soon as I listen to something, if I like it, I want to know, "Who's the bass player?" "Who did that?" "Who's the engineer on this?"
I don't think it's just because I'm in the business; I always have wanted to know how the whole thing was done, what the process involved. And I don't particularly enjoy that my music is stripped of ancillary details, and it just sort of comes out of this big tap called the Internet like water. I like some of my water to be neatly presented in a bottle [laughs]. With a label on it.
Pitchfork: So, there is something still appealing about thinking about making music in these certain chunks of time. You're sort of designing a listening experience for someone where someone who's shuffling randomly through their MP3 collection would sort of be depending on whatever comes up. Is that part of the appeal of it? That you get to design a way that a certain amount of time unfolds for a listener?
Brian Eno: Definitely, that's the sort of macro-composition. The micro-compositions are the pieces themselves, but the macro-composition is the whole set of them and how it moves from track to track and how the titles relate to one another, for example. Always when I do records like this - of a selection of instrumental pieces - the titles, to me, are very important. They, in my mind at least, connect as the sort of narrative hint about what the record's about. I do think in terms of groups of things, and I'm careful to try to signal with the kind of cover art I use and the way I talk about things, that certain things I do are different from one another. This isn't the same as an ambient record and it's not the same as a song record, and so on. I hate the thought that someone had picked up one of my song records and was really excited about it, and walks [out of] a record shop with On Land and is disappointed because it isn't what they wanted. So, I try to make signs, graphically and visually, to say to people "Okay, this is this department of my work and this is this other department of my work." And of course I'm very pleased if people like all of them, but I don't want them to feel deceived at any point.
Pitchfork: You spoke about the titles on this record. What part of the process does putting words to these pieces of music come into it?
Brian Eno: It's usually quite late, but it's sometimes right at the beginning. So, it tends to be one or the other, actually. Sometimes something intrigues me about particular sounds, how they work together, and I think "Okay, I've found something here; I'm going to take it somewhere." And sometimes just to find a name for that sound, whatever it is, ends up becoming a title of the piece or becoming part of the title.
But quite often, and in fact more often, I would say, I'm struggling all the way through to think, "What is it I like about this? What is the personality of this thing I'm hearing that I like so much?" And it's nearly always a sort of mixed emotion, which is why I like it. It's something that I have mixed feelings about in the sense that it's both, say, placid and dangerous, or bitter and sweet, or dark and bright. The reason I'm intrigued by them is because it's quite hard to put my finger on them, what exactly is going on in them, the emotional mixture that's in them. So, those titles come quite late, and the process of doing the piece is, in a way, a process of getting to the point when I can call it something. When I've finally got the title, I think, "Okay, yes, now I know where we are. Now I know what it is. Fine, that must be finished or nearly finished."
Pitchfork: What would a typical day in the studio have been like when making this music? I know it was made over a period of time, and you have written that it was often based on improvisation, but could you describe what it felt like when you were in the room together and what was going on?
Brian Eno: Yes, we have two different ways of working. One is completely unstructured where somebody just starts playing and somebody joins in and then the other person joins in, and something starts to happen. That's occasionally what happens. What more often happens is that we settle on some sort of - a few sort of structural ideas, like, "Okay, when I put my finger up, we're all going to move to the extremes of our instruments. So, that means you can only play either very high or very low or both. And we're going to stay there until I take my finger down."
The problem with improvisation is, of course, that everyone just slips into their comfort zone and does sort of the easy thing to do, the most obvious thing to do with your instrument. Luckily neither Leo [Abrahams] nor Jon [Hopkins] are that kind of person. They like going somewhere they haven't been before. So, I try to make up rules that encourage that. And then of course these improvisations were done to multi-track - we're working, actually, on Logic - so, sometimes what we would is we would improvise together for a while then we would listen back and find a section, which may be only a minute long, perhaps, and we'd say "Okay, let's play over that one minute. Let's maybe put that one minute down five times and use that as the basis over which we work." We're improvising, but we're using some sort of structuring ideas as well.
And some of the other structuring ideas are completely conceptual in the sense that I might say, "Imagine it's the year 2064 and all digital music has been destroyed in a huge digital accident, an electromagnetic pulse or something like that. So, all we know about the music between 2010 or 2030 is hearsay. There don't exist any recordings. We've read about a kind of music that existed in the suburbs of Shanghai in 2015 to 2018, and this music was played on -" then you specify a group of instruments - "was played on, say, industrial tools, such as steel hammers, and augmented with samplers and various electronic versions of some Chinese instruments. And it was intensely repetitive and played at ear-splitting volume," for example. So, we then, taking that brief, try to imagine what that music would be like, and we try to make it.
Pitchfork: It sounds like lot of fun. It sounds like a very playful environment where you can just try out things and use your imagination and see what happens.
Brian Eno: Yes, that's one of the good things, I think. There's very little feeling of censure between us, very little feeling of, "Oh, that was a bit dark. What'd you do that for?" Try anything. I think the other thing that's important is getting to a place, which very, very rarely happens with improvising groups, where somebody can decide not to play for a while. You watch any group of musicians improvising together and they nearly all play nearly all the time. In fact I often say that the biggest difference between classical music and everything else is that classical musicians sometimes shut up because they're told to, because the score tells them to. Whereas any music that's sort of based on folk or jazz, everybody plays all the time. So, we kind of like to think of structuring devices that make it so that there are differences in dynamics where sometimes only one thing is happening and sometimes several things are happening together.
Pitchfork: You're credited with "computer" on the album. There were two things that I read about years ago, when you were speaking about computer music, that might have changed over time. One had to do with the idea of electronic music so often being created on a grid. Where sounds were locked into place and ultimately certain genres of music were dependent on that. But at the time, you talked about how that was maybe problematic in terms of the development of music. Do you feel like that has changed at all? Is that something you're dealing with now or that has been overcome in how you work with music with computers?
Brian Eno: I think it's a really, really important issue. I think we're sort of deep in the grid period of making music - well, we're probably emerging from it a little bit now, I would say. You know how eras always have a sound to them and you don't realize it until the era has gone? I remember when in the early days of rock'n'roll, when everything sounded totally different, all amazing and blah blah blah blah blah. Now you can play me one second of any record from that time, and I'll say "1959" or "1961." I can hear precisely. It's like it has a huge date stamp on it. And I think we're all capable of doing that. You can hear the profile of a sound, in retrospect, so much more clearly than you did at the time. And I think one of the things that's going to be nauseatingly characteristic about so much music of now is it glossy production values and it's griddedness, the tightness of the way everything is locked together.
I just got an amazing ten-CD set, it's the music that Alan Lomax recorded in Haiti in 1936. And what's incredible is how fantastic the drummers are and how off-the-grid they are. The liveliness is astonishing; they're just totally alive, these recordings. It's very interesting, to me, to be reminded of that, that there was a time when things were not that tight. And we're going through this super-uptight era, which I think comes entirely from literacy, actually. It's the result of machines that were designed as word processors being used for making music. Because that's what we're doing, after all. All the programs we're using started their lives, really, as word processing programs and the concepts that typify word processing, like "cut and paste," "change typeface."
Pitchfork: Yeah, "undo," et cetera.
Brian Eno: Yes, exactly, "undo," in particular. That's a very important one because - well, I had an interesting day. I was in the studio with a group of musicians, who shall remain nameless, and I said to them "Our exercise today is not to use 'undo' at all. So, there's no second takes. Or, if you do a second take, you have to do the whole take. There's no sort of drop in, change that little bit. The session broke down in, I'd say, forty minutes. It was impossible for people to work in that restriction any longer. I think that's very significant that we're so attached to the idea now of - it was something I advocated for years, that you can make music in studios, music doesn't have to be made as a real-time experience. But now you see the results of that in people who are completely crippled unless they know that they have the possibility of "cut and paste" and "undo." And "undo" and "undo" and "undo" and "undo" and "undo" again.
Pitchfork: Have you seen any progression in that area? Are the tools evolving that allow for some more of that?
Brian Eno: Yes, the tools are evolving, and people's interests are evolving as well. So, suddenly people like to hear bands, people like Devendra Banhart or The xx, bands that make a kind of virtue of sloppiness. That isn't what they would describe what they're doing, but the fact is they make a virtue of the sort of hand-made nature of what they're doing. It's very obviously and deliberately not computer-ish music. So, there's the reaction. Of course the next step is people who can use computers with the sort of sense of freedom that Jimi Hendrix would use an electric guitar.
Pitchfork: A related question is the interface between the body and computers and how different that is from traditional instruments, which were often built with the body in mind - how they would be held, where the hands would be, where the fingers would be. And the computer is obviously modeled on a typewriter machine that was built in the late nineteenth century, and we have a finger to control a mouse and so on. But do you see any evolution of it in that regard of it? How people use them in terms of making their bodies work with computers?
Brian Eno: First of all, I think you're quite right in bringing that up, because I think that is such a serious issue, and very few people notice it. Very few people take it seriously at all, because they're still convinced by the Microsoft slogan "Go where your imagination takes you," or whatever that bloody thing was. The idea that the computer is a completely neutral device that doesn't have a personality of its own and just liberates you to do anything you want - it's complete cock. You just make different music on a computer. And you can make wonderful music on a computer, but don't pretend that the machinery is transparent. It makes as much difference to what you're doing as it does if you play an acoustic guitar as opposed to a kettledrum. You're not going to make the same music.
In terms of what has been happening recently, there have been, I think, some really interesting new instruments that have come out that sort of show me the direction of the future. Korg has introduced the - they've had a whole series now of these things called Kaoss Pads. They're wonderful because they do get your muscles working again. And what DJs do, of course, with their DJ turntables now, the CD turntables, which have pitch change and speed change and everything else. They're doing something that I think is interestingly physical. Then you have - there's another Korg instrument called the Wavedrum, which is a great, great instrument.
So, there is a sort of convergence starting to happen between the computer and musical instruments, but it's still quite a long way off. Basically, you're still sitting there using just the muscles of your hand, really. Of one hand, actually. It's another example of the transfer of literacy to making music because the assumption is that everything important is happening in your head; the muscles are there simply to serve the head. But that isn't how traditional players work at all; musicians know that their muscles have a lot of stuff going on as well. They're using their whole body to make music, in fact. Whereas it's quite clear that if the interface between you and a computer is a mouse, then everything of interest that happens must be happening in your head. It's a big step backwards, I think. It's back to the biggest problem with classical music, which is [that] it's head music. It doesn't emanate from anything below the shoulders, basically.
Pitchfork: Right. Yeah, it kind of seemed like in some sense, the Bloom project was just a tiny step in addressing that. I downloaded that when it came out and really enjoyed playing with it and listening to it in the time since, and there is something - just on this four inch by two inch screen or whatever it is - where you do feel like you're touching music, in a way. You can tap three fingers and then you hear the three notes, and even that seems - you can feel the difference between that and the mouse with a computer where it's one step removed.
Brian Eno: Definitely. You know, we've had [years] of evolution to develop this incredibly fine set of muscles, which can do the most extraordinary, delicate things and which have their own memories and so on. And then we fucking well discard it all; it seems completely stupid to me. And also, I think, if you spend a day or - as many people do - a life working only with that aspect of your being, the cerebrum connected to a finger, I feel that the rest of you atrophies, essentially. It's all wasted, and it feels wasted. You feel dead. You feel as if you're not living a full life. Which, of course, is why - it's my theory about why so many people who are heavily into computers are also into extreme sports and S&M [laughs]. It's because their bodies are crying out for some kind of action.
Pitchfork: Are there any elements of Bloom on the album? The track Lesser Heaven has textures that reminded me of that.
Brian Eno: Ah, well, very well spotted. Yes, some of the elements - certainly one of the elements and I think maybe two - that goes into the Bloom sound is there. Because that kind of sound was a little program I built, not for Bloom, actually, I did it for that Spore project, the Electronic Arts game called Spore. I evolved some sounds for that. I like that one in particular, and I used it quite a lot; I still do use it. So, that occurs; yes, it occurs on that track. And I think there's also, if I recall, I think there's also part of the same background drone or something.
Pitchfork: I'm curious about your thoughts on the tension in your music between an identifiable style and sort of doing away with sounds that anyone might identify with your work in the past. For someone like me, who writes about music, in a sense your last name has become an adjective where people say something is "Eno-esque" or "Eno-like," and people have a rough idea of what that means. But then, obviously, some of what you do is not what people think of now as "Eno-like," obviously. I'm just curious about your thoughts about that - whether you think that because it comes from you and the way you hear sounds, will it inevitably be identifiable as you, and is that desirable?
Brian Eno: I suppose that, in a sense, you can't escape your own style. So, in one sense that's true. But, of course, I'm always interested in something when it isn't familiar to me. So, there's a kind of edge to what you're doing, the kind of leading edge of what you're doing. Inside that edge [are elements you] are familiar with, and are probably becoming slightly bored with, as well, over a period of time. "I've pulled that one out before. Oh, no, I can't I'm just fed up with that. Let's do something else." So, there's that, and then at the edge of things, there's some new things you're starting to do and to find exciting. And you always think "Oh my God I've never done anything at all like that before." But, of course, in retrospect, and to an outsider, they'll say, "Oh, yeah that's typical Eno."
It's just like I was saying about when you look back on a historical period of music, it seems so obvious to you what the characteristics of it are, but they're not obvious at the time. So, when I look back at my own work, I could easily write a very convincing sort of account of it that made it look like I had planned it all out from day one and that this led logically to that and then I did this and then that followed quite naturally from that. But that's not how it felt. It always felt [like], "Oh God I've never done anything like this before; that's so exciting!"
Pitchfork: You said that some of the inspiration for this music was film music, and you talked about the idea that one appealing thing about film music, when it's removed from the film, is that some element of it is completed in the mind of the listener. One thing that's changed since we might have listened to film music in the '70s or what have you is that there's so much more media in our lives these days. Do you have any expectations or ideas about how it's going to be completed by the listener when they might be experiencing other media simultaneously? Obviously, you've had a lot of thoughts over the years about background versus foreground music. But so many people listen to music when they're out in open space, they're on the bus, they're driving, they're walking down the street, or in the woods. And that's something that might have been different from how music was experienced when you started making ambient music in the mid-'70s.
Brian Eno: I think the idea that people walk around to music is very interesting. They are actually creating the soundtrack to their lives as they walk around to it. I tried this album - when we first started putting it together, I put it onto an iPod and walked out around the streets, and thought, "Imagine this as the soundtrack of a film that I'm now in." And I really enjoyed it; I thought, "That works very well." It's much better doing it with this kind of music than it would with songs because songs tell you what they're about, generally. And I love the sort of ambivalence of this, the ambiguity of something - being, for instance, in a quite busy Mexican restaurant with one of these very gentle tracks playing I remember as being particularly nice. I have these headphones, which pretty much exclude everything else so that you can really completely control the sound that you're hearing. I don't use them very much, I have to say. I very rarely listen on headphones.
Pitchfork: You're more somebody who would prefer to hear music in a physical space.
Brian Eno: I do. I much prefer it, generally. The time I like listening to music most on headphones is, I have a game I play with my brother, he's a musician as well...
Pitchfork: This is Roger?
Brian Eno: Yes, it's Roger. And he sends me MIDI files of keyboard pieces. So, these are pieces where I just get a MIDI file; I don't know what instrument he was playing them on; I know nothing about his section of the sound of the piece, and then when I'm sitting on trains - I do a lot of train travel - I turn them into pieces of music. And I love to do that; it's my favorite hobby [laughs].
Pitchfork: Yeah, it does seem that something that's changed over the years is that headphones have become much more prominent, in terms of the way people have experienced music.
Brian Eno: Yes, well, that's important because it means that they're doing something different with music from what they've ever done before. And whenever there's a new music, there's a new way of listening. And whenever there's a new way of listening, there are new musics that follow from that. And people start listening differently - that can either mean in different places or at different volumes or in different social groups or through different technologies. Whenever that happens, whichever one of those it is or whichever mixture, then a new music evolves for that niche, as it were. It's like a new ecological niche opens up and wham! Within no time at all, it's populated.
Pitchfork: When you're making music, are you thinking about what niche your sound might be filling?
Brian Eno: I do think about that, yes. Except in a few cases like Music For Airports, which was a very clear case of noticing a niche [and] saying, "Okay, there's this situation in which people always play music, and nobody has written music for that situation so I'm going to." So, that was a very clear example of spotting a niche and working for it. I have done that occasionally. Another one I did was a piece called Neroli, where I was thinking, "I want some music to help me think. I want some music where I can sit down for half an hour, two hours, whenever, and put my mind into the kind of feeling that I know works for helping me think, if I'm writing or trying to work something out." So, that was a deliberate, niche-driven piece of music as well. Often, I think you find that you're enjoying certain things, you've got this new way of listening, and you find that you really enjoy the way that sounds on it and the way this other thing sounds on it and the way that other thing sounds on it. So, you're finding a new pleasure that you didn't know about before.