INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Rockol JUNE 15, 2005 - by Franco Zanetti
BRIAN ENO, BRAIN ONE: A BRAIN (THAT WORKS)
In a thirty-year career I have totalled about two thousand five hundred news conferences and interviews. But I remember few where I have exited reluctantly and with the conviction that, if it had lasted a little while longer, I would have been further enriched. I wished the meeting with Brian Eno, held on June 13 in a paradisiacal corner of Franciacorta (between Brescia and Lake Iseo), had never finished: it wasn't an interview, it wasn't a news conference, but rather an interesting conversation, vivacious, passionate, full of hints and ideas. The man, Brian Eno, has a shiny head in which resides a brilliant brain, an affable and courteous interlocutor but one who is also ironic and self-deprecating (His welcoming statement was: Passing a whole day talking about yourself makes you realise how boring you are. Never has such a claim been more clamorously repudiated by the facts.).
The opportunity for the meeting was supplied by the release of the non-musician's new album, Another Day On Earth, with which the polyhedral artist-intellectual returns to songs (and to singing the words) after many shifts in direction. And, in fact, I stopped writing songs almost thirty years ago because it was a naff activity, explained Eno. I was more interested in sound and technology than in the song format. Songs have been the same for seventy years, they are usually considered to be the expression of the singer's personality, and therefore the voice is always treated in a very traditional manner. The recording of vocals is a procedure which hasn't been explored very much; that's a shame because a song is a description, the voice is an important personality within this description, and it would be worthwhile investigating this area. Lately, the recording of vocals has experienced a significant technological evolution: today it's possible to treat the voice like an electronic instrument and it's because of this that I wanted to utilise it again. (A warning: inevitably this report will only refer to parts of the meeting, otherwise it would be too long - and also limiting - to give a written account of everything that was said during a talk that lasted over an hour-and-a-half. The conversation rarely followed predetermined lines, the usual case in most news conferences; moreover, it branched off on long tangents suggested by a phrase, by a word, by a casual observation, as if each of Eno's replies contained a multitude of links to other possible reasonings, some of which were opened and partially explored, and many others which remained only potentially active. Also, in hindsight, I feel a sense of dissatisfaction of which I spoke little - I was left with much to ponder and with many questions that I would have liked to have asked - and I'm sure that if he'd been able to stay for another hour there wouldn't have been the slightest chance that I would've become bored.)
And so: songs sung, with lyrics. Lyrics can become a cage if they're not very beautiful. They serve the purpose of drawing attention to what's in the music. Except for Bob Dylan, nobody that I know writes music after the words: almost everyone uses an inverse procedure where they begin with the music, singing improvised words over it, words often with no definable meaning, in order to get a feel for how they want the voice to 'sound'. On the internet his fans have transcribed the lyrics of all the songs sung by Eno in the past (on his first records as a solo artist - Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, Before And After Science - and occasionally on other albums, singles or collaborations), with a corresponding series of alternative interpretations of words or phrases. I like it that everyone understands my songs differently, says Eno, smiling enigmatically. I don't want my lyrics to have a precise meaning, I don't have a message. And, in fact, I've never wanted my lyrics printed on album covers or in CD booklets. It's a distorted way of understanding their function; moreover, if you listen to a record with the written lyrics in front of you, it's inevitable that the eye will run ahead in respect to the point at which a phrase is being sung, and this distracts from the music. And to print the lyrics would be to take them too seriously....
In the past Eno has sporadically done cover versions: for example, there exists an incisive performance of The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh) by The Tokens. During the work on this album I had almost finished recording a cover of I'm Set Free by The Velvet Underground, and then I decided to leave it out. I'd also like to sing The Temptations' Ball Of Confusion... maybe another time.
One of the tracks included on Another Day On Earth, Under, was part of My Squelchy Life, a legendary album recorded by Brian Eno in 1991 that has never seen the light of day. It's a song to which I've returned many times, and the moment came to concretise it on the record, explained Eno, and then he recalled the event which is the basis of why we are here. The album was initially to have been titled This, like the opening track. But then instead it took its title from the cover photograph, an image that I took in Peking. It looks like a posed photo, because of the lights, the distribution of the objects, the atmosphere; but instead it's a casual snap. From this came also its title, which then became the title of the album, a title that can have two meanings, that is 'a day like any other' or also 'a special day, different'. Everyone can choose whichever they prefer.
There is a need to speak further of the album or to have more time to talk (in particular about the participation of ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones, and Barry Andrews from XTC, or of the friendly assistance of people like Robert Fripp, Annie Lennox and Robert Wyatt) but the flow of the conversation zigzags and returns to the subject of the record to be promoted only at the end of our encounter, when he is asked to elaborate on the theme of Bone Bomb, the last track on the CD (sung by Aylie Cooke). In fact it could be the first single off the new album. The song was born during the reading of a page in a newspaper on which was told the story of a young female Palestinian suicide-bomber who left a few phrases behind, almost like a testament, to try to explain the reasons for her gesture. On the same page there was an interview with an Israeli doctor who recalled that one of his most difficult experiences was to extract the bone-fragments of the suicide-bomber from the flesh of the victims of the event. It seemed to me a very cruel metaphor for integration. David Bowie wrote to me saying that he thought that this is the best piece that I've ever done.
I was advised not to ask questions about Brian Eno's work as a producer for third parties, but it's he himself who brings the subject up, citing The Edge from U2 (he's really passionate about minor chords whereas I think they're almost always unnecessary; major chords are more versatile, more expressive), Paul Simon (with whom he is working on an album provisionally titled Musical Palette) and, in general, arguing on behalf of his conviction that in the studio, the important task for the producer is to keep the emotive interactions at a high level, it's not important whether they're positive or negative; you need to have the strength to tell the artist that they've made something splendid but also that they've made something horrible when that is how you see it, it's from this dynamic that the tastiest fruits grow. And technology? You need to understand what you can do with it, focusing on 'cheaper, faster, better'. Each technological innovation is designed to fill a pre-existing need but at the same time creates new expressive possibilities. For example, the development of the personal computer could give life to a new art-form: self-generative mini-films on DVD that anyone with a minimum of tools and competence could put together and distribute, maybe even commercially.
Speaking of the future, on how many projects are you actually working? To respond Brian Eno requires the help of Jane Geerts, his representative and assistant: And so... I am preparing audiovisual installations in Lyon, Munich, St Petersburg and in China; I'm working with Paul Simon, I'm writing a new introduction to my book, Unthinkable Futures, and I'm writing a new book about cultural ecology; I give lectures and conferences; I'm preparing an orchestral version of The Shutov Assembly, my record from 1992; I've been asked to write the music for the opening ceremony of the next World Cup of football; I'm becoming a political activist, I'm trying to create a lobby to bring a proportional electoral system to Great Britain... and I'm doing a few other things that don't come to mind at the moment.
In other words, a tomorrow full of commitments. How does this fascinating middle-aged British gentleman see the future? Many things will happen in the future, some of them will be loathsome, some will be marvellous, and I can't wait to see it either way.