"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Sounds MARCH 7, 1981 - by Sandy Robertson
THE LIFE OF BRIAN IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS
Brian Eno, currently working on two new albums, is many things to a lot of men.
Arch English 'non-musician', Roxy Music's departed distortion master, the producer Television rejected, progenitor of the whole radical synthesizer trend, the receding video experimenter who breathed new life into New York by unearthing the 'No Wave' bands, Robert Fripp's sidekick, the guy who helped David Bowie re-invent himself with Low and, perhaps most remarkably, the producer/collaborator who's led stark American outfit Talking Heads through a series of albums which saw them ultimately metamorphose late last year, with Remain In Light, into a bizarre funk orchestra gang amid accusations of cultural imperialism.
Nevertheless, after various copyright problems, group leader David Byrne and Eno have just unleashed a much-discussed LP project which further explores what Eno refers to as his 'African psychedelic vision'. Called My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, it features much 'found' material from disc and radio (everything from Algerian chants to politicians to exorcists) backed by Eno, Byrne and a host of other musicians working up a percussive sweat.
What can it all mean? To try to find out we talked to Eno by 'phone in New York, where he was busy smoking ciggies and drinking cups of tea...
I remember you once saying that you were conscious of a distinct difference between the approaches of your solo albums, like Taking Tiger Mountain, and your sideline experimental works... So were you conscious that My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was ostensibly less commercial than Remain In Light?
Well, it's an interesting thing, because what's happened is that in the last couple of years that distinction you're talking about has become much more blurry. The reason for that is that the records that are considered 'sideline' records, as you say, actually have been selling pretty well! In fact, in some cases better than the other ones, and this of course has been a big surprise to everybody.
I always do projects with one commercial idea in mind, which is: It'd be nice if this thing could pay for itself... I know if I'm doing a record with Talking Heads we can anticipate in advance sales of at least 350,000 to 400,000 copies, and that gives us a certain latitude as to how much time we can spend in the studio. In other cases, if I'm doing a record like the ones I did with Harold Budd and Jon Hassell, I can't reasonably anticipate those kind of sales. So I say part of the constraint we work within is we're not gonna go over a certain studio budget, let's say 5,000 to 10,000 dollars.
Actually, I don't mind either way. I'm quite happy to work on a low budget, quite happy to work on a big one. It just produces a different kind of work, like the difference between working with an orchestra or a string quartet. You don't begrudge working with a string quartet, you just adapt to the different conditions. But now things are a bit confused because some things that cost like a thousand dollars to do are selling very well...
Can you tell me a bit about why you feel Africa is so increasingly important, not just musically but to all aspects of life.
I heard an interesting programme on the radio this morning in New York, about the influence of African music on contemporary work. It's incredible! In the last few months there's been so much stuff come out that's had a very distinct and conscious African influence. It was really extraordinary the amount of stuff he played, most of which I hadn't heard... So the first thing I should say is that this African vision I had, there were clearly a lot of other people tuning in to it at the same time... It comes a lot from conversations with my friend Jon Hassell, the trumpeter. We'd been thinking a lot about the interface between primitive and futuristic, and it seems that rather than the old theory of the modern giving way to the post-modern, linear progression, that the interesting ideas are being generated by the primitive, meaning the unchanged aspects of the old world... On this programme there were a lot of records by people using electronics and basically tribal instruments, and doing it very successfully on a lot of occasions.
I think we've got to look elsewhere for solutions. Our society has lost a certain strength, partly a strength of tradition, a moral strength, though I don't mean that in the sense that most people would mean 'moral'. If we don't regain one we'll wander into the future like a bunch of kids with a lot of clever toys. No strength of purpose. Musically, you can see the result of that with all the synthesizer dabbling which I hope I don't get classified as a part of!
I guess a lot of people would point the finger and hold you responsible for all that!
I think they would! [laughs] Of course, they're right in some ways. I'm not above what I'm talking about, but I'm saying that having been through this process and explored a few blind alleys as well, I just don't think it's the way to go. I don't think the glittery technological road to the future is going anywhere. On the other hand, I don't think that the back to the earth road is going anywhere either. There needs to be a vision that understands that we are creatures of intellect and of body, and that there isn't a strict separation between them.
Yes, well one of the things I've always liked about you is that you use concepts that are thought out, as well as doing things simply because they sound good. On this album were any of the 'found' items used for specific reasons, or was it simply that they sounded right? There's a preacher, and the musical backing makes him sound like James Brown, but does any of it 'mean' anything?
The first piece I did myself, which was Mea Culpa. I found that the hysteria and inhibition alternately in those two voices had a lot to do with what I was experiencing in this town at the time... It seemed to me that if you wanted to write a song about that you could do nothing better than to use those two voices, rather than sing a song saying, 'Oh, the world's gone hysterical!' Why bother, you've got the real material there...
Thereafter we started collecting a library of material we might want to use, and we found that we were getting more and more religious and spiritual material. Initially, this wasn't the result of a decision; it was simply that on the radio in this country, and I guess in most countries, the only people that have any passion in their voices are religious people. Everyone else is trained, cool, radio chatterbox, y'know, to talk in a virtual monotone.
Can you tell me a bit about the novel by Amos Tutuola which the album is named after?
It's a bit like the record in a way. The writer portrays himself as a young boy growing up in an African village, and at some point there's an emergency of some kind and he decides to hide in the bush. He dives through this little hole in a hedge and he suddenly finds he's entered this unmapped world of strange spirits. The bush of ghosts is a series of 21 towns and each town is inhabited by a different type of ghost. All of the ghosts, I gather, have a certain spiritual place. They're allegories for certain conditions of life. We started making the record before we'd ever read the book, so the record isn't in any way an illustration, or in fact it doesn't really have anything to do with it, except that in a sense it's a series of unrelated wanderings.
How do you feel about the criticism that all this taking black music and adding white boy quasi-intellectual lyrical concepts to it is imperialist, that is, the critics' implication is that you're saying the music isn't 'intelligent' enough until you improve upon it, and that, therefore, what you do is patronising to black culture?
It's the kind of criticism that always happens if you transgress any of those boundaries. The critics really think that white people ought to play white music and black people ought to play with blacks. In my case it's not any kind of intellectual decision, it's a feeling in my own music that I'm moving in a certain direction and realising that here's a group of people who've moved much further and deciding I'll learn from them, consciously use some of their devices. It arrives from a kind of humility rather than a kind of arrogance. I regard myself as a student. I'm very humble about my understanding of African music, it's a vastly more complicated and rich area than I had dreamed of. I'd say that anything I'm doing is simply my misunderstanding of black music.
I've seen it suggested that some members of Talking Heads aren't too happy with this direction, though.
I should seek to be diplomatic, but I can't deny that those kinds of things happen. We were all mentally ready for this direction, everyone in their own way had been preparing, Chris and Tina had been listening to African music and reggae for a long time. The real problem in all of these issues comes from recognition. It sounds stupid and childish, but it's all to do with the amount of attention accorded. The Talking Heads feel, and actually I agree with them, that David and I have been accorded an undue amount of attention. More and more things are getting written about as if they weren't even in the studio, and it really isn't like that.
Well, thanks for your time. It's great that you're optimistic about the future unlike all these grim-faced synthesizer bands over here.
They're sort of in the Eraserhead frame of mind, grim, decaying urban existence. They're gonna say, 'Oh yeah, he's just pie-in-the-sky.' If you say to people 'I don't think the world's so bad', they'll say, 'Well, you don't see the reality of it.' The point is, it's possible to be aware of that grim reality and also to be aware that there are other ones co-existing with it. Have I ever met you, by the way?
No, but I once saw you walking down the street eating an apple. You were looking at it like it was the most interesting apple ever created!
[Much laughter] I must tell you a funny thing that happened to me yesterday. I was in Woolworths buying a humidifier, and this guy came up as I was paying my bill and said, "Is it true, this story about the pack of matches and the waitress?" Referring to the cashier, he said, "I don't think I could tell it in mixed company", and then he disappeared. Since then I've been trying to think of any incident in my life that relates...