The Big Issue APRIL 11-17, 2016 - by Peter Serafinowicz


Elliptical, oblique, entertaining. Peter Serafinowicz finds his hero Brian Eno full of optimism for the future thanks to the kids of today.

Peter Serafinowicz: I am shit at interviewing and also pretty bad at being interviewed, I hate it. So anyway, I've got these questions.

Brian Eno: I'm not really very good at interviewing. I'm good at doing the talking but asking the questions is much harder. I've only actually been asked to interview two people. One was the Blue Öyster Cult, terribly embarrassing, I can't really remember anything about it. And the other was Cornelius Cardew who was this hero composer of the late '60s, English guy, whose work I was incredibly impressed by and I wrote a big piece about his work. By the time I came to interview him, he'd become a Maoist and I started saying how I'd seen his work and how important I thought it was. And he said: "It's not important at all, it's completely irrelevant to the people's struggle."

PS: Cornelius Cardew - that's an amazing name. And he was one of your heroes?

BE: Yeah. For quite a few people, and the legend was consolidated by the fact that he was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1980 so he suddenly disappeared, which is of course always a good career move. He started this thing called AMM, which was a really far-out improvisational group in the mid-'60s. And then he went to teach at Morley College and he assembled this thing called the Scratch Orchestra that I belonged to when I was still an art student. The Scratch Orchestra was nearly all art students making music together and it was an amazing experience because the idea was that behaviour was interesting so you didn't really care about the sound that came out. A score might say something like "four stones, one stick, nineteen minutes". You read that as you could, and got four stones and one stick and in nineteen minutes tried to make a piece of music.

PS: Of course it's made me think of the Oblique Strategies [a set of cards developed by Eno and his friend Peter Schmidt in the 1970s bearing challenging constraints intended to help artists break creative blocks through lateral thinking].

BE: Funnily enough, just this morning I found something I need to show you. This was the very first Oblique Strategies [shows Peter cards].

PS: On bamboo?

BE: Yeah. On bamboo cards. Some of them went into the final version.

PS: This is the first one [reads from card]: "Honour thy error as a hidden intention."

BE: When we were making the second Roxy Music album I had that pinned above the desk because I had noticed the first time we made an album together, the panic of the clock ticking really made us forget a lot of the good ideas that we had and made us very goal-directed in the most brutal way. I always look at mistakes now and think, is it really a mistake? Maybe it's better than what I was planning to do.

PS: I love this one [reads from another card]: "How would you have done it?"

BE: Yes, that's a good question because so often the voices in your head are not your voices, they're people that you anticipate making their suggestion.

PS: Is one of them: "When in doubt tidy up?"

BE: A lot of people don't realise that when you're tidying up you're making decisions about the rest of your life. You're thinking, this thing is important, where am I going to keep it, this thing I can aford to file away and this thing I can throw away. I have this enormous file of four thousand unreleased pieces, and when I'm tidying up, like I should have done today, I always have that playing on shuffle, so pieces are coming up and I think, I don't remember that.

PS: Oblique Strategies can be seen as limiting your possibilities. It takes courage to think, I'm going to do this with the lights of.

BE: I think if you start out with a feeling of 'we're going to make art and the art is sincere and I don't want anyone fucking with it' - that's hopeless. I really don't enjoy working in situations like that. I want people to be saying: "Actually we're not really sure what we're going to get out of this, let's just have some fun."

PS: I read that you were with David Bowie in a nightclub when you first heard I Feel Love [Donna Summer's seminal 1977 electro-disco song produced by Giorgio Moroder].

BE: That was with David Byrne. And I said: "This is the future of music." Which I am prone to say.

PS: I agree. That's the template for most music since then. When was the last time you said something was the future of music?

BE: There are times when I've thought, why isn't anyone doing such and such? And then I knew it would happen sooner or later. For example, when I was working with David [Byrne] on [the 1981 album] My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts I said to him: "It's funny that nobody else has done this." I remember sitting on the corner of Hollywood and Vine with him and saying: "I think the next thing in music will be people shouting poetry over high rhythm tracks." I had got the idea from hearing Appalachian singers who are rapping, which I realise now is the word but that word didn't exist then. I suddenly had this vision of doing this over tough, hard, urban music. And I remember saying: "That's going to be the next thing that will happen." And then Public Enemy came out.

PS: Once In A Lifetime [Talking Heads song, produced by Eno] is almost rap.

BE: Yes, we were getting there. And then I read an interview some years after with [Public Enemy producer] Hank Shocklee and he said the record that really influenced them was My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which completely took me by surprise. I didn't know that anybody in that community of musicians had actually heard it.

PS: When was the last time that you heard something and you thought, this is going to be huge?

BE: The last time I really stopped and thought, 'Jesus, I've got to listen to this' was a guy called Owen Pallett, he's a Canadian. He plays violin and sings, writes these amazing songs, but the way he plays violin is he uses a loop pedal. He builds up incredibly elaborate arrangements live, they're stunning, yet it's just him standing on stage.

PS: One last thing I wanted to ask you, which was a thing I promised my daughter that I'd ask you. There's a piece of music by a Japanese composer and it's the theme from a game called Animal Crossing. It's this little simulation of a little village with little anthropomorphic animals. You build up your house, there's no real kind of goal to it. It's such a warm game, and I love that she loves this game, but the music makes us want to cry and I just wanted to play it to you to see if you could understandwhy.

BE: Lovely. It's a very charming piece. I think there's quite a few interesting things going on there. One is that the instruments are very innocent. They sound young in a sort of wide-eyed way. But there are some changes of mood in the chord changes that introduce doubt of some kind. So it's as though you're in this world that presents itself in the first blush as, 'Ahh lovely, dafodils, daisies and sweetness'. And then it's like a cloud comes over when some of these changes happen. It reminds me a lot of Fellini.

PS: You said it introduces doubt but it's not like a negative. It's more like - hmm, how am I going to deal with this?

BE: It's touching. It's like somebody growing up in a way, their past is a nice thing and then they're starting to realise it's a little more complicated. It's got that feeling of the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood to me. How old is your daughter?

PS: She's six and a half.

BE: Oh gosh! She's young! Kids are so bright nowadays. There's an optimistic sign for the future. They're so bright so soon, and they're so aware of things.

PS: Thank you for doing this.

BE: It's a pleasure.