INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Word AUGUST 2005 - by Dorian Lynskey
Eno (eee-know) n Radical thinker, too 'pop' for the art world and too 'art' for the pop world ~ adj. - visionary, pioneering, flinty, whimsical - vb (active) 1 to engineer shifts in perception. 2 to play technology as a musical instrument. 3 to consider art our means of understanding the future ~ vb (passive): to be Eno-ed. To have your career revitalized via an 'oblique strategy' process (see Bowie, Byrne, U2, James, etc)
The Platforma Club in St Petersburg is exactly the kind of place you would expect to encounter Brian Eno. Midway between a jazz club and an arts cinema, it hums with young bohemians talking, drinking and smoking with intense animation. Through the blue tobacco haze, Eno's neatly cropped dome is just about visible.
To the non-Russophone, tonight's entertainment is almost unintelligible. First, a silver-haired man in a Coca Cola T-shirt delivers a twenty-minute monologue whose only identifiable words are jazz-rock and anti-semitism. Presumably he's in favour of the former and against the latter, but it may be the other way around. There follows the world premiere of a documentary about Zvuki Mu, a Moscow band Eno worked with in 1989. During the more torpid interview segments, it feels like watching the live feed from the Big Brother house at three in the morning. In Russian. It starts to induce paranoid thoughts: Is Eno testing us? Will there be questions afterwards?
Preparing to meet the only pop musician on Prospect magazine's list of Britain's top 100 intellectuals is far more daunting than actually doing so. His reputation precedes him. You could try to chart one biographical chart, from Roxy Music to David Bowie, to inventing ambient, to producing Talking Heads and U2, and son on, but then you'd be missing out all the lectures, the books, the art installations, the charity projects, the scientific inquiry, the political campaigning, the ceaseless curiosity about everything under the sun. In the eighteenth century he would have been a gentleman amateur. His life's work (career sounds too linear) has been motivated by questions: How? Why? What if? Why not?
The last twelve months have been typically diverse. Among other things, he has played synthesizer on albums by Coldplay and French-Algerian rock star Rachid Taha, a proffered creative inspiration to Travis and Paul Simon, scored the psychological thriller Fear X, interviewed director Todd Haynes, lectured at Canada's Perimeter Institute Of Advanced Theoretical Physics and funded Reg Keys, the anti-war candidate who stood against Tony Blair in Sedgefield. He has also completed, after six years of false starts and elusive conclusions, his first entirely song-based album in three decades, Another Day On Earth.
An arrangement to play two shows in Moscow and St Petersburg with Rachid Taha prompted the decision to launch the album in Russia. (Eno first came to St Petersburg in the 1980s, and lived there for several months in 1997 with his daughters, Irial and Darla, and wife, Anthea, who still has an apartment here.) The launch takes the form of a public conversation with critic and author Michael Bracewell inside a vast, echoing room in the Marble Palace. When Eno held an installation here eight years ago, it was still thick with the grime of Soviet neglect. Today it is freshly renovated; above us hang burnished chandeliers the size of small cars.
Over the course of an hour, Eno explores ideas in precise, calm cadences; peers awkwardly into the middle-distance while his music plays; breaks the news to one audience member that he has never, in fact, worked with Jean-Michel Jarre; explains to an intense man wearing a straggly beard and ludicrous trousers why it's impossible to like all kinds of music equally; curtly insists he is definitely not rejoining Roxy Music; and tells a few self-effacing jokes that unfortunately perish in translation.
As he makes his polite but brisk exit, besieged by eager invitations to parties, openings, recording sessions and workshops, he suggests we start talking on the long walk back to Anthea's apartment. He is a lively tour guide, one minute insisting we stop to visit an Orthodox church, the next swivelling his head to observe a woman's departing rear (this is something of a theme running through his 1996 diary, A Year With Swollen Appendices). He's a contradictory character: exact yet elusive, big-headed yet self-deprecating, earnest yet playful, sober yet dapper. When he laughs, which is often, the sunlight flashes off an unexpectedly rakish gold tooth.
The jokes didn't go down too well.
It's because I'm taken quite seriously in Russia. People don't know whether they have permission to laugh or not. They don't expect me to have a sense of humour. Perhaps they're right. (Laughs.)
They seem more interested in badgering you to get involved in their projects.
I'm not very good at dealing with it. I just get frustrated and annoyed so I'm sometimes unnecessarily rude to people, I think. But it always happens because there's so many different lines of attack. It could be about music, it could be about politics, it could be about installations. There are all these different things that I could be hooked on to for. I should be gracious and grateful, but I'm not.
Has St Petersburg changed much since you lived here?
Well, in some ways it hasn't changed a bit. For instance, the people are just as sweet. I've never seen a city where people were more proud or protective of it. I'm sure that was the same kind of pride that enabled them to hold out against the Germans for nine hundred days. The Russians are thoroughly admirable people in many ways. It's a pity the Americans decided to have them as their enemy. Did you know that eighty percent of all german casualties were on the eastern front? So when you hear us or the Americans saying we won the war it's worth remembering that actually it was the Russians who won it.
You've lived in San Francisco and New York. Do you feel particularly British?
There are certain things I like about Britishness. I like the eccentric experimentalism. I hate the parochialism.
You've embraced two words that the British tend to use as insults: pretentious and dilettante.
It says a great deal about the English that those words are used so dismissively. They both come from the sense that the worst thing you can do is rise above your station. It's some Victorian idea that is so deeply ingrained that people don't realise it at all. The art world is full of it. You know, 'You might be an interesting little pop musician but an artist, no, that's a different thing.'
So you're considered too brainy for pop and too pop for the art world.
I must say it does make me feel quite reassured that I'm not fully accommodated in either of those worlds. I feel quite happy to be making a living and not be a fully paid-up subscriber of either of them.
Is there really a place for intellectuals in pop? You could count them on the fingers of one hand.
On the fingers of one one finger! Well, who else would you say? I mean a lot of people are much more intellectual than one might think but they don't make such a thing of it as I do. Bono is very much an intellectual. A very clever guy.
He likes to have a theory for everything.
Yes, that's right. I'm like that. If I haven't, I want to know why not. I want to think of one.
In spring, St Petersburg's long, wide boulevards are awash with light; the sun doesn't set until 11pm. On this particular afternoon, they are also howling with wind, so we switch off the tape recorder and just chat. Anecdotes are not Eno's métier, but he knows so many remarkable people that they pop up anyway. Talk of the Trans-Siberian railway prompts reference to David Bowie; crossing a canal reminds him of taking The Pet Shop Boys to see a nuclear submarine; mention of the Theremin invites a story about meeting its inventor.
When we reach the apartment, Irial, fifteen, and Darla, thirteen, are at the door. They are bright, unaffected girls, enormously excited at the prospect of The Spice Girls reuniting for Live 8. Eno senior joins them in humming a few bars of Stop and muses, The Spice Girls have been gone long enough to be cool now. You can imagine him mentally plotting a graph which correlates credibility with time elapsed since breaking up.
Inside the high-ceilinged living-room, Eno sits cross-legged on the floor and resumes talking. In between drinking green tea and neatly dissecting a slice of cheery pie, his phrasing is so precise and elegant that it takes a while to realise that he isn't just rehearsing well-worn formulations, but trying to produce new theories, or at least interweave old ones, on the hoof. And because he is so enthralled by lateral connections, his answers shoot off at sharp angles, so that whatever he ends up talking about will be some distance from where he started. He laughs gently at his own jokes. The word he uses the most is interesting.
There's an entry in your diary when you're touched by something The Edge says and you write, I don't really expect to be liked. Why is that?
(Laughs.) When I'm producing, I certainly don't expect to be liked. Of course I'm very pleased if I am and I don't want to be disliked, but that is not part of the job as far as I'm concerned. The job is to get something good to happen so I sacrifice popularity for that if need be. In the longer term you'll be appreciated for it, whereas to be nice and chummy and nothing good comes out at the end of it is completely pointless.
Does your approach still come back to Oblique Strategies?
I sort of internalised those so much that they've all become a part of my working process. The whole thing about Oblique Strategies is that we can improve our way of making decisions. It seemed to me that there was a lot of scope for having some fun with that. Thinking, 'Well what would happen if we all decided to do something strange like swapping instruments?' Of course you don't expect masterpieces to come out of that but what often does happen is that some shift in perception takes place. You have a different perspective on it. Even if it's just having sympathy for the drummer! (Laughs.) Who never gets any sympathy.
What did your recent work with Travis involve?
Well this is a new thing that I've started doing recently. It's very hard to define. Travis were in the process of starting to write stuff for their new record and they decided they wanted to shake things up a bit, so I thought of a few studio games that we could play. Let me see if I can reconstruct one of the experiments. I asked each person to think of their current favourite piece of music and then write down five adjectives to describe that, each on a separate piece of paper. Then we shuffled all these adjectives up. Then I gave each of them two adjectives, chosen randomly from the block, so you might get 'African' and 'angry' or a completely contradictory pair. So I said, 'Each of us is going to play this simple chord sequence but we've got to obey your two adjectives and we can't tell anyone else what they are.' And this was immediately a piece of music you've never heard the like of before.
Travis' music doesn't have much in common with your own, but then nor did U2's back in 1984. They were direct, passionate, sincere; you were oblique, cerebral, experimental. Do you seek out opposites so that sparks will fly?
Mmm. It's much more likely than working with people who are in the same territory. There's not that much point in doing that, it seems to me. What have you got to offer each other if you're already in the same place? I'm always interested in trying to join bigger chunks of things together, not just for the sake of it, but because that's where I think pop music has always been interesting. The big chunks that I'm interested in at the moment are the guitar band chunk and the computer band chunk. There are people who operate between the two of them but those two plateaux are such strong magnets it's quite hard to combine them. It's so much easier to stay in the computer instead of all that messy shit with wires and bloody tuning... and drummers. And similarly with performance, having a band with lots of loud guitars is great and some twit in the corner fiddling about on an Apple Mac somehow doesn't fit somehow.
Roxy Music and your solo work are de rigeur influences for new bands. Do you hear yourself in them?
No, but I'll tell you what I do hear. I hear Talking Heads everywhere. It's so funny because I always thought there would be loads of bands who would copy them. I was so surprised that never happened, until suddenly two years ago it happened in spades.
What's the last record you heard that you really liked the sound of?
Well, I have that Elvis Presley song called Burning Love on my iPod Shuffle. I was walking through Moscow the day before yesterday and that song came on and I was absolutely knocked out by the presence of the instruments. The drummer! Man, he sounded amazing! How is it that they could record so beautifully then. You'd never hear a record like that now. And OutKast. I just love them. If you listen to those records closely, what they're doing sonically is so amazing.
The interesting thing about [the iPod Shuffle] is you can't control the order. Suddenly some of the surprise of music reappears. It's the first commercial product which uses randomness and this is a very interesting response to an over-supply of choice. We've had a whole generation of people saying, You have more and more choice, anything you want.' But there's really been no attention to what happens when you have all that choice. How do you organise it? And what this little iPod says is, actually you don't. You just let it surprise you.
Is there just too much music around?
Yes. That's the thing. Music is so easy to make now. And because the software is advanced enough, it all sounds pretty good. And so you keep getting stuff sent to you that is pretty good. That's so depressing. Really awful is more interesting to listen to than pretty good. I mean really great is, of course, wonderful but hardly ever happens. Really awful is at least fun.
Is that why ambient ran its course?
I think what happens is just the threshold gets higher. I suspect that if Music For Airports came out now it would make very little impression. Things have their time. It was quite dramatic when it came out.
According to iTunes the genre of your new album is New Age.
No! Does it do it with this album? I wonder who decides that.
Does it aggravate you that ambient music has been annexed by the world of crystals and alternative healers?
Oh God. Awful. Because that's a kind of music I can't bear. This always used to happen if you went to get a massage, someone would always put one of those dreadful records on. And I would say, 'Please can we just have silence?' I simply couldn't relax listening to that kind of music because I'd spend the whole massage thinking, 'Oh fucking hell, that's so cheesy, I know that sound.' It's very irritating. So this record says new Age? Perhaps it's true. There's some program in the computer that scans it and says, 'Call that bloody music? It's New Age, mate.'
It's like an automatic music critic. You put an album in and it comes up as Disappointing or Overblown.
(Laughs.) Track three - Tolerable.
Do you always feel compelled to investigate the latest music technology?
Yes, I do, because I think technologies are always produced for historical reasons that turn out to be not what they're good at. What I think is interesting about technologies is they always carry the potential of this hidden promise - OK, here's what they're meant to do, I wonder what else they can do. With tape, people suddenly found you could reverse sound - an amazing thing. I remember I first heard about this idea when I was twelve and I was so fascinated. I remember begging my parents for a tape recorder so I could just try it and see what it sounded like to turn things backwards. There's no reason for wanting to do these things other than sheer curiosity. Which is what all art is about really. It's the process by which we rehearse the only human advantage, which is imagination - the ability to conceive of things being different from the way they actually are.
A recent idea that I've been playing with a lot is this notion that art is one of the ways wee drag ourselves into the future. Imagine you create an object that is a little tiny piece of the world you can imagine existing. You can't build that whole world but you can build this thing that belongs to that world. So that becomes a little reference to you. You can pull yourself forward on that. This is an idea I've been trying to clarify. But I don't know when I'm ever going to write all these things down, that's the trouble.
It's become commonplace for music critics to argue that there are no more big ideas to be had in pop - no more revolutions. It seems that the answer might lie in world music.
Yes. I think you're absolutely right. It's not exotic any more. It's no longer eccentric. When I first started listening to Arabic music I'd occasionally play it to people and they really didn't like it. Now I think it will follow the trajectory that reggae followed, of becoming the world music of choice. It would be very interesting politically. I took an American friend of mine to see Rachid [Taha] in London and he said, 'if this became the music that American college kids started to listen to, it would liberate America.' I would love it so much if these republican congressmen were faced with the fact that their children loved Muslim music.
Talking of predictions, what's the most inaccurate one you've ever made?
I'm quite careful to keep track of those because it's very important to remind yourself. (Laughs.) I remember when I lived in New York seeing a guy walking down the street with a Walkman and I thought, 'That doesn't have a chance of succeeding. Nobody is going to want to do that - to walk around with music in their head all the time.' And that was... quite wrong.
What's the closest you've come to being in a rut?
Oh, I'm always in ruts! People think that I'm so productive but, oh God, I spend two-thirds of my time grumbling about how unproductive I am. Despite all my strategies, I have no way of getting out of ruts sometimes. There's only two things I can think to do - one is to stop and go for a long walk for a few days. And the other is to work more and dig yourself deeper into the rut.
With this record I almost decided at one point that I needed a producer because it took such a long time to make. The problem when you're working on something is that it dissolves into details, so you hear all the little things about it. (Holds up a glass of water.) You see that little sparkle there and that little piece there but you don't see the main thing, which is that it's full of water. (Laughs.) That's one of the things you need a producer for but I never found one. Luckily I have a lot of very useful and outspoken friends. One of the most useful was Michel faber, the writer. There's one comment in one of his letters where he describes one section of a song as 'a miserable apology for an instrumental'! I have a few people like that, who very kindly are prepared to listen and risk being unpopular by being honest.
I came across a Bowie quotation that intrigued me: 'Brian cheats, you see. He often will do something and qualify it with a concept afterwards.' Is that true?
Oh, that's what you always do. When you're making art, or whatever you call this stuff we make, the thrill of it is using your intuition, finding yourself doing things that are beyond anything you'd thought of. So then what happens afterwards is you think, 'Why did I do that? Why was I so intrigued by that? And how did I get it so right? Now I wonder what would happen if I started here and did this...' It's strange that there are artists who don't enjoy the reflective, critical part of it.
A lot of musicians have an almost superstitious view of creativity, as if they are simply channelling these songs from the ether.
Well, I always want to find a non-superstitious way of understanding things. I hate occultery. It's damaging and something humans have to get past sooner or later. It doesn't mean I want to demystify things because actually if you solve one problem it opens up another, even more beautiful one. But what I want to do, always, is find out how things come into being and what's going on in us when we make something. How do ideas happen? Artists get fascinated by something and think about it and notice it in all its different forms, so why not be conscious about it? Why pretend that this is something that isn't to do with your own intelligence?
I suppose it's this idea that intellect is the enemy of creativity and science is the enemy of art.
I know, I know! It's so shocking to me. When I first started talking incessantly, (laughs) it was considered really bad form by a lot of critics that someone coming from this supposedly passionate, visceral medium - popular music - should be so nerdy and brainy about it. It was like I was letting the side down. 'That's not what music is supposed to be about!'
Have you ever heard your own music in a context that felt completely wrong?
Yes. I was standing at Sao Paolo airport and they were playing Music For Airports at about a hundred and forty decibels over the sound of a jet engine. (Laughs.) It was terrible. I was there for the Biennale and they'd set this up as a special welcome and had all these TV cameras there as I got off the plane. And I said, TURN THAT DOWN!
You've licensed pieces to adverts and you even wrote the start-up music for Windows 95. Do you have any reservations about your music being used in commercial contexts?
Well, I think you have to be careful about this. You can't do that too often and have the music retain its value as music. I don't have any particular objections to it philosophically. I take it on a case-by-case basis. What wouldn't I like to advertise? The Conservative party. The army. The Daily Mail.
Did you find it odd that Beautiful Day, a song you produced, was the Labour election theme at the same time as you were opposing Tony Blair?
I thought it was quite funny. I must say I was quite pleased by reports that Labour party money was funding my Reg Keys campaign. But it wasn't true, actually, because I earn money from the sales of the records but not the use of the music.
You used to criticise pop stars dabbling in politics, but now you're involved in War Child, you opposed the Iraq war, you supported the Liberal Democrats... What prompted this late-blooming political activism?
I think two things happened. First of all you realise that most people aren't doing anything, and somebody's got to. Because it certainly is not my chosen career. I do not want to be involved in politics any more than I really think I have to. But I think most people are entertained to death and they're not going to get involved. So, since I don't have a television, I have much more time on my hands than other people. I deliberately don't because I know I would be just as able as anyone else to convince myself that it really was important that I watched EastEnders, or whatever else people watch.
The other thing that made a difference was this book by a guy called Sebastian Haffner. He was a historian born in Germany in 1906. He married a Jewish woman and realised in the early '30s that he couldn't stay in Germany, so he moved to England and wrote a memoir of his recollections of the descent of Germany into tyranny. And this, I think, every school-child should read. The thing that really shook me up was realising that the descent into tyranny starts with a very gentle slope, where all the clever people like us are saying, 'Fucking Hitler, what a joke.' All the things that people are saying about Bush. Then it starts to get a bit steeper. And suddenly - whoops! - it's unstoppable. And I really perceive this as going on in America - there's a process going on there which is terrifying, and it's also terrifying that we should so happily join in with it. It's still unbelievable to me that a Labour government should endorse the most preemptive, pro-active, anti-internationalist, unilateralist government in the west.
How strange that we have Eno attacking Blair over Iraq and Bryan Ferry's son attacking him over hunting...
(Laughs.) The Roxy Music pincer movement! That's very funny. You know, I hadn't thought of that.
Do you consider yourself an optimist?
I'm an optimist in the long term but a pessimist in the short term. I think, unfortunately, that things will have to get a lot worse before they get better, because I'm afraid nobody is awake. Television has won. Media has won. There's too much to do. There's too many things to claim your attention. I've thought, 'Fuck, I'd give a lot of money to any terrorist group that said: What we're going to do is destroy television transmitters. We promise we won't hurt a soul, we'll just knock out the TVs. I think it would be a huge improvement. I'm always saying to people, 'Don't do Murdoch, message number one, and switch off the television, message number two.' Suddenly your life will be liberated. All this extra time and no misinformation to go into it.