Die Zeit JUNE 30, 2011 - by Christopher Dallach


Brian Eno, joint-founder of Roxy Music and producer of U2, is the most intelligent head in pop. A discussion about art and how to make better music.

Christoph Gallach: Mr Eno, why are you recording our discussion?

Brian Eno: I don't like wasting ideas. I analyse things differently when I'm explaining something to someone than when I ponder it in my mind. Above all, I am forced to think things over. I record and archive all my interviews so that I don't lose ideas.

Christoph Gallach: You are considered to be one of the smartest minds in pop music. Is it true that you get up every morning at three o'clock in order to be able to think unimpaired?

Brian Eno: I did that for a long time. Currently I don't because I'm simply too busy. I turn off the light at a certain hour, but two hours of sleep is too little. In the evening I read and record information that I process at night. When I get up in the morning I, therefore, get the best ideas.

Christoph Gallach: You've worked as a producer for two of the most successful rock bands of today, U2 and Coldplay. You're also active as an installation artist, columnist, speaker, political consultant and, of course, as a musician. Where do you find the time?

Brian Eno: I feel differently, and always think I'm under-utilised and have little to do. This may be due to my pronounced impatience. I always want more, quickly. The good thing about impatience is that you get a lot done. The bad thing is my temper. When I get a new, technically sophisticated piece of equipment that I can't immediately master, I can get so frustrated that I want to wreck it. Then my colleagues in the studio will say, Brian, it's time to relax! I always answer: Relaxed people haven't changed the world, because it's only when you're annoyed that you want to improve things. Logical, right?

Christoph Gallach: Your friend Bono is regarded as someone who is happy to continually revise his decisions and take his time with songs. What do you do as a producer when things are proceeding too slowly in the studio?

Brian Eno: As a producer the trick consists of being in the studio only at the right moments and not wasting time. The most important stage of producing a record is at the beginning, because that's when I'm on site and present my ideas. I call it "sending the ship on its voyage". Then I only look in sporadically and comment on what I get to hear.

Christoph Gallach: If you are with, say, Coldplay in the studio and you have an interesting idea for a song - have you ever saved them for your own records?

Brian Eno: I never hold back anything. I will immediately use whatever comes into my head. Ideas reflect the moment, and so you have to use them. If you store ideas, they wither.

Christoph Gallach: In the '90s, you said you had lost interest in your own music and announced your retirement. Since then, however, more Brian Eno albums have appeared - recently, two in a short space of time. Why the change of heart?

Brian Eno: I just regained an interest. But there are still long periods when my music bores me. And then a new digital toy will come along and I'll get enthusiastic again. Ultimately, my albums are made very quickly these days. I spend very little time on my own music.

Christoph Gallach: You've often said how singing is good for you, yet you've avoided singing on albums for a long time. On your new album your voice is heard again. What happened?

Brian Eno: Because singing is actually beneficial, I sing every Tuesday evening with an a cappella choir. Just to relax with nice people here in my studio. Our repertoire is limited to classics like Que Sera, Sera or Bye Bye Love, all songs that everyone is familiar with, from the '50s and '60s, some older.

Christoph Gallach: Who sings along?

Brian Eno: Almost all amateurs. Twenty-four are on the list, only four of whom are professionally involved with music. In my choir there are lawyers, writers, insurance salesmen, architects, sailors, a boxer. All interesting people that wouldn't normally meet.

Christoph Gallach: Sir Paul McCartney is said to have taken part.

Brian Eno: Yes, he drops in sometimes. It's just an unusual choir.

Christoph Gallach: You have some amazing guests speaking and singing on your new album, Drums Between The Bells. For example, a tourist from South Africa that you encountered in the street in front of your Notting Hill studio.

Brian Eno: There were two female tourists, Alicia and Shelby. They were engrossed in a map. That's normal here, everyone's looking for the Portobello Road. I asked them what they were looking for, and they replied: Actually, a job. Spontaneously, I hired both of them as assistants for a few weeks. They were young, early twenties, and had no idea who I am. That was charming. Alicia's voice especially did it for me. So I had her read a text to music.

Christoph Gallach: How important is sound in your music?

Brian Eno: Very important, of course. The problem is: my studio is a fabulous facility. It's easy to be seduced into overloading the music with details, because the sound is always great. But when I listen to the results in the car or something, I'm sometimes shocked because everything sounds muddy.

Christoph Gallach: On records compressed music always sounds bad. Have iPods and MP3s ruined the way we listen to music?

Brian Eno: It's amazing how quickly people get used to bad quality. This is true not only for music but for films: from cinema to video to YouTube and then - what a comedown in quality! I've even become accustomed to poor quality. When I went to the cinema again after not having been for a long time, I could not believe how incredible the images were. With music, it was the same - it was exciting to listen to a recording through great speakers. It just emphasises the difference.

Christoph Gallach: With the last U2 album No Line On The Horizon, which you produced, the singer Bono lamented that he was disappointed about the low sales. How important is commercial success?

Brian Eno: The music market has changed. I can only speak for myself: I'm not financially dependent on the sales of my records. But if no one spent money on my music, I would have to think about it. In addition, it's not just about money, but also about a confirmation of their own work.

Christoph Gallach: Are CDs still important? Despite all the whining, Bono with U2 has just completed an enormously financially successful tour.

Brian Eno: In the past you went on tour to promote a record, because you earned much more money with album sales. Today, it's the opposite. But that's just one small aspect of a larger picture. The idea of constantly repeating songs, as represented on an album, is simply not exciting anymore. The concept of an album in this millennium is no longer as relevant as it was fifty years ago.

Christoph Gallach: What was the most exciting thing about making a record?

Brian Eno: The ability to create, according to your own taste, any kind of complex and unique music. Initially, this medium produced a lot of extraordinary music. Before the '40s, records were used only as copies of live performances. In the '50s the idea of a record changed. Musicians such as Les Paul and Mary Ford and Frank Sinatra drove the use of records as an artistic statement, and expanded what was possible. At that time nobody thought of selling music on a large scale solely through the medium of recorded music. It was an exciting time, comparable with the advent of colour film in cinematography. People heard a record and said: Wow, that's exciting! This feeling lasted a long time, but now it's gone.

Christoph Gallach: Why?

Brian Eno: Because we're full. Full of music, music playing everywhere.

Christoph Gallach: Why do you release your music on CD and vinyl in the old-fashioned way?

Brian Eno: Yeah, it's dated, but books are too. When did your countryman Gutenberg invented the printing press, 1461? No matter, the printed medium has survived into this millennium despite digital reading devices having an important role. A new format does not automatically displace the old. What will change is the way in which we use a format. You listen to different music on vinyl than on CD or via download. We also hear different music on the radio than on disk. I grew up with the idea of the album. Why should I discard it? I understand the allure of downloading individual tracks from the vastness of the Internet, but that's not my ideal.

Christoph Gallach: Record companies seem to be behind the times. Why do you stay loyal to them?

Brian Eno: Because I don't think they're unnecessary. A specific role they had was lost much earlier. In the '50s, '60s and '70s at their peak, the heads of record companies were often music lovers with taste and vision. They were entrepreneurs who were able to establish a connection between musician and audience. Bob Marley often spoke with Chris Blackwell, the head of his record company, Island, for advice. Chris Blackwell is largely responsible, for example, for reggae being so popular in the Western world. But in the '80s bureaucrats took over the business, people who had no deep feeling for artists and music. The current crisis in the music industry is due to the fact that this system is imploding. Luckily, I would say, because there is a lot of very bad feeling. Now there are successful independent record companies that carry on this legacy and promote music. Companies which are not just about money but also about art.

Christoph Gallach: Why should I pay for music?

Brian Eno: The question is rather what you will pay in the future. I am struck by how expensive it has become to go to a concert. Hundreds of euros for admission to see a mid-range band is not uncommon. Ultimately it boils down to the fact that more money is actually spent on music than ever before. But just differently, not more for records, but for performance.

Christoph Gallach: A surprising success in times of dwindling CD sales are limited and expensive collectors' editions. With your last album, Small Craft On A Milk Sea, there was a version which cost three hundred euros and was quickly sold out. What is the attraction?

Brian Eno: Yes, that's fascinating, especially because the music is the least important part of such a product, as it can be downloaded on the net at any time. Music has become like water, - it's always there and everywhere. Still, I know people who pay a fortune for bottled water from the Fiji Islands. They imagine that it's better. It's similar with limited edition recordings. People do not buy the music, but the expensive packaging. They invest in a musical work of art in the best slip-case.

Christoph Gallach: Your colleague Laurie Anderson complains that low-cost technology is a plague and that it encourages any distant acquaintance to thrust house music upon you. Do you agree with her?

Brian Eno: The recording of music is nothing special anymore. Anyone can do it without training. And it's easy to load a disk in order to present music to a large audience via the internet. I understand what Laurie Anderson says. I was once in New York in a dentist's clinic. First, he stunned me with laughing gas, then he put some headphones on me and played me demo recordings of his music. It was worse than drilling without anaesthesia.

Christoph Gallach: If I had downloaded your new album from the internet without paying for it - you wouldn't care?

Brian Eno: Exactly. I see the free downloading of music as advertising. I know many people who get music only from the net and - if they like it - pay later for a better quality version. I am also flattered by any interest in my work. On the other hand, I see that the sales of very popular bands such as Coldplay suffer from this problem. Also, bands like U2 or Metallica, who sometimes spend four years in the studio, won't be able to afford to do that soon. Consuming a certain type of produced music will die out if it's not paid for.

Christoph Gallach: But aren't years in the studio a sign of great confusion?

Brian Eno: Yes, it usually means the death of an album. When musicians spend too much time in the studio without a brilliant idea, they tend to fluff-up mediocre songs like stuffing a turkey. The great thing about the crisis in the music industry is that artists are again being compelled to limit themselves. And that's good for creativity.

Christoph Gallach: For all sorts of reasons you have created a lot of work that remains unreleased . You recorded an album, My Squelchy Life, several years ago but withdrew it. Now it haunts the internet. Does that bother you?

Brian Eno: No, I find it rather amusing. It was a mistake not to bring out the album at the time. It was ready, but I had an argument with the record company. What annoys me more is when music is circulated that was never intended for release. Any experiments that I didn't like should not be heard. In general, the quality control of releases has to be stronger. I've recently heard two archive recordings of The Beatles - re-release bonus tracks - which were interesting, but ultimately terrible. I'm sure John Lennon wouldn't have approved their distribution.

Christoph Gallach: Today, most CD reissues of old records contain bonus material. The remastered editions of your solo albums come without bonus tracks.

Brian Eno: Why should I waste my time with music of lesser quality? I recently bought a Thelonious Monk album on CD, which I'd listened to often as a teenager. Suddenly there are several versions of each song - what a crazy idea! It devalues a work of art. It also increases the aura of a piece of work if part of it remains a mystery.

Christoph Gallach: Everyone expects constant brilliant flashes of inspiration from you. Is it actually very tiring to be Brian Eno?

Brian Eno: (ponders a long time) No, it never is. I like it that people expect something special from me. This forces me to exert myself again and again.

Christoph Gallach: Are there days when you think of nothing?

Brian Eno: More often than I like. Then I drink a cup of green tea, which always works wonders.

• • •

BRIAN ENO: The son of a postman was born in 1948 in Suffolk, UK. He first studied art and with Bryan Ferry in 1971 founded the art rock band Roxy Music, which he left two years later. His solo albums Here Come The Warm Jets and Another Green World are classics. Eno is considered the inventor of the concept of ambient music; commercially successful, he is best known as a producer for artists including David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2, Paul Simon and Coldplay. On July 4, Eno releases his new album Drums Between The Bells.