Los Angeles Times SEPTEMBER 27, 1992 - by David Gritten


Brian Eno's work - his art, music, video experiments - continues to attract extraordinary, even obsessive interest.

LONDON - When David Byrne appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1986, he was described as "Rock's Renaissance Man." But a significant number of people in Britain believe that the accolade should instead be bestowed on one of his collaborators, Brian Eno. After all, it was Eno who helped supply Byrne's Talking Heads with an enormous creative thrust at a crucial stage of the band's career in the mid-'80s.

At forty-four, Eno is indeed a renaissance man: a singer, songwriter, musical theorist, lecturer, film composer, record producer and audio-visual installation maker. He's also the nearest thing British pop music has to a guru.

But when you meet him at his studio, in an anonymous house on a quiet street in an unfashionable north London suburb, he cuts an unlikely figure for such a role.

A small, courteous, cherubic, balding man in a smart blue shirt buttoned to the neck, he talks in exquisitely composed sentences delivered in a posh English accent, like someone who loves words.

Yet Eno's work attracts extraordinary, even obsessive interest. Not just his music, but also his art, his video experiments - even his writings and observations on subjects like high versus low art, or the future of culture.

Mainstream rock fans know Eno best for two reasons. First, in the early 1970s, he was the flamboyant keyboardist in the art-rock group Roxy Music. Second, his production work with commercial rock artists - from David Bowie to U2 - has reaped huge artistic dividends.

Eno thinks his strange, undefined role in the recording studio - part producer, part mentor, part ideas man - is something he does well: "The strength comes from my enthusiasm and confidence. I get very excited by things, and I can make people excited about their own work as a result. It's a very nice aspect of collaborating.

"On any project or production, there are various kinds of magnets. The record company, the market, or your perception of the market. Or maybe (the artist's) own history: a point of view which says, 'You've been good at this, why not do it again?'

"I think often in these situations, I magnetize a point which doesn't often get magnetised, which is: Isn't it exciting to go somewhere you've never been before? Even if you don't quite know where it's going to end up? I'm a magnet for moving a project out of the various recognised frames."

Eno collaborated with Bowie in Berlin in the mid-'70s on two albums, Low and "Heroes", that are widely considered among Bowie's most challenging and satisfying work. Eno later produced three Talking Heads albums in the late '70s: More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light. For U2, he has assumed production duties (with Daniel Lanois) for 1984's The Unforgettable Fire, 1987's The Joshua Tree and last year's Achtung Baby.

Eno also devised the ground-breaking sets for U2's current "Zoo TV" tour, installing a barrage of television monitors onstage to provide a variety of focal points apart from the group's members.

The sheer variety of his work leaves Eno only limited time to make solo records, and indeed the new Nerve Net is his first in seven years. As usual, he can be relied on for an intriguing theory: The album is, he notes, a result of "feeling liberated from the idea that one was always writing a novel" - that is to say, the idea of a definitive album that can only be "read" one way.

"It lasts sixty-eight minutes, which is very long," he says. If I'd been doing this as a vinyl album, I would have carefully chipped and pared away until I had what I considered was thirty-five minutes of totally defensible music."

Instead, "Nerve Net" was conceived with CD players in mind. "They are a very interesting development, because I assume that CD users, like me, plot their way through a CD. I generally don't put on a CD and listen straight through. I put on a track, skip one, play another, so that my route through a CD becomes more and more personal.

"I assume people are going to treat CDs the same way. I hope they are. The reason this is important is that when you put together an album (for CD) you are not putting together a definitive listening experience. You now have the possibility of releasing something which says - here's a whole lot of things. You sort it out."

In a sense, then, he's making the listener an editor?

"The curator," he says. "It's like offering all this stuff and saying, 'OK, you, the listener, curate it.' Of course I like all the pieces, I stand behind them. But, for instance, I have two versions of the longest song, which is over nine minutes. I'd never do it on a vinyl album; it would be asking a lot of a listener to sit through nineteen minutes of the same song. But on CD, it's different. You're saying, 'Make your choices, you might listen all the way through, it doesn't matter.'"

As Eno emerges to reclaim some attention in his own right for Nerve Net, it is noteworthy that the concept of ambient music, which he helped pioneer in the 1970s, is suddenly much talked about in British pop circles.

This is partly due to the success of an English duo called The Orb, whose album UFOrb is mostly instrumental music with a quiet, dreamy, hypnotic beauty. The instruments are those from any dance-music album - drum machines, synthesizers - but are employed quite differently to create mood-evoking soundscapes. The result sounds close to easy-listening music, and the phrase ambient house has been used to define it.

"I'm pleased about the Orb," says Eno. "I take it as a vindication of other things I was doing in the '70s and early '80s, which were incredibly badly treated by the press."

His experiments with ambient music started in 1975 when he was confined to bed after an accident. A friend brought him a record of harp music, which he struggled out of bed to put on the turntable. After lying down again, he realised the volume was extremely low and that one channel of the stereo had failed.

Lacking the energy to remedy the situation, he listened to the recording in this manner, which, he says, "presented what was for me a new way of hearing music - as part of the ambience of the environment, just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience."

His fascination with ambient music, he says, "grew out of watching the way I and other people were using music. In the '70s, people had large record collections, good hi-fi systems. They might come home, put a record on, get on the phone, do the washing up, whatever else in their lives.

"I wanted more and more to have music to treat as ambience, as surround, something that would be as much part of my landscape as the color of this room. This color affects the way we feel about this place. It's a landscape mood, which I can change with another landscaped device, lighting. Another landscape device is sound. I consciously wanted to make music that didn't disturb you if you chose to do something else."

The result was the 1982 album Discreet Music. In its liner notes, Eno advised listening to it "at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility." The album attracted a small cult following, and Eno started listening to other kinds of music without what he calls "a focal point." He followed Discreet Music with two more ambient albums, Music For Films and Music For Airports.

The British music press in particular was scathing about all this. "I was interested in understanding something new, and all the encouragement of the press was for me to do more of what they liked before," Eno said.

Accordingly, he moved to New York for five years. "America has always been much kinder, much more eclectic in its picture of me. I always thank Americans for that confidence in what I was doing."

This refusal to repeat himself has characterised his entire career. Brian Peter George St. John Baptiste de la Salle Eno grew up in rural Suffolk, near U.S. Air Force bases, and attended art school, first at nearby Ipswich, then at Winchester. He became attracted by avant-garde music, and at age seventeen made his first recording, a slowed-down tape of a metal lamp stand being struck, while a friend recited poetry.

He joined Roxy Music after saxophonist Andy Mackay, whom he knew, told him the group had a synthesizer no one could play and invited him to try it out. Eno thought he could develop the kind of sound experiments he had explored in art school, and was never interested in becoming proficient on keyboards; to this day he insists his ability is "no better than an intelligent nine-year-old's."

The group's first two albums, Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure, were enormous successes, but Eno quarreled with leader Bryan Ferry and came to dislike the repetition of touring. The end came one night on stage when he caught himself musing that he had forgotten to collect his laundry; the future, he realised, consisted of going through the motions.

Experimentation was all; he worked with The Portsmouth Sinfonia, a full concert orchestra of improvising musical illiterates, in the spirit of his avant-garde mentors John Cage and Cornelius Cardew. He also recorded a brace of solo albums, the accessible Here Come The Warm Jets, which owed a debt to Lou Reed, and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).

For the first time, Eno allowed his singing voice to be heard; he almost talked his lyrics in a slightly comical, precise voice, and unlike some British singers (Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, for example) he sang in a distinctly English accent. He also showed a penchant for puns, anagrams and wordplay; an early, punkish single was called Seven Deadly Finns, and a later album track was titled King's Lead Hat - an anagram of Talking Heads.

His next two albums, Another Green World and Before And After Science, were hugely impressive - gorgeous, minimalist fragments of melodic songs and tunes, all possessed of a languid beauty. Eno's experiments with ambient music were dismissed in the media as a pretentious version of Muzak - but many musicians were intrigued by his rapidly growing body of work. One was Bowie, who invited Eno to Berlin to assist on an album that would become Low.

"He had enjoyed some of my things, and was trying to do things he wasn't getting a whole lot of support for from his record company," Eno recalls. "I played quite a lot on 'Low,' but I think my big contribution was in encouraging him not to retreat from his extreme (musical) positions.

"With Talking Heads, I think the element was recognising, formulating and articulating what I thought they were doing. As soon as you articulate something like that, it becomes possible to move things forward. I think I was a sort of art historian for them, standing outside, locating them. As soon as you know where you stand, it's finished - you have to do something else. So the act of defining something is the act of getting it out of the way."

The U2 connection came after he was approached by drummer Larry Mullen, another Eno fan. "I wanted to create more of a musical landscape for them, really," Eno says. As he tells it, he championed some songs that did not seem particularly U2-ish; the group had decided to dump Promenade and Bullet The Blue Sky before Eno started fighting for them.