Musician NOVEMBER 1995 - by Mark Rowland


David Bowie and Brian Eno explain it all for you

So, what's the most maddening misconception of who you really are?

"Well, that people might think I'm stuffy," says David Bowie. "That really irritates me! I'm the most childlike person I know. I hate people thinking that I'm so punk-faced and cold," he says, abashed, sounding slightly hurt at the thought. "That really offends my vanity."

"I guess that probably comes closest for me as well," Brian Eno suggests. "People thinking, 'He's passionless...'"

"The prof!" Bowie cracks.

"Yes, because in rock music, if you haven't had a serious drug problem in the last thirty years, you're suspicious, you know." A half-smile begins to take shape, betraying Eno's amusement at the problem. "Or if you haven't read a book."

Bowie and Eno are sitting in a hotel in London's West End on the hottest day of the summer. The occasion is the forthcoming release of Bowie's new album Outside, the first of three planned collaborations with Eno, and their first since the now-famous Low-"Heroes"-Lodger trilogy of the late '70s quietly opened the door to a new set of possibilities of what pop music could become. The rippling effect from those albums can still be felt well into the '90s; listening to Outside - ostensibly a black-humored mystery tale about the investigation of a ritual-art murder, but more seriously concerned, as Bowie says, with "surfing the textural chaos of the '90s" - one suspects a similar kind of impact, regardless of its commercial prospects.

But that's been their way all along, hasn't it? Most pop figures plow one or two creative furrows early in their career and then settle into what becomes a comfortable rut. Bowie and Eno tend to roam the cultural landscape like a couple of Johnny Appleseeds, ever on the lookout for virgin fields to sow ideas, moving along while others come in for the harvest. Twenty years after Ziggy Stardust deconstructed pop star theatricality, his theme became the centerpiece of U2's Zooropa tour; twenty years after Eno was told that his ideas about ambient music would never catch on, they've infiltrated entire genres from jazz to rave.

And even as they're being debriefed about Outside, an ambitious concept album that combines pop melodicism with a thicket of sonic and lyric subtexts, Bowie is plotting the theatrics of a new tour with Nine Inch Nails and his characterization as Andy Warhol in an upcoming movie about artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Meanwhile, Eno is a week removed from finishing production on U2's new album and wrapping up his own LP with bassist Jah Wobble. He's also deeply involved with Warchild, an international organization devoted to helping the war-pummelled children of Bosnia.

For all their other forays, both artists properly regard their work together as something special. "We have as many opposite sides as similarities," says Bowie. "Where Brian will be happy to work with a minimal set of information, I always lean toward layering and fat, dense pieces. Brian borrows from pop culture and elevates up - I take from high art and demean it down."

"The way David describes our way of working," Eno chimes in, "is 'I'm 6B and you're 6H.' I don't know if you have these classifications for pencils in the States; 6H is an engineering pencil, it's very hard and does sharp lines. 6B is the closest thing to charcoal, it's very messy and fills in a lot of space quickly. So that's part of the relationship; we almost work alternately. I'll set something up and then he comes in and responds to it immediately. It's a fantastic thing to watch."

What they do share, as Bowie observes, is a resolve "to not duplicate what we see as the mainstream of pop." Like the Low albums, Outside is neither rock nor not rock; similarly, it's not a typical Bowie or Eno project - whatever that is - but a fusion of two powerful sensibilities which somehow engenders an identity and a life of its own.

Listening to Bowie and Eno talk together, you get some sense of how that might occur. Bowie, with his trademark exuberance, and Eno, with quieter but equally alert composure, follow and build upon each other's thoughts in a playful, relentless search for the original insight, the fresh angle, the droll wisecrack; worlds of art, politics, law and philosophy are traversed without the sense of crossing foreign borders. They are funny, warm, passionate conversationalists. Their engagement enlivens a room. There's nothing stuffy about them.

MUSICIAN: Many fans will compare Outside with the Low trilogy. How would you compare those partnerships?

BOWIE: I don't think the actual working method is that dissimilar - it's sort of an un-partnership. I think that Brian defined the way we would work together back in the '70s. He always imbued a very serious situation with a sense of fun and play, which is important in all the art forms. I know very few other people who work in this fashion. Some are starting to - U2 obviously. Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails I believe possibly works in a similar manner. But there aren't that many people working in this way.

MUSICIAN: Which is what, exactly?

BOWIE: Oh, ask Brian! [laughter]

ENO: Well, I think the way of working is to start by describing the universe that this thing falls into. The normal way of working on songs is from the inside: People say, I've got a Bb followed b a C and a D and we'll have kind of a gap here and the thing builds up like that. I think what we've been doing - not always - some of the songs did come about that way, which is to say, which world is this that we're making? We start with some sense of that, and then the music grows quite easily within. But we don't really work together exactly. I do something, he does something, then I do something, and he does something.

BOWIE: We are all the architects. Neither of us is loyal to any particular genre of music. It's very easy for me, and I think the same applies to Brian, to float from a neoclassical piece to something which is almost punk. And everything in between seems accessible. I find no problem in being able to write any kind of music, because I don't see what the problem is.

The way we work is a bit like how Houston looks. You get this area of land and you say, we'll build all kinds of different houses in it, and the end result is this fascinating city of Houston, where everything is different. There's no singular thread. Style is something I think we stay away from. And what we won't do is very important.

ENO: A big "won't" in this case was, we don't want to make another record of a bunch of songs. That just is not an interesting thing to do at the moment. There's got to be a bigger landscape in play than that.

BOWIE: Writing a song and putting lyrics to it in that way is a lazy option, often. I don't see the point of doing anything if you're not driven in some way. It's a lot more adventurous and it stretches the intellect a bit to approach it from the outside as opposed to approaching it from the inside.

ENO: I was driven by an extremely negative feeling about what was going on in music generally: putting on one CD after another and hearing a succession of unrelated bits and pieces. It is, as David says, so easy to write songs now, you know, with sequencers and various programs-any idiot can put together an acceptable set of chords and programs-and a decent drum beat, 'cause you can buy them off the shelf. I think, what's the point of doing something that's so easy? It's only exciting to try to do something that takes you somewhere else.

So for me there was quite a lot of revulsion [laughs] - I just did not want to do that. I think David felt the same way, so quite early on we had developed the idea that, whatever this was going to be, it had to at least hint at a bigger world than that. I used this expression, I remember, in one of our early letters: The music had to sound like it couldn't fit on a CD.

Do you see what I mean? The CD is no longer the medium that tries to capture something, it's the medium that defines something. Now just before we had started talking about this, I had been looking at paintings a lot. And I was so thrilled by the range of things that painters could do. You know, you'd see a Frank Stella piece as big as this room, and then you'd see a little piece by somebody else just that big and just in inks. And you'd think, Christ, painters have really got such a great life! They can do anything.

Now imagine if you said to painters, "The only medium through which people will see your work is 8" x 11" color prints in art magazines." You know exactly what would happen. Frank Stella wouldn't bother to make those paintings this big, and in fact he wouldn't even make them. I felt that this is what had really happened to music, it had sort of funnelled down to being not "music," but "stuff that could fit onto CDs."

BOWIE: Brian, you once said something very interesting about how a badly written song will stand out.

ENO: On a vinyl album. Because it's a significant part of a twenty-minute listening experience. Remember with vinyl you were basically listening to twenty or twenty-five minutes, and then if you wanted to listen to the other side, that was a different idea, you know? So you had people composing in terms of twenty or twenty-five minutes, and to have a five-minute bad song, it makes a big impression. But it doesn't on a sixty-minute "here's everything we did" CD.

MUSICIAN: Well, you guys filled the CD on this one.

BOWIE: We stretched to seventy-five. But it was edited down-you're not going to believe this-from something like twenty-two hours of material. Not finished, necessarily. But something like twenty-two hours that we accomplished during the three weeks that Brian and I and the musicians worked. It was, I think, one of the most incredible experiences of my life in the studio.

ENO: Mine too.

MUSICIAN: So how did that kind of musical combustion occur?

BOWIE: Collage material from Brixton Market had an awful lot to do with it. Brian said, I don't like the way studios look, so I think I'll change what it looks like. He brought over bales of Caribbean, highly colored materials, and we spent the first day decorating, which put everybody in an interesting frame of mind.

MUSICIAN: In a previous Musician interview, Brian talked about the effect of hearing music in different environments. So here you made a conscious attempt to change the music-making environment.

ENO: That was the main part of the beginning of the project to try to make a situation where we wouldn't feel like [in a small, beaten voice]: "We're people standing in a studio making a record." Get away from being in a room with tons of wires all over the floor. It's so grotty! The other thing about setting up this studio was that at one end of it David set up his painting studio. And it was not a very big room. The general feeling was a kind of arts lab, rather than [beaten voice again] "Here we are to do some songs."

MUSICIAN: How did you decide to work together again?

BOWIE: Brian and his wife were at my wedding in'92. I'd written music which was to become Black Tie White Noise - it was mainly instrumental at that particular time, and I played some of it at the wedding itself and some at the party afterwards. Brian identified some of the textural things I was doing as an area that he was really interested in, and it occurred to us that we both wanted something that we weren't finding in music. The party turned into a bit of a farce because I kept stopping the DJ: "No, play this, I want Brian to hear this!" While people were in mid-dance, you know. So I think it was at that point that we knew we wanted to do the same kind of thing with popular music. Bring back a new sense of texture to it all.

One thing we were talking about when we first got together again was that the '80s had been particularly stale for both of us. I really thrive on a sense of competition, and I felt that so much was incredibly vacuous and awful in the '80s. A lot of my drive went because there was nobody to pit myself against. I really am very competitive; I love the friction of saying, fuck, I can top that, or, boy, he's taken it out so far - where can I go? I love the running. And if you're running and there's nobody running with you...

ENO: You're using the word competitive, whichI think I agree with - I want to be part of an interesting conversation. What excites me is when I hear someone doing something and I think, "That's a bloody good idea but they could have done it better if the did this and this..." And in thinking about it you suddenly realize that you've got something new! It isn't what they did, it's something new. For that to be the case, you have to find the interesting scene.

MUSICIAN: So you sense some kind of competition now. You mentioned Nine Inch Nails - who else do you like out there?

BOWIE: I've always found the music of Glenn Branca to be really inspirational. He's a great talent who hasn't really been recognized yet. I was really pissed that The Pixies broke up as they were a band that really excited me. At the moment, I'm listening more and more to hip hop and jungle. Artists like Tricky, A Guy Called Gerald and Goldie are my favorites. The sense of sonic ambience is fabulous, plus it's real sexy music.

ENO: I've just been working with a musician called Howie B. He's a young DJ in England, and the range of records he plays in clubs is absolutely bizarre, staggering. If he just showed you these records, you'd think he was going to get bottles thrown at him. But he's found a way of putting these things together, and suddenly people are much broader in their sense of what's acceptable musically than they used to be.

MUSICIAN: You've said before that ordinary fans are more open to changes in music than musicians or critics or people in the industry who have a stake in the present.

ENO: That's exactly right. They've made a big investment, and they're more likely to feel threatened by new things. Something new comes out which doesn't use any of the skills which they cherished - you saw this very much when rap appeared. Record companies always say to you, "Oh God, nobody's going to listen to this. I mean, who are you doing it for - it might be interesting to a few nutcases taking a lot of drugs or something." Of course, I heard this with ambient music - there was going to be no audience whatsoever for music that didn't have a beat, didn't have clear melodies, didn't have Words, blah-blah-blah. Well, that turned out to have been wrong. People's receptivity is constantly changing. And as long as it's not presented in a way that's intimidating and arty, which doesn't say, "Oh, you probably won't understand this," but which invites people in, then what people are capable of accepting actually, I don't know the limits of it.

MUSICIAN: You both work seriously within various artistic media. In what sense does music allow you a unique form of expression that other media can't provide? Or is its main value simply as one variety of expression?

ENO: Well, for me there are two things. First, music is the most well-distributed form of culture. All other art forms, even book writing, are relatively hermetic. They're quite small worlds. That doesn't mean that they're less valuable. But it means that music is capable of soaking up ideas from everywhere because everybody's listening to it. So it's very quickly evolving. It's like the tropics of culture.

The second thing is that music is most free from ideological baggage. By that I mean, if you write, you immediately put yourself into an arena of intellectual and literary criticism. Music can slip in new ideas about culture, which I think this record does, and people don't notice it at first. [laughs]

MUSICIAN: But you bring a passionate point of view to the creation of the whole thing, and you risk that being missed entirely.

BOWIE: That doesn't occur to me to be a particularly important thing, that a point is missed. Especially with this album, I don't think there is a point of view. See, there's an overriding ambition, which is that this is one of a cycle of albums. What we felt we had a good chance of doing - especially as nobody else was doing it - is that we start arbitrarily at a very interesting point - 1995 - and devote a sequence of albums that go through to the year 2000, and virtually encapsulate a texture of what it meant to live through the last five years of this millennium. We thought, God, what a wonderful thing to have done! What a thing to look back on with one's grandchildren on one's knees and say, "Well, the '90s you see, they sort of sounded like this!" There is almost an unconscious, collective paranoia about hitting a brick wall at the end of every hundred years.

ENO: And then straight after it, liberation. Like at the beginning of this century, a sense of "it's all new, we can do anything."

MUSICIAN: Do you sense that happening now?

BOWIE: In a highly magnified form I think, yes. An intoxicating swirl of paranoia! It was hard enough ending a hundred years - how do you end a millennium? And the reverse of that is, imagine what a wonderful optimistic freeing experience January the first 2000 is gonna be, psychologically. Hopefully. One has to remain optimistic. And I do; even though the album is seemingly very dark, it actually pleads for an understanding that there is a through road to the next century. I'm very happy to have more children to add to the one I've got [laughs] - I'm quite positive about the future that way.

I can't stand it when people say young people are negative and nihilistic and indifferent. I don't think that's true at all. I think what's been happening is that they're going through a sort of transitory period where the new generations are learning to live within a new set of rules, and these are the rules of fragmentation and chaos. And what is the same is that we just don't understand them or what they're doing. They've got to adapt - it's their world that they're going into.

My son is a great illustrator of that, because he's so typical of his generation. He seems to be able to scan things so much quicker than myself. He can make sense of the surface of things. It gives him some foundation. My natural inclination, coming from a different time, is that I don't just want a surface image; I want to read depth into everything. And that Isn't part of the vocabulary now in quite the same way as when I was young. My son can just whiz around it and get what he needs to get on to the next place. And it looks like lethargy. But there again, he's now doing a doctorate in philosophy. [laughter] So what I presumed was lethargy is not - it's all being internalized. He just doesn't assimilate things the way I think you're supposed to.

ENO: We grew up in a time when there was a real sense of priorities about what information was relevant and what wasn't. There was serious culture and there was popular culture, for a start. There was a very clear sense in our education about the hierarchy of things. That has so obviously fallen apart; people are getting their ideas from fashion and video games as well as from books.

BOWIE: And the pivotal decade was the '60s, because the '60s was the real establishment of the two principles of the twentieth century. One was the morality, and the other was this losing of all inhibitions, of wanting to understand everything all at once. So on the one hand there was this idealism, that everybody should live in peace and love each other; and the other thing was 'Let go, there is no morality,'you know. The'60s were the argument, the debate of the twentieth century.

And now we're drifting off. The sense of morality has been changed into this sense of understanding the other side of it, that the fragmentation and chaos is in fact what our reality is going to be. And we have to understand that the other side of the '60s, the peace and love thing, was kind of a nineteenth-century concept that is going to be replaced by something else.

ENO: It's not ever going to get decided.

MUSICIAN: One hierarchy you've both helped alter is what I would call the hierarchy of technique. The feeling in the late '60s that if you didn't play guitar with the dexterity of Jeff Beck, for instance, then you had no business trying to express yourself in music. You've expanded the notion that techniques can involve systems of ideas as well as scalar exercises.

BOWIE: I remember a couple of interviews Brian and I did in the '70s where we got angry about the idea of virtuosos - that it was one of the things that disgusted us about popular music. [laughs] I think we're a little more laissez-faire about it now. I think punk really proved us right. That's no longer an argument anymore, is it? But I think we did contribute to that.

MUSICIAN: Punk was an interesting reaction, but it didn't allow moving laterally to discover new ways of expression either.

ENO: It seemed to me so obviously a reaction. The lot before said, "We will be virtuosos," you know, and this lot said, "No, we fucking won't." And what we wanted to do was make any mixture of the above. We worked with very good musicians - we didn't assemble a bunch of retards who'd never picked up an instrument before. We worked with them in a way which said, the most interesting thing about a musician isn't how fast he can play. But we'll make use of the fact that somebody has a great rapport with an instrument.

BOWIE: Or switch their instruments. We asked each musician, what was the instrument that they really wanted to play when they were kids. Inevitably, it's always something else from the one they actually ended up with. Guitarists say, I always wanted to be a drummer... and so we made them do that. One track that came out of that was Boys Keep Swinging - nobody plays their correct instrument on that, they all full switched. And it's so full of enthusiasm. They all became twelve-year-olds.

ENO: Funnily enough, I was listening to "Heroes" recently. And what Fripp plays on that is so simple and so incredibly beautiful that you'd have to be either a very good player or a very simple player to do that. Somebody in the middle wouldn't, 'cause they would want to be a little more impressive than that. So you can only get that kind of result if either it's the only thing you can do - you've hit on three notes that work, so you think, oh, great, I'll just keep playing that - or else, which is what I think happens with good musicians, your judgment has taken over from your skills. That kind of restraint in good players is what gives me the shivers.

BOWIE: And the three-note thing, the two examples I think of are The Troggs with Wild Thing and Louie Louie by The Kingsmen. I mean, they probably could never reach those heights again, but what they played was sublime, it was so unbelievably good.

ENO: And it's the same song!

MUSICIAN: Were there guideposts of any sort during the sessions for Outside?

ENO: The structure of those sessions was that we really improvised most of the time. There wasn't very much time spent doing songs that already existed. It was nearly always, let's start something new. It was just playing and playing and playing. We recorded a lot of tape. In fact, Ampex should give us an award for keeping their business going for another decade or so.

BOWIE: Each day when we came in, generally, Brian had a new system of rules.

ENO: Laws.

BOWIE: Yes, absolutely. The first time we did it in the '70s, there was a lot of animosity, wasn't there? A lot of, "I'm not doing that, that's what children do." One thing that really broke everybody's bottle was the blackboard with the chords on it. [laughs] In the studio Brian had written chords on a blackboard and then had a pointer that pointed out chords he wanted them to play, and these sulky, angry musicians were like children in a classroom looking at teacher.

This time around I really handpicked musicians I knew would fall into the flow of things and they would anticipate each day with a degree of excitement: "What are we doing today, sir?" [laughter] And Brian would say, "Today you're all going to be different characters." He would give them flash cards, for instance, that would have a little characterization on each card. They had to adopt that character before they started playing, and then play within the character on that card. Or to play a song without using any blue notes, for instance. These kinds of little directives, which might seem stern and severe, actually were very freeing. It's that old thing about, once you know the rules it's much easier to break them.

MUSICIAN: Which seems a bit like the way you use futuristic imagery - that you can cast a keener angle on the present that way.

BOWIE: Absolutely. People presume that I've always been interested in science fiction. I couldn't care less about science fiction! It's never ever appealed to me. It's the idea of writing from "outside" myself to say, what's the easiest state to be in that resembles a drug state or a state where you're not responsible to the "nowness" of everything? Where you can take real liberties with reality. Well, it's the future, I guess, because we don't really know what's going to happen there. I'm not interested in what's going to happen tomorrow, that's the last thing. But the idea of being in the future and looking back on today, I think is really interesting.

ENO: And I think "not responsible" is a big part of it as well. One of the reasons for inventing games for people to play is that a game says to somebody, you are now not responsible for your behavior. Because you are now in character, you are not you any longer. As soon as you do that, people don't mind failing. They don't mind doing things which are slightly absurd or clumsy or so on, because it's part of the rules.

BOWIE: And I'm very sympathetic to that attitude. It semi-explains why in fact I prefer remaining in character. I can explore things a lot more fully than if I were to just do it as David Jones/Bowie. It is another way of distancing.

MUSICIAN: When you're creating these "games" in the studio, how do you overcome the self-consciousness of appearing silly in front of other musicians or even yourself?

ENO: First of all, I don't present myself as a musician. I come shrouded in apologies anyway. And when I'm with good musicians, like I was there, I recognize that there's no competition on that level, and I think they recognize that I really respect their skills and talents. I'm completely amazed by them in fact, in many cases. So the only thing that could make one nervous is the feeling that you were trying to put one over on them, you know. That they thought, "What's this guy trying to do, is he just trying to piss us off or something?" Well, I think it's pretty clear quite soon that I'm not trying to do that. And plus, I don't do this the first day I walk in. I wait 'til some kind of rapport is established. But then, I start tentatively doing it - little bits of ideas. [laughs] And the results tend to bear it out. Something good starts to happen and everybody knows that that probably wouldn't have happened any other way.

BOWIE: The important thing, as Brian once said, is knowing that art is an arena where one can crash one's airplane and walk away from it. There are few other situations in life where this can happen. When it's understood that any otherwise stupid or insane idea is perfectly acceptable for consideration, then the idea of letting go of "taste" happens. Taste is the killer of art.

MUSICIAN: You've both had amazingly varied careers. Is there any thread?

ENO: Yes, one or two things. One is an interesting sensuality. Even though I'm probably quite an intellectual person in the way I think about things, my decisions are nearly always guided by my sensual responses. I have to be seduced by them in some way. No matter how intellectually defensible they are, if they don't work on that level, then I think some thing's not right about them. A friend of mine used to say, "The body is the large brain." I really believe that. I want to think with the whole organism, not just with the bit that knows that it's thinking.

The second thing is a concern with the particular question of "unlockedness." A lot of the work I've done has been to do with putting things together, but not bolting them to one another. Now I've done this in purely physical terms with ambient music, where the different layers float freely over one another. But I've also tried to do it in emotional terms as well, where contrasting and incoherent emotions - emotions which don't cohere with each other are allowed to exist together in the same piece and no particular attempt is made to resolve them. So one interest is seeing what happens if you put things together and don't try to make them compatible. And then, see what you have to do to satisfy the first requirement, which is: I want sensual response from all this.

BOWIE: If there is anything consistent about what I've done, then it's the realization, to me at least, that I'm most comfortable with a sense of fragmentation. Whenever I've worked in a straightforward narrative fashion it has produced work that I'm not particularly happy or fulfilled by. The idea of tidy endings or beginnings seems too absolute. It's not at all like real life.