Knight-Ridder News Service NOVEMBER 1995 - by Tom Moon


It started with a producer's simple "Why don't we try..."

The members of U2 and their producer, Brian Eno, were finishing up 1993's Zooropa album. The work had progressed more quickly than most U2 projects, but near the end, Eno says, the band hit "a stone wall."

"In the studio, it's easy to get to the screwdriver level, where you're debating about the slightest things and getting obsessive," Eno said last week from his New York hotel, recalling the genesis of Original Soundtracks 1, on which he and U2 perform as the collective Passengers. Soundtracks arrives in stores Tuesday.

"I suggested we do some improvising sessions, just turn the tape on and play, so we were working with a broad brush rather than the one-hair brushes we'd been using. It was designed to open us up a little, and it proved to be a good way of originating music."

The recordings were so fruitful that Eno proposed more. After the "Zoo TV" tour, the band returned to the studio - without an agenda, he said, or a specific project in mind. From the sessions' twenty-five hours of taped experimentation came Soundtracks, which reflects both the band's pop instincts and Eno's predilection for ethereal, "ambient" music that moves slowly and doesn't demand conscious attention.

As always, Eno's touch is evident throughout. The forty-seven-year-old pop visionary, who has midwifed important works by David Bowie, Talking Heads and others, is a master of moods. Where other producers work to capture unusual instrumentation, Eno develops textures, a nearly tangible sonic world that suggests whole ways of being. He electrifies otherwise mundane material by limiting the range of sounds. His austere productions create heart-pounding drama from the wispiest sources. "I completely admire economy," explains Eno, in what could be his mantra.

In order to guide U2 toward a more exploratory way of making music, Eno devoted considerable time to preproduction. He generated a number of sequences and rhythm patterns, which were ready to use at a moment's notice. He decorated the walls with rare cloths from Africa, India and the Arab world. He installed a huge monitor and stockpiled a wide range of videos. "When things started getting dull, you'd just pop in a different tape," he said.

One cut on the fourteen-song Soundtracks - Miss Sarajevo, a song that features Bono and Luciano Pavarotti - was inspired by a TV documentary of the same name. Other pieces on the album, which was finished in less than two months, were commissioned for films or suggested by existing films.

"News footage from 1953. Animations from students at the Royal College of Art. Films from the Orient. Everything. The idea was to have enough different types of things to suit whatever musical situation."

"More and more of my energy goes into preparation, because then the act of actually making the music is relatively fast," Eno said. "This is in opposition to the way most people generally work - they're inside the music all the time. What I tried to do was think about what eventualities to expect. I needed to have things in reserve."

Eno, who has produced U2 landmarks including The Joshua Tree, says that vocalist Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. have always taken an improvisatory approach to songwriting.

"A lot of their material would come from them standing around playing. What they would do then is say, 'OK, let's get (the fragments) properly structured.' ...They were generating the seeds that became songs.

"I love that sense of discovery. So I told them on this project, we'd just work with whatever we got. What we'd generate was not a map of the material, but the material itself."

Eno - who said he wouldn't be surprised if other passages from these sessions turn up on the "rock and roll" record U2 plans to release next summer - played synthesizer and acted as the archivist, notating particularly inspired moments in a log. He devised various "games" to keep the musicians on their toes, such as requiring everyone to switch instruments for a segment.

Though it sounds like the inclusion of Pavarotti was another game, Eno says the legendary tenor suggested the duet.

"He was really easy to work with - he (recorded) the high notes first. People always assume that classical music is earnestly correct in the way it works, but those guys really know how to cheat. We've got nothing on them."

When the nightly sessions ended, Eno would retrieve the important moments, then mix them. His mission was to capture the development of certain episodes or ideas, but to keep things at a manageable length.

"Listening to the original improvisations as they came off the floor, you feel the excitement of the process. The dynamic between things falling apart slightly and coming back together again is an important aspect of improvisation. You have to be careful not to disturb the organic flow of the thing."

As Eno talks about the editing process, it's clear that he's not satisfied with all the cuts. Like many multimedia and electronic-music artists in the years before the computer boom, Eno feels limited by the current technology. His goal is to offer listeners more options, different ways of experiencing the same music.

"Like Always Forever Now," he said, citing another Soundtracks cut. "The full-length (version) of that is really fabulous. What you would really like to be able to do is have records or movies or whatever where you could offer choices. The listener could get radio length, a slightly more expanded 'standard' length, and a 'train-spotter' length for people who want all the gory details and the whole sweep of the thing.