INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Trouser Press OCTOBER 1978 - by Greg Allen
It's been over a year since we last dropped in on Brian Eno, musical obscurantist and gentleman of leisure. Since then, he has released Before And After Science, palled around with David Bowie, produced Talking Heads and Devo, taken up residence in New York City, and studied cybernetics (in no particular order of importance). In this interview Beano discusses the Bowie connection, the possibility of returning to live performance, studio technique, the inevitable new wave question, Catholic education, and - even - Roxy Music!
TP: Do you find that perhaps too many of your fellow musicians have very few interests outside of music? That in a sense they're almost one-dimensional in their approach to life?
BE: Not the people I work with generally. I guess that is true of a lot of other musicians, but I don't work with them. That isn't snobbery. I just don't happen to meet them. I don't go out or anything, so the only people I meet are either people who approach me or people I approach because I find them interesting .
TP: What are the circumstances leading up to your collaboration with Bowie?
BE: I found out that at the time that I discovered Station To Station, which I thought was a great record, he had discovered Another Green World, thought it was a great record and was playing it a lot. Then he got in touch with me and asked if I'd like to work on the Iggy Pop album, The Idiot. In fact, that didn't come off, I didn't work on that, but he then asked if I'd work on Low and I agreed.
TP: When you collaborated on the song, "Heroes", did you start off with a riff or an idea or did Bowie give you the lyrics first? How did that come about?
BE: That one started with me. I started out with something that is almost an irrelevant detail: a synthesizer sound which stipulated a certain time. I started playing along in that time with my little synthesizer at the studio. Originally, I only wanted to have two notes, two basic chords, and then Carlos Alomar threw in that, I think it's an A-minor, chord and then David added the end chords and started playing the piano. It just happened like that. Most of what went on top of that was written by David. Of course one of the most important contributions on that is what Fripp plays, because that really gave it the heroic quality, that grand quality.
BE: I think the differences have more to do with other people's perceptions than with any machinations on my part. This might sound very coy, but I never expected nor particularly wanted to be a star in Roxy. In fact, this is borne out by the fact that when Roxy started I didn't even stay on stage. I used to play at the back of the hall because I used to mix the sound as well. I'd have my little synthesizer back there, and I'd be doing my work in the back of the hall. I liked being a back-room boy. Then the record company said, "It's a bit strange having this guy standing at the back of the hall singing occasionally," and suggested I appear on stage. So, I went on stage and subsequently became a [he laughs] star... which was not at all expected.
TP: I notice that you laugh at the word "star."
BE: Yeah. I think the position is absurd, really. It certainly is not what I want. I think it's extremely restrictive. Once you become a star most of the changes you can make are simply cumulative or additive ones. You can just get more of this or do more of that or do that particular thing a little better or have another motor boat or whatever you want. Whereas always my energy and excitement has come from going off on tangents into unexplored territory, not just plodding along. The funny thing about the star thing is that the public image of it is one of being terribly glamorous and flighty and extravagant, but the fact of it is that mentally, you become really stuck. You end up plodding along a well-trodden path.
TP: It seems that often people wind up burlesquing themselves because they start feeling they have to live up to that image and it stops them from creating good music. It seems to be a very destructive thing.
BE: I made one very intelligent move, in fact, in which I attempted to insure that I had many different outlets, so that not every album I released would be seen as the next Brian Eno album and would therefore be seen as a part of a continuum that was supposed to be similar in one way, or develop in a straight line, one from the other. The point of starting Obscure Records and of working wth Fripp and all these other various collaborations was simply that I could release material of different types which basically wouldn't disappoint people. I didn't want people to run out and buy an Obscure album because it was associated with me, take it home, and be disappointed because there were no songs on it. Labeling our records "Obscure" was a deliberate clue to people saying, "Look, listen to this before you buy it. Make sure it's what you want." I think the problem with a lot of the big bands today is that because of their setup, every album they release is seen as the next album in a series, which forces them to focus on a particular direction.
TP: It becomes, as they say, "product ."
BE: They can't help it. They don't perceive the trap early enough. They're already in it and then they get into all kinds of complex things like trying to break out of it by releasing solo albums, which very often fail because they're conceived from wrong premises as far as I can see. They are conceived from the idea: "I want to assert my own identity." Well, that isn't a good basis for making music: "I want to assert myself."
TP: Then you get diluted bands.
BE: Yeah, and I think it's because they never investigate carefully exactly what it is that makes a band function. The early Roxy was a great example because it was a peculiar set-up. Anyone looking at that band would say, "Well, there's obviously three strong characters; Bryan, Andy and me. The drummer just sits there and plays. He doesn't say much and he never gets involved in any arguments or discussions about things." But, in fact, what he would always do was sit there anchoring things. He was important, and Phil as well. A band is not a set of individuals, it's a particular relationship, a very complex relationship between a number of individuals and you can't just mess with that easily and expect it to function. If you mess with that, if you take some out and put a few new ones in you must expect the whole identity of the music to change. It can still be good, but the mistake they all make is to chuck a few people out and get some new ones in and carry on being the same band. They should just start out anew .
TP: You build your own synthesizers, don't you?
BE: Well, I customize stuff, which is to say I kick it about until it does something interesting. I'm not qualified electronically, but what happens is that I find little pieces of things that do certain things and then I fit them together. I don't mean components, I mean small boxes, compressors that they used in radios, for example, stuff like that. In fact, the synthesizers I use are very, very simple indeed. What I really use is the control room. I always work in the control room. I just set all the synthesizers up and link them straight into the desk so that any instrument can, at the turn of a switch, be fed straight through my synthesizer. That way, I can alter a sound in any way that I want. I have a high regard for the synthesizer as a part of the whole complex. The whole control room is my synthesizer, but the synthesizers I own are the most modest synthesizers you can get.
TP: One of the worst things about the popular music of the last four or five years has been its sterility. It's been Dolbyized, filtered and everything else until it all sounds homogenized and very slick.
BE: That's right. That's just what I think as well. I think that's why the new wave was such a blast of fresh air. Actually , I still believe that the new wave is going to make it sometime. There's going to be a breakthrough. This may sound like blowing my own trumpet, but I think the two albums I just produced, Devo and Talking Heads, are very, very strong albums. They're not only innovative, they're also very listenable. They're not offensive. They haven't taken a stance that's so brash or naive, in a sense, that they offer no depth. Both of those albums have a lot of dimensions and I think that they could do alright.
Actually, the interesting music is happening here, but the sales are happening in England. Talking Heads, from what I can gather, are much more popular in England than they are in America.
TP: So are The Ramones.
BE: Yes. There is a real strong movement in England, perhaps it's because we're poorer. Also, we have a rock press that, despite all its faults, is national...
TP: And enthusiastic...
BE: Very enthusiastic. Actually, over-enthusiastic, but that's better than being under-enthusiastic. They all vie with each other to be the first with the news about the newest bands, so any band in England that even has the faintest glimmer of talent gets an incredible amount of attention at the moment. It's been like that for the last couple of years or so.
TP: Who have you seen lately that's really impressed you, other than the bands you've been working with?
BE: Wire and XTC I like very, very much. And The Buzzcocks.
TP: Do you think Roxy Music changed or improved rock in any way?
BE: I think so. Certainly in England it did because, again, the early Roxy militated against the homogenized, polished thing. For a start, that first album was so chaotic in the sense that there wasn't one identity on it - it wasn't just another band coming out with the same sort of tight style. Roxy came out showing a real diversity and almost a confusion of directions. That first album offers about twelve different futures on it. There were lots of different ways that the music could have gone from there.
My favorite album, though is Stranded, even though I wasn't on it. Maybe I liked it because I wasn't on it, because I just heard it as a record without knowing all the ingredients that went into it.
TP: Do you find it easier to judge something you're not on?
BE: Yes. Much easier.
TP: It' s hard to take yourself away from something you've created.
BE: Except sometimes, after a long period of time, it becomes possible. I liked those first three Roxy albums a lot because in England they accomplished two things. First of all, they disturbed that pattern of pasteurization that was going on. And, secondly, they suddenly got people in touch with the idea that rock music had something to do with art and society. Again that was an idea that was accepted in England from about 1964 to '69, starting with The Who and a few other bands like them and going through The Beatles and Velvet Underground, of course. There was a consciousness that rock music wasn't just some kind of entertainment pap that you put on, that it had something to do with the way things are, and your appreciation of it was tied in some way to the process of allowing yourself to be radicalized in some sense. I think Roxy reaffirmed that. If you like Roxy you're taking a stance, you're taking a stance on a particular set of approaches to the world.
TP: Do you have any plans for going on the road again?
BE: Not really. I'm not that keen on it. I might do it if I ever think of a format that will actually produce interesting music. The problem with me is this thing about using the control room as my instrument. I don't know how to take that on the road. What do I do? Playing synthesizers isn't what it's about for me. Also, I couldn't see doing it without rather a large band. Not large so that they could all play all the time, but large because quite a lot of my work results from particular mixtures of talent, using groups of people together in combinations that create a hybrid that I'm interested in which I could then work on top of. Now taking just four people wouldn't do that; I would maybe have to take ten or eleven and at any one time maybe four or five would be playing. Financially, it would make no sense at all. The only thing I could see doing is the opposite of touring which is where I stay in one place and the audience tours to see me. That would be possible if I could hire a hall in London, not a big hall, about fifteen hundred or two thousand seats. I just don't see it working in a fifteen thousand-seat place at all. If I could hire a small place, set everything up so that it stayed set up the same way and so that it was all functioning technologically and then just play there every night for two weeks it might be possible. I don't think it would be hard to do.
TP: What kind of education did you have?
BE: It suppressed all types of conceptualization. I went to a convent until I was eleven, a Catholic convent. I went to a Catholic grammar school after that until I was sixteen. The grammar school wasn't so bad, really, but what was important was after that I went to a really good art school in Ipswich, Suffolk for two years. Then I went to another one for three years after that, but the first two years were crucial. There just happened to be a staff there who had kind of taken over this art school and were using it as an experiment. Not only did they encourage creative thinking, they positively confused old styles of thinking. The first semester was devoted to destroying readymade answers that the students might have, and in fact, three of the kids had nervous breakdowns in that time. That first term was very hard. It was specifically designed to undo the education that we'd had before. It was an intense period of extraordinary experiments.
TP: Has anyone else come out of that class either in the graphic arts or...
BE: Pete Townshend. He studied under that exact set of teachers only at another art school. They had taken over that art school, but they were all fired by the education committee, so they moved to Ipswich, took that one over, and were all fired again. They they went to different places. Quite a few other people studied under them, but they are not names one would know, just people who are doing interesting things. They are architects, a girl I know became a very good cellist, writers, illustrators, painters. People just dispersed and did interesting things in general. As a whole, it had a very high success rate. It worked by the very simple technique of dismantling the damage that had been done by the educations that everyone had gone through before. It got rid of the old rules that said, "This is possible and this isn't," and instead said, "We're not going to tell you what is possible or isn't, we're going to teach you techniques for entertaining all kinds of possibilities at all times." I suppose nowadays if such a school existed it would be called psychotherapy or something like that. But it was just an art school.