Eno on the past, present and future of his music
To celebrate the arrival of a new Brian Eno album – Reflections – I thought I’d post my interview with Eno from last year, which coincided with the release of The Ship. The piece originally appeared in our June 2016 issue and our conversation, which took place at Eno’s studio, covered a lot of ground including David Bowie, Lou Reed, his Obscure label and just what he thinks of his old records…Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner
“I think the interesting thing, looking back on your work, is that you realise you could never do it again,” says Brian Eno. “There’s was ballet at Sadler’s Wells last week by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker that’s based around one of my songs. ‘Golden Hours’ from Another Green World. When I listen to that song again, I think, ‘Jesus, I would never do that now.’ I could not leave that in that condition. You can hear I’m doing all the percussion myself with sticks on a desk and it’s completely chaotic. It’s so badly played but actually that is the character of the piece. I just wouldn’t make it now like that.”
Eno is sitting at a large circular wooden table in the middle of his West London studio. He nibbles thoughtfully at a croissant while in front of him, a pot of tea slowly cools. It is, he decided earlier, “a four bag morning.” Eno bulk buys his tea – as a consequence, boxes of Palanquin Red Bush Spiced are stacked neatly in a cube in a corner of his studio’s kitchen area. Ostensibly, we are here to talk about his superb new album, The Ship – a weighty, ruminative record that draws inspiration from the First World War and the Titanic disaster. It also contains a revelatory cover of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free” that has, it transpires, been over a decade in the making. To coincide with its release, there are several installations planned and – next – Eno reveals he is planning a new collaboration with David Byrne. Although talking to Eno requires across-the-board thinking, today he obligingly discusses more than just the project at hand, including previous career highs, his working relationship with his late friend David Bowie and his views on some of his other storied collaborators.
Located in a cobbled mews close to Portobello Road, Eno’s studio is airy and open-plan, with whitewashed walls and skylights. Close to the front door stand a set of floor to ceiling bookshelves. There are volumes by Antony Beevor, Alexis de Tocqueville and Richard Dawkins. A biography of Ghenghis Khan sits near to Billy Childish’s poetry collection The Man With The Gallows Eyes. Eno’s BAFTA for the Channel 4 series Top Boy nestles on the same shelf as Bill Drummond’s 17 and Byrne’s How Music Works. Fixed on a wall adjacent to the bookshelves are several shelves of DVDs and CDs, including Eno’s own vocal and instrumental box sets from 1993. Below these, a turntable rests on freestanding metal shelves packed with vinyl, divided alphabetically by strips of cardboard. On the floor, a copy of Sly And The Family Stone’s Fresh lies next to an album by the Ensemble Of The Bulgarian Republic.
A grey filing cabinet and a dark brown sofa mark the start of the studio area itself. A whiteboard acts as Eno’s de facto diary, with his activities for March drawn in red felt pen. A letter from the V&A is attached to a radiator by a round red magnet. White cubes of different sizes sit on various surfaces: originating from a previous exhibition, these are light boxes built around concealed colour monitors that gradually alter the intensity and hue of light. Eno points towards a clock hanging on the wall. “It’s a one-year clock,” he explains. “There’s one revolution in a year. So we’re at quarter past the year now. Did you realise that? Isn’t that amazing?”
Eno’s latest paintings – in gaudy, bright colours – sit on a table. “I started doing those fluorescent ones because an art shop up the roads has just closed down,” he says. “They were selling of fluorescent paints very cheap, so I bought some.” Towards the rear of the room is his studio space. Two giant Mac displays rest on a table, flanking a solitary synthesizer. Bundles of wires project from various mixers and other discreet-looking pieces of tech. Behind them, a sleek, metallic mic is fixed to its stand. Eager to demonstrate a new software package, Eno turns on the keyboard. “One of the things I like is the possibility of tuning different scales,” he begins playing a series of notes that he then manipulates through a program. So far, so very Eno.
Dressed today in dark jeans, a shirt and coat, Eno’s blue eyes sparkle behind his glasses. He is warm and often very funny in conversation; though very specific, too. At one point, he breaks our interview off to demonstrate the Markov Chain Generator software that helped create “The Hour Is Thin”, a poem read by Peter Serafinowicz that appears on The Ship. “I won’t debit the interview,” he insists.
Later, he disappears into the toilet. There, he begins singing Al Green’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” in full voice. Emerging, he smiles. “I’m thinking of doing it tonight with my a cappella group, if I can find the lyrics…”
You don’t always like records when you finish them. Sometimes you think, ‘I just want to not bloody hear it again for a long time.’ Especially records you’ve worked on for a long time. Productions that I worked on for a year or two years, by the end, you’re really sick of it. It’s like cooking. When you’re cooking something elaborate, you’re hours smelling the thing. By the time it’s done, you don’t want to eat.What was the catalyst for The Ship?
It started with a request from a Swedish electronic music studio, Fylkingen, to make a sound installation for them. They said, ‘We’ve got lots of channels of sound. So if you want to make it 16 channels, we can do it.’ I started out making a piece of music which was only music, no voices. I did it in here, actually, because I have lots of speakers here of all different kinds stuck up in various places. The piece was in C and to my surprise one evening I found that I could sing a low C, which I’ve never been able to do before. It’s a consequence of getting older. As you get older, your voice adds some range at the bottom and loses quite a lot more at the top. I had a new mic, which seemed to flatter that sound. So I started singing, Just sounds at first. It was nice, having a voice in this piece. Putting together an ambient piece with something like a song was something I’d never done before.
It’s good to hear you singing again. I heard you sing live at Damon Albarn’s gig at the Albert Hall in November, 2014.
That was a very interesting experience for me. I didn’t do warm up. I was sitting down in the back, reading, while the show was going on. I knew I was the last song [“Heavy Seas Of Love”], but when the time came, I thought, ‘Christ, I suppose I should have warmed up.’ I just walked on and this voice came out of me that was so unexpectedly confident.
When was the last time you’d sung on stage at a rock gig prior to that?
Oh, blimey. It’s a long time. I think with Rachid Taha [Stop The War benefit concert; November 2005].
How did you get Peter Serafinowicz’ involved for “The Hour Is Thin”?
I put in a description of seeing the Titanic go down from one of the lifeboats into the Markov Generator. I took quite a lot of pornographic songs from the First World War. Soldiers used to take music hall songs and change the words so they were very, very dirty. I put some of those in. Having done it, I was sitting at this table, and I thought, ‘What voice would this be?’ Peter Serafinowicz! I rang him up, and he said, ‘Oh, I’m just round the corner actually.’ He came in and had read that within 20 minutes of it being finished. It was fantastic.
The First World War was the first mechanized war, while the Titanic was meant to be state of the art. Are you saying that you’re anti-technology, or is this a way of emphasising how pro-human you are?
I’m certainly not anti-technology. Technology is the way we extend our senses and our reach. Incidentally, technology is the only way I could possibly have ever been a musician! No, it’s to do with noticing a pattern that keeps repeating the connection between power and vulnerability – or power and paranoia, shall we say. The Titanic and the First World War both represent a point at which empires had reached a level of hubris and arrogance and confidence that made them think that they could do anything and they would succeed at it. You can see it most recently in America after 9/11, where you had a country that felt that its power was not only stable and permanent but also historically inevitable. The whole project was in ruins; and further ruined by the invasion of Iraq. So that to me is a direct parallel to the First World War, where these empires had reached a state of stability and scale and security – just like the Titanic. They all thought they were unsinkable, and they sunk. Four empires disappeared during the First World War.
The Ship is a loosely-themed concept album, like Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). How do you view those early albums now?
When I listen back to those things, it makes me realise that we aren’t one person. We get this impression that here’s Brian Eno and he’s been this person for all that time. But actually it hasn’t. It’s been a whole series of different people. I can hear that Brian Eno from 1974 and think, ‘Christ, that really was a different person.’ Some things of course remain the same, but it’s a very tenuous connection between the me of now and the me of then. Much more tenuous than people usually admit to. We’re natural storytellers and we tell our own story as if it happened logically, with cause and effect. But it’s not like that at all. We’re constantly modifying the story to try to accommodate the weird swerves we make in different directions. There comes a point where the embarrassment passes and you just accept this is another person. Then it becomes quite interesting because you think, ‘Oh, yeah. I don’t mind that person. It’s just not the one I thought it was.’
Do you see any parallels between this album and Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking Of The Titanic?
No. Of course, I know that piece very well. I love that piece, actually. I produced the recording of it. In fact, I really started a record label [Obscure] in order to release that album. It was that piece, and on the other side was a piece called “Jesus Blood”.
How did you round up these people on Obscure? Bryars, Michael Nyman, Harold Budd, David Toop, Penguin Café Orchestra. They weren’t well recorded…
When I was at art college, I was very connected to what was then called the experimental music scene. I knew a lot of those people then. Gavin. Michael Nyman. Tom Phillips. I didn’t know David Toop then. John Tilbury, the piano player. I had also met Morton Feldman, Christian Wolfe, Earle Brown. This music scene was tiny. There were about 31 people in it! You’d go to concerts and it would always be the same group of people, we all knew each other. But a lot of these scenes are very, very small. I knew some of the Fluxus people in New York. I always assumed that I knew just a little bit and it was all over the place. But it turned out I knew most of the Fluxus people, because there were very few of them. So one of the things I was very keen on was trying to make some kind of communication between what I saw happening in pop music – in particular, the Velvet Underground, The Who and some of the psychedelic groups – and what was going on in experimental music. I thought there was such a lot of possible friction and sparks could fly. Apart from anything else, I just wanted to introduce that catalogue of possibilities into the public view, as it were.
Your own Obscure release, Discreet Music, came out in 1975, months apart from Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. What are the points of comparison between those records?
They were two ends of a spectrum of possibilities that not many other people had explored then. There had been a group of composers who had been experimenting with immersion of some kind. Steve Reich was one, but another very important one who you don’t hear very much about is Charlemagne Palestine, who was a pianist. He used to give these concerts in his loft in New York where he’d sit at his beautiful grand piano and he’d start playing on the same chord and he’d go on and on and on and it would get louder and louder and louder until the whole place rang with this sound. It was an amazing experience. La Monte Young had an installation that used a military specification signals generator and huge amplifiers and produced a pure sine tone at a particular frequency for six months. In concert, the Velvet Underground would sometimes play incredibly long versions of their songs where they’re staying in one sound world, holding it and getting louder and louder and louder – like La Monte Yong. In my case, I wanted to be able to create not just pieces of music but systems to create pieces of music. I used to call them machines, which is funny because of Lou’s Metal Machine Music. But I got the word machine from the English composer John White. Discreet Music is the first piece of machine music that I made. It could be infinity long that piece. It was the length it was because that was the most I could get onto one side of vinyl. Once you set it going, it could keep generating itself. It could still be playing now.
Why did you decide to cover “I’m Set Free”?
I recorded it 12 or 13 years ago, but I changed a little bit for this final version. I’ve always loved the song. It has so many elements of song writing I like, not many chords! Nearly all the songs I really, really like, when I look at them closely, they’re three or four chords. There’s usually a very interesting distribution of the chords. One of the chords on “I’m Set Free”, if it’s a 32 bar sequence, occurs for one bar. It’s the real oddity in the thing.
The 3rd Velvet Underground album is one of your favourites, isn’t it?
It’s one of my big albums, I guess. It made a huge impact on me and it has done ever since. They broke so many rules. Look what it did with drumming! Instead of having a hairy guy hitting a big drum kit, there’s a girl with one drum and she plays the simplest things. You have Lou, who was an enthusiastic but not great guitar player. I thought, ‘Wow, I can probably play like that.’ Sterling was fantastic; a very lyrical player. Early on, you had John playing viola. John had worked with La Monte Young, so had Lou. That band represented a convergence of a lot of thoughts. At that time, I was playing with the Scratch Orchestra and the whole subtext of that is that art students were the best musicians because they didn’t know how to play things, they were more likely to make original choices. Nearly all of the Scratch Orchestra was art students and nearly all of the Portsmouth Sinfonia was art students as well. So these foundational institutions from that time were people who’d come through an education that said, in a way, craft is not the issue. Ideas are the issue. Approaches, processes.
Talking of art students, here’s your Winchester School of Art report from 1967. “A promising student. Difficult to pin down to work. Hampered by intellectual considerations, but certainly worth the effort made for him.” Does that still apply, do you think?
That still applies! There was also something else going on which is not talked about any more. Social mobility. Post-war, for the first time ever in English history, suddenly it was possible for working class kids to appear within these scenes. They brought in different experiences and different sensibilities. Pop music was one of them. That didn’t come from Eton and it didn’t come from Oxford and Cambridge. That came from kids on housing estates. It was their music and they took it into the art colleges, and it came back out of the art colleges with a new vigour and a lot of new ideas added in to it. The Who is a very good example. That was in this period that is now referred to by economists as the ‘golden age of capitalism’. At the end of the Second World War, people were not interested in empire militarism –they were rejecting it. But other was governments were looking at Russia and saying, ‘Jesus, look what these Communists are giving people. Free education, free health care.’ They were worried about revolution, I think, in England or in the western countries. There was a very clear effort by governments in Western Europe to say, ‘We’ve got to be presenting the people with something that is a decent option. We have to make things look a little better.’ It stayed that way until Thatcher and Reagan, when the elites clawed back their droit du seigneur and took everything back and continued to do so and still do continue to do so.
I saw you on-stage with Laurie Anderson during last year’s London Film Festival. You admitted to experiencing a “nostalgic glow” around some of the music you made during the 1970s…
That doesn’t happen very often!
Exactly! I wondered what prompted it.
Can you remember what I was referring to in particular?
Yes, you’d recently found the tracking sheets for Taking Tiger Mountain.
Oh, yes. That was nostalgia more for a way of working and the total naivety I had at the time. When I look at those sheets, they’re hilarious. We were working on 16 track machines at that point. ‘16 tracks!’, I thought. ‘Bloody hell, that’s pretty generous!’ Quite often, you’ll see the track sheet and there’s only seven tracks used. Now it is almost totally conceivable these days that anybody would ever stop at seven tracks. It just doesn’t happen. Even if it’s a guy playing solo guitar, he’ll want a close mic and a far away mic and a pick up. All this bollocks.
There’s a story about recording “Needle In The Camel’s Eye”. You had Phil Manzanera playing the same rhythm line four times and you were hitting his guitar…
I was banging his whammy-bar, beating it in rhythm. We did three or four tracks of him and I doing exactly the same thing, so you’re getting four rippling guitars pulsing against one another.
It’s terrifically Heath-Robinson! What those tracking sheets and that Manzanera story demonstrate is how one can apply oneself physically; it’s a more tactile experience.
Yes, and that’s important. It’s one of the things people very easily lose when the get into the computer. It encourages you to stay in that world. Once you’re in there, it’s all very comfortable. You can connect it together virtually. To actually plug in an instrument, is clumsy by comparison. An instrument seems very primitive. So I keep having to push myself out of that box. There’s a lot in there I like and know how to use and can do interesting things with. But I keep having to remind myself, when I like making music it’s when it comes from my whole body, not just my finger. That’s why I stand up when I work. You do everything differently standing up than sitting down.
The Markov Chain Generator software reminds me a little of the Verbisizer programme you and Bowie used on Outside.
The point about these things is they’re pushing you somewhere your taste wouldn’t take you. A lot of the projects I enjoy – and David enjoyed – was to try to put yourself somewhere you wouldn’t slide into intuitively, that you wouldn’t comfortably reach. Then just try to see what it’s like. What happens if I’m there? What does that mean to be in that place? What David was doing was a kind of cut-up thing, like Burroughs, Bryon Gysin and so on used to do. See? We all come out of experimental art. He would cut up his bits and pieces that he’d found from books and so on, put them together in various ways – throw them together – and just take the bits he liked.
Is there a thread that links your collaborators like Bowie, Bryars, Byrne, Fripp, Cale…
It’s standing outside of music in some way. Looking at it and seeing it not only as something you love and you’re passionately engaged with but as a set of experiments you could do in other ways. If you broadly divide musicians up, you have the kind who are so into a style that’s what they do – nothing wrong with that, they’re great players. Fripp, by contrast, is someone who sits outside music and thinks, ‘You could do it differently. You could have a kind of music that goes like this…’ So he invents so new strange and very hard for most other people to play music style. John Cale is like that as well. And I’m like that.
What was the nature of your relationship with Bowie?
We got on well, I think, because we were both interested in that kind of experiment. It isn’t to say that makes for a superior musician, or anything like that. It isn’t to do with superiority. It’s to do with what you’re making music for, what your intentions are, what do you want to find from music? I think what David wanted to find – and what I like finding – was other ways of approaching the problem of how you make decisions. How do I arrive at decisions? Do I do it entirely by intuition; that feels nice, that feels right. That’s not a bad way but it doesn’t always lead you anywhere. Sometimes you have to break out of that intuition circle.
With Lou and David no longer with us, who do you consider your peers?
That’s a difficult question. I didn’t really even see them as my peers. Well, David more than Lou. I’ve never really felt I had close kinship with any other artist. There are a lot of artists I like and get on well with. Part of the thing is I don’t just do music. My closest friendships are with Jon Hassell is somebody who I would say I’ve had a long intellectual connection with, but I don’t make the same music as him, and Danny Hillis, who’s a scientist. I’ve always thought how wonderful it would be to belong to a group like Der Blaue Reiter or Le Six, those artistic groups, the Dadaists, the Suprematists. There isn’t a thing that I can belong to at the moment.
Apart from your intrinsic Brian Enoness?
But that’s a club of one!
You said there have been many Brian Enos down the years. Maybe you could find a way to gather them all together?
Yes! Get somebody to be the Brian Eno of 1975, and someone else to be 1980…
The February 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on Leonard Cohen. Elsewhere in the issue, we look at the 50 Great Modern Protest Songs and our free CD collects 15 of the very best, featuring Ry Cooder, Jarvis Cocker, Roy Harper, Father John Misty, Hurray For The Riff Raff and Richard Thompson. The issue also features our essential preview of the key albums for 2017, including Roger Waters, Fleet Foxes, Paul Weller, The Jesus And Mary Chain, the Waterboys and more. Plus Leon Russell, Mike Oldfield, Ty Segall, Tift Merritt, David Bowie, Japandroids, The Doors, Flaming Lips, Wilco, The XX, Grateful Dead, Mark Eitzel and more plus 139 reviews