The Audio Interview:
Brian Eno: Music For Listeners
From Audio, March 1993, by John Diliberto. Kindly supplied by Joseph Buck.
purist producer/artist, sick of gloss, discovers distortion
Brian Eno adds tape hiss to his recordings.
I thought that might get the attention of some Audio readers.
While many may not know his name, Eno's productions have included recordings by David Bowie and Talking Heads. Along with Daniel Lanois, he produced U2's hit albums, The Unforgettable Fire, Grammy Award-winning The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby.
Not so much a pop music producer as a provocateur, Eno has roots in the 1960s avant-garde of John Cage and Cornelius Cardew and later the minimalism of Steve Reich.
Eno was a member of the influential rock group Roxy Music and has released several solo albums. His best known is 1975's Another Green World, which was recorded with the help of his "Oblique Strategy" cards. Created with artist Peter Schmidt, each card had an aphorism on it such as "Emphasize differences" or "Honor thy error as a hidden intention." When Eno reached a creative impasse, he'd select a card that would hopefully point out a direction.
Eno is also a facilitator and collaborator. He created a system of tape loops for King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and brought the music of Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, and Laraaji to recordings. His concepts of environmental sound resulted in his Ambient Music series of albums, an influence on new age music. He's straddled the fence between pop music and the avant-garde. His Obscure label recorded Cage compositions and introduced minimalist composer John Adams. Conversely, minimalist composer Philip Glass recently wrote and recorded The Low Symphony based on the Bowic/Eno collaborations for the Bowie album Low.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, Eno produced Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light, as well as collaborating with David Byrne on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
After an extended period working in visual art forms, including the design of U2's Zoo TV Tour, he's released three albums in the last two years, including Wrong Way Up with John Cale, and two solo albums, Nerve Net and The Shutov Assembly.
You've done something that I don't think I've ever seen an artist do. In the fall of '91, you delivered an album, called My Squelchy Life, that you then decided not to put out. What happened?
I also returned the advance, which is something you've never seen an artist do at all [laughter]. This actually broke all known industry standards and caused tremendous consternation [laughter]. "What, he's giving the money back? What the hell is going on?" This had never been heard of before.
What happened was, I finished a record and as nearly always happens to me, in finishing the record I started to get a glimpse of the next step. There's always a cutting edge and a trailing edge to what you are doing. Well, when I finished that record, I knew what the cutting edge was. The record was due out in September 1991. And so I went straight back into the studio and had begun working on some new material, which followed what I felt was the cutting edge of this soon-to-be-released record.
Then the company said, "Well, September is a terribly bad time to release; can you leave it to February?" And I said, "I don't mind leaving it to February, but I won't release this record then. I'H release what I've finished in February, which is likely to be quite a lot different." So that record just disappeared in the mist of time and I carried on working with the new material, and that's what became Nerve Net.
You wouldn't want to have My Squelchy Life out as a snapshot of where you were at that moment?
I might have then, but not now. For me it was important to put out a record now that was not retrospective in some way, but which was forward-looking. And some of the songs that were on that previous record, very nice songs, were somewhat retrospective, I felt, at least in comparison to the three songs that I thought were the leading edge of that record-the three songs that actually moved over to form the core of Nerve Net.
It's not a question of whether I like things or not. I pretty much like everything I do. But my feeling is that things don't come with intrinsic and timeless value. Where you place them in time, the context they fall in, is what charges them. For instance, if I released Another Green World now, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense. It made a lot of sense then. it would still be a nice record, but it wouldn't be a major contribution to the cultural conversation that's going on. It became one at that time. It had a place, and it made a lot of people think about how you might approach making a record.
One thing that was striking to me about Nerve Net is that on almost every track you used live drummers. Yet overall, like on "Fractal Zoom," you get a very mechanistic kind of feel in the sound and the rhythms.
Yes. Now one of the things that this record is, I think, is a reaction against the tightly locked-together MIDI-sequencer type sound of '80s pop music. I just got so sick of that. I mean, I know I was one of the people who got it going [laughter], but that's no reason to continue it. I got really fed up with the tightness and the kind of granite solidity of the way music sounded.
For people who aren't into music, they might not know what kinds of revolutions have been going on. There were three things that I think mainly created the sound of '80s music. The first thing was MIDI, which enabled you to lock together a lot of instruments so that they all marched precisely in step. The second was computer mixing, which enabled you to finesse mixes by polishing very tiny details of the mixes. It was a deadly process and produced some of the worst music ever heard. And the third thing was the mass availability of quite cheap preprogrammed synthesizers. So, suddenly there was available to everyone a library of relatively exotic electronic sounds. And I think it's those three things that made '80s music.
I enjoyed that sound in its time, but I just got completely fed up with how easy it had all become and how you switched the radio on and you'd hear another tightly locked piece of music: Clock-clock-clock. And you could just hear all the clocks ticking in it, you know.
And then, as always, I was listening to a lot of '50s and '60s music, R&B and old pop songs. What impressed me so much about them was how unclocked they were, how loose and frail and organic. You'd hear a song where instead of every single moment and part of the space being filled with some bloody cheap synthesizer sound or other, there were sometimes real spaces, where people didn't play anything in particular. The track would just groove along.
If you listen to early Al Green records or something like that, there's really nothing happening a lot of the time. Sometimes, there's just the guy singing in the studio, and you can hear feet tapping and the musicians are just playing in a quite relaxed way. This gentleness and this lack of the desire to fill every moment with some kind of special, little event started to become more and more attractive to me.
I started to find jazz more and more attractive as well. It seemed to me to be music on the verge of a nervous breakdown the whole time. It always seemed like it was going to fall apart, as opposed to this '80s music, which seemed so invulnerable and so totally rock solid, tightly bolted together. And I started to think that '80s music was actually very un-modern. It was very "industrial revolution" in a way. It was filled with musical rivets everywhere. There was no biology to it. It will die. It's on its way out now.
On Nerve Net you have two mixes of "Web" that are almost polar opposites. And you released an EP with 12 different mixes of "Fractal Zoom" and another of "Ali Click." Why isn't a song a song? Why does it have millions of possible permutations?
What remixing is, is regarding a 24-track tape as a palette of possibilities, which does not have a single, definitive end product. Remixing is really allowing yourself to make different versions of one piece of music or to say that actually there is no such thing as one piece of music. There's one cloud of musical possibilities that can be shaped in lots of different ways. So you might make one mix for the dancefloor. This would obviously stress rhythm and often stresses quite simple rhythmic elements. You might make another mix for the late-night dancefloor, when people are a bit tired, and they want to get a bit more trippy. This is, of course, where all this ambient-house thing is from, where my work was revived [laughter] and recognized for its true value. Then you might make another, an extended mix for an album, for example. Then a short mix for a radio single. All these listening situations really demand different kinds of music.
That's one thing when you are dealing with your own music. But you've also remixed, fairly recently, the EMF song "Unbelievable" for Red Hot + Dance, and that bears almost no relationship to the original song.
If you think that bears no relationship, you should hear the one I've just done for a band called The Grid who had a song called "Heartbeat," which was a hit in England. Quite a nice poppy, simple song. But I think they may have been a little bit embarrassed by its sweetness because they asked me to remix it and they said, "We'd really like it if you did something weird with this " So I said, "Right!" and rolled up my sleeves. That's the kind of invitation I like.
What's interesting about the remixing scene in England is that often the remixes bear no resemblance whatsoever to the original. If they didn't share the same title, you wouldn't know they were connected.
The Grid and I did a nice exchange. They did some remixes for me, of "Ali Click," which are real dancefloor remixes - the kind of thing I could never do. Very machine-like, locked up. Everything I don't want to do. But it's nice to have somebody else do it for you. I did some mixes for them, which are exactly the opposite. I took "Heartbeat," which was a dancefloor kind of song, a nice, light pop song, and turned it into this incredibly grungy, theatening, menacing, terrifying, weird, ambient, dissonant ... it's a beautiful remix, I think.
Well, doesn't "Ali Click" originate in a drum-loop that you lifted from EMF?
This is very interesting. I never realized the connection. Yes, it went from remix to remix. This is a redigestion process, isn't it? Chewing the cud.
You've been recycling music from the beginning. For instance, the drum sound on Ultravox's "My Sex" is actually a Phil Collins track lifted from one of your records.
That's right, yes. In fact, that bass drum had quite a checkered, busy life in my music. Because that was also "Sky Saw" onAnother Green World. Then it became a piece called "M386" on Music for Films. And it went on to even become something else now. I've forgotten what it was. This is a very, very interesting aspect of recording. An element can keep being reused and change identity in each place it slots in, you know.
Phil Collins said a very nice thing to me recently. I hadn't seen him for years. But I met him just about eight months ago, and he said, "You know, I've always wanted to thank you." I said, "Really, what's that for?" Because I have always wanted to thank him for these bloody parts he played that I've reused 800 times.
He said, "When I was in Genesis and I became aware of the way you were working, I realized I could do this [laughter]. If it hadn't been for you, I would not have had a solo career."
I thought, oh, that's very nice of you, thanks. Because at that time, the idea that you could just start really from nothing and make music was quite a new idea.
"My Squelchy Life" was interesting. It's fairly malevolent, but then Robert Fripp does a cool Wes Montgomery guitar on it.
It's like there's this little nightclub scene. I said to him, "Robert, can you play the corniest, cheesiest horrible electric jazz guitar thing?" Because that early jazz guitar - I never have been able to get into that era where the idea was just to make an acoustic guitar that sounded louder. It's a horrible sound to me. It has no personality. Anyway, he got it immediately like that.
He used to play it. That's his Giles, Giles & Fripp sound.
Yes, yes, I suppose it's true. It's part of his own history. It's like you open a door and suddenly you are in this early '60s beatnik club and with people jostling drinks and probably smoking pot. You can almost smell it in there.
Well I bet other people have mentioned this to you - speaking of smoking pot - it's a very psychedelic mix that you've laid on Nerve Net.
Yeah, I came up with a new word, "somadelic." You know psychedelic means mind-expanding. I thought somadelic was interesting because it was body-expanding. Because it's quite dancey as well, a lot of this record. I mean, it is trippy but it's not "lay back in your chair" trippy. It's quite uppish, a lot of it. So I was thinking somadelic might be a nice word for this.
I predicted the return of psychedelia about eight years ago. I kept telling people that it was due back, and I kept waiting and finally it came. It is certainly a big feeling in England at the moment. We have so many retro '60s bands. For me, it's really funny. It's like walking through my teens again, seeing people dressed exactly the same way.
I'm thinking that the drums on "What Actually Happened" have to be the most poorly recorded drum sound in modern music, outside of maybe a bootleg.
I can't think of a better compliment [laughter]. Well, it's interesting to note that that drum sound started as one of the best recorded drum sounds in modern music. I had been working with an engineer, Ben Fenner, who is a great recording engineer. He's not a fixer-in-the-mix guy. He gets things great on tape to begin with.
We always work in very frantic situations where I've assembled a group of musicians. They've never played together, and they walk into the studio and, of course, they always start jamming. And I say, "Ben, get the tape running." Ben hasn't even got a mike plugged in yet, you know. So the tape starts running as the mikes are being plugged in. And one of the things I like about him is that he can deal with a situation as difficult as that. So he always gives me these wonderful recordings, which I then proceed to squeeze and stretch and disturb in various ways. And that particular song is a very good example.
This isn't exactly an audiophile aesthetic of recording.
Now a message to high-end audio lovers [laughter]: Don't expect too much high end in the future of music, at least for this decade. I think people are going to be experimenting with texture and with a retro approach to recording. Which will give us a lot of things that sound like "What Actually Happened.
One of the reasons for people doing this is because part of our listening history now includes old R&B songs recorded in garages, demos with extreme limiting on, poor live recordings that for some reason sound terribly exciting.
Cheap limiting is very interesting, I think. That's used on this track quite a lot. And the other thing is, in many tracks on Nerve Net I'm sending everything to a fuzz box or to some kind of system of distortion. I've got a loudspeaker that I slashed with a razor blade so it's in ribbons. And I often send something out to that speaker and remike it through that.
It's a little bit like those African instruments, mbiras. Where you have little tongues of metal that you play with your thumbs. And around the base of each tongue is a piece of wire that rattles and buzzes as you play. I like this kind of halo that you can get on a sound. And it's a halo of distortion really.
But distortion is a negative word for a very interesting situation. Distortion is really the, production of the harmonics, strange harmonics. If you forget the idea that the medium is in some way connected with realism, with reproduction, then these aren't problems. That's still a good argument for having good-quality audio equipment.
So you can hear the distortion better.
Because you can hear the distortion better, yes, exactly. That's the value of good-quality recording equipment. That you can really reproduce distortion well.
I'm still wondering why a group like U2 came to you. What had they heard in your work that they thought could contribute to their work? Or was it a friendship thing?
No, no, I didn't know them at all before. It was more that I had already developed a reputation at that time for, I don't know, encouraging people to open up a little bit in the studio, I guess.
So I suppose they really wanted someone who'd sit around in the studio and not say, "Oh, that's a bit weird. It didn't sound like U2," but would say, "Hey, that doesn't sound like U2, that's great" [laughter]. Which was what I ended up saying.
I think to a lot of people the U2 records that you've produced are not audiophile recordings, and they would blame you for that.
Oh good [laughter]. I'm very pleased to take credit for tarnishing the gloss of modern recording.
Is that your input to those albums, creating the overall atmosphere of the pieces or...
Partly, yes. I suppose my inputs are on two fairly different levels. One is an overview of asking, "What are we doing? What is this piece about? Where does it fit into the picture of this record? Where does it fit into the pictures of your records in general? Where do your records fit into the picture of modern records? Where does modern recording fit into the picture of modern music? Where does music fit into the picture of culture? Why are we involved in culture?" Those are the kind of things that we actually end up talking about.
So these discussions range from the quite topical and microcosmic, you know, what drum sounds should we have - and they often blossom out into questions about why are we here, where did the universe begin [laughs]. No, it's really true. So I'm sort of the moderator or chairman for those discussions. U2 are a very philosophical bunch actually. I think they spend more time in the studio talking than anything else. But the talking is not just about anything, it is really about what they are doing. But what they are doing can be framed in universal or quite local terms.
But I have another job, which is sometimes quite specifically creating a feeling in something. Now this can be done by taking a raw track, which just has bass, drums, and guitar, and seeing what I can do to expand that quite limited vocabulary into some thing that makes such a strong and positive identity. So that when Bono comes in to sing, he'll forget that he hasn't got any words and get so excited that he will just start singing words. And this trick some times works [laughter]. Anything to short-circuit the word-writing process is very essential.
Well, how would you do that?
The song called "The Fly" [from Achtung Baby], which actually I can't take so much credit for, because Flood had a lot to do with that. Flood is a brilliant, brilliant engineer, producer too. But that track really got its identity when it was fed through a cheap guitar-effects box.
One innovation I've made in the recording studio is having sends going to very strange places, like my ribboned speaker I told you about. I'll have just a fuzz box set up somewhere, and I can send out to that. But I'll send lots and lots of the audio tracks out to it, and so coming back up to channels will be this huge, grumbling sound. That sound can create such an aura around a track that it suddenly gives it a fiery, bristling edge. And as soon as musicians hear that, they think, "Oh God, where am I? This is amazing." And that's the way you get results somehow. Even if it doesn't last. Even if that doesn't stay in the mix at the end. That's the process of discovery. That's what you want to make happen all the time.
So "The Fly had everything going to this bizarre treatment, which was a combination of compression, distortion, and delay. That was coming back up the main track and it was all going to other things. So when these two tracks come back from the distortion unit, they can then be fed back into other treatments and echoes. You can create highly reactive landscapes where one drum hit will suddenly create a whole color change. Musicians immediately start to listen to that and respond. And it shapes the way they play. They find they are playing differently. They are playing in a way they wouldn't have done otherwise.
You did that for your earlier collaboration with Harold Budd on The Plateaux of Mirror, didn't you?
Yes, it is actually a technique that I really learned from working with Harold Budd. Because with him I used to set up quite complicated treatments and then he would go out and play the piano. And you would hear him discovering, as he played, how to manipulate this treatment. How to make it ring and resonate. Which notes work particularly well on it. Which register of the piano. What speed to play at, of course, because some treatments just cloud out if they have too much information in them.
So all of this, of course, creates things that aren't hi-fi. Hi-fi is all to do with clarity. I'm really not interested in it. Clarity is only one of a number of effects, as far as I'm concerned. Clarity is something that you use in the architecture of a piece, like quite you use windows. You don't have all windows. You also want dark places, and places where you can shut the door, and places where you can hide things. Places that are warm. Places that are cool. Places that are bright. There's an assumption - which is very much like that building over there - that all glass is marvelous. Well, it isn't. That's a horrible kind of building to be in. There's nowhere to hide. I want places to hide.
John Diliberto is the host and producer of Echoes, a nightly music soundscape broadcast on more than 130 radio stations from American Public Radio.