The Oblique Strategist

Mojo magazine ran a series of articles entitled The Producers. This is Part 2, focusing on Brian Eno, from Mojo, June 1995. Interview conducted by Andy Gill.

You'd like your album smoothly airbrushed with the minimum fuss, and expertly streamlined to slot into a tidy marketing profile? Don't phone Brian Eno then. "I'm always grumbling when I produce," he tells Andy Gill, "but it's the people who're dissatisfied who get things changed."

In a small ground-floor flat in North London, Brian Eno crouches by the window, eating a sandwich. Too roughly decorated for an actual home, this is his London studio: on the wall of the front half of the through-lounge is an imposing flow-diagram made up of countless bits of paper bearing baffling phrases - a set of strategies every bit as oblique as his celebrated pack of creative-assistance cards. He adds to it occasionally, playing a kind of intellectual solitaire in which there is no successful solution, just an ever-widening matrix of possibilities.

The rear half of the work-space is given over to more hands-on activities, a bank of music-oriented equipment jostling for space with a workbench bearing the implements of Eno's other creative work as a sculptor: saws, hammers, screwdrivers, glue, paint and scissors. His chum David Bowie, with whom he is now collaborating on a fourth Bowie album (the first since 1979's Lodger), believes Eno's sculpture has a winning sense of irony. It's hard to disagree when faced by droll pieces like Limbs Of The Superheroes, which features the dismembered muscular arms of several Masters Of The Universe set in an acrylic base.

As the weird one in Roxy Music, Eno contributed funny noises and a consummate sense of otherness which dissipated the moment he departed. Always a restless spirit, his solo career was marked by a wilful ignorance of commercial necessities and a gadfly delight in the more outré of musical forms. In quick succession through the '70s, he invented ambient music, composed the theme tune to Arena - a steady earner ever since - and became patron of the musical avant-garde through his Obscure label, which offered an outlet for (then) unrecorded, left-field composers such as Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars. The most profitable (and widely heard) side of his work, however, has been as a producer for the likes of Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, to each of whom he brought an experimental edge which resulted in some of their most successful works.

To Eno the roles of musician and producer are virtually indistinguishable. "The only thing I could actually play when I first started doing records was a tape recorder," he explains. "It was the only thing I felt any understanding and control over. Synthesizers run a distant second, and other instruments nowhere."

Miles Davis's producer, the great Teo Macero, is a big influence, particularly for his refusal to mix things in the strictly figurative manner common to both classical and jazz recordings of the time: "He'd have a conga-player half a mile off to the extreme right, the guitar player right here, and the trumpet far away over there - there was no attempt to pretend that this was a group of guys playing in a room, which was the jazz thing up till then. I loved that image of how music could be, as something whose parts drift away sometimes and then coalesce again. "

Not that Eno applies the same kind of fluidity to release dates, however; when, a couple of years ago, Warners put back by six months the release of his album My Squelchy Life, he abruptly pulled the album completely. "We're not writing symphonies to sit around for 100 years," he believes. "We're making magazines not novels, and it really makes a difference when it appears, what mood the rest of the culture is in. For instance, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts would have been a total non-event four years later. "

This undertow of stubborn logic perhaps provides the firm base on which Eno's more amorphous production talents rest. He has a reputation as a very opinionated producer - though he cheerfully admits that he doesn't care if nobody pays him any mind. "A strong position is very useful to other people," he says. "There's no value in a weak position - what position can you take in response to it? But if you're confronted with a strong position, you really have to think about where you stand. It helps you identify where you are. "

The Portsmouth Sinfonia:

Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays The Popular Classics; Hallelujah (LPs, 1973)

It was an orchestra that anybody could join and, of course, most of the people that did couldn't play musical instruments. Though there were some very good musicians among them, their effect was rather overwhelmed by the large number of non-musicians. If there was a joke, it was always that much funnier when the people were trying to get it right - then the mistakes were very touching, somehow. It never worked if people were trying to be funny. In fact, we chucked a guy out for farting around, a trumpet player who tried to make silly mistakes. Being thrown out of The Portsmouth Sinfonia - that really must be the lowest of the low!

Fripp & Eno:

No Pussyfooting (LP, 1973)

One of the things I liked about my old AMS "suitcase synthesizer", and the thing that really started me off thinking about producing, was that it had an input for another instrument, so you could feed something into it and then start playing with the sound of that other instrument. Processing, which is what that was, was at a very young stage: there was still this persistent idea that there was the musician who did his thing, then there was the producer who put on a bit of echo or something. The idea that there could be some real liaison between the person playing and the person doing the treatment was something quite new, and in fact the first record I did with [Robert] Fripp, No Pussyfooting, was exactly that: it was the two of us making one sound. He did all the clever stuff, for sure, but the sound that he was hearing was routed through my machinery, I was changing it and he was responding to what I was doing. This was really a new idea, the notion that two people could make one sound in that way. That kind of got me into the idea of the studio, not as a place for reproducing music but as a place for changing it, or re-creating it from scratch.

John Cale:

Fear (LP, 1974)

John's a real crazy guy to work with in the studio: bursts of genius interspersed with oceans of inattention. He's evolved a way of working which lets him do great things, partly by somehow cutting himself off from them as soon as they're done. As soon as they come out of him he doesn't want anything to do with them. In fact, he often doesn't even have much to do with them when he's playing: I've been in the studio with him while he's been on the phone, reading a newspaper at the keyboard, and playing at the same time. No lie, I swear I've seen him produce great music in those situations. It might be a case of wanting to open yourself as a channel so that you just let things through. When people censor themselves they're just as likely to get rid of the good bits as the bad bits.

Gavin Bryars:

The Sinking Of The Titanic (LP 1974)

The Obscure releases were mostly concert and not studio pieces, though on Titanic we did make use of the possibility of overdubbing, otherwise we would have had to use a very large number of players. I suppose it was an early sampling collage: we spun in those voices of the survivors and bits of gramophone records and so on. It was part composition but also an archive as well, a collection of all sorts of ephemera about that event, so the piece was somewhere between a musical experience and a body of research.

David Bowie:

Low (LP, 1977)

At the time of Low, David was going through a very difficult court case and he had to be away from the studio a lot, so I said, "Since no-one else is using the place, can I start some things on my own? If you think they're useful for this record, we'll use them." A couple of those things on the second side started out of that process - the longest one, Warszawa, for instance. As soon as David heard it he said, "Get me a mike". He's very fast when he gets going, really a brilliant singer - I don't think people realise how finely he can tune his singing, in terms of picking a particular emotional pitch: it's really scientific the way he does it, very interesting. He'll say, "I think that's slightly too theatrical there, it should be more withdrawn and introspective" - and he'll go in and sing it again, and you'll hear this point-four of a degree shift which makes all the difference. It's one of the very few times you get to see real craftsmanship, where someone will tell you about what they're going to do, then do it. He picks up the mood of a musical landscape, such as the type I might make, and he can really bring it to a sharp focus, both with the words he uses and the style of singing he chooses.

He's got a very big palette of styles he can work from, and he's constantly adding to it. Like a lot of great singers, he's a great mimic. Bono too could have a career as a mimic. When Bono does his Bob Dylan or his Ian Paisley, or when David does his Marc Bolan or his Camille Paglia, it's uncannily like having that person there in front of you.

More and more, David and I stick to our own territories now. I do my thing at my own pace, which is quite slow, with frequent reassessments, but he's very impatient with that. The first thing he says is, "That's great; Brian, that'll do, come on, let's get on with it". I say, "No, David, I know that if I leave that like this you cannot sing well on this part. If you'd just let me change that part, it'll be better..." - "No no, come on, I can sing on it!" The last time we were working, he'd say something like that and I'd say, "David, shall I go home now?"


Ultravox! (LP, 1977)

Quite an enjoyable experience. They were wide open to trying new things out, and as such were the beginning of a new breath in pop music at the time: of course, they stood on the shoulders of punk, but they certainly weren't part of that. That was one of the first records to feature both drums and drum-machine. Sly Stone was the first to use drum machines in pop music, on Family Affair, though I was the first in England, I think - a lot of my first record was done with drum machines.


No New York (US new wave compilation LP, 1978)

In New York there was this group of bands that were connected to the SoHo arts scene, and were seen as a kind of branch of performance art. Though I really enjoyed all these bands, I didn't think that any record company was going to release an album's worth of stuff by any of them. So I went to Island and said, "How about putting together what was in effect an archive of stuff by this scene? It's not going to last long, I guarantee that in three months all these bands will be broken up." You could tell it was a little moment in history. In 1913 in Russia, there were hundreds of tiny art movements, where just a few people would do something together and it would light a spark that stayed around and informed people for a long time. But these things only inform people if they do stay around, so I felt I was in some way performing a small service to history by catching these bands.

Very few of them had been in the studio before. Arto Lindsay [then of DNA] was incredibly emotional about this chance to get something recorded, and was playing in a very emotional, intense manner. When he'd finished he walked back into the control room and there I was, feet up on the console, reading a magazine! He was absolutely heartbroken that my life had not been changed by what they did.


Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo (LP, 1978)

Anal is the word. They were a terrifying group of people to work with because they were so unable to experiment. When they turned up to do this record in Germany, they brought a big chest of recordings they'd already done of these same songs. We'd be sitting there working, and suddenly Mark Mothersbaugh would be in the chest to retrieve some three-year-old tape, put it on and say, "Right, we want the snare drum to sound like that". I hate that kind of work. I just do not see the point of trying to replicate such peculiar circumstances: the snare drum sounds good like that because all the other things around it are like they are, so do you really want to replicate the whole thing? "No, we want to have that snare drum, but the guitar sound we want like this" - and it was back in the chest again for another tape!

This seemed impossible, foolish and stupid. Stupid in that it was a waste of time: here we are in another situation, another time, another place, why not do something for this situation? Their picture of recording, for me, was very old-fashioned, like a Platonic Ideal of recording, that somewhere there existed the ideal state of this song, and they thought they could identify several of the ingredients, they were in the chest there somewhere, and my job as a producer was to try to re-make these ingredients and fit them back together. A nightmare.

I'd be sitting there at the desk, and there are EQs, echo sends, all those kinds of things, and my hand would sort of sneak up to put a bit of a treatment on something, and I could feel Jerry Casale bristling behind me. It was awful! He would stand behind me all the time, then lean over and say, "Why are you doing that?" As if you can know why you do something before you do it, always!

Talking Heads:

Remain In Light (LP, 1980)

A much better experience. It got a bit tense towards the end, though. It was a good and fruitful relationship, and it was different for each of the three albums I did with them. More Songs About Buildings And Food was nearly all pre-written and pre-played material, stuff they knew very well. In the studio we'd occasionally decide to shorten things a little bit, but that was all. The next one [Fear Of Music] had not been played live, but was stuff they had started to generate in their loft: they had lots of bits and pieces, like modules which we would try and fit together. But for Remain In Light nothing had been written at all. It was all generated in the studio, and I was a co-writer on that one. The third one happened after David and I had done My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, so we'd got a working relationship there, which became the hub of the relationship on Remain In Light. That was where some tension entered, because there'd been a split developing in the band anyway, which had nothing to do with me: the band had originally been started by Chris [Frantz] and Tina [Weymouth], but as the material became more and more to do with creation in the studio, the relative contribution of the bass and drums slipped down, as it became more and more an over-dubbing thing - and overdubbing is nearly always guitars and keyboards. Plus, I think they never really worked out a very good way of dividing royalties between them.

David Byrne & Brian Eno:

My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (LP, 1980)

When I moved to New York, I listened a lot to the radio phone-in shows, because I thought it was the craziest stuff I'd heard on the radio. Only mad people would phone in, of course - nobody sane ever bothers calling in to the radio - and it was mad people talking to other mad people, because all the comperes were complete loonies themselves, hard-Right types. I used to tune-in with jaw dropping to these conversations between one nutcase who was not paid and one who was paid. I thought this was so much more interesting than anything I would want to say in a song, so I started thinking about making the song a kind of net with which to grab this stuff - that's why it's the Bush Of Ghosts, these ghost voices all around. Some years later, I read an interview with Hank Shocklee [of Public Enemy] where he said that record was really the breakthrough that got them going, which I felt extremely proud about. Proud not only to have started ambient music, but rap music as well. Ha!


The Unforgettable Fire; The Joshua Tree; Achtung Baby!; Zooropa (LPs, 1984, 1987, 1991, 1993)

When they first asked me, I couldn't see the connection at all between what I was likely to do and what they were currently doing. I said, "I don't know what I could offer you - what I'll do if I come in there is change your music a lot." Bono, who has the gift of the gab if anyone does, said: "That's exactly what we want - we could carry on being the same kind of rock'n'roll band forever, and we'd do well at it, but we want to go somewhere else."

I said, "Great, if that's what you think you want, I'm willing to do it." But as an insurance policy I took along Dan Lanois, a really good producer himself and good working with musicians, and if what I started doing was completely unacceptable, I could gracefully bow out of the project and he could carry it on. He was there as the long stop. We covered quite different areas: his was the more traditional producer role, he would think about things like what was the most comfortable playing situation, and whether to change that drum for this drum, and which mike to use.

That freed me to basically be an arsehole - I could sit there and say, "Mmm, I don't like this". I'm always grumbling when I produce, but I always say in my own defence that it's the people who're dissatisfied who get things changed. My type of grumbling would be, "I don't think that's going far enough" or, "This one idea is really the happening idea - let's just chuck the rest out and see what happens". Not being in a position where I had to deal with too much detail, I was free to overview the thing, and that's always the position I've stayed in.

Some of the things they've done I've really argued strongly against, and they've gone ahead and done them. I really thought The Real Thing, on Achtung Baby!, was not something they should bother doing. The lyric originally said something like, "There ain't nothing like the real thing", and I said, "'Real' is such a stupid word - come on, don't you know what philosophers are talking about now? 'Real' is not a word that you can seriously use any more! This song has got to be more ironic!" I really wanted them to leave it off the record, but to their credit they didn't, and it turns out to have been a good choice. But the words did change to "Even better than the real thing", which defuses the evangelical quality of 'Real'.

On Achtung Baby! I had worked with them for a couple of weeks, then I came home for a couple of months. They sent me what they'd done so far, and I listened to them thinking, This is a total disaster! A total washout! Because what had happened - as often happens in recording - is that while people are waiting for the singer to write the song, they've got all this studio time booked, so they keep overdubbing. I went to Dublin determined to strip it all away and go back to what it had been. It was very successful, and they agreed that it saved that album.

The other thing I did on that record which Edge said was a brilliant move was to send them on holiday. It was hitting crisis point, the deadline was looming and everything seemed like a mess. And I insisted they got away from it for a while. They did, and after just two weeks without listening to it, they came back, listened to the tapes, and suddenly they were able to make pretty quick and clear decisions. Again, that's not something you would tend to do from the inside - we've only got four weeks left, and he's telling us to take a two-week holiday!