From Interview,1990, kindly supplied by its author.
British composer and producer Brian Eno brings some new projects into fine focus. Robert Walsh found pop musics Renaissance Man in the shadow of the World Trade Center.
A dilettante in the best sense, Brian Eno is one of the few authentic polymaths in popular music. To his roles as producer, film composer, video artist, freelance lecturer and inventor of ambient music, he brings an insiders probing theoretical intelligence and an unfailing willingness to experiment. He even carries a business card that reads BRIAN ENO, SYNTHESIST.
Born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, in 1948, Brian Peter George St John Le Baptiste de la Salle Eno attended Ipswich schools and received a diploma in fine art from Winchester Art School in 1969. He soon joined the seminal British art-rock band Roxy Music and contributed tape and synthesizer treatments to the groups first two albums. In 1973 Eno released Here Come The Warm Jets, the first of his pioneering and influential solo records, all of which feature highly diverse collections of guest musicians. As a producer he is best known for U2s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree (both co-produced by his longtime colleague Daniel Lanois) and three albums by Talking Heads.
From the beginning of his career Eno has stressed the importance of collaboration as a source of novelty and creative tension. Accordingly, he has worked closely with a number of unique talents, each accomplished in his own right: David Bowie, David Byrne, the guitarist Robert Fripp, trumpet player Jon Hassell, and pianist Harold Budd, among others. During the past decade he has devoted much of his time to video and music-and-light installations at galleries and museums throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States. In 1983 he and his wife, Anthea Norman-Taylor, founded Opal Ltd., a management company whose clients include Budd, Hassell, dulcimer player Laraaji, guitarist Michael Brook, and visual artist Russell Mills. The Opal Records label has already releaed the compilation Music for Films III and albums by Enos brother, Roger, the New York band Hugo Largo, and the Russian band Zvuki Mu. Future releases include albums by Daniel Lanois and by the Armenian duduk (oboe) player Djivan Gasparyan, as well as a recording from the Cameroon rain forest by Louis Sarno.
Enos body of work in various fields has been well documented in Eno and Millss More Dark Than Shark (Faber and Faber, 1986). A new volume, Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Colour of Sound, by musicologist Eric Tamm, has just been published, also by Faber.
I met Eno on a clear, cold morning in March at the photographer Karen Kuehns loft in lower Manhattan. As we talked in a sunny front room, he patiently observed and fumbled with Kuehns cats, which took a particular liking to his black and charcoal-grey clothing. A few minutes into our conversation, Eno was alert enough to notice that my tape recorder was not running properly, and we started over.
BRIAN ENO: I had a terrible experience once. A lady was doing a very long telephone interview with me, and I was in very good form. And I thought, God, Im really looking forward to the transcript She rang up the next day and said her tape recorder hadnt been working. I was very upset. Sometimes I get onto a kind of roll where I say things that really surprise me I dont know where they come from. [laughs]
ROBERT WALSH: Is that the major reason to do interviews, aside from the publicity?
BE: Yes. I dont actually think very much sitting down in front of a typewriter unless I have a very clear focus a lecture or a letter to write. Im not a philosopher; I dont sit down and out of the blue just start thinking about things.
RW: But you do keep notebooks. Do they feed your lectures?
BE: To some extent. The notebooks are a very arbitrary kind of sieve, really; they just collect odd things passing through. I read a great deal; I dont know how I do, because, Im not such a fast reader, but I think its probably because I dont watch television, so I probably have two to ten hours a day that other people dont. [laughs] And I travel a lot, so Im reading when I travel, and Im always copying sections out of books. Sometimes I dont even know why they interest me. But eventually I build up quite a mosaic of fragments from other sources and from myself.
RW: Have you always kept notebooks?
BE: Oh yes, since I was about fifteen. So theyre also diaries, though I dont ever use them as a place to record what Im feeling about anything.
RW: Do you do that in letters?
BE: Yes, sometimes.
RW: You used to carry tapes that would put you in the proper mood for writing letters. Do you still do that?
BE: Yes. Im a big letter writer well, in spasms I am. I always carry a little electric typewriter, and I use letters as a way of thinking. I choose he person Im writing to in accordance with what I want to think about in the letter. [laughs] I know that if I write to one person its going to direct my thoughts in a certain way, and if I write to another person its going to be another type of thought.
RW: Would you use any of that material in your lectures?
BE: Yes, I often photocopy the letters, and it all gets linked together in various ways. But when I come to write a lecture, what I normally find, to my surprise, is that I dont even need to consult my notes much I just start writing. Though it can take me a long time to write a lecture one took a month of solid work.
RW: Is that because things havent quite fallen into place?
BE: No, its too much material Well, there are two problems that can occur. One is the problem of disjunctions: I know this sequence of things and I know this sequence of things, but theres a link in the chain that hasnt been established. You might say to yourself when youre off on your own, Oh well, Ill come back to that later. [laughs] Your eye can jump across, and who cares if it doesnt quite relate? But you cant fool other people. Im very interested in the process of finding weak spots in ones thinking, and Ive been doing lectures for that.
The second problem is that when I sit down to write, what normally happens is that it starts involving nearly everything Ive ever thought about. So I have to say, Well, thats a nice thing, but I cant have it here. My lectures are always quite long two to three hours. And theyre quite dense. I dont have an awful lot of waffle in them, and I dont rely on that old lecturers trick of showing slides of my work. [laughs] I think thats a real trick: someone asks you toi do a lecture and you just do a slide show and say, Well, I did this piece in 1986 I try not to give people anything that they can find somewhere else. So I don't play my music unless it really makes a point that I think needs demonstration. I do use diagrams when I'm talking; I have an overhead projector so I can draw. I think a lot in diagrams; I always have.
RW: Is what you say about the gaps in your lectures true of your music too?
BE: Yeah, that's definitely true. I think that it's for a different reason, though. What I've done in music occasionally is to jump the rails onto a different track. I can't find a way of making smooth transitions, really, I'm not interested in that. If I see another territory, I want to be there. I don't want to gracefully move away from this one; I just want to dump it [laughs] and move to the next one. And in music... well, in all the things I do, I guess, if they're at all successful, there's a lot of those jumps.
Yet success is a form of momentum; it doesn't encourage change. You get more and more encouragement and approval and money [laughs] to do more of the same thing, or to do modifications of the same thing. But you are not encouraged to abandon the whole package and start innovating or originating another one. I think that's a real problem for a lot of people.
RW: And for you?
BE: Well, it's a problem not so much because other people encourage you to continue in the same pattern -- I fully understand why they would and I don't resent that they do -- but because there's something in my own life that says the same thing. If you've been doing a certain type of work for a while, you're familiar with it, you're quite accomplished at it, it's no longer clumsy. But when you start something new it is very clumsy, and it has all sorts of failures built into it; it's ugly, actually, at the beginning. But I've learned to believe, to trust that that's where interesting things come from -- from something that is somewhat cumbersome and unshapely, but strong.
RW: Is that part of the attraction of producing other people?
BE: Yeah. The strength of collaboration is that you're made to focus on things that you wouldn't have chosen to focus on, and you're moved in different ways. The weakness is that you're never sure what you were responsible for. And that's rather an important thing to know, I think. Because for me finishing a piece of work is letting it go but accepting responsibility for it as well.
I never think of anything as finished until its released. If you came round to my house one day and I said, This is something I havent finished yet, but its going to be much better when Ive mixed it, and blah blah blah all these defenses and then I played it for you, thats one thing. But if you pick up my album at a shop and take it home and put it on your record player and Im not there to give you all those excuses, thats quite a different thing. A work is finished for me when its no longer in the domain of my excuses about it. The whole process culminates in that final thing when it reaches an audience, and I look at it and I feel, That was good and I went somewhere new, and Im pleased with the place it has made in the world
RW: Which you might not know for a while
BE: Yes, you might not. Exactly. Or you think, Well, that was just more more art you know, who needs it? [laughs] I really hate the idea of adding to the huge piles of art that are around. In the Common Market we have these things called butter mountains and wine lakes. The Economic Community subsidizes farmers to produce this or that in order to stabilize prices. But of course the reaction is always much greater than they expect. So if they subsidize people to produce butter, next year there's 300 million tons of butter that no one wants. So they keep it all in cold storage, and they call it butter mountains -- or wine lakes or milk lakes or whatever. I think we're really suffering from art mountains all over the place at the moment.
RW: Do you pay much attention to contemporary art?
BE: I pay a lot of attention to a small number of things. I don't know the scene at any moment very comprehensively. I've never been a sightseer in any way, including in the world of culture. My technique for going on holidays is very typical of the way I look at pictures: I go somewhere, hire a car, drive a bit, and as soon as I see a place I like, I stay there -- whatever it's like, whether it's a little town or a big holiday resort. And I find it much more rewarding, always, to be in one place for a time than to be in a lot of places for brief impressions. I don't consolidate brief impressions very well; they remain a blur for me.
For example, I first started listening to Arabic pop music in the early '70s because I heard one piece on the shortwave, which I recorded. That was the only piece of Arabic pop music I knew. I listened to it over and over for about a year and a half. And it wasn't until then that I ever thought of buying any cassettes of that kind of music, whereas I think another mentality would have said, Well, Arabic pop music's interesting -- and gone out and bought 150 cassettes of it. [laughs]
I don't keep things around if I'm not that interested in them. I have a sort of limit on my record collection and on my book collection -- I'm always chucking things out as well as acquiring new things. I don't want that many alternatives around to focus on. That's why I don't buy a lot of magazines either. And if I do buy them I read them -- I quickly make a decision about what I want to learn. If there's something I want I'll cut it out, or I'll throw the magazine away, because I'm a terrible one for just sort of grazing through records and books if they're around -- not even interesting material. I try to remove all that so I'm left only with stuff that I know is interesting, even if it is a bit difficult to get into.
RW: Do you keep your own unfinished work?
BE: I chuck a lot of it away. I guess it's partly an illusion, but I like to feel that if I wanted to disappear tomorrow I could. I'm happy to travel light, really.
RW: You may do a couple of video works in New York in the next few months.
BE: I think so, yes. I never talk much about what I'm going to do, because if I change my mind it's terribly embarrassing. Also, I don't really think about things at all until I have to do them. I have a funny kind of attention. Anthea, my wife, calls me "Mr. Zoom" [laughs] because when I focus my attention on something, I can concentrate in a way that I've never seen anyone else do. But I have no talent whatsoever for holding a lot of things in my mind at once.
RW: Is that true only of things that spark your interest, or could you apply that attention to anything?
BE: If I'm in the mood, I can apply it to anything. The other night I was thinking about Mettle, the new Hugo Largo album we're releasing, which I want to promote in some way. I was sitting and staring at an electric fire at the time [laughs], and I thought, I'll use that fire as my model of how I'm going to promote this record. I can't explain the thought process, but the fire actually became the key; it could have been anything else -- that slipper or this book.
I've developed these techniques of... focusing thoughts -- that's all it is: developing fine focus. It doesn't matter what you use to do that -- an electric fire will do fine. It's just saying that something has to restrict your attention; that's all focus is -- exclusion. It simply says: For this period I'm going to look at this big a world. Having done that, you might arrive at a technique that enables you to look at the rest of things as well, but I'm really a zoomer. I'm not ... what's the opposite of zoom?
RW: Wide angle?
BE: Yes. I call Anthea "Wide Angle" because she's brilliant it keeping a lot of different things going. It's like cooking: I'm a very good cook -- with one saucepan. [laughs] I'm hopeless if this needs to be put in ten minutes before that, and this one has to be turned on fourteen minutes later.
Anthea has developed methods of utilizing my zoom better. She knows never to ask me about something when I don't want to think about it, because that puts me off thinking about it ever. If I think about something and fail to make any kind of movement on it, I don't want to think about it again; it sours the whole subject for me. So she just waits for the right time. She says, very casually, "What do you think we should do about ... ?" [He makes machine-gun noises and laughs.] And she'll have tape recorders running and start writing.
RW: Is this mainly about business or about everyday life?
BE: Everything, anything ... Anything except my life, actually. [laughs] The zoom is always outward. I'm never any good at thinking about "me" in the psychoanalytical sense.
RW: Did you just find yourself able to do this? How did this begin?
BE: [long pause] That's a good question ... Well, I must say, I do remember when I was young I could ... solve problems. But I didn't really know how I was doing it then. I could do this thing, which I can still do in discussions, where I just keep throwing in different ways of looking at problems. I'd be a good think-tank member. The difficulty with most people's attempts at problem solving is that they think it has something to do with truth, reality, logic, all that kind of thing. It doesn't have to do with any of that. You just use these things like implements.
RW: But when did you start to do this zooming? Did you do it as a child?
BE: Yeah, and at school, I think, as well.
RW: Did you spend a lot of time alone?
BE: As a child I did, because my hobby was collecting fossils, and I didn't know anyone else who was interested in that. I liked just going off on my own into the woods and to the beaches and digging around to find fossils and interesting stones. I liked being alone. I still do. But "me" in that sense is not a very interesting subject. I can't remember very much about me, you know. Ive never been very inward-looking. So I dont have many insights into that thing that thing called me.
Its funny, when I first came to New York in the mid-70s, I noticed how different the tenor of New York society is from European society. I was sitting in a café on Eighth Street and I could hear quite a few different conversations, and they were all about me about the speaker. And they were all about these half-digested psychoanalytic notions of [imitates clipped, swallowed New York accent] hostility and regression just these words that people hear. And I thought, God, thats really the language of this city. And its a language that I have no use for. I dont understand it, I dont use it, it doesnt ring with me at all.
RW: Did you find that only in New York?
BE: Its especially American; its especially New York. And its especially Jewish, I think. Freudianism is a Jewish tradition. So you hear it a lot in New York. And you hear it in Los Angeles as well. My sense is that it isnt so much a topic of conversation here now.
RW: The music for your video installations involves very long tape cycles
BE: Endless, really. [laughs]
RW: But most of your other music is fairly short, including the music for films. Would you like to do full film scores?
BE: I'm not really very interested in music at the moment, to be honest. [laughs] I'm a bit fed up with records. I'm happy to help other people who are making interesting music as much as I can. But right now I have no music that I want to foist on the world to join the music ... lake? What I'm interested in at the moment is ... thinking. [laughs] I'm always just interested in what I'm doing this week. What I was doing last week is as far away as my school exams.
RW: What are you doing this week?
BE: I'm just thinking. That's all I I've been doing for a few months.
RW: Do you enjoy the business side of Opal?
BE: Yes. I like creating niches. There are two ways you can work if you're marketing something. One is to identify an existing niche and tailor something to fit it. The other is to take something that you've made or found and tailor a niche to accommodate it. I like doing the latter. I like to imagine that one can identify spaces in the world, little vacuums [laughs] that could be occupied.
RW: Did you ever have a plan or an idea about what kind of career you would have?
BE: No. Nor do I yet. But that's all right. I suppose if I'm in any tradition, it's the tradition of the English gentlemen scientists, a tradition of independent observers. Some of them were completely wacko eccentrics, but a lot of the interesting science in England in the nineteenth century was done by people who were not associated with universities or laboratories or with sources of public funds. They had no reason to uphold a tradition or to destroy it or anything else.
Darwin is a good example. John Dalton is another one. And of course the inventors of the Industrial Revolution, people like Stephenson, who invented the railway train, and Bessemer.
RW: Do you read much science?
BE: Quite a lot, yeah. What I've been most interested in during the last few years is genetics and evolution theory, because it's really the science of how things become, how things change into other things.
RW: There's a new book on your work which is about to come out.
BE: It's called Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. I don't quite understand the title, but the book is much less opaque. [laughs] It's by a guy called Eric Tamm, and he's a musicologist examining my work -- which is very funny, because it's a perspective that I can't even do myself. I think it's a very good book. I heartily recommend it. [laughs]
He must have read every interview that I've ever had published. And he put comments from different interviews together in a most interesting way. And then he started considering the work in terms of what it was doing musically, which nobody has ever done. It's generally been looked at socially. In fact, that's usually how people look at pop music and why pop reviews are so boring most of the time. [laughs] Because they don't actually tell you anything about the music.
A subject that has interested me a lot is the development of sound, sound texture, as a developing musical language. Until the '20s, and really until the '50s effectively, composers thought of work in terms of a finite palette. You know what the parameters of a clarinet are; they might be extended a bit sometimes, but you pretty much know what they are. You know what a violin is; you know what a viola is. Although the permutations of those instruments are very rich, very numerous, you're nonetheless dealing with a fixed pack of cards in traditional composition. As soon as electronics of any kind came along, that just exploded and expanded in so many different ways. And there's absolutely no limit to it. So it would be meaningless to write "electric guitar" in a score, because an electric guitar is whatever sound its player chooses it to be. Musicologists have never taken this aspect of the history of music seriously, because the concept of developing sound as a currency, as a language, has nothing to do with classical music.
I used to play a game with my brother and his wife: I'd take a pop record out of the collection. drop the needle on literally half a second and take it off again. It was amazing how frequently the record could be identified from that. He'd say, "Oh, that's the Clash, or "That's the Beach Boys." If played you a fifth of a second of Bach you wouldnt be able to tell it from Beethoven or from anyone else, because the texture of the sound is nearly identical in each case. But with popular music, so much of what has happened is to do with sound itself as a musical language.
Eric Tamm talks as a musicologist; he talks in terms of modes and tone rows and all those things, but he talks about sound as well. It makes a lot of sense to me; hes able to connect things in families in a way that I have never done before. But having seen him do that, I think, Yes, of course those things are related. Im sure its much more interesting for me than for most other people. [laughs] Its a very academic book. But its not boring; I dont mean academic in the sense of dry, but in the sense of studious not concerned with all of the local social issues that books about pop music often are. They're usually concerned with who you met in this club, and so-and-so being someone else's wife -- this total rubbish that I just don't want to read about.
RW: You're about to release a new record. by the Russian band Zvuki Mu?
BE: Yes. It's very stripped down, not overdubbed and all that sort of thing. Some of the vocals were done separately. Otherwise it's how they played it, how they play it live.
I didn't really want to have too much input. I'm so nervous of this thing that happens sometimes -- people's good ideas get credited to me and then they get very pissed off. [laughs] So all I wanted to do was make a good-sounding recording of them that didn't sound like a studio-process recording.
RW: Had you seen them perform live?
BE: Yeah, Id seen them two or three times. It was through them that I realized Russian rock music has absolutely nothing to do with Western rock music, and that to compare them as music is a mistake. They're not the same package and they don't sit in the society the same way; it doesn't have the same function. That really became clear to me with Zvuki Mu and with one other band called Avia, which I think is a fantastic band as well. There are quite a few interesting bands -- I shouldn't just single them out -- but those two in particular made me aware that rock music is very much a part of the cultural situation there. It's an interesting accident of history that because the situation was so repressive for the conventional arts for a long time, a lot of people who might have become choreographers or filmmakers or painters and so on chose not to move into those areas because you couldn't do anything in them -- they were too highly governed. But pop music wasn't -- nobody took it seriously on an official level. It was just sort of stupid entertainment. As a result a lot of very interesting intelligences went into rock music, and they carried with them the interests that they couldn't put somewhere else.
Avia is a band that includes, I think, two choreographers, who work as choreographers in the band; a mime, who works as a mime in the band; and a painter, who paints fantastic sets for their shows.
So rock music there has become a little meeting place for a lot of strange talents, like it was in England in the '60s, as a matter of fact. When the first big wave of ex-art-school people moved into the pop scene in England, there was a very ambiguous situation there for a while, very fluid -- all sorts of new bands being formed, with strange identifies. But of course it's all marketing now. [laughs] As Jon Hassell always points out, our system has so much to do with records that pop music becomes defined as that which is recordable. It's not necessarily the same thing as that which is interesting. This record is catching only a part of what Zvuki Mu does. It's a way of introducing people to them, but I hope people understand that it's not like the record of a Western band.
There's a lot going on in Russia that is not really recordable. Russia doesn't have a rock-record tradition; nobody made records, because there was only one record company and that was government-controlled. So the focus of people's craft was toward performance and lyrics, and sound to only a certain extent - not to the extent that we've done.
RW: I noticed that the front cover for Music for Films III is one of your drawings. Do your notebooks contain drawings and paintings?
BE: Not paintings. I do quite a lot of drawing; painting requires too much equipment. Being a painter requires a settled life, I think. And I haven't got one. Whereas drawing requires what I've got in my bag there. I've got my tools, and I can draw pretty much anywhere.
RW: Is your life unsettled because you like traveling or because opportunities arise and you respond?
BE: It's because I'm not very good at organizing my life. [laughs] I don't particularly like traveling; I just always seem to end up doing it. I get a thrill from being somewhere else, but in the end I get more of a thrill from being in one place for a long time. What I've started doing recently is going somewhere with all the bits and pieces I need and setting up home wherever I am. Even if it's only for three days, I set up my typewriter and my this and my that, and I take it seriously: I'm here, and I'm going to use this time. I'm not just going to sit around and watch TV. I don't carry very many clothes with me, but I carry a lot of books. In fact, my suitcase this time was unbelievably heavy. As I said, I've been thinking a lot lately, so I thought I'd better take all my paperwork along. [mimes six-inch stack of paper] I don't know if you've ever carried that much paper around. [looks into my stuffed bag] I guess you have. [laughs]
RW: I was wondering if you've seen this new book by Richard Rorty I'm carrying, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. There are essays on Proust, Orwell, Nabokov...
BE: Oh, Nabokov is a big figure in my reading life, actually. I've just been reading, or re-reading, I think for the fourth time, Nabokov's The Gift. You can always go back to Nabokov. Lolita I've read more than any other book. I think that's a fantastic book on so many levels. The craft is absolutely beautiful, joyful, but the other undertones are fascinating as well.
RW: Which of the other arts are important to you at the moment?
BE: Painting. I'm interested in Mimmo Paladino. Nicola De Maria I like his recent stuff a lot. I've just been looking at those guys, so whenever people say, "What did you find interesting?" I come up with one or two names. [laughs]
RW: Are you interested in dancing?
BE: In theory. In practice I nearly always find it sickening. When I go to "Dance" with a capital D, I just hate to see all this old ballet stuff carried over into it. But I love watching ordinary people dance. And I like the way people sing rather than the way opera singers sing. I go to a lot of dance hoping that I'm going to find something that really affects me, but I very rarely see anything that I like as much as just watching people dancing.
RW: Do you go to clubs?
BE: Not very much. People dance in all sorts of situations -- at parties and in the street, to jukeboxes in cafés...
RW: When you lived in New York in the '70s, I used to see you at films all the time. Do you still go as much, or do you think it's a bad period for movies?
BE: I think the big problem is that the budgets are too large. Nothing is more guaranteed to kill any work of art than a big budget. Because as soon as you have a big budget you have big expectations, you have lots of people involved, you owe. Nobody talks about making a movie these days for less than several million dollars. Id hate to do anything in that frame of mind Itsgot to succeed. You get so many movies that are dilute in their position, because to take any extreme position means sacrificing part of the potential audience. So movie people say, It was meant to be this, but we had to have a bit of that, and we had to have somebody else showing the other point of view as well.
As is nearly always the case, the best things seem to come form people who can break through that either by accident, because they cant attract the financing, or because they are in themselves strong enough not to feel guilty about using other peoples money. [laughs] I couldnt do it; Id feel terribly guilty.
RW: Do you pay attention to the way your music is used in all kinds of films?
BE: These people who make films are much bolder than I am. They put things together in such a way that if it were described to me I might think, Thats a weird one. But when I hear it I usually enjoy it. Its one of the only times I listen to my own music.
RW: As a producer or in your own work, do you have difficulties with the new standards of sound for CDs?
BE: Yeah, its a bit of a piss-off, quite honestly. Because the way I work is not particularly clean. And I dont care. Look at these paintings you showed me before. [opens catalogue of paintings by Manny Farber]. I know by looking at the reproductions that these are brushmarks, theres texture, theres all sorts of things. What if somebody said to this guy, Sorry, this isnt CD quality youre going to have to paint them differently? He would laugh them out of court. But in music theres this assumption that anything that hints at the process by which music is made namely, a recording studio with tape and equipment that hisses and grunges anything that hints at that is sort of, Oh, hold on, mustnt do that.
Its this Hollywood sensibility that still infects the record industry the way everything in Hollywood films is beautifully lit, and beautifully lit for them means evenly lit. So nothing is in the shadows, nothings out of focus. They think it has to do with reality or fidelity; it has nothing at all to do with that. Theres a fucking camera there, and there are lights. Its all lies to begin with why pretend it isnt? And audio is very much in that benighted condition, except for the underground stuff, the cassette culture thats going on now. Thats much more interesting technically than all this Mitsubishi thirty-two-track stuff. The new technical ideas are coming from the bottom, not the top, I think.
I get a lot of demo tapes that are recorded on Porta-Studios or something like that. And sometimes they have a quality that is incredible, just the sheer texture of the sound, this crushed, squashed sound that you get from using cheap limiters and so on. I listen to that and I think, Fantastic! And then I read the letter and they say [imitates slurred British speech], Sorry the sound of this is so awful, but when we get into a twenty-four track studiooooo And I throw that tape away as well. [laughs]
RW: Have you heard The Trinity Session, by the Cowboy Junkies? It was recorded with one mike in a church and gives you a real sense of being in a live room.
BE: Yes. I like the new Hugo Largo record for that too Well, I like everything about it. If I died tomorrow Id be happy because Id released that record.
RW: Drum, their first record, was very immediately seductive.
BE: Yes, and this isnt. I have to say that when I first heard this one I was disappointed; its not as charming. It was longer as well. It had two or three more tracks, which I suggested they drop, because they seemed to fill in all the spaces; it made the record run together. So I think I clarified the record a little, but I cant take any credit at all. God, is it a deep record! I think its a fantastic achievement.
RW: You mentioned earlier that you have problems about knowing what youre responsible for when you work with other people. Is that a problem for you as a producer?
BE: Yeah, thats why I dont produce all the time. Producing is a form of cheating, really, because you get credit without responsibility.
RW: Do you feel that way about the U2 records youve done with Daniel Lanois?
BE: Sure. Ive always felt that way producing.
RW: Even with Talking Heads?
BE: Yeah. Its finally they who live or die by those records. The producer, unless he makes a total cock-up, is in a sort of invulnerable position. If people dont understand something on the record, they credit the producer very often.
RW: But you obviously had a tremendous amount to do with a couple of the Talking Heads albums.
BE: Oh, Im not denying that; Im not being falsely modest. Its just that what I did and that they were doing is not clearly defined. Its embarrassing to be credited for things you didnt do, and annoying not to be credited for things you did do. [laughs]
Its for my own state of mind that I need to know these things. I know where I am by what I do. As I said, I dont look into myself; I look out to what I do. Thats how I know where I am and who I am. If youre working collaboratively all the time, youre never sure. Decisions happen very quickly in a group, and you never know where the flow of energy is. You might suggest something, but you might have said it because you got a clue from what another person said. The danger of always being involved in collaborative situations is that you lose a sense of which bit of that is you. Whats me on my own like? What do I do when Im on my own? And I like to know that too.
RW: Are you tempted then to work without collaborators?
BE: Well, I have, of course. The video installations are done entirely alone, and a lot of my music has been as well. Or alone enough for me to know. Sometimes I have somebody else come in to play something, but most of the music on my records has been mine. If its collaborative I say so I say, Brian Eno/David Byrne. But if I think that its my record with other people guesting on it, then I say its by me.
RW: So you feel that youve been able to sort out what youve been responsible for?
BE: Yeah, but you keep finding out. Its not solvable in the sense that youre not static, so you keep doing it.
I dont have a mechanism for looking in. I make something, and when its out there I can see it and I can think, Now, why does that interest me? What world is that from? What does it relate to? And by answering those questions satisfactorily I get some notion of the world that I am living in, the conceptual world and the real world Im in
[stares out of the window for a moment]
I have to go. Its such a nice day, I want to have a look out there.