Eno at the edge of rock

by Glenn O’Brien

From Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, Vol. VIII, No. 6 (June 1978), kindly typed and supplied by James Bailey.

BRIAN ENO was a founding member of ROXY MUSIC, the English band that more or less founded the Fine Art - Fashion - Rock and Roll fusion that continues to make the world a more interesting spot. And while Bryan Ferry was Roxy’s front man, Eno was the band’s focal point - supplying the most radical musical and visual input.

After a couple of historic Roxy albums, Eno left to pursue his own directions, which proved to be more radical, innovative, and eventually, successful than Roxy. He has made four avant-pop solo albums: HERE COME THE WARM JETS (1973); TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN (BY STRATEGY) (1974); ANOTHER GREEN WORLD (1975); and BEFORE AND AFTER SCIENCE (1977). None of these has been a major chart hit, but all of them have aged well, sounding as fresh and revolutionary today as when they were made, and selling even better. More than any other pop artist, Eno has bridged the gap between “serious music,” the techno-avant garde, and “fun music,” music that you can dance to.

The solo albums explore many forms - from hard rockers to minimal mood pieces, to robot disco - but none of them are strictly definable, perhaps because they’ve been arrived at in strange ways. Among the instruments played by Eno on his solo albums are: snake guitar, piano, synthesizer, digital guitar, vibes, bells, castanet guitar, synthetic percussion, club guitar, uncertain piano, tapes, electric larynx, etc.

Eno has collaborated on two albums with ROBERT FRIPP, the former lead guitarist with KING CRIMSON: NO PUSSYFOOTING (1973); and EVENING STAR (1976). He has performed live with various assemblages of musicians, resulting in two live LPs, 801 LIVE (a Roxy spinoff with Phil Manzanera), and JUNE 1, 1974 (with Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico et al..) He has produced one album of muzak for the bright, Discreet Music (1975).

Perhaps Eno’s funniest work is his production of the PORTSMOUTH SINFONIA, a symphony orchestra composed largely of musicians who can’t play, but make a fabulous try anyway on such numbers as “The William Tell Overture” and “Also Spake Zarathusra.” But lately, Eno’s come into great demand as a “serious” producer and he has worked with the English “new wave” group ULTRAVOX, and most recently the TALKING HEADS, New York’s favorite “art band,” and DEVO (the Devolution Band), a big favorite of David Bowie and Akron, Ohio.

And probably Brian Eno’s greatest “claim to fame” is his collaboration with David Bowie on the latter’s latter two platters, LOW and “HEROES,” which have greatly extended the boundaries of pop music.

I began talking with Eno about Oblique Strategies, which is an “oracular” deck of cards he designed with artist Peter Schmidt for the purpose of solving problems in artistic processes.

How did you devise Oblique Strategies?

They have quite a long history. When I was at art school I started making programs or devices to extricate myself from rapt situations while I was painting. You often find yourself in a situation where your focus on detail is so concentrated that your actual overview of the whole disappears and you’ve lost any possibility of stepping outside and seeing it as a complete thing.

The idea of Oblique Strategies was just to dislocate my vision for a while. By means of performing a task that might seem absurd in relation to the picture, one can suddenly come at it from a tangent and possibly reassess it. So I had about five or six little principles that I carried in my head at that time. Then when Roxy started and we made our first album, although I liked the album a lot, as soon as we had finished it and I was in a position of sitting at home and listening to it as a record, I began thinking “If only I’d done this, or that.” I could suddenly see lots of places where a slightly more detached vision or a different angle of approach would have made a lot of difference. So the next time we recorded, I compiled a set of about twenty five little cards which I’d just stick around the studio and keep reminding myself of all the time. They were the kind of ideas that are in Oblique Strategies. Many of them still survive in the pack that is extant now.

The kind of panic situation you get into in the studio is unreal. It doesn’t always profit the music. You’ve got until eight o’clock and you’ve got to get something finished. You tend to proceed in a very linear fashion. Now if that line isn’t going in the right direction, no matter how hard you work you’re not going to get anywhere. The function of the cards was to constantly question whether that direction was correct. To say “How about going that way?” Since then every time I’ve gone into a recording studio I’ve found myself adding to them. I would later find other little principles that became useful.

Later I showed them to my friend Peter Schmidt, the painter, and he said “Oh, I’ve been doing a similar thing.” And he showed me a notebook he had, which had on each page a comparable aphorism or idea. Many of the ones he had were identical to mine. So we compiled them and then sat down and invented some more. We began to recognize that this could be a working proposition, and we finally published them in a very small edition.

They’re still useful. One would think that after a while their ability to disturb a procedure would pale, but it hasn’t happened to me. I’ve chucked a few out of the deck because they’re of no use anymore, but there are still about ninety I use.

Have you ever used the I Ching?

Yes, it was about the time when I was getting interested in that that I also got interested in the Oblique Strategies idea. And of course, all those oracles work in the same way. You can either believe that they carry intrinsic wisdom of some kind, or you can believe that they work on a purely behavioral level, simply adjusting your perception at a point, or suggesting a different perception. Or you can believe a blend of both.

The Oblique Strategy was an attempt to make a set that was slightly more specific, tailored to a more particular situation than the I Ching, which is tailored to cosmic situations, though I suppose that with sufficient skill one could use the I Ching in the same way.

Do you pick cards at random, or do you look through the deck until you see one that strikes you as relevant to the situation?

I always pick at random. Other people sort through them, but I never use them unless I come to a point where a piece isn’t getting anywhere and needs help. When I work there are two distinct phases: the phase of pushing the work along, getting something to happen, where all the input comes from me, and phase two, where things start to combine in a way that wasn’t expected or predicted by what I supplied. Once phase two begins everything is ok, because then the work starts to dictate its own terms. It starts to get an identity which demands certain future moves. But during the first phase you often find that you come to a full stop. You don’t know what to supply. And it’s at that stage that I will pull one of the cards out.

Later on you might be faced with a number of options that seem equally desirable - again I might pull one out rather than try all the options. I’ve used them on nearly every record I’ve made.

Do you write methodically?

All kinds of different ways. I don’t have a technique, one way of working. I suppose broadly they fall into three or four different categories. One is the traditional category - I have a tape recorder like yours (micro-cassette) and I always have it with me. I might be walking along and I’ll think of a rhythm or a melody or a series of words or some little idea that I’ll note on it. I have thousands of those notes in fact. Then I’ll go through them all and see if any of them fit together. After that they go into a kind of demo stage and into my tape library where I attempt to keep them in some kind of order, which is very difficult because I don’t know what to call them or how to classify them.

Just as frequently, I go straight into the studio and see what’s around. I might hire a couple of instruments that I’ve never used - maybe a particular type of electronic organ or an echo unit. Then I just dabble with sounds until something starts to happen that suggests a texture. The texture suggests some kind of mood, and the mood suggests some kind of lyric. That’s like working in reverse, often quite the other way around, from sound to song. Although often they stop before they get to the song stage.

Another way of working is setting deliberate constraints that aren’t musical ones - like saying “Well, this piece is going to be three minutes and nineteen seconds long and it’s going to have changes here, here and here, and there’s going to be a convolution of events here, and there’s going to be a very fast rhythm here with a very slow moving part over the top of it.” Those are the sort of visual ideas that I can draw out on graph paper. I’ve done a lot of film music this way.

Another way - I have to enumerate these, because I use them all about equally often - is to gather together a group of musicians who wouldn’t normally work together, perhaps...

Someone told me that you use musicians that actually didn’t like one another.

No, there wasn’t a personal enmity between them. They weren’t hostile toward each other, but they were definitely from schools of music that were not compatible. One of them was from Hawkweed, another one was Phil Collins from Genesis, and certainly those two are quite far apart, and then Robert Fripp (formerly of King Crimson) on top of that, and then myself, who’s somewhere else again, and another guy who played in a kind of spoof rock band - they used to do covers of early Fifties songs. One way of working is just bring that group together and encourage them to stick to their guns, not to do the thing that normally happens in a working situation where everyone homogenizes and concedes certain points - so eventually they’re playing in roughly the same style. I wanted quite the opposite of that. I wanted them to accent their styles, so that they pulled away. So there would be a kind of space in the middle where I could operate, and attempt to make these things coalesce on some way. In fact quite a lot of my stuff has arisen from that.

I have also worked from very mathematical and structural bases, but in general that hasn’t been so successful.

Do you mean Discreet Music?

No, that was done in a very peculiar way. There’s no other piece I’ve done that’s like that. The reason for doing that was that Fripp and I were going to do some concerts and I wanted to compile some tapes that would be used for drones for us to work on top of. They were just ambiance tapes really. That particular day it was getting close to the beginning of the tour and I wanted to get quite a lot of these done, so we had a lot of choices. I set that particular system up, that involved a delay system up that I’ve been using for quite a long time, and a self-programming synthesizer, which has a built in memory so it can play a melodic line over and over.

Once I got it going the phone started ringing, people started knocking on the door, and I was answering the phone and adjusting all this stuff as it ran. I almost made that without listening to it. It was really automatic music. The next day Fripp came round and we were going through these things I’d made and I put that one on by accident at half speed and it sounded very, very good. I thought it was probably one of the best things I’d ever done and I didn’t even realize I was doing it at the time.

Since then I’ve experimented with a lot of procedures where I set something up and interfered as little as possible. In fact I try to distract myself. I have techniques that keep my fingers off. I had a piece where I wanted a particular sound to come in at irregular intervals and I didn’t know how to decide what these points should be. I didn’t want to do it at a “nice place” - I wanted some more arbitrary technique. So I set the synthesizer up and then I placed these obstacles around the studio, and walked around them by different routes. Each time I passed the synthesizer I would hit it on whatever beat it happened to be closest to. That was another technique for suspending taste.

I think I’ve forgotten your question.

You started out describing your more structural approaches. Is there anything you’ve done recently that’s an example of that method?

Yeah, but it’s not released. There’s a new series I’ve done of music designed for airports. It’s called Music for Airports in fact. I’m going to release it on my own label.

Is it like muzak?

That’s right, but really beautiful too. I’m very, very pleased with one of the pieces. Again, it was done with a minimum of good intentions. I didn’t go into it thinking I’m going to make a very interesting piece of music here. I went into it thinking I just wanted to make something that would work in an airport, that would actually make you think that flying was a pleasant thing to do instead of an unbearably uncomfortable thing, as I think it generally is.

The particular piece I’m referring to was done by using a whole series of very long tape loops, like fifty, sixty, seventy feet long. there were twenty-two loops. One loop had just one piano note on it. Another one would have two piano notes. Another one would have a group of girls singing one note, sustaining it for ten seconds. There are eight loops of girls’ voices, and about fourteen loops of piano. I just set all of these loops running and let them configure in whichever way they wanted to, and in fact the result is very, very nice.

The interesting thing is that it doesn’t sound at all mechanical or mathematical as you would imagine. It sounds like some guy is sitting there playing the piano with quite intense feeling. The spacing and dynamics of “his” playing sound very well organized. That was an example of hardly interfering at all. When the piece was finished I listened to it and there was just one piano note I didn’t like. It seemed to appear in the wrong place, so I simply edited it out. A lot of the so-called systems composers have this thing that the system is always right. You don’t fiddle with it at all. Well, I don’t think like that. I think that the system is as right as you judge it to be. If for some reason you don’t like a bit of it you must trust your intuition on that. I don’t take a doctrinaire approach to systems.

Do you not read and write music by choice? I wouldn’t think it would be that useful for you.

It wouldn’t be very useful for me. There have been one or two occasions where I was stuck somewhere without my tape recorder and had an idea, tried to memorize it, and since a good idea nearly always relies on some unfamiliar nuance it is therefore automatically hard to remember. so on those very rare occasions I’ve thought, “God, if only I could write this down.” But in fact, quite a lot of what I have to do has to do with sound texture, and, you can’t notate that anyway. You can’t notate the sound of “St. Elmo’s Fire.” There’s no way of writing that down. That’s because musical notation arose at a time when sound textures were limited. If you said violins and woodwind that defined the sound texture; if you say synthesizer and guitar it means nothing - you’re talking about 28,000 variables.

What also happens with notation is that it reduces things to a language which isn’t necessarily appropriate to them. In the same way that words do, you get a much cruder version of what was intended. If you think of the way a composer or say a pop arranger works - he has an idea and he writes it down, so there’s one transmission loss. Then he gives the score to a group of musicians who interpret that, so there’s another transmission loss. And then they play it which is another transmission loss. So he’s involved with three information losses. Whereas what I nearly always do is work directly with the sound, and I respond directly with the sound if it doesn’t sound right. So there’s a continuous loop going on.

You know that in order to copyright material somebody has to write it down for you. Any piece of recorded material has to be scored in order for it to be copyrighted. I’ve seen the scores of my things and they don’t resemble the music in any way. If you gave them to somebody who has never heard the music and say “What does this sound like to you?” they’ll play you something that has no relationship with the music it derives from. Notation simply isn’t adequate.

How do you work as a producer? How much do you add?

As much as anyone will let me, really. No, I work in various ways depending on what seems to be necessary. There are cases where it’s best to just keep your hands off and leave it alone. There are other cases where it isn’t so. When I was working with Talking Heads what would happen typically is that they would go out and start playing a track, and I would always run the tape. I always record everything, even a run through where you’re trying to get in tune. That’s a principle, because sometimes when the situation isn’t clear interesting things happen, and they are worth listening to again. I would also have my synthesizer permanently linked into the control desk and I would sit in the control room next to the engineer, so I could feed any instrument through as they were playing, and what I did would also go on tape. I was kind of listening to what they were doing and picking out sounds and making new sounds from them. Instead of adding an instrument, which is the traditional overdubbing idea, I was extracting ideas and rhythmic parts from what they were playing, perhaps using delays to create new rhythms within their own. Then they would come in and listen and we would select the interesting parts and that would become the basis for the next time 'round. This didn’t always happen. There were some things that were first take. But sometimes we would continuously listen very carefully and pick up little playing ideas that may have been accidents, or accidents of interaction, and using those as the basis of doing it again. That would get the basic track down. Then listening to this track you might find a dead area where there was nothing much happening, so we’d try chopping things out. There are two tracks on the album that radically changed their shape because of that. After that the overdubbing phase would start, which would involve whatever additions seemed to be necessary.

How do you keep up with the latest electronic devices? Do you do a lot of shopping?

No, I don’t go shopping that much. I always wok in studios that have all the gimmicks. There are hundreds of manufacturers always producing devices that in general do the same things. Since they have slight structural differences if you take one and fool around with it and give it a good kick it will actually do some thing that it wasn’t designed to do. I have this relationship with my synthesizers. I’ve had them for so long, and I’ve never has them serviced, so that now practically all of their functions operate differently from what they were designed to do. They do very interesting things now, but that means nobody else can use them either. They’re not reliable in the strict sense. But with devices my technique is always to hide the hand in a drawer until I’ve played with a while. The handbook always tells you what it does, and you can be quite sure that if it’s a complex device it can do fifteen other things that weren’t predicted in the handbook, or that they didn’t consider desirable. It’s normally those other things that interest me.

Do you have a trick bag that you carry around with you?

For the Talking Heads album I brought a couple of things. I brought my little synthesizer that fits into a suitcase - it’s completely wacky, it does a whole lot of things that nothing else can do as far as I know. It’s actually degenerated over the six years or so that I’ve owned it and become a really unique and interesting piece of electronics. But I mostly used the studio devices, because I knew what they had. Generally I find I’m happy to use whatever’s around. If there’s nothing there I’ll make something. For example, one of the things I tried doing was getting a tiny loudspeaker and feeding the instruments off the tape through this tiny speaker and then through this long plastic tube - about 50 feet long - that they used to clean out the swimming pool in the place where I was staying. You get this really hollow, cavernous, weird sound - a very nice sound. We didn’t use it finally, but nonetheless we well could have.

Are the German studios you have used better equipped than the English and American studios?

Technically they’re incredibly good. The popular idea of German technical efficiency is really true. At the studio we were working at there was a guy called Juergen Kramer who’s quite extraordinary. Have you ever seen a film called The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser or Stroszek - there’s a man in those films who used to be a lavatory cleaner and Werner Herzog decided he wanted him to act in his films. He plays a sort of dementoid creature. Well Juergen Kramer is rather like that, sort of a country bumpkin. But he has an extraordinary intuitive grasp of very, very complex electronic systems. We were working on an MCI computerized desk, which is really a very complex desk, and occasionally it would go wrong. And he would walk in and say “Ja, what ees da trobble? Ah, I think it’s the capacitor in this module.” And he’d rip things out and start pulling them apart. “Ja, here ees da trobble!” He would fix things in ten minutes that would honestly take any other technician half a day to fix. He had an intuition I’ve never seen in anyone before. And in fact, when Conny Plank who owns the studio first got this MCI desk, Juergen went through all the circuits and so on, saying “This could be better... this could be improved... this function should work like this.” He redesigned a lot of the functions, and MCI came over and saw his redesigns and incorporated them in all future models. And the MCI team is not made up of dummies. In fact the team is made up of people who were involved in designing the Apollo missions and when that was closed down quite a few of them went over to MCI. They’re really the best brains. This guy Juergen Kramer is really an unbelievable person. His whole personality is typified, I think, that he takes as many sugars in his tea as the tea will take. He puts in sugar until he has a saturated liquid.

When you collaborated with Bowie on Low was the instrumental side worked out in advance, or was it conceived in the studio?

The pieces all have slightly different histories. “Weeping Wall” and “Subterraneans” were originally done as part of the soundtrack of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but for contractual reasons they weren’t used. So we took those tracks and worked on top of those. Actually, I didn’t work on “Weeping Wall” at all. Then there were two days when David had to go to Paris because he was being sued by someone, so rather than wasting the studio time I decided to start a piece on my own, with the understanding that if he didn’t like it I’d use it myself or something. I just couldn’t face wasting the studio time. So I started working on that piece and in fact all the instrumentation was finished when David got back, and he put the vocals on top. That was “Warszawa.” It was a very clear division of labor. The other piece was “Art Decade.” That started off as a little tune he played on the piano. Actually we both played it because it was for four hands, and when we’d finished it he didn’t like it very much and sort of forgot about it. But as it happened, during the two days he was gone I finished the one piece and then dug that out to see if I could do anything with it. I put all those instruments on top of what we had, and then he liked it and realized there was hope for it, and he worked on top of that, adding more instruments. In fact, “Art Decade” is my favorite track of all.

On “Heroes” it wasn’t as clear cut because we both worked on all the pieces all the time - almost taking turns. We used Oblique Strategies quite a lot. On one of the pieces - “Sense of Doubt” - we both pulled an Oblique Strategy at the beginning and kept them to ourselves. It was like a game. We took turns working on it; he’d do one overdub and I’d do the next, and he’d do the next. The idea was that each was to observe his Oblique Strategy as closely as he could. And as it turned out they were entirely opposed to one another. Effectively mine said “Try to make everything as similar as possible.” which in effect is trying to create a homogeneous line, and his said “Emphasize differences” so whereas I was trying to smooth it out and make it into one continuum he was trying to do the opposite.

On your last album, on Bowie’s last few albums, and on Kraftwerk’s last two albums, there’s danceable yet advanced music. Do you think about breaking through to the discos?

Oh yeah, I do. What I would really like to do, if I could have a sort of kingship for a short time and organize the group of my dreams - I would make one group which was a combination of, say, Parliament and Kraftwerk - put those two together and say “Make a record.” Something like that would be an extraordinary combination: the weird physical feeling of Parliament, with this strange, rigid, stiff stuff over the top of it.

You get a bit of that with Donna Summer.

That’s right. Donna Summer was actually the beginning of this idea for me. When I heard that record I was so knocked out, I thought it was really making progress. Because to me a lot of the most interesting things in electronic music have come from that area - they haven’t come from people who are dealing with electronics exclusively. They’ve come from people who are searching for gimmicks, something as banal as “What kind of sound can we get now that nobody’s ever got before?” What I like about the Parliament/ Funkadelic people is that they really go to extremes. There’s nothing moderate about what they do. It’s very extreme music, quite as extreme in some ways as Kraftwerk is. What I’m interested in doing is getting these two extremes and gluing them together, seeing what you have to do to make them work together.

The other thing I’m interested in doing now is robot reggae. I’d like to get together with some reggae musicians and deliberately try to subtract the feel from what they’re doing so that they play in a kind of really stiff white way.

Dub is a step in that direction. Some of it is quite abstract.

That’s right. Again there’s an incredibly extreme and interesting and sophisticated use of electronics that nobody seems to notice. They don’t notice that it’s electronic music. They always focus on people like me who use synthesizers, right, which are explicitly electronic and therefore obvious. “Ah yes, that’s electronic music.” But they don’t realize that so is this concept of actually taking a piece of extant music and literally re-collaging it, taking chunks out and changing the dynamics and creating new rhythmic structures with echo and all that. That’s real electronic music as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got plans to do a dub album actually.

Have you ever seen dub in the making?

Yes, I have. I did a bit in Nassau. While I was there an engineer named Carl Peterson was working on Althea and Donna’s album. I know him and went in one day as he was setting the track up and said “Can I try it?” I’d always really wanted to, and I started switching things and doing things and it really works with reggae. It’s so easy. I tried doing it with rock music and it doesn’t happen. You can’t just play the board. I suppose it’s because all the instruments are rhythm instruments, so that whatever’s left is still playing rhythm. Whereas with rock you have a division of rhythm instruments, melody instruments and vocal lines. But with reggae it’s very easy. In fact I actually went to the extent of trying to make mistakes, trying to do it so it didn’t work, to see how far off you could get. I’d hit things off the beat or bring in quite the wrong instruments or have echoes of the wrong length, and it still sounded all right. It’s like magic. It’s like sculpture in fact.

Whereas most of the techniques of Western engineering as opposed to Jamaican engineering are additive, like painting, where you build something up. But Reggae is like sculpture. You have something and you chop stuff away until you’re left with the shape you want. There’s a record by Dr. Alimentado called “Life All Over” that’s one of the great dub records of all time. It’s so bizarre, because apart from anything else he’s set up an echo which isn’t a simple one. The echo is two thirds of a beat long, so it forms incredibly peculiar cross rhythms. And they work. It’s a funny physical feeling. It’s like some weird waltz time over this very distinctive reggae.

What do you think about flying saucers?

I wish there was a serious investigation of them that wasn’t conducted by crackpots. Unfortunately nearly all the people who are interested in them kind of manufacture the evidence to fit the theories rather than the other way around. So it’s very hard to find any dispassionate treatment of them. Maybe there isn’t any scientific basis in which case that’s why you never see any scientific evidence.

I saw one when I was young, you know. When I was seven I saw a flying saucer over our house. It was visible for quite a long time, four or five minutes. It wasn’t a saucer; it was sort of a cigar shaped thing. Having seen this I forgot about it. Which might sound strange, but I did actually forget about it for many years. And I remembered it with quite a start one day and I thought “Now do I really remember this, or did I manufacture this memory?” So I wrote to my sister who had moved to America a long time before and mentioned it as a very vague question: “Do you remember whether we ever saw anything in the sky together? if you do, describe it.” She wrote back and described it exactly as I had remembered it, so I figured that I had actually seen it unless we mutually manufactured this myth. So I’m prepared to believe in their existence, or in a phenomenon strong enough to create the impression of their existence in your head.