By Jonathan Coe, from the Wire, Issue 80, October 1990
Everyone sees synthesisers as the great breakthrough ... but what they are, in fact, is the apex of Renaissance music-making. In the second part of our occasional series on music in the 90s, Brian Eno unzips a warm jet at democracy, snob art and new technology. Jonathan Coe takes a tiger by the tail by strategy. Photo by Howard Sooley.
Woodbridge wasnt what Id expected. Id always assumed that Brian Eno would live way up in some apartment block minimalist furniture, tasteful abstracts, amazing views of a cityscape reflected in the glass facades of adjacent buildings, that sort of thing. Not this quaint little railway station, flanked on one side by yachts stranded on a muddy estuary, and on the other by a windswept recreation area where a handful of kids could be found making the most of a sleepy Sunday morning. Eno was born and grew up in Woodbridge, and came back to live here a few years ago. It has, when you come to think of it, something of the quietly disquieting nature of his own ambient music: that distinctively East Anglian sense of a landscape which seems featureless at first, drawing you into a state of fixed contemplation which slowly allows various scattered, unsettling details to register on the newly attentive eye and ear.
Eno lives in a large, handsome house in what seems to be a fairly exclusive residential area. Come upstairs, he said, I was just cleaning my desk. Foolishly this called to mind some 18th-century writing cabinet, strewn with recording contracts and lecture notes: but of course he was referring to the mixing desk which dominates his studio on the first floor. Here Im in for another surprise, having envisaged a huge basement room crammed to the ceiling with the latest in state-of-the-art equipment. It turns out to be bright and airy, with East- and South-facing windows overlooking a well-kept garden, and little in the way of gadgetry apart from a row of guitars, two very used-looking keyboards and some mikes, effects units and loudspeakers the latter embellished with photographs of his daughter.
But then if you look back at his career to date, Enos claim to distinction has never rested on being at the cutting edge of new technological developments, but on being able to put the existing technology to more intelligent use than most of his peers. On the musical front hes kept a low profile since the mid-1980s, concentrating on producing other artists and, more importantly, setting up the audio-visual installations which have won him much wider attention abroad (particularly in Europe) than at home. This autumn, however, he has two new albums coming out: a solo instrumental project, and a collection of songs in collaboration with John Cale. This was the ostensible reason for our interview, but he admits cheerfully that I dont give a fuck about promotion, actually, and seems more interested in discussing the conceptual aspects of his work than in anaesthetising the listener with buffish minutiae or amusing showbusiness anecdotes.
Eno is a famously articulate interviewee, and it doesnt take much prompting, after some initial edginess, to get him talking about himself fluently and within a wide frame of reference: so fluently, in fact, that the conversation can be presented as a formal question-and-answer session, starting with my one rather futile effort at getting him to talk about his latest instrumental record.
Your press release drops mysterious hints about the new solo album, implying that it marks a significant change of direction.
I think its different, but not everybody else might. Its more orchestral, I guess. Theres an orchestral piece I want to put on this record, but I dont know whether Ill get it finished in time. Id made some pieces with synthesiser just DX7, really and I thought it would be interesting to say to a group of players: make this sound, make a copy of this. Of course its technically impossible, really: what would be interesting is the nature of the failure. So the way I presented this project working with the Kreisler Orchestra, which is a 16-piece string orchestra was to say, You have to imagine that this tape Im about to play you is something that a sort of cosmo-anthropologist has found on another planet. You have no way of knowing how its made and you have no way of reproducing it other than with your instruments. How would you do that? So we were trying the idea of trying to recreate electronic sounds with acoustic instruments the opposite way round from whats usually done, you know. And weve made a bit of progress, but its much harder than I thought.
It seems odd that, despite your reputation as a pioneer, you should still be working with the DX7, and that you havent been converted to digital recording or samplers. It makes you seem almost reactionary.
I am very reactionary, actually. What I think is interesting is not the tool but the nature of the rapport between the player and the tool. The DX7 is a very old-fashioned and unsophisticated machine, but I really know how to play it, and I really know how to programme it. Just like all those guitars there there are people who can do things with those that are so delicate, no synthesiser player would ever approach that kind of delicacy. And I have a friend who plays the violin just four strings, right, a simple tool but the nature of her connection with that instrument is very very deep. As a result she can do very sensitive and delicate things with it.
Now the opposite of this is the typical synthesiser player who gets the new model with 14,000 new sounds in it, and they push the button that says BRASS, and the one that says STRINGS, and ... theyve been fooled by language. Theyre not listening. When you hear people play their BRASS sound on the synthesiser, what you hear is a diagram of brass instruments. This is fine I think using diagrams is a very interesting idea, and people who do rap and hip-hop and so on have realised how interesting it is to be able to stick together and make pictures out of all these diagrams of other things. But unfortunately most people who play synthesisers dont realise theyre working with diagrams. They think theyre working with the real thing in some way.
I accept all the limitations of DX7s theyre simple and there are many sounds you cant build with them. But who cares about limitations? Take one of those guitars its only got five sounds on it, but most guitar players know more about sounds than most synthesiser players. Much more. Theyre used to understanding that theyre not dealing with names. One of the great things about the Fender Stratocaster is that those five positions dont have names on them. If they did, if they said HORNS and STRINGS, that would have been a disaster. The fact is you have to listen for that, not read.
Everyone sees synthesisers as the great breakthrough into the future of instrumentation, but what they are, in fact, is the apex of Renaissance music-making. The notion, for instance, of an instrument which is even over its whole keyboard. This is a completely boring idea: and synthesiser-makers are so pleased that theyve achieved it! Im always working on this thing to make it more irregular and unpredictable. So I use funny loudspeakers with it, to start to create formant patterns. I very rarely record it just direct into the desk, it goes through other things on the way: that mike in particular, close up to that funny loudspeaker there. I guess all this is reactionary in one sense in that it shows I like complicated old sounds, but its much less reactionary than the point of view which says, I want to have strings on my record, and this thing says STRINGS. This is a stupidity to me. The real reason I work with this machine is that I know how to fuck it up.
I had this idea for making a synthesiser which I proposed to a manufacturer, actually, but nothings come of it. I thought that you should make each circuit in quadruplicate or even in... ten-duplicate, whatever that is... but you should use unreliable components, use the cheapest components you can get hold of. What youd get is an average of a lot of circuits trying to do the same thing, so you could sum them like they do with inertial navigation systems in aeroplanes. You see the good thing about cheap components is that they respond theyre sensitive to climate, the temperature, the humidity and everything else. What that would mean is youd get an instrument that started to have a nature of its own. Once you know that, if youre a player you can capitalise on it. Every violin player knows the nature of her instrument that the D on one string is always quiet, or something, so she plays it louder: she optimises the situation in some way. The rapport between the player and the instrument is very interesting when that happens, when you can hear them conducting a negotiation with the instrument. Thats part of what hearing music is about. So I want synthesisers to be more like that: to be more complicated. Not complicated in the sense of giving you more choices thats a boring form of complication: I mean in the sense of giving you less choices, but ones that are individually rich and complex.
This sounds like a straight theoretical continuation of your involvement in the 1970s with people who were deliberately trying to build irregularities into their music: like the Portsmouth Sinfonia or Gavin Bryars, say, in 1, 2, 1-2-3-4 (in which the musicians play along with tape recorders running at different speeds). Incidentally, that isnt one of Bryarss more successful pieces, is it?
It suffered from a mistake that a lot of systems music suffered from, which was to put all its attention on to the system, on to how the thing was going to be made. One of the unspoken canons of systems music was that it didnt matter what the input was. It was sort of fussy even to worry about what the input was. Whereas the result in terms of sound is totally dependent, actually, on what the input to the system is. Had he done that with, for instance, a piece that didnt have chord changes in, it would have been a totally different experience. Or a piece that had compatible chord changes, so that you got combinations which were musically feasible. But you werent supposed to think about that kind of thing it was associated with the old aesthetic, and that really buggered up a lot of interesting music.
Another example, I think, is Steve Reichs Drumming. I mention these two composers because I assume that everybody knows I have a lot of respect for them, so its not in the sense of saying they dont know what theyre doing. But in Drumming Reich uses these tiny little drums, theyre like little bongoes, and the sound of the thing is deliberately very anti-sensual. And I thought Christ, what a brilliant piece this would be, had it been played on proper drums. You know, dont get all these bearded eggheads, get people who play drums and say to them, Right, how do you hear the sound, tune the drums the way you want them. Get conga players, people who really respond to the sound of their instruments. But all that, you see, belonged to another aesthetic this was all impure thinking, a little bit like saying to Jackson Pollock, Hey, I think I can see a face in there. Hed fling a can of paint at you, because that wasnt what it was supposed to be about.
In a way the situation in systems music is reversed now: the musical content, the instrumentation and so on is getting more and more elaborate, and yet the way in which its deployed seems to have become almost random.
Well, snob art fine art is always doing this thing of tossing out the baby with the bathwater, because its always taking ideological positions, and ideological positions dont permit compromises. So its like we were all systems composers then, and you didnt think about the input at all, and now systems composing is not cool any more, and its all moved quite the other way: the systems have actually become very uninteresting. Again I say this from the position of someone who admires these composers, but its kind of become music by the yard, so much of it now. And its terribly easy to do, this way of reconfiguring ideas. Nyman is an example: you could ring up Michael tonight and say, Id like a two-and-a-quarter-hour opera by Friday, and hed probably be able to do it, at a push. Because its in the nature of that music that theres not a lot of attention given to dynamics or how things change, or to the emotional resonances of things: its, Right, heres the melody, and heres the way we shuffle the components of the melody together. It sometimes produces good music, actually, but the thing is that the production of good music is quite independent of all these things. You dont have to have interesting melodies, you dont have to have interesting systems.
Compromise is obviously important to you, so what sort of compromises do you find yourself making in the studio? When you were working on the new album with John Cale, for instance.
Its very hard to describe exactly what the nature of the collaboration is because its not consistent from song to song. The first time we worked together was about 17 years ago, I think, but this particular collaboration really started from a song on his last record [Words For The Dying] called The Soul Of Carmen Miranda, which is a very successful song: it has a very odd mood to it, very much the product of two different sensibilities. We probably dont agree about that much musically, and we certainly dont agree about much in the sense of how you do things. We spend a lot of time arguing. But this friction occasionally produced something really different something he would never have done alone and I wouldnt have done alone.
Youre not a great fan of the democratic approach to collaboration.
Im not a great fan of democracy, probably. Its one of those words that has become an absolute in peoples minds: the way its used by America and the West as symbolising the ultimate condition of mankind. So Im cautious about the use of that word, because it very rarely describes the way things are happening. Nothing about this record was particularly democratic: whoever had the idea took control, as simple as that. Very often Ive worked with bands where there was this feeling that everyone had to make their contribution, you know, and everyone had to have the same half a day for overdubs on the song, and its fine if it makes peoples pride feel undamaged, but its a stupid exercise, really. Theres no dishonour in having nothing to say about something, as far as Im concerned. If you dont, just shut up. And when you do have something to say, say it strongly. But in my experience its very rare for people ever to reach the point of such trust in each other that they dont feel this paranoia about being edged out of the process all the time. U2 is the only band Ive ever worked with that I could use the word democratic for. Ive seen a lot of other bands who attempted democracy because they thought it was ideologically correct to do so, but it never worked: there was always a strong dominant personality who required submission in some way.
So if its not democratic, what would he the political model of your collaboration with Cale?
Its probably a little bit like the relationship that may have existed between two neighbouring principalities in pre-Bismarck Germany: constant sorties across the frontier and occasional truces and treaties and occasional coincidences of purpose, in a general feeling of rivalry or discomfort. Which is a fairly good description of the way most species exist together: a mixture of competition, collaboration and agreement about what the limits of the competition are.
You gave up writing songs for about ten years: why have you come back to it now?
What is puzzling to me is why theres such a gap in peoples minds between songs and other things: why it should be seen as such a huge jump to move from one to the other. To some extent I guess Ive also been guilty of that in that one of the reasons I stopped doing songs was that I was fed up of the personality factor of songwriting. One of the reasons I started again was because I was fed up of not singing. I like singing a lot. Its probably the only thing I can do with any proficiency.
I sing quite differently now, I think, from the way I used to. Probably better. Some of the differences are purely technical, in the sense that the voice is produced from a different place. I used to deliberately sing very nasally, and with a very hard sound. I now sing more from here [patting his chest], which means that theres also some kind of roundness to it as well, and my voice is lower in pitch than it used to be. But the most important difference is in how I use my voice. I was interested before in dehumanising it quite a lot: in the intervening ten years the kind of music Ive been listening to gospel and Arabic music both these styles of singing are very much to do with ornament, and with ornament on top of ornament, and with movements like that [making a squiggle in the air] you know, complicated movements, rather than just straight lines, which I liked before. So the shape of the singing is different, I think. I still like the straight line thing, but youll find in these songs there are straight lines with sudden very complicated curves in them, and then straight lines again. Thats all.
I know its going to drive me mad, Im going to really regret having made this record because all these years people have been slagging me off for doing instrumental records and theyve just started liking them now, theyve just started realising why I was doing them, and now I go and do a song record. Im going to really regret this, I know!
Brian Enos Wrong Way Up will be released by Land on 15 October.
© 1990 Jonathan Coe