- 15 May 23
As Brian Eno celebrates his 75th birthday, we're looking back at Pat Carty's fascinating interview with the extraordinarily influential composer, musician and producer.
Originally published in Hot Press in 2019...
In a career that began in the 1970s, Brian Eno has been involved in some of the most ground-breaking work, by a number of the most artistically important figures in contemporary music. But away from his role as a producer with U2, Talking Heads, David Bowie and more, he has forged a parallel career, as an artist, composer, activist, environmentalist and intellectual. To mark the 1,000th issue of Hot Press, we talk to the other Eno.
Although he might wish for alternate nomenclature, rock n’ roll would be a very different animal were it not for the presence of Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. We’ve all got our favourites, but his work on the first two brilliant Roxy Music albums, his collaborations with David Bowie (the slightly mis-named ‘Berlin Trio’), his telegrams from the future with David Byrne (My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts) and their pioneering incorporation of the African rhythms that Eno fell in love with when he heard Fela Kuti on those great Talking Heads albums (Remain In Light), not to mention the way he helped a group of local hopefuls create U2: Mark II and conquer the universe, are all, to employ an overused sobriquet, seminal. And I haven’t even spoken of his solo work, including the creation of his own genre when the idea of ambient music came to him, so the story goes, while he was sick at home and couldn’t turn up the hi-fi.
As much as Hot Press would have wished to discuss any and all of the masterpieces mentioned above, the agreement here was that we would steer clear of the obvious. Eno feels, perhaps quite rightly, that he has discussed this work more than enough. No matter, for when it comes to an artist as fascinating as he continues to be, there is always plenty of meat to chew. We talked the day after the Tory MP Phillip Lee walked across the floor of the Commons, depriving Boris Johnson of his majority. It’s as good a place to start as any.
Ireland is watching in horror what's going on in Britain at the moment
You must be laughing!
Aghast, really. I know you were part of the group that asked for a second referendum, what are you thinking now?
Oh God! I can't see any easy outcome because there are 17 million people who voted for it and even if half of them have changed their minds, which they may well have done, that still means 8 million people who think they've been cheated out of their result, and there's no disguising the fact that they have really. The problem is the opposition is divided, so Boris could win a majority in the sense that he could the win the most votes of any particular party but he would have to form a coalition with somebody, and the people facing him, that's to say the Lib Dems, Labour, The Greens, and everybody else would have to try to work together, which they haven't, so far, shown themselves to be very good at doing.
You've endorsed Jeremy Corbyn in the past, do you still feel the same way?
Yes, of the current selection, I think that’s still the best vote. It’s a vote for Labour rather than for him. The priority is to get rid of the Tories, that's the important thing. It almost doesn't matter who goes in instead, as long as it isn’t the Brexit party!
I've interviewed a few English bands recently and asked about travelling and touring. No one seemed to know anything about what was going to happen.
Nobody knows! There are so many possible futures now. We could crash out and then try to scrabble our way back to some kind of sane future, but that will take years.
Ireland has become the football in the middle, in a way.
I'm so grateful for the Irish for having some sort of sanity, and the Scots as well. I've seriously been thinking of moving to Scotland because I think that there's a good chance now that Scotland will become independent and thus remain a member of the EU, which puts them in a very favourable position.
You could always move to Ireland of course...
I did think about that as well, since I've just had my DNA done and discovered that I'm partly Irish, but not enough to qualify for a passport!
Would you be a republican at heart?
Oh yes, of course.
Is it time to put the royal family into a different home then?
Put them to sleep?
That might be a bit extreme!
They have a ceremonial function. My American friends sometimes tell me that there is some sense in separating the legislative head of state from the ceremonial head of state. Donald Trump has to be king as well as president, and some people say it's better to have somebody who is just the king and doesn't do anything else, just goes around in carriages, opening fetes and things like that, and then have somebody else who’s the manager, who does the serious work of government.
That's the way it works in Ireland with our president Michael D. Higgins.
He's a wonderful man, Michael Higgins, I would be very happy if he would take on the job of being king here, and do some good!
President Higgins used to write for this very magazine, now celebrating its thousandth issue. Were you aware of Hot Press during your time here?
Sure. Hot Press was rather different than any of the music magazines we had in England, in that it seemed to be very supportive, and music magazines in England didn't always seem to be. They seemed to be populated by quite witty but cynical people, generally.
As one might expect, Eno has several balls in the air at the moment, including his soundtrack work on Top Boy, a crime drama set in East London which ran for two seasons on Channel 4 and has been resurrected on Netflix. I asked how he came to be involved.
The first series was in 2011, they asked me if I would do the music and I really, really liked the scenario. I had been doing a lot of music that had that industrial wasteland, alienated quality and I was actually looking for a place to put it. We did two series then which was eight episodes in total. As far as I was concerned that was it, the thing went out and did well and had a sort of cult following. What I didn't know was that in America it had a much bigger cult following. Drake, I think, bought the rights to it and he sold it on to Netflix, although I don't know exactly what the details are. They then asked me back. I'm very sympathetic to this kind of sound landscape, it's the kind of dark, malign side of ambient music which was always a big part of it for me.
When you go to do something like this, is it all new music or do you delve into your famous archive?
Both actually. For a start I’m always making pieces of music. They often just start out as experiments. A new piece of software? Let's see what it can do. I'll make a piece around that idea. I'm very often making music without any idea of where it will finally end up.
For fun, or is it a compulsion?
Those are the same things for me, funnily enough. I love doing it, it's when I feel happiest really, when I'm making something. I just worked on something today which turned into a really, really nice piece. I don't have any idea what I'll use it for. I now have in my archive 5982 pieces. Mostly, they're something, in that they don’t sound unfinished, though if I was actually going to use any of them, I would do more work. What happens with something like Top Boy, I get the scenario and I start to think about what I have that's in that kind of mood.
Do you have a dewey decimal kind of system? This is dark, this is whatever.
I give everything a title because you have to save it digitally. I keep the archive in iTunes and, in the comments section, I will say things like "tense", "industrial" "cold" "outdoors" "edge of city". I'm just looking at some of the things I've got here - "shivery" "farting bass" "quality of dusk" "a strange glowing heaven" "afro funk experiment" "aggressively friendly" "almost epic nature"
I'm thinking of Prince and what's happened since he passed away, would that be something that plays on your mind? If you have five thousand and whatever pieces, you'd need a lot of years to get through that before you're no longer with us, if you see what I mean.
I can qualify that number in two ways. First of all, there are quite a few duplicates in there and secondly there's quite a lot of trash.
But if you're not around to decide what is trash, would that worry you?
No, I don't really care too much what happens. Afterwards. I suppose I would worry if it fell into the malicious hands of somebody who just thought "I'm going to show how bad a composer Brian Eno really was, by releasing all the worst things from his archive!" That would be a bit worrying, but I don't expect that to happen.
MAN ON THE MOON
2019 saw Eno revisit and expand 1983’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, a beautiful piece of work that he created with his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois to accompany Al Reinert’s For All Mankind documentary which utilised NASA footage to tell the story of the Apollo moon missions. Was it a case of delving into the archive again, was their material left over from the first time?
There was nothing left over, but, in the meantime, I had started quite a few pieces that had that kind of outer space, desolate feeling. I think I found three pieces like that which I then worked on and some pieces I started from scratch. I think the same thing was true with my brother and with Dan.
Lanois' steel guitar is very prevalent, and beautifully so. You said before that you thought it was appropriate that the astronauts took country music cassettes with them, I think you said it was "frontier music for the new frontier"
That's right, I've actually met many of the astronauts and also some of the cosmonauts since then. The American astronauts are very much sort of Texan military guys and their taste in music was generally country. I was at the Starmus conference in Zurich about two months ago, where artists and people interested in space - astronauts, cosmonauts, cosmologists, whatever - get together. I was on a panel with six of the Apollo astronauts who of course are all in their eighties. Buzz Aldrin was there and he's possibly ninety now. I was asked to give a little introduction at a press conference, and I started out by saying that at a time when we have a President of the United States that's anti-science, we're faced with a climate crisis that can probably only be solved by science and blah-blah-blah and I was saying how important it was that ideology didn't dominate over science As I'm saying all this, I'm noticing a slight grumbling to my left and finally one of the astronauts interrupted and said "I don't see how a few tons of carbon can make that much difference " It turned out that two of the astronauts were climate change deniers, didn't believe it was happening, two of them were born again Christians, and one was a very close friend of President Trump! Only one of them kind of defected to our side, that was Rusty Schweickart from Apollo 9. It was very interesting that these brave people who did this incredibly courageous thing of flying a tiny tin can to the moon and back aren't, as a result of that, hugely enlightened beings.
No poets came back?
No. One of them came back and turned to Jesus, as he said, very proudly. The experience was life changing for him because he found Christ.
You've said before that climate change denial should possibly be illegal like denying the holocaust.
Yes, actually, I do think that because it’s dangerous to take that position. Just suppose that the 99.8% of climate scientists, who believe in climate change, and that it's anthropogenic, are wrong. Would that be a tragedy? No, it wouldn't. We'd have stopped driving so much, maybe stopped flying so much, found more efficient ways to create energy and so on. On the other hand, let's suppose they're right - and it seems very likely they are - but we decide not to do anything about it. Which would be the worst mistake? I was talking to somebody who was very much against the idea that climate change could be down to us and was happy to take the risk. I said imagine somebody has designed a new plane and there are a thousand aircraft designers, 999 of which say that thing isn’t safe to fly and one of them says no, it's perfectly safe. Would you fly that plane?”
Your brother Roger pointed to Apollo 11 as an opportunity, a moment, where the human race could have gone forward in a united direction. Did you share that opinion?
Do you know what? That was such a strange year, so many extreme things happened that I think getting to the moon wasn't quite as amazing to us all as it seems now. It was just the kind of crowning madness of the sixties really "On top of everything else, they've fucking gone to the moon!" I remember not being very impressed at the time, except for that moment when I watched it happening on television and looked out and saw the moon and thought ‘wow, that's actually happening now, there, on that planet.’ But to carry on with my brother's thought, it didn’t create the social change that one might have expected. I think the only cause for optimism with climate change is that it could have that effect, because to fight climate change, we're going to have to rethink so many aspects of our economic and political and cultural life. We will have to tackle it globally, there's no point in America deciding to do something while China doesn’t, or vice versa which seems to be the more likely possibility at the moment. It's something that everybody's going to have to do for it to be effective. The second thing is we'll have to actually stop producing so much shite. Part of the problem is that we have this extraordinary engine for creating wealth which involves digging stuff out of the ground and turning it into shite that nobody wants, but, in the process, generating a lot of money and generating a lot of waste. We've got to break that cycle and think of other ways to enjoy ourselves and other ways for people to get rich.
Is that the sort of idea the Client Earth charity espouse, to work with lawyers to effect real change?
That's the idea, to make changes that last and make a difference. I was always worried with environmental groups that it’s easy to make some headlines and create a kind of heat but then it can slide into the background and be forgotten about. Law isn't like that. When something is in law, it's there, and it keeps working. I think that was what really attracted me to Client Earth. Lawyers are persistent, they pursue until they have something solid in their hands.
Your work with The Long Now Foundation is interesting, encouraging long-term thinking.
We started it in 1996, Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis was probably the primary movers at the time. I came up with the name. I was trying to say that ‘now’ is not a short period, what we are doing now has repercussions into the future and we should be aware of that. Businesses and governments were thinking in shorter and shorter time spans, governments were not thinking of the next election, they were thinking of the next headline tomorrow morning. That had become the horizon of their thinking. Companies were thinking in terms of their share price. Decisions that work for tomorrow don't necessarily work for the end of the year and certainly not for the end of the century. Danny came up with the idea to build a 10,000 year clock, a project long-term enough to encourage people to dwell on the possibilities of the future and perhaps re-orientate people’s sense of time. As soon as you even start thinking about trying to make something to last for 10,000 years, you're starting to think about the future, starting to think in ways you don't normally think. There's a very good book about it by Stewart Brand called The Clock Of The Long Now.
Returning to Apollo, you're not exactly famous for being a man who likes to look back. What was it about this particular project?
That's true, you're absolutely right. I think this was interesting because I realised that nearly everything that it took to make the original Apollo has disappeared. I mean the philosophy, the sense of what a society was for and what was worth doing. Apollo emerged out of a period which is now called The Golden Age of Capitalism by economists, from ‘45 to ‘75, say, which ended decidedly with Regan and Thatcher and monetarism and neo-liberalism. During that period we suddenly had free health services, free education, workers right, women's rights, minority rights, all the things that socialists had always wanted were there. I think it should be called the Golden Age of Socialism, and everything that happened to make Apollo really came out of those ideas, working as a society, not as a group of unconstrained individuals, and deciding to act upon our aims as a whole society. People forget that there were 400,000 people involved in the Apollo project and it was basically a command economy, a sort of communist project in many ways. The government primed the pump and paid the bills. We just don't do projects like that anymore because the neo-liberal thing says we should leave it all to individuals and companies and somehow expect that will turn out for the best.
They'll put a sports car into space.
That's right! I thought it was very interesting to remind people of that time because I think in order to solve climate change, we'll have to return to many of those ideas. We'll have to see government saying, as they did in the war for example, ‘sorry industry, you can't just go ahead and make whatever you feel like, there are some priorities and you have to work with us on this. ‘
But doesn't that mean less freedom, if the government becomes this engine, demanding all hands to the pump?
It’s a redistribution of freedoms, you might say. At the moment there's a huge amount of freedom at the top end of society and a very small amount at the lower end. I would like to redistribute the freedom a little bit and I think that would be quite possible in a society that had the intention. Anyway, that's a long story!
WORKING THE FADERS
In addition to his work as a musician and a composer, Eno is one of the world's most acclaimed record producers. The producer has taken on an almost equal billing to the artists themselves in a lot of modern music, how would he define the role?
It's so hard to define that, so may artists are artist/producers. I've seen people who call themselves producers who think their job is to bring a little bag of coke into the studio every evening, then I've seen other people who write the music, record it, do everything actually, so it's a very broad category. I think what you could say is that the biggest musical invention of the 20th century was the recording studio just as the orchestra was the biggest musical invention of the 18th and 19th centuries. It's a new technology, like the orchestra was, and the people who understand how to use it become the people making the music of the time. In the 18th and 19th century we would have called them composers, now we call them producers, they're the people who know how to deal with the current technologies.
Can you see your influence there? I think a lot of things that you and someone like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry were doing helped to pioneer the art.
I think the difference between a musician, in the sense of somebody who plays a guitar, and somebody called a producer, is that the producer regards the studio as his or her instrument. That's what I've always done because I couldn’t play anything else! It was always the new tools that I took to because there weren't any rules as to what you could do with them.
Does the work get easier with the leaps and bounds in technology?
There's certainly a lot to look at. In the earlier part of the 20th century, Steinway came up with the third peddle on a grand piano. You could hold a chord on sustain and then play, without sustain, over it. This was such an incredibly radical idea that composers like Debussy wrote a whole lot of stuff for it. Innovations on that scale happen almost daily now. Everyday there are new electronic instruments that can do things that nobody ever did before, and nobody ever thought was possible. There's quite a lot to keep up with, but you don't have to. You can decide just to learn to use a couple of instruments or a couple of technologies really well. You can't actually bother about everything, there's too much of it.
A lot of today’s music seems very safe when compared to what was being produced when you were coming up in the 70s.
It’s much more of a business than it was and as soon as something becomes a business, lots of other considerations come into it. One of the great luxuries of living in the 60's was that you really didn't have to worry about making a living too much. There was a safety net, I don’t think I ever could have become a professional artist without the year and a half or so that I spent on the dole. It gave me a chance to find out what I was trying to do. Society gave me the chance to be educated if I wanted to be, because it was free. That really does make a difference. Rich people don’t take that into the account, there are things that they don’t have to think about that will automatically happen to them that don’t happen to other people, like getting an education. If you don’t have reasonably well off parents now, it's quite hard to start a band.
There's a lot of bands now that seem to come from that background, whether that’s a good or a bad thing.
It's not to knock those bands, I think what comes from working class engagement in music is anger, and anger is an important ingredient in popular music, the feeling that I'm in a struggle, I've got to fight for something. A friend of mine said what comes from middle class involvement is melancholy, and I think that’s true. Melancholy is almost sort of a luxury feeling, it's only something you can really have if you're quite well off. What really made The Beatles great was that they had the mixture, and The Velvet Underground had it too, that mixture of melancholy and anger which is something I treasure.
Do you still hear new music that gives you a thrill?
Contrary to most people of my generation who say ‘it's the same old stuff, they're just rehashing the past’ I hear a lot of new stuff that's really, really original. For instance, to take a very popular example, Billie Eilish. I just think those productions are completely brilliant, they're so spare and skeletal and kind of dry. It’s like when I first saw paintings by Mondrian, they're so simple and I thought, ‘Wow, you can do that? Incredible’.
A former art student, Eno has been producing installations since the seventies and his light boxes – LED based artworks that slowly change colour and shape - certainly betray a Mondrian influence.
Yes, I studied painting as your probably know and the painters that influenced me most were people like Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Rodchenko, very abstract painters, so there wasn't much that was figurative in their work - the absence of figuration. And of course in music it's very rare that there's anything like figuration, music has always been a very abstract art really. It felt very comfortable for me to move into that.
It was Eno who coined the term ‘generative music’ and first began creating systems that could then generate their own musical output, first with tape loops, then CDs, and now using computer algorithms on work like his Bloom app.
I think it's a very interesting new way to make stuff. Of course there are a lot of illusions about it. What we want from music is a sense of a human being in a situation of some kind, we want to feel some sense of their struggle, if you like, or their joy, or whatever emotion it is. And I can easily make programmes that will produce pretty flawless imitations of Bach, forever, but it's not very interesting, because there's no story attached to it, there's no feeling that this music exists for any reason. The way I try to explain it to people is that the classical idea of a composer is of someone who is sort of like an architect of sounds. If I was writing a Beethoven symphony what I'd be doing is designing every moment of that sonic experience, the oboes come in at this point and they play this and then there's a kind of slow down here and then the cymbals join in. Every detail is specified, just like every point in a building. What I've been trying to say to people is that instead of thinking of the composer as an architect, you think of the composer as a gardener. A gardener carefully plants things in the soil, he looks after the soil, but he can’t exactly predict what is going to happen, and what the interaction between things he's planted is going to be. We accept that gardening is a kind of negotiation with nature and I want to make music that is a negotiation with technology, and I accept that I don't completely control that process. In fact, that's the thrill of it, that it does things that I don't expect. The interactions, and the software, is more interesting than me on my own, or the software on its own.
So you get a kind of accidental beauty?
Yes, something that nobody has seen before, that wasn't in the machine and wasn't in me.
Something like 77 Million Paintings, Eno’s generative art installation the continually recombines his hand-painted patterns in new ways, must stem from a similar notion?
That's right, yes.
When you saw it projected onto the Sydney Opera House, as it was in 2009, it must have been a great feeling of vindication for the whole enterprise
That was a nice feeling! It had just opened and I got into a taxi to go down to the Opera house from my apartment, the taxi driver said "Look at that!" and I said "Oh yeah, what do you think of it?" He didn't know who I was, of course, and he said "Fucking clever bastard!"
He’s got a point, you received the Stephen Hawking Medal for “science communication”, and asteroid 81948 has been renamed in your honour.
It is nice, but I always feel that if you stick around for long enough people think "he's still at it? He must have meant it, he must have been serious" Whereas for the first fifty years, they think you're pissing around!