John Kelly

Few musicians get through an interview without once referring to their brand new album.

Few interviewers get quite so engrossed in the conversation that they forget to mention it either, but that’s just the way of it with Brian Eno – smarter than your average sonic pioneer and far too polite for anything as brutal as a plug.

Eno is a one-man multi-media adventure and his CV would take the eye out of your head. A founding member of Roxy Music, producer of Talking Heads, Devo and U2, collaborator with everyone from Fripp to Bowie, inventor of ambient music, installation artist, painter, diarist and connoisseur of construction work. Quite simply, he never stops being Brian Eno.

“I’m sitting outside here now” he says, “and I’m thinking that what I’m hearing is actually more surprising than most of the things I would find in my CD collection. It’s a more unusual balance of things. I can hear, for instance, that someone in the distance is hammering something, I don’t know exactly what, but this hammer in the background with its funny broken up rhythm and slight changes of timbre as the nail finally is flush with the wood, I think that’s nice. Everything depends on how close it is, but given sufficient distance everything starts to sound kind of nice. Everything has its connotations and meanings because everything is real life.”

After the feather boa years in Roxy Music, Brian Eno embarked on his more solitary path - developing the ideas of John Cage and taking them to a presumably bewildered pop audience with albums like Music for Airports and Thursday Afternoon. It all turned out to be some of the most influential music ever made, although it did take some twenty years for the full impact of his “ambient” music to be felt.  Those samples, loops and found-sounds so familiar in the best of contemporary music, were all early interests for Eno. To use the cliché, he really was ahead of his time.

“Actually the main thing was the idea of a music that is quite static – a music that operates more like a painting operates. If you put a painting on the wall, you know it’s just going to sit there and it’s not going to change. You might change, and your relationship to it, but nonetheless it is a static condition and I always liked that about paintings. I always liked the fact that they were reliable, that they just sat there waiting for you to pay attention to them. That was really what I wanted in music. Like most other people I wanted music to be just part of my landscape and, in that respect, there had to be a different music.”

At the heart of ambient music is Eno’s own quest for silence. From his audio-visual installations to his declared aversion to nightclubs, it seems that a search for quietude is at the core of the Eno project. He rarely listens to music, often preferring to stick a microphone out the window and “amplify the rest of the world.”  In many ways, this might perhaps suggest a lack of passion for music, but that’s to forget that Eno sees and hears things rather differently than most of us. Yes he was inspired initially by doo-wop, yes he played in Roxy Music and yes, he brings out the best in Bono, but his very own music seems to begin somewhere else entirely. For him, the starting point is visual and his idea of the “sound painting” is outside the loop of traditional musical forms.

“We don’t think that paintings are not passionate just because they don’t jump off the wall and knock us over the head. We just say, oh that’s a different medium and there are different rules and conditions for how that works. Just because something comes in through the ears we tend to call it the same thing but to me that’s a little like saying cinema is the same as painting just because it’s on rectilinear screens and we watch it with our eyes. The problem is that we still think that this thing called music is just an evolution of the same stuff that Beethoven was writing or that folk musicians were playing, but in fact recorded music is such a different type of experience. For instance the idea of radio - you can be sitting anywhere and switch on a radio and dial through a huge selection of musical possibilities which you can turn up, turn down, switch off, or carry into the other room. It’s not the same medium at all.”

But for all the quiet projects of Brian Eno, he is still at the very epicentre of contemporary pop and rock n’roll. Much in demand as a producer, he has had an extraordinary impact on many artists, notably U2, working most recently (with Daniel Lanois) on  All That You Can’t Leave Behind. There are always distinct signs of Eno’s presence but, by and large, the passionate music of U2 might at first seem rather removed from what Eno is personally about.  So where exactly do U2 production duties fit into Eno’s creative life?  Is it an integral part of his own project – or is it an entirely separate gig?

“Well, I like pop music.  I love writing songs and I love helping people to write songs. It s a side of me that hasn’t been exercised in my own work lately but I really enjoy that part of things. I like trying to contrive a situation where people are so thrilled that they go beyond their known boundaries. That’s what producing is for me.  For instance, Bono has always been a great singer but there’s something less mannered about his voice that is so beautiful now. He doesn’t seem to be so intent on showing himself to be a man and some of the singing on this record is very fragile and vulnerable. And I want a music that can accept you being weak and vulnerable and fragile and doubtful as well as being macho and strutting and all those other things - a music that can accept all of it. I want to make a music where I can build all of those things in, unselfconsciously and smoothly, and not to see them as separate from the part of me that likes jumping around and dancing. I’m talking about music that can accommodate all the things you want to be at this point in you life. And one of the things I want to be is grown up.”

DRAWN FROM LIFE from Brian Eno and J. Peter Schwalm is on Venture Records (Virgin)

© John Kelly

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