GQ&A: Lenny Henry and Brian Eno

From GQ (UK edition), Issue 87, September 1996.

For easy access to particular items of interest, click on the appropriate line below.

Eno on bootleg & Roxy Music
Sex and A Year with Swollen Appendices
Bowie's word-mashing computer generator
Eno's installations
Being a producer
Eno's dream

BRIAN ENO, 48, is a musician, producer, conceptualist, futurist and artist. A founding member of Roxy Music, he left the band after just two albums in 1973 to pursue a solo career. He formulated the concept of ambient music and pioneered the use of the tape loop. His subsequent albums, Discreet Music, Music For Airports and Thursday Afternoons, are seen as being way ahead of their time. As a producer, Eno has worked with David Bowie, Robert Fripp and U2. He has just published a diary, A Year (With Swollen Appendices), and is now working on the concept of "generative music", where a computer creates self-evolving compositions. He has written the music for Lenny Henry's new TV production, Neverwhere.

LENNY HENRY, 37, is one of Britain's sharpest and best-loved comedians. He began his career in 1975 on the talent show New Faces, and was subsequently hired for Tiswas and Three of a Kind. In 1984 he created such characters as Delbert Wilkins and Theophilus P Wildebeeste on The Lenny Henry Show; then in 1989, went back to his roots with his stand-up film, Live And Unleashed. This took him to Hollywood, accompanied by his wife, Dawn French, where he made True Identity. His TV series Chef! was a sizzling success, and his most ambitious project yet, a surreal 6-part drama Neverwhere, is broadcast this autumn on BBC2. Eno and Henry met at Brian Eno's Opal Studios in Notting Hill, West London.

[Eno's workspace is large, airy and minimal, painted white, and features a keyboard, speakers, a pine table with four chairs and a pristine workman's tool rack on the wall. Lenny Henry's huge physique dominates the room. He is bombastic, affable and sharp, constantly switching into different accents and characters. Eno is slight, quiet and considered.]

LH: I've always admired you, Brian. I've got a lot of your albums, from Discreet Music to Music For Airports; and early Roxy Music, when I thought you were the most shaggable of all of them. Who got to the dressing up cupboard first on that first Roxy Music album? I bet there was a big fight: "I want the knee-high boots!" "I want the platforms!" "Oh, I'm going to dye my hair blond, then."

BE: I heard the funniest bootleg the other day, of an early BBC show. You can hear the songs from the first album in the background, and over the top is this complete blitz of synthesizer nonsense. I suddenly realised, 'Jesus, if this is what people were hearing no wonder they thought we were weird."

LH: I always wonder what you thought your role in the band was, apart from looking glamorous and sexy.

BE: I think I wanted to make it sound futuristic, and chaotic. I thought it should sound emotionally complicated: a mixture of bitter and sweet, nostalgic and weirdly futuristic, and so on.

LH: Isn't it funny how each generation's view of the future is very similar to their present? In the Fifties, they thought we'd wear tight trousers and shoulder pads but still have Fifties hair.

BE: What people never take into account is that there are also reactions against something, so everyone isn't marching in step to the future. One way you make a statement is by refusing certain possibilities; so you get a move to organic materials, overthrown by another move towards new fabrics, and then a couple of years later it will be overturned again.

LH: Why can't we just have a century of love? From now to then we're going to have a lot of love and a lot of shagging... I noticed in your diary that you talk a lot about shagging.

BE: Yes, quite a lot.

LH: You were a horny little devil, weren't you? You talk a lot about big-bottomed women. I was wondering what Anthea [Eno's wife and manager] thinks, reading about you when you talk about shagging and flirting. [Leans over inquisitorially. Eno is laughing.] I can imagine Anthea sitting there reading in bed going, "Who is this bloody woman?"

BE: In fact she looked through it and said, "Well, this is exactly like you."

LH: I think it's very honest, you lay your soul bare a few times.

BE: I know, I know. I made a decision not to go back and start tarting it up. The only value of it, as far as I can see, is that it's embarrassing, as well as sometimes dignifying - or whatever the opposite of embarrassing is.

LH: It's so embarrassing! How could you explain it if you said this? "Top artiste, top creator, top PC thinker - and I like big butts!"

BE: [Eno is creased with laughter; he has to compose himself to reply.] If you go to Italy or Spain, there is no connection between flirting and going to bed with someone. One of the big problems I had when I lived in New York is that there is a total identification between flirting and sleeping with someone. You'd meet someone nice in a bar or a grocers and chat with them, after a few days the intensity of feelings reached a point where you realised that you were supposed to say: "So, let's go out for dinner."

LH: Well, we're so bombarded with American culture in this country.

BE: I have a clause in any contracts I make with film directors which says, "Mr Eno will not be required to visit Los Angeles."

LH: Very wise, very wise indeed.

BE: You fly 5,000 miles, sit in a restaurant for two hours talking about your kids, baseball games and so on, and you keep thinking "What is the point of a meeting? When do we get to it?" No point ever appears; it's just about "let's be buddies" and then carry on as we were before.

LH: "Let's establish an interface! Let's connect!"

BE: There is a certain kind of flattery that I really rebel against. In the diary, I talk about a dinner I went to with all these A&R people, and this guy leans across and says, "Brian, do you work out?" I thought: "You fucking slimy bastard, there is no possibility that I work out and you know it." But it's like a buddy thing, you know, "Hey, you're looking good!"

LH: Maybe he was flirting.

BE: [Eno sniggers.] Maybe he was. But it stuck in my mind as something slightly disgusting.

LH: Some of the lyrics on the Bowie records, particularly the later ones - were they created with that weird computer generator?

BE: Yes. It's a randomiser, basically, so you feed in phrases and it reshuffles them. But the point is that Bowie is a lyrical genius. He takes stuff from, for instance, Outsider Art books, from a Brecht play, from a Herald Tribune editorial or something, from all sorts of different places.

LH: Are you looking for a meaning when you combine Brechtian language with financial language?

BE: I think as soon as you put something in a context where people expect meaning, they find it. I've got some stuff where I'm using literature from this new book by Peter Maass about his year in Bosnia, Love Thy Neighbour - A Story of War, where he's talking about death camps and so on, with some other stuff from a magazine about leg fetishists. When you put it together, you realise that those languages are almost interchangeable. You find yourself thinking, "That's quite erotic". Then you realise it's a description, not of a sex scene but of torture, and that these parts of your brain are very close together. The phrase "the pornography of violence" has a real meaning.

LH: To have your nipples twisted off: I don't think you'd like it very much, Brian.

BE: Oh, I've got used to it.

LH: You couldn't really do that with comedy. I'm interested in your views on comedy, because music's my hobby and comedy's my life.

BE: There are two things we do really well in England: one is popular culture - fashion, music, and so on - and the other is comedy. I think those are totally cutting-edge.

LH: Earlier this year we went to Ireland to do a charity fashion show for Children in Chernobyl. Ben Elton came to support us, and Joe Elliot from Def Leppard spent most of this meal that we had quoting Blackadder to him. He said, "When we're on the road, that's all we watch." When we were doing Three of a Kind we'd have people like INXS come up and quote jokes at us. On tour buses you'll watch Fawlty Towers 150 times, you'll watch The Young Ones 70 million times, you'll watch French And Saunders over and over again.

BE: A great single encapsulates a picture of the world and you remember everything around it; I think good comedy does that. Do you feel like an almond croissant? You don't really look like one, but would you like one?

LH: [Groans at Eno's joke.] Good grief! Have you got any fruit or anything? Or some nuts?

BE: Oh nuts, yes, I have.

LH: Do you feel a bit spoilt? There seems to be time to play, and time for things that aren't associated with music.

BE: Well I don't get invited to do them here very much.

LH: Why do you think that is?

BE: It's the normal thing: "He's a pop musician, what's he doing being an artist?" People don't seem to have that problem abroad. My installations normally involve large, dark rooms, with sound and light in them - sculptural things, I suppose you'd say. People stay for hours sometimes; they're very slow, very ambient in that sense. You focus down to a quite different level of surprise, like the difference between that and that becomes very interesting. [Points to two nuts on the table.]

LH: Brian is comparing the nuts. It's an art thing, I don't understand it. I've got two O-levels, what do I understand?

BE: [Protesting] I've only got two O-levels.

LH: Ah, but you've probably got a degree in stuff, haven't you?

BE: Only in painting, which doesn't really count.

LH: It's very interesting, I don't think people quite know what producers do, you know. What's your job when you go into a studio and you've got a band like James, or you've got Bowie sitting there? Does it change with each individual artist?

BE: Mm, yes, I think so. I always say that the first thing that you have to remember about producing is that it's a well-paid form of cowardice; you'll notice that producers never get blamed unless they make a total cock-up. It's always the band who gets blamed and it's nearly always the producer who gets the credit, so it's very unfair in many ways. But producers can make a huge difference to the atmosphere in which a record is made.

LH: I've finally realised that the best comedy is when you're up and you're moving. I'm doing a little tour at the moment called Larger Than Life. The guy I write with said that the moment these characters are moving, they come alive. When you stand up and become a 27-something Liverpudlian kid with his mouth at the side and saying, "Sound" [Henry is an instant shady Scouser, surreptitiously turning his back towards Eno] , and you start moving, suddenly it becomes something else. [Henry continues his new Scouse act.] "Might have a bit of work for you, no problem, doll..." They want it to look like there's nothing happening, but actually there's quite a lot going on, you know.

BE: [Talking through laughter] It's a funny thing, isn't it?

LH: What comedy writers should do, instead of trying to sit down and write a standard comedy routine, is to fucking get up and act it out. I love Eddie Izzard because he just talks bollocks until it makes sense, he's being incredibly brave.

BE: Did you see that programme about The Goons recently? That was quite interesting, because it seems that they really developed things that way; they spent a lot of time just improvising, with someone writing as fast as they could while things appeared.

LH: British comedy has always had this cutting-edge thing. I think Steve Coogan could very easily emulate what Peter Sellers did, because Peter Sellers could totally submerge himsef in the character and you couldn't actuatly hear his voice any more. I think Steve Coogan's got that complete unrecognisability. It's a rare thing; The Day Today team were inspirational to watch.

BE: It takes people really wanting to change the world, for me, that's what makes anything happen.

LH: What do you want to change the world to?

BE: I don't know. I know what I want to change it from.

LH: Quite often one feels backed up against a wall by deadlines.

BE: I suppose ideas are what I really think of as my job. My dream is to do for culture what Darwin did for the natural sciences. He established a frame in which it was possible to look at all life, ask serious questions about it and organise it in some way. I've been wanting to do the same thing for culture for a long time. By culture I mean everything from fashion, to fine art, to cake decoration to you know - the whole thing, all the things that humans do.

LH: [Goes in to jazz-man voice] I wrote Kinda Blue and then I made this mother-fucking cake. And it was bad. I called over Dizzy. I said,"Dizzy, come over here and taste this cake." Now Dizzy got them big-assed cheeks and he ate my cake and put the whole thing in each cheek and he blew his horn at the same time. That's the kinda of bad-assed horn player Dizzy was, he was a cake-making, mother-fucking genius.

BE: It's such a pity you don't have sound in the magazine.

LH: So you want to be remembered for ideas? You've got this culture theory?

BE: Yes.

LH: I've spent my days working on Comic Relief, doing some halfway decent comedy sometimes. Brian wants to be remembered for creating a unifying theory of culture, and I'm going to be remembered for going [shrieks] , "OOAAAUGH!" [Lenny Henry is the only person in Britain who can imitate a llama; also the only person who would want to.] Ain't that always the way though, folks. Comedy is not pretty.

Click here for a GIF (105K) or JPEG (41.6K) of Lenny Henry and Brian Eno enjoying a good laugh. Photo by Jake Walters.