Brian Eno - On Simplicity, Context, & The Necessity Of Urgency

An interview from Keyboard, June 1989, conducted by Robert L. Doerschuk.

For easy access to particular areas of interest, click on the appropriate subject heading in this list.

Unfavorable reactions
Harold Budd's New Age quote
Early Eno history
Installations and "quiet clubs"
More about installations
Eno loses interest in music
Eno, his DX7 and sound
Choice and 3rd-party sound vendors
Jon Hassell's Sampling quote
Getting random results from a sequencer
Eno is tragically misunderstood
Eno wants commitment from his collaborators
What do Eno's audiences expect?
Formative influence in 1965
Another Jon Hassell quote
The Surgeon of the Night Sky...

Midway through a sentence, Brian Eno stops, straightens himself, and peers toward Los Angeles. The illusion of silence quickly envelops us, then dissolves into a wash of traffic noises and waves from the nearby Pacific, fizzing and hissing on the Santa Monica shore. Eno, however, is absolutely quiet, staring breathlessly over my shoulder at...

"A hummingbird," he whispers, gesturing now toward a fence on the far end of a parking lot some distance away. "Do you see him? No? Maybe that leaf is in the way."

A second. Another. Eno watches, transfixed. Then, chuckling, he leans back and removes his dark glasses. "You'll have to forgive me," he says. "It's just that I don't see many of those birds in England."

The conversation resumes, but with a new flavor. Somehow this feathery cameo had changed everything. Details, overlooked moments before, stand out now in sharp relief: that leaf, that book - Contingency, Irony & Solidarity , by Richard Rorty - absently tucked under Eno's arm, that quiet voice, elegantly inflected, courteously inquiring whether I take my tea English-style, with milk.

Silence and understatement are potent tools in the work and demeanor of Brian Eno. Like waves lapping the rocky coast, he changes the musical landscape through gentle cycles of sounds so soft that one could hardly sense the power and complexity they conceal. In an age of musical excess - be it flashy soloing or brain-dead repetition - Eno operates on a minimal (not minimalist!) level. Much of his music is the aural equivalent of Rothko paintings: ponderous, trance-inducing, beautifully textured, haunting. By rejecting exhibitionism, Eno forces listeners to slow down and appreciate information we might otherwise ignore, or absorb only subliminally. And by exploring chance elements in composition and performance, he further emphasizes the value of relinquishing control as an element in playing and listening.

In our July '81 cover story on Eno and in countless other sources, his impact in music and art has been noted. Dozens of artists, from Soho past Windham Hill to the summitry of pop stardom, acknowledge his influence. Galleries compete for the honor of hosting his installations. A bewildering bevy of bands clamors for his services as a producer. A few actually make it into the studio with him: technospuds Devo, old new wavers Talking Heads, Irish flag-wavers U2, Soviet gutter-rockers Zvuki Mu. All emerge changed by the experience.

What is it that Eno brings to his clients? Nothing but the keys to their own imaginations. True, he does have a definite sound of his own: As guest synthesist on "A Change Is Gonna Come," from the latest Neville Brothers LP, Eno exposes unusual dimensions in the lyrics and music by grafting spectral textures onto a gospel framework. But that's the point - to uncover, to explore, rather than to dominate. It's still a Neville Brothers performance, but with a depth that other producers and sidemen have failed to bring out.

In a strange way, Eno adapts this same approach to his solo projects. These, too, are collaborative efforts - but without another artist to work with, Eno creates an invisible partner. Absent a better name, let's call it chance - that element in time and space that is as unpredictable as human inclinations. When he threads four of his pieces onto four tape decks and turns them all on, it's chance that unfolds the hallucinatory patterns that play back. Chance spooks his synths and sequences, producing glitches more fascinating to Eno than the symmetry of Bachian counterpoint. Where other musicians strive to control their audiences through carefully structured interplay of melody, rhythm, and texture, Eno delights in the fact that his listeners' responses are private, mysterious, and forever beyond his reach.

In a society driven toward order, Eno's credo seems suspect at first. We learn to admire those most adept at commanding their tools or chosen environments - the stage, the keyboard, sequences, video games, money, the media, football fields, armies, hearts, minds. To credit luck or fate, even in the midst of apparent success, is almost like admitting failure. Yet chance beats in the heart of Eno's art. In this sense like John Cage, Eno turns our values upside down. Unlike Cage, he does so in a context of seductive musical tranquility.

Not everyone enjoys this sort of seduction. On hearing such static works as Discreet Music and Music For Films, some critics more attuned to the linear lock-step of rock dismissed Eno as a boring fraud. Describing Music For Airports in The New York Times, Ken Emerson sniffed, "One man's nirvana is another man's nap." On Land provoked Mark Peel of Stereo Review to conclude, ''I'll bet plants love it." The late Lester Bangs shrugged, "Still waters don't necessarily run deep."

But Eno's backers don't always get the message either. To those who recite the old saw that process is more important than the final product, Eno insists that the two are in fact equally vital; neither can reach fruition without the other. As for those who would credit him for triggering new age's stampede toward blissful oblivion, Eno declines the honor, quoting his friend Harold Budd: "What I hate about new age is that there's no evil in it." And though he has few peers at conjuring magical timbres from his chosen instruments, he is more inclined to spend his days tinkering on an old DX7 than chasing through NAMM shows after the latest digital bells and sampled whistles.

In fact, Eno is part of no movement, though he has dropped in on many throughout his varied career. Trained as a visual artist at the Ipswich and Winchester Art Schools in England, he began testing the musical waters with an avant-garde group called Merchant Taylor's Simultaneous Cabinet. With the band Maxwell Demon, he improvised his lyrics at every show. From 1971 through '73, with Roxy Music, he contributed odd electronic textures and spectacular hermaphroditic stage costumes - an attempt, he would explain, to tap the feminine side of his creativity. From his first solo album, Here Come The Warm Jets in 1974, through his most recent efforts, including a duo project recorded in Moscow with Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale, he has followed his own path, which leads him now through landscapes still and serene.

There's less music along this path, and much more emphasis on the visual scenery, than in years past. Eno seems to be returning to his original artistic reference, through a series of installations he calls "quiet clubs." These spaces of sound texture, and soft light reflect similar qualities embraced in his music: blurred edges, dreamy slow movement, objects and impressions hovering in the mists of our subconscious. This year, during August and September, he'll be opening two installations in New York: at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center, as part of the World Wildlife Fund's campaign to preserve tropical rainforests, and at the Anchorage Gallery. Later, during October and November, another Eno sculpture and video installation, Latest Flames, will be displayed in Minneapolis and Seattle.

While music plays an integral role in these shows, Eno insists that his interest in it as an independent phenomenon is waning. Only within a defined environment - a "quiet club," or perhaps the broader backdrop of daily life - does it hold his appeal, at least for the moment. But to us as musicians, this is perhaps beside the point. If we wish to create in the modern world, if we wish to test our fundamental assumptions about what art is and who are we to do it, Eno's work, past and present, will remain relevant.

So where were we? Ah, yes. The hummingbird. After studying us for a minute or two, it disappeared. Not that I saw it leave. But, after a few minutes of environmental ear-training with Eno, I believe I heard it lift off, a tiny song in the symphony of Santa Monica.

Since your last Keyboard interview, you've been recording fewer solo albums and doing more audio-visual installations. How much of your creative process on these installations stems from your multi-media rock performances with Roxy Music years ago?

I don't think it has much to do with my stage experiences. My installations really tap into a line of things that I was doing before I ever started playing onstage. I was working with light in dark rooms when I was in art college. I suppose my shows do react against the rock presentations in a certain way. I like to deliberately create slow-stimulus atmospheres, which are sort of the opposite of the pop video. The whole ethos of the pop video is to do as many edits as you can. Most commercial television is like that as well: There's a continuous sense of forcing interest through rapid editing. I try to go the opposite way. I want to make things that are very slow and hypnotic, that draw interest not by attacking, but by seducing. It's very unpop in that way. But in another way, it's quite pop, in that it doesn't set out to distance itself from the interests of ordinary people. A lot of fine art does, either inadvertently or intentionally. My work is really an attempt to show that it's possible to make something subtle that people will like.

How do you perceive aspects of what you do in these installations as being things that people would like, rather than things that distance the work from its viewers?

Well, first of all, my tastes are not that different from other people's. That's really the arbiter. If I genuinely like something, not just if I think it's clever or a bit of a trick, then I find that a lot of other people do as well. But the second thing is this: Having found that which I respond to, and which I therefore trust that at least some of the rest of the world is going to respond to as well, I then think about how I can make that experience as available and as comfortable for them as possible. All of my shows rely on having some concept of comfort. When you go to the show, you should be able to feel that you can sit down and stay there for half an hour. Most places [i.e., galleries] don't even have seats in them; there's very much a sense that you look through it quickly and leave. I try to make it so that people can choose to stay there for a while. I also try to make it so that there aren't too many ergonomically awkward spots in the place - places where people could bash into each other. It's like designing a shopping mall [laughs]. Quite apart from what you're selling in the mall, can you make the place work? Can you make it so that people enjoy the experience of being there?

As you're putting these en vironments together, do you think differently about music than you do when you're just doing an album?

Oh, yes, very differently. In fact, I've never released any of the music that's been used in these installations. Though I really like it in the installations, that's where it belongs. It doesn't work abstracted from them. It's music that was designed from those places, so it resides in them. I once actually mixed some music from an installation with a view toward releasing it on a record. But when I listened to it, it sounded like a relic. In my opinion, it didn't stand as a piece on its own.

How do your musical ideas evolve within the space of a specific art environment, as opposed to within a recording studio?

Nearly all of my installations have used variations on the same piece of music. This was a piece that I did for my second big video show a long time ago. It worked very well; I was really pleased with it. When the next show came up, I did another piece, but when I took it down to that space, I didn't like it as much. So I used the first one again,but with quite a few variations in mix, balance, and so on. It became the underlay of whatever work I did. I would always have the music playing while [collaborator] Michael Brooks and I set up the video show - in fact, when I was building the work as well. So the show grows out of the music quite a lot, rather than the other way around.

Then, in the summer two years ago, I did a new piece, in the same key and almost in the same mode as the first piece. Lately, I've been mixing these two pieces. In a show in Berlin, I used all of one piece plus one tape of the second piece. The blends can be quite complicated. What's happening is that instead of being single site-specific works, these pieces are turning into modular units. I've recently added two more sections. I normally have only four tapes playing, but I choose them from about ten different tapes made over a four-year period. The piece changes internally all the time when it's playing in the space. But it's also changing globally, taking new forms outside of the space. The internal changes happen because I have four cassettes running on auto-reverse players. The cassettes are cut to be different lengths,which are not related in any simple mathematical way. It's like having very long tape loops running, always combining in different ways.

In adding to your installation music, are you using the same gear you used in the original recording?

I've been adding. But, honestly, I've had a problem keeping interested in music. John Hassell and I were discussing this recently, and we agreed that music has narrowed down into being not that which is audible, but that which is recordable. A lot of the things I'm interested in aren't recordable. I get bored with music because of its being totally linked to records or tapes. So one of my points in doing these installations was to make music that could only be heard in that place. It goes back to the idea of music being linked to a certain moment in space and time, and not being transferable away from it. I like the idea that people can't go out and buy a record of this. There's something interesting about the idea of making a place with music that belongs to it. You can't take the music away, any more than you can take away the other elements. Anyway, all that is a prelude to saying that the only keyboard I've bought recently was a [Yamaha] DX711. And after playing it for an hour, I got rid of it. It seemed no different from the original DX7. At least it offered no significant change for what I'm doing. So I just kept the old DX7. I did buy a couple of guitars, though, which I really like. One is an Alvarez Yairi, an acoustic/electric. It's a lovely guitar. And I bought a bass guitar. I love bass guitar, because it has so little to do, yet it's so important.

Do you still have all your old gear? The EMS AKS synthesizer, for example?

Yeah, I've got that. I've got all my old stuff. My one consolation about it is that I really know the instruments that I have very well. My DX7 programs are very good.

Yet your approach to sound seems to move against the trend represented by the DX7 toward sharp delineation. You seem much more interested in blurring sounds, rather than defining them clearly.

Yes. In fact, the DX7 isn't the greatest synthesizer for my direction. But I like it all the same. It's very good for those sharp, hard sounds. I've always thought, though, that sound doesn't stop with the synthesizer. I'm always thinking in terms of using a whole chain of stuff to screw up the sound [laughs] .

But why are you so interested in obscuring sounds?

Well, first of all, whenever you hear a real instrument, or any real sound in the world for that matter, you hear it in a container of some kind. If you hear a guitar being played, you're hearing all the formants in the body of the guitar, not just the strings. The synthesizer, on the other hand, is like just the strings. It's a disembodied sound. Because of that, I've always enjoyed the opportunity to build a body around that sound. Of course, the little EMS synthesizer is a good trick for that too, with its weird circuitry, ring modulators, and so on. The problem with synthesizers, as I've said before, is that the sound involves too few atoms. Once you get into the level of having a whole bunch of complex molecules involved, then you start to get into the richness that makes sound interesting.

Your mission, then, is to add electrons to the nucleus of sound.

That's right [laughs].

Toward that goal, you must often opt for recording your synth parts live.

Very often. I've built funny loudspeakers to create the formants of a sound around the synthesizers. Or I'll do a direct recording - on bass guitar, for instance - and then, at leisure, feed it out to various different amplifiers and situations. After the event, you can spend time finding the sound that you want. If I want the performance now, and I'm in a position to record it, I'll get the performance down and then send it back out to an amp, or do whatever other things I might do. I don't have anything against direct recording. It works well with electric guitar and electric bass. The only thing is that it tends to get boring with synthesizer because of the disembodied nature of the sound.

As someone who has frequently expressed reservations over the trend toward limitless sound choices, how do you feel about the recent rise of third-party sound vendors?

I suppose it changes what I said to a certain extent. When there are so many choices, just making a choice becomes quite a decision. It always used to be a problem that people would buy a synthesizer with, say, 40 sounds, and never make an original sound of their own. Now, I assume that when people are buying things, they're usually kitting themselves up to two or three thousand sounds and all the possib1e combinations. Well, this is a gigantic number, so judgment becomes a big issue.

Have you ever bought synth sounds or samples?

No. I like programming. I always have preferred making sounds. And I don't use samplers.

Why not?

Sampling just hasn't made an impression on me, I suppose because it isn't different from things that I've done before. It's using a tape recorder. Obviously there's a difference; sampling gives you a much faster and better tape recorder. But that's what it is. That's what I started off doing. I understand that the possibilities of sampling are very interesting - the notion of a machine that can act like a digestive process for any sounds that happen to be around you. But these possibilities have not solved my musical problems. I think that few people have understood the conceptual ramifications of the sampler - as usual, Hassell is the exception, with his image of "the Mona Lisa painted with tiny snapshots of the Taj Mahal". That's a beautiful idea.

Have you explored the use of sequencers to create the kind of random overlapping events you've done with tape decks?

I have been doing some experiments with sequencers, although I haven't released any of them. Last year, for example, I played an improvised piece of music on the keyboard, and stopped recording on the sequencer after, say, 80 of its bars, which actually bore no relationship to my bars since I wasn't playing to a click. But I left a silence at the end of my performance - let's say it was 10 sequencer bars. I then told the DX7 to recognize only information concerning the bottom quarter of the keyboard. I recorded that segment on one track of the 24 tracks. I let it run the full 80 bars, looping it and allowing it to repeat several times. That was track 1.

For track 2, I told the DX7 to recognize only information concerning the second lowest quarter of the keyboard. I then reduced the sequence length by cutting out a couple of bars of the silence, and recorded the resultant 78-bar loop on the 24-track, starting it in sync with the first performance. I repeated this process with the remaining two segments of the keyboard, each time reducing the loop length by a couple of bars.

The result of all this was a piece of music that, in its first moments, is exactly as I played it, since all the parts of the keyboard are linked at that stage. But after about bar 70, the different "strata" of the performance fall out of sync with one another, so that the piece is reconstructed in constantly different ways. Perhaps this sounds as if I'm describing another piece of random music, but it really isn't that, because the distribution of musical events always remains true to my original performance.

Some critics might accuse you of stretching a simple two-minute piece into a 20-minute work through nothing more than sleight-of-hand editing.

I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that. It does seem similar, though, to what [playwright Samuel] Beckett has been doing in his writing over the last few years - working with a small palette, but looking at all the permutations contained within it. See, I'm interested in using the sequencer for exactly the opposite of what everyone else wants from it. What's fantastic about the sequencer to me is that it can orchestrate the nuances of a loose performance. I can play something entirely rubato, with no beat or rhythm, and then have the authority of a number of different instruments playing that back at once. I'm not interested in correcting it, in putting it into time or linking it to clicks. For me, the sequencer is a device to use to unlock music, not to lock it all together. That's all we've been hearing for hundreds of years.

Your sequencer and tape experiments reflect the broader explorations of chance that have been made not only in your work, but throughout experimental music over the past few decades. Why do you think so many people share this interest? Why don't we have more Beethovens chiselling down their ideas note for note?

Well, I heard an interesting story recently about Beethoven. When he wrote his pieces, they were played by the local orchestra - the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and so on. So there was probably a lot more chance in his performances than any of us would be prepared to cover [laughs]. But on a more serious level, the results of chance are often as interesting as the results of anything else that we can do. Looking at the results of chance operations is a creative exercise. It moves the creative part from that of being the maker to that of being the observer of what is made and the selector from what appears. It's a shift of emphasis in some ways about where the creative work is being done. The old notion is that it's all done before the work is completed. But looking at it, making the choices, is just as creative.

Is this change entirely positive? What do we risk in moving from an established creative methodology to one less clearly defined?

One of the risks is that people are frightened of taking positions. In the art world, particularly with painting, people are terrified now about saying that they don't like something, because they might be wrong. One of the results of chance generated work is that people have been persuaded to think that they have to like every configuration that comes up. But for me, that isn't the point. The point is not that you have to like every configuration that comes up. The point is: Here are the configurations. Now you make the choices. It's not saying, "Be passive." It's telling you, "Don't be passive. Be creative." Just because we generate all these things by chance operations, that doesn 't mean that you have to like them. I believe in natural selection: Many are generated, but few are chosen.

Do you feel that people misunderstand your work, to the extent that it is used as an excuse to produce technically unsophisticated trance music?

[Laughs.] Yeah. But I don't mind that. In fact, I rather like all the misinterpretations. That's part of the bonus. Misinterpretation is a great source of innovation: It's the basis of biological evolution, after all. If all you've got at the end is more people doing things that you had expected them to do, that wouldn't be too interesting. What I don't like is when I hear something by someone who has missed the most important bits. For example, half the tapes that we get at Opal, our record company, sound like me, or Roger [Eno], or Harold Budd. I don't understand why people do this. I already have me, Harold, and Roger. Why do they think I'll want another one - especially one that's not very good? We get lots of Harold Budds without the sinister undertones, lots of me without any sense of humor, lots of Rogers without such good tunes. So what's the point? It just means that they didn't hear us properly, or else they wouldn't have bothered to send this in.

You would think these imitators would notice your interest not in duplicating things you've done before, but in working with artists of wildly disparate styles. Still, do you see some shared quality in the work of the bands you've produced?

What's indispensable to me is that the artist has to be totally earnest about what he or she is doing. I'm really not interested in people piddling around or playing games. It doesn't matter if what they're doing is, in the end, somewhat humorous. I want for their commitment to be complete. There's nothing worse than feeling yourself in a situation where you suddenly sense that it doesn't matter that much to them. You start thinking, "If it doesn't matter to them, why should it matter to me?" So it has to matter - a lot.

A significant amount of getting to know the artist, as well as his or her music, is probably crucial for you to deciding whether you can work together.

Except that I think you feel that commitment immediately. That's one thing that will attract me to particular musicians. It's nothing to do with the style in which the band actually plays. I imagine that if I ever meet [blues singer] John Lee Hooker, I would feel that he really means it, just as I felt that Zvuki Mu, U2, and Talking Heads mean it. There's no stylistic resemblance among them, but there's a resemblance in terms of having a sense that what you're doing, is culturally important - not only important, but imperative - Somebody has to do this. I like that kind of urgency.

Have you encountered artists who impress you in this sense, yel with whom you feel you still cannot work?

Oh, yes. That's happened fairly often in fact. Or feeling that what somebody does is very nice, but I have nothing to add to it.

Is it hard to find people with whom you can work?

I don't really find them. I just wait [laughs]. With Zvuki Mu, for example, I wasn't really looking for bands to produce. I was looking for people to put into this Space Bridge satellite linkup between the Soviet Union and the West. That was quite a different type of looking. I just wanted people who would represent the situation there. It happened that I saw Zvuki Mu and thought they'd be interesting to work with. But it isn't hard. I don't find myself thinking, "God, I wish there were some interesting people out there." There are! They aren't in a particularly coherent group, however. I've worked with Zvuki Mu this year, and I shall be working with John Cale later on. I shall be working with Jon Hassell. I'll probably be doing something with Hugo Largo. Maybe to other people they all belong in the same category of weird music. But to me, that's quite a spread in terms of age, experience, culture, and background. So, if anything, my concept of what is useful music has broadened a lot. It seems to me that there's a continuum of music, and I can hop around certain parts of the spectrum. I don't care whether it falls into the category of jazz or pop or whatever. These labels are supposed to close off certain areas. Well, they don't close anything off for me.

Given the diversity of your projects what do you think audiences expect from the records you perform on or produce?

Quite a few things. We're definitely in the postmodern era of pop music. People are conscious of shuffling styles. To give you an example, I can't imagine that Jefferson Airplane, Cream, or someone like that were consciously shuffling styles. They weren't even thinking about it, I would imagine. Style was not an issue. You played the way you'd worked it out to play.

They might cite varied influences.

That's right. Or use a sitar. But postmodernism is different. I also call it "ism-ism." It's really the manipulation of other historical styles. That's certainly a condition of pop music at the moment. It's almost an ironic position, one about which I have very mixed feelings, in which the artist is not in any way exposed any longer. Rather, he's a puppet master, playing with different styles that are allowed to cross or combine with one another and explode in different ways.

It's essentially an intellectual process.

Very intellectual, yes. It's what painting and architecture are doing at the moment as well. There aren't any major structural changes in buildings; they're cosmetic changes. Ism-ism has to do very much with the look of things, the outside of things. At the other extreme, there's something I don't have a name for, which is a real extrapolation of the '60s thing - pop as religion, as a form of coming together communally. The most interesting aspect of religions in general is not what they specifically teach, but the nature of the experience of a lot of people coming together in one place and agreeing to be moved in one way. When I went to see U2 play in Rome, there were about 60,000 people there, and I realized that the power of the experience was the power of being with that many other people enjoying that same experience. It's sort of the Woodstock spirit updated.

When did you first sense that feeling?

I can remember very clearly. In 1965 there was a poetry reading at the Albert Hall in London. It had all the beat poets - Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and so on. I didn't know anyone else who knew about it. I just went, and the place was absolutely packed; there were 7,000 people in there. And nobody knew that anybody else was interested! It was stunning to realize that that many people were interested in what seemed a very obscure corner of modern culture at the time. That was really the beginning of what you'd call the '60s in England.

To what extent was the development of this network simply a demographic phenomenon? Was it largely due to the fact that suddenly there were a lot of young people around, the baby boom population bulge, with money to spend for distraction?

Yeah. And you had a lot of options. You could wander around for three years before getting a job. I know that I didn't feel under any pressure to pull my life together. I didn't feel competitive. There was a consensus that things were possible. Now there's a consensus that things are not. That may be because people's expectations of what they need to have in their lives have become so much greater, and the idea of being poor doesn't have a lot of glamour. It did once, and it will again.

Now, though, artists work with the realization that it might not be possible in two years to drive their car or breathe the air.

Well, something is always possible, though it might not be exactly what you expected. I often notice, when I'm talking with people involved in the arts, that their concept of what they want to do is to aim for the biggest, most obvious target, and hit it smack in the bull's eye. That's success whatever the particular field is. Of course with everybody else aiming there as well that makes it very hard to hit. It's made hard to do. It's made expensive. As Jon Hassell always says, I prefer to shoot the arrow, then paint the target around it. You make the niches in which you finally reside. That's a sense which has been slightly eclipsed. There's a success orientation in the '80s, of going right into those niches that everybody has hit before - like becoming a film star. How boring! So if there is a difference between today and the '60s in the sense of what is possible, it's the sense of what is possible in terms of building niches. Remember, in the '60s there wasn't much of a pop industry. It was very disorganized. People at record companies weren't at all clear about what was going on. Most important, the musicians weren't clear either. That's why it was possible for so many interesting things to come out - because nobody knew whether something was too far out to be acceptable, or whether it was going to be the next big hit. Jimi Hendrix was a good example. At that time, there must have been people in record companies listening to Hendrix and saying, "What? This? Hopeless!"

With that in mind, do you feel that one of your functions as a producer is to suggest possibilities that lie beyond what each artist is doing?

Well, when you work with someone, you see a spectrum of options that are open to them. Some of these are simple possibilities, like making another version of a successful record that you had made before. Others aren't so simple, and always look clumsy at the beginning. If you've done something that worked, and you're left only with the result and not with the process, it's kind of daunting when you look at that thing and say, "God, that's so great! How did I do it? Now I've got to start again - back to Square One, with this pathetic miserable idea." My feeling is always to encourage artists through that stage. I figure that when things are good, they look after themselves. It's not important to worry about them then. The things which are interesting, which are going somewhere new, are where I want to put my attention. Sometimes they don't work out. Sometimes they really are duds. It doesn't matter.

So what do you offer to an artist in your service as a producer?

The only thing I can offer is that which most other producers don't. Most other producers are going to push the "sure to be successful" side, which means the "sure to be recognizable" side of what people are doing. I'm very happy to see people being successful, of course. It's nice to know that they do that kind of thing. But they don't need my help at it. If they want the kind of producer who will put a gloss on what they do, there are people who are much better at that than I am. If they really want help to pull out something that hasn't come together, that's in there but hasn't forced its way out, that's where you need a lot of encouragement and sympathy. That's what another artist can do, because he's seen the process. He's seen how awkward it is at that stage.

Do any specific examples come to mind, in which you were able to contribute that sort of input?

Yes, I can think of one. When I was working on Jon Hassell's record, Surgeon Of The Night Sky, we were talking about this idea of co-opting classical music, of occupying the space that classical music should occupy in our culture, but doesn't. We both think that classical music is a dead fish. But even though it is, by and large, pathetically boring, it's given this huge, very high-quality attention. I made the point that this space should be invaded. The classical people don't know how to use it, so they deserve to be kicked out and replaced by somebody who could use it properly. Jon had independently become very interested in this idea himself. So one evening, I snuck up into the studio and did a little work on this piece we'd been doing. Essentially, I expanded it to have the sound of a classical piece, and to draw on the assumptions that people take to classical music. So now it has this fantastic beautiful opening, like a huge orchestra. This goes on for about four minutes, and then suddenly this bass part comes in, which twists the whole thing around in a lovely way.

That's the important thing. When you place a piece of work in the world, you place it in terms of a set of expectations. [Eno reaches into his pocket and draws out the latest cassette by rap group De La Soul.] When this group released this album, they put it in a package that tells you exactly what kind of focus to bring to hearing it. You're not going to listen to this the way you listen to Mahler or to Stan Kenton.

I'm interested in pretending that I work in a niche while actually not quite being in there. I like to draw people in with all their expectations - include myself; I should never pretend that I do this to others and not to myself. We're all drawn in. We're all seduced into a way of listening. We think we know where we are, and then things happen which make us realize that we're somewhere different.

Perhaps somewhere quite different.


Brian Eno was previously interviewed in our July '81 and Jan. '86 issues. Several artists associated with Eno have also been profiled in Keyboard: Harold Budd (Feb. '86), Devo (Aug. '81, June '84), Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads (Apr. '83). Also recommended: Brian Eno: His Music & The Vertical Color Of Sound, by Eric Tamm, a detailed study of Eno's career techniques,and impact on contemporary music, scheduled for release as a paperback on June 2. The book will be available for $12.95, from Faber & Faber.