Brian Eno interviewed by Michael Engelbrecht
(in fall 1990)

copyright 1990, Michael Engelbrecht
transcribed from original tape by Ulrich Bomnüter

Early experiences with sound

ME: ... I'm especially interested in the story about your grandfather living in this chapel and repairing old instruments.

BE: Well the first place I ever lived was in this old chapel, because when I was born, my parents didn't have their own house. And he lived in a chapel that had been deconsacrated - it had been a small catholic church and the priest had committed suicide in there, so it couldn't be a church anymore. This is a rule in the catholic religion. Once somebody has committed a sin like that in a church, then it can't be a church. So they sold the place and he bought it.

He played many instruments himself, particular saxophone, but he also played bassoon and organ and so on. And he specialized in mending mechanical musical instruments. This old house, this chapel was full of mechanical organs, that type with fountains and with huge brass sheets that turn round, and mechanical pianos with piano rolls. So, yeah, the first instruments I ever saw, were the early synthesizers (laughs). That's what they were, they were synthesizers, really. Or sequencers, should you say, something like that.

Apart from that, this place, where he lived in, was a rather spooky place. Because it had a tiled floor and a lot of the tiles were loose. So everything squeaked as you walked and at night you'd here squeaks going on everywhere. It was one of those old buildings that crackled and creaked a lot at night, you know.

Plus he had a lot of skeletons. He was a guy who collected everything, you know, all sorts of rubbish that he found: swords and flags and suits of armour and skeletons and old instruments. And the place was full of -- every corner had something strange stuck in it, some piece of old stuff. And he had seventeen cats, and parrots, had a jackdaw, which is a type of bird, who steels things.

It was a great place - for a child, it was a fantastic place.

ME: And that way you were surrounded by these strange instruments. I found it very interesting that when I read the liner notes to DISCREET MUSIC, it was really a similar story, because you told you tend to be not a performer, but someone who is surrounded by sounds. And it was a very analogic story to your early experiences ...

BE: Quite interesting. I never thought of that before. It's true. Well there's actually a very good connection, which I hadn't realized before: For the last 15 or 20 years of his life, he was building an organ himself. And he built it in the house, he didn't build it on a frame. He just would put the pipes on the ceiling and hang some more pipes over on that wall, and in the end, the whole organ was all around him. It had over 600 pipes (laughs). And when he died, they just broke it up, because they sold the house, when he died. It was a great shame. But he had made an organ that he could sit inside, actually, that's what it was. It was all around him.

BE: My uncle was in India and he's another quite strange character, too. He's still alive, my uncle. He was -- I think he was always an eccentric man. He used to be a bass drum player in a marching band. He was the guy, who hits the big drum. He's quite a big man. He went to India as a husar, a cavalry man, you know, and fell off his horse and damaged his head. And so he was discharged. He had concussion, and they discharged him from the army. He liked India very much, and he stayed there for 6 years living as an Indian, really. He looks quite Indian, he doesn't look English. He has very long hair and a very dark complexion, very dark eyes. So he stayed in India, and he picked up a lot of the philosophical feeling of India. And he smoked hashish and opium and so on, (laughs) when he was out there. He only told me this a few weeks ago, I never knew it before. So when he came back to this little town, we lived in and live in, a little town in the Suffolk countryside, he was a very exotic person. He was really the exotic creature of the town, you know. He came back and he became a gardener. But he had another interest as well, he was painter and a repairer of China, porcelaine. For instance, if a porcelaine statue was broken, he would rebuild the broken parts. He did really beautiful work, absolutely invisible mending, you know.

Anyway, the fact of this was, that the house, he lives in, which he had lived in since the end of the war, actually -- he lives in a single room about this big (spreads his arms), and he never leaves that room except to go to the toilet. He sleeps in his chair. He sits in the same chair all day and he sleeps in it at night. His room is absolutely crammed full of everything you could imagine.

I remember, Dan Lanois was very impressed. I took him over to see my uncle. And Dan was talking about precious stones, semi-precious stones. And he said: "Have you ever heard of a stone called cornelian?" And my uncle says: "Oh, yes, yes, hold on." And he reaches under the table. Under his table he has everything in the world, in the universe actually (laughs). He reaches under his table and he pulls out a tin and opens the tin and there are 7 beautiful cornelians in it (laughs). He showed that to Dan and took it back and Dan was very impressed. The conversation went on for a while and we got on to Chinese buddhist metalwork. I don't know how we got on to this subject. And he said "Ah, something you might like to look at." and comes out with a little statue like that, you know. He really has everything, you can imagine, in there, in tiny size, you know. It's like a miniature museum, this place, the smallest museum in the world.

And his wife, my auntie, is a very sweet woman. She's older than him, she's 85 now, I think. She always sits in the corner like a little bird, she's bent over, and she's always going "chh chh, silly old fool". She calls him silly old fool (laughs) all the time, 'cause he has such strange ideas, you know. He's always saying weird things.

The other important thing about my uncle is that he is involved with painting, as I said. And though he was himself quite a traditional painter - he painted landscapes -, he was very interested in everything that was going on in modern painting as well. And he used to buy these tiny little books - there was a series often published in England and each one would be dedicated to a different artist, you know, one about Kandinsky, one about Klee, one about Cezanne. And the illustrations inside these books were about this big, they were absolutely tiny, they perfectly suited my uncle. He kept a whole history of modern art in a space this big, you know. And he once showed me the book of Mondrian paintings and I was extremely impressed by this. And it was the first really big impact that visual art ever had on me.

And he was quite good, 'cause he never expressed his own opinion about things. So he wouldn't say to you "Look at this, isn't that great!" or "Look at this, isn't that rubbish!" He would just say "Look at this." and let you make up your own mind about it. And if you're enthusiastic, he would support your enthusiasm, you know. He was a good teacher.

ME: You once talked about an experience your sister had, too, an UFO experience. Describe a bit, what happened on that day and how you saw it.

BE: Well, it's one of those things that happened so long ago, that I can't really know, whether it was true or not. It's such a vague memory, it almost feels like a dream. You know the way sometimes, you remember a dream as if it was a true event. I have the same feeling about this. And I couldn't sort out whether it was a dream or not. So I wrote to my sister, and she said "Oh no, I remember seeing that as well." So, I still don't know really, whether it was something we imagined, the two of us together ( we did a lot of imagining together) or whether it was something that really happened. I tell you, what I think happened (I don't claim that it's true, okay?): It was actually a simple enough thing, we were in the garden, it was twilight, and we saw an object in the sky, which was not an aeroplane. It was a long - sounds strange to say - greenish coloured object with strangely shaped windows. It didn't have round windows, they were actually shaped like television screens. Well, I don't know, I mean... To tell the truth, I don't believe in UFOs. So I find this experience difficult to place.


ME: [who had received a demo tape before with 4 tracks of forthcoming THE SHUTOV ASSEMBLY, one of them being JUJU SPACE JAZZ]
Can you tell a little bit about THE SHUTOV ASSEMBLY - another kind of ambient album after 5 years. But I listened to this JUJU SPACE JAZZ, which is very rhythmic ...

BE: There's actually a bit of a mistake there, because JUJU is from another thing I'm doing. So actually there is material from two different projects there. Your quite right in saying they are not similar. The first 3 belong to one project, the other one is a different one. Well I hope they come out the same time. I'd like to release the two things together, because in fact they are seen as sides of the same coin. They'll both be instrumental albums. Unfortunately they are both very unfinished on this tape you have. So it isn't easy to see the connection between them. The idea with JUJU SPACE JAZZ [which later was released under the title NERVE NET] is to make a new kind of dissonant dance music, something like that. But it's really only the beginning, that piece. There's a lot more to go there. You probably were having trouble thinking "How does that piece relate to these other ones". It sort of is a double record, except they are not stuck together. They come out separately.

ME: I listened to the three tracks that will be on THE SHUTOV ASSEMBLY, and I realized that on the first piece, for instance, there were very high tones. Years ago you said that you don't like especially high tones, because they are associated with danger. And there are some dissonant drones that are untypical for ambient music.

BE: You're quite right, it's the association with danger that I didn't use to like, and it's exactly that, what I do like now. This is why these two records I hope to be reflections of the same kind of feeling. THE SHUTOV ASSEMBLY is sort of the out-of-town version of it, the outside-the-city-limits version of danger, and the JUJU SPACE JAZZ I wanted to be in-the-city-kind of feeling, but also not sweet and not reassuring. For instance, I don't want things to be in simple keys, I want them to be in strange relationships to one another. So they irritate one another.

I'm using a lot of high-frequency material in both of them. The other record which at the moment I call "THIS IS CRASH" (laughs) - that's my name for it this week, I keep changing the name, "CRASH JAZZ" or something like that - that record has a backdrop, or some of the pieces, anyway, have a backdrop, which are made from data sounds, like short-wave computer data that is always being transmitted through the air. And from insect sounds, and from synthesizer sounds that bridge the gap between the two. I just have an exhibition in London where most of the sound is this mixture of very-high- frequency chatter. It's like all communication that's going on all the time, that is even passing through this room here. So the record makes that visible, suddenly. And it's the backdrop. And I think it will be the backdrop on the music on both of these records, at least for some of the time. What I like about that, is - I've always liked the insect chatter and that sound, because it has a kind of urgency to it. To me it's not pastoral, it's actually quite relentless and demanding. It's insects saying "Get off my territory" or "Come here, I wanna fuck you!" (laughs). It's not the sound of insects having a good time actually, it's sort of a desperate quality, especially if you're in the tropics and you hear that sound. It's so solid.

And I listened to short-wave for a long time and I often tuned in between the short-wave, where you hear all these other transmissions. And it occured to me that this is the same thing going on between humans, this kind of endless chatter going on. So I thought it would be an interesting picture on humanity to say that we finally through electronic communication achieved this insect-like condition. We're linked to each other like insects are linked to each other. We're broadcasting the whole time. That was sort of the background of this thing: creating that kind of a context, a context of endless complicated communications. And within that sort of, not landscape, but airscape, I guess, I want to set the music. And I want to set two different kinds of music in those landscapes.

The Tenkawa concert

ME: It was a very interesting experience for me to read about the planning of the Tenkawa concert. And afterwards I read about the real concert, how it took place, in the OPAL information, and I asked myself, if we will hear something from that on those records. And could you tell a bit about this strange relationship between the Shinto point of view and the "ambient way".

BE: Well, yes, one of the inspirations for that concert really was the notion that runs right through Shinto, which is that there's not a sharp separation between man and nature or between the various objects of nature, or between animate objects and inanimate objects. So, the best expression for that is, if you're in Japan, you see a rock in a river, which has a sign by and it says 'natural treasure'. You know, this rock is a 'natural treasure'. People come to look at this rock to admire it. Or this tree, in some other place, is a 'natural treasure', or this artist, or this piece of poterry, you know. This notion that runs right through Shinto, that Kame, which is their spirithood, can reside in any type of object. I'm very sympathetic to that, you know, because one of the ideas of ambient music has been that music doesn't only come from instruments. And I wanted to make a music that didn't have a horizon in that sense, that didn't say "Okay, this is the music and everything outside of it is not musical". I wanted to make a music that was blending into the landscape. And so, a lot of the Shinto feeling is about blending, about things crossing over into one another, about no sharp edges between objects that are worthy of worship and objects that aren't. I think, the other thread was a purely environmental one, which is that this particular temple was in itself like an ambient music installation in that it was set in a valley, the valley of a volcano. A beautiful place with steep slopes and a river going through the middle. Up the slopes were all the creatures of the night, in the fields there were frogs, in the temple, of course, there were the various sounds of the temple: I mean the place was a performance in itself, you could just sit there and listen. It was a beautiful place to be. So the idea of making music there, was really just - my first idea was to just draw attention to the music that was already there, so to put microphones out where the frogs were, to bring them into the centre of the place. And this is what we did. We of course added new material as well. But a lot of the material we were using was drawn from this place.


ME: So there was this blending of sounds from the far distance and from the place inside. Maybe this is a good metaphor: The blending of emotions is quite a feature of good songs, as you said often. What is the feature of a good pop song for you (and maybe you can examplify it on one song of WRONG WAY UP, for example SPINNING AWAY )?

BE: Well, SPINNING AWAY is a very easy one for me to talk about, because it has a feature that I like a lot, and that I have used before as well. I like very much to have contrasts of speed. For instance I like to have very very fast staccato rhythms, chopped-up rhythms, which very liquid vocals running over the top of them. Maybe the best example of this is not on one of my records, but on the Donna Summer song "I Feel Love" with Georgio Moroder playing. The synthesizer part on that is very very technological and mechanical, Kraftwerk almost, but her singing over it is just like a beautiful liquid feeling going on over the top. Anyway, I have that kind of feeling in Spinning Away, something of two very opposing qualities: a rhythm that is staccato, off-balance slightly. If you listen to the way the drums begin on that song, they have a strange, off-balance feeling. Their sound is crisp. The vocals on the other hand, and the violins are not played in the same mood, they're in almost a different musical universe. They float on top of this sea of action, you know, this sea of activity. And the violins play in a different time signature: dam dam dam dam dada over taka tak taka taka taka tak taka taka... Well, actually I'm not very good at talking about that particular piece of music (laughs).

On lyrics

ME: Let's come to the question of lyrics. I have the feeling that in your comments on rock songs you underestimate the qualities of your lyrics, because I think they really enrich a song.

BE: Well, I agree with you. I mean, if I didn't believe that, I would use nonsense, I would say any sounds. But what I'm always fighting against, is the tendency of lyrics to overbalance music, to outbalance the music in terms of the attention they draw. So I'm always downplaying lyrics, because I want people to be looking at other things, too. And especially I want writers to be looking at other things, you know. It's very easy for writers to write about language, it's there medium. Of course they can comment about that. And what happens very often, is that writers write reviews of records, where they never tell you, what the music is about. They never give you any idea, even. They might give you a couple of references like "It's a bit like The Clash" or it's a bit like ..., just comparisons. The feeling you have is that the persons has really only heard the words. This is not what I want either. I completely agree with you that lyrics can be as much an evocation and an inducement to enter into the music as any other element. And in fact lyrics have an advantage in that they can make you think, they mean something (laughs). They draw you into the game of interpretation. That's a very interesting game and I like to stimulate that game.


ME: You have written some kind of ironic 'self portrait' in LAY MY LOVE? And it's a love song, too.

BE: Well, it's quite interesting, that you are the first person that noticed that it's a self portrait (laughs), which was so obvious to me. But I never said it to anyone, because I don't like to tell people things like that. Nobody else ever mentioned it. And I mean, it says: every line begins "I am", "I", "I", "I", "I", "I". So that song was kind of a joke on myself. I've always said in the past, I don't like to write songs in the first person singular. There are so many rock songs with "I do this", "I want", "I need", "I woke up this morning", "I gotta get next to you, girl" - that kind of thing, "I gotta feel your body". And I've always said, I don't want to write songs like that, 'relationship songs' I call them. So I had this idea, I didn't want to write songs that started with "I". I didn't want to write songs that ended with "you" - that was the other thing I didn't want. And I didn't want "love" in between. So I didn't want "I love you" as a message, how ever it was filled out and disguised. I didn't want that as a message.

And so, partly through John Cale's influence, he said "Oh, come on. Just do it!" And so I thought "Well, maybe I break my own rules for a change. And not only will I use the word "I", I use it at the beginning of every single sentence!" (laughs) So I realized this was going to be some kind of a love song. But I thought "How could you do something with the love song form that is maybe original?" The first part of the song that I had written was "I'm gonna lay my love around you", which in English has a nice feeling: it's like someone laying a bouquet of flowers around somebody else, or laying a cloak over the shoulders, or something like that - this notion of surrounding someone. But I thought "That's nice, but it's too sweet alone, it' too simply romantic". So these other images starting coming up, and they were kind of nice, because they undermine the romantic quality. You start thinking "Would I really like to have this person laying his love around me, this person who is 'the termite of temptation' and 'the crow of desperation?"'.

And then, of course, I should say, there are all the autobiographical parts of it. The way that the song is written is described within the song: "I spin relentless combinations", "I multiply and fly my population", because within the song I'm spinning, I'm shuffling the same cards over and over again. So it's not only an autobiographical song, it's a - what do they call it - a self-referential song.


ME: There is another wonderful short story: EMPTY FRAME. I think this is one of the songs you can enjoy on very different levels. I have seen people start to dance and to whistle to this song. And on the other hand, if you listen to the lyrics, there is this very strange story about a ship turning around and around, a motive in many of your songs.

BE: Well, the sea image is always really interesting to me, because it has two factors, the idea of being out in a ship at sea: It's first of all the idea of being separated off from the rest of the world, so suddenly finding yourself alone. That's an important part of it. The second part is that you are not in control of the situation. You can influence the situation, you know, you have sails and you have a rudder and you can row. You can change your direction, but there's a huge current as well. So I like very much this feeling of being separated off and suddenly being surrendering to a powerful force of some kind. So you might want to go in that direction, but because this force is pushing you, you moved diagonally instead of in a straight line. That's a strong image for me, because it seems to me, it's what is happening to you all the time in your life, you know. You keep finding yourself separated off from the community that you feel you're a part of. You don't want to be, maybe, you would like to be part of everything, but you find that you don't quite fit in there. So, and then you notice that you don't have independent total control over what you are doing. You are actually subject to a lot of forces that are very strong, and you really are not even able to describe them. They are so strong that they are your environment: you don't notice them most of the time. You keep rowing in what you think is a straight line, but actually you are being moved in a circle or off into a diagonal, and you keep finding yourself in the same point again and again. And you think "Why did that happen? I thought I was going in a straight line, yet I'm back here, where I was last year and the year before", you know.

So, all of those images of power beyond your own conciousness, beyond your own will, and of separation, are to do with the sea image for me. The other thing that's in there, is about a little ship that is always falling apart, that they always are trying to fix up again. It says in there "the broken sails". This is also a very poignant image to me of the notion of people constantly trying to repair their sails. What do you have a sail for? To catch wind, to catch the other forces that are around, the controllable forces. The wind is the force that you can do something about. The sea is not, you know. But of course, the wind also keeps breaking your sails, so you always have to sow them back together again. It's an endless struggle to try to keep going in any kind of a line. Because the other implication in this kind of song is "Why don't you surrender? Why don't you surrender to the tide and see where you go?" And in one of my old songs "Julie with...", that's what happened in that song, the people have surrendered. They've stopped, they've stopped rowing the boat and they suddenly have allowed themselves to become completely, not victims exactly, but to have fallen under the control of this powerful force.

ME: So this is a point where the ambient music and the rock music have linked.

BE: Very strongly, I think, yeah. I guess, it's what I realized in the late seventies, that I was making a music which was not about the traditional subjects of rock music, which are actually controlled, control, and focus, and assault, and directionality of some kind. My stuff was getting more and more lost (laughs), I was drifting further and further out, and I liked the feeling as well - playing with those kinds of feeling, seeing what is the relationship I want between control and surrender. That's a question for everyone, you know. It's actually one of the biggest questions we ask. How much do I try to take things in my hands and force a particular type of life? What kind of balance do I make between ambition and surrender? That's the big question, I think. And it's a question that is not explicitly asked in a lot of music. Most of it is ambitious. "Girl, I want to feel your body", "I will do this", "I want that". It's about will, most of it. Well, this is a kind of music about the failure of will, or the necessity to recognize that will doesn't control everything. It's not the strongest force in the universe.

Eno's singing

ME: Could you say something about your singing?

BE: One of interesting things that happened in the last few weeks to me, was that somebody wrote an article in an American magazine that really made me think hard, (laughs) because its title was "Brian Eno - Aretha Franklin he is not!" And it was an article really about my singing. And it was saying - it was very critical of my singing - "Here's a guy who puts the same amount of emotion into the word 'carpet' as into the word 'hate'. It's a guy who has no vulnerability in his voice whatsoever, no shades of feeling." It wasn't actually a critical article. The article was by someone who likes my work, I think, but about three quarters of the article was about what an uninteresting voice I have (laughs). And I thought: Hmm, that's really interesting. Now, I wonder why this person thinks this, because it's not how I feel about my voice, well, obviously. But it's not, how certain other people feel about this as well. This guys background is very much in soul music, black soul music. And I thought: well, if your concept of passion, of what constitutes passion, comes from black music, then it's quite true, you won't recognize me as having any kind of passion at all. Because I simply don't sing in that way. It's not to do with exploiting the kinds of freedoms that those singers exploit. I have a very thin voice, like a sharp pencil. I don't have a big brush of a voice, you know. I have this sharp pencil, and I like it. I can do things with a sharp pencil: there are certain places you can get in, you can work with a certain kinds of detail with a thin, sharp thing that you can't do with a broad thing. Well, it's not a voice style that is very characteristic. It's not a way that most people would try to sing. If someone is starting out on a singing career, they are much more likely to decide to sing like Wilson Pickett than like Brian Eno, I should think. Because there is not a tradition of this way of singing, I think, except in - funny enough - English Gilbert & Sullivan type, operettas, you know, light operettas. And I'm very drawn to that. What that exploits is diction, careful diction, rhythm between words, sound pattern within words. If you listen to Gilbert & Sullivan, you will find this very similar to a lot of songs that I have written. I'm in a very English tradition in a way, and I'm not embarrassed about it. Most singers who are English, are most embarrassed about their englishness. They will want to sound more black, actually, that's what it comes down to.