"So why are we doing this?"

Writer: Andy Gill

Source: MOJO Issue 90, May 2001

From Roxy Music and David Bowie to James, U2 and his own ambient experiments, Brian Eno has been on a one-man crusade to redefine the art of the producer. "This is a cultural enterprise," he tells Andy Gill.

It would have been difficult, observing Brian Eno’s early career as furnisher of funny noises to the original Roxy Music, to predict that three decades on he would he one of the most successful producers in pop, directly responsible for redeveloping the sounds and careers of David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and James. All the more amazing, considering his earliest forays into production involved avant-garde composers like Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars, and pro-am classical ensemble the Portsmouth Sinfonia. But it’s the application of ideas drawn from these interests that are at the root of his success as a producer; enabling him to expand his clients’ musical ambitions into uncharted areas and instill in artists a sense of the limitless possibilities of music.

Some producers are primarily organisers, while others are more sonically active. Which are you?

I first became a producer because I thought I’d be good at the sonic aspect of it, but it turns out that what I’m good at is the structural and motivational aspects. I think people appreciate me for being completely candid and opinionated. People like a strong opinion, even if they don’t agree with it, and I’m not at all interested in people’s feelings. My job is to make the best music that I can imagine, and if I think it isn’t getting there, I want everyone to know! The other thing I do is co-write the music: I come up with ideas for beginnings or I’ll increase the tempo by 20bpm, to send things off in a new direction. Which, as a non-member of the band, I can do, because there’s no agenda attached to it.

Are there any sounds or strategies that you would consider characteristic of an Eno production?

Strategies more than sounds, really. I’m always asking people, "Why are you doing it?" If it isn’t clear to you, something is wrong. The other strategy is to try and make music so compelling in its skeletal form that mixing is not an issue. Because if the mix is a problem, it’s not the mix that’s the problem. I want as many problems solved as early as possible. My pressure is to try to make the piece complete at every stage, rather than a piece of scaffolding that we might hang some clever stuff on.

On early recordings, production was largely a matter of microphone placement and room ambience. What are the factors you consider most important in recording today?

Well, funnily enough, exactly those same factors! On the new James record, we decided to try something which nobody’s done for many years — which is, write all the songs, rehearse them, get the structures right, then play them live in front of people, and only then record them. When did you last hear of a band doing that, other than on their first album? I chose a brilliant, old-school engineer, Gary Langan, who’s fabulous. The result was that we got a recording where you can just sit at the desk and push the faders up in a straight line, and it sounds fucking great!

That has sort of pre-empted my next question, which is whether you prefer working with musicians individually or the band as a whole?

Generally, I much prefer working with the group, because people in groups tend to make much more interesting decisions. On their own, it’s easy for everyone to get into "screwdriver mode", where you’re totally lost in the details, rather than the whole picture. If you say to someone, "We’re setting aside the afternoon for you to do that guitar part," do you think they’re going to take any less than the whole afternoon to do it?

What effect has the advent of computer technology had on recording?

Computers are hopeless! They’re so under-evolved! Of course, they offer the promise of the future of music, but Jesus, they’re badly designed! The fact that three million years of muscular evolution should end up being translated into an index finger clicking a mouse, this is the problem. Think of any analogue instrument: playing a guitar, for instance, you’re doing at least six things at once. I believe musicians have shrunk to fit the pathetic nature of the interfaces.

Is your primary aim as a producer to help realise an artist’s vision, or to expand it?

To reconcile the two. I want to make the music that I like, so l start with likely candidates, and say, Look, this is the kind of music that I imagine should be the future — but I also want them to say to me, "Yes, but your picture’s incomplete and this is what we imagine." It’s through collaboration that you hope to get something that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

With artists you’ve worked with over a series of albums, does your function alter as you get more familiar with each other?

Yes. In each case, my function has changed to being more involved in the actual composition process. That’s partly because after a while, I can understand what turns singers on. As a singer myself, I’ve got some sense of what that should be, so I’ve got more involved with trying to make things that make people excited about singing.

Do you operate on instinct in the studio?

A lot of the time, but one good example of a very counter-intuitive instinctive decision was on Achtung Baby. We were close to the deadline, about a month to go, and everything was chaotic. I said, "I think we should take a two-week holiday, and not listen to any of this stuff we’ve been doing while we’re away." We’d been digging this hole for such a long time, and it was a good idea to step outside of it for a while. It worked perfectly, we finally got some perspective on it.

What do you think has been your most enduring contribution to production?

That’s a good question. Ten years ago, I would have said, "Making people realise that the studio was a place where music is made, rather than simply recorded." But I’m so fed up with that process now that I don’t want that written on my gravestone! I think what I am most pleased about now is making the point that what we’re doing in the studio is a cultural enterprise; we should think of ourselves as artists, the way that composers, painters, filmmakers or anyone else working in culture would think of themselves. Stop treating it as a hobby, and try and make a music that can accommodate all the things we are interested in.

Gently Does It

The ambient man finds new ways to say nothing. By Andy Gill.

Brian Eno & J. Peter Schwalm: Drawn From Life - VENTURE

Eno’s first album since 1997’s The Drop, a collaboration with German DJ/percussionist J. Peter Schwalm

"Some things are just pictures," murmurs Laurie Anderson on the track Like Pictures — though the observation could easily serve as the overall rationale for Drawn From Life, an album which eschews narrative progression in favour of sustained mood. That’s nothing new for Eno, of course, though the preponderance of string arrangements brings a more organic, played quality to these pieces than is usually the case with what we loosely refer to as ambient music. Night Traffic is typical of the album’s method and sound: soft keyboard chords settle like snowfall over a gauze of strings and subtle, shifting percussion, while electronic piano twinkles speculatively like Joe Zawinul or Miles, minus the intrusive chops.

The relaxed formality allows the tracks to drift like stately royal barges floating slowly downriver, and the entropic mood is strengthened df that’s nato contradiction in terms) by the placement of two lengthy pauses towards the album’s end. Such vocals as there are, meanwhile, are deliberately drained of meaning — either electronically, like the treated voice in Rising Dust, or playfully, like the chatter of Eno’s children on Bloom — existing instead as vague, shadowy presences half-glimpsed through the mists of Eno & Schwalm’s crepuscular textures.

Brian Eno talks to Andy Gill.

Who is J. Peter Schwalm?

"He’s a German guy in his late twenties, who trained at the conservatory but grew up listening to ’70s Miles Davis: he was a drummer, then he became a hip-hop DJ. A friend in Frankfurt suggested I listen to his album Macrodelia, made under the name Slopshop."

Besides Laurie Anderson, who else guests?

"Leo Abrahams played guitar on a couple of tracks, and Holger Czukay played on that little introductory section to Like Pictures. The strings are by Nell Catchpole — she’s the album’s orchestral presence. Nearly all the strings are real strings, though sometimes we’ve slowed them down or processed them in some way. What I like about strings is the way string players play them — it’s not just to do with the string sounds, it’s to do with that human way of playing."

What determined the album’s sustained mood?

"We kept thinking of this kind of music that had a combination of an almost casual rhythmic quality — not as nailed-down as modern rhythms often are — and yet sounded quite formal and stately in a sense, too."

There are pauses at the end of Bloom and Two Voices.

"We had that piece, Two Voices, which we both wanted to include but which didn’t seem to fit in the main suite of pieces, it upset that sustained mood you mentioned. So I said, Why don’t we leave a big gap and then put it at the end? We enjoyed the effect so much that we did it again for the instrumental version of Bloom."