Brian Eno - Ambiguity, Yams & Ju-Ju Spacejazz

From Mondo 2000 magazine, by Pamela Z

Some of us grew up with almost no religious training, but we were reminded daily by Berkeley walls and sidewalks that ENO IS GOD. Exemplar for a whole race of art-school persons displaced into music, Brian Eno was the first and the most glorious. He was antic, he was pretty, he was potent - by rumor, he took on entire punk girl-bands, bass to keyboards - but most wonderful, he was intellectual. Hoop-la, here came popsong epistemology, and erst centered Californians were writing he name in soft concrete.

From the day he just sloped in on a Roxy Music rehearsal and started minding the tape machine, Eno put strange loops into pop theory and practice. From his first solo releases, Another Green World, Before and After Science, and the slyly titled Here Come the Warm Jets, he's been a hero instrumentalist on what he contends is the most important new musical instrument since the electric guitar: the electronic recording console. Introducing the no-future kids to their Dada past, his delicate tenor voiced (in a plummy mid-Atlantic accent) lyrics by Tristan Tzara and for Kurt Schwitters. He created Oblique Strategies, a Tarot deck of strange advice for production decisions, such as, "Omit the most important thing." And then there was the "found lyric," a technique for tweezing from his unconscious phonemes so naive that years later he is still discovering what they he explains next.

Performance artist Pamela Z stars here as interviewer and moderator in "An Evening with Brian Eno," the opening event of the Deep Listening Series at the San Francisco New Music Theatre. Through her, we learn the secret of Eno's cognac habit: a rider in his contract puts that glass in his hand - he doesn't touch the stuff offstage, and he can't face an audience without it. He claims, this pop god, to be shy!

St. Jude

BRIAN ENO: I started thinking that I should record in every city I'm in. I was booked to do a series of talks all over America. The series lasted about a month altogether and I thought, it'll be so long since I actually did anything musical I might forget what it is I'm supposed to be talking about. So I had this idea, a bold notion of setting up a new band in every city that I went to...Well, it's my music in a way, you know. They're not bands that ever existed before.

PAMELA Z: Oh, so they're your band. Each one is your band.

BE: Yeah, that's right. I tell each group the same story to begin with. I was in Japan recently. I was doing something for Toyota, and they took me to the factory where they make the cars. I was very impressed by the robots they have there - 6-armed robots, they look like the goddess Kali.

PZ: But they're assembling cars instead of...

BE: They're building cars. But they're quite rhythmic in the way they move. They go unt-unt-unt-unt, zzt-unt-zzt-unt zzt-zzt-unt, zzt-zzt. And then the next car comes along. I was sitting watching this, and it had a good noise, the whole thing, and I thought this would be a nice kind of music, really: music for car factories. [laughter] And so that was my first idea. That I would like to make something that turned what they were doing into a kind of dance.

Mm, but then I thought the way they were moving needed a little bit of lubrication - actually they were stiff 'cause they were Japanese, you know - so I thought: imagine if these industrial robots had been built in Nigeria. Right. What would they be like then? Well they would be broken for a start, [laughter] like everything else in Nigeria. So my codeword for this project became "Broken African Industrial Robot Dance Music." That's the scenario I give to the band each time. And then having talked about this a little bit and what kinds of sounds might be involved in that, it's very easy to...1-2-3-4!...and everyone starts playing.

PZ: Uh-hunh. And that's the music...

BE: And the only other rule is if it sounds nice, something's wrong. [laughter] I noticed this when I worked on the Cornelius Cardew piece a long time ago called "The Great Learning." The first instruction is "Sing any note." You choose randomly. And you do it with a big group of people.

And the first chord they hit is very very dense and beautiful because people really are singing every note. But they very quickly slide into a few families of notes. And I always liked that first note when you have a this beautiful, dense, breathy sound. So one of the other rule is "Whatever you hit, keep doing it," at least long enough to experience what it is, you know. Don't retreat into the safety of a simple chord. But we didn't have any trouble with that. Nobody retreated.

PZ: So when do you think this'll be completed?

BE: Well, what I do now is take those tapes back to my own studio and I start listening to them and finding this bit where something magical happens, where some really bizarre combination of instruments...

PZ: Do you think the musicians will recognize it when you're done with it?

BE: Oh yeah, because what I will do then is link those pieces together. Maybe a 16-bar fragment, make a part out of that, then take a bit from another song and put it in. I call this body of work Ju-Ju Space Jazz. It has the sort of discoördination that you sometimes get in jazz which I like very much. You get this formula where they play the riff together, and then it all falls apart for 20 minutes, and they play the riff again. And then everyone goes home. [laughter] I'm trying to get that feel of that middle bit. But with the threat that there might be some kind of coming together at some point.

PZ: The album you made with John Cale - did you record it at your studio in your home?

BE: Yeah, I've got an archaic studio in my house. It's 24-track, so it's not that archaic, but it's state-of-the-art 1979. So the console looks really sweet. It's only about as big as this stage. [laughter] ...And I've got 2 microphones and a couple of guitars and not very many other instruments. So it's very simply made in one respect, in the sense that there aren't echelons of overdubs that you have to wade through. That was from having a deadline, really. Because I felt if I didn't, it would end up like most records do now - which is sort of overstewed, overcooked.

PZ: Has it been something you just went in and did quickly or have you been thinking about doing this for a while?

BE: No, I didn't think about it for very long. I haven't done a record where I've sung for several years. And I knew this was something that I could easily argue myself out of, as I have done in the last ten years or so...because I've somehow been cast into a certain role as the inventor of some obscure type of music. And this excludes the possibility that I might make pop records as well. I decided to forget that this year.

I had a daughter this year whom I'm very fond of. And her coming into being seemed so much more important than anything else... it made all of these discussions about whether I would do instrumental records or ambient records or song records or anything, all a bit... unimportant. So I thought I'll just do whatever record I feel like doing now. And so the John Cale record came out of that. And the new stuff I'm doing - Ju-Ju Space Jazz - is something else again.

PZ: There's a question I've been meaning to ask you. The most important question. I was going to save it for last but I'll ask you now: What do the chords mean?

BE: The chords? Humm. Oh right, yes, yes: somebody in an interview said recently, "What do the words mean?" And I said, "What do the chords mean?" Yeah. Yes, good point. [laughter]

PZ: And now on to something else.

BE: No, no, not on to something else. It's a good point to talk about. I was trying to explain to them that I thought it wasn't what words meant that was interesting, but what they did to you. And doing doesn't have a lot to do with meaning. If you look at other musics outside of ours, you find that a lot of what they're singing is nonsense. If you look at pygmy music for example - sometimes it has one word in the whole song, one word that is elaborated on for hours. And the word can be something really simple like "yam" or "radio" or whatever's the new thing in the pygmy house. I don't know if you've ever heard of that book by Alan Lomax called Folk Song Style and Culture.

PZ: I have heard of it.

BE: That's a very good book. In that book he studies about 250 different ethnic groups, tribal groups. And he studies how they sing on 27 different parameters, like raspiness, polyphony. And nonsense is one of the other things he looks at. We write comparatively meaningful lyrics. I mean they're actually rubbish, most of them, but they seem to be saying something. They always say I love you, or I'm sorry you...

PZ: Or we shouldn't have war...

BE: ...buggered off or something. But nonetheless they engage our attention as if they say something...

PZ: I was reading that when you do use your voice, you really never concern yourself with trying to get some message across. It always is the sound of the words - they're just a part of the texture. I liked it that you've gotten rid of that concern...

BE: Well, it's funny, because I flirt with that concern, actually. I haven't really got rid of it because meaningless lyrics are actually not interesting, if they're clearly meaningless. What's interesting is being on the border, of having the rich ambiguity of making it feel like there's something there but you're not quite sure what it is. And lyrics can only give a lovely sting to a song. Just a particular word in the right place. It's like when you eat sushi and you get a bit of that green stuff under the fish.

PZ: It's especially good when you didn't know it was going to be there.

BE: Yeah, that's right. It's a little hit. And sometimes you get a marriage of sonic texture and word that is really beautiful. David Byrne is good at this, actually. Sometimes he puts words and sounds together that make you go, "wow, that's really interesting."

...What you really want to be doing is to be writing lyrics that are outside of your own understanding, I think. They have a rightness to them. They feel like this is what you want to be singing. But you don't know why. Um, some of my older records, I sometimes listen to them, now and I think, boy, those are really interesting lyrics - at last I understand what I was writing about.

PZ: Well it's the thing of whether you're very selective about what your release or not. Sometimes you can't tell until it's too late. Or maybe you never can.

BE: When you release it you really start to understand what you think about it. I think that releasing - "to release" a record is a very fortunate turn of phrase because when you release a record you set it free of yourself. There's a lot of courage involved in working that way, just accepting that that's it, that will be it forever.

Mm, rock musicians or pop musicians in general have forged tremendous technological advances by their lack of courage. [laughter] It's true, really. If you think about 24-track studios, the only reason you need 24 tracks is 'cause you can't make up your mind in the first place. Well, that lack of resolution is what I think led to a new way of making music, which is what I call the painterly style of recording - where you go in and you try that sound and then you put that one on next to it and then you put that one on next to it and you think, um, that doesn't look quite right. Scrape a bit of that off and add another one up here. You are composing empirically. Empirical composing is something that has been lost from music for quite a long time.

PZ: You played a long time ago with the Portsmouth Symphonia. And I was thinking about...

BE: Another great hit band. [laughter]

PZ: ...And I was thinking about the fact that you've often referred to yourself as a non-musician, and I'm just curious: when you played with the Portsmouth Symphonia what instrument did you play? And how did you do?

BE: Well, I should explain to the audience first of all what the Symphonia was. Gavin Bryers, who's an English composer, was teaching at Portsmouth School of Art. At that time in England - this was the late 60's - the only place that actually gave modern composers jobs were art schools. The music schools had no idea what they were doing, were just interested in teaching people to play violins and so on. But because of the [John] Cage tradition, because of what had come over from America, there was a strong sense that this music had a lot to do with what the visual arts were doing. So Gavin was teaching at Portsmouth under the guise of teaching painting or something, and he formed an orchestra called the Porstmouth Symphonia. Now a lot of people think that that orchestra had only nonmusicians in it. That's not true. Anyone could join. And so actually the composition was much more interesting than if it were just nonmusicians. The rule was that everyone had to come for rehearsals and people should try not to sound silly.

PZ: They should do the best they can.

BE: The point was, it was most funny when people were trying hardest to get it right.

PZ: But the literature was all the standard classical pieces.

BE: Oh yeah, we did every great classical piece. We just did the bit that was a hit. [laughter] We had a show at the Royal Albert Hall once that was really the apex of our career as an orchestra. I played clarinet, by the way, to answer your question. And what used to happen with the Symphonia was musically very interesting and I think really profound. The fact that it was funny was a bonus.

What was really interesting was that you got - if we're playing like the 1812 Overture - you got the average of the 1812 Overture. Because even if you can't play an instrument, you kind of know how to make it sound higher and lower, don't you? So everyone knew the tune: [sings a fractured sample of the melody line] [laughter] And when you have 80 people doing that...And it had this other interesting thing. Instead of getting a single line moving or a few single lines moving together, you got clouds, clouds of sounds. I'm making it sound funny, but it was absolutely beautiful.

PZ: Did you use a score? I mean did they try to read a score or did somebody conduct it and you played it by heart?

BE: Some of the players did, yes. [laughter] We had a conductor called John Farley. Our great Albert Hall Concert attracted thousands of American tourists because it had every known classical hit. [laughter] I don't know how long they expected the concert to be. We were playing about 20 symphonies in there.

PZ: You would just do Ba-bap-bap-baa. Bum-bum-bum baaa. [Beethoven's 5th] And then on to the next one, right?

BE: That's right. The good bit, yeah.

PZ: And you performed John Cage's Four Minutes and 33 seconds?

BE: That's right. Also a short version of that: just the hit part. [laughter and applause]

PZ: So you talk about things that happen by accident causing more interesting work sometimes than you intended. Can you think of a particularly interesting example of where that happened?

BE: Oh, Louis Pasteur. He's a good example.

PZ: I meant actually in one of your pieces.

BE: Well, people have often said to me, "You're so lucky getting to do whatever you want to do." 'Cause I do actually do whatever I want to do, really. And I thought, hold on, I've got to take a bit of credit for this myself. So I evolved this motto that says "Luck is Being Ready."...And you'll notice that people who are called lucky are actually what in Ireland are called chancers. Do you know that word?

PZ: No, I haven't...

BE: It's a lovely word. It has a funny connotation because a chancer is usually someone who's slightly criminal. It's someone who know how to take advantage of situations. Bono from U2 is a great chancer. He's very good at leaping onto a little situation that's only four cells big. He'll catch onto it and develop it. Anyway, after having that idea for some years I read this thing that Louis Pasteur said which is, "Chance favors the prepared observer."

I'm sure everything I do is riddled with paying attention to chance, so... OK, here's a good example. I've been learning Spanish for about 36 years [laughter] And I'm still not very good at it, but...[music]... When I was reading my Spanish book, I was reading this set of lines, exercises, and I thought, boy, these read like a poem. These lines from the Spanish book are the text [lyric]:

Endless sleeping
Under the tree.
You wrote to me from Cordoba.
Drift of the fusion.
We went to his house.
He's a very generous Cordoban.
Waited at the door.
But he didn't come.
According to his father
He's very ill.
There was a long line of cars in front of me.
I came as soon as I could.
I left without paying.
Suitcase under my arm.
I won't see you until Sunday.
I'll come as soon as I can.
I'll meet you at noon
In the shoeshop near the bakery.
By the two-story house, very pretty, like a villa.
The lift stops between two floors.
Start to walk towards the station.
I'll walk towards the bus.
They'll have to wait at the station.
Leave the parcel on the top deck.
Start to walk towards the station.
I'll walk towards the bus.
You walk towards the station.

PZ: It's exactly what you were talking about earlier where it sounds like you can understand what it means but...

BE: I thought, this is like an amazing poem, and what I read into it was: Two people who were probably lovers but who were also terrorists arrange to bomb a bus - "leave the parcel on the top deck." The is the last time they were talking about it before they were gonna do it, the next day.

And they'd sort of go, um, I'll meet you in the square by the bakery. The lift stops between two floors, right, don't forget that. Um, I'll walk towards the station, you walk towards the bus... just going through the moves again and again. But the way John - that's John Cale, naturally - the way he sings it is this strange combination - sinister and tender at the same time.

PZ: And they teach you to say that the lift stops between two floors?

BE: Yeah, they need that a lot in Spain! [laughter]

PZ: Do the people know, the Spanish book people?

BE: No, they don't know and I hope you'll never tell them! I mean for all I know this may have been a poem that this bloke had been working on for years. This was the only way they could get it published.

PZ: I always wonder how strict the copyright laws are on those things.

BE: It's been a big issue in England for some years - is there morally such a thing as intellectual property? Can people claim rights to an idea? And it's an interesting question because I've never made any secret of the fact that I steal ideas wherever I can. But at the same time people steal ideas from me a lot as well.

PZ: You were at one time gonna do a space that was like a permanent environment and call it the Quiet Club.

BE: The Quiet Club, yeah.

PZ: Did you ever do that?

BE: Well, I'd still like to do that. I keep proposing the idea to wealthy people but so far none of them have the foresight to realize what a huge money-spinner this would be. Imagine going to a club where nothing happens! Wouldn't that be a dream? I mean, I'm already quite stimulated, I don't want more of that. You go to a club and the music's really loud and the lights are flashing and there's lots of drugs going around and people are taking their clothes off and... [laughter] Well, this is the kind of club I go to. [more laughter] In fact there is now a Quiet Club in Germany, you'll be pleased to know.

PZ: Oh really?

BE: Yeah. Two German psychologists [laughter] who have been interested in my work opened it - they have the Quiet Club one week every month.

PZ: And do they prescribe it?

BE: Yeah, yeah. That's right. People go there and listen to my music and kill themselves.