Brian Eno’s Luminous Fringe

By John Diliberto

From Musician, 1988, from the Jeffrey Morgan Archive.

It was odd watching Brian Eno ascend the Grammy Awards stage last winter along with U2 for the album The Joshua Tree. It's just not the place you'd expect him to be, an artist who has always been on the edge. For Eno, the center is something to be unbalanced, not embraced.

"I've never made any really successful records of my own," says the self-effacing Eno. Sitting in a Warner Bros. office in Burbank, California, he distractedly surveys the cluttered room, passing over posters of a-ha without recognition. "I don't feel particularly on the inside. I sit in here and I look around at all these things and I don't know who any of them are, even. I don't! I know less about this than the world of contemporary painting or contemporary architecture or contemporary thinking about evolution theory. Any of those I could tell you a lot more about than the Hot 100."

Eno has always been drawn towards the outlands of sound, the quirky world of experiments and accident, theories and chance, mixing conceptualism with populism. In the '60s he played and recorded with the late avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew while ingesting the minimalism of Steve Reich and LaMonte Young. His early '70s techno-glam group, Roxy Music, traded in androgyny and science fiction, playing dance music for the post-apocalypse. The mid-70s saw him manipulating sound through avant-garde techniques to mutate rock music, culminating in Another Green World, one of the most influential albums of the last 15 years.

He was already experimenting with music-generating systems like tape loops on his duets with guitarist Robert Fripp and his own record, Discreet Music. These evolved into his Ambient Music series, subsequently co-opted as a New Age soporific. Eno became a new music promoter of sorts. He started Obscure Records, producing the vinyl debuts of avant-garde composers John Adams, Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman, all established figures now. Then he turned his ears to the new wave, producing the debuts of Devo and Ultravox, and the No New York compilation. David Bowie enlisted him for the subterranean textures of Low, Heroes and Lodger. And then there were the techno-tribal Talking Heads and David Byrne projects.

Eno's own recorded output became sporadic. He involved Canadian producer Daniel Lanois in his first Ambient Music albums, and as they continued their relationship Lanois took on more co-producing and co-composing responsibilities. Together they redefined the sound of U2 on The Unforgettable Fire and locked it down with the mega-hit The Joshua Tree.

But Eno doesn’t care much about music anymore, preferring to concentrate on his art exhibits. This places him in a bit of a quandary because he’s in Los Angeles for the launching of Opal Records, a sort of Eno signature label distributed by Warner Bros. and featuring artists signed to Eno’s Opal Management. The initial release includes Budd’s The White Arcades, an album of salon music from Eno’s brother Roger, Drum by the art-rock group Hugo Largo and Music for Films, Volume III. The latter serves as an Opal sampler, with work by Laraaji, ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, Leon Theremin’s granddaughter Lydia, Roger Eno, Budd, and five tracks by Eno alone or co-written with Lanois.

In fact, Eno doesn't seem to have much to do with Opal. According to Warners, there's no commitment from him to produce Opal artists or make his own record, although the hope is that he will do both. Still, Eno hasn't made a new album since 1985 and that was the soundtrack to his video Thursday Afternoon. His main concern in Los Angeles is actually the mounting of his exhibition of "light and sound structures" called Latest Flames.

Eno's visual art exhibits the same subtlety and grace as his music. Shown in a completely darkened space, it seems to hover in the air like diaphanous holograms. Some are like Bauhaus skyscrapers, bathed in overlapping light patterns from concealed video monitors on which they sit. Others are like suspended frames, also backed by video monitors, with color fields projected through cardboard shapes. Pre-recorded tapes randormly play on four auto-reverse cassette machines simultaneously, subliminally wafting at the borders of melody.

Like Eno's Music for Airports and On Land, the edges are soft, the depth relationships ambiguous, the movements tidal and their effect seductive. And like his brightest recordings, no matter how much Eno explains them - the foam core construction, the video color fields, the draftsman's paper on the surface of the boxes - they retain a mysterious allure.

MUSICIAN: What do established artists want when they come to you; U2 for instance, who were already successful?

ENO: They're looking for a way to unlock something that they suspect is in their music, but they can't quite get out. Sometimes your own past stands in the way of what you could do now. It's like a monolith that's been built up and everybody praises it: how wonderful it is and when are you going to do your next one and blah-blah-fucking-blah like they always do. And this thing grows and grows in everyone's perception until finally it's this huge monument to culture [laughs ruefully], and it's only a few ideas that you had. And then you have a little idea inside you that's saying, "my turn, I want to get out. " You look at this feeble clumsy voice and look at the monolith and think, "Oh, God, I can't release that. It's too pathetic." And most artists don't. Most successful artists have one good idea and never have another one. That's the formula for success, if your readers want to know. One good idea, no others.

And I suppose sometimes what you want is someone who will come along and look at that little pathetic embryo of an idea and say, "Hey, that's a really interesting thing. You could do this with it." So that thing starts to get bigger and gets some strength and life and suddenly the monolith doesn't look so unbreakable anymore and, in fact, it starts to look a bit old-fashioned. You think, that was fine then, but now look at this new one. It's pulsing with life. It's young and can accommodate all sorts of things that I can do. So I suppose that what I want to do is to try to water those little seeds, you know, put them in fertile soil.

MUSICIAN: What are some of the seeds that U2 had?

ENO: They wanted a greater emotional perspective in their music. And this meant letting go of something, to an extent, for which they had become very famous, which was the big sound rock 'n' roll band. They still are a big sound rock 'n' roll band, but now there's another dimension to them, I think. But that was quite a hard move for them because there was a very salient possibility that a lot of their fans would say, "Christ, they've gone soft. They've finally got old," or something like that. And people do say that. They always say it about me, Whatever I do. I've done the wrong thing [laughs sardonically] for about four years and then suddenly it was the right thing and what I'm doing now is the wrong thing, you know.

MUSICIAN: Is one of your criteria for taking on a production that you have to have a very serious involvement in it, in terms of input into the music?

ENO: That's pretty much true. Yes. If my name is going to appear on something, I feel I shall be judged by it, I suppose. So I want it to come to a certain standard. So I can't really just come in on something and sort of clean up the sound, or something like that. It's not interesting, anyway, for me to do that. I like really being in, sort of getting my hands dirty.

MUSICIAN: I think a lot of the musicians you’ve worked with, Hassell, Budd, etc. have felt at times not that you artistically overpowered their records, but that the Eno reputation overpowered the perception of their records.

ENO: Well, that's not my problem. That's mainly to do with writers, I think, who of course will always write about people they know about. It's something that I'm aware of and I try my hardest not to encourage, you know? To sort of stay back and say, no, these are collaborations. But it doesn't help.

MUSICIAN: On Talking Heads' Remain in Light, you're credited with co-writing the whole album. On your own records, Daniel Lanois has several co-writing credits. At what point do treatments turn into a co-writing credit?

ENO: It depends, really, how radical they are and how much they change the conceptual nature of the music. For example, in some cases there might be a tape laying around that has been used for something else and I might decide to start working on it one morning. Then you might slow it down to two-thirds original speed, take out most of the instruments, make a totally different sound with the one or two that are left, and you're really making something new. So that's often the case for a rewrite. But with the Talking Heads thing, that's slightly different. I was really involved in writing that material as well. From the very beginning, those things were written as a group of which I was a member at that point. But it's different with different people.

MUSICIAN: When we talked last September, you mentioned that there was an album of film music "threatening to come out. " But Music for Films, Volume III isn't it, is it?

ENO: No, it isn't the same thing, in fact. That's turned into something else. Probably not film music. Earlier this year, I had already done several pieces on the synthesizer and with the various instruments I use, and they started to take an interesting orchestral texture. Not like an ordinary sort of strings and horns type orchestra, but they had the sound of a big ensemble. So I went to a friend of mine who's a composer and said, "Suppose you had just been to a new planet, a newly discovered planet, and you heard this music as I've played it on these tapes to you. But you had no means of recording it. Say you were a sort of musicologist and you wanted to reconstruct it when you came back to earth. And you had to do it using this orchestra because at this time we didn't have any synthesizers or anything like that. How would you do it?" And that's sort of what we're working on at the moment. It's a very interesting compositional problem because a lot of the sounds are not at all like acoustic sounds, so to achieve them you have to make combinations of instruments. It hasn't gotten very far yet. And of course, what's interesting is the way in which it fails, not the way in which it succeeds.

MUSICIAN: You've said that you have never put much import in lyrics, that you didn't consider that the meaning of a piece of music is invested in the words necessarily, and that you have never regarded lyrics as the center ofyour music. Given that, how do you deal with someone like Bono, whose lyrics are central to a lot of what U2 is about?

ENO: You might think that. I don't think they are. I’ve seen him writing songs, you know. Sometimes they write a lot of songs through improvisations, including Bono improvising singing. If you do that, you just suddenly come out with lines that are good. You don’t know what they mean, but they sound good. In fact, most often the lines that just sort of popped complete and fresh out of your head are the ones that remain in the song, even though you don’t know exactly what they’re trying to say. They become the real center of the song.

This is kind of a running discussion that Bono and I have, where he wants the lyrics to say something, and I say, ‘They do say something. Whatever you make them do, they already say something. Don’t worry so much about that type of meaning, because it’s not important. Then he says, ‘Yes it is.’ [laughs] But he's Irish, you see.

MUSICIAN: I think most of his listeners would say there’s a lot of intended meaning in his lyrics.

ENO: Well, a lot of people would say there's a lot in mine, too.

MUSICIAN: I would say that as well.

ENO: Well, it's almost by default, you know. This notion of meaning is for me a very overused one. Nobody ever says, what's the meaning of that piano part, what's the meaning of that guitar part? Those things have meaning, too. And for me, I'm trying to put lyrics on the same level of meaning as those. They have to make musical and rhythmic sense first for me, and if they have the other sense, if they have semantic sense also, that's another story.

What I don't like is lyrics that have stupid semantic sense. That sort of scrape through the semantic test by saying stupid things like, 'Girl, I want to feel your body,' which I seem to hear in every other song. My main interest was to avoid banal meanings. What that meant was always creating as much branching of ambiguities as I could, hinting at possible types of meaning that the words could have. That's always been my interest when working with Bono, if I've been advising him on lyrics. I've always tried to move him away from the specific towards the general.

There are lots of reasons for doing this. One of them is that then the song doesn't come out with a date stamp on it. Lyrics can date the song much quicker than music does. Certain issues are so characteristic of the week they were written or the month they were written. And I suppose it's an alibi to say, "Well, the lyrics don't have any meaning." What I mean when I say that is, I'm not going to tell you what it is.

MUSICIAN:In an interview/lecture you did in L.A., you were talking about how you like listening to gospel music. And that you like singing it. And I was trying to imagine Brian Eno singing gospel and it didn't quite come together, because it seems like that music has a lot of elements that you don't project into your own music. That it’s more overtly emotional.

ENO: Well, yeah, that's why I like it. If I sing at all now, I sing much more emotional than I used to on my, records. But it's interesting: One of the things about gospel music is that it's emotional without being personal. It's as though the emotion is tapping a common pool of emotions. It's not your feelings about your relationship or wanting to feel your girl's body. It's a much more impersonal, deep-rooted, feeling. The reason I never got emotional in my singing before is because I never wanted to write relationship-type songs, I never want to be the sort of center of the song. But somehow you never are with gospel records. So it's not at all difficult for me to join in with that music. That's what I should be doing this morning, actually. I want to go to church, to a gospel church here.

MUSICIAN:Are you attracted to the spirituality of gospel?

ENO: Yes, very much. Not necessarily to the specific values of it, let's say. But I'm very attracted to that kind of spirituality. The notion of being spiritual as part of your ordinary life. I've been to a lot of gospel churches and one of the things that's very interesting is that they really function as centers of the community. They're centers of exchange of information, like church used to be, I think, in the white community. You go to one of those services, they're six hours long. They have playgrounds for the kids downstairs. The pastor will interrupt the service in the middle to ask someone to move their car and all this sort of thing. In a way it's very un-religious, but very spiritual. It doesn't feel that it has to have all those trappings of, 'Oh, aren't we being sacred, aren't we being reverent.' And I like the effect it has on people.

MUSICIAN: Is there a sense of community there you feel you're lacking in your own life?

ENO: Well, I think we all lack it in our own lives. I don't think only me is lacking it. I suppose what I value about it is that the individual becomes less important as the community becomes more important. Our social systems have placed so much strength on 'me,' you know, on oneself. It's very interesting to be somewhere where that self allows itself to be submerged, to surrender to a larger organism. It's a talent that we don't ever really use unless there's a disaster or earthquake or war.

MUSICIAN: What about rock concerts?

ENO. Well, actually, it's rather the same thing. I went to see U2 in Rome and it was like a huge gospel show. There were 60,000 people there and it was a fantastic feeling, just the feeling of that many people who obviously were as excited by the fact of being all together and being one of such a huge number as by the music. And they just sang along with songs. Quite often Bono wasn't singing. He'd stop and the whole 60,000 people would sing the song. It was very, very emotional and fantastic.

MUSICIAN: You quoted Steve Reich saying that tape delay is a drug, and you partially agreed with him. I was wondering if digital reverb hasn't become a kind of drug as well.

ENO: Well, he said that, not me. I only quoted him. I didn't actually agree with him, in the sense that I wouldn't pick on tape delay. All sorts of systems are drugs. He and all of the other systems composers, me included, have fallen victim to drug systems at various times. System drugs, I should say. Once you use systems, you tend to forget that systems are there to serve results, not the other way around. And as soon as you do that, it's becoming a drug for you.

Dan [Lanois] and I have been using less and less digital reverb, I suppose. We don't use the digital reverb as a pretense of being real reverb. We've started to use live recording more and to use room ambience. And then if we're using digital reverb, it's as an effect in the same way you’d use flanging or chorus or any of the other things. As an effect, not as a substitute.

MUSICIAN: You said new music comes from new technology, because new technology presents new possibilities. But in your case, a lot of the music that you've done has suggested new technology. For instance, the tape-loop system that you used generated this whole raft of digital delays that we have now.

ENO: Yes, that's possible, actually. But what normally happens is, a technology sits around for a while, and then someone thinks of a new way to use it. Something for which it wasn't designed. And then someone else thinks, well, I'll design something to just do that. Let's get rid of the other functions this machine was carrying on. And what you just suggested is a good example of that, where I was using two Revox tape recorders. It's an expensive way of doing it. So, other people built machines that do the repeating.

Mind you, I don't think they're as good. I think tape is interesting, because it's mechanical. I always try to bring things into the mechanical universe if I can, because there are so many more atoms in the mechanical world and, therefore, so much less predictability. Electronics always have the problem of dealing with the lfives of too few atoms. That's why synthesizers are essentially boring.

MUSICIAN: You've said that many times, yet still use them.

ENO: Yeah, but I feed them into all sorts of junk. I don't know if when I last saw you I'd designed and built my Colouring Box. It's a loudspeaker with nine little speakers of the same size. I feed my synthesizer into that box and it stands on its back so the speakers face up. And I can put a plastic plumbing tube on each speaker so that I can make formants, you know, resonances at various frequencies. And then I can switch each speaker on, off or out of phase, so that I can either make a peak or a valley at that formant. It's like having a body for the instrument. But if you put this in, you must say it's patented. It isn't, but I know some bastard's going to copy it and make a lot of money from it. So any inquiries about this project should be directed to me. I have the patent rights. I know all the pitfalls.

MUSICIAN: In the mid-70s you seemed to be a champion of new music. You produced Devo's first record, the first Ultravox record, the No New York collection. Since that time, you haven't really produced any new artists.

ENO: Well, I'm just about to do something in Russia, with a Russian band who you won't have heard before. But there's two reasons for that. One is that I'm just not as interested in making records as I used to be. Now I have another career, which is as a visual artist. It takes up a great deal of time that used to be available for doing things like that. And secondly, I don't think music is where it's happening at the moment. I think it's in the visual arts. What's happened with recording, unfortunately, is that every consideration has been slanted towards what can be recorded, what can be made to work on a record. Well, records are quite a small part of musical experience. The next phase I'm waiting for is unrecordable music. That will be the interesting thing. Of course, musical live performance has some flexibility, but even that has been impacted upon by the considerations of recording. So that live performances have been kind of slanted towards the expectations of a record-educated public.I even notice it with jazz now. Jazz has become sort of zippy and rather concisely cut. Better rehearsed, if you like. More like a recording.

MUSICIAN: Well, it's interesting you would say that about unreproduceable art, because I always thought you were interested in democratic access of the popular mediums.

ENO: Yes, well, I absolutely am. And this is a real paradox. It's hard to resolve. But I have one answer to this. One new possibility, which I hope I'm trying to do myself, which is, why not try to make music that is installation, so that instead of going to a concert or buying a record, you go to a place that is a piece of music. It continues making this sound all the time. It's like a continuous performance. You might call it a sound sculpture or something like that. Just like when you go to a gallery and you see a work by Nino Palladino or something, he doesn't have to be there all the time making it. It is there, it belongs to that place. So I'm starting to think of music now in terms of being a place where things happen.

MUSICIAN: Do you feel technologically bound in your music? Or the music that you work on with other people?

ENO: Well, just this thing about records that I'm becoming more aware of. There was a time when records themselves were intrinsically exciting to everyone, I think. And they're just not anymore. There are too many of them. There's too much music. When I was in Germany, I'd flip through the wavebands and there'd be like forty or fifty stations all playing the same kind of recorded music with the same kind of technical values. The things that excite me in terms of recording now are things that really break the rules in a big way. Like sometimes I get demo tapes from people. The music is totally uninteresting but the recordings are so bad that they absolutely engage my attention. I think it's incredible how limited recording has been in its choice of possible colors. You know, things can be covered with hiss, they can distort, they can have rough as well as smooth surfaces.

But the whole aspiration of recording is so much like Hollywood. Everything's got to be perfectly lit, nicely balanced, nice color range, full spectrum - all this sort of stupid assumption that recording has something to do with reality. You know, some of these demo tapes I've received are recorded on terrible little machines with very active limiters so the whole thing is squashed flat. It's really fantastic; it's like music that's been under a steamroller. And yeah, I find these kind of bizarre technical things interesting.

MUSICIAN: That’s heresy in the age of CD, isn't it?

ENO: Yeah, well, fucking CDs have really pissed me off for that reason. They've made everyone spend all their time polishing.

MUSICIAN: You've actually echoed the tape hiss on some of your records, haven't you?

ENO: Yes, I've actually used tape hiss, added it in.

MUSICIAN: Do you see any irony in a "fringe" artist like yourself producing perhaps the biggest pop act in the world?

ENO: I like the pop audience. I mean, I like ordinary people in a certain way. There's something so straightforward and honest about their reactions to things, compared to the art world. People are much more open than they're given credit for. Radio programmers might not be. Music journalists might not be. Record companies might not be. But people are very far advanced in their tastes. They're nearly always ahead of an the professionals. That's one of the interesting things about popular arts: It's usually a question of the professionals trying to keep up with the public, not lead them, as is thought to be the case. This is particularly true in England. Punk didn't start from a few clever designers or manipulators of the popular market. It took about a year for the professionals to even grasp what was going on at all, and of course then they co-opted that. [laughs] But it really was a street movement and the ideas came from ordinary people, not gifted professionals. When that happens it's always a tremendous threat to the people who are called gifted professionals because it makes them less special, apparently. So the only way of dealing with that is by buying up the competition. You buy the talent and say, yeah, these ones are really gifted and they're on our side. An analogous situation from the art world would be graffiti art. For a little while, it posed an interesting threat, but the professionals contained that.

MUSICIAN: By putting it in galleries?

ENO. Yeah, and by deciding that only three or four of those people were really possessed of greatness. The others were not so good. They could've said graffiti art is a popular form - a lot of people can do it and it's interesting, just like pop music. But instead, what they said was there are some geniuses and the rest are not interesting. Don't bother with them. And those geniuses rightly belong to the fine arts camp. And now we've claimed them so forget about the rest of graffiti art. It's a very interesting process that they had to go through to defend their high prices again.

MUSICIAN. Isn't that true of most arts scenes in general?

ENO: In fine arts, yes, but not in popular arts. If you move between things you really start to value certain characteristics of them. I'm not a great protagonist of the pop world. I don't think it's particularly wonderful, but it does have certain things going for it. One of them is its lack of snobbery about what it's doing. Its sense of "Hey, we'll do anything if it sounds good.”


Eno outfitted his own 24-track studio about two years ago, and it’s there that he does most of his work. A long-time disdainer of synthesizers, Eno only owns a few - a Prophet VS and a Yamaha DX7. He also has a DX7II "but I never use it,' he claims. 'I like the original one. I hate changing instruments, quite honestly. If I find an instrument that I enjoy, I can't be bothered to accommodate another one. 'I've only owned three synthezisers.' Even as a self-styled non-musician, he's been known to swing an axe or two, among them a Femandes guitar and a 1964 Ampeg fretless bass.

Eno’s much more interested in processing sounds, be they synthesized or natural. He uses an AMS harmonizer, Roland R-2000 reverb, two Rebus Gates, a Court Acoustics graphic equalizer, two Yamaha SPX-90s and an old Roland Tape Delay. He also uses a series of anonymous fuzz boxes, chorus pedals, flangers and phase shifters. “I fit those up to the mixing console’s sends as you would send something out to an echo,” he explains. “I'll do anything to make synthesizers a bit more dirty than they are.” That console is a Harrison Mark III and he monitors on a variety of “homemade and peculiarly designed loudspeakers.” And, finally, there's the Colouring Box.