Proxy Music

An interview from New Musical Express, 9th November 1985, conducted by Joe Ewart

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Thursday Afternoon and video paintings
Drifting away of humour
"Laugh at life, that's my motto" Eno doesn't quite say

Through his work with Roxy Music, Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo and U2, Brian Eno's influence on rock has been continuous and profound. His own work, however, has orbited ever further from Planet Pop. His latest project provides a soundtrack to video art. Brian brain probed by JOE EWART; pate plate by BLEDDYN BUTCHER.

My favourite Eno records, the two which inspired me to dig a trench to Art School, are 'Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy' and 'Another Green World' . They overflow with ideas: often unexpected, always wry and, within the framework of pop. knowingly subversive. And they make me laugh.

These days the ideas seem fewer but a good deal more protracted. Ambient Music has been Eno's chief crusade since he abandoned the witty couplet in favour of the almost inaudible bongs and drones of his post-pop career. I'm not saying they're bad; they achieve what they set out to do. I just miss the playing around with context that first drew me to him.

Talking Head

Brian Eno can talk. Engagingly and at great length, he can talk about anything you care to put to him. Pausing only to whistle along to Miles Davis while boiling up a pan of rice, he appears these days to be more gently subversive, having lost but not forgotten, the leopard skin and lamé-clad outrageousness of '72.

"When I was in Roxy it always felt like a strange thing to be doing. I liked it for that; suddenly to be a part of this world that I never really considered being part of - 'cause I wasn't a musician, you see. But I was totally committed to it. It was an interesting period.

Frustrated with the constraints of rock music, or perhaps out of a spirit of contrariness, Eno moved on. His latest musical product, 'Thursday Afternoon' (released exclusively on compact disc), was originally recorded as the soundtrack to a sequence of what he calls 'video paintings'. It's a subject he's intent on discussing.

"I'm so bored with video because all the experiments seem to proceed from the same set of assumptions about what video can do. It can tell images in a narrative way. I was delighted to find this other way of using video because at last here's video which draws from another source, which is painting.

"I call them 'video paintings' because if you say to people 'I make videos', they think of Sting's new rock video or some really boring, grimy 'Video Art'. It's just a way of saying, 'I make videos that don't move very fast'.

Too true. The 'action' in 'Thursday Afternoon' is very slow indeed, mirroring a whole body of ambient 'backdrop' pieces which began, ten years ago, with 'Discreet Music'. Like wallflowers at a party, they sit well back and allow the listener to concentrate on other things, even to converse. Perfect for an evening chez Eno.

Contain yourself

Without the any lyrical content, the quirky humour which so cleverly jollied-up Eno's earlier solo work has been put firmly on the burner.

"I like that aspect of those records a lot. But you let go of things as you do new things. I'm slowly devising a form which contains more of what I'm interested in, but those things look quite remote from it. If you were a painter and you happened to be very good at doing caricatures and everyone really liked them - you could do Tony Wedgwood-Benn, spot-on, everyone laughed, Margaret Thatcher, ha-ha - your interests as a painter would lead you into Abstract Expressionism, but somehow the caricatures aren't going to fit into that container yet. It might be that intelligence transmutes into another form. It's not lost, it just reappears in different ways."

Or maybe it's like when, in Stardust Memories, Woody Allen is visited by aliens who tell him they preferred his earlier 'funny' films.

"Yes. I'm sure, for instance, that people seeing The Purple Rose Of Cairo will be disappointed that Woody Allen isn't actually in it. I'm constantly meeting people who say 'Well, it's not bad, but that other stuff was really good, we really like that now'. And all I want to say is 'You didn't fucking like it then. When I was doing that you wanted the stuff before'.

The sewerage system

The light-hearted and encouragingly humane aspects of his experimentation, (a joy-of-life attitude he appears to share with occasional collaborator David Byrne) work on a very different level to that of the doom-obsessed 'new breed'. Eno does not suffer the Psychic TV/Foetus approach gladly.

"There's a sort of impotence there, which is what I don't like; the sense that the world has already been fucked up and all you can do is live like a rat and make your way through the sewerage system. I don't see it that way. I don't feel pessimistic. I never have.

"I was thinking the other day, about a movement in the Arts which you could call 'warts and all'. Like the Kitchen Sink movement, where suddenly people weren't always graceful and wonderful and romantic, and places weren't always lovely. So you started incorporating the idea that things were also nasty and pernicious. That was fine and there was a good balance for a while. But then it turned from 'warts and all' to 'all warts', and that's the stage we seem to be at now. It's just like unmitigated crud. Which makes me feel like a hippy. Things look pretty good to me. I admire humans and I think they're wonderful."

It's a sticky point to argue, particularly as Eno's ambient works contain no narrative critique of The Way Things Are. Perhaps only conversation can allow such a wealth of opinions free rein. The containers seems ever-smaller. I'm interrupting again.

Liberal fundamentalism and pubic hair

"I did a radio programme in San Francisco once and the interviewer asked who was involved in 'Music For Airports'. I said, 'The singers were three girls from West Germany.' He said, 'GIRLS?' I said, 'Why not? They were female and they were young.' He said, 'Are you afraid of saying WOMEN? Does it threaten you?'"

Eno calls this 'Liberal Fundamentalism' "because it looks like Liberalism but it's really just Moral Majority Fundamentalism. All fundamentalists have the same message, which is a message of intolerance. I'm sure if there's a new fascism it won't come from skinheads and punks. It will come from people who eat granola and believe they know how the world should be."

A more peculiar culture clash awaited him at the first showing of Thursday Afternoon, sponsored by Sony, in Japan.

"They have a law which says you can't show pubic hair. But you can show anything else, so they have the most hard-core bondage films and thousands of books of little six year old girls. No pubic hair, you see. And they like their women that way as well. Even 30 or 40 year old women kind of giggle and have this little girlish aspect to them which is a bit weird when you first encounter it."

Eno goes back to the kitchen of his temporary home.

"I can't do simple things like finding a flat. I just don't seem to be able to focus on those kinds of things so a lot of my time is spent in less than ideal conditions." Indeed the kitchen's bright orange walls are wildly out of step with the beauty and restraint of his recent work.

We sit at a makeshift dining table to eat the spiced chicken and rice he's prepared. I finish way ahead of him. Brian Eno can talk.