Interview with Brian Eno

From Punk, probably in 1976, by Mary Harron. From the Jeffrey Morgan Archive.

Brian Eno is sitting in Island Records’ Basing Street Studios with a piece of toast in his hand. He is working on an album: we had fifteen minutes before the session began.

Punk: When you said “Look closely at the most embarrassing details, and amplify them,” what did you mean by that?

Eno: What I meant is that the most embarrassing aspects of the things you do are normally the ones that are most interesting in the long run. The places where you are exposed, where you feel uncertainty are the places where you are normally doing something that’s quite innovative for you – or where you’ve uncovered an aspect of yourself that you previously managed to hide, perhaps.

Punk: Is that why you said you’re interested in danger?

Eno: Yeah, but any danger in art is purely symbolic. Art is a very safe business [laughter].

Punk: No, I didn’t mean –

Eno: Not like racing driving.

Punk: Yeah. No, I meant the danger of exposing yourself to the unexpected… Um. Yes: “Art is not reality, it is not truth, it is not value, it is nothing but a construct because it is nothing but signs, and signs can only be constructs.” Why do you say it’s not value?

Eno: That’s actually a quote from somebody else.

Punk: Yeah, but you printed it in your Bio.

Eno: That’s right, it’s from Morse Peckham.

Punk: Who is he?

Eno: He’s an American professor of English Literature, who for a long time has been one of my favourite writers, because he came up with an idea about the arts that I consider very interesting: namely that they have a biological base and not a purely cultural one. So that they were therefore an automatic human… activity… rather than one belonging to the Intelligentsia only. So I like that idea.

Punk: So does that link up with music a lot?

Eno: Yeah, quite a lot, because it immediately erodes any distinction between so-called High Art and Popular Art, and it just demolishes any of the arguments that say that those things exist at different levels, those things are not working in the same area.

Punk: Because they’re part of the same function.

Eno: Mmh. [Looking at toast] I’ll just have another little bite. [chewing] Yes, the reason I quoted that is ’cause I wanted to make it clear that my own involvement wasn’t on the romantic level: assuming that there was some tremendous reality to what I was doing. I don’t think that is what art is about. I think that it’s strength is that it is dealing with unreality, which might however analogue the way the world works. But it isn’t the same as anything.

Punk: But isn’t it sort of more real than real?

Eno: No, it’s a lot less [laughs] I think. Well I mean obviously when one’s dealing with words like “real” which are so ambiguous as to be almost meaningless – almost any statement can be true. But what I mean to say is that you can afford to expose yourself to uncertainties in art that you wouldn’t allow yourself in real life. You can allow yourself to get into situations where you are completely lost, and where you are disoriented. You don’t know what’s going on, and you can actually not only allow yourself to do that, you can enjoy it.

It’s part of the stimulus of being an artist. That has, for me, a powerful function. But it’s precisely because it is an unreal activity, and it’s an activity that eventually doesn’t matter. In the sense that if you fuck it up it doesn’t matter at all, nobody cares. It doesn’t make any difference to anybody, and whatever artists try to believe, that is really the measure of their importance: that their mistakes are often more interesting than their intentions.

It’s not an anti-art argument. It says that art has a function that’s quite different from that kind of romantic rubbish that gets written so much.

Punk: You said once that music, or any other cultural form, wasn’t a straight line of development, that the most interesting things were often the ones people didn’t notice at the time. Is there anything that you’ve noticed happening now – that isn’t being…

Eno: I think there are a lot of things like that. Well, the Velvet Underground was an example. When they actually came out very very few people were interested in them, whatever they claim now. I remember when they came out, and very few people were interested in them at all. And for a certainty I knew that they were going to become one of the most interesting groups, y’know, and that there would be a time when it wouldn’t bethe Beatles up there and the all these other groups down there, it would be a question of attempting to assess the relative values of the Beatles and the Velvet Underground as equals. And this is just beginning to happen now.

But there are many instances in earlier Rock’n’Roll of groups, who, for example, had one hit of major importance and then disappeared. The Tokens with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was one. But there are many other examples. I think maybe someone like Van Dyke Parks is that kind of person… I think I might be [laughter]. I think that there are certain artists who speak to other artists more than a public, alright? So they go through two stages. They are received by other artists and then diffused, right? Now unfortunately there isn’t a very efficient royalty system for dealing with this situation.

Umh. For example, one of my main activities is working with other people, right, and I regard that as something I like doing very much indeed. Now when I work with other people what happens is there’s a – a union is attempted between their ideas and my ideas. Normally this works out. And so by this method, since these people often sell more records than me, my ideas reach some kind of fruition, and kind of feed back into the outside circle of ideas.

For example, I’ve just been working with Bowie. Which is very good because that way I shall have reached a lot of people.

[Question missing]

Eno: Oh yeah it was really good, I was very pleased with that. I was pleased in particular that he’s still a serious artist. He still really behaves like an artist. And that is something I hadn’t – I wasn’t completely surprised, you know, because I like his music, but it’s interesting when someone who’s – I think your tape’s stopped.

Punk: No.

Eno: I always look at these things ’cause I’ve got a little tape recorder as well, umh… when someone who has made a large number of records and who can afford to make very bad records, when he doesn’t do that, and when he really is conscientious and just involved in it… the measure of involvement for me is that sometimes he would have an idea and jump up and down and have to rush out and get everyone to listen to it. And that encouraged me ’cause I do that as well. If someone’s really still surprised by himself as that I think they must be a pretty good person…

I did all the music for one of the numbers. And that’s a very good number: I think it’s a new direction for him. And me.

Punk: What’s it like?

Eno: It’s very slow, melancholy piece that’s rather like a kind of folk orchestra. An Eastern European folk orchestra. Very, very… melancholy. Very nice.

Punk: Can I ask you about the music press? Because I think they’ve been so used to dealing with a particular pattern of success, and what happened in the Sixties, and they tend to use the same standards for what’s happening now. What do you think of the music press?

Eno: I’m not very interested in them, actually.

Punk: Well what do you think is the function of a music press?

Eno: Well it seems to be to annoy artists. The only think I feel if I read the music papers these days is sort of like that [making a gesture of strangulation]. They really make me angry. Because the function should be to look at what’s going on and actually try to see the ideas that are around at the moment. Not what the personalities are. It’s alright, you know, you could have that as a gossip column feature, as a joke, but the personalities really aren’t the interesting thing.

What’s interesting is the flow of ideas and why, for example, suddenly the idea of a four piece band becomes viable again. Why the concept of skill starts to erode in music. Why bands aren’t being formed with flash guitarists anymore but with kids off the streets. Or why, on the other hand, on a purely technical level, Reggae is starting to work by subtracting sound rather than adding it, and what differences that makes to the Western tradition of making music.

There’s a million questions that are really very very interesting, and have – as far as I’m concerned – major sociological implications. Because music doesn’t change with whim or fashion. It changes for good reasons. I’m certain of that.

I think they may be frightened. If they’re aware of any of these questions they might be frightened they’re going to bore their audience. I think you can give the public much more credit than they presently get. They’re probably sick of being treated like fools.

Instead of doing that, they talk about the most insanely… useless transient details of people’s attire and personality conflicts and so on. Absolutely worthless rubbish. I think that on a level of reporting they’re worse than any of the bad daily newspapers in England. You know the papers like The Sun? Well they’re strictly on that level. They take news items to see what kind of visceral sensation can be extracted from them. And that’s why their focus is always on a particular brand of success, as you say. It’s the same way that gossip columns in papers like The Sun always talk about what Lords and Counts do. Not because Lords and Counts do anything particularly interesting, but because it is considered funny by people who write this sort of thing to point out that Lords and Counts actually behave like us. And do stupid things and get divorced and have affairs.

They’re dealing not only with trivial things, but they’re dealing with trivial things badly. You could deal with trivial things very interestingly.

If I do an interview – David Bowie was saying the same thing – if either of us do an interview and we throw out twenty ideas, whichever two are most banal will get the most space in the papers.

The whole attitude of people who work on big papers is “Well, it’s what they want, isn’t it?” Now it interests me that if they find this attitude typifying music they condemn it absolutely out of hand. If they find groups who say “Well, we’re only playing what they want,” they condemn that as the worst kind of charlatanism.

Really, they should simply apply the same standards… they’re in the art business. They’re part of the art business. That’s the problem, they don’t take themselves seriously. They regard themselves as peripheral and of no interest. As long as they do that they’re going to stay there.

Punk: It’s misleading when you’re writing about music now to just concentrate on the artist, because you’re missing a whole other world. You’re missing the record companies’ part in it, and the whole way in which people become successful.

Eno: You realize that this is being recorded in perfect acoustics, don’t you? You’ll never get such a perfect interview recording… Sory. So – [across the room] is that plugged into the Lesley, that Wurlitzer?

Voice: Ah, sort of. I think. Only sort of. You going to use the Wurlitzer?

Eno: I’ll start on the piano, I think.

Punk: Less sophisticated? I mean the music business.

Eno: Yeah. Umh. I must think… I’ve lost my train… The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t interest me very much, the music business.

Punk: You don’t have to talk about it.

Eno: No, I just meant that there seems to be this big block of machinery that actively – not intentionally, but by the very nature of its construction – subdues what’s interesting. And what’s interesting either is peripheral to it or accidental.

You know, there’s a vast business involved in music, a vast business. If you not only consider the part we’re involved in, but the classical music business, which is very big, and you consider all the folk and ethnic music businesses, and then you consider a company like Muzak which is supplying music all over the world, there are hundreds of thousands of muillions of pounds involved in generating music. Making it a much bigger busines than the Space Race. And the number of interesting ideas that are generated by this vast complex is really very small. In fact, if you analyze it on a kind of cost-efficient basis you’d find that you weren’t doing too well.

Punk: As far as production of ideas to size?

Eno: Yes. So it makes me think that this large organism is one whose express intention, or claimed intention, is to generate ideas, but whose mechanism is such that it can’t help subduing them. Its interest is in prolonging itself. By so doing, since its structure militates against the future, it militates for the present and the past. By attempting to prolong itself it does subdue those futures. They come out, sure enough, but they have a hard time.

I don’t feel bitter, I’m not saying this in bitterness. I think it’s the way most other systems work as well – the Civil Service…

Punk: It sounds like politics generally, doesn’t it?

Eno: It is, the implications are quite political.

Punk: What, the hostility to change?

Eno: Yes. Yes. Human beings have two orientations. One is towards the desire to participate in a predictable world, and the other is the knowledge that the world isn’t predictable, and that it constantly changes in a novel fashion.

[Sound of voices from the direction of the Wurlitzer]

I’m afraid I’ll have to stop now.