From Q Issue 50, November 1990, by Robert Sandall
For easy access to particular areas of interest, click on the appropriate subject heading in this list.
The teenage keyboard pioneer with the left-field dress sense evolved into the amiable egghead in the "gardening clothes". And in between - via the avant-garde, Bowie, U2 and his own famously unhummable compositions - Brian Eno displayed an enviable capacity for keeping one step ahead of the field. Robert Sandall meets the loquacious apostle of art rock.
The conversation has only been going for a little under five minutes but the small talk about the tea, what a nice old house this is, how hard it is to find it, the slow roads to Suffolk etc already feels like ancient history. Since then Brian Eno has outlined "an interesting theory, that made a lot of sense to me, on the origin of the Jamaican accent", discussed rap and oral tradition, enthused about Radio 4, and told a joke about a poor Irish immigrant in New York seeing the lights of Times Square for the first time: "He looked up at them and said, What a waste of electricity!" Moving swiftly on, Eno is now smoking a mild cigarette ("for some reason I only smoke when I'm doing interviews") and describing his recently launched career as a visual artist (something to do with television sets and boxes: 70 one-man shows worldwide so far). The man who is about to release not one but two new albums in the very near future - his first direct assaults on our wallets for five years - is adopting a characteristically oblique strategy for the necessary business of self-promotion.
And it suits him. Not since his days as a hirsute, leopardskinned synthesizer operative with the original Roxy Music has Brian Eno tried to approximate his appearance and behaviour to that of The Rock Star. Today the glam togs of yore have been replaced by what he calls "my gardening clothes". The hair has retreated of its own accord and been severely cropped. As a result, its 42-year-old owner now looks the part he has always seemed happiest playing: he is the amiable egghead. The slightly mad scientist. The loquacious apostle of art rock. Eno has, in his time, acted as purveyor of left-field electronic ideas to rock aristos like David Bowie. He produced three out of five Talking Heads albums. He invented the dreamy "ambient" music which preceded New Age. Moving in ever more myste-rious ways, he has popped up recently as the studio boffin responsible for the booming sonic grandeur of U2's Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. Examine all the sleeve credits and the small print and there are probably very few rock record collections in existence to which Brian Eno hasn't contributed something or other.
But that was then. Now, though two albums await completion in the 24-track studio upstairs, music and other Eno-esque noise-related activities are of dwindling interest. "Music is slightly familiar territory," he explains, rummaging in his shirt pocket for a sprig of lavender, which he twirls and sniffs appreciatively. "It's very heavily populated now. It's not so thrilling. It's become rather specialised. The way I like working, which is to go into the studio and concentrate directly on that experience rather than walking in with a song and playing it, well, that's the way everyone works now. I like discovering big territories. When I had the idea of ambient music, that felt like a big territory, in my mind anyway. But I'm not a gold miner. I don't like to dig very deep. I just like to draw maps, maybe get out on the shore and walk about a bit. But I'm not," he concludes with metaphorical aplomb, "a settler."
Words come easily, and apparently always have done, to the man who was born Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. Pop music though, rather than the Penguin Modern Classics, was his first adolescent love. He grew up in Woodbridge, Suffolk (where he still owns a large Victorian house) in close proximity to a couple of US air bases and 17,000 GIs, one of whom married his sister. "I loved American music. All the local coffee bars had jukeboxes full of these wonderful records you never heard on English radio." More surprisingly, perhaps, in the light of his famously unhummable adult pursuits, was the young Brian's love for singing. Unable to afford any instruments, he and some friends formed a teenage a cappella group. Though he soon "argued himself out of singing" and criticises his own voice for sounding "a bit diagrammatic", the American gospel music he attempted in the early '60s is now one of Eno's lesser-known hobbies. He even enjoys a secret, pseudonymous life as guest backing vocalist on other people's records. ("But if I told you which ones, there wouldn't be any point in my using the pseudonyms, would there?")
Art college at Ipswich and Winchester swiftly put paid to the tunes. Those hothouses of experiment, nurseries of a whole generation of British rock stars - and "very peculiar places" as Eno himself concedes - were, in the middle '60s, awash with weirdness. Avant-garde composers, cold-shouldered by stuffy music colleges, were employed by art schools instead. Self-expression and conceptual doodling were all the rage. Anything went. The Portsmouth Sinfonia for example, one of Eno's early interests, were a full concert orchestra made up of improvising musical illiterates. "Avant-garde music," he suggests, in his most persuasively metaphorical way, "is a sort of research music. You're glad someone's done it but you don't necessarily want to listen to it. It's similar to the way I'm very happy people have gone to the North Pole. It extends my concept of the planet to know it exists, but I don't want to live there, or even go there actually. But it's a boundary condition."
In those early art school days, the boundary was where you normally found Brian. He became strongly interested in the possibilities of tape recorders, and the women's clothes he bought at jumble sales, "not because they were women's clothes but because I liked them. I wore anything I thought looked good, like make-up. Everyone thought I was homosexual." As early as 1964 he was modelling shirts made from loudly patterned furniture fabric and was making his first recording by striking a metal lampstand, slowing down the tape and inviting a friend to read a poem over the top of it. His teachers were no squares either. Eno remembers the principal at Ipswich, who had previously encountered Pete Townshend at art college in Ealing, "coming in one day waving a copy of I Can't Explain by The Who and saying, You've all got to listen to this! There wasn't any perception of high and low art, there was just a strong sense that it's not what you can do with your hands that matters, it's what you do with your head."
And so life might have rambled and happened obscurely along. "I would have become an art teacher I suppose," he suggests, gazing reflectively across a few acres of landscaped garden before describing the happy accident which led to the birth of Roxy Music and everything else. He'd met the saxophone player Andy Mackay once before at a musical event at Reading University. In 1971 they found themselves sharing the same carriage on a London underground train and Mackay talked of making a demo tape with this group. "Then he said, We've got a synth that nobody knows how to play, why don't you try it?" So after soundproofing his tiny bedsit in Camberwell - "there were six of us in there with all the gear and the noise was fucking staggering" - Eno gave it a go.
Though he has never styled himself as a musician - and he recalls, with some satisfaction, being roundly rebuked in print by one Keith Emerson for his abject lack of proficiency as a keyboard player - the Roxy Music experiment proved to be a highly successful one. "Roxy was a rock band with a rather peculiar perspective. It was all about creating a collage of popular cultural elements: unallowable colours, leopardskins, quiffs, pastiches of rock'n'roll. And it was a group based on a complete confusion of musical personalities. I came to them from a background of fiddling with tape recorders. I was trying to use Roxy as a platform for the sort of sound experiments I'd done at college. Bryan was continuing his art school background of trying to get in his extension of the classical tradition. Phil (Manzanera) had a South American style and was interested in jazz, which no-one else was keen on. And Paul (Thompson, the drummer) wanted to be John Bonham. He really held it all together. Without Paul," he notes, without a trace of irony, "Roxy would have been art rock at its worst."
For Eno, the fame was a bit of a trial. "I hated touring. Thought it was a real waste of time. You were only effective for an hour and a quarter a day and it just seemed scuzzy, all that rushing around, never getting the sound right on stage, meeting people you didn't want to talk to, like the local record company rep who turned up with the bag of marijuana you didn't want either. I enjoyed screwing the girls for a while, then that wore off as well. I've never known how to deal with adulation. The break point came for me one night when we were playing Sheffield and I caught myself thinking, Oh, I've forgotten to collect my laundry. And then I thought, This is the future: standing on stage, getting more and more successful, going through the motions."
Eno and Ferry, who roomed together on the road, fell out badly. "It was a struggle for power, very typical. Nobody's fault." And so after 10 months' solid touring and the release of their second album, For Your Pleasure, Eno left the band in July 1973, determined to reach the parts of the audience pop stars don't usually reach. "Outside the stage door at Roxy shows there'd always be a crowd with these pushy ones at the front; but at the back there'd be two or three more interesting types who were always too polite or proud to bother you and they were always the ones I wanted to talk to. So I thought, How do I get to them and keep these others away?"
There were to be several possible answers to that question. First a quirky but recognisably rockish solo album, Here Come The Warm Jets, then a flurry of collaborations with other rock mafiosi like Robert Fripp, Robert Wyatt and John Cale and Nico from the Velvet Underground. By the end of 1975 Eno had his own label, Obscure - "I thought it was rather a funny name. Tell it like it is you know" - which ushered in his artiest concept yet.
Like Roxy, ambient music came about entirely by accident. This time, though, it was a road accident. Eno got knocked down by a taxi - his pate still bears the scar - and though not seriously injured, he was obliged to retire to bed for a few days. "A friend came to visit and as she was leaving I asked her to put a record of harp music on the stereo. Well, one channel wasn't working. It was very quiet, pouring with rain outside and I thought, Oh shit, I'll have to wait for the next visitor to turn it up. Then I started to listen to it..."
Thus began Brian Eno's keen and enduring interest in what might be termed soundscaping, in music which lurks electronically in the back-ground, generating pictures, atmospheres and small but persistent sales. (The most popular of his ambient releases, 1978's Music For Airports, is now creeping towards the 200,000 mark world-wide.) Derided by many as designer muzak and ignored altogether by large sections of the record-buying public, Eno's attempts to create sonic environments have proved remarkably influential. David Bowie liked them enough to ask him to help out with the euro-synth washes on Low. The doyens of American art-rock, Talking Heads - "very good rhythmically, which is unusual in a band with an arty background" - got in touch. And it was Eno's ambient experiments which eventually led, indirectly, to his most famous and unlikely collaboration so far.
"Larry Mullen liked my old records a lot and he phoned up one day and said U2 wanted me to produce them. So I said, I don't think there's anything I can do for you. Finally, after a couple of months of back and forth, I had this long conversation with Bono, who's a brilliant talker and very smart. And I said, Look, if I work with you, I will want to change lots of things you do, because I'm not interested in records as a document of a rock band playing on stage, I'm more interested in painting pictures. I want to create a landscape within which this music happens. And so Bono said, Exactly, that's what we want too."
Over at Island Records, however, Chris Blackwell wanted no such thing. "He thought I was completely the wrong person for the job. He thought I'd turn it into art rock. And I thought this was a possible outcome myself. I took out the insurance policy of bringing Dan (Lanois, who had worked as Eno's engineer on some of the ambient albums) along. I thought that at least if he were there it would be a good, well-produced record with good performances, because Dan has a very good way of working with musicians. He's very encouraging and he can get people to do fantastic things. I was never very interested in musicians or musicianship until I met Dan."
Eno's interpretation of his own role as producer is not exactly hands on, or hands off, but rather hands in all sorts of odd places. "The way I work is I try to find out what isn't being done that ought to be done. Now sometimes that means somebody ought to make the tea. Sometimes it means somebody ought to re-write the whole bloody song. With Talking Heads I was a sort of tea boy/arranger. With U2 I championed the songs that didn't seem very U2-ish or things that had strong beginnings but no clear destination. They were always very receptive. They'd say, Well, show us!"
Promenade and Bullet The Blue Sky were both rescued from the tape bin by Eno's intervention. And by the time it came to record The Joshua Tree, the two producers were working simultaneously in two separate studios: Lanois was with the band and the strong songs; Eno, occasionally visited by The Edge and Bono, busied himself with various tape effects, curios and stragglers. Mothers Of The Disappeared, for instance, was created by slowing down the drum track from another song, tipping a canyon load of reverb on it and applying a vocal. Bullet The Blue Sky began life as a homeless riff.
It isn't so much that he likes doing things the hard way: Eno actually enjoys approaching tasks the wrong way. "I'm interested in making things with the wrong people or the wrong tools," he says, with a steady glint in his pale eyes. He explains that for his own forthcoming solo album he is trying to conduct a 16-piece orchestra - "the first lot of string players I've met who I thought were vaguely human" - using no sheet music and a set of hand signals of his own invention. He points to the slightly untidy-looking wall of the terrace in the garden outside and recalls its construction. "I got two guys who had never laid a brick in their lives before and told them to be as careful as they could."
Why bother? "Because that way you get the most interesting results. I think it's significant that three of the most important guitar players in popular music had serious problems. Les Paul damaged his hand in a car accident, Django Rheinhardt had only two fingers on his left hand, and Jimi Hendrix, who was left-handed, played a right-handed guitar upside down. So the controls were the first things he hit, and it's very clear in his playing that he thought of it primarily as a piece of electronics rather than, as everybody else had up till then, as a loud acoustic guitar."
You could listen to Eno's curious explanations for hours; and two and a half of them have in fact ticked by since the interview began. Now, though, the baby is getting audibly restless in another room (Eno has two daughters, one 21 years old and this one, by a new partner, six months). And furthermore, tonight, apparently, it's Brian's turn to cook the dinner. We drift upstairs to the Wilderness studio to take photographs and listen to some of the nearly finished album he's making with John Cale - "a difficult person to work with. Irrational." Here, surrounded by the machines which are still his natural habitat, Eno demonstrates his re-born enthusiasm for singing, strenuously and choir-boyishly joining in with the chorus to one of the - by his standards, decidedly catchy - songs.
And now it really is time to go. Or is it? Like one of his own more exploratory, swirling pieces, just when you think he's about to call it a day, Eno is off again. There is mention of the aphrodisiac male scent he's been developing for Unilever since 1977: "It works for me anyway." There is a brief summary of his ambitions as "a research gardener" - developing mutant plants by bombarding them with X-rays from the machines which used to be used to examine children's feet in shoe shops. There is a request for copies of today's interview tapes, "not because I'm checking up on you, it's just that when I'm talking to people like this is when I do a lot of my thinking." And now, finally, standing on the gravel drive of his gothic home, the thinking stops - temporarily anyway - and Brian Eno flashes another of his engagingly boyish smiles. "Hard work, talking," he says.