Brian Eno: Breaking the silence

By Mark Prendergast, from Sound On Sound Volume 5, issue 12, October 1990.

Brian Eno is undoubtedly one of the most influential figure in electronic music, yet his creative energies have long been directed into other people’s music. Now, with the release of one solo and one collaborative album approaching, he gives a rare interview to Mark Pendergast.

It has been nearly two years since Brian Eno appeared on the cover of Sound On Sound. In that time his creative activity has continued unabated, both in the fields of music and audio-visual work. In July 89 he mounted a significant performance installation at a Shinto shrine in Japan, and his rain-forest work later that year at New York’s Winter Garden (and recently at the Barbican) merged natural sounds with synthetic music so beautifully that the line between the two dissolved.

On the musical front, Eno’s energies have, until recently, been directed into other people’s music. His Opal/Land company have released an intriguing selection of recordings by a very diverse collection of artists. These include the American band Hugo Largo, Armenian folk musician Djivan Gasparayan, Soviet rock band Zvuki Mu, French keyboardist Francois Elie Roulin, Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois, and John Cale. Lanois’s Acadie (to which Eno contributed heavenly treatments and synth parts to several tracks) and Cale’s Words For The Dying (both 1989) were crucial in prompting Eno back to music making again. At a London concert in February, Lanois invited Eno onstage to sing ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, a Byrds song which Brian had recorded for a Jonathan Demme film.

In a sense, this broke a silence that had lasted since Eno’s last proper vocal performances on the 1978 Cluster & Eno album After The Heat. Another turning point was the intense period spent in Moscow during the Summer of 1989, recording the orchestral ‘Falkland Suite’ with John Cale. It marked a reunion with one of Brian’s avant-rock heroes, a creative partnership which had its first flowering in the mid-70s on Eno’s Another Green World and Music For Films, and Cale’s Fear and Slow Dazzle albums. The two worked exhaustively with the Gosteleradio orchestra, as Eno once again returned to classical production.


These sessions were also memorable for problems caused by the presence of an Anglo/Irish film crew who were making a documentary at Cale’s request. Vocals were later put down at the Strongroom studios in London, and at Eno’s Wilderness studio in Suffolk. The resultant album was Words For The Dying, a high point of which was the bright, up-beat ‘The Soul Of Carmen Miranda’.

Now, Cale and Eno are together again for a fresh recording, Wrong Way Up, a vocal pop album of memorably catchy songs with neat guitar riffs and simple arrangements. For Eno, it uncannily picks up directly where he left off on Another Green World and Before & After Science, 14 years ago. At 42, his sense of adventure, love of making music and sheer vitality remain undiminished. Eno also has an instrumental collection on the way, provisionally entitled The Shutov Assembly which promises pure ambience, string pieces and funky music of the space jazz variety. It could be a single or a double album, but we’ll have to wait for next year to find out.

Clearly then, Brian Eno is on a creative up, and as a result has chosen to break his silence in another way, in talking to the British press that he has understandably shunned for years. I was invited to meet him at his spacious Chelsea flat, where a smiling, joking, Eno granted me two hours of conversation. Those who’ve not had the privilege, might think that Eno is a withdrawn intellectual, painstakingly working out complex recording strategies, or with his head stuck in some obscure philosophy text. This misconception sterns from the unusual clarity of his answers to questions, which during the late 70s established him as ‘the leading theoretician in rock’. In truth, Eno is an enthusiastic conversationalist, whose eyes light up the more he gets into his subject. He always sees the funny side of things, and makes one feel simultaneously excited yet at ease.

My first question centred on the controversial filming of the Words For The Dying recording by Rob Nelson (for Channel Four), and why there was so much turbulence around it.

“Well, because it really was a big distraction and John loves distractions, he thrives on them. He will order seven newspapers a day, have the TV, have the phone nearby. It’s exactly the opposite of the way I work. I really have a hermetic approach to working. I make sure that nobody is going to call me and I can’t read anything, I don’t watch TV. It’s not that I’m being noble or anything — I’ve got that kind of concentration, and if I try and think about something else I make a mess of it. John’s way of working is very reckless and wild, and in a certain way he’s much more courageous than me in that he’ll make a kind of dramatic action and just leave it at that. He doesn’t seem to care at all what anyone is going to think about it. So his quality is a kind of reckless courage. He never projects quite what you expected. It’s always something off-balance. That’s a great talent. My talent is concentration and persistence, not such romantic talents but nonetheless...”

What I couldn’t understand after seeing the film at the CA was why you were so aggrieved at these guys who were making a documentary at John’s request. Surely you could have just ignored them?

“Unfortunately that wasn’t an easy option for me. First of all, I was doing nearly all the work. John had done his work, he had written the piece. The act of getting it recorded — which was a fairly complicated thing being in a strangely-equipped foreign studio with a large orchestra and a very short length of time to work in — was my responsibility. It was very important that somebody — me — maintained concentration. Now as soon as a camera hits me I’m not the same person anymore. I don’t think anyone is but it affects me particularly badly in that I’m very self-conscious with a camera. I’m frightened of making a mistake, I don’t want to do anything stupid and as soon as that camera was around I felt kind of paralysed by it.”

After such an experience together why did you and John do another album so quickly?

“Hmm, ‘cos funnily enough one of the only really enjoyable parts of making that record was ‘Carmen Miranda’. That happened very very quickly and it really was a type of song I don’t think any other two people would have come up with. So, it seemed like maybe collaborating like this would be a good idea. Actually, we had never set out to co-write material before, it was always like one of us had created a piece of material that the other one then added something to. And so we thought. ‘give that a go and see how that works out’, (laughs) and it was pretty hard actually.”


Words For The Dying had been finished by July 89. John Cale went back to New York to do more work on the Songs For Drella project with Lou Reed, while Eno continued with his installations. Wrong Way Up saw the pair back together again in the Wilderness in March this year. I asked about the modus operandi for the new album.

“There were several MOs actually. Before John arrived I spent a couple of weeks in the studio preparing some rhythm tracks — percussion tracks really — several of which were used. For instance ‘One Word’, ‘Spinning Away’, ‘Lay My Love’, ‘In The Backroom’ and ‘Being There, Done That’ all had pre-made tracks. I made, I guess, a dozen rhythm tracks which I thought had a strange off-balance quality. I did that because it could have been that ‘Carmen Miranda’ was a fluke... I was a bit nervous that we might sort of sit down there and stare at each other for a week and not do anything. So I got those backing tracks together as somewhere to start from. What happened after that was very divergent from track to track.”

Though Eno considers the record to have a very classy sound, courtesy of Rhett Davies (who co-produced Another Green World and Before & After Science) and Bruce Lampcov who did the mixing at Air, London, I mention that I’m impressed by the rhythm guitar playing which is a strong feature throughout.

“That was Robert Ahwai who was the first other person to enter the picture. He came down for one day. I’d just put a track up and he’d play something great almost immediately. The next two people to enter the picture were Ronald Jones and Daryl Johnson who were on tour with Dan Lanois. They came down for an afternoon and evening. Fantastic players — bass and drums. Keyboard drums, actually. By that stage, myself and John had already done three weeks work, and even though the other people weren’t there for very long, what they gave was very important to what finally happened. Nell, the violin player, was also very important.


What kind of compositional processes, equipment procedures or novelty processes, if any, were used in the recording?

“I don’t think there were that many things that would surprise people who work in studios. My studio is fairly basic: a 10-year old Harrison desk, serial number 1, it’s the first of the Harrison Mk 3 desks; a 24-track recorder; a DAT recorder; an Eventide H3000 processing thing — that’s very good indeed. The Yamaha DX, very important. I don’t think there was anything revolutionary in that aspect of the recording.”

No processing something through a hundred boxes to try and get an amazing, way-out equalization on a track?

“Well I do that all the time anyway, that’s just part of getting a sound for me. All the drum track are originally played on an M1 — they’re M1 sequenced drum tracks. Then they are quite severely treated so that they become more industrial sounding than the M1 would normally allow. But it’s the kind of thing that people generally do these days, you know.”

If the heart of Wrong Way Up is the spontaneity and feel of recording down-to-earth rock music its major quality is Eno’s return to lyric writing. In an interview quoted in Opal Information 7 (December 1987) Eno described this in some detail: “With lyric.. writing I tend to begin by just shouting to a backing track, and gradually building up syllable rhythms, you might say, then getting the kind of phonetics I want and gradually beginning to fill in words to the type of sounds that my voice is making.” The lyrics on Wrong Way Up were composed in pretty much the same way.

Were both of you feeding each other lyrically, or did he write some stuff and you write some stuff?

“Again, that differs from track to track. For instance, ‘Spinning Away’ I wrote completely alone, as I did ‘Lay My Love’ and ‘The River’. ‘One Word’ we wrote together; I’d worked out the melody, but the track had a totally different identity from what it does now. We changed a lot of the instrumentals in the original track and it opened up a new way of singing it for him. We got this sort of question and answer thing going on in that song. ‘In The Backroom’ is entirely him. That was a whole approach to singing which was completely his idea. Empty Frame had a very funny evolution. There were two predecessors to that, one called ‘Waterloo’ and one called ‘Picture Of You’.

“The first was an improvisation where he just started playing and I just started singing. I was singing in a very high register, and it really had something good about it except that I got disillusioned with it because it didn’t really fit the mood of the rest of the album at all. So then I re-wrote it as ‘Waterloo’, and I still wasn’t quite happy with that but I re-recorded it in that new form. Then I re-recorded it as what it finally became — ‘Empty Frame’ — and by that time John had left. In fact some of my songs were written after he’d gone. ‘Cordoba’, which I think is great, a sort of classic, we worked on together.”

He’s right about ‘Cordoba’, which finds John Cale spinning a Paul Bowles-type tale of atmospheric isolation. A poignant, spartan monologue surrounded by a classical arrangement of strings and viola. Cale never sounded better than on the moody, twirling ‘In The Backroom’ where Eno plays Shinto bell and slide guitar. On ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Being There, Done That’ Cale opts for a quirky vocal, in keeping with the catchy tempo of the songs. Many will find the variety in the record surprising, particularly its wide coverage of soul and funk styles. More will be intrigued by the country nuances of Eno’s ‘The River’ and the excellent ‘Spinning Away’ which recalls the Eno of ‘Golden Hours’ on Another Green World.

“Yes, yes. When I was working on that another old song of mine came to mind, which was ‘The Belldog’. I don’t know what the relationship between them is except the kind of space they’re set in seems to be similar to me. I think there’s also some similarity with lyrics.”

Eno goes on to mention the song’s reference to Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Sky’, something that might not be apparent to the casual listener. What is apparent though is Eno’s thin, rather flat voice which is put to great effect on the ‘The River’. Eno and Daniel Lanois used country music on the Apollo soundtrack in 1983 to successfully give the impression of weightless space. It has other connotations for Eno, as his childhood was spent beside a river in Woodbridge listening to American armed forces radio.

“Well, I love that music anyway. It’s not something I ever have to affect. I realise there’s an element of pastiche, particularly in the harmonies there — that very flat-voiced singing where you kind of hold notes rigidly and proudly. But what I find impressive about that music is that it’s very concerned with space in a funny way. Its sound is the sound of a mythical space, the mythical American frontier space that doesn’t really exist anymore. That’s why on Apollo I thought it very appropriate, because it’s very much like ‘space music’ — it has all the connotations of pioneering, of the American myth of the brave individual, and that myth has strong resonances throughout American culture.”

Eno contends that ‘The River’ was also strongly influenced by the recent birth of his baby daughter Irial. “That’s what it started out as, a song about her. The idea of someone appearing, and one not knowing really where from, who would go somewhere else as if they are on a river passing through and they’re yours for a while.”

It’s a very personal selection of songs, an album that’s going to surprise a lot of people, particularly those into the instrumental stuff or those expecting hi-tech U2-style production with lots of treatments and so-on.

“That’s right. I knew it was very important for me to get this record out quickly. I knew that if I had the chance I would start pissing about with it ... cutting this out here, adding in that there. And one thing about this record that I like very much is that it’s fresh — slightly rough and low-techy as well. I must say I felt a bit painted into a corner — there was so much expectation about what I would do and how it had to be really important (smiles). I thought I had to escape from that a little and so I managed, doing this record, to forget all that, not to worry about what kind of response it would get. And I could do that because I really enjoyed making this record, in the sense of singing again and so-on.”

For Eno, a sense of urgency in music making is paramount, the kind of urgency that says: ‘if a demo tape is exciting enough, then use that as the core of a track and avoid endless mixes and takes’. Wrong Way Up is about this kind of urgency. Take for example Eno’s use of an “old beaten up Shure SM58 microphone”.

“I found this microphone that I think is sort of a magic microphone. When we were working on ‘Carmen Miranda’ and Words For The Dying at the Strongroom, we tried this mic, and that mic, and they all sounded terrible. And there was this Shure, which is the cheapest basic rock’n’roll mike you can get. John didn’t want to use it ‘cos he didn’t like it, he thought. I said ‘John, try this Shure, you might as well’. He just said four words through it and I said to the studio engineer, ‘I’ll buy this mike’ (laughs) and I bought it on the spot.”

“I have a real certainty about equipment when I hear something that I like. Dan Lanois is the same way, in fact I think I really got this idea from him. Dan is a very interesting producer. He reminds one of a bloodhound — once he gets the scent he bloody well stays on it, and he won’t be deterred however strange the combination of elements. He’ll never do the stupid thing of saying ‘oh let’s just write down the settings and then we’ll record when we have the mics properly set up tomorrow’. It never works — when the situation’s happening, take it! You’ll never be able to repeat it. The variables are so complex, and most of the time you don’t even know what the variables are... I picked that trick up from Dan. If it’s happening, grab it, whatever it is. Just take it (smiles).”

So this Shure mic got you going on the vocals with John Cale.

“Well I loved the sound of it, and I brought it back to Woodbridge and started experimenting with it on my own voice. I found a particular configuration — it would go through a certain equalization, quite a severe one actually, then through this old Neve limiter/compressor, then back for even more of the same type of equalisation, and then finally to a particular treatment, and what that made was a very inspiring singing sound. It made you, when you sang, sound really good (smiles) and the best thing you can do for a musician is to make everything they do sound really good.

“This is why all this crap about studio monitors and so-on is such nonsense, because really you don’t want the ideal and faithful picture of the sound — you want the best sound, the most inspiring sound. So in my studio I’ve got lots of different speakers. They are all inaccurate in various ways, and I do have an accurate pair as well, though I hardly ever use them. Hmm, I use speakers because of their contribution to the musical situation. This particular mike was one of those tools, and myself and John both used it all the time.”

This Wilderness studio has been mentioned on album sleeves like Music For Films III and Daniel Lanois’s Acadie. Is this your purpose-built dream studio, or is it a little place where you dabble?

“It’s fairly primitive in terms of modern recording studios, but in terms of studios say 10 years ago, it would be state-of-the-art. What it doesn’t have is a big recording room. Everything happens in one room which is quite big but not huge. It’s the control room and we did all the recording in there. It’s a 24-rack with Dbx noise reduction which I got because it was cheap and easy to replace. It’s not a studio into which you could really take a band but on ‘Being There, Done That’ there was bass, drums, John and myself — four people recording at once — and that’s the most that’s ever happened in there.”

Do you have a lot of instruments, or do people bring their own?

“No I don’t have a lot of instruments. I have a DX7 which is my main instrument. I still keep discovering great new things about it. I’m not really interested in all the options that an instrument can give you, and I know now that they are pretty much infinite. What I’m interested in is the kind of rapport I have with an instrument, and that takes a long time to develop. You wouldn’t just pick up a guitar and expect to immediately understand the thing.

Well it’s like that with synthesizers. think. I’ve got two others as well — I’ve got a Prophet VS and an M1. I’m not really interested in them because I keep going back to the DX. It’s just like a guitar player who has a ‘57 Strat, it always thrills you.”

Michael Brook surprised me when he said he used the DX7 for all his drum sounds.

“Yes, some of the drum sounds on the album are DX, some are M1. A lot of those drum sounds that Michael’s talking about originate from my programs, because I got really into the programming of the DX7. I’ve never really used a standard sound, and I’ve never really used a sound twice. I tailor a sound to a track. I’ve got loads of my own programs — well over a thousand of them, but those are really starting points. I think ‘well the right sound for that would be... whatever it is’, and when I go to that sound I almost always make a variation. More upper harmonics, or the decay should be a bit longer, or something like that.

For someone who is considered a great electronic musician, a guru of the synthesizer or treated sound, you don’t seem to have the kind of equipment that Vangelis or Klaus Schulze have.

“I must say in my whole career I’ve only really had three synthesizers, which is amazing really. Klaus Schulze, he’s got truckloads of them I think (smiles). Well, it’s another way of working. I don’t really work as a keyboard player, with given sounds. Because sound is so much the subject of what I do, it’s much more interesting to me than what my fingers are doing at a particular time. It’s the actual timbre of the whole thing which I’m finally interested in, I really just can’t take a given sound or a given melody, I have to make it myself and that means getting very familiar with an instrument. So really my only three synthesizers have been the old AMS, the MiniMoog which I used for a few years, and the DX. There’s one other which I should put in there, which is the CS8O, though I never owned one. Dan had one at Grant Avenue and I used that a lot.”

What about other instruments?

“I’ve got a couple of really nice guitars. There’s an acoustic-electric called an Alvarez Yairi which is a beautiul sounding instrument. It has an electric output and a little 3-way graphic on top. Then I have a Fernandez copy of a Fender Stratocaster. I also have two basses, a Yamaha KS3000 or something, a fairly uninspiring workaday bass. The other one is an old 1964 Ampeg fretless bass, which is a beautiful looking instrument, and a very inspiring thing to play. All of these instruments are on this new record, and that’s about all my instruments.”


That’s amazing really. It seems to be a very precise and restricted palette to work from. You must have a lot of processing stuff, outboard equipment.

“Not a huge amount, funnily enough. My feeling is that I don’t thrive in situations where there are too many options. I’ll just piddle away my time going through them. When I’m faced with a situation where there really aren’t that many choices I’ll quite quickly make a choice and then get on. It’s a bit like cooking you know. I always seem to do my best cooking when there isn’t that much in the kitchen.”

So you are still following your own maxim “invention being the mother of necessity”.

“Yes, I really hope that people keep bringing out new synthesizers and that other people find out if they are any good. And then maybe I’ll buy one eventually when they decide that this is a good one. I’d love to design a synthesizer — I really have more and more clear ideas about what I think I would want from a synth. Just as I’d love to design a computer.”

Do you use computers?

“Well, I’ve just got a Mac. I have Sound Tools, which is a very interesting program —you can do a lot of manipulation of sound in a rather different way from what I’ve been able to do before. They’re not things that were inconceivable before, but they were so awkward that you never bothered to do them. This is a very big point that equipment makers generally don’t realise: if you put options in that are really hard to get to, people won’t bother to use them.”

It’s just like thinking that a word processor makes it easier to write.

“Yes, that’s true. Having more options is part of the fix-it-in-the-mix syndrome that has bedevilled recording since 48-track and all that kind of thing. What you often see is people failing to make a decision because they can postpone making a decision... this shows a weakness of nerve to me. The danger is that you finally come to mixing and it’s then that you decide what piece of music you’re working on. The thing has never really assumed an identity. One of the nice things about the sort of Manchester groups is that they’re rather Luddite in that way. It’s like, ‘bollocks to all this, let’s get some simple instruments together and do some playing’.”

Eno is enthusiastic about the present house/new psychedelia revolution: “Love it.” Of Ambient House, he’s flattered that the ambient idea has filtered down to a younger generation of inventors. “I love it because I like anything that suddenly cuts the grain. That’s one of the great things about rock music — people always seem to react at the right time. You sit around and you think ‘oh it’s all getting so boring with synchronised 72-track recording, and records taking six years to make or whatever’, and suddenly you find a whole bunch of people doing new things that aren’t made that way, sounding great, and full of potential. And it belittles the other stuff which suddenly all sounds like Hollywood by comparison.”


This other record, the unfinished solo album titled The Shutov Assembly. What does the title mean?

“Shutov is a Rusian painter who I know in Moscow, and a while ago he gave me a painting as a present. He uses my music in his studio a lot; he’s got a little blaster there, and plays my music as he’s working. So I thought I’d put together a tape for him of unreleased pieces from the past few years. I kept a copy of the tape, and when I started playing it I started to enjoy it and see a thread running through the pieces that I hadn’t really seen before. They’d never been put together before, you see.”

One of these new instrumentals is ‘Planet Dawn’ which has been going around for quite a while. I heard it first at St Peter’s Church in Vauxhall as a string piece some years back.

“It’s quite old. That must be one of the original mixes of it. The string part is another thread to the whole thing which I have been toying and experimenting with. I’ve been working with the Kreisler Orchestra who are a 16-piece string orchestra.”

What kind of challenges were posed by your Winter Garden and Barbican installations, and the Japanese Tenkawa performance?

“Tenkawa was very complicated. It was about testing the waters of where live music and non music fall these days, or where did the line between performance and installation fall. I tried very hard not to make the stage where we had to be the centre of the whole event. It didn’t work of course because people clustered around the stage, but periodically we left the stage and the music carried on by itself.”

That performance will eventually find its way on to a film or video release. But now, we’ve been talking for two hours, and Eno is exhausted. My last important question concerned the influence of James Marshall Hendrix, of whom Eno has always been a big fan.

“Well he’s sort of heroic, isn’t he? I think he was absolutely one of the few people you could call a genius, and anyone who doesn’t believe that has got to watch that piece of film from Woodstock where he tries to tune up and his guitar is totally out of tune, and he starts playing and it sounds fantastic (smiles). Anyone who has enough sus to continually make the corrections necessary to work around a completely out of tune instrument is amazing — not only for doing it, but for doing it brilliantly. He was a real Paganini, just one of those amazingly gifted musicians. And there was no artifice about what he as saying. It was very simple music in the strict sense — bass, drums, guitar, the basic rock’n’roll formula, and yet it’s still devastatingly good, and people respect that. They keep going back to it and thinking: ‘boy, there were just no tricks here’.”

© Mark Prendergast 1990. Interview included in our archive with Mark's kind permission. His excellent encyclopaedic book The Ambient Century is now available – find out more here.