Eno, before and after

From an unknown UK publication, probably 1978, by Stanley Mieses

Eno's fortunate position
New Wave
Compositional techniques
Producing Talking Heads
Function of art

Brian Eno, in New York to produce the second Talking Heads album, talks to Stanley Mieses

If there's a single reason why Brian Eno's following in the United States has been limited to cult status it is the confounded timing which has sabotaged promotional efforts on his behalf. By the time Roxy Music was discovered here, he was out of it; by the time his record company would release any of his solo records here the import copies would have satisfied the groundswell support of rabid fans; and he himself would make promotional tours at odd times.

But throughout, the name of Eno, by virtue of its onomatopoetic ring and the consistency with which it was associated with avant-garde projects - but not under his own name - remained alive.

So here in New York is - Brian Eno, pinned to his chair while a revolving door of music writers shuffle through his suite at the modest Gramercy Park Hotel. Despite the off-beat timing of this particular visit (in headline terms) - too late to help Before And After Science, his critically adored but (so far) commercially ignored latest record, and too soon for the greatly anticipated release of the second Talking Heads record, which he produced in Nassau, Bahamas, and New York, there is nonetheless a terrific demand on his time.

"I'm in a fortunate position - most of my options are open," he said when we asked if he was consciously contributing to his own (commercial and aesthetic) unpredictability.

"Since I don't have this linear procedure of album releases I don't necessarily have to follow an ever-firmer set of expectations. There'll be a burst of three - and then none for two years. I feel very very free. Somehow or other, I could release anything I wanted to."

He smiled: "I pay a price for that. As it happens, I make enough money this way. And since I'm always working, I don't really spend any of it.

"But, to be honest, I suppose it (the offbeat timing of his career) has been deliberate. I've got a great working relationship with my record company. For instance, I'll be making a record and say Bowie phones up or one of the new wave groups show interest in me, and the record company feel that there is a demand. Even if I don't sell a lot of records, someone feels I'm trustworthy or worthwhile."

He ascribes his trustworthiness to some of the new wave groups because of his seminal position in the development of this style. "For the last four or five years, there has been a new wave, so to speak, a new channel of activity. At one time, it consisted of not too many people, of which, I think, I was one."

That perception has been vindicated by "The New Wave," he said, forming his own quote marks. "I can't say exactly where I stand in all this. My own perceptions are obviously very confused. I tend to assess my work in terms of the specific ingredients and labour I've put in."

I asked him how he managed to create so many different sounds and marry them to the music he had in mind. "I don't sit and write songs at home - the song is the performance on record, in the studio. When I work myself, I have a whole series of tricks and subterfuges that I use to create an accidental situation.

"I do this to defeat bits of me, or amplify bits of me - I'm looking to reduce my conscious intervention and I try to get the intuitive parts of me going. It's no easy trick.

"When I'm recording a track, for instance, I will have randomly chosen a spool of tape from my not-well-labelled tape library, and as I'm recording, the tape will also be going somewhere on the 24-track. Later when I play back the tracks, I'll hear the random tape as well.

"It sounds like junk at first, but soon I'll have discovered a point where they click - something fits the sounds I've made with the random tape. Eventually I'll edit out where it doesn't work but I'll have kept about 30 per cent of it and the change is felt. This is one of my, what I call, 'oblique strategies of dislocation.'"

Does Eno the producer foist his oblique strategies on unsuspecting groups? "Well, with the Talking Heads I tried to embody those oblique strategies myself. I sat on the sideline and interfered exactly in that way. I supplied tangents which were chosen according to my taste or theirs.

"I was very surprised at how their music could accommodate this kind of thing. And they themselves were very accommodating. They have a genuinely experimental attitude about their music.

"I think it was a very successful collaboration. I saw things in their music that I saw in mine And in talking with David (Byrne), I found an intellectual approach to music that I identified with.

Quite a lot of the Talking Heads' material is drawn from ideas that I share - like", he points to an imaginary grouping of people, "one guy plays very fast, one slow; not compositional.

"It's the same thing as when people ask me, 'What did you do for Bowie?' It's hard to say. But Bowie wouldn't have wanted to work with me unless he wanted change too. "

Eno specifically points to the greater sophistication in the studio as one marked change in the Talking Heads' new record ("The first was just a documentation of their material"), and says the new album contains "more ideas per minute, more concise ones."

The essential strength of the Talking Heads, says Eno is that they have an approach: "They're not just manipulating form and style, and the strength of their approach suffuses the material." The same quality he attributes to Devo, who, not incidentally, chose Eno as their producer, an assignment Eno says he was ready for after he saw them live - "the best live show I have ever seen " - in New York.

"What I saw in them always happens when you encounter something new in art - you get a feeling of being slightly dislocated, and with that are emotional overtones that are slightly menacing as well as alluring.

"With me, that's almost a code word. I am very interested in knowing why that happens, and why that is happening now, and I spend as much time in that sort of reflection as I do in the work.

"You see, in this work, you arrive at attractive positions for which sometimes you have no defences. Trying to find that out (the whys and wherefores of creativity and fashion, generally) is very interesting to me.

"When you make a piece of work, you are postulating a little world of your own, with a set of rules, and you try to see how they work. Then, how do they apply to real life? That's where the oblique strategies come in - employing accidents as a part of the work to make the connection.

"In both Devo, Talking Heads and myself, I see an interest in working out the terms of what that perception is. I carry a micro cassette recorder in my pocket when I walk around, I call it my catalogue of present day life. I connect that with what I am doing in the studio.

"Talking Heads are very up with P. Funk, disco and AM music, and similarly I have my own interests in the mass music and I tap them. Like they do in fashion - these things are crude barometers.

I consider that what art does for you is that it constantly rehearses you for uncertainty. Something happened you didn't expect. The codes you brought to understand this were inadequate. Something happened that defied your expectations, even.

"I chose to hang around for a while and endure this moment of uncertainty. Applied to music, I feel I can get involved with any situation that includes a novel configuration. Like new wave. The choices are to see nothing new in it, or else you live with it, if that is your wont, as it is mine."