Interview: Brian Eno
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When you listen to pretty much any of U2's albums, he is there. Or when you listen to the soaring synths in David Bowie's "Heroes", his fingerprints are all over it. He even invented the sound that you used to hear when you switched your Windows PC on.
And inventor is just the right word to use about Brian Eno. As an inventor of a genre, 'ambient music', which he once described as "existing on the cusp between melody and texture" and as music which can either be "actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener". How many musicians would admit that their music is as easily appreciated passively as consumed actively? This is the language of Brian Eno, a way of talking about music that is as distinct as the music itself.
To an older generation he will forever be associated with the glam rock band Roxy Music. Clad in platform boots and a feather boa, Eno provided a unique edge to the band's sound using synthesisers and tape recorders and enjoying chart hits with 'Virginia Plain' and 'Do the Strand'. He quickly moved on from glam and pioneered what became known as ambient music and has been recording solo albums ever since, including seminal works Here Come the Warm Jets (1974), Another Green World (1975) and Before and after Science (1977). He also found himself in huge demand as a producer, working with U2, Massive Attack and Coldplay among many others, not to mention helping Bowie to produce his critically acclaimed 'Berlin trilogy' of albums in the late Seventies.
While he might have kissed goodbye to chart-topping commercial success after leaving Roxy to produce albums with names like Ambient One: Music for Airports, his flair as a creator and curator of sounds and the innovative way he uses technology to make music has become legendary.
Eno has just released a new album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, with Warp Records, his first in five years. It's a collaborative project with two younger musicians, Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins, with whom Eno has explored huge new "sonic territories".
"The nice thing about working with a group of people is that they do things that you wouldn't do. They don't have the same taste as you for a start, so you either have to reject it or you have to embrace it somehow," says Eno.
He met Abrahams 10 or 12 years ago in a music shop in Notting Hill Gate, "where you'd always go in and there'd be people playing 'Stairway to Heaven' or something like that…And so I went in one day and sitting in a dark corner was a rather gentle looking person playing the most beautiful, quiet guitar, which is already a revolution in a guitar shop, that anyone would ever play quietly."
"I just listened to it for a bit and I thought: 'I love the way he's playing'. So I went up to him and said: 'Could I have your number do you think, I might need a guitar at some point…' And then, I didn't for about six months and I called him finally and he came over."
The two worked together for several months before Eno decided he needed a keyboard player and Abrahams suggested his old school friend Hopkins, who had subsequently worked with Eno on the last Coldplay album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends and impressed the ambient maestro.
"So Jon is working on this song [with Chris Martin] with these big thick complicated chords and he said to Jon: 'I don't know what these chords are, shall I write them down for you?' and Jon said: 'Oh no that's fine, I heard them' and he just duplicated them all, and it was astonishing," says Eno.
"Chris said: 'Can you do that with any chords?' And there were two keyboards in the room, and there was an isolation screen between them so Jon couldn't see what Chris's hands were doing…So Chris is just doing really weird chords like that, and Jon goes: 'Yeah yeah, that's …' So he has a very interesting ear, he's an extraordinary player."
Together the three have created an album which resulted not from composition in the classical sense, he says, but from improvisation.
"The improvisations are not attempts to end up with a song, but rather with a landscape, a feeling of a place and perhaps the suggestion of an event. In a sense they deliberately lack 'personality': there is no singer, no narrator, no guide as to what you ought to be feeling. If these pieces had been used in films, the film would complete the picture. As they stand, they are the mirror-image of silent movies - sound-only movies."
As for Eno himself, he insists he is still making music today for the same reasons as he did back in the Seventies with Roxy. It would be easy to retire and cruise around the world or start collecting butterflies, but he still has a passion for music.
"I do have an obsession of a certain kind, and my particular obsession is that I want to hear the music that I wish existed.
"So often I think some ideas are so obvious and they don't exist yet, and I just think 'Well I might as well make it, and see what happens!' This is what I thought when I started making ambient music. I thought it was just the most obvious idea. And I was completely convinced that I would only have released one or two ambient records and everybody would go: 'Oh my God! Of course!' and there'd be millions of ambient records within a year. Didn't happen. Well it did happen, slowly, it just took a lot longer than I thought."
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