This article originally appeared in the May 1989 issue of SPIN.
“Is this 1962 or 20 years on?” asked the sleeve notes of the first Roxy Music LP, the record that introduced Brian Eno to the world as a decadent androgyne in shoulder-padded leopard skin. It was, in fact—as the abundance of eyeshadow and over-defined cheekbones attested—1972.
It’s 17 years later, and the Eno that sits across from me is the more familiar model of the modern age, more haute couture than high camp, almost austere in a high-collared shirt and matching black Yamamoto jacket. Yet there’s always been, still is, that sense of disorientation in Eno’s work, of wondering what time it really is.
His first solo LP, Here Come The Warm Jets, has lasted sixteen years unscathed—the concept of a group of 21st-century schizoid men feeding an array of quaint harmonies and the Velvet Underground into an electronic mincing machine—and remains purely contemporary. The second, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), with its noirish sci-fi pastiches could be the soundtrack to William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, while the scratch funk and cut-ins of My Life In The Bush of Ghosts (the 1980 collaboration with David Byrne and Bill Laswell) sounds as if it were recorded just last week.
But it was amidst the mysterious gardens and lengthening shadows of Another Green World, his third solo work, that Eno struck upon the possibilities of deliberately twisting the dials on the time machine. There are lyrical switches of timescale (“I’ve been waiting all evening/Possibly years, I don’t know”), but more importantly the music involves a series of landscapes in which change is as slow as the fading of natural light.
His recent work, whether his video installations, his taped video pieces or his “ambient” records, pursues the same ideas—music as a description of interior and exterior space, music independent of time. Many of the artists he’s gathered together for the recently formed Opal Records have similar interests. The showcase LP, Music For Films III, featuring the work of Daniel Lanois and Harold Budd among others, proffers sustained Atmospheres and creeping unease, far from the cut and dash of modern pop.
There is an element of time difference, too, about his latest project, producing the Russian band Zvuki Mu, whose Western debut LP was released on Opal in April. Part of Eno’s fascination is that, while Zvuki Mu have absorbed much of Western pop culture, the slower channels of communication between East and West define their unique interpretation. They approach rock music the way a group of aliens might, stumbling over artifacts in a time capsule.
While producing the band, Eno spent long periods of time in Moscow, and was at liberty to muse over the difference between East and West, between Eastern and Western time.
“In a material sense,” says Eno, “people there have much less control over the universe they live in than we do here. Ambition is a pointless impulse. As a result, people’s sense of the flow of things is that there is a flow of things and that human will is not the most important power in the universe, which is what we tend to think.”
“Time is less of an absolute commodity since they’re so used to waiting for things. Everyone always criticizes that about their system, but the other side of the coin is how interesting it is to meet with a highly civilized people who are not dominated by our pacing of things.”
A great deal of Eno’s recent work has explored the pace of life, sometimes trying to slow it down to a more contemplative rate. It’s tempting to see Brian Eno as someone who finds the pace of Western life too frantic and might prefer a more leisurely Eastern approach.
“In fact I’m very much a Westerner in the respect that I like to be able to predict when things will be done. In Russia the person you’ve arranged to meet on Thursday may not turn up till Saturday, so you can’t plan ahead.
“What I find myself out of sync with here is that we very much locate ourselves on one plane of time. I realized this when I was in New York, where the word ‘now’ actually means a very short space of time—within the hour. In London when you say ‘now,’ it can mean a day or a week. Where I live, in the country, you mean this year. When the Hopi Indians say ‘now,’ they’re talking about a whole continuum of existence which includes all the ancestors they know about and all the descendants they can imagine. In New York it’s very difficult to retain an awareness of yourself located in a long period of time.”
Or indeed in a dimension of history. We’re accustomed to think of the past having been wiped out in Eastern bloc countries, but in the West the past is not so much re-written as obliterated, because so much is available in the present.
“Yes, I agree. Another important point is that if your ‘now’ becomes shorter, you become bigger in relation to it.”
“People do the same with ‘here,’ like New Yorkers spending millions on designer-furnished lofts in Soho. Then as soon as you step out of the door, it’s absolute chaos—shit on the streets, broken roads, bums everywhere. If you can localize your sense of ‘here’ to ‘this room’ you’re a correspondingly bigger person in that world.”
“We tend to locate our sense of ‘here’ around what we control, because we are a will-based culture, so it tends to be inside the walls of your apartment and what’s in your Filofax that day. We’re reluctant to accept that there are parts of the world that we don’t have control over and would have to be just a particle within.”
Eno has been one of the few people to recognize that along with this new pattern of living comes a new approach to listening. Increasingly we might use sound as part of the creation of an environment, in the same way as light. The ethic of ambient music, an initial anathema to most “rock” critics, has had to be reappraised given the huge sales of New Age music, which is also concerned with the creation of atmosphere.
But where the manner of listening is comparable, the thinking behind Eno’s work is diametrically opposed to the New Age phenomenon. Where New Age concentrates entirely on relaxing, pastoral textures, a record like On Land (1982), also conceived as landscape music, begs a broader definition.
“You see,” Eno explains, “texture is information. Texture is only form looked at from a distance. If you look at this carpet, you perceive it as texture, but if you looked closer, you would see that it’s actually a whole lot of forms. If you take birdsong—which is one of the aural textures of being in the country—the fact of it is that much of it is the sound of alarms and distress and attack.”
“Landscape is a funny word for me, because it does conjure up pictures of nice little paintings with little paths going down them, but landscape really is and always has been a depiction of a psychological space, often of psychological cataclysm. it doesn’t imply peacefulness, not to me.”
“On the whole On Land is quite a disturbed landscape: some of the undertones deliberately threaten the overtones, so you get the pastoral prettiness on top, but underneath there’s a dissonance that’s like an impending earthquake.”
Distorted Assimilation first occurred to Brian Eno after he had introduced the Talking Heads to the music of Fela Kuti, whose polyrhythmic Afrobeat marked the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, which Eno produced. On his return to Africa, Eno found that Fela Kuti was in turn listening to the Talking Heads. Eno challenges cultural boundaries; one rhythm bounces backwards and forwards, altering slightly at each stage.
Inevitably he investigated this principle in the USSR.
“Over there they really have no idea what’s cool and what isn’t. So someone is likely to say ‘My main influences are the Velvet Underground, Sun Ra and Abba.’ Zvuki Mu have a lot of what I’d call Holiday Inn jazz, these bits that creep out of the music that are like scat singing or something, but it’s been redigested so many times.”
“What they’ve heard is the Light Entertainment Radio version of the London nightclub version of the American Holiday Inn version of the original that happened somewhere in Chicago in 1936. It’s been through so many phases that what emerges is not an experience so much as a sign for a certain musical idea.”
The attraction Eno found in Zvuki Mu was the sense of innocence, an innocence of which Western bands are no longer capable. Central to the last 10 years of Eno’s work is modern culture and its role in overcoming our tendency to see things only in terms of what we have seen before.
“That’s also one of the reasons I haven’t made many records lately, because the thrills I get are all to do with working my way out of a situation that I don’t understand. Doing the video installations, at the beginning of each show I really don’t know what I’m going to do and I deliberately plunge myself into a dangerous situation.”
“Once you’re out of the normal organizing mode of knowing what you’re doing, a certain part of your brain disengages, because it can’t keep up. You can then use that part of your brain by choice, and another part takes over.”
“To be under pressure is to live in the present. It’s really to see what you’re doing, rather than what you intended and how you failed. innocence to me has very much to do with the abandonment of intentions in favor of dealing with what you’ve got. It’s like watching children growing up and seeing the incredible fascination they have in things, where every object is a unique item in the world.”
One of the concerns that has been voiced about the information overload of modern Western society is that it affects our capacity to dream. Ambient music slows down conscious thought to a point where imagination is freer.
“I would say that we no longer know how to use oracles,” he says. “I think of dreams, based on that famous paper titled ‘Dream Theory in Malayas,’ as being an oracle system. I don’t think dreams are true or anything. They’re ways of telling yourself stories, then being able to use the story as a way to project your present reality.”
“An oracle presents a scheme. Say it divides your life into four parts—spiritual, emotional, sexual and physical. Just presenting you with that scheme suggests that you might look at your life through those categories. These things are matrixes which allow you to organize this whole flurry of impressions and desires and disappointments that go around inside you.”
“What I think happens with dreams is that a story is told to you by your brain and you wake up with certain impressions which you try to work out. ‘Who was that that was threatening me?’ ‘What does that mean?’ You’re actually asking yourself important questions that you would never ask of your own accord.”
“To use an oracle system, you don’t have to believe it’s true, you just have to suspend what I call the Martin Gardner sense. I hate that man, he’s become one of the leading anti-psychic research people. I can’t stick all these people who are into the occult either, but there’s now this group of scientists who spend all their time trying to prove how useless and unscientific and wrong it is. It might be wrong—but it isn’t useless. That’s the point.”
“These people can only see two categories of reality, which are hard fact and useless myth. What I’m trying to say is that there’s another category which is in fact what we spend most of our lives doing, which is working on half-formed feelings, bits of information, whatever we can put together at the time. But that’s a technique we don’t tend to acknowledge. Whereas scientists are valued as being people who present serious information, storytellers aren’t.”
“They are in the Soviet Union. That’s why the government for such a long time controlled literature more than any other medium, because it recognized the power of storytellers.”
In spite of fiction’s strength, Eno’s list of favorite books includes no fiction whatsoever. Instead he regards the architect and theorist Christopher Alexander whose concern, one close to Eno’s heart, is the antihuman nature of most modern architecture.
“I like the West Coast architects because they don’t have such ideas of themselves, they acknowledge that an audience does at least exist, whereas a lot of modern architects don’t even do that. Often the sense of the whole thing is that what has been constructed is something that looked good on a drawing.”
“But what architecture has done that really pisses me off is remove the process of building from people. There’s a character called Bernard Rudophsky who did a tremendous book called Architecture Without Architects, which is about vernacular architecture throughout the world. It shows solutions that have evolved to various problems of climate and materials. They are so brilliant and elegant, you just clap your hands to look at these things. Then when you look at the pathetic, leaden-footed work that most architects are doing, you just think ‘What a bunch of middle-class prats! Why don’t they just look at what’s been done?’ These millennia of building practices have been ignored. It’s just so annoying. These people are supposed to be intelligent.”
Eno has one long-cherished project called the Quiet Space, effectively a kind of club which instead of speeding up the rate of stimulation of the outside world, slows it down. It has already been partly realized by a group of psychologists in Germany, inspired by Eno’s idea.
“It’s not open all the time—they put a week or two week program together every so often, during which time they have a lot of discussions about things like the nature of time and human perception of time. The guy who runs it told me he delivered a talk, but he did it at one twentieth of human speed. I’d love to have seen that!”
Another of Eno’s favorite books is Travels in Hyper-Reality, a theoretical work by post-structuralist Urnberto Eco, author of The Name Of The Rose.
“That book is very funny in the sense that having read it, you look at things with a certain lightness. So all these things that seem so threatening, like the burger empires taking over the world, and Coca-Cola owning CBS, and the world being governed by trash, suddenly seem like such a joke. Everyone was scared of Big Brother, it turns out that Big Mac is the one that’s dominating the world.”
Because of his constant change, vast explorations and sometimes bizarre pursuits, I feel compelled to ask, “is Brian Eno a charlatan?”
“Funny thing about charlatanism,” he says, “it rather implies that you force people to accept your work. Suppose what I do is of no value whatsoever—boring, stupid, regressive—what does it matter? Nobody has to buy my records, nobody has to pay me any attention at all. I’m not a government minister or a doctor or a surgeon that people are depending on.”
“A charlatan is somebody who claims to be something they’re not. What do I claim to be? Nothing other than somebody who does what I do, which is patently true. I present my things and if people are interested I’m very pleased. If they’re not I’ll present something else, or just continue doing what I’m doing and they still I won’t be interested. It really doesn’t matter.”