The transcript of an interview with Brian Eno conducted by a German radio station has been issued by his press people.
The interview concerns the making of Eno’s new album, Small Craft On A Milk Sea, his decision to sign with Warp Records, and his ongoing interest in minimalism, among other things. We’ve excerpted the most pertinent bits of the transcript for you below.
What brought you to Warp Records ?
“Well… I love Warp Records and I always have done. I like their, I like the kind of people they represent. I like the Warp ‘spectrum’ if you like. Got quite a lot of Warp albums… And sort-of the next few projects I’m thinking about, seem to me like good projects for Warp to release.”
“I love Warp Records and I always have done.”
Are there any Warp artists that you especially like or collect their albums ?
“I like Aphex Twin. It’s funny I think… Well of course the other one that we were talking about this morning is Battles; who I’m very keen on, I’ve seen them play several times. In fact I got them to play in… I got them to come to Australia to play in a festival I organised there. Yup, so I think those two, are sort-of typical Warp artists and… perfect; that’s the sort of pallet that I like. I think Warp really ought to sign Tony Allen, but they don’t realise that yet. Tony is a great musician.”
Did signing to Warp Records influence the way the album sounds?
“No, not really. The only thing, the only little push in a certain direction was that they said at some point that they wanted five more tracks, you know, for giving away to dentists in Taiwan and all these sort-of special offers that record companies have to do now in a desperate attempt to get anyone to actually buy anything. So, I said: ‘Five more songs!’ So then I found five more pieces and they’re really good! The five I found are really good; I wish they’d been on the main album actually! But that was very nice you know, it’s not often that people actually ask you for something specific: give me more songs! Ok. In that room I have a huge archive of material I’ve never released which is currently standing at six point nine days long. So I’ve got six point nine days of unreleased music… Well a lot of it is crap actually – that’s why it’s unreleased – but some of it is not crap, some of it is good, but I just didn’t finish it, um, ’cos I never really finish anything until there’s a reason to finish it: a deadline or a specific proposal that needs a piece of music and then I think: ‘oh yes, that, that might work…’ and then I take something out and change it to fit, you know. But for me, finishing something, finishing a record is releasing it; its not taking it to the cutting room and mastering it, it’s actually when it hits the street, as they say, that’s when it’s finished for me.”
“It’s actually when the album hits the street, as they say, that’s when it’s finished for me.”
About the creative process for this new album:
“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, you either have to reject it or you have to embrace it somehow. Groups always surprise you; they’re kind of randomizers really. That’s why groups that have been together a very long time sort-of stop surprising each other, because they know each other’s moves – that’s why they employ me. So I become the randomizer, the random element that throws the thing into a different pattern. Um, but with particular group of players, Leo is a musician I met I guess 10 or 12 years ago. I saw him… there used to be a shop up on Notting Hill Gate that sold second hand musical equipment and, you’d always go in there and there’d be people, you know, playing Stairway to Heaven or something like that… and so I went in one day and sitting in a dark corner of the store 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.
“So I, 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, you know 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. And I’d been working with a nice guitar sound; I’d been creating this guitar sound that morning – but I can’t play guitar you know – and I always tune guitar in a strange way, I don’t have a normal tuning so I’m always…[plays a demonstration] basically an open chord. But that day I had an even odder tuning it was a, I had changed two of the strings. So I had this song up and I said: ‘Do you fancy trying to play along with this?’ He took the guitar – which was tuned in this very weird tuning – and just ‘computered’… he just played along with it! Without re-tuning the guitar and, got everything right you know, I thought: ‘Wow, that’s rather impressive.’ And later I talked to him about it, I said: ‘Do you know that tuning?’ he said: ‘No no, it was really difficult’. I said: ‘Why didn’t you re-tune the guitar?’ and he said: ‘Oh, I thought it was a test!’ So anyway, I was impressed by the fact that first of all he’s a very tasteful player and he’s very interested in sound; that’s what I’m interested in you know, not just in notes and chords and that sort-of thing, but in creating worlds of sound. Some of his guitar playing sounds nothing like guitar… it sounds like huge sheets of ice breaking or, enormous orchestras all playing right at the top of their instruments or something like that.
“I make Chris Martin wear gloves so he can’t play as many notes.”
“Anyway, so we worked together a bit and one day I said: ‘I need a keyboard player, can you think of any?’ and he said: ‘well I went to school with this guy called Jon Hopkins.’ Jon Hopkins came along, another sort-of genius player, who did a very very impressive thing. I thought it would be interesting for Jon to work on the Coldplay album, the last Coldplay album. So I took him out there one day and they were working on a… Chris, from Coldplay, writes songs with very full and difficult chords, he always plays with ten fingers you know; in fact one of the things I often do is say: ‘Don’t use your left hand please.’ Or I make him wear gloves so he can’t play as many notes! So he’s working on this song – 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; and 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’ hands were doing… so Chris is just doing really weird chords like that [demonstrates] and Jon goes: ‘Yeah yeah, that’s…’ So he has a very interesting ear, he’s an extraordinary player. In fact we used that… I did these concerts recently called ‘Pure Scenius’ where there’s seven people on stage. And one of the pieces – which we did in every one of the concerts, ’cos it was always such a success – is the Australian guy Chris Abrahams, playing something on the keyboard and Jon Hopkins echoes it. And gradually Chris gets more and more complex in what he’s playing and Jon echoes it. And sometime if the chord is really complicated, there’ll be a slightly longer delay in the echo before Jon works it out! And sometime he gets, sometimes, not very often, he gets one note wrong and it’s incredibly fantastic when he does; it’s like a moment of huge drama when the echo is slightly off from the original. It’s a beautiful piece that, actually; we’ve done it now six times that piece.”
What are you looking for / what touches you the most when you listen to an artist of band?
“I appreciate minimalists. So, I always like people who get big results without very much action. I think this is because… I’ve always liked minimalists actually, when I was a kid the first painter I really liked was Mondrian. It struck me as magic that someone could do something so simple as those, you know, those typical Mondrian pictures with three primary colours, that something so simple could have such an effect on me. And I was always much more impressed by that kind of magic than the people who used every trick in the book and every colour and, that didn’t seem like magic to me. You know, it’s like the way one is always impressed by magicians who can do card tricks because it’s the simplest possible format and to be able to do something new and impressive in that is somehow impressive. So I look for minimalists, um, I think I look for people who… who I sense have an obsession. Now, I think anything good comes either out of excitement or out of obsession: you don’t have to be excited to be obsessed and you don’t have to be obsessed to be excited. But you’ve got to be one or the other, or some mixture of the two, to do anything. You know one of the things that people often say to me – they’ll listen to something else and they say: ‘Oh I had that idea, years ago!’ but I always say to them: ‘But you didn’t do it did you?! He did it, not you. You weren’t obsessed enough to do it. This person was so obsessed that they actually bothered to get it done and get it finished.’ So any sign of obsession I find encouraging. And of course excitement: there are some people who never cease to be thrilled by the fact that they’re playing music, they’re still playing music. You know, you watch Tony Allen he’s seventy now, seventy years old – the greatest living drummer as far as I’m concerned – and he still sits down at the kit, and you still get the feeling that this is the first time he’s ever done it, and he’s so thrilled by it.”
“As for talent, that’s not so important. In the sense of, physical, kind of physical skill type, virtuosity. That’s not so important, but it’s useful.”
“You watch Tony Allen he’s seventy now, seventy years old – the greatest living drummer as far as I’m concerned – and he still sits down at the kit, and you still get the feeling that this is the first time he’s ever done it, and he’s so thrilled by it.”
“Yeah the talent part is not so important. To give you an example, I think Tina Weymouth was one of the great bass players, but she isn’t on any normal standard a good bass player. You know if you asked her to play a line from some Bootsy Collins song or something, she probably couldn’t do it, but she just did something that worked so well for that band… Well the same is true of Adam actually, in U2. You can’t imagine U2 without Adam; you simply couldn’t imagine that band. But he’s not in the sort-of typical sense ‘a good bass player’, he’s just exactly the right bass player for that band. Ringo Starr is another one actually, you know he’s not a great drummer, but you can’t imagine the music without him. So pop music is different from classical music: in that sense that the best musician isn’t necessarily the right musician for the job. Well another great example of course is Maureen Tucker from The Velvet Underground, who, as a drummer is laughable! I mean, I’m as good as her – as a drummer. But, um, absolutely revolutionary to have a rock band with a drummer who only plays one drum at a time, as she often did.
Are you still doing music now for the same reasons than when you started in the late seventies ?
“I think so, yes. I mean, of course it’s my job so sometimes when I have not got a single idea in my head I go into that room and start working; because I think: well I’m never going to get anywhere unless I go through the boring part. And, it’s often boring at the beginning – nothing much going on – and you think: Jesus, why am I still doing this? Why don’t I retire and cruise ’round the world or start collecting butterflies or… all the other things you could be doing. But, 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. I often think of… for instance recently I’ve been working on a whole new body of music and poetry, mixed; and to me, I listen to that and I think: this is so amazing! Why isn’t there tons of this in the world? Why isn’t everybody doing this, it’s such a good idea! 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, you know, 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 release 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.”
“This is what I thought, you know, when I started making ambient music; I thought it was just the most obvious idea.”
On the future of music:
“Yeah. Yes, it’s like people always say Brazil is the future of… society and the Brazilians say: ‘Yeah, we’re always the future, what about now?!’ So, no I just think there’s such a lot to be learned from a player like that because he tied together so many different strands of music – they’re all tied together in what he does. I mean there are other great musicians as well, I’m not saying that it’s all down to Tony Allen, but I think just using him as a kind of bit of exotic icing on top of the project is not the right thing to do. He’s the heartbeat, you know.
“China: I think that’s really interesting to see whether that will feed back to us. What’s the name of that Chinese girl who’s just sold 92 million albums or something?! Oh yes, her name is Tuu Lyn or something like that. Her mother had a Chinese restaurant – somewhere in England, I think – she was the waitress and she started writing songs and then went back to China to release them and she absolutely enormous now. She sells literally tens of millions of albums now. See if you can find out her name. Her music is very sophisticated, very good actually; and it’s sort-of like Chinese R&B. So it has all the very high production values, really well crafted and put together, except it’s sung in Chinese! And she um, she has lots of clever codes in her… For instance, her first album, the titles of the songs: the first song has one character, the second song has two characters, the third one has three, and so on. So there’s a lot of playing around with language and so on in her stuff; I think it’s clever. Clever stuff.”