by Joshua Klein, Pitchfork Media
"Eno is a postman's son," sums up friend and frequent collaborator Daniel Lanois. "He grew up essentially in a peasant environment, but he had a brilliant mind and was able to get to his mountaintop."
"Brian Eno is someone that you don't want to sound stupid in front of, and everything he said, I was just like, 'Wow'," noted (um) Natalie Imbruglia, who recently collaborated with Eno (and Coldplay's Chris Martin) for parts of her comeback album, on the BBC.
Any way you look at it, Brian Eno is one of the preeminent producers and thinkers of our time. Hell, an extemporaneous conversation between him and scholar Richard Dawkins recently packed the house in Oxford, and Eno's as well known these days for his politics, theories, and criticism as he is for his music. Indeed, the once prolific Eno's own output has slowed considerably since the 1970s and 80s, in part due to these extracurriculars and of course thanks to his ongoing work with U2 and Coldplay, something Eno addressed-- in addition to ABBA and Phil Collins-- when he opened some of his packed schedule for a brief conversation.
Pitchfork: Before U2, you were best known for working with more eccentric acts like Talking Heads as well as your own experimental output. Is that why you initially thought Daniel Lanois would be a better fit for the band when they approached you to produce The Unforgettable Fire?
Brian Eno: I had never worked with that kind of music before, and I was not completely convinced that I would be the right person for it. I thought, well, I can handle the ideas side of it all right, but can I handle the actual traditional production side all right? I knew Dan was very good at that side of things, and very good at working with bands, getting the best out of the players and so on, so I said why not have both of us? We'll sort of overlap in some parts, but we actually sort of serve different functions as well. That was how that working relationship started. We had never actually produced anything of anybody else's before, though we had worked together quite a lot. We knew each other well, and we had some respect for each other's different talents. That seemed to me like the ideal situation. We could just do the bits we were sort of comfortable doing.
Pitchfork: The music you were known for at that time was about as far from U2's as possible. What do you think attracted the band to you?
Brian Eno: I think they were very keen on the Talking Heads stuff that I had done. I think they also, dare I say it, liked some of my music! [laughs] The main thing, actually, was that they wanted to go somewhere else. I had this phone call with Bono-- Bono is the greatest salesman of all time, you have to bear that in mind-- where I said to him, "Look, what I'm worried about is that I might change things rather unrecognizably. People might not particularly like the new you that comes out of this."
And he said, "Well, actually we want to be changed unrecognizably. We don't want to just keep repeating what we've done before." He said if we wanted to, we're on track for being a band that just does the kind of records we've done so far. He said we want to do something different from that. He said we wanted to be more-- I forget the word he used, but "cutting edge" was the meaning. I thought, okay, as long as you appreciate that there's a risk involved in that.
After that conversation was when I came up with a plan. I thought, well, I knew that Danny was a great producer, and even if nothing about the working relationship between me and the band worked out, they would still have a really good producer in him. In fact, it worked out very well.
Pitchfork: It's a much easier task to make something recognizable than it is to make something unrecognizable.
Brian Eno: Yes, well, I think very often producers are really trying to repeat things. When they hear something in the new songs that they recognize as being a bit like something that was a success on a previous record, they're inclined to encourage that. Whereas I'm always inclined to encourage things when I haven't heard anything like them before. So when I hear something-- even if it sounds quite clumsy or a little bit unformed-- that makes my ears prick up, and I go "Oh, that's new, I don't know if there's anything like that around," that's what I put my weight behind. I figure the whole of the rest of the world is putting its weight behind the other stuff, the repetition side, the recognizable side. So I sort of want to speak up for the newer stuff.
Pitchfork: Even now, U2 do not always get a lot of credit for recognizing when they need to change tack.
Brian Eno: They have made some significant turnings at various points in their career. They're actually a very experimental band, but because of the form of their music people don't recognize it. If they were some rather obscure indie band, people would probably think, "God, they're amazing, they keep coming out with completely new things!" But because they sell millions of albums, that's how it gets overlooked!
Pitchfork: There's always a catch.
Brian Eno: [laughs] Yes.
Pitchfork: In some ways, making something that's both interesting and popular is the ultimate experiment.
Brian Eno: It's surprisingly unrecognized. I find the same thing in all forms of art, things that are very popular. I think everyone's inherently snobbish. Things that are very popular are not taken seriously, because the snobbish side of one says, "Well, if everyone likes it it can't be that good." Whereas if only I and a couple of other people like it, then it must be really something special.
One of the things I love about U2-- and it's one of the things that we're constantly arguing about, the balance of this-- is that they want to take everyone with them for the ride! [laughs] They don't want to let anyone go at any point! I'm always saying, "Look, if you're going to do something new, you're going to lose a few supporters along the way." And they really fight against that. They don't want to do that. I honestly don't think it's greed. It's not lust for money or lust for power. It's the feeling that everybody's got to be at the party: we're not going to make it unapproachable to anybody. I'm sure a big part of Bono's drive comes from the times he visits nightclubs-- he does, occasionally-- and sees 18-year-old girls dancing to records that aren't U2! [laughs] And I think that really bugs him! [laughs] I'm not quoting him here, but this what I imagine he's thinking: There's a whole audience here that we're not connecting with! Why aren't we connecting with these people?! So he's quite driven, in that sense, to conquer the world, actually. [laughs]
Pitchfork: And where does he get the reputation for ego and arrogance?
Brian Eno: Well, he has an enormous ego, but so do most of the people I like. [laughs] And also a big ego isn't necessarily a bad thing. A big ego means that you have some confidence in your abilities, really, and that you're prepared to take the risk of trying them out. I really don't think he's arrogant. That's a different thing. In fact, he's absolutely, to me, the opposite of arrogant. He's very, very able, more able than almost anybody I know, to take criticism and do something with it. He just doesn't get upset. He doesn't take it as an attack on him if you say, oh, this doesn't work at all, it's really pathetic, actually. So it's possible to be very frank with him and know there's not some cowering insecurity inside him that is going to mean his feelings get hurt. His ego allows him to be humble, if you see what I mean. People who are very confident in themselves aren't hurt by criticism. They make use of it. I think he's very good at that.
As you can tell, I admire him a lot. He's attacked as a result of another kind of snobbery. We have a particular type of snobbery in England I don't think you have so much in America. Our version: Who does he think he is? The biggest crime in England is to rise above your station. It's fine to be a pop star. Oh, it's great, lots of fun, aren't they sweet, these pop stars! But to think you have anything to say about how the world should work? What arrogance! There's such a resistance to that. Recently he spoke at the Labour Party conference and at the Tory Party conference; I don't think he was there in person. To me, that's completely consistent with his mission. He's driven about his work in Africa, and wants both parties to know that there's an agenda that they should be paying attention to. It's completely consistent. It's not him being power hungry, it's him saying whoever's the next government should be taking this problem seriously.
He received so much criticism here in England, as if he is a political traitor, talking to both parties. And anyway, what right did he have, he's only a pop star! Well, I have no time for that, and I think it all comes out of some kind of awful British envy. Envy is one of the biggest motivators here. It's really heartbreaking to see it stop so much from happening.
Pitchfork: In some way you bore the brunt of similar suspicion and ire when you agreed to work with Coldplay. It even forced people to miss that you made a good record together.
Brian Eno: Well, again, there are ways of playing it safe, and for me playing it safe would be to-- since I don't really need the money-- to work with only sort of critically respectable, obscure, experimental indie bands. Everyone would say, oh, that's fine. I would be that kind of producer who does that kind of thing. But when I met Coldplay and got to know them, I so much liked those people and I so think that they really want to do something. Again, it's like U2 were. They are hungry to do something else. And they will. I'm sure they'll turn out to be a great band.
I'm old enough to remember exactly what happened to ABBA. When ABBA were around, to admit that you liked them would have condemned you to absolute coventry. No one would talk to you because you liked ABBA, because they were considered to be hopelessly pointless pop. Now, of course, everyone likes ABBA. Everyone realizes that they made some great music, and you're allowed to like them now. Kitsch is a way that posh people admit to themselves that they like things that ordinary people like. In my opinion.
Pitchfork: Curiously, ABBA was not nearly as popular in America as they were throughout Europe.
Brian Eno: That's funny. That's interesting. Well, in England and in Europe in general, they were completely popular with the people and totally unpopular with...artists. [laughs] People who were culturally aware. I can remember it very clearly, because I was part of the snobbery! I can remember really liking ABBA songs, and kind of resenting that I did! [laughs]
Pitchfork: It may just be a coincidence, but I noticed that right after you started to work with U2, your own recorded output-- at least what you released-- slowed considerably.
Brian Eno: Certainly working with other people sponges up your time enormously. It's very, very time consuming, and it's kind of idea consuming as well. What often happens is that the ideas you're thinking about anyway end up going on their records. [laughs] Then they don't seem so surprising to you anymore, so you're not that interested in doing them again. So that did happen, I think.
Pitchfork: Do you find contributing to and working with others as rewarding creatively as working on your own music, or is it something different?
Brian Eno: It's different. I often say to people that producing is the best paid form of cowardice. When you produce things you almost always get credit, if it's a good record, but you hardly ever get the blame if it's not! You don't really take responsibility for your work. It's the band who takes responsibility for the work, and taking responsibility for what you do is a very important part of what you do. Living with what you've done, and living with the consequences, is a big part of the deal, I think. Otherwise, why release something? I think when you release something and you put your reputation behind it, you actually finish the work. That's when it's finished. It's finished when it no longer belongs to you. You see it out there with everything else, and you see how it stands, and how it lasts, how people make fun of it or how they adore it. And of course, if it isn't your record, at least if it isn't your name on it in the same way as it would be on your own work, you don't get the benefit of that end of the process.
Pitchfork: Obviously the music you've made has been very influential, but it's tough to name people who are clearly "Brian Eno influenced."
Brian Eno: I don't know. A lot of people tell me they are, but they might be making it up! [laughs] I think if there is an influence, it's not in terms of style so much but in terms of approach to working. For instance, some quite odd people have said, either in interviews or directly to me, that they were influenced by me. Prince, for example, said Another Green World was a very important record for him, apparently, in an interview. I've never met him, so I don't have this from his own mouth, but it was in an interview. Now, that's rather surprising! Hank Shocklee, from Public Enemy, said that their whole thing really started with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. So that's a very surprising connection, I think. Another very surprising one is Phil Collins! He worked with me in the 70s, and he said it was then that he understood that he could make records himself. He'd always been in a band before, but I always went into a studio with nothing, really, and just kind of made something up there and then. He said he'd never seen anyone work that way, and it really started his solo career. He always thanks me for that.
Pitchfork: That's almost a backhanded complement. "If he can do that, anyone can do that!"
Brian Eno: [laughs] I suppose what it is is that some people have paid attention to the way in which I've worked, or the approach to using the studio, if you like, or the approach to using musical materials that are around. I prefer that kind of influence, really. I don't particularly want loads of copies of me around.
Pitchfork: When you have a band like U2 or Coldplay, in theory they can do whatever they want. They're popular, they're wealthy, that should afford one complete freedom. But there are imposed limitations of stardom.
Brian Eno: Yes, though funnily enough that doesn't produce such a strong effect as you would think in the studio. What I think produces a strong effect is the feeling of not wanting to disappoint people. Because one thing you are aware of when you're very popular is how much stock people put in your work. You know that there are 11-year-olds who are saving up to buy your record. [laughs] Though that's probably not true anymore.
Pitchfork: They're probably saving up for a new computer.
Brian Eno: [laughs] But it means that if you want to do something indulgent, just to please yourself, you risk really disappointing someone. I think often that's a big part of how people think. They're thinking there are people to whom these decisions really matter. We shouldn't take them lightly.
Pitchfork: Over the years you've expressed your fondness for African music, and in particular northern African and Arabic music, yet those are elements that rarely explicitly manifest themselves in the music you work on, and especially not in bands like U2 or Coldplay.
Brian Eno: You know what? It's very funny, because on the last U2 album we spent time in North Africa, recording.
Pitchfork: In Morocco, right?
Brian Eno: In Morocco. And the reason none of that really appeared on the record, even though we did quite a lot of stuff there, was because it sounded kind of synthetic. It sounded kind of like "world music" add-on. I'm sure it would have got a few people saying, oh, how interesting, they've broken out into North African music, but actually it just didn't sound convincing. We were very impressed by the music while we were there, but there was no realistic or emotionally satisfying way of marrying it using the music that we were doing, so in the end not very much of it at all showed through. But influences aren't always in terms of sound. As I was saying earlier, they're in terms of how you approach music and what you use it for. I think that was picked up, and it was absorbed.
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