Brian Eno: “How can Alastair Campbell have a TV career?”

From Roxy Music to Coldplay - the many faces of Brian Eno.

The toilets of the famous are centres of great significance. Liz Taylor was so used to guests snooping in hers, she filled the bathroom cabinet with her perfume products. Brian Eno actually tells you what to look at: The Little Book of Perfumes by Luca Turin, which sits next to David Tammet’s Thinking In Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives. On the back of the door there’s sign pulled from a newsstand in Norfolk bearing a headline from the local paper: “Mystery Of The Sea Solved”. Eno’s lav, like Duchamp’s, is a kind of absurdist piece.    

On one side of his west London studio hangs a punchbag, and on the other is his artwork 77 Million Paintings, a moving digital portrait comprised of four screens, each with its own computer, selecting at random from thousands of photos and drawings and superimposing them in an ever-changing sequence that looks a bit like stained glass or something by Piet Mondrian. “You end up liking a particular picture but you’ll never see it again,” he says, with some relish. His manager’s friend noticed the calming effect the piece had on her mother-in-law, and now there’s one on permanent display in a Brighton hospital, complete with ambient music.

“People stay so much longer in a gallery when there’s music playing,” Eno says, “compared to silent galleries where they go up to a wall like this [he bends over and grimaces at an imaginary sign], read the writing and stare at the art for two seconds, fitting the description to the picture. It’s the most inane behaviour in the world.”

The art world bothers Eno. He started out on Roy Ascott’s famous “Groundcourse” at Ipswich Civic College in the late 1960s, a degree that encouraged a self-conscious attitude to learning via all sorts of radical techniques, including a period in the second year where you had to spend ten weeks pretending to be someone else.

Art is the only area of culture, he thinks, that is taken too seriously. “The art world has got into the habit of believing that its prices reflect its importance. The fact somebody is willing to pay a million dollars for a painting makes it Very Important, whereas a £10 pop record is seen as correspondingly unimportant. But we don’t think, for example, that a very expensive watch or sports car is an indicator of cultural value –we just think, ‘That’s what rich people buy.’ The whole enterprise is enthusiastically supported by those woeful, semi-literate drones called ‘art writers’ who ransack and reshuffle Beaujolais philosophy to confect a bubble of hot air around the work, a cloud of aggrandisement for it to float within, to get you to take it seriously despite the evidence of your senses.”

This might sound funny coming from someone who has spent much of his career exploring the grey area between art and bluff. In the 1970s Eno famously declared himself a “non-musician” but his music is treated with more reverence than pretty much any popular modern composer apart from Steve Reich. In 1972 he joined the Portsmouth Sinfonia, a comedic orchestra whose members (Michael Nyman included) had to play instruments they’d never touched before; and in 1975 he created Oblique Strategies, along with the theoretician Peter Schmidt, a series of cards printed with instructions for bands trying to navigate the creative hump in the studio: “Work at a different speed”, “Try faking it!” Countless bands have employed the Strategies but not all have made harmonious sounds.

“The reason I made the point about being a non-musician is I wanted to point out that recorded music is a different art form,” he says, chewing an almond croissant. “Everyone knows that cinema is different from theatre. We actually have three different kinds of recorded music: original performed music – the kind of thing a string quartet would do sitting in front of mikes; studioconfected music, which is Phil Spector and George Martin; and this whole new generation I called ‘animated music’, which is people in their bedrooms without a single instrument in sight, making something that you like and buy and listen to. In the 1970s, the idea that you would use tape to do something you couldn’t do on stage was considered cheating.”

He started out on “mixing desk and taperecorder” himself, of course. Eno has never been comfortable talking about his time in Roxy Music: according to legend, he danced down the King’s Road in Chelsea after he quit in 1973. He talks about a particular New York gig where, he recently discovered, Chic’s Nile Rodgers saw them play: “the crowd hated us. We were on with real, heavy, serious rock bands like Humble Pie, and we were these effete girls . . .”

Glimpses of his emotional life are carefully controlled: his 1996 diary, A Year With Swollen Appendices, reveals simple human impulses – such as the time he drank his own wee just to see what it tasted like – but generally he seems to have decided that ideas are more interesting than the personal story. In that respect, like Peter Gabriel, he is unusual among musicians from the “golden age” of rock, while his old kindred spirits David Bowie and Robert Fripp no longer do interviews at all. In an era when Bowie is held in the same reverence as Picasso, how does he feel about the move to “intellectualise” rock music?

“There was a lot of resistance to that for a long time,” he says, “because musicians were not supposed to be theoretical about what they did, they were supposed to be passionate in the Rolling Stones mould – ‘it just comes out of me, I can’t control it’. If you liked talking about it you were an egghead . . .” Does he see any of the art-world snobbery at play in the music industry? Bands with mass appeal are critically reviled where the more rarefied artists – himself included – can do no wrong.

“Well, people don’t think my production is cool,” he says (he regularly works with U2 and Coldplay, which baffles critics and clearly amuses him). “Of course, everyone thinks I do it for the money. I like working with both those bands because they are at the centre of something I’m usually at the edges of and I’m fascinated by how they handle it. Snobbery is an English disease. Even John Peel, who I regard as a great force in English music, was a total snob: there were certain things he had only disdain for. It was based on a mythical idea about what ‘sort’ of people musicians should be – so he loved Captain Beefheart and the Fall because they had that dangerous, Dadaistic quality: he demanded artists should be the sort of Épater-la-bourgeoisie type, the sort who shake you by your lapels. Sure, I don’t mind those kind of artists but it’s not the only type that’s allowed, as far as I’m concerned. Another version of snobbery is this horror about people rising above their station: you can do anything in England – you can run fucking corrupt banks but rise above your station and you will never be forgiven.”                    

Eno pops up on Question Time and Newsnight and, unlike Bono, doesn’t attract criticism for “sticking his nose” into political affairs: this is partly because he looks more like a politician than a musician, partly because he’s invariably got something eloquent to say (one recalls the various “rock star campaigners” – Alex James, John Lydon, Jarvis Cocker – who have appeared on Question Time and managed to say not very much at all). He was and is a member of the Stop The War Coalition, one of several dozen artists who put their name to the pro-Palestine campaign Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and in 2007 he spent time as youth affairs adviser for Nick Clegg.

“What worries me,” he says today, “is that I have noticed that clever people are increasingly not involved with politics. It’s uncool, it involves you with people you don’t want to meet, so we stay within our little boxes and grumble – we’re too busy with microgenomics or generative music, and a lot of contemporary intellectuals make a point of positively disavowing any engagement at all.” In 1996 he became involved with the Californian Long Now Foundation, which aims to revive a greater sense of the political and social long-term. “It always comes back to the same issue,” he says, “which is that the decisions people make depend on how far into the future they are thinking. Even in my lifetime their horizons have got shorter: it used to be the next election, then the midterm or local elections, then it went down to public opinion polls or the next TV appearance. It went right down – in the time of Alastair Campbell – to being all about the next headline. How can Alastair Campbell have a fucking television career?”

He considers the US to be completely geared towards short-termism, living in an “ever-accelerating panic about headlines. And the way they get them is by creating friction – go on to an American television show and the set-up is to try to make sparks fly. You might be a paediatrician and they’ll get some dickhead to say something that any paediatrician would disagree with like, ‘children should be kept in dark cupboards for the first five years, I really believe that and we must have a balanced discussion about it’. Getting people riled up and setting them on to each other makes good TV and politicians have to go with it because they are working at media speed. And because of the rolling news phenomenon you always have to be seen to be injecting something new into the discussion to give the impression that there is something new to say.”

As an example of long-term thinking at work Eno mentions Amir Amirani’s new film We Are Many, a documentary about the anti-war march on 15 February 2003 “which, by the way, was duplicated in 789 other cities around the world. In the Arab world, our London march, which all sprang from a tiny office in King’s Cross [Stop the War Coalition] was a hugely important moment because they saw westerners protesting against an attack on them,” he explains. “In Egypt they had a simultaneous demonstration in Tahrir Square and it was the first time the security forces had backed down. That was a real risk, for us, 15 Feb was just bloody cold weather. That London demonstration really made a difference.”             

Perhaps surprisingly, he does not tweet (“I really cannot imagine what I would want to say or hear on Twitter”). How does he feel about social media as a political tool, people having their two-penn’orth over Thatcher’s funeral on Facebook, then moving on when they’ve let off steam?

“In one sense I think that humans are evolving very quickly to be amazingly good at multitasking,” he says. “The downside is that people think that merely being involved in a conversation is the same as doing something about it. That is an illusion and it’s an illusion that governments are very happy to foster. They’re rubbing their hands – everyone thinks they’re ‘engaged’ and it doesn’t make any bloody difference. You have been seen to be commenting but you have not done anything. In a way it is better to let the steam build up.”

After our interview, Eno takes the unusual step of contacting me asking me for more questions. During our meeting, he manhandles a large Dictaphone, explaining it’s for his daughter who’s coming to interview him later today for a German magazine. Because he places it on the table between us, next to mine, I can’t help but think that for some reason he might be recording our conversation. It’s only when he asks me to change places with him that I see it’s not switched on. He is a strange mixture: a clear and consistent voice in contemporary culture who enjoys working in riddles; a big ego who doesn’t like talking about himself; a ‘non-musician’ who can name more new bands than any other musician of his generation, and a control freak who is more than willing to put himself out for you.

“77 Million Paintings” makes its New York debut this month as part of the Red Bull Music Academy. Brian Eno’s latest album, “Lux” is released on Warp Records

Driven to abstraction: the musician and composer Brian Eno photographed in 2011. Photograph: Jerome Bonnet.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.