Taking the long view on popular music

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

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

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

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