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

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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