Bringing art to rock, inviting ambience into albums and cultivating the image of stern boffinhood: Colin Marshall talks to David Sheppard, author of On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno

David Sheppard is the author of On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno, the first and only biography of rock music's foremost intellectual “non-musician,” producer and cultural theorist. The book covers Eno's early life growing up in England listening to early soul records, his formative period in art school, his entrance into the public eye as the synthesizer player with Roxy Music and his career's subsequent fragmentation across the cultural landscape, into the realms of visual art, ambient music, record production (for the likes of U2, David Bowie, Talking Heads and Coldplay), writing and futurology. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]

Sheppard1 This is a question coming from one Brian Fan to another, and it's one I've always had difficulty with: what is the concise answer that you give — say, when you were working on the book and they asked you want it was about and they didn't know who Brian Eno was, so they asked “Who's Brian Eno?”, what did you say?

I've yet to come up with the pat sentence that actually answers that, as indeed has Brian. I mention in the intro to the book that he got so fed up with trying to answer that question at dinner parties, explaining this enormously complex dilettante artist, cultural theorist, etc., etc. job description that he instead just said he was an accountant, which made people go away very, very quickly.

How did your own history with the enjoyment of Brian Eno's work begin? What was your introduction to him?

I came across him as a sort of callow youth, listening to punk rock records. He got all the mentions in the margins. I was aware of him in Roxy Music, but I was a bit too young for that, so it was a kind of ethereal presence initially. He got mentioned in dispatches by all sorts of people in punk rock. When I first got to hear his music, which in any serious capacity would have been about '78, what I heard sounded nothing like what I expected. I expected something far more severe and metallic.

Obviously I knew things like Low, the David Bowie record he'd worked on, and I'd never really associated his involvement in those records with the more calm and ethereal elements. Somehow I imagined him to be more Velvet Underground and less lift music to be honest, when I first heard ambient music I, like many others, didn't fall immediately in love with it. I did think it was rather bland.

My initial reaction to Brian Eno was one of disappointment one which quickly turned around. Something happened very shortly after that. I think it was just part of my growing up, actually. A light went on somehow, and it all suddenly made enormous sense. The more I investigated it, the more sense it made.

You mention this intro was in the late seventies, when Brian was in the process of inventing and releasing the first ambient albums. For those in the audience who might not know, how did Brian enter the public eye? What things was he first famous for?

His introduction to the masses would have been through playing synthesizers with Roxy Music, certainly in the U.K. This was this very strange pop group, even for a time of very strange pop groups. Bryan Ferry was the lead singer and Brian Eno was this guy, a self-confessed non-musician, who played synthesizers and actually played a lot of the instruments in the band, more traditional, guitars and so forth, and filtered them through his electronic effects. This was a revolutionary thing to be seen in pop music in 1972, which is when they struck. They went swiftly to the top of the British charts. I think they took a bit longer to penetrate America.

That would've been Eno's calling card to the world, but he was only actually with Roxy Music for two albums. By 1973, he was off on his own. He'd fallen out with Brian Eno with, uh, Bryan Ferry, rather, the singer. Probably less confusing with two Brians in the band, for one thing, but they had a conflict of interest over where the band was going. Bryan Ferry, I think, was always looking to be a more orthodox pop star, and was moving in that direction. Eno comes from an art school background, and wanted to pursue music that reflected that more. Ultimately, that's when he struck out on his own. But it would've been Roxy Music that first awakened the world to Brian Eno.

And during this era, the early seventies, with Eno in Roxy Music and gaining some acclaim there, how much of what Brian Eno would become and what he's regarded as today — we can't even describe concisely how much he does, how he thinks — how much of this was visible in this early iteration of Brian Eno?

Our inability to nail down what he does there was evidence of that early on. People weren't quite sure what this guy was doing. First of all, he was a very bizarre visual spectacle, even in the time of glittery clothes and glam rock outfits. This slightly balding but long silver-haired guy wearing clothes that looked more at home in a Flash Gordon movie, he was playing this synthesizer but not actually playing a keyboard, in the orthodox sense. It was very hard to figure out what he was doing. Even his fans weren't entirely sure.

Part of his appeal was that he seemed to be a very kind of alien presence, both physically and in what he was doing. It was slightly unquantifiable and very exotic. That was the key thing. I think what he later became, which was slightly unquantifiable and always somewhat exotic, was there right from the get-go.

This is a man who occasionally relished referring to himself as a non-musician. What, in your best music journalist's way, would you say he was actually doing in Roxy Music?

I think it's slightly disingenuous of him to describe himself, at any point in his career, as a non-musician. He grew up with musicians, in a musical household. His background is quite musical, but he never had a formal musical education, and he never actually stuck to an instrument. That's one of the accusations of dilettanteism coming with Brian, which is that he never really learned proper chords. But he can play a tune, and in fact he always had a gift for melody as much as he had a gift for texture and providing a kind of sonic envelope for other music.

What he was actually doing in Roxy Music was treating instruments, so the electric guitar, rather than just going through an amplifier in the traditional sense, would first be routed through his synthesizer, which was essentially just a device for modulating sound in different ways: changing the pitch, the shape of the sound, et cetera, et cetera, vibrating it, wobbling it. What you'd end up with was a semi-recognizable sound, like the sound of a rock electric guitar, but given this patina of weirdness by Brian's instrument. What he was actually doing was not applying a musical strategy to the music as such, certainly not in any formal sense. What he was doing was a sonic thing.

It was actually what happens in recording studios much more commonly now, which is that you take a root sound, whether an acoustic or an electric sound, and then you filter it and process it quite heavily to change it into something more expansive, more colorful, more vivid, bigger. So what Brian was doing then was prefiguring his production work, in a sense, but he was often doing that live on stage. Obviously it was slightly flying by the seat of his pants approach it didn't always work, I don't think but as he went on and as he worked his way into the producer's chair later on for other people, he started applying some of these same processing and modifying techniques to the recording studio. I think that's the root of his other fame, which is that of a top international record producer.

Sheppard3 Your book covers the personality clash between Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno that would ultimately get Eno out of the band, but the question remains: why would a fellow like Bryan Ferry, very much a classic pop star, want, in the first place, an Eno running his voice through a VCS-3?

Ferry was the most resistant to any of Eno's effects, and I think the voice rarely if ever was subject to Eno's arsenal. It was usually the guitar and Andy Mackay's saxophone and oboes. Sometimes the drums. Sometimes Bryan's keyboards he played electric piano often. Not so much the voice in the end, but I think what you're hinting at is correct: Eno's tendency to exaggerate and foreground these production gimmicks for want of a better word, but that's how Ferry perhaps began to see them he found in conflict with his own classicist direction. Very soon he was recording an album of cover versions of Noel Coward, et cetera, so that's a very different trajectory to what Eno was on.

He allowed him in the band because, in the beginning, it was fantastic, it was novel the synthesizer was a new tool in the rock armory, and I think it was genuinely exotic. Like Eno, Ferry comes from an art school background, and I think there was that element of genuine creative expression which Eno embodied, and I think for a while that was an asset for Bryan Ferry. But after a short while, it became a challenge.

When Brian Eno did part ways from Roxy Music — I was never quite sure about the chronology of this, though you do cover the details well in your book — Eno both starts a solo career with vocal songs, and of course has (No Pussyfooting) with Robert Fripp. What was begun first? What was the release order, or the work order?

(No Pussyfooting) was first. Roxy Music, in their initial pomp, were on quite a heavy tour schedule for most of '72 and early '73 particularly, all over Europe and all over the U.K. several times. They were basically just promoting their hits. But there was a hiatus, I think in September of '72, when Ferry had tonsillitis. They had to cancel some shows. During that period, Eno started making some experiments at home. He was addicted to the reel-to-reel tape recorder and what you could do with sound. He had a couple of these in his London flat, and he invited a couple people over, one of whom was Robert Fripp, the guitarist in King Crimson. They shared management.

Eno befriended Fripp. He was also quite a maverick musician, obviously, absolutely a virtuoso where Eno was not. But they had a lot in common in terms of their approach to music, even if they came at it with different skills. I think after consuming a bottle of wine very quickly, they started playing around with Eno's tape recorders. This delay system he'd created by feeding tape in and out of two tape recorders into a continuous, perpetual loop, over which the virtuoso Fripp would then improvise. They just made these two very long pieces which became the basis, if not the completed thing, of a record, (No Pussyfooting).

But this was just an experiment. However, Eno then went back to touring, having first spoken to a couple journalists about this collaboration with Robert Fripp. Of course, journalists being what they are as I know only too well they took this little crumb of information and turned it into a Eno-and-Fripp project. As the relationship between Ferry and Eno was beginning to become rather fraught, and public knowledge of this was starting to creep out, in the end (No Pussyfooting) was just another arrow against Eno as far as Ferry was concerned, because it sounded like he was stealing the thunder a little bit in yet another way.

Here Come the Warm Jets, the first song album that Eno produced, was made in the late summer of '73, just a couple of months after he'd left Roxy Music. That was the beginning of that phase, although he had tried to make a couple of stabs at a single before that, with Andy Mackay, a pop single which didn't really come to anything. The sessions dribbled out. In the end, he had (No Pussyfooting) ready for release, but nobody saw that at the time as… it was very experimental, just these two long pieces of looped sound. Nobody gave that any kind of credence as the beginning of a long and sustained career in rock or pop music. The management company and Island Records persuaded him that he needed to do a more orthodox song record, and that was Here Come the Warm Jets.

You say that was a bit too experimental to be taken as the harbinger of a long, fruitful career. But I've heard Eno's early solo albums, of course, as well. How normal, in the context of the times they were released, did those even sound?

That's right. Time tends to modify revolutions in music, when you listen back. Sometimes you have to imagine them in context. Although it's a relatively orthodox record compared to something like (No Pussyfooting) or even the things that Eno did in subsequent decades, it is a very odd record. It still remains curious. It's an odd mixture of straight-ahead rock-and-roll tropes and this otherness which is already there. In a sense, the harbinger of ambient music is there even in this early stuff, a lot of which is quite pounding and quite attritional and owes a lot to the Velvet Underground at their most primal. That's a big influence.

But there's another element which is hard to quantify. There's a kind of ghostly shimmer that's to do with this overly processed sound which he was really exploring at the same time. In fact, it's kind of overproduced, that record, in a weird way. It feels like there are too many instruments on a lot of it. It's really straining for ideas, and I think that's something Eno subsequently would be happy to admit. But you can feel there's a sort of bravura quality to it as well. It's really steeped in that sense of “This has really got to be something special, but it's also got to be my version of something special.” That's what it always feels like to me. It's like an art student's degree show, when they're trying to show all the tricks they've got, and all the potential they've got, at once. It sometimes makes a very disconcerting thing to take in in one take. It's a very mixed bag, but somehow he does pull it off.

He was helped to have a great producer great musicians as well. You can feel the enthusiasm of it more than you can feel the dexterity that comes in on later records. At the time, a lot of people compared it to Roxy Music, obviously, because he'd just left. It was quite favorably compared to Roxy Music, but they were also still seen at that point as being relatively odd, fairly eccentric in their choice of instrumentation and so forth. Lyrically, Here Come the Warm Jets is odd as well. He wrote most of those lyrics phonetically; they were just sounds designed to fit with the backing tracks, which he'd written sort of on the hoof, a lot with Phil Manzanera of Roxy music. So you have this very strange, surrealist, cut-up nonsense verse which isn't quite nonsense, actually. It goes to give the whole thing this otherworldly quality and reflects the music.

People picked that up at the time. Reviewers did find that part of strange. The fact also was strange that Eno was talking up lead vocals, because although he'd sung a number of backing things in Roxy Music, it was always a very secondary tool in his armory. Suddenly, he was the frontman. There was a lot of spotlight on that record. It had to do well, or that would've probably been curtains for his career as a musician. It did do quite well, so it was worth going out on a limb, clearly.

Sheppard4 When you listen to these seventies albums from Eno in sequence — Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, Before and After Science — what do you personally hear evolving through that decade?

What I hear is the sound of rock music being slowly exorcised and an interest in what's left being brought to the foreground. It's a process that Eno acknowledges. He started to become interested in things like backing vocals and treatments on instruments even as a very young music fan listening to doo-wop records and early soul records. I think this is a process that went on a long time and actually resulted, to a large degree, in ambient music. The process whereby things like the foreground of a traditional rock or pop record, chordal guitar or keyboards and rhythm section, is decorated with these other elements, these melodies, harmonies, backing vocals and string lines or keyboard lines that are much less statement-like and much more ethereal — his interest was “What would happen if we only had those elements and not so much of the primary-color stuff at the foreground?”

Over the course of the first three solo records, that process is palpable. By the time of Another Green World, you have got these sort of tone poems. They do feel like pieces where something has been removed, in a minimalist sense. A very painterly approach, scrubbing away the foreground color to reveal the key elements. How few elements do you need to make a statement? By the time of Another Green World, which I still think is my favorite seventies Eno record if not my favorite of all his records, it's wonderful because it captures that moment where the urgency and the melodic vividness of his early records is still there, but it's now been set in a much more stark and very much more beautiful context. It's a beautiful sort of abstracted idea of rock music, and it's really a timeless thing. It holds up today incredibly well; it doesn't really sound like music of its time, where the preceding two records are somewhat shackled to early-seventies tropes.

That's the process I hear, and I think it's one he did then take further on Before and After Science. It's still exploring the same kind of territory, even though perhaps it's not so much of an evolutionary record. But the ambient records that followed very swiftly after are the logical next step from Another Green World.

The ambient music — we mentioned earlier that you heard that and were disappointed by it. What was the first ambient record from Eno you heard?

The first thing I heard was Music for Airports.

That was released what year?

I know it was recorded in '78. I think it was released in 1980. That's definitely the first ambient record I'd heard, and I just remember — I wasn't actually aware who it was — hearing that piano figure in the first tracks, played by Robert Wyatt, actually. It's very, very, very memorable. I think it's a six-note tune, but it's incredibly evocative and it's set against these looped voiced. Again, it's very hard to hear this music now and appreciate the unusualness of it in a turn-of-the-eighties context. In fact, that very same piece of music is being used on British TV at the moment as a linking piece of music during the Wimbledon coverage, would you believe.

It come around; it's become this background music that's acceptable now, but it had a kind of exotic allure when I first heard it because, yes, it sounded like it owed something to muzak, environmental music of some kind, yet it had a slightly stranger quality. Very hard to pin down. But it's very immersive, and you feel like you really want to just pay attention to it and at the same time, it can be background music. That's a very, very hard trick to pull off, but that's kind of the definition of it. I was instantly hooked by that in a way I wasn't hooked by when I'd first heard the earlier stuff.

You quote Eno several times in the book talking about the idea of process versus product and what's more important. How much would you say it's necessary, as a modern listener, to appreciate the Eno processes to appreciate the Eno products, if that makes any sense?

That makes perfect sense. There's this kind of reductio ad absurdum you can have with Brian Eno that's been applied many times. He's a kind of boffin, and you only get his music if you're also some kind of geek. I tried to put that to the sword in the book, because part of the appeal of Brian Eno is that he's actually a supreme melodist. This comes, I think, from listening to lots and lots of pop music but not trying to make pop music. He's kind of imbued with this sense of melody.

If you just went by the descriptions of certain rock journalists and certain other journalists and certain other so-called arbiters, if you just looked at this very dry, scientific-sounding description of how these records are made and what these records are “supposed” to invoke or evoke, you find it very forbidding and be much happier listening to lots of other things. Actually, when you hear the music, it's incredibly melodically rewarding, and it's textural and immersive and it's often incredibly beautiful. Something he said to me was that if he doesn't like something on a very basic level, he doesn't release it. That really tells you all you need to know on the process-versus-product argument. Basically, if it doesn't float his boat on a visceral level, it hasn't succeeded. Yes, earlier on, he's coming from an art school background where, often, process is all, and I think he went through a period of that. But I don't think you can apply that to any of the music that he's made… generally, it's wrong to apply that.

There are instances, perhaps, where you could pick out certain things. Certainly with the ambient music, one or two of those earlier pieces he stumbled upon; I think they were made by tape-looping and slowing the tape down by accident and suddenly coming across “Wow! That's a really beautiful sound!” In a sense, it's as much happenstance as it is process. One of the chapters of the book is about accident and about how you prepare for an accident, and I think that's one of his skills. One of the things he's done is always create a recording environment where accidents are allowed to happen, happy accidents.

He's always had that brilliantly pliant mind, which a lot of musical auteurs don't have. “Oh, if it's going that way, I'm going to follow, I'm going to conclude that way, because that's the path of least resistance,” rather than having this pre-composed idea for a destiny for a piece of music, and “it must be like this, and it's an expression of my soul.” He's always argued against that. He likes accidents and he likes things that have a kind of surface appeal. All of which does rather contradict his public image as this stern, austere boffin, which I think I've gone to some pains to undermine.

Indeed. This concept of being able to use accidents — one of my favorite quotes of his, “Luck is being ready,” you lead a chapter with in your book. How much of what he brought to the producer's chair, to the mixing board when he was working in the eighties with the very high-profile U2 or Talking Heads, was essentially as a facilitator of the usefulness of accidents?

It was more germane to his work with David Bowie in the late seventies. Those two really came together having a similar approach. Bowie had written lyrics by cutting them up in a William Burroughs-derived style. They really coalesced on that, and on those three records they made together, Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. I think Lodger was going to be called Happy Accidents at one point. This was really what drove those records, and also the deployment of Oblique Strategies, these cards that Eno and the artists Peter Schmidt had worked up, a set of cards with random instructions to do something like “Forget the edges and concentrate on the middle” and various aphorisms of this nature designed to unlock creative blockages, to create these accidents.

That was when it was really in its pomp, the accidental approach, but I think it was still there in Talking Heads. There was a certain amount of just trying things through different pieces of equipment, filtering things, recording things in different rooms. It brought it down to a much more pragmatic he's always been about praxis, I think, Brian Eno. If people aren't prepared to go the whole hog, then he'll find a way to use that approach that frees something up in the group. I think with U2, in a way, the whole thing was a potential accident, bringing this very orthodox rock band under the auspices of the process magician, if you like. He applied a certain amount of little sonic tricks, little recording tricks: “Let's put the amplifier outside, in the open air, and record it there, see what that does,” lots of different ways of just upsetting enough the everyday meat-and-potatoes recording approach to make everything have that kind of slightly altered state.

Like with Roxy Music, with U2, I think you get an eighties rock band with a patina of something otherwordly, something other, which doesn't sound like other groups of the eighties, even though a lot of groups were using processed sound. There's still something very particular about the result of that particular marriage. I think the accidents went on long after the things were in neon saying “This is going to be an accident.”

Sheppard5 What has always struck me as somewhat unexpected is that — we talked about the Bowie albums Eno worked on, and then we talked about the U2 albums Eno produced — it seems like the Bowie albums were not hugely successful, though they're now well respected, but with U2, those albums were the huge successes. Both had Eno influencing them strongly. What's the difference?

The difference is perhaps to do with a perception, on one part, by the record companies. When Eno was signed up to work with Bowie, Bowie was at quite a low point the album's called Low. But I think he was actually at a bit of a creative nadir, and he was recovering from drug problems and a failed marriage and all that. Getting Brian in was, I don't think, ever designed to make hit records. I think it was designed to say “If I want to revive my musical muscle, my libido needs to be re-pumped here.” I think Brian was brought in purely on an artistic basis: “This guy does strange things, and I want some of that.” That went on throughout the three records they made together in the seventies. RCA hated Low when Bowie delivered it, mainly because half of it was instrumental. That's obviously something which came very much from Eno. They thought “Well, we're never going to sell this,” so they didn't promote it.

Low was just shuffled out into the world. I think they were very reticent about releasing the singles from it, all of which were hits. They were wrong. Of course, that changed a bit with “Heroes”; they realized the error of their ways. “Heroes” was a more successful record, and the title track was a hit, certainly in this country, and I'm sure it was a hit in America too, but not a massive hit. It wasn't a U2-sized phenomenon; you're quite right there. But, remember, those records were actually produced by Tony Visconti. They weren't actually produced by Brian Eno. He was merely a kind of sub-producer, half-producer, half-musician. He wasn't on all of the tracks, and he wasn't where when the vocals were done on the first two. On Lodger, he was a bit more hands-on.

But when it came to U2, he came Daniel Lanois as his assistant, and Daniel looked after the more mundane elements of recording, the more technical elements, and Brian was then in his element to just sort of conduct. That's essentially the difference between the roles. Also, U2 were a band ascendant, even though they were looking for a direction. Bowie had already had his first flush of success, quite a sustained one. He was a bit older, too; U2 were still pretty young and still looking to conquer the world.

Sheppard6 As we get into the eighties and the nineties, it's hard to avoid talking about the return to visual art Eno gets into. His first aim was to be a painter; that's what got him into art school, as I recall. What did you see, examining his career in the eighties and nineties, doing more installations, doing more visual stuff, doing video paintings that you could draw a thread through? What comparisons could you make from what he was doing musically to what he was doing visually?

He was certainly exploring chance in visual art. My personal opinion is that his visual art rarely stands up to the music. It's almost like he was looking for something… when he got to the end of a process which was, by the end of the ambient records, he'd taken something that he'd began to glean in art school, which is that he was trying to become a painter but then quickly threw that over, because he saw there was much more experimentation in left-field music, especially in the outer reaches of classical music, which he stumbled upon as an art student.

That process began there, and it kind of ended with the end of the ambient period in the early mid-eighties. That's when he started rediscovering his visual art, and I think he was looking to find a new process, but I don't think he ever really found it. I don't find his visual work as alluring or as surprising as his music has been. Yes, there are certainly chance elements in it, there are also environmental elements, he's certainly very keen on creating an ambient art, but he would always combine that with music. In the end, it felt to me like… it wasn't a cop-out, it was an attempt to translate an auditory sensation into a visual one, which was odd because a lot of times ambient music was described as “very like a Rothko painting.”

It was kind of a cycle. I don't think it ever really quite achieved the same height. They're often very beautiful things, but somewhat shallow, I think. The visual art never seems to quite have the same visceral appeal as the music, whereby you can understand the process, you can enjoy almost the revolutionary lack of familiarity about the thing, but at the same time you can be seduced by it. But a lot of his visual art, I find, you can appreciate it, you can admire it, but it's very hard to love.

In Eno's career, we've got this visual art, we've got his own music, we've got his production work, we've got his writing and speaking, a whole a variety of different things. As we've said, this guy has a career that is difficult even to encapsulate. He's said many times, and I believe you quote him as saying it at least once in the book, that he happens to be from England, and in England, you're a little more likely to get tarred with the dilettante label, or get called the “master of nothing.” How much did that condition actually obtain — is he right about England in that way — and does it still?

For some reason, there is an inherent skepticism. It's possibly linked to the class system, which still obtains in this country, despite everyone I know's best efforts. It's still very much linked in with status and where you are in life. There's always been this skepticism of people who do too much. People somehow like to pigeonhole you in this country: “That's what he does. He's the go-to guy for that.” And if you become the go-to guy for that, but “Oh, he's over there, he's also doing something different,” that seems to upset people in a quite illogical way. “Jack of all trades, master of none” is the phrase which gets applied. I try to make the point in the book that it's perhaps just a semantic thing. You could also say “renaissance man” or “polymath,” and that tends to get applied to people who aren't British. I'm sure that Albert Einstein, people would be a little bit dubious if he'd been English, and they'd found out he'd actually liked to paint. I think Winston Churchill, there was some skepticism about the fact that he was painting when he should've been running the war.

This does still obtain to some degree. Was it true with Eno? Yes, I think he was dismissed; because he was this self-proclaimed “non-musician,” people thought there was an element of charlatanism there. When Eno became this very didactic figure, this almost professorial cultural theorist, often on the TV, often in newspapers, very familiar media figure, relatively erudite, some people, certainly older fans, would then look back at thus guy who fiddled with synthesizers and couldn't really play properly. “How believable is this? When did he suddenly gain the credentials to become this talking head, this cultural mouthpiece?”

That did linger on, and perhaps it does still linger in some spheres now. Eno's spread so widely now that it's almost ridiculous to even entertain this notion. He has clearly done a lot of stuff, and he's got the material proof that he was able to do it with some degree of success. But now he's in poltics, he's a newspaper columnist sometimes, he's still producing records for big-name pop groups, rock groups, he sometimes will turn up in comedy shows as a bit player… you just don't know when he's going to pop up next. I think he probably just laughs at it, really, but I think one man's dilettante is another man's renaissance man.

By what process did capturing this mulitfaceted, hard-to-describe career, capturing it in a single book, become your task?

It came from thinking “Why isn't there a book about Brian Eno?” It was really as dumb as that. And there were several books: one was a PhD, a fantastic book, but it's a musicological study of Eno, essentially. There'd been a very slim Italian book. Of course, there'd been books in which he's featured, and his own books. But I just thought “I want to read this book, and if no one else is going to write it, I'm going to have to do it,” which sounds a bit self-aggrandizing, but I didn't know if I could do it, on a number of levels, having come to that conclusion. I then had to sound out the idea, find an agent and a publisher, and, of course, run it by lots of people, including Brian, to see if it was feasible. Once the green light for doing it was sort of there, I was then faced with
I think it's something I describe book: his life is like folding down a skyscraper into a briefcase. There's so much, you'd have to have ten volumes if you wanted to cover everything in detail. He's got lots of lives.

What I wanted to do was write a book that, as you alluded to very early on in our talk, lots of people know the name Brian Eno, but they don't really know much about him, or they know one facet of him. I wanted a book where somebody could read it who knew one facet of him say, as an ambient musician, most obviously and they could read it and say “Oh, I didn't realize he also did that thing with Talking Heads, and he also made perfume. I didn't know that. Oh, he also has a theory of cake decoration and he's quite interested in various theories of futurism and science.” So all those people wouldn't be disappointed, but at the same time it wasn't so eclectic that it was just scattershot. It had to have a core. I'm a musician and a music writer, so that was my central issue. That was a way of containing it, I suppose, but I wanted it always to reflect the fact that it was a multifaceted guy here.

Since Eno's a man who seems to oscillate between being reluctant to be talked to and garrulous and ready to talk to any journalist about his theories, what was his reaction to the looming prospect of a biography being written about him?

His first reaction was bashfulness. He was very sort of “I'm not sure, I'm not sure, I'm not sure,” and there was a long silence. In fact, I'd sort of already started writing the book before I ever got his green light. When I did, it was clear that he was never going to sit down with me for days and days and regurgitate lots of picaresque stories of being on the road with Bryan Ferry. That was never going to happen. I knew that. That was okay. All I needed from him was a certain amount of narrative and a certain amount of confirmation of facts, which he was very, very good at, and his general imprimatur for the thing, which he gave.

I had interviewed him before, and we had met on a couple of occasions. He knew me, he knew about me, but I wasn't someone he was regularly going to dinner with from the realm of music journalism, if he ever does such a thing. It wasn't “Let's do a biography on my friend Brian.” It was much more dispassionate than that. As he said to me, he doesn't really do looking back. That's not really the first thing you associate with Brian Eno. One of the descriptions of him is as a futurologist: he's interested in what can happen in the future. That's kind of the definition of what he does. To go over old ground endlessly was anathema, I think, so I had to find a way to make him take part, but at the same time not alienate him from the process. It was basically trying to involve him as much as I wanted, but without putting him off the whole thing, which was a delicate balance.

Eno2 Reading the book, it's clear you've spoken to many people around Eno as well as Eno himself. How wide a variance opinion about the man did you find in those associated with him?

That's a very good question. You'd often find, even when 90 percent of their opinions of Brian were incredibly supportive and wonderfully positive, there'd be a little element of… ambiguity, maybe, about one or two things. Generally, I talked to people who he'd worked with, who he'd been taught by or befriended or had achieved something with. You always have an element of vested interest when you're talking to those people, so you have to claw that bit away. When you do that, everyone has a story about the guy where he suddenly disappears from their lives for a bit. Because he's always off, he's always doing the next thing, and you can tell without naming names, there were one or two people who thought, “Well, I wish he'd kept in touch!”

That was about as bad as it got, which is not bad for a guy who's touched so many lives. The only one who doubts is Gavin Bryars, an English composer whose life overlapped with Brian's quite a lot in the late sixties and seventies, who I assumed would be very supportive, had a lot of good things to say about him, particularly as a guy who organized recordings and so forth on a practical level, but he was rather skeptical about Brian's ability as a musician. This goes back to the earlier point about skepticism of the dilettante. Gavin Bryars is an academy-educated English composer able to play a number of instruments with great dexterity. I think he still retained that skepticism about Eno's ability as a musician, and that came through.

There were a range of opinions. Obviously I spoke to his first wife, who he married when he was very young, expecting perhaps there would be a level of criticism. I was surprised she even agreed she took some tracking down — to speak to me, but she did. She had only good things to say, which was quite charming, actually.

I'm surprised there isn't more resentment on the part of musicians who are highly trained, say, a Robert Fripp — he's such a virtuoso that you'd think he would have something unkind to say about how Brian has made it to such a degree. But no. He seemed to be very supportive of him.

With Fripp, you've got to realize that he worked with King Crimson. He was always working with big egos, big virtuosos, as it were. With Eno, he's working with someone who can create a blank canvas over which Fripp's virtuosity can be sprayed liberally. He'll support that. He wants that. For Fripp, that was a release. That's a really good creative partnership; it works for both parties.

Tony Banks, famously from Genesis, was very skeptical. Tony Banks is a very gifted keyboard player, and he expressed some doubt about Eno. One or two other instances of this have occurred, but I think the results speak. In the end, people who don't know anything about the construction of music but just like records don't really mind whether the guy who made it calls himself a non-musician, or he made it using a computer, or he used 25 virtuosos, as long as the sound has an effect. I think Eno would probably argue that results are what counts.

It is a very Enoesque notion that the sound itself, the actual waves you're hearing, are what matters in the end. Finally, I'd like to return to a point that you were talking about earlier, when we were mentioning the seventies albums. You said Another Green World was your favorite seventies Eno album. This is the natural question to ask next: to the extent that it means anything, what is your favorite Brian Eno album?

Actually, it's definitely my favorite seventies album, if not my favorite album of all. I think it is Another Green World. I don't think he's beaten it in terms of a record that sustains from beginning to end, but which is not an ambient records, by which I mean I'm also a very big fan of the ambient records. Thursday Afternoon, probably my favorite, is one long piece the length of a CD. But in terms of an album that's slightly episodic in its nature in a more orthodox sense, Another Green World is my favorite. That's the one I recommend to anyone to start their Eno collection.

All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.