A few years back, I got a chance to talk with musician and producer Brian Eno, who was promoting his then-new album Nerve Net with a day of phone interviews w/ the press. I was writing for a small publication, New Route, which wanted a short profile on Eno. Sadly NR went out of business a few weeks after the phoner was completed, and the material was never published.
Q: "The Roil, The Choke" (off of Nerve Net) has a very majestic feel to it yet without resorting to any musical cliches that would depict majesty. Was that your aim?
Eno: Yes, it didn't start out intending to be that way actually. but I think your analysis is right, it does feel sort of melancholy but expansive feeling to it.
In fact that's achieved with the cheapest sounding instrument. Nearly all of these songs use the DX7. I'm the last surviving user of the DX7, I think. I'm probably the only person, well one of the only ten people, who learned to program it properly. So that very sort of fuzzy organ sound in the beginning is the DX7 sound, but it's an evocative sound, something one doesn't quite know what its evoking. It sounds like one of those old organs of the '50s, but they never sounded like this actually. They never sounded that fuzzy. It sort of evokes something that never really existed. It's a very blissful dizzy sound for me. I like it very much.
Q: Nerve Net a very slippery album, in that you think you think that many songs evoke something but if you listen close they it go into new territory.
Eno: Good, well I always liked the cusp where something feels if it's familiar but strange at the same time, you know. Say you listen to it and it doesn't immediately assault you as being completely weird, you feel seduced by it, but at the same time you can't put your finger on what on what it is that you recognize. It's very a good feeling. I'm very pleased that I seemed to achieve it in someone else as well.
Q: On the album jacket you have a number of terms describing the music. One of those terms is "Godless."
Eno: Well, I'm an atheist, and the concept of god for me is all part of what I call the last illusion. The last illusion is someone knows what is going on. That's the last illusion. Nearly everyone has that illusion somewhere, and it manifests not only in the terms of the idea that there is a god but that knows what's going on but that the planets know what's going on. Astrology is part of the last illusion. The obsession with health is part of the last illusion, the idea that there's that if only we could spend time on it and sit down and stop being unreasonable with each other we'd all find that there was a structure and a solution underlying plan to it all, for most people the short answer to that is God.
Well, what I want to indicate by that word godless is not only god in the religious sense but I am trying to accept and enjoy the idea that we never will reach that condition of agreement of certainty, that actually we're unanchored, we're floating around, and we're actually guessing. That's what we're doing. Everyone is making guesses, and trying to make the best of it, watching what happens and being empirical about it. There won't be a plan, so godless, like most of those words, have a lot of resonance for me. They are words I find myself using in conversation sometimes, over and over again.
Q: When you first saw the world in this light - that no one is in charge - was it frightening, or did it strike you as more something more exciting?
Eno: It's very exciting to me, it's exciting because it was what I felt anyway. I felt I couldn't find a structure to all this, I couldn't find a plan, and I was worried by this for quite along while. I thought fuck, well, maybe I'd better read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or something, or these things that I never really wanted to read. Then almost in a very short time I went through a kind of conversion of the way I was thinking. It was very much hinged on reading an American philosopher called Richard Rorty, who said, `Hey its all right, there isn't one. There might not be one and even if there is we're not going to find it, but anyway we still have to carry on living and we still have to carry on making decisions, there's no point in waiting around for the solution to manifest itself, for the perfect theme to manifest itself. You have to live, and carry on living.'
And I thought, boy that's really liberating. That's like saying do what you've been doing all the time, but now do what you do wholeheartedly. Do it without the feeling of "oh I don't know what's happening, I'm missing something." The feeling of this is what you do, this is how life is, and it's complicated, it's far too complicated to map and we're all making guesses about it. So fine, let's make guesses together. Endorse the process. It's sort of saying to me expect to live your whole life as an artist.
Artists deliberately put themselves in the position of being people who make guesses for a living, who use their intuition for a living. It's sort of their job in a way, isn't it? And it's a philosophy that says extend that sensibility and the skills you learn into the rest of your life. So I endorse that with great joy. It's honestly made me very happy.
Q: I can see how that's affected the trajectory of your career.
Eno: Yes. I live very much day to day. I assess things as they come up and I try not to make any promises too far in advance. It's very dangerous to make promises and then find that suddenly someone comes to collect on it, and you don't feel like doing it. I always try to set situations up where I can flow into them with enthusiasm. Even interviews. I know I got a record coming out, but I never do interviews without having some other secret reasoning in the back of my mind and my secret reason for these is that I want to generate some writing, some written ideas, which will be the transcripts in the interviews I give because I want to put together some new lectures for some teaching I'm doing later this year. I always find I talk more lucidly than I write. If I sit down to write I seem to be quite formal about it. If I talk, I sometimes cut through to a very nice way of saying something that I wouldn't have done in writing, so quite often I base the stuff I write on stuff I said. I take whole chunks and then change a little bit here and there, miss out some of the redundant sections and so really my talking is me writing. So I hope you don't mind being used in this way.
Q: I saw that in a recent interview in Keyboard magazine, you had gotten a lot of negative feedback over your views on classical music. Basically I believe you said that classical music wasn't the pinnacle of musical theory, that there were other forms of music equally worthy of consideration, like, for instance, reggae. Do you worry of being accused of relativism?
Eno: I said something like I must have been in a particularly anti-classical mood. Well, funnily enough I'm once again in a particularly anti-classical mood. It goes in phases and I tend to be in the phase more than out of it actually. Well, I am a relativist anyway so if you were saying would I be offended by the criticism of relativism, no I wouldn't actually. I certainly am a relativist in the sense that I'm not an absolutist.
I suppose what It comes down to is that I simply don't accept the idea of permanent intrinsic value to things. So all the cultural theories that we've grown up with suggest that there is a center to the culture. I mean they don't all agree about exactly where that center is but that isn't the point, they all say that there is a center, whether it is Cezzane or Debussy or Beethoven, Bach. Those questions are merely the details, the important point of most of the philosophies of art that we've been taught is that there is a sort of energy center in the culture and that things not at that center derive from it and dilute versions of it, and so fashion, popular music, wallpaper design, anything you want, all those kind of things are merely a sort of trickle down from this absolute sense of value that exists.
Well, I'm questioning not the details of whether its Debussy or Bach but the whole concept of whether there is a center to the culture. I see us now in a culture that is much more of a network of many islands of overlapping islands of interest. I see the classical culture more important more in the terms of momentum and the attention it commands than intrinsic values. Momentum and attention are values. They do have a value. They have cultural exchange rate, if you will, but that's a different kind of value than the kind that pro-classicists are usually defending. They're defense is always based on the idea that there's some absolute quantity of value quite independent of context and observer, and I'm saying that value is generated by context and observer. It's not in there forever and ever. I mean the supreme example of the classical illusion is the missionaries going to Africa with recordings of Bach Cantatas played to natives in the assumption that all humans would eventually respond to Bach, because he had something so intrinsically marvelous about him. Now this is an extreme example but it shows you how absurd the conceit is. Why should they?
If you accept that the form is culturally determined, there is no reason that even this set of notes that we've chosen as our basic matrix around which we write music, there's no reason why that should be universal or eternal or anything like that, and in fact other cultures have made other choices.
So even at the very deepest level of our musical language we're faced with a relative situation, and of course we always we regard it as not only as right but permanent and right for everybody else. Well I think that's insupportable even arrogant these days, after we move into a situation where we discover that all over the world people have their own cultures which are just as complex and strange and evolved as ours, but don't map onto ours at all. They really are different languages. They don't translate.
Q: I understand you're developing a theme park with Peter Gabriel.
Eno: And Laurie Anderson. This is due to be in Barcelona. We haven't received the final permission yet from the city of Barcelona but it looks I'd say 90 percent likely. The only problem with using the word theme-park it's sort of giving the impression that you'd imagine other theme parks. It's like if you said I'm starting a fast food shop everyone will think "oh fuckin hell, burgers," but now you'd have to reinvent the concept of fast food, and think well you could do great fast food. Well we're saying that theme park is an idea that really is of the future but its content is of completely of the past, and we think that this is an ideal place for artists to work.
If you think of the converging trends in the arts in the last few years, you have on the one hand popular musicians make more and more environmental shows, make big shows that involve actually building environments that they then play within. They work within both visual and auditory media quite happily. They're making videos, they're aware of being interdisciplinary.
And on the other hand, take the fine arts scene, people who work with installation, performance art, earth art, landscaping. A great big movement in England for example. Then you think "well all these people could actually be building theme parks." It's a little twist on the idea. It's not a big step of the imagination, but instead of getting jerks to design theme parks why not get the best artists and scientists around, and see what they do with the idea.
Of course, with these things the question is always the right trade off between cost and accessibility and since this thing is being built in the city not actually outside the city, we're feeling more and more its important to make it a free park with some items inside it that you can pay for.
The original idea was more like a theme park where you would go and pay $25 dollars and and spend the day there. The only trouble is that the residents of the city are effectively excluded from it. They might go there once a year or twice a year, but we just thinking that we should make a place that everyone in the city can use but within it locate some experience that you might only use it occasionally, rather than making a expensive theme park with tons of tourists traping through. So anyway this is all in progress at the moment.