On March 24th 1996 Michael Engelbrecht interviewed Brian Eno for his radio programme and the German magazine jazzthetik. At that time Eno was working on an untitled album to be released in the Summer of 1996. Some months after this discussion, Eno temporarily fell into the Abyss and cancelled the album, apparently feeling that music was no longer contributing to the cultural conversation. Some of the musical ideas he had planned for the album saw the light of day in 1997's release The Drop. This interview - presented exclusively by the EnoWeb in its English form - gives an insight into Eno's original plans for the album, his Diary, Passengers, and Generative Music, which he was demonstrating in Germany when the interview took place.
Thanks to Ulrich 'Bommel' Bomnüter for transcribing the interview, and to Michael Engelbrecht for giving us permission to reproduce it. This interview (or at least the greater part of it) was published by the German monthly magazine jazzthetik in November / December 1996.
- Passengers, Space and Science Fiction
- Eno's Diary
- Unwelcome Jazz
- Teo Macero / He Loved Him Madly
- "Locked" feeling of synthesizers
- Generative Music & screen-savers
- Album planned for 1996 (never released)
- Original use of Language on 1996 album
- Blue on Passengers
- Consultant role on James' Whiplash
BE (Brian Eno): Do you have a new jacket, Michael?
ME (Michael Engelbrecht): Yes.
BE: It's nice.
ME: When a friend of mine saw the cover of the Passengers record for the first time, he was immediately reminded of Science Fiction literature in the former German Democratic Republic from the Sixties.
BE: He is very correct, actually, because I got that picture from a book, a Czechoslovakian book from the sixties. It was not actually supposed to be Science Fiction, it was about the future of space travel. And it was full of these beautiful, nostalgic, and very romantic pictures of what life would be like in space. It was very romantic, very touching, actually.
ME: So this leads to the first question: the element of Science Fiction in the first piece. The first piece on Nerve Net, 'Fractal Zoom', and the first piece of the Passengers record, both seem to be like departure songs, where you drift into space with all this romantic, but even somehow weird quality of sound. Could you comment on this tradition of music for Science Fiction and on these openings of these two records?
BE: Well, a friend of mine says that modern music is a form of space travel, because either you're going out into space with the music, into weird new sounds and weird new impossible landscapes and so on. Because one of the things that modern composers do, I think, is invent new acoustic landscapes, like Thomas Koerner for instance, this is a very good example. They create psychoacoustic spaces that actually don't exist in nature. So that's one kind of space travel, going outwards. But the other kind, of course, is inner space travel, travelling into the strange new psychological spaces in our souls.
I think popular music has always done both of those things for people. It's always been both a gateway to a possible future, to another world, but also a gateway to different parts of our own psyche. You know, for instance, in the 50s, pop music was very much to do with being a gateway to the sexual side of people that really had not been allowed or been properly admitted to in white music before then. It had been in black music. You know, you had traditions of the Jitterbug and that kind of jazz dancing. But in white music it was still not really possible to admit to that space in one's self. And of course, the shock with Elvis was that he actually admitted that he had a body below his neck. [laughs]
So I think that's one of the reasons that those things end up with being signatures for the recordists: "Here we go! We're going travelling again! We're on the road again. Where are we going this time?" It's a good way to start a record.
ME: Have you been particularly impressed by certain types of Science Fiction literature? Have you been somehow influenced by 20th century literature from Jules Verne to Ray Bradbury, like some perspectives on art and life?
BE: Yes, I think... in fact I don't read very much Science Fiction. If you had asked me this question two months ago, I would say that no, I don't think I take Science Fiction that seriously. But in fact someone just sent me a great big coloured dictionary of Science Fiction, a great big book, and it talks about all of the writers of Science Fiction of this century, and some of last century. And looking through that I suddenly realized what a huge impression Science Fiction has made on anybody's thinking, actually. Even if you haven't actually read many of the books, a lot of the concepts that came out of Science Fiction really entered into everyone's picture of how the world could be and what other worlds might exist. So I think, actually, the spirit of Science Fiction has been very important. In fact, I would say it's been more important to me than the spirit of proper modern literature.
For instance, I'm sure Isaac Asimov has made much more difference to the way I think than Norman Mailer, for example. And I'm sure Ursula Le Guin, for instance, has affected me more than John Updike, or something like that. So there are classical writers, like Updike and all those kinds of people, who still occupy this literature bubble, but actually I think the writers who really expanded our concepts are probably Science Fiction writers. They might not even be very good writers, but they have interesting ideas. I did read quite a lot of Science Fiction for a while, until about my mid-twenties, and then I almost stopped reading fiction altogether - I read very little fiction. Some people think that's a problem. I don't know. But the fiction I do read often adopts some of the conventions of Science Fiction.
ME: Can you give an example?
BE: Well, you might think this is a very strange example. There's a book called Ulverton by an English writer called Adam Thorpe. He used the convention in that book that each chapter is seen through the eyes of a different person, and he never tells you who the person is. It takes a very long time to become clear to you, which eyes you're seeing through. And each chapter is set about 30 years further on from the last one, but in the same place. So, suddenly a new chapter starts, and the person starts describing things and talking about things, and you realize, the old man she's talking about was the young man in the last chapter. It's an absolutely extraordinary novel, as a way of travelling through time. And I think, it doesn't read at all like Science Fiction - there are no science type elements in at all. In fact, it's set in the period from 1630 to 1970. But the convention of looking at time in that way, of being able to move through time in that way, I think, is a sort of Science Fiction convention. That kind of writing I enjoy very much.
ME: From Science Fiction to Culture Fiction - I think your new book will probably blur the definitions of genres, between essay and fictional aspects. Could you tell something about the final look of the book?
BE: The centre of the book is a diary. It's my diary of last year. I kept the diary for the whole year except for 3 or 4 days. And it was about the end of October that I started reading it and thinking 'This would actually be quite an interesting book'. But I'm glad I decided at that time, because as soon as I decided that it might be a book, my style of writing completely changed [laughs]. Suddenly I came over as a serious, intelligent person, whereas a lot of the earlier parts of the diary are quite embarassing, actually[laughs]. But I've left them in.
So there's this diary of my day-to-day life and the various people I was working with, which was quite an interesting selection of people at that time. The book is called A Year with Swollen Appendices, which has a double meaning in English. Do you have this thing in German, the appendix? We say, at the end of a book, if you add a note, you call it an appendix. There's a lot of notes at the end of this book. In fact, about one third of the book is comments on things in the diary. Those comments range from stories to essays to lists of things. For me the appendices are really the interesting parts. Well, I think the diary is interesting as well, but the appendices have given me the chance to collect together a lot of stuff that I didn't know how to put in one place before.
The good thing about the diary is that, first of all, it doesn't have to have a single tone to it. It can be extremely trivial or it can be very serious or anything in between. That's what's interesting about the diary. And it doesn't have to be a fixed-together narrative, you know? Just like one's life isn't, you know. Something happens today and something else happens tomorrow. You don't have to make a connection between it. So it freed me from a lot of the problems of writing. I have been wanting to write a book for several years, but I always got stuck on the linearity of it, you know, the idea that this has to be there and then this follows and something else follows and so on. It just was so boring to me. But the diary kind of allows you to put it all there and let people sort it out for themselves.
ME: ...move in every direction you want to... Let's come to the appendix of Spinner, your collaboration with Jah Wobble. The last piece is really kind of an appendix to that album, hidden at the end, and it keeps fascinating me. At that time, someone - I don't know if it's been you or some strange journalist - called it 'abstract psychedelic jazz'.
BE: I think it might have been me, yes.
ME: Before I read that I listened to some Sixties records of the Modern Jazz Quartet, which have a strange association to this piece, because there is also a kind of mathematic quality in the music of the MJQ with a fine, mellow feel. Could you tell something about the "visual components" of producing that song, the pictures you had in your mind?
BE: Well, one of the things that come up in my diary, again, is this idea - I call it 'Unwelcome Jazz'. Because for the last 3 or 4 years, really, I've been writing these pieces of music, which sound like some peculiar take on jazz. They don't really sound like jazz, they obviously have some kind of influence from jazz. But most of the people I played them to don't really like them - so I call it 'Unwelcome Jazz' [laughs]. And in my diary it keeps getting referred to.
But I've been doing a lot of new pieces like that, recently. What I think I am enjoying about this stuff is, first of all, the harmonic complexity that jazz allows in itself. You know, it's very very peculiar, harmonically, all sorts of notes are allowed. It's similar like twelve-tone music, you know, the big break of before Debussy and after, when suddenly you could use all the notes on the piano. This sort of contribution is what I like about jazz. It has the ability to move in all sorts of directions, musically. Now I have to say I really don't listen to jazz records very much. I'm not that keen on jazz, actually, as a listening music. But I keep finding myself making these things, and the only other thing they sound like is jazz.
With that particular piece you mentioned, I put that on there as a sort of pointer to the new things I was doing, things I've been doing for the last year or so. I've made several pieces like that, about 20 or 25 'Unwelcome Jazz' pieces. Some of them are more abstract than that and some of them are more rhythmic. But they all share this quality of having melodies that go in very odd directions and take sharp turns and so on. They have another characteristic: they use a combination of instruments that are so recognizable, that come with a huge amount of cultural history, you know, like jazz piano sounds, the ride cymbal, all that sort of things. As soon as you hear those instruments you have some kind of picture of how the music was made. Within that, I place those things in an electronic landscape, which is completely another world, a world that never belonged to that music. And so you get the impression of - I get the impression of some strange club in the future, you know, on maybe some orbiting spaceship [laughs] around some distant green planet. And the various technicians are sitting around, having finished their day repairing the oxygen filtering system or something. They're sitting around and there's this little strange combo in the corner of the bar playing this odd new music.
ME: Funny enough, the term 'ambient' shows in recent reviews on modern music. Even in jazz the term 'ambient' has intruded and ...
ME: Some of my colleagues call the music of the Paul Motian Trio 'Ambient Jazz', because sometimes this trio brings the music to such a level of subtlety, it's really just one or two notes lingering around in the air. I understand that there are a few classic jazz productions that had a big influence on you, like for example Teo Macero's production of Miles Davis' He Loved Him Madly.
BE: Well, you know how that record and one or two others from that period were made? I read an interview with Teo Macero, and it was very very interesting, because I was so fascinated by these records. I really wanted to know how they were made. I don't often read interviews with musicians or producers, cause they're usually so uninteresting. There's nothing worth reading. But Teo Macero was very very interesting. He told the story of how those records were made. Which is that Miles Davis would put together a group of people often, who hadn't played together before, take them into the studio, and there was just playing for a day, for hours and hours on end. And then off they go, and Teo Macero would then be left with hours of tapes, and he would go through and find little pieces, often repeat little pieces, which is very radical in jazz to use the same section a couple of times over. I mean, I don't think anybody had ever thought of doing that before. And it's a very interesting idea, to take something that is all accidents and chance events, and then make it all happen again. So suddenly you think 'Hold on - we've been here before.' It's like a strange deja-vu thing.
But what really interested me in those things: he did something that was extremely modern, something you can only do on records, which is, he took the performance to pieces, spatially. Now, those things were done across by a group of musicians in a room, all sitting quite close to another, like we are. But they were all close-miked, which meant that their sounds were quite separate from one another. And when Teo Macero mixed the record, he put them miles apart. So this is very very interesting to listen to a music, where you have the conga player three streets down the road here, you have the trumpet player on a mountain over there, the guitar player - you have to look through binoculars to see him, you know! Everybody is far away, and so the impression that you have immediately, is not that you are in a little place with a group of people playing, but that you're on a huge plateau, and all of these things are going on sort of almost on the horizon, I think. And there's no attempt made by Teo Macero to make them connect with one another. In fact he deliberately disconnects them form one another.
This is a very modern feeling for me in music, where you think of the music as a place where a lot of things can go on. They don't have to be going on together, in the sense that they don't have to be locked to one another. And the thing I've most disliked about a lot of recent music, particularly music done on sequencers, is that it's totally locked. Do you know what I mean? Every single thing is not only locked, but bolted and nailed and hammered together. So the music is so tight, there's no drift in it at all. And one of the things that one likes about live music, I think, is the fact that things drift apart and then come back together. And when they come back together, it's very very dramatic. It's fantastic. And then they drift again apart in their own worlds, and then suddenly they join again.
Well, in most sequencer based music, that dynamic is completely unexplored. Everything is always locked together. And for a listener, this is very uninteresting. It's like being on a... instead of going for a walk in a fantastic forest, it's like being on a railway line. You only have one way to go, you know. And of course, as you know, I've always liked music that allowed me some freedom to explore inside it.
So, my work for the last year and a half has nearly all been with sequencers, actually, but I have been trying to think of a new way of using those machines to create the kind of music that has the kind of openness and lack of lockedness (this is a very awkward English word), lack of lock should we say, that for instance those Teo Macero productions had. And in fact, the piece you've heard on the end of Spinner was completely a sequencer piece. And I think it doesn't sound like it, which is what I like. One of the reasons it doesn't sound like it, is because there are several loops in there, for instance the kick-drum part is a loop which is 7 bars long, the cymbal part is a loop which is something like 23 bars long, the piano melody is in 3 sections, which are all at different lengths. So, in fact, things keep falling in and out of sync with one another. It's exactly what I have done with Ambient Music, but this time it is done in something with rhythm, you know. And, I was very pleased with that piece in fact. Of course, because of the nature of it, it's a generative piece in the sense that once you start all those loops going, it is constantly falling into different patterns. You can have it on for hours and it still keeps going and making slightly different versions.
ME: Slightly different versions like what you can do with 'Generative Music'? Could you please comment on the possibilities inherent in a system like Koan Pro and what your work with it has been like?
BE: First of all, shall I explain the system?
ME: That would be nice.
BE: Let me see if there's a quick way of doing this. If I don't get it right, you can read that [gets a piece of paper out of his bag].
What people normally do, when they work with computers, is use them as ways of moving big blocks of data around. So, big preformed chunks of material get moved around. This is why CD-ROMs have been so completely uninteresting, because in fact they're just ways of presenting you with pieces of film, and video, and music, which you then move around as big chunks. Now, some years ago I got interested in two tiny little areas of computer research that I thought were something genuinely new, that you could only do with computers. These were both what I now call 'generative'.
One of them was screen-savers. Do you know, these little things you have on your computer screen - when you go away for the toilet or something, this thing comes on and it starts making a little picture. Most of them are completely stupid, but some of them are actually rather interesting, because they use a very very small amount of the computer's power, a tiny amount, actually, but they produce original images. They produce things that you have never seen before, but nobody ever programmed. And they work in a very simple way. They offer tiny little sets of rules which the computer then works on. So they say 'Draw a line. When you hit the edge of the screen, bounce off at a random angle', for instance, 'and leave all the lines that are made on the screen', for example. There are all lots of different ones, but they all work on the idea that the computer can generate things by itself, if you give it a little set of rules.
Now, this connects with another interest which I had for a long time, which is called 'cellular automata'. These things were evolved as models of how populations grow, and how they move. Again, there are very simple sets of rules. You draw a few cells on the screen, you give them a set of rules, like 'If a cell has more than 3 neighbours, it dies from overcrowding, if it has less than 2 neighbours, it dies from starvation', okay?. You draw 7 cells on the screen, and then you press 'Go', and you see this incredible thing happen. Sometimes it just goes 'bang' and they're all gone, but sometimes it grows in this amazingly complicated flower that will go on for 8000, 9000 generations, and then finally die. Or sometimes, it will look very promising for 16 generations, and then explode. You know, you can never predict what is going to happen. And yet, the rules are terribly simple.
So, when I was noticing these things I started to think, you must be able to make music like this. You must be able to do the same thing where you would put in a set of conditions about how you wanted the music to be, and then you would say to the computer, 'Okay, now let's hear it', you know? And that's what this Koan program can do. In a way, it's what I did with Music for Airports, and Discreet Music, and all those other things. Those are all 'generative music' in a way. But of course the difference was, what I would do then is get the system going and then record a little bit of it, and sell the recording. What I've always wanted to do, is to sell the system. Instead of buying a record, which is the same each time you hear it, you buy the little machine that makes the music, whatever the machine is. And then, when you play it in your house, it's not the same, it's never the same. So this Koan thing is really the beginning of that.
You asked me to talk about my work with Koan. First of all, it can do a lot of silly things, this program. Well, I think they're silly. For instance, it can make techno music till you are dying of boredom. But it can do some very very interesting new things as well. For example, I have started to make a kind of music that I could never have made before. I would not know how to make it. I've always been interested in early-20th-century music, especially serial music, Schoenberg and Webern in particular. I have no idea how to make music like that. But I can do it with Koan, you see, because I can say to the machine, 'Okay, you can work with all 12 notes of the scale', but I can alter the probability of each note, so I say 'I want this note to occur more often than this one'. Now I can say, 'In terms of harmonies, you can use these kinds of harmonies, but not these ones, and only these ones sometimes', and so on. And then I can say, 'I want some of the instruments to be always making wide jumps', you know, I want them to be moving by quite big steps all the time, but I want these other instruments to be making very small jumps. Now I want these 3 instruments always to work together, so they always occur as 3 instruments together. I want these 2 always to work separately.
In those terms, I can really think about music. This is quite different from saying, 'I want this instrument to play a B-flat, and then a dotted dadadadada, all that stuff which I can't do. It means, I can imagine music as writing a series of little seeds, you know. I'm writing some genetic instructions, basically. Here's the genetic instruction for a piece of music, the DNA for a piece of music, and I put it in the computer and I watch it grow. Now, I watch it grow and I think, 'Right, that sounds a little too sweet'. Okay, so I go back to, for instance, the harmony rule, and I say 'Okay, let's reduce the number of major third harmonies, or have no major third harmonies and have more minor third harmonies', for instance. Or I think, it sounds too chopped up: 'Okay, let's separate out these instruments, let them hold for longer times, and let them drift over one another'. It's an amazing way of composing, it really is. I think it will completely change not only the way people listen to music, because the result never repeats exactly, but also the way people can make music. I've done some very interesting things recently. For instance, I was asked to do film music for somebody's film.
ME: The Pillow Book ?
BE: No, this is for a film by a Dutch film-maker. Normally, I would sit down and start working with a synthesizer. This time, I thought 'Well, I think I'll try to write some rules'. Now I thought, 'What's the feeling of this film, what kinds of things is he doing with the camera, what kinds of colours are being used, what kinds of movements, of transitions from one thing to another are being used'? And I thought, 'If I were writing rules for that in film, what would those rules be?'. So I kind of came to some ideas about that, and then I wrote the same rules as musical rules. For instance, one of the techniques he used a lot, is he jumps a lot from scene to scene, but they're not particular connected scenes, they're not obviously narratively connected. Well, I can make some rules that can create music like that. So I made the rules and I spent half a day, that's all, making some rules, and pressed 'go', and that music started to come out.
Now, it was like a music that I never heard before, because I didn't really write it from the point of view thinking what it would sound like. It's almost like if you're trying to instruct an actor - you're a director and you want to instruct an actor - you can either say to him 'Okay, now move your arm towards him like that', or you can say to him, 'Imagine who you are meant to be, and who he's meant to be. Now what do you do to him?'. You see what I mean? It's like going a step further back in the composition process. So, instead of specifying the precise identity of something, you specify the little seed that will create an identity. You don't have to actually write it in its details.
Well, as you can see, this connects very clearly with the things I have been thinking about anyway. And I think it is really the next big idea for me in music. I think 'Ambient' is a little idea compared to this [laughs].
ME: Which are the ideas behind the record that you are working on in London at the time being? Yesterday you mentioned that this work has a lot to do with language.
BE: First of all, my decision to work with language came about because I think that's the area that really needs some creative attention now. You know, in the last 15 years or so, there's been a huge number of breakthroughs in sonic experimentation. You know, you can now buy synthesizers that - you hold down one key and it's virtually a finished record. There's been so much research and really great work done on understanding the idea of music as a sound landscape that you walk into. Great - I'm very pleased about all that! But in the meantime, language is still where it was in about the 14th century. My experience as a producer is seeing people go into the studio, and within the first week they have 35 great pieces, they think. And then comes the problem of writing songs. My solution to this for a long time was just, well I don't write songs, just leave it as music. But actually, I like songs, and I like language, and I like the use of language. But I want it to be done in some original way. I would see poor bloody singers struggling in the studio for months on end, like Bono and Tim Booth from James and so on, scribbling away there, everybody else sort of sitting there drumming their fingers like this. Because actually, whoever does the words has a very hard job. That's the sharp edge of the music. Whatever else the music is doing, if there are words there, you know that is going to be the focal point of the music for so many listeners. And you can really fuck it up with words. If they're not good, you can totally wreck the whole thing.
And so, I started to think 'This is the real unexplored territory of modern music'. The other territory, the sonic landscape, the beat, the collaging, the sampling, all that sort of thing - fantastic! Everybody's got that done. There are a lot of people who do it brilliantly. I'm not even going to argue with them. You can do it. But I thought, the really interesting challenge would be to try to do something original with language, and with meaning. Well, I'm very much at the beginning of this. So I shouldn't talk about it as though I've solved this problem in any way. I've just started working on it. But one of the things I'm, I suppose, interested in, is the idea of taking pieces of language from different places, putting them together, so that they become confused. Actually, I've got some here. Shall I read one of them?
What I did is, I took little tiny phrases, pieces of sentences from a magazine describing Serbian torture in Bosnia, a porno magazine, and an article about homeless people in London. I took these phrases, then I have a randomizer, so that I can start to throw them together in new ways. This is one of the pieces that came out of that. Now, the person who actually reads this on my record is a Polish lady, who has a fantastic way of reading English. Because one of the other things I've realized is that people who are not native English speakers often speak English in a much more interesting way than people who are. Because they make the words strange again. If you are used to listening to English spoken by other English people it all just slips by. But suddenly, when you hear a foreigner speaking your own language, they alter the stress on things, they change the relationship, the balance between words. Suddenly they bring the language to life again. And they keep creating new meanings. So I'm interested in this idea of asking other people to read these things. So I'm going to read a little bit of this now. In fact, you have to imagine it not in my voice. I'll read from two different ones.
This one goes on for a long time. I'll just read a bit of it:
no longer made of blood
three middle-aged men far from here
in such emptiness
pearls inserted into a last sleeping-space
which last sleeping-space
three middle-aged men
made of blood
inside their perfect location
inside their stone
made of blood
That's the first - 10 percent of it. Then here's another one:
my leather pants
I want to smell good
light a cigarette
lock the door
don't be shy
I want to smell good
put his arms out
all my men
who is not being killed
to smell dirty
on the table
posing for you all
he held it up
creep up behind
let me stand up
his eyes open
creep up behind
... and so on. So, I don't know how much sense that makes [laughs]. What I think is interesting is that if you know where this material comes from, if you know some of it is about torture, and some of it is about sex, and some of it is about living on the street - when you're listening you keep thinking, 'Which story am I in?', and you keep thinking 'Oh, that sounds quite sexy', and then you think 'Hold on, is it torture?'. It keeps making you move to different places in your brain to find out which meaning you should be taking. And it makes you realize how completely dependent on context meaning is. In fact, if you put together torture material with sex material, it's almost impossible to tell the difference. You can read it all as though it's sex, or all as though it's violence. They're so closely identified. And so, I'm sort of intrigued by this thing of watching myself listening to this. I'm thinking 'Oh, that sounds good! Oh, Christ, that's not good at all, that's somebody being tortured!' So my mind is constantly doing this flip back and forth. It's very un-ambient, actually [laughs].
ME: And the music is being built around the language? In a similar way you developed a music for found voices on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981.
BE: The music is 'Unwelcome Jazz', in fact. For instance, that last piece on the Spinner record is an example of this kind of thing. In front of that, imagine a voice with a strong accent saying one of these things. And one of the other things I do is, I cut the language up, so there are breaks in the middle of sentences and so on. And so a few words will come out -- space -- another word -- another 6 words -- space -- another 2 words. So the language really keeps falling apart. In a way, it's like using language and trying as hard as possible to break the meaning down, and see what's left. See where the meaning still comes out of it.
Well, like I say, I'm really at the beginning of these things, so I shouldn't talk about it as though I've got it all finished.
ME: There is something I would like you to ask about a special piece on this Passengers record, the one with the Japanese singer, a very ambient piece where you put the voice into. Could you tell something about this piece? Some people that heard me playing that song on the radio wanted to know more about this woman and where to get a record with her. And now that they actually got her new record, they are quite disappointed by it, since it turns out to be rather mainstream.
BE: The story of this is quite interesting. When we were making the Passengers thing, one of the things we started to become excited about was the idea of a picture of Tokyo, slightly in the future. We sort of wanted to make a city-type record, but a city of the future, and not a western city. And so we settled on Tokyo as being our image. One of the pieces started up being called 'Bullet Train'. Now, at a certain point, I said 'What we really need to get this going is actually hearing some Japanese voices on it'. And so I rang my wife and said 'Can you think of any Japanese singers?'. She rang her brother, who is married to a Japanese woman, who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Holi [laughs]. And within an hour, Holi was in the studio with us. She didn't know who it was or anything. I said 'Don't say who it is, because she will get nervous', because it's fairly intimidating to walk into a studio to improvise with a group of people you have never met. So, she thought she was just coming to do backing vocals on something.
She came into the studio, she didn't recognize any of us - at first. And Bono, who is a very charming guy and very good at making people feel comfortable, he said 'Ah, you know, look, we're just going to play some music - just try singing anything over it'. Oh yes, we had The Pillow Book, and I said, 'You know, you can use this one as text, if you want. We just want some sort of Japanese melodies' - very casually, like this. And this was the very first thing she sang, this what came out here, the first thing she sang when she came into the studio. Afterwards, she was terribly nervous. It's a very difficult thing to do, actually. We didn't play her a piece of music or anything, we actually made up the music as well at the same time. So we just started playing, and she just started singing. Nobody knew what was going to happen [laughs]. But she was very very good. She really handled that situation well. She did several other pieces with us as well.
ME: Is there anyone else playing? Is that you doing the treatments in the background?
BE: There was at that time, but we left anything else out. I think, at the time we were all playing at the time we were all playing. But, as on some of the other improvisations as well, we just took things out.
ME: When you played with David Bowie and did the production of 1. Outside, you had some kind of ideas, a kind of role-play for each of the musicians. When I listen to this record, apart from the fake or true film stories, there seems to be some motif that runs through the album, like the motif of time, that is always reoccuring. Sometimes it's also the motif 'blue' (the colour). Was this something casual, or was it meant as a stimulus for the musicians?
BE: Originally, this record was going to be called The Blue Record, because they had always wanted to make a quiet, late-night record. In effect, a few of the songs they've done, like the song 'Love Is Blindness', for example, on Achtung, Baby or Zooropa - I don't remember, this was one of their blue-type songs. And they'd always wanted to do a whole record like that. So, our first feeling when we started making this, was that we are going to make a late-night record. In fact, it changed a little bit. Though, I still think it could be thought of like that.
Then, the next idea, the idea that sort of grew on top of that, was this idea of making a city-of-the-near-future record. And that's sort of what it became in the end. Some kind of a picture. Travel is a big part of it, actually, the idea of travelling. And that's probably why Passengers became the name of the thing.
ME: My last question: I read that you worked as a consultant on the new James record. After you did these 6 weeks with improvising and tight songs, what has changed in your input as a producer? How did you work on the new one that will come out some time?
BE: Well, we did quite a lot of improvisations as well. You remember that the previous James thing came out as two separate discs. There was Laid and there was Wah-Wah. Now, what I really wanted to do is to try to make a music that used both of those, and to make one music out of those things. And some of the best pieces on this new record really have done that. They are really successful, I think. I mean, I didn't have much to do with it, except I tried to push it in that direction. I haven't been very involved as a producer on this record. There's in fact a guy called Stephen Hague, who has been doing most of the producing. And I think it sounds very good.
ME: So, okay, this is enough stuff for 10 radio shows.
BE: [laughs] Very economical!
© Michael Engelbrecht 1997.