Russell Mills discusses Brian Eno
with Wilson Neate
WILSON NEATE: In 1975, when you were a student at the Royal College of Art, you wrote Eno a letter introducing yourself. What was your aim in doing so? What did you say to him?
RUSSELL MILLS: During the early evolution of Roxy Music and through their increasing exposure in the press, it became apparent to me, particularly from all the interviews, that Brian was the genuinely creative member of the band. He was the one who could articulate, accessibly, ideas and speculate on possible futures, not just for music, but also for art and more widely, culture. Through his mind at work I sensed that he might be a kindred spirit.
At the time I was feeling slightly isolated from, well, everything I guess, but specifically from the art and media world. My work and my methods of working and my interests were manifold and spanned barriers. I was interested in working in many different areas involving varying disciplines and I was particularly interested in mixing things up -- the collage principle -- juxtaposing diverse elements in order to create new forms, new ideas, new ways of looking and thinking.
It's an approach to working that I've always applied and that I call the "what if?" proposition -- i.e., what if this element is placed next to/with this apparently contrary element; what might happen, what might this juxtaposition suggest?
Being proficient in more than one creative discipline has always been frowned upon in England. The so-called "cognoscenti," the critics, art historians, the cultural theorists (who in the main have never themselves been involved in the creative process of making something in their lives) view such behaviour as either dilettantism (amateur noodlings) or as a dissipation of one's energies/talents and as such the work produced is looked on askance, with suspicion. It's the "jack-of-all trades, master of none" syndrome, which I don't subscribe to. Those who are critical in this area conveniently forget their knowledge of art history and in doing so consign Da Vinci, Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters (all heroes of mine) to the amnesia bucket. I recognised in Eno a fellow traveller not only for his approach to work, his views and ideas on culture and on the future but also in this matter; he too takes a lot of stick for having multiple strands to his bow, particularly in England.
Given the above I quite simply wrote to him expressing my admiration for his work, musically with Roxy and in his solo projects to date, his ideas about music, art and culture (amongst many other things). To touch base and say, "I'm with you." I also outlined who I was and what I did and offered my ideas about collage (as being the most important principle of 20th-century culture) as a model and quite simply declared that, should he be open to the suggestion, I thought that we might have much in common to discuss. I had no other aims other than to share ideas with someone who I felt was looking at and thinking about the world from a similar viewpoint. I was right.
WN: What was it about Eno's music (rather than that of another artist) that originally inspired you to create artworks in response to it?
RM: At that time, the early to mid-'70s, contemporary and popular music seemed very dull to me. I'd actually been lucky (or sharp) enough to have seen Hendrix, Beefheart, Pink Floyd, Free, and many others who produced electrifying, distinct sounds of genuine individuality. Intelligent yet wild, free-form yet tight, visceral yet knowing. The early '70s was crowded with huge, distant, anodyne groups playing polished, but to me, meaningless nonsense (i.e., ELO, Genesis, et al.). Roxy appeared, knowing, witty, artful and subversive, and with them Eno. I was knocked sideways! Eno's solo work was even more gloriously disorientating. It echoed my world, mirrored my aspirations for my work, and my hopes. Musically and lyrically here was someone experimenting with new forms. His solo albums displayed a huge amount of diversity, some outrageous originality, endless playfulness, bold adventurousness, singular inventiveness and a great deal of hilarious, sometimes black wit.
Overall I was also attracted to his capacity to risk, his not being afraid of taking chances which might fail miserably. (One of my other long-time heroes was and is Samuel Beckett, whose dictum "dare to fail, dare to fail" has always guided me.) His lyrics offer a veritable treasure chest of bizarre images, which provided me with endless possibilities to experiment with mixed media works, which was my intention. I wasn't interested in merely providing complementary, accompanying illustrations for his songs, I was using his lyrics as a springboard to enable me to make tangential journeys. His vast subject matter rarely dealt with the prosaic. The other thing I liked about his lyrics, which is still quite uncommon, is his general avoidance of the first-person singular of most (instantly forgettable) pop.
WN: More generally, would you say that Eno's influenced you as an artist?
RM: Yes, he's influenced me. Not so much in feeling a need to emulate him, but more for the fact that much of what he's done or attempted has confirmed many of my thoughts and beliefs about potential directions. His bravery and confidence in pursuing ideas and notions that might at first appear to be foolish, unpopular, or unworkable mirrored my own intuitions -- and, by him doing so in public, gave me more confidence and self-belief to carry on, against the odds if need be.
WN: Do you see similarities between your own working methods and aesthetic philosophies and those of Eno?
RM: There are great similarities between our working methods and aesthetic philosophies. I think we share very similar approaches to dealing with ideas and to making tangential correlations between apparently disparate sources. We both trust in asides, in what might first appear to be unpromising territories. We also share a great belief in what I call "the primacy of process" -- i.e., setting up a situation or a process using known elements in an unusual way to see what might happen, what will emerge or what might be suggested. It's serious play; it's a form of creative heuristics.
WN: Have you ever used the Oblique Strategies cards in the development and creation of your own work?
RM: I've never used them as an aid to solve a creative dilemma; I've never felt the need as my brain's strange enough already. Similarly, I've never felt the need to experiment with drugs in order to produce a new way of thinking, looking or experiencing the world.
WN: Do you have a favourite Oblique Strategy?
RM: The blank card.
WN: What do you think Eno's greatest creative strengths are?
RM: He is a natural catalyst and a great synthesist of ideas and of people. He sets up unusual situations for creative people, which enables them to produce work that exceeds their expectations; the results are generally always surprising. He has that rare quality -- the capacity to risk. Also, he is always open to speculating about possible futures; he is concerned with the previously unknown rather than the already known.
WN: Finally, can you tell me what your three favourite Eno pieces of music (or albums) are and maybe briefly explain what you like about them?
RM: I presume you're referring to solo tracks or albums; if so then...
Here Come the Warm Jets, especially the tracks "Blank Frank" and "Baby's on Fire." Pre-empting Punk's drive by several years, this album re-connected me with the feelings I'd always got from Beefheart. It's a gloriously playful album on which Brian is constantly experimenting, always veering off on tangents. It also seems that he was plundering his own numerous and myriad musical influences as the ideas and motifs fold, unfold and fold back like huge but sleek shoals of fish, now a shimmering veil, now exploding into individual silver missiles and now a vast shifting wall. This album shocked me, gloriously, when I first heard it and it still has that power to make me shudder with excitement.
Another Green World: for me the perfect model of a great album, as a) its individual tracks are gems and as a totality the album has a strange coherence, and b) it fools the listener. On hearing it, it feels like a pop album, but it's too exotic to be a pop record. It feels like a vocal album and yet, in fact, there are only a few vocal tracks on the album, and these are by no means the standard pop fodder. The majority of the tracks are great, generally short, instrumentals, all contenders for wonderful film music -- atmospheric yet with muscle. It features some of the best musicians around at the time, Percy Jones, Robert Fripp and Phil Collins to name a few, producing some of their best playing ever under Brian's unique management. Again, this album still holds up strongly on repeated plays after all these years. It constitutes the musical mid-point on a journey between Here Come the Warm Jets and On Land.
On Land: the perfect ambient record. Whilst it is warm and evocative of landscapes (very English in feeling I think), actual or imagined, like all great art (drama, literature, music, poetry, painting, film, photography) this album has an wonderful undertow of menace or the unknown flowing at its dark heart. And again, like all great art, it operates on two discernible levels, the literal and the metaphoric. And for all this theorising and these inadequate fumbled attempts at a semblance of interpretation, the bottom line is that it's a truly beautiful album, one of those rare ones that I never tire of listening to. It's the benchmark ambient album that has yet to be matched.
If I can include collaborative projects, then it would have to be My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: my beloved "collage principle" made manifest in groundbreaking sampling employed in truly exciting, exotic, surprising and constantly uplifting music. Mesmerising, like jewels on a dark ground with light beams refracting and ricocheting as one moves, it never keeps still.
© March 2009 Wilson Neate & Russell Mills
For more information on Russell Mills visit www.russellmills.com
Wilson has a review of David Sheppard's biography of Brian, On Some Faraway Beach, at TheQuietus.com.