From Punk, probably in 1976, by Mary Harron. From the Jeffrey Morgan Archive.
Brian Eno is sitting in Island Records Basing Street Studios with a piece of toast in his hand. He is working on an album: we had fifteen minutes before the session began.
Punk: When you said Look closely at the most embarrassing details, and amplify them, what did you mean by that?
Eno: What I meant is that the most embarrassing aspects of the things you do are normally the ones that are most interesting in the long run. The places where you are exposed, where you feel uncertainty are the places where you are normally doing something thats quite innovative for you or where youve uncovered an aspect of yourself that you previously managed to hide, perhaps.
Punk: Is that why you said youre interested in danger?
Eno: Yeah, but any danger in art is purely symbolic. Art is a very safe business [laughter].
Punk: No, I didnt mean
Eno: Not like racing driving.
Punk: Yeah. No, I meant the danger of exposing yourself to the unexpected Um. Yes: Art is not reality, it is not truth, it is not value, it is nothing but a construct because it is nothing but signs, and signs can only be constructs. Why do you say its not value?
Eno: Thats actually a quote from somebody else.
Punk: Yeah, but you printed it in your Bio.
Eno: Thats right, its from Morse Peckham.
Punk: Who is he?
Eno: Hes an American professor of English Literature, who for a long time has been one of my favourite writers, because he came up with an idea about the arts that I consider very interesting: namely that they have a biological base and not a purely cultural one. So that they were therefore an automatic human activity rather than one belonging to the Intelligentsia only. So I like that idea.
Punk: So does that link up with music a lot?
Eno: Yeah, quite a lot, because it immediately erodes any distinction between so-called High Art and Popular Art, and it just demolishes any of the arguments that say that those things exist at different levels, those things are not working in the same area.
Punk: Because theyre part of the same function.
Eno: Mmh. [Looking at toast] Ill just have another little bite. [chewing] Yes, the reason I quoted that is cause I wanted to make it clear that my own involvement wasnt on the romantic level: assuming that there was some tremendous reality to what I was doing. I dont think that is what art is about. I think that its strength is that it is dealing with unreality, which might however analogue the way the world works. But it isnt the same as anything.
Punk: But isnt it sort of more real than real?
Eno: No, its a lot less [laughs] I think. Well I mean obviously when ones dealing with words like real which are so ambiguous as to be almost meaningless almost any statement can be true. But what I mean to say is that you can afford to expose yourself to uncertainties in art that you wouldnt allow yourself in real life. You can allow yourself to get into situations where you are completely lost, and where you are disoriented. You dont know whats going on, and you can actually not only allow yourself to do that, you can enjoy it.
Its part of the stimulus of being an artist. That has, for me, a powerful function. But its precisely because it is an unreal activity, and its an activity that eventually doesnt matter. In the sense that if you fuck it up it doesnt matter at all, nobody cares. It doesnt make any difference to anybody, and whatever artists try to believe, that is really the measure of their importance: that their mistakes are often more interesting than their intentions.
Its not an anti-art argument. It says that art has a function thats quite different from that kind of romantic rubbish that gets written so much.
Punk: You said once that music, or any other cultural form, wasnt a straight line of development, that the most interesting things were often the ones people didnt notice at the time. Is there anything that youve noticed happening now that isnt being
Eno: I think there are a lot of things like that. Well, the Velvet Underground was an example. When they actually came out very very few people were interested in them, whatever they claim now. I remember when they came out, and very few people were interested in them at all. And for a certainty I knew that they were going to become one of the most interesting groups, yknow, and that there would be a time when it wouldnt bethe Beatles up there and the all these other groups down there, it would be a question of attempting to assess the relative values of the Beatles and the Velvet Underground as equals. And this is just beginning to happen now.
But there are many instances in earlier RocknRoll of groups, who, for example, had one hit of major importance and then disappeared. The Tokens with The Lion Sleeps Tonight was one. But there are many other examples. I think maybe someone like Van Dyke Parks is that kind of person I think I might be [laughter]. I think that there are certain artists who speak to other artists more than a public, alright? So they go through two stages. They are received by other artists and then diffused, right? Now unfortunately there isnt a very efficient royalty system for dealing with this situation.
Umh. For example, one of my main activities is working with other people, right, and I regard that as something I like doing very much indeed. Now when I work with other people what happens is theres a a union is attempted between their ideas and my ideas. Normally this works out. And so by this method, since these people often sell more records than me, my ideas reach some kind of fruition, and kind of feed back into the outside circle of ideas.
For example, Ive just been working with Bowie. Which is very good because that way I shall have reached a lot of people.
Eno: Oh yeah it was really good, I was very pleased with that. I was pleased in particular that hes still a serious artist. He still really behaves like an artist. And that is something I hadnt I wasnt completely surprised, you know, because I like his music, but its interesting when someone whos I think your tapes stopped.
Eno: I always look at these things cause Ive got a little tape recorder as well, umh when someone who has made a large number of records and who can afford to make very bad records, when he doesnt do that, and when he really is conscientious and just involved in it the measure of involvement for me is that sometimes he would have an idea and jump up and down and have to rush out and get everyone to listen to it. And that encouraged me cause I do that as well. If someones really still surprised by himself as that I think they must be a pretty good person
I did all the music for one of the numbers. And thats a very good number: I think its a new direction for him. And me.
Punk: Whats it like?
Eno: Its very slow, melancholy piece thats rather like a kind of folk orchestra. An Eastern European folk orchestra. Very, very melancholy. Very nice.
Punk: Can I ask you about the music press? Because I think theyve been so used to dealing with a particular pattern of success, and what happened in the Sixties, and they tend to use the same standards for whats happening now. What do you think of the music press?
Eno: Im not very interested in them, actually.
Punk: Well what do you think is the function of a music press?
Eno: Well it seems to be to annoy artists. The only think I feel if I read the music papers these days is sort of like that [making a gesture of strangulation]. They really make me angry. Because the function should be to look at whats going on and actually try to see the ideas that are around at the moment. Not what the personalities are. Its alright, you know, you could have that as a gossip column feature, as a joke, but the personalities really arent the interesting thing.
Whats interesting is the flow of ideas and why, for example, suddenly the idea of a four piece band becomes viable again. Why the concept of skill starts to erode in music. Why bands arent being formed with flash guitarists anymore but with kids off the streets. Or why, on the other hand, on a purely technical level, Reggae is starting to work by subtracting sound rather than adding it, and what differences that makes to the Western tradition of making music.
Theres a million questions that are really very very interesting, and have as far as Im concerned major sociological implications. Because music doesnt change with whim or fashion. It changes for good reasons. Im certain of that.
I think they may be frightened. If theyre aware of any of these questions they might be frightened theyre going to bore their audience. I think you can give the public much more credit than they presently get. Theyre probably sick of being treated like fools.
Instead of doing that, they talk about the most insanely useless transient details of peoples attire and personality conflicts and so on. Absolutely worthless rubbish. I think that on a level of reporting theyre worse than any of the bad daily newspapers in England. You know the papers like The Sun? Well theyre strictly on that level. They take news items to see what kind of visceral sensation can be extracted from them. And thats why their focus is always on a particular brand of success, as you say. Its the same way that gossip columns in papers like The Sun always talk about what Lords and Counts do. Not because Lords and Counts do anything particularly interesting, but because it is considered funny by people who write this sort of thing to point out that Lords and Counts actually behave like us. And do stupid things and get divorced and have affairs.
Theyre dealing not only with trivial things, but theyre dealing with trivial things badly. You could deal with trivial things very interestingly.
If I do an interview David Bowie was saying the same thing if either of us do an interview and we throw out twenty ideas, whichever two are most banal will get the most space in the papers.
The whole attitude of people who work on big papers is Well, its what they want, isnt it? Now it interests me that if they find this attitude typifying music they condemn it absolutely out of hand. If they find groups who say Well, were only playing what they want, they condemn that as the worst kind of charlatanism.
Really, they should simply apply the same standards theyre in the art business. Theyre part of the art business. Thats the problem, they dont take themselves seriously. They regard themselves as peripheral and of no interest. As long as they do that theyre going to stay there.
Punk: Its misleading when youre writing about music now to just concentrate on the artist, because youre missing a whole other world. Youre missing the record companies part in it, and the whole way in which people become successful.
Eno: You realize that this is being recorded in perfect acoustics, dont you? Youll never get such a perfect interview recording Sory. So [across the room] is that plugged into the Lesley, that Wurlitzer?
Voice: Ah, sort of. I think. Only sort of. You going to use the Wurlitzer?
Eno: Ill start on the piano, I think.
Punk: Less sophisticated? I mean the music business.
Eno: Yeah. Umh. I must think Ive lost my train The truth of the matter is, it doesnt interest me very much, the music business.
Punk: You dont have to talk about it.
Eno: No, I just meant that there seems to be this big block of machinery that actively not intentionally, but by the very nature of its construction subdues whats interesting. And whats interesting either is peripheral to it or accidental.
You know, theres a vast business involved in music, a vast business. If you not only consider the part were involved in, but the classical music business, which is very big, and you consider all the folk and ethnic music businesses, and then you consider a company like Muzak which is supplying music all over the world, there are hundreds of thousands of muillions of pounds involved in generating music. Making it a much bigger busines than the Space Race. And the number of interesting ideas that are generated by this vast complex is really very small. In fact, if you analyze it on a kind of cost-efficient basis youd find that you werent doing too well.
Punk: As far as production of ideas to size?
Eno: Yes. So it makes me think that this large organism is one whose express intention, or claimed intention, is to generate ideas, but whose mechanism is such that it cant help subduing them. Its interest is in prolonging itself. By so doing, since its structure militates against the future, it militates for the present and the past. By attempting to prolong itself it does subdue those futures. They come out, sure enough, but they have a hard time.
I dont feel bitter, Im not saying this in bitterness. I think its the way most other systems work as well the Civil Service
Punk: It sounds like politics generally, doesnt it?
Eno: It is, the implications are quite political.
Punk: What, the hostility to change?
Eno: Yes. Yes. Human beings have two orientations. One is towards the desire to participate in a predictable world, and the other is the knowledge that the world isnt predictable, and that it constantly changes in a novel fashion.
[Sound of voices from the direction of the Wurlitzer]
Im afraid Ill have to stop now.