Cash for Questions: Brian Eno

Written by: David Sheppard

Source: Q, issue 178, July 2001

"I’ll be with you in a moment, I’m just cleaning the sink," explains Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, as Q arrives at the his airy Notting Hill studio on a bucolic spring morning. "I've been sculpting with plaster and it leaves a terrible mess."

The producer has been busy with his splattery ministrations for some hours already - and it’s only 9am. There really aren't enough minutes in the day for Brian Eno.

Fresh from work on a new James album and a collaboration with German composer J Peter Schwalm (Drawn From Life), Eno is desperate to clear his considerable decks for a new solo record. That's once he's attended to the myriad esoteric cultural projects with which his non-musical hours are consumed. Let's hope he can make the pleasant-sounding "bike trip" he's pencilled in for late July on his gigantic wall-planner.

At 53, Eno remains a smooth-headed ball of energy, hardly able to control his scattershot enthusiasms. Thus, he punctuates his respons-es to the Q readers' third degree with, variously, twangings on an electric guitar, weight-lifting exercises and, incongruously, keepy-uppy with a punctured football. He is similarly given to costume changes. A plaster-smeared T-shirt, a silk kimono, a Kenyan safari hat and a chic designer camouflage jacket are all donned and removed throughout a two-hour interrogation.

Yet no amount of nifty diversion can distract from the matter at hand. "Fucking hell!" Eno marvels at the Q postbag. "Where do people find the time to think about all this stuff?" Now there's a case of the pot calling the kettle black if ever there was one.

I hear the first recording you made was, "the sound of a slowed-down metal lamp-stand being struck while a poem was recited over the top". Is that true and was it any good? Andrew Souter, Wolverhampton

Yes, it's true. Actually it sounded very similar to the music I make now...

You. Bowie. Cocaine. Sex? TS Saxon, via e-mail

Whenever I've worked with Bowie there have never been any drugs involved at all. And, no, I've never had sex with him. Sorry. I don't like drugs in the recording studio – they just mean everything takes five times longer to do.

Is it true that you have one of the largest collections of pornography in the universe? John Payling, via e-mail

I have some examples of drawn, comic-book pornography, but it's not a very large collection. I regard the drawing as some of the most extreme and interesting that's being done at the moment.

At the height of your time with Roxy Music, who was the biggest ponce, you or Bryan Ferry? Lars Makie, Detroit

A ponce is someone who lives off the earnings of prostitutes. Perhaps you mean "woofter" or "Peacock"'. Actually, I was more pea-hen, and Bryan was more Rhode Island Red, heh heh!

What is the weirdest piece of music you have ever heard? Peter Fors, Stockholm

The most difficult piece I ever listened to was Eric Satie's Vexations at the Roundhouse in London many years ago - an 18-hour marathon! When I lived in Thailand I was intrigued by the local classical music. People would respond very enthusiastically to points in the music that seemed to me identical to hundreds of other points. Very strange.

You cancelled a show at Barnsley Civic Hall in 1974, allegedly due to a collapsed lung. How's the lung - and any chance of playing Barnsley this year? Cliff Frogget, via e-mail

It's true. It did collapse. In fact I gave a whole concert with a collapsed lung. It collapsed during a show I did in Croydon. So I went to this miserable quack in London who told me I’d sprained a muscle in my chest and gave me fucking muscle relaxants! So I went and did another whole show on one lung. I was thinking, Man, this hurts - and I can't hold a note. It's fine now. I don't imagine I'll be playing Barnsley this year though, all the same...

Has there ever been an airport that has played Music For Airports over its PA? Fletcher Harrington, Lemon Hill, California

Yes. There've been about five now. The worst was in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I had a piece in an exhibition there and they'd prepared a special welcome for me. I got off the plane, walked into this hall and over the PA comes Music For Airports at excruciating volume! It was like distorted heavy metal. Not one of my finest ambient moments!

Is that really Rod Stewart on track three of Apollo? Andrew Tuttle, East Dulwich

[Eno looks bemused and asks an assistant to put said floaty opus on the stereo.] Ha ha ha! Rod the Mod! And all of the Small Faces are on there too. They were trying to crack the ambient market, heh heh! Actually, the almost human sounding noise is in fact a slowed-down ocarina.

Have you ever worked out what your full name is worth at Scrabble (omitting bonus points etc ... )? Mike Richmond, Huddersfield

No, I haven't done that - though I love Scrabble. My best ever score was the adjective "quixotic" over three triples. I think that was worth 292 points.

You get a credit For "Enossification" on Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway album. What feats did you perform to earn this? Richard Burrows, Amersham

To be honest, I can't remember. It would have been treatments of some kind. I would take existing instruments and feed them through various devices to "weird them up". It wasn't something people were commonly doing then. Nobody does anything else now...

The future of music is generative. Discuss. Zoppa Minor, via e-mail

[Generative music is an Eno-endorsed music-making system whereby a computer "grows " unrepeatable passages of music based on the operator’s initial aesthetic requirements.] I think it's one of the important futures of music. We've had 100 years of musical history where things have been static, repeatable. The era of recording, essentially. This is completely unique in the whole history of human listening and it might turn out to be just a little blip. We may soon realise that it's not much more interesting than listening to music boxes. I’m still evangelical about generative music, even though it's been slow to catch on so far. It's technically still too complex. Within 10 years, though, it will be a home entertainment format, mark my words!

Do you like football? Daniel Bamett, Bet Shemesh, Israel

I’m becoming increasingly anti-sport. I think sport is encouraged by governments to channel what would be male revolutionary energy into totally pointless activities. Sport is a great technique of social control. I always watch the Olympics, mind you.

During your Russian residency in the mid-'90s, you did some recording with the Pet Shop Boys, but nothing's ever been released. Didn't you hit it off with them? Bruce Horrell, London

I did record with them, but not in Russia. We spent an afternoon in a London studio. It was an experiment to see what it would be like for them to work with live rhythm players instead of sequencers. Just an experiment.

Can we expect another Eno "vocal" album? Andrew Burns, Liverpool

Yes! [punches the air triumphantly]. Soon. This year... I hope.

Is it true that John Cale caught you "servicing the boiler" on the kitchen table? Andrew Brown, via e-mail

That's something, er, "selective" from John's book [his odd autobiography What's Welsh For Zen?]. It's not true. There's a lot of that book that's not strictly true! But I should say we are the best of friends. There's no animosity...

How annoyed are you at the Roxy Music reunion? Is it a cash cow? Mark Yon, via e-mail

It's fine by me. I wouldn't want to do it myself. I don't like performing much, and I don't like the idea of doing something I did a long time ago again. I'm sure the money is one of the incentives for doing it, but it may not be the only one. They have a huge catalogue of material and they spent a long time evolving it; that’s reason enough to want to do it again. What would be good is if they took the risk to do something new. Six new pieces, say. Not very likely, but it’d be nice.

Would you produce a new Roxy album? Chris Heggie, Mid Lothian

I feel like taking a break from producing other people because I want to produce a new Brian Eno record. Producing is a real commitment in the sense that it’s impossible to withhold your best ideas. You can’t think, I'll save that idea for my solo record – it just doesn't work like that. Also, part of one's effectiveness as a producer is in being totally outside the group structure – so you can articulate feelings you get about the band without them having to volunteer them themselves. I don't think I'd ever be able to do that with the people in Roxy, really.

I had a music teacher in the late 70s called Vincent Eno who used to claim his brother was in Roxy Music. Is that right? Mariotta J, via e-mail

He's my cousin, actually. Roger Eno is my brother - though he was a piano teacher for a while, too. My cousin Vincent is still a music teacher in Manchester.

You're always years ahead of the competition. Any predictions about the music of the future? Jane Reece, Cardiff

There will be more detail. Organic, fine-grain music. It will also become unusual for us to experience music as a stand-alone art form. It's going to become integrated into other fields. Rather like poetry is a minority art form but pop song lyrics and advertising copy are unavoidable. It's in the nature of arts to coalesce as time goes on.

Marcel Duchamp famously displayed a urinal as a piece of art and I'm told you used it for its original purpose. Is this true? Dove Hefford, Northampton

Yes. I was asked to give a talk at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York and the urinal was part of this show about "low" and "high" art. It cost $30,000 just to insure the thing, which seemed ridiculous. The whole point of the urinal was that it was an almost random piece of hardware which could be easily replaced. I found this to be such a sublime example of commodification that I decided to do something I called re-commode-ification. I sneaked some thin plumbing tubing through a crack in the display glass and had a piss in it.

Is it true you that you got halfway through producing an album with Scott Walker only for him to throw the master tapes in the Thames? Stephen Lyall, New Zealand

We recorded the backing tracks for about six songs together. I don't think that Scott threw the tapes in the river - that sounds like too much of a dramatic flourish for him. He wasn't in a great state of mind at the time, mind you.

What did U2 say to persuade you to work on The Unforgettable Fire? Mathew Armstrong, via e-mail

I can't remember! I can only deal with a certain amount of history. If it isn't leavened with enough theory I get very bored. Sorry!

Were you smugly gratified by the relative failure of the Eno-less Pop album? Andisheh Nouraee, Atlanta, Georgia

No. It was an experiment for them. For a band of their size and status still to be experimenting is admirable.

With all your technical wizardry, have you composed your own personal ring tone for your mobile? Steve Gibbs, via e-mail

I can't believe that anyone could even be interested in thinking about such a thing.

Did Eno albums start getting boring the moment you started having to make boring bands sound interesting? David Michaels, via e-mail

Ah, a sort of transfer of boredom theory, ha ha. That's interesting. Thank you for sharing that with me, David, I'll give it some thought...

Did you and David Byrne invent sampling and are you sorry? Marsha Smith, London

No, there was already a history of it. People such as [Can bassist] Holger Czuckay had made experiments using IBM dictaphones and short-wave radios and so on. The difference was, I suppose, that I decided to make it the lead vocal on the album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Public Enemy used to cite that record as an influence all the time.

There are some shit-hot record producers around at the moment. Who do you rate? Ben How, Lincoln

Probably my favourite producer is someone who isn't general regarded as such, and that's Prince. He's this producer's producer.

What do your two children say when young schoolfriends ask, 'What does your daddy do?" Alan Kerr, Warwickshire

I asked them this once, actually. One of then was still very young and her words got mixed up. She asked me whether I was a magician, ha! ha! Nowadays they probably say, "He helps people make records", or something like that.

Did you really pretend to be Quincy Jones during the recording of The Unforgettable Fire? Ross McConnell, Glasgow

Not during the recording - though I earned the nickname Quincy from Bono for a while. The funniest part of this story happened in a bar in Tokyo. There were some press people there and cameras started flashing, so someone came up and asked for my autograph - though it was obvious they had no idea who I was. So I signed it Quincy Jones. Suddenly there was a huge queue of people wanting my autograph, so I signed them all Quincy Jones.

Would you ever consider producing an Oasis album? Brion Adkins, Berlin, Connecticut

I don't really think of myself as a producer. When I do "produce" things it's not part of a professional job that I do for a living. It's things where I feel I already have a strong relationship with the people involved. I'm enjoying more and more the development of those relationships. Like with the guys in James, for instance. I don't cast around for things to produce. I just like making the kind of records I want to hear. I could never fulfil the traditional producer’s role - I'm too opinionated!

Might you grow your hair long again? Michael Miller, Loves Park, Illinois

Ha ha ha! It would look really bad if I did.