Beyond The Infinite
Inventor of the 'infinite guitar', this Canadian born player's haunting multi-layered guitar parts have graced the works of such luminaries as Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, U2's Edge, and Daniel Lanois, though Michael Brook's own music has yet to receive the recognition it deserves. Mark J. Prendergast reports.
Let's start with a bold statement: Michael Brook is one of the world's greatest electronic music inventors extant. In fact, he's got few rivals. That flowing harmony guitar that makes up the U2 sound, listened to by millions, is Brook's handiwork - a very limited edition invention titled the 'infinite guitar'. Only three such guitars exist at the moment: one owned by U2's Edge; one in the possession of fellow Canadian producer/artist Daniel Lanois; and, of course, one used by the man himself. In short, it produces an infinite sustainable tone and allows the user an enormous degree of flexibility when the instrument is utilised in conjunction with electronic sound delay effects and sequencing devices.
In concert, Brook surrounds himself with banks of equipment, all of it personally customised, some of it built from scratch. The music that flies out is rhythmic in an African way, ornamented in an Indian fashion, and driven by a potent spirit to push electric/electronic/acoustic music over the edge into another universe. I've seen him mesmerise audiences in old theatres and churches. From Kyoto in Japan to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands; from Rome to New York city, thousands have witnessed this man produce a multilayered music that is simply astonishing in its variety and depth.
Probably because of his shyness and backroom dedication to other peoples' sounds, Brook hasn't been given the credit he deserves. Born in Toronto in the early 1950s, he achieved Canadian fame early by playing guitar with successful pop band Martha & The Muffins. His involvement with the group came via their producer, Daniel Lanois, with whom he worked as house engineer in the famous Lanois brothers' Grant Avenue recording studio in Hamilton, Ontario. There he met Brian Eno and Harold Budd, among others. He also studied Indian music with world music trumpeter and minimalist Jon Hassell. These associations led to his name cropping up on such albums as Eno's On Land (1982) and Hassell's Magic Realism (1983). In 1985 Brook's first solo LP, Hybrid, came out on EG Records to critical acclaim, with Eno and Lanois as his backing musicians. A tour de force, it is still pointed to as one of the great ethnic/ambient works of the mid-1980s.
Since then Brook has produced recordings in various locations by Roger Eno, Laraaji, Teresa De Sio, Pieter Nooten, and more recently the celebrated debut record by Mary Margaret O'Hara. A close friend of U2's Edge, Brook collaborated with him on the 1986 soundtrack to the film Captive. An important recording in that it was the first solo outing to come from the U2 camp and, significantly, introduced the marvellous Sinead O'Connor to the world at large. It was aurally memorable for its width of pan-African/Eastern textures. Having spent the last three years flying around the world as technical adviser to Brian Eno's elaborate range of Opal sound installations and concerts, Brook feels it is time to release his second solo LP.
Ensconced in the equipment strewn environs of his West London flat, Brook afforded me an afternoon of conversation and demonstration that ranged over his entire career. What follows is a record of that meeting.
You were born in the early 1950s, and thus would have grown up through the great rock and roll era of the 1960s. Was that influential?
"The things I remember about the 1960s were The Beatles, and the Hendrix and Cream records my Scottish girlfriend used to bring over from England. This was before anybody in Canada had ever heard of them. That stuff had a big influence on me, because it was really electric. It used things like distortion, which only happened as a product of amplified instruments. Before that, drums were just drums and electric guitar was used more like an acoustic guitar or dobro type guitar. With those records it seemed like you crossed a quantum level of what the quality of the sound was like. I suppose that was pretty inspiring for me. I found the bass playing in Cream very radical: it was loud, you could hear it, and it was playing strong melodic things. Hendrix's music stands up so well - those distorted fuzz guitars don't lose a fraction with passing time."
When you were a teenager you played in local rock bands like The Everglades and Flivva. What was that like?
"Wow! How did you find out about Flivva? Well, they were original material rock bands in which my brother played bass. I was more keen on instruments, because all I had then was my one tape recorder that I could do 'sound on sound' recording with. I felt I needed to learn more about music, so I went to York University. I couldn't get into the music department because I didn't read music, so I enrolled as an Art student and wangled my way onto music courses. It was great. They had some brilliant courses on the influence of African music, North American music, a great Indian course, and quite a good electronic music studio. All of this was in 1975 and it influenced me to a great extent, just being exposed to all that stuff. I was there for 2½ years and still didn't learn to read music [laughs]."
Brook became a teaching assistant because of his obsession with and knowledge of electronics. He helped run college equipment demonstrations and studio workshops. Because of York University's strong electronic music tradition, the influence of an instrument inventor called Jula Kane at The National Research Council, plus the influx of well qualified draft-dodging Americans into Canada with an interest in electronics, Brook contends he was in the middle of a very radical and vibrant scene.
"There was a lot of excitement about new instruments and new ways of doing things. We started this electronic performance group, which was primarily interested in mixing ethnic music and electronics - an idea which has remained with me to this day."
Brook left York to work in an experimental art gallery, something akin to London's ICA. He became involved with the technical aspects of their avant garde performances, especially their video lab. Through this Toronto base he met Jon Hassell, the brilliant trumpeter who within years would bring 'World music' to the West.
"In 1974 I met Jon at the gallery. I was already familiar with him from York but this second meeting was crucial. I then helped work on his first record, Vernal Equinox, on the engineering side. It was through him that I met Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who everybody thinks I met because we live 40 miles away from each other! I was working with Jon doing the odd tour and then with Dan and Brian on some of Jon's records, in Grant Avenue studios in Hamilton. Then I started working with The Muffins. I got involved with them after their big hit single Echo Beach, and did about three tours with them in the early 1980s."
What attracted you to the Lanois brothers' Grant Avenue studios?
"The main thing was their absolute determination to be open-minded about things - it was almost a militant open-mindedness. Also, they took one step back and looked at the recording process and said: 'Well you have to have instruments to make recordings in the studio!' With most other studios you go to you have to be constantly hiring out instruments, but they felt that a 'studio' was instruments and recording equipment together, not just recording equipment. It was therefore easy to try out ideas without making these big commitments to hiring a piano or a particular type of synthesizer. You have to overcome a threshold of action if you want to get something done in a studio that contains just recording equipment. The same with outboard gear - they had lots of effects pedals and boxes. There was this incredible determination to be loose about things, to follow one's nose and do everything as much as you could. Bob and Dan never watched the clock but kept the idea of quality as a first commitment."
"Future Peter Gabriel engineer David Bottril assisted Eno and Lanois on Brook's magnificent debut LP 'Hybrid' in 1985."
Brook, along with Daniel Lanois and Jon Hassell, contributed guitar to Eno's important Ambient album of 1982 On Land, specifically its best cut 'Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960'. This, along with Jon Hassell projects Dream Theory In Malaya and Aka Darbari Java/Magic Realism around the same time, brought the Canadian guitarist into the forefront of new exciting experimental music.
"I suppose some of my guitar playing was interesting but I think I acted often as a kind of technical lubricant, in that I could think of ways for people to do what they were trying to do. I think I made it easier for certain things to happen."
Future Peter Gabriel engineer David Bottril assisted Eno and Lanois on Brook's magnificent debut LP Hybrid in 1985. Here, dry African percussion was astutely mixed with a series of exotic instrumentation including mbira, swamp percussion, Northumbrian pipes, buzz bass, steel guitar, vibes, congas, cricket recordings and, of course, the instrument Brook invented for the recording of the album - the 'infinite guitar'.
"Do you want to see it?" [He picks up a small, brown, solid body guitar and starts producing fabulous musical fibulations from it.] "It's an ordinary guitar that's been modified with added electronic components which I built for it. I had always been interested in Indian notation - how it went smoothly from one note to the other. With the infinite guitar I can play longer phrases with a much gentler sound." [Smooth transitions from one note to the other in the style of Indian raga.] "If you put a drone on this you get an infinitely ringing note, as long as you hold down the string. I was always interested in intonation and drones. So in reality, what this does is simulate a loud amplifier - it's just like having a 200 watt Marshall stack. Then I had the neck scalloped, so I could bend the notes like on a sitar. These pedals here are also part of the infinite: this is fuzz and these two here are two large volume pedals. These are echo volume pedals that I use live, so that I can have the guitar repeating and keep the volume just so. I'm talking to a manufacturer at the moment about the possibility of marketing the guitar, so there's not much more I can tell you."
When Michael Brook gets going, this deliciously trance inducing music is produced. Repeating guitar phrases, ethnic percussion, and scintillating chordings all combine to produce a sound of intuitive brilliance. Just like Hybrid, Distant Village, and Midday from his debut, he knows how to mix interesting noises. Funnily enough a Casio 202 was used on that album, and the murky swamp percussion sound was produced by feeding real percussion into a compressor, then an AMS pitch-shifter, then into speakers which fed back the results an octave higher. What are his memories of that recording session?
"Well I remember using the Electro-Harmonix 16-second digital delay, which was pretty radical for that time. You could have 16 seconds of delay and play whole phrases on top of each other. We also did a lot of improvising at the editing stage - sort of chopping pieces up, playing new parts, and editing them together again. We also used a Yamaha CS80 synth on Hybrid, and of course there was the buzz bass - a modified instrument which sounds like a bass sitar. It produces a beautiful sound. The idea was really taken from a tambura - it's like a cross between a bass guitar and a tambura. I also used this little Hawaiian guitar quite a lot actually." [He points to a prehistoric looking miniature guitar.]
Having heard the tracks Alap, Andean, Urbana, Productivity, Err and Shona many times in concert, I can categorically say that Brook's new music is more rhythmic, more focused, and more direct than that on his Hybrid LP. He's tentatively called the new work Cobalt Blue and most of this interview was conducted with it playing in the background off a DAT mix.
"There's more synthesizer and there's a real drummer. James Pinker is playing percussion on this track Urbana. Hear that spaghetti western guitar sound? I'm getting more interested in that sound now. I've done most of the music here at home; Brian Eno's helped out, so has Roger. I'm very pleased with the sound. I started out using the Atari computer really strongly, but then used less and less sequencer. It's not a bad way of doing it, gradually replacing things with less parts, using the sequencer to help compositionally. The computer is an Atari 1040ST running C-Lab Creator."
Michael plays me a new atmospheric piece featuring broad acoustic chords and a strange bright shimmering sound.
"That sound is actually a Roland R8 drum machine. It's kind of neat, just taking the whistle and shaker sounds on the drum machine and doubling everything on the computer, so it's playing as many notes as it possibly can all of one sound."
A series of wafting exotic tracks follow, some with strings, others with lovely keyboard sections by Roger Eno, most with multi-layered rhythmic percussion and guitar - the core of Brook's sonic landscape.
"This album on the whole is quite rhythmic, even though there are textural pieces like Alap. In a way I'm acknowledging rock music, which is my cultural heritage, by putting rhythm and melody together in an interesting way."
Did a lot of your other activities influence the direction of this recording?
"Last July, Brook and Eno performed an extraordinary concert at a Shinto shrine in Tenkawa near Kyoto, Japan."
"Well, this track we're hearing now came out of an Opal evening soundcheck. I travel quite frequently with Opal [Brian Eno's record label] and just get ideas. I design electronic things mostly just for Brian's projects, like light controllers that are used in his video shows. Shortly I'll be going to the volcanic caves in Lanzarote for a festival with Wim Mertens, Harold Budd, Roedelius, John Foxx, Laraaji, and so forth. A film is being made of this event. It's a really beautiful place, these caves and pools in the Canary Islands. In between my travelling I've been recording, for about a year now. There are other influences I hear in there now - like J.J. Cale and the Indian music of Bismallah Khan."
Do you take much of your studio equipment with you on your travels?
"Yes. Much of the time I seem to be packing and unpacking all this equipment. For my setup, I have to take a mixing desk and all this outboard equipment. I can then perform and also do treatments of other people. When we do an Opal evening, the simplest thing is for me to do all the mixes."
Can you run through the equipment you use?
"This here's an Allen & Heath 16-track Saber mixing desk. They are a really good English company who actually replaced all the faders a year ago when I had some trouble with it. It doesn't have automated mixing but it has MIDI muting, which helps.
The monitors are Yamaha NS 1000s - they've got a big, beautiful sound. Then there's the 16-track Fostex, the Atari C-Lab, the patch panel... Here's a fantastic Eventide H3000 harmonizer. This is a thing I made called a VEWA - a vocal effects waveform animator. It adds vocal-like formants to a signal. It's sort of like a random vocoder. I used it quite a bit on Hybrid. This here is a Lexicon LXP1 digital reverb, which has an incredible quality to it. The Yamaha TX802 is the synthesizer I use. This Bel digital delay line I use live a lot. It produces 13-second loops in sync with MIDI, so it's like having a rhythm guitarist who can play for 13 seconds - that's very important for my live work. Here's the Yamaha SPX90 and Roland reverb I use sometimes.
"What I use most on the guitar is this IVL guitar-to-MIDI interface, particularly live. You can also hear it on the record, on the percussive track Andean. I use Neve preamps on the guitar; they make the guitar sound so like satin. They are 20 years old these preamps, and one of the main reasons why I've lost some interest in using treatments on the guitar. The sound of the naked guitar through these is so good.
"This piece here is a Drawmer M500, which does everything: compression, noise gating, limiting... it does nice tremolo, also, and in time with the music. I don't think anything else does that. Then there's a DAT machine, the infinite guitar box, a DX7, pedal boards, the buzz bass, and the Hawaiian guitar. How's that?"
Brook is surely one of the best equipped and knowledgeable musicians I have ever met in my life. No wonder he's always in so much demand as a collaborator. The Edge's Captive soundtrack of 1986 and Mary Margaret O'Hara's recent Miss America album are just two notable recordings he's added spice to. I ask him first about Captive, a venture rich with musical texture, ambience, ethnicity, and risque ideas.
"That was recorded in Dublin in Windmill Lane studios. It was fun, a good project. Edge had started it on his own but then needed someone to bounce ideas off, and to help organise things and come up with suggestions. I got involved halfway through. It was intense, really compact, as it all happened over a very short time over Christmas. I played some synthesizers, so did he, and we both played guitar and percussion. It was mainly doing overdubs, mixing, and adding new pieces."
A year later, Brook worked on Pieter Nooten's sparse, haunting album for 4AD Records, Sleeps With The Fishes. How did that come about?
"Well he was going to do a record for 4AD and Ivo, who runs the label, asked if I wanted to produce it. It turned out that I also did a lot of playing, programming of synthesizer sounds, and the engineering on it. Even though all the composing was Pieter's, I ended up doing more on it than anybody - including myself - expected, so I was very generously co-credited. It was recorded in Blackwing Studios and I really feel proud of it."
Then came the collaboration with singer Teresa de Sio, who worked with Brian Eno on an LP called Africana and with Brook and Eno on the 1988 follow-up The Sindarella Suite, which Brook wrote a lot of music for.
"She's Italian. I actually met her at one of Brian's video shows. We were doing something in Milan and she wanted some collaborators for a record. We had so little time, we had to just use ideas that were already on the boil and really work fast. I think some of it ended up really good. It was recorded here in London in four or five days."
"I've come to the conclusion that the state of mind necessary to deal with music is not compatible with the state of mind for dealing with equipment."
Brook's production of Mary Margaret O'Hara's album has been described by him as a mixture of "open country jazz, some rock, something with a psycho rock feel."
"What I meant by that is how hard it is to label her music. Some of it is country, some of it is jazzy, some of it's rock. The album was recorded over a very long time. She started it, and went through four producers. She gave it up at one stage, then started again, and so on. I was sort of the tug-boat captain who brought the ship into harbour. We re-recorded four of five songs, so half the job was starting over. She began recording in Wales, did some in Canada, then in London, then back to Canada. I worked with her there. She's really, really good - a real original, and she came up with a very strong record."
Last July, Brook and Eno performed an extraordinary concert at a Shinto shrine in Tenkawa near Kyoto, Japan. Along with handmade instrument maker Peter Appleton, they turned the site into an open air sound environment. One Japanese critic said the concert lasted three hours and was like On Land, in that it used sharp and heavy sounds rather than light, airy ones.
"The temple was in an amazing place - absolutely stunning. It was situated in stereotypical beautiful Japanese countryside - receding hills, each one more covered in mist, pine trees, a beautiful river... It was very, very hot. Brian, myself, and Peter Appleton, who makes musical sculptures, all went out there to rehearse and make tapes. We worked for about a week developing pieces. They had built this new temple in this old location, where there had been a temple for 1400 years. It had a roof, but no walls as such. I think the concert went fairly well, though it was a strange performance - it consisted of me holding a note on the guitar, say, or Brian just playing DAT tapes. The temple could only hold about two or three hundred people. About 2500 people actually attended, and our initial idea of having people walking in and around a sound environment became more or less a stage performance. At one point, around 25 people came on stage and were whirling these things called 'spinners', which Peter made - pieces of wood about a metre long with magnetic recording tape tightly strung within. They made this beautiful whistling sound. There were long times when we weren't performing but there was still music going on. All of the pieces were new, all developed within that week we were there. A lot of them utilised sounds recorded by Brian on his portable DAT recorder, which were then treated and played over. The sounds that the insects and birds made were incredible. We had this little house on the side of a hill and you could literally stick the microphone out the window and hear something incredible. But the climate was very hard to take, like being in a sauna all the time - very hot and humid, tiring and debilitating. The culture shock was also very draining."
Can you think of another installation you've done with Brian that was as interesting as that?
"Yes, a while ago we did one at the botanical gardens in Rome. Now that's a huge place which specialises in palm trees - 50 different varieties. There was lots of space. We did a festival there with Terry Riley - an Opal evening on one of the seven hills of Rome. It was such a beautiful setting. The stage was just below the crest of the hill, and so the backdrop was the whole city and the audience had this incredible view looking out over the performers."
Brook feels rightly that there's little excitement in England about modern culture, particularly the type of frontiers stuff he and Eno are into. Most of his work occurs in Europe and America, with only the odd church or theatre gig in London. In Italy, France, and Spain, where Opal concerts are frequent. Brook contends that their enthusiasm coupled with a healthy State involvement ensures a steady flow of interesting art events.
As an inventor and a consumer of electronics, can you see a shift away from this fixation with technology and newer and newer gadgets?
"Well, all modern music is about electronics in some way, but what used to happen when I was at University was that there wasn't much equipment available, and thus a lot of people would make their own things. So you learned how to use a tool differently. If you have to make it, it gives you a different approach.
"I've got mixed feelings about all this technical stuff. I can be playing a keyboard or a guitar and making music, then something goes wrong and all of a sudden I'm on this two or three hour detour, and the music's gone! The equipment is fixed but the music no longer exists. Yes, you gain more power by using a computer, because you can change things, automate other things, and fix mistakes - it's more flexible than a tape recorder. But with a tape recorder, it's either broken or it isn't. With a computer, you don't know if it's broken or you're broken [laughs]."
"There is this modern myth about the DX7 and the Prophet 5 synthesizers: that when they're brought back for servicing most still have the original factory sounds in them, showing that few people ever learn to programme them. To me, that shows a healthy reluctance to get involved in the nuts and bolts of things. I love tools, that's my vocation, but I've come to the conclusion that the state of mind necessary to deal with music is not compatible with the state of mind for dealing with equipment."
Why do you think the Yamaha DX7 became so popular?
"The main reason it's popular is because it was the first commercially produced synthesizer to add harmonics in a natural way to synthetic sounds; it's the whole FM synthesis idea. Also, its velocity sensitivity is so natural, you feel like you're actually playing an instrument - and that's because it didn't filter harmonics out like most other synths did at the time it first came out. What the DX7 does is allows you to add very subtle amounts of harmonics. It's so versatile that two people can make it sound totally different - Brian's DX7 programs are totally different to mine. I mainly use it for percussion - all of my electronic percussions are DX7. I also use it for tambura and sitar sounds, and very buzzy sounds."
Many would feel that Michael Brook is lucky to be able to troubleshoot the equipment he owns, and know how the fundamental innards of electronic gear works. But even with his knowledge, for him, the music always comes first.
"I used to have a studio in Canada and it was a great relief to get rid of it! I might even get rid of most of this stuff when I finish this record. With a home studio you are always kind of working; never quite stopping but never quite starting either.
"Technology does get better all the time, and I think from a mechanical point of view music is sounding better. But the crucial thing is that technology has nothing to do with music, it's irrelevant to what music is. It's related to recording and sound reinforcement, and happens to be something I'm interested in, but technology has nothing to do with the musical problem, the challenge, which is emotional. You've got the tools, but it's sort of like talking about paint and paper with regard to painting!"
Interview by Mark Prendergast