from Jams to James
Wise words from the master of modern production
With a revolutionary James album, a major David Bowie project, and an unexpected reunion with Bryan Ferry all arriving shortly or well under way, Brian Eno is getting back to doing what he does best: producing records. In this exclusive interview, Mark Cunningham chats to him about his methods, his mixes, and his muse...
To say that Brian Eno has always been ahead of his time is to issue a classic understatement. Time has learned to accept his redefinition of the word 'musician'. And while the uninformed critics of the early '70s took his self-inflicted job title 'non-musician' as a reference to his unworldly synthesiser doodlings and glam, androgynous image, the more astute realised that Eno was drawing attention to all the talents, both creative and technical, that contribute to the making of music - whether they are players, producers, engineers, DJs, or programmers.
The Eno canon is breathtaking, his pursuit of the next idea relentless. He shaped the early Roxy Music sound, and with solo works such as Discreet Music (1975), Eno brought the word 'ambient' into Rock. As one of the world's most valued producers and collaborators, he has helped to steer the likes of U2, David Bowie, and David Byrne to the peaks of their imaginations, and this month sees the release of two new Eno-produced albums: Wah-Wah by James and Laurie Anderson's Bright Red.
Taking the recording studio from its once passive transmitter status, Eno has pioneered and developed its use as a musical tool.
He explains: "I started coming to the studio with less worked-out pieces, and eventually with nothing at all. I would just start working with that thing, 'the studio', as the instrument. I'd say: 'OK, let's start with a drone or single repeated piano note. What happens if I put an echo on that? What happens if I make that echo wobble by sending it through a tape recorder with a bent capstan?'
"As soon as I did that I'd start to get some feeling for the sound. It would start to become liquid or spread out in a non-recognisable way. Then I'd think about adding other sounds, piling on more layers, and acting very much like an abstract painter and his canvas.
"To me, the image of the studio was rather like landscape painting, where you'd set the canvas up in front of the existing scene and the skill, in theory, was in getting the scene onto the canvas, just as the skill in old recording methods was in getting the song onto the record. What I was saying was that there was nothing outside of this process - this process called recording is the creative process. We don't have the canvas standing in front of any landscape, you are going to make the landscape here and now."
Working with pianist Harold Budd during the late '70s and early '80s, Eno began to explore the technique of subliminal mixing, essentially exploring the use and value of the different audio frequencies of the piano: "I would split his piano signal into four or five different frequency bands, so everything equivalent to the lower string of a bass guitar would be put onto one track of the tape, then the next frequency band that is equal to the human voice range would be put onto another. I would make up four or five tracks like this, so I could split the sound spectrum up into different regions, and then I would work separately with these regions. Instead of putting echo on the piano as one might normally do, I'd say: 'OK, on the bottom end of the piano, I'm going to spread that sound out, flange it or put it out of phase, or something. Then with the next band of sound, I'm going to just leave it out completely or put it far back in the mix and over on the right-hand side'. I could then maybe put a repeat echo on the third band, and so on.
"I started to get really atomic about sound and analyse it carefully to see what could be sucked out of it, what could be found within an existing sound and made more of. I wanted to use the studio like a microscope for sound, which is what good engineers do."
Despite experimentation and improvisation being high on his priority list, Eno is surprisingly economical with studio time, sometimes to the chagrin of insecure clients.
"One of my mottos is that if you want to get unusual results, work fast and work cheap, because there's more of a chance that you'll get somewhere that nobody else did. Nearly always, the effect of spending a lot of money is to make things more normal. Hollywood is the best example of that, where you have 56 lighting technicians and four camera gaffers, and you know that what they're all for is to make it look like every other film you've ever seen.
"I place a lot of store on conceptual preparation before I go into the studio. A studio is an absolute labyrinth of possibilities - this is why records take so long to make because there are millions of permutations of things you can do. The most useful thing you can do is to get rid of some of those options before you start. It's like going into a Chinese restaurant and being presented with a 322-page menu and thinking: 'God, I just want something to eat!'"
"If you want unusual results, work fast and work cheap"
To those in the business who shudder at the suggestion that the days of the traditional producer may be numbered, Eno offers some comfort:
"When people sit at home with their home studios they are in a way looking after the territory that was more the province of producers, which is this quasi-artistic, quasi-technical ground that a lot of rock music is made in. So in one sense, the idea of the producer as someone who mediates and converses between the completely non-technical musician and non-artistic engineer, which was the old picture, is now dead because most musicians now occupy all three of those roles to some extent. Most of today's musicians who play an electric instrument are partly engineers - they have some feeling about how things should connect together and how things should sound. But I think there is another kind of producer coming into existence who is not an interface between the artistic and the technical, but an interface between different areas of the existing culture.
"What I do a lot when I work with people is try to connect ideas and tie them all into a bigger cultural picture, because it clarifies things and is less one-dimensional. It's a more conceptual role. Producing now is more about locating something where it falls. It's not obvious any longer. If you were making a beat record in 1963, there wouldn't be much question about what to do. You'd know you were making a pop record and it had to fit into a particular culture. But with the moving on of time, the field has become so wide and there are so many edges to it, and so many ways you can have a successful career doing this, that it isn't obvious which course you're on and where your music fits in.
"Of course, producers can also offer another intelligent pair of ears which is something they've always done, and that certainly isn't obsolete by any means. I have a rule when I produce, and that is not to spend too much time on a record. I come into the studio in spurts, like a week in every month, and it puts me in a position where I can hear things freshly and make some kind of an assessment about what's being done. People get fatigued with hearing the same songs over and over, so they often put more sounds on tape to keep themselves awake! It's important in those circumstances for someone like myself to come in and say: 'Just leave all of that off and listen to what is here, these basic ideas'."
"People get fatigued with hearing the same songs over and over, so they put more sounds on tape to keep themselves awake. So someone like me comes in and says: 'Just leave all of that off and listen to what's here'"
I suggest to Eno that one of his main qualities as a producer may be his ability to allow an artist's true musical personality to ooze out onto tape. He agrees. Sort of.
"What I'm saying is: 'Don't be ashamed of your own ideas'. Most musicians, when they go into sessions, get applauded for sounding like someone else, or a slight variation on someone else's style. I hear this all the time from people who try something out that they think is exciting, and everyone looks a little unsure. Then they play an old James Brown riff and everyone's saying: 'Wow! That's what we want!' You have to realise that most of the time musicians are being encouraged to sound recognisable. What I'm doing is encouraging them at the points when they're not. It's more about them finding confidence than bringing out their true personality."
One of the most refreshing aspects of Eno's approach to music-making is his ongoing series of 'Oblique Strategies' - philosophies which can just as effectively be applied in life as inside the recording studio. These theories have their origins in Eno's earliest studio experiences when time was at a premium, yet the pressure to achieve interesting results was great. Beginning as a list of aphorisms, the Strategies emerged as a guide to back-alley session stances. Eno explains a few of them:
"An important question to ask is: 'What wouldn't you do?' Imagine you're sitting there working, things are getting difficult and the situation reaches an impasse. You keep trying things but they don't work, so it's at that point where you should ask yourself: 'What wouldn't I do?' 'What are the things I wouldn't think of doing?' You've already thought of the things you thought would work, but they didn't. It's a little bit like when you've lost something and you go around the flat looking in all the obvious places where you might normally leave something. Clearly it isn't in any of those, so you then think about all the places you wouldn't usually think of looking. Chances are you'll probably find the object...
"Change instrument roles. Do something boring. Consult other sources, either promising or unpromising. Cut a vital connection - that's a very interesting thing to do because most pieces of music are based around some centre, like a drum track or a drone, which really holds everything together. Just try taking that element out of the music and see what happens. Suddenly, when you take it out you start to hear everything else that's there, and you may realise that some of it is redundant, obsolete or, even more interesting, that it stands completely alone and is in fact another new piece of music to develop."
"There's nothing worse than being stuck in a studio when you don't feel you have anything to offer"
Last year, James became yet another rock act to fall under the Eno spell. The result? The internationally-acclaimed album, Laid. This month, from the same sessions at Real World Studios, another James album emerges: the highly improvised Wah-Wah. Unlike its sister album, its aimless, sideways approach provides a snapshot of a band that didn't realise the audience might be listening in. But what are the benefits in recording two albums simultaneously?
"It's actually a very good strategic decision. One reason is you can have two studios going at the same time and that offers great creative benefit. If you have a bunch of people sitting in one room and working on one piece of music, and getting immersed in that piece of music, everyone's thinking they should say something just to prove that they're still paying attention, because it's embarrassing to sit in a corner for four hours. It's much more important for people to genuinely feel they have something to contribute than just interject for the sake of it. There are two pieces of music being worked on at once and this really does something for the social balance of events, because there are two places you can be. You have a choice. You can go to the studio and work on the music that is more interesting to you at that point in time. There's nothing worse than being stuck in a studio when you're not interested in the track or don't feel you have anything to offer.
"It's also a fantastic device for perspective because if you walk from one room into the other, there are some aspects about the newer music that become blindingly obvious to you. You walk in and say: 'The whole sound is too muddy'. Or: 'This chorus is pathetically weak'. If you're all sitting around the desk, working on one piece of music for days, that clarity disappears.
"Most people do not make just one kind of music; they have a lot of different ideas and I think a lot of records are ruined by people trying to half-heartedly mix them up in an unthought-out way. Doing things this way, you can say: 'OK, in this record we can have all of this kind of thing, and in this other record we can have all the other kinds of music'. Of course, they can overlap, but you can take ideas as far as they can go without them starting to cancel out or fight with other ideas."
Interestingly, the latest person to benefit from Eno's double (or possibly triple album) whammy work ethic is David Bowie, who has been working in New York during the summer with his former collaborator.
Could we be in for a return to the glories of Heroes and Low? Don't bet against it.
Interview by Mark Cunningham
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