Brian’s younger brother talks to Tim Goodyer about Erik Satie, the state of pop, and being related to somebody more famous than you are.
After living in the shadow of brother Brian for years, Roger Eno steps out of the shadows with an album of ambient music, some ambitious plans for the future, and more than the odd contentious opinion to voice.
Roger Eno is a pop star. Even if, by comparison with most other pop stars, few people have heard of him. Far more people have heard of his brother, Brian Eno, who appeared on E&MM's front cover two months ago; he used to be a pop star. Like his more famous sibling, Roger is also a keyboard player of sorts. But, from there on in, the two begin to emerge as entirely different characters.
We managed to track Eno Junior down to a luxurious family house in the peaceful village of Woodbridge, deep in the East Anglian countryside, where he was engaged in preparation for a world tour, due to take in such exotic locations as Japan and, politics permitting, Italy.
He seemed eager to talk about himself, but first — his brother. 'Being 11 years younger than Brian, it's strange to think we're brothers in a way. When I was six, for example, he'd already left home for Art School, so we didn't really have a childhood together.
'It was only about four years ago that we actually started seeing each other. That was about the time I became a professional musician. I stayed with him in New York and we worked in Canada together, but up to that point we hadn't seen much of each other at all. Now it's as if there's nothing been missed. I don't know what other brothers talk about — if it's their childhood days or not — but we talk about the present and the future; those are our main concerns.'
And that lost childhood hasn't prevented the two from becoming very, very close, or as Roger himself chooses to view it: 'He's a very good friend who also happens to be a famous brother'.
A pleasantly refreshing philosophy, perhaps, but it's surely a situation that can't be without its drawbacks. Just how does the fickle, unpredictable world of modern music treat you when you're following a similar path to a successful elder brother?
'There are advantages and disadvantages to the situation. The advantage is the publicity angle, where Brian's success has probably helped draw attention to my work. The disadvantage is the danger of being put into the same category, and having people think I'm just copying Brian. With luck they'll realise, after hearing my album, that we're not so similar.'
This Eno has a manner that is disarmingly casual and amiable (just like his brother, but not quite the way a pop star should be). He laughs easily, and is eager that I should join him in a drink he calls 'home brew' with affection. Eventually, I agree. It turns out to be a pleasant, mildly intoxicating liquor, and one of this star's major vices.
'When I see Brian I'm normally drunk', he confesses. 'He lives in Chelsea, a couple of doors away from a pub where I play on Thursday nights for beer money. I actually do it more to see a bit of the world, because a lot of my work is very insular. But I do get free beer there, so obviously I drink as much as possible — then I go and see Brian.
'When he comes to see me here we go out for walks and talk together. We really do get on very well, so when we meet up it's always a high point. Brian's a very intelligent man, and that makes him nice to have around because you can learn things from him. When he speaks I generally listen, then I mull over what he's said and make my own mind up.'
Naturally, this exchange of brotherly ideas exerts an influence on the work of the younger Eno. But do Brian's comments constitute a welcome outsider's opinion, or a problem to an artist intent on realising his own ambitions?
'Our music's quite different, so it's not as if I'm taking things lock, stock and barrel from a teacher. It's difficult to say how much is coincidence and how much of his influence has rubbed off on me. The fact that we're both interested primarily in slow music, and have our flings into faster things occasionally, is one example. My faster things happen to be bad jazz playing, and his happen to be rhythmic stuff. Both our mainstream interests are in the slow stuff, and I don't think that's coincidence.'
In fact, the musical interaction between the two takes a practical rather than philosophical form, as the younger partner explains. 'We don't often talk about music, but we often play together. We sometimes have late-night sessions improvising together. In that case I think Brian learns more off me, because I'm a better instrumentalist than he is. He's got a real knack of using simple things well — that's probably his strength, that and seeing possibilities in things. When we play together he'll do the simple things and I'll do the trickier ones. It just reinforces the opinion that I'm on the right track, because what we do together sounds nice. It's a bit of optimism, I suppose.'
Roger Eno's confidence in instrumental playing is derived from a classical education at Colchester Music School. From there he progressed to a post as Music Therapist at a hospital for the mentally handicapped, a move which was to have a profound influence on his future work. Unlike Brian, however, he found that electronics clouded the main issue of composition.
'It was all traditional instruments at the college, apart from a small electronics department which basically consisted of a VCS3. I toyed around with that for a while but I felt it was a novelty rather than anything substantial. It was good fun, but nothing I did had any real essence to it, so I thought: "Seeing as I'm not good at this, what am I good at?".
'At first I diversified and taught myself how to play a lot of instruments, but now I find myself specialising — not necessarily in instruments, but in my method of writing. The last two years' work have definitely come out of one person and I feel that's a good thing. I find I concentrate a lot more on a classical idea, rather than experimenting. It's the writing I'm primarily concerned about.
'What puts me off electronics, particularly in pop music, is that unless you use them well, you end up with a sort of homogenous sound. In pop music there's always a Flavour of the Month, and you're setting yourself up to follow a trend when you buy something like a DX7 or a Fairlight. Who uses them in constructive ways? In my opinion, very few people. Brian is one of the few artists doing anything exciting in the electronic field. Other people buy instruments and then think: "Brilliant, we've got everything we need for a band!" And that's where it stops. They don't stop to think about the possibilities of the machines. I think I'd fall into that trap. It'd take me too long to learn to use anything as I'd like to, and that time should be spent doing something else — writing.'
If Eno is to be seriously credited with a vocation, it must be that of composer. It's not a role he undertakes lightly, which, considering his previous occupation, shouldn't come as a great surprise.
'Part of the job in the hospital was relaxing people, and I thought there might be a future in it. I was interested in how music can slow you down as well as hype you up. What I like doing is relaxing people, and I asked myself why the music worked, why some music agitates you and other music calms you down. Apart from the rhythmic element, which I discounted because rhythmic music can still be relaxing if it's in the hands of someone like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, what is it that affects you?
'I looked into it and decided that for the last 250 or 300 years we've had very similar scales. Then there is harmonic movement — it's become pretty standard that you have chords that lead the ear naturally to other chords. You feel comfortable with particular sets of chords, you feel you can sit down and relax with them. So consequently I tend to write in a traditional vein where the chords are known: they flow into each other, it's not something that frightens the listener.
'An extension of this is how parts move within the chords: melodic music was originally primarily vocal, and, up until the virtuosi of the world came along, instruments were such that you had to play in a vocal style. Because they were crudely made, you played as someone would sing — there was none of this flashy violin work.
"A lot of Satie's music has been abused in the past. Musicians used to playing Liszt find it tricky to play slow stuff that needs a different approach."
That again is a natural thing: to hear a melody that you can sing. So within the chord movements, there are vocal intervals. All this makes listeners more comfortable, because they know what's going on. I'm trying to use what people already know, in a slightly original way.
'My method of composition is basically to use a traditional medium to create emotive music to definite ends. You decide what mood it is you want to create, and you know that a minor key will make people sad — it's like choosing a palette of colours to work from. I've thought about this such a lot that I know which musical elements make people feel a particular way — I recognise what they do to me.
'That's why I'm interested in the reasons for my music being so popular in Japan. The Japanese have had a completely different cultural upbringing to us, and it's only in the last 40 years that they've adopted the West completely. I wonder how they listen to someone like Stravinsky, it must be quite alien to them.'
In keeping with his preference for traditional forms and familiar methods, Roger Eno is more likely to listen to the work of classical composers than he is to go out and buy a bunch of chart twelve-inch singles.
'It's mainly Erik Satie that I listen to now, along with a lot of other classical stuff — even some Beethoven. He was a genuine artist in the sense that if someone didn't like something he'd written, then they'd have to lump it and leave it for another generation to discover. You don't see a lot of that around any more. He was writing for himself, which I think is a good thing. If you set yourself up to be your own judge, you come to a point of honour; if you've copped out, you know it. If you really have respect for yourself like that, then you're going to produce good work. Maybe it's a very old-fashioned way of looking at things, but that's how I try to approach them.'
The prostitution of the composer/musician in the commercial pop arena is not a by-product of the profession that finds much favour with our Roger. Consequently, the art-vs-money dilemma has been easily resolved, with money coming off a firm second-best. A pop star who doesn't like pop? You'd better believe it.
'The commercial pop approach is so alien to my way of thinking. There's been very little money involved in a lot of the things I've done. They're done for prestige, because I think they're good and that they ought to be listened to. It probably means I'm going to be very poor for the rest of my life, but it also means I can honestly say I'm convinced of what I'm doing.
'If you're going to do something for yourself, you've got to be a bit radical first of all, then you can afford to become more liberal once you know what it is you want to do. You've got to say: "I've got blinkers on, I'm going to learn my form". I think I know what I want so I can afford to listen to more now, because I know it's not going to influence me.
'I'm not really interested in pop music at all. I'm probably quite wrong in writing it off completely, but it's not what I would consider to be an honourable musical form. What I'm really interested in is something that's not just ephemeral, but something that will be around for years to come. In the pop world your working parameters are really pulled in. You haven't got the freedom to express yourself properly.'
But having freed himself from all restrictions, Eno finds the first thing he needs to start composing is a paradox: the establishment of limitations within which to work. In the wrong hands it would be a self-defeating approach, but it's just the sort of thing a pop star would do.
'Restricting myself, working within limitations, is part of my style. I don't think it's quite the same as pop, because there the field imposes the limitations on you, whereas I've got limitless possibilities. My work doesn't have to be commercial, so I can do anything I like, really. It's a strange paradox, I agree, but by imposing restrictions on yourself, you free yourself. It's difficult to explain, but if you have rules to work by, you become more resourceful. That's why there are some good pop records — people realise that having limitations can be useful, and they work to them.'
All this theoretical musing has, of course, resulted in the release of a solo album. What self-respecting pop star doesn't make one of those? The album is titled Voices, and it's the composer's first solo venture. It involves the combined talents of brother Brian, who 'hit a few notes', and Canadian engineer Dan Lanois, who both produced the project and contributed a little acoustic guitar to it. And like many recent recordings to issue from the Eno stable, Voices was recorded at Lanois' studio in Canada. The facility has a reputation for turning out moody, evocative ambient releases with great consistency, but quite what makes it special isn't clear; it certainly has little to do with hardware facilities, as most of the albums recorded there make use of only a limited range of gear. Voices is no exception.
'It's primarily a piano album, but there's also a DX7 and an old Yamaha CS80, which is a brilliant instrument. There's also a string bass and a beautiful model of a 15th Century renaissance recorder on there.
'The beauty of the album is that you can put it on and, when it comes to the end of both sides, you can put it on again. I wanted to create a continuous mood and it seems to have worked. On albums that have a fast track and then a slow track and so on, the mood is broken up and I don't really like that. Often I find I have records that I only know one side of, because the mood of the other side doesn't suit me.
'The writing of Voices took place in my parents' summer house, in about three weeks of intense work. I tend to work like that: three months of no ideas and then a couple of weeks of concentrated work — up early in the morning 'til very late at night. Virtually all the tracks were then demoed in my little eight-track studio, because I wanted to maintain that mood. The demos were pretty rough, but that was the seed of the idea. If you're not careful you can lose that once you start to work on it. That hasn't happened this time, so the finished tracks sound quite like the demos.'
Of course, any pop star worth his salt has a mind full of ambitious plans for the future. What, I wondered, are Eno's?
'For the future I'm thinking of moving towards even less popular music, along yet more classical lines. I'm tending toward string music because of its relaxing effect.' But it's not only his own music that beckons this enthusiastic musician. In true pop star style, Eno is actively contemplating doing cover versions of other people's material, just by way of a change.
'I'd like to do an album of Satie's music. That'd be with Brian and Danny doing the treatments, so the overall effect would be similar to Voices. I like his music so much, and I'd like to approach it in a similar manner to the way Tomita treated his work, but keeping to the original instruments and creating treatments that would have been impossible to produce until the '80s, using things like the AMS.
'I think a lot of Satie's music has been abused in the past. Musicians who have been used to playing Liszt find it tricky to play this slow stuff that demands a different approach. They find it hard not to put any expression into it, not to play it flamboyantly. You don't have to play it fast, and in fact, you hardly have to put any expression into it at all. But for them it's like getting paid for doing nothing, and they start to interpret it in their own way, so you either get piano records that, to me, aren't quite there, or you get all these different versions for two guitars or orchestral arrangements. Some of them are good, but there's not been one that's satisfied me as yet, so I'd like to do it myself.'
You see, it's just as I said — Roger Eno is a pop star.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!