The Composer's Tale | Roger Eno
Although it's Brian Eno who springs to mind when most people think of ambient music, brother Roger's particular talents have both complemented Brian's atmospheric experiments and generated memorable solo work. Mark J. Prendergast talked to him as he completed his latest project.
"It's always good to hear Roger's music before you meet him, because it's such a surprise. From his music he sounds like a sort of 'classical' composer, but in reality he's the biggest lunatic you'll ever meet! He could be a stand-up comedian". (Anthea Norman-Taylor, SOS Jan 1989).
Yes, meeting Roger Eno is indeed quite a shock. His name has long been associated with classical circles, chamber orchestras, Erik Satie, and, in contrast to older brother Brian, musical training. His popular reputation rests on his having a hand in the making of Apollo in 1983 and 'The Prophecy Theme' from David Lynch's film Dune two years later. That same year he recorded a solo work, Voices, in Grant Avenue, Ontario. Dan Lanois produced, Brian added some treatments, and the whole evinced an absorption of French Impressionism. This all sounds pretty serious until he drops the clanger that some of it was used for the soft core SM movie 9 1/2 Weeks. "A handy little earner, " he admits, mischievously.
We are sitting in a porter house in Primrose Hill. Roger has just arrived by train from leafy Woodbridge in Suffolk, and settles down for our chat with a pint of Beamish in one hand, his pipe in the other. Image-wise Roger Eno is a cross between a gypsy and a more restrained Nigel Kennedy. Waistcoat, earrings, and tied-back, longish hair are his bohemian trademarks. I heard he used to live on a barge. He tells me he used to busk in London. His whole demeanour is light, carefree, youthful - after all, he's 11 years younger than Brian Eno. And having an older brother who's achieved so much has allowed Roger the freedom to follow his own instincts, indulge himself a little. His latest project is an album entitled The Familiar with former Dream Academy oboist Kate St John, produced by Bill Nelson.
Flushed with an archetypal English pastoralness, The Familiar is a chamber work of soothing quietude. Piano, oboe, cor anglais and Kate's voice all seem to have been recorded in some sunlit woody glade. I wondered how Roger's interest in classical music related to modern instruments. "Well, most of my ideas come from synthesizers. But then I try and use live players, violins and even bass guitars. On The Familiar, as the album progresses some funny noises start to appear. What happened was that the early pieces were written for a concert in Italy, for a trio of clarinet, piano and cello. When Kate came along I instantly thought of the pastoral element, written to be played live and to a large extent left unadulterated. When I met Bill Nelson he had a few radical ideas which at first I tended to hedge off a little bit. Later when I got to trust him I started to see that these ideas would liberate things a lot. So in the latter part of the work it was more experimental, using more overdubs and electronic sounds."
The album took two years to make, some of it in St Petersburg, some in London, a lot of it written in Roger's native Woodbridge. The overdubs were supervised by Bill Nelson in a small studio outside Hull. Its release coincides with that of Al Reinert's document of the Apollo moon missions, For All Mankind, on Island video. Though the soundtrack is now nearly nine years old, it took a considerable time for the film to reach the public in finished form. Yet the titles that Roger co-composed — "Drift', 'Deep Blue Day', 'Weightless', and the poignant 'Always Returning' — make for a fantastic experience against a visual backdrop of docking spacecraft in deep black space. The recent CD re-issue of Apollo reinforces the fact that between them the Eno brothers and Dan Lanois cooked up one of the great sonic Ambient experiences of all time.
"What happened there was written between the three of us. My contribution was melodic, coming up with good tunes. That allowed Danny and Brian to concentrate on the production side, particularly the atmospheres, which is Brian's brilliance. He was living in New York, I was there for a couple of months and the project came up. We went up to the Lanois studio in Hamilton, Ontario, home of the Grant Avenue sound. It was just three friends getting stuck into it. I played piano and DX7."
Checklisting their collaborations — Apollo, Dune, For Opera (on a 1988 Opal promo CD) and the tracks 'Quixote' and 'Fleeting Smile' on Music for films 3 — I can imagine there's more. "We occasionally work together. When he's making a record he'll give me a shout. With a piece like 'Fleeting Smile' he picked up on it and added treatments, which means basically putting it through a mixing desk and fiddling around a bit. Really not much collaboration there [laughing], Brian can really pick up an atmosphere in a piece, and I find it easy to write tunes. But these would stay as tunes unless somebody else takes them elsewhere. And that's what Bill was doing on his new recording."
1985's Voices was Roger's presentation piece — swirling piano melodies derived from Satie and Debussy, made ghostly by Brian's treatments, produced by Lanois and engineered by David Botrill. (It was superbly re-mastered for CD by Michael Brook in 1990.) "Yes, well that was mostly solo piano with a few basses. I played a Yamaha grand and a Wurlitzer keyboard. Dan played guitar. All the compositions were already written; I trusted them to make it all come out right. In Grant Avenue we were using a lot of this pitch-shifting harmonising thing, this AMS rack module which was then a new sound to use, and produced sounds which could be utilised as treatments afterwards. It was also used on Apollo. Voices was the end of the mega Grant Avenue production sound using all those great big washes and stuff. After that everybody went off in their own direction."
"Apollo was written between the three of us. My contribution was melodic, coming up with good tunes. That allowed Danny and Brian to concentrate on the production side, particularly the atmospheres."
Warming to his theme, Roger accepts a fresh pint of Beamish, re-lights his pipe and talks about his second album, Between Tides. Produced in 1988 by Michael Brook, it used a chamber orchestra, was fuller and more rounded, but eminently English and pastoral. The title track seemed to pay homage to Brian's 'Another Green World' but Roger doesn't think this was intentional. I asked him what makes this music, like Elgar and Vaughn Williams before him, so recognisably English. "Well, tonality really — a lot of what Vaughn Williams and lesser known people like George Butterworth, and even Holst, used came from English folk song. Now this was written in modes rather than scales — Dorian, Aeolian, Mixolydian, Lydian and all those nice names which mean that the structure of scales are different to the major or minor scales used by Bach or Handel. That's a big element.
"Another element is a strong sense of lyrical melody, an unashamed Romanticism which makes for a very English sound. Delius uses a lot of familiar tricks, like all those semitone bass movements. Now Elgar was recognised as the first great English composer — I mean internationally known British composer — since Purcell. Elgar was self-taught and more influenced by the German tradition. He was different. He wasn't a modal composer, he was from a previous generation. I would recommend 'Sospiri' (Whispers), scored for harp, organ and string orchestra. It's staggeringly beautiful, only six minutes long, but a belter. And 'Nimrod', that's the famous Enigma Variation."
I admit to Roger, as an inane soul chart ditty comes from a distant juke-box, that Elgar is not my favourite composer. In turn, Roger admits that much of his inspiration doesn't come from other music but from the Suffolk countryside, where he enjoys riding his motorbike or walking his dog. "These are influences I expose myself to. What I like about English composers is their humility, not being afraid of sounding like one another, not trying to compete. I didn't want to cover up my feelings on Between Tides and I knew a lot of things would sound like you heard them before."
Yet to me this isn't the case. Roger Eno's way with melody and choice of short forms is quite unique — the subtle spaghetti Western theme on the otherwise classical 'Dust At Dawn' being a good example. One American broadcaster talked of Between Tides as being a multi-storey structure in comparison to the spread-out bungalow of Voices. "I found it more interesting really. It's a recognisable thing now that surface is quite readily available in the music, it's easy to achieve. But the thrill of working with other people is the accidental element — how someone can play an instrument entirely different to another person. Hearing that music being played by these music students was a thrill because I was hearing it real for the first time."
Roger is very proud of Between Tides, its strings, woodwinds and percussion giving his piano and keyboard motifs a rich medium in which to develop. Michael Brook produced the album at Abbey Road in December 1986, with four tracks recorded live. "We used the smaller classical room in St John's Wood. It's very good for chamber work, it has a great resonance to it. Three tracks were recorded at St John's, Woodbridge, an old Victorian church two minutes away from my home. Mike and I wanted to hear what recording in an old stone building could produce. Michael's got two qualities that are rare to find in conjunction — he's got a very good sense of humour linked with a scientific approach. When everyone's throwing a wobbly, he can stand back and rationalise. A lot of people like that tend to be boring, but Mike's got a very good way of looking at the world. He really knows his equipment; you can trust him implicitly."
Just like Brian? "Well, not to that extreme. Brian's a brilliant investigator. He views the world with this incredible curiosity, that's his strong point. I don't know if he's got the diligence or interest to go into things the way Michael does. With Brian, once something's explored it's either understood or it needs more exploring. If it's understood he'll go onto something else, which I think is a great quality. Certainly for him it has worked. Personally I tend to limit my horizons a bit and try and figure out what is going on within a similar circle. So sometimes it's good to have Brian or Bill to come in and say, 'Well, this is possible. You've really put the blinkers on a bit, Rog.'"
"Roger Eno's way with melody and choice of short forns is quite unique — the subtle spaghetti Western theme on the otherwise classical 'Dust At Dawn' being a good example."
There's more to the Eno family's musical background than the famous brothers. Their grandfather made organs, and there's a rumour that both his sisters are musicians. But what's the real story? "My grandfather was a postman, like our dad. He played bassoon and loads of wind instruments. He did build organs. Apparently the house was full of stuff. I went to Colchester Institute, studied the euphonium, harmony, musical history and performance. I didn't learn composition, fortunately. It was all an accident really. A geography teacher who played the tuba said 'Why don't you go to college?' It never crossed my mind. Though my folks were brilliant, encouraging in what we wanted to do, they did want Brian to work in a bank when he left school. Being working-class bods there wasn't anybody in their background who went to further education. Once Brian had gone and, by the time I was leaving school, was successful, it was OK for the rest of us to do it."
After leaving Colchester, Roger made the inevitable trip to London and busked for eight or nine months. Then he landed a job in Colchester Hospital, giving musical therapy sessions to mentally handicapped patients. After a year he felt he wasn't giving his all, split with his girlfriend and answered Brian's call to help him out. So there's the circle closed.
Simply Red can be heard on the Jukebox. The pub, with its barrel tables, is full of extraordinary North London cowboys, hippies, and louche decadents in strange clothes. Roger is up for another Beamish. I ask him about soundtrack work.
"A lot of film stuff was culled from different sources — like 9 1/2 Weeks came from Voices. In the summer of 1988 I wrote the score for a Hollywood film by Joe Gaton. It was called Warm Summer Night and was very weird. I thought about how the atmosphere could be conveyed. It was about this woman who tried to top herself, so there were these points of real joy amidst this overall misery. There I got interested in the combination of cello, clarinet and piano. From a technical point of view these instruments have such a great range, with the clarinet right at the top. I added a little bit of guitar and electric piano. I cut the music to an unedited version of the film like we did with Apollo. That For Opera piece you mentioned was for an Italian horror film, but it never got used. Hence the use of the word 'for'. I'm doing a BBC period piece at the moment. The one thing about doing film is that there's a lot of elements to the soundtracks. I like to investigate more angles, not just make a formularised product."
Roger's domestic recording stup is fairly basic, with an emphasis on writing rather than recording. "I use an 8-track, an A-series Fostex. I've got an acoustic piano, an Ancos — an English make — a Mason & Hamlyn harmonium, circa 1890, a Jupiter euphonium, a Regent's trombone, a Jupiter pocket trumpet, a Hofner bass guitar from around '65 to '67, and penny-whistles from Ireland. It's very basic really. My main thrust is writing for the future rather than producing things at home like a professional studio. What I have are work tools, really."
The Korg M1, however, is particularly prominent among these tools. "I've had it for a few years, and I find it really useful. I've just learned to programme it to produce these quite ethereal sounds. Mainly I like the electric piano sound on it. I've got an interest in whacky '60's sounds like those corny detective tunes. The M1 is perfect for that. I also like its sax and vibe sounds — it's like having Nelson Riddle available at the touch of a button. I love the Man From Uncle theme, really cracking stuff. I've got the taste for Ennio Morricone where he uses those ethereal female voices, some orchestration and an out-of-tune banjo. It's like having a demon in your ear."
Roger has been described as being a little old fashioned in his world view. Certainly his approach to home studio is composerly rather than innovatory. The Familiar, with its plaintive Kate St John vocals and exquisite chamber sound, has all the characteristics of classical music — but it's not. There are dreamy guitar treatments, swimming electronic sounds, and 13 tracks arranged like pop items with titles like 'Mr. Bosco' and 'Our Man In Havana'. Even Nigel Kennedy sticks religiously to repertoire and classical form. "Well, what is old fashioned? What I hope to do is realise possible limitations. I do tend to work within a world that I'm interested in. And it might look narrow-minded to some; if you don't constantly investigate every new thing available people will say you're stuck in a rut. I would say to them that I'm stuck in a rut that I like. I like investigating the rut!" he says, laughing, as we order another round.
Roger Eno and Kate St. John's The Familiar is the first new release on All Saints Records (ASCD 13). All Saints hove also released Between Tides (ASCD 01) and Music For Films 3 (ASCD 04). Voices is available on Virgin CD re-issue (EEGCD 42), Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks is re-issued through Virgin (EGCD 53). For All Mankind on video is available through Island (VHS IWCV 1006). Roger Eno has also contributed to recent albums by Michael Brook (Cobalt Blue) and Laraaji (Flow Goes The Universe) and can be heard an the soundtracks of Dune and 9 1/2 Weeks.
The All Saints Bugle, (Contact Details).
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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