Brian Eno on playing God and the art of surrender

Britain's art/pop boffin talks us through his latest installation and the joys of muscular women

Music Q+A
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Taken from the July edition of Dazed

More than a man, Brian Eno is an idea, a mutant memetic meld of British pop art and New York avant-garde that has infected the mainstream since he supplied the weirdness for Roxy Music in the early 70s. In 1978, he moved to Manhattan, where he recorded the no-wave snapshot No New York (1978), made and exhibited his first "video paintings" and released a stream of ambient records and collaborations, including the influential My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (with David Byrne, 1981), which sampled American shock jocks, Arabic singers and an exorcist over an experimental funk soundscape. Eno moved out of New York in 1984, but revisited last month to present his self-generative music/light installation 77 Million Paintings (a meditative contrast to the bustle of nearby Madison Square Garden) and lecture students at the Red Bull Music Academy, a travelling series of workshops and festivals. Afterwards, Dazed was ushered up to a studio on the seventh floor of a Manhattan tower block to talk to Eno about the hellishness of New York and why his art bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to tantric sex...

Dazed Digital: So the installation seems like a good experience to die to...

Brian Eno: (laughs) That's always been a thought for me. That's what Music for Airports (1978) was about - the idea that if you want to be less frightened about flying then you should just accept the idea of dying. Because in the past, airports would have canned music playing, and it was always terrible music, and it was always playing on a cassette player that went 'ddddnnn' (makes tape-chewing sound). And this was supposed to reassure you that you were in safe hands!

DD: Did you not find muzac interesting?

Brian Eno: I find the idea interesting. The realisation was terrible. But I like the idea of functional music - that's why I did Music for... something. It wasn't popular when it came out in England because people thought, 'Oh, you mean muzac?' No, muzac is the bad version of a good idea!

DD: The English didn't like the concept?

Brian Eno: The English don't like concepts really, not from a pop star. It's alright if they come from an 'intellectual', but from a pop star you're getting ahead of yourself. Part of the class game is that you shouldn't rise above your station, and to start talking about concepts if you're in the pop world is getting a bit uppity, isn't it?

DD: Is that also the case in America?

Brian Eno: No. No, I don't think it is the same.

DD: They really took to Pete Townshend and his conceptualising here...

Brian Eno: Well, he went to the same art school as me, that's why. (laughs) You can see where it came from, can't you?

DD: So there's a whole stream of British music that came from one school?

Brian Eno: It's one teacher, really, Roy Ascott. I wasn't actually at the same college - we studied under the same group of tutors. They started the college at Ealing that Pete went to, then they moved to Ipswich, which is where I went, then that was closed down and they moved somewhere else. It was part of a distinctly English and very laudable movement called pop art, which really originated from Richard Hamilton - Ascott was Hamilton's student. So you could say that particularly English thread went through Pete and me and various other people. It still confuses music critics. (laughs)

DD: 77 Million Paintings is really two different self-generating works - a musical one and a visual one - overlaid on top of each another...

Brian Eno: When I started working on ambient music my idea was to make music that was more like painting. When you put a painting into a room, you don't sit for four hours looking at it, do you? You have it in the room and it's part of the space. But it's not boring, so if you do look at it, it's going to reward you. On the other hand, the visuals are an attempt to make paintings that very slowly move. So you could say that it's trying to make music that is like painting, and paintings that are like music. To see if there's some place in the middle where these two things co-exist.

DD: You've compared the experience you create to sex and drugs and religion, all these wild, intense things. And yet your art is very calm...

Brian Eno: Well, they are intense in the sense that they are extremely engaging, they take you with them. The intensity isn't always of the... orgasm type. You know? (laughs) The sort of tantric view of sex is to be in a constant state of desire.

DD: So this work is like tantric sex?

Brian Eno: Well, I know you're going to fucking make that the headline so no, it isn't like tantric sex at all. There's no relationship whatsoever to tantric sex. I talk about sex and drugs in relation to the idea of surrender, the pleasure of not being in control. Letting something take you along with it. The experience of art, actually. You like it when you go to see a movie and you're completely carried along with it. You like it when the thing operates beyond your ability to verbalise about it, when something happens that is bigger than you expected. That's why we like distortion on guitars.

DD: And yet you're totally in control in a sense, even though the piece generates itself, because you set the parameters. Are you basically playing God?

Brian Eno: (declaims) Well, I say unto you... No, but isn't that what artists do? Isn't that what you're doing when you're an artist - trying to make a world that you'd want to live in for a while?

"I trust my taste completely and I always have done. The only difference between my tastes and everyone else's is that I admit to them sooner"

DD: You seem to be very confident in everything you do. Where does that come from?

Brian Eno: I trust my taste. I trust it completely and I always have done, and I've always thought it isn't that different from everybody else's. Sexually as well as anything else - I remember in the early 1980s when female bodybuilders first started appearing and there was one I really liked, Carla Dunlap. She was Ms Olympia or something like that. She was this amazing black woman, absolutely musclebound, beautiful. And I remember showing this to guys and them going 'eerrgh' (shudders dramatically). They were so horrified, I think because they thought they might like it, because she was so ambiguous sexually. You know, was she a man or a woman? And I thought, 'It won't be long...' (laughs) And now you can find millions of websites about muscular women. So I've always thought that the only difference between my tastes and everyone else's is that I admit to them sooner.

DD: You're honest with your tastes?

Brian Eno: I'm honest with my tastes (laughs), and I don't feel uncomfortable liking something if others don't like it yet because I think they'll catch up.

DD: And if they don't, fuck it.

Brian Eno: Fuck it! (laughs)

DD: Is it significant showing this piece in New York, where such formative inspirations of yours as Steve Reich and John Cage worked and where your first light show was held?

Brian Eno: Yes, and there were a lot of other things going on in New York, like (trumpeter) John Hassell was here. In fact, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts really came out of New York and talking to John and David (Byrne) and listening to the radio here. I was astonished as an English person switching on American radio for the first time, because I was used to the BBC, everything being quite reasonable. And hearing these completely insane people who had whole radio shows to themselves, it just amazed me. I thought, 'Bloody hell!' - it was actually shocking because they were so prejudiced, a lot of the people. We don't really have prejudice on the radio in England, not raw naked prejudice.

DD: Is there something ironic about putting on a piece as still as 77 Million Paintings in somewhere so unstill? 
Brian Eno: Well, when I lived in New York I made my quietest music. The record On Land (1982) I made here. And one of the things you do when you make a piece of art is you try to make the world you'd rather be in. Do you know what I mean? You try to make up for the deficiencies of the place that you're in, because New York is a hellish place to live. It's so noisy and always broken and always being mended and abrasive and disturbing. So one of the things you want is to find a little place where, 'Swooh', you can breathe out for a minute.

DD: Is it also a reaction to the increasing smallness of music?

Brian Eno: Yeah, I think it is. It's sort of a reaction against headphones, which I don't like. I don't like having the music pressed on to my head. I like feeling I'm walking around inside it.

Go to redbullmusicacademy.com to watch Brian Eno lecture in New York

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