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Brian Eno: Weve been in decline for 40 years Trump is a chance to rethink’

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The revered producer has been at the centre of pop since the days of Roxy Music. But dont ask him about the past hes more interested in how to reorder society

Brian Enos new album is called Reflection, and what better time to reflect on an astonishing career? Or careers. Theres the first incarnation of Eno as the leopardskin-shirted synth-twiddler who overshadowed the more obviously mannered Bryan Ferry in Roxy Music. With his shoulder-length hair and androgynous beauty, there was something otherworldly about Eno. He was as preposterous as he was cool. So cool that, back then, he didnt bother with a first name.

After two wonderfully adventurous albums he left and Roxy became more conventional. There followed a sustained solo career, starting with the more poppy Here Come the Warm Jets, progressing to the defiant obscurity of his ambient albums and on to commercial Eno, the revered producer behind many of the great Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and Coldplay records.

There is Eno the visionary, who helped conceive a 10,000-year clock and invented an influential pack of cards called Oblique Strategies that offer creative solutions for people inapickle. There is Eno the visual artist;Eno the activist, tirelessly campaigning for a fairer world; and Eno the philosopher, endlessly thinking of ways in which to bring thisnew world about.

We meet at his studio, near Notting Hill in west London. It is a mix of the minimalist and maximalist. Minimalist in its big white empty spaces, maximalist in the numerous books carefully filed away (library-like sections for African, Asian and European art), old-fashioned hi-fi equipment, a parked bike, and his own Rothko-ish artworks.

Eno, now 68, could not look more different from the louche glamour-puss of the early 70s. As his music became more pared down, so did he. The head was shaved, the makeup washed off and the feather boa dispensed with. Nowadays, he looks like a stylish academic.

His assistant asks me to join Eno athis table. Ill just be 40 seconds, finishing off my lunch, Eno says. He takes a mouthful of fruit salad. Just 30seconds now. There has always been something fastidious about him. His interviews tend to be 45 minutes long precisely. One journalist said that Eno had interrupted their chat to play him an Elvis Presley record that lasted two minutes and seven seconds, and then added two minutes and seven seconds to the interview sothe journalist wouldnt be shortchanged. At the same time, Eno loves to embrace the random. As a producer, he encourages artists to pick up Oblique Strategies cards to alter the path they are taking. Itell him I have brought a pack with me in case we find ourselves struggling. He smiles, flashing a gold tooth. That will be just the job, I should think, he says.

Roxy
Roxy Music in 1972, with Eno at front. Photograph: Brian Cooke/Redferns

Eno talks slowly, calmly, eloquently. He would be brilliant on Just a Minute no repetition, hesitation or deviation. His voice is as soothing as his ambient music. He was christened Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. You might assume he was an aristocrat, but his father and grandfather were postmen. And my great grandad actually, he says enthusiastically when I mention it. And my two uncles.

Did he ever think that was his destiny? Well, I did go into communications, didnt I? He laughs. Youre a sonic postman? Yeah! I help people communicate with each other in one way or another. When I was in my mid-30s, and my mother and father were living in a house I had bought for them with the proceeds of my music, my mum said: Dad and I were talking. Do you think youll ever settle down and get a job? Hahahhaha! She said: You could get a job in the Post Office. In the office! You know, not trudging delivering mail.

Eno decided he didnt want a regular job when he saw the effect it had on his father. He did shift work. It was a three-week cycle, mornings, afternoons and nights. I realised years later he was in a permanent state of jet lag because his eight-hour work day was shifting every week. I remember him coming home from work and sitting at the table; my mother had just put the food down and he fell forward, asleep. I thought even if I have to turn to crime, I wont get a job; the horror of being that exhausted and doing your work just to keep things going; the lack of freedom inyour life.

His Belgian mother had spent the war in Germany building planes in a labour camp. Eventually she returned to Belgium at the end of the war. It took her three months to get back. She arrived in Dendermonde near Brussels weighing five stone.

He has been talking quietly and beautifully about his parents. So it comes as a shock when I ask where his string of first names comes from, and he explodes. God, are we going to do any interesting questions? This is all bollocks. I mean Im not fucking interested at all in me. I want to talk about ideas. Can we do any of that?

He picks up one of the Oblique Strategy cards, and bursts out laughing. He shows it to the two women in the studio. Hahaha! How about that? Hahahaha! Take a break!

Take a break, they echo. Hahaha!

Arent they brilliant? Eno says. Fancy that.

The more they laugh, the smaller Ifeel.

Enos
Shaping the future: Enos Oblique Strategies cards. Photograph: Brian Eno

Eno says he hates talking about himself. Im not interested in that personality aspect of being an artist. Its all based on the idea that artists are automatically interesting people. I can tell you they arent. Their art might be very interesting, but as people they are no more or less interesting than anybody else. And Im really not at all interested in talking about Brian Eno. His ideas, however, I think have something to recommend them.

So what is Brian Eno working on at the moment, I ask. Im interested in the idea of generative music as a sort of model for how society or politics could work. Im working out the ideas Im interested in, about how you make aworking society rather than a dysfunctional one like the one we live in at the moment by trying to make music in a new way. Im trying to see what kinds of models and and structures make the music I want to hear, and then Im finding its not a bad idea to try to think about making societies in that way.

Could he be more specific? Yes. If you think of the classical picture of how things were organised in an orchestra where you have the composer, conductor, leader of the orchestra, section principals, section sub principals, rank and file the flow of information is always downwards. The guy at the bottom doesnt get to talk to that guy at the top. Almost none of us now would think that hierarchic model of social organisation, the pyramid, is agood way to arrange things.

In other words, he says, society should be built on the more egalitarian model of a folk or rock band, who just get together and do their thing, rather than a classical orchestra. Cant you see, he says with the passion of a visionary, if you transpose that argument into social terms, its the argument between the top down and bottom up? It is possible to have a society that doesnt have pre-existing rules and structures. And you can use the social structures of bands, theatre groups, dance groups, all the things we now call culture. You can say: Well, it works here. Why shouldnt it work elsewhere?

He has called himself an optimist. In the past. I ask him if he still is, post-2016. Yes, he says, there is a positive way to look at it. Most people I know felt that 2016 was the beginning of a long decline with Brexit, then Trump and all these nationalist movements in Europe. It looked like things were going to get worse and worse. I said: Well, what about thinking about it in a different way? Actually, its the end of a long decline. Weve been in decline for about 40 years since Thatcher and Reagan and the Ayn Rand infection spread through the political class, and perhaps weve bottomed out. My feeling about Brexit was not anger at anybody else, it was anger at myself for not realising what was going on. I thought that all those Ukip people and those National Fronty people were in a little bubble. Then I thought: Fuck, it was us, we were in the bubble, we didnt notice it. There was a revolution brewing and we didnt spot it because we didnt make it. We expected we were going to be therevolution.

He draws me a little diagram to explain how society has changed productivity and real wages rising in tandem till 1975, then productivity continuing to rise while real wages fell. It is easily summarised in that Joseph Stiglitz graph. The trouble now, he says, is the extremes of wealth and poverty. You have 62 people worth the amount the bottom three and a half billion people are worth. Sixty-two people! You could put them all in one bloody bus then crash it! He grins. Dont say that bit. (Since we meet, Oxfam publish a report suggesting that only eight men own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people in the world half the worlds population.)

Eno himself is a multimillionaire, largely because of his work as a producer.He wouldnt be one of the 62, would he, I ask. I certainly wouldnt be, he says with a thin smile. No, Im a long way off that.

He is still thinking about the political fallout of the past year. Actually, in retrospect, Ive started to think Im pleased about Trump and Im pleased about Brexit because it gives us a kick up the arse and we needed it because we werent going to change anything. Just imagine if Hillary Clinton had won and wed been business as usual, the whole structure shed inherited, the whole Clinton family myth. I dont know thats a future I would particularly want. It just seems that was grinding slowly to a halt, whereas now, with Trump, theres a chance of a proper crash, and a chance to really rethink.

Reflection is his 26th solo album, and his first ambient release in five years. Does he think there is a particular need for its soothing qualities at the moment? Well, I think this is quite a good time for it, he says.

I am not sure I get ambient its pleasant but dull; nice to have on in thebackground while you are working. Thats exactly what I want it for myself, he says, delighted. I do a lot of writing, and one of the ways I have of writing is by starting to make a piece of music of that kind and then, while Im carrying on writing, Im thinking: Theres a bit too much of that and not enough of this. So I go in and fiddle around with ita bit. I keep adjusting the music until its helping the writing, and then I adjust it less and less.

I had read that he initially made ambient music to help him when travelling, because he was frightened of flying; that it was supposed to be a kind of audio Mogadon. No, not Mogadon. One of the things you can get from music is surrender. From a lot of art, what youre saying is: Let it happen to me. Im going to let myself be out of control. Im going to let something else take over me. And thats what he wants to happen with this music.

That desire to surrender is interesting because, in many ways, he seems so controlled. I mention the interview with the Elvis song. Well, thats fair, isnt it? Its controlled but not controlling. You asked me whether Im controlling. Thats different to whether Im controlled. I think controlling would be if I said to the interviewer: Im taking some time out of the interview to play you something, but fuck you, Im in control here, so piss off. I didnt say that. I said Im taking some time out of the interview to play you something, but since you didnt request that, Im not expecting you to lose that time. Of course, I work in a role that could be seen as a controlling role as a producer. But, in fact, Im not that kind of producer. What I want to do is make situations where were all slightly at sea because people make their best work when they are alert, and alertness comes at the moment when you feel youre on the edge of being out of control. Youre not alert when youre settled and you know exactly what youre doing.

Ah, the collaborations. Much as Iadmire Eno the thinker and activist, like most of his fans it is Eno the collaborator/producer I love. And this is what I have really been looking forward to talking about. Like many middle-aged pop enthusiasts, I owe a huge debt to Eno. He has shaped so much of my favourite music from the first two Roxy Music albums, to Bowies Berlin trilogy and Talking Heads Remain in Light. Just as fascinating is his ability to mentor the more obviously commercial Coldplay and U2.

Eno
Eno with David Bowie and Bono at the Meltdown festival in 2002. Photograph: Kevin Mazur Archive/WireImage

Who has he enjoyed working with most? Pause. Probably Brian Eno! Hehehe! I keep returning to him. No, really, I say, which collaborations does he look back on with most satisfaction? Idont look back much, to be honest. Whenever I look back at music, I think how I could have done it better.

Is there nothing that makes him think, God, I love that? Well, I suppose every collaboration continued because I liked doing it. Some of them are funnier than others

Which ones? Erm Uch. I dont want to talk about this. I so dont want to talk about this. And again, an explosion. Look, weve got a few minutes left. Lets talk about something good.

Thats controlling, I say.

Its not controlling. Its just fucking boring. I have to keep myself awake. Im tired.

I dont understand, I say I dont even know what is so fucking boring that you are refusing to talk about.

I just dont want to talk about history. All that shit! You can find all this in other interviews Ive done. Ivebeen 40 years talking about other people Ive worked with. No, sorry. Imjust not interested.

Doesnt he think the idea that the interview should be entirely about the present and what he may do in the future is a bit unreasonable?

But you can do research, he says. And calm, measured Eno has turned into irascible Eno. Thats your job! Research! You can look through thousands of interviews Ive done where Ive talked about all of this. Thats your job! You get paid for it. I dont get paid for this, by the way!

I get paid to ask people questions, Isay.

OK, well, youve asked me and Ive said I dont want to answer them. Thats a fair deal, isnt it? I know what you were after, he says, and I dont want to go there. I dont want to go intoa historical gloss on my career because that is not where my thoughts are right now. Im thinking about something as were talking that were not talking about and I dont want to lose it.

What is he thinking about? That piece of music Im working on in there which I have been playing today and making changes to in between interviews.

Was he thinking that I was asking about Bowie?

I know you were.

Well, I kind of was and wasnt.

Well, you kind of were, he mocks.

No, I say, I was thinking of any number of the great collaborations, including Bowie.

Im not interested in talking about any of them. And I think it would be considerate of you to say: He doesnt want to talk about that, so there are plenty of other things he could talk about; hes quite an interesting guy. Then he tells me exactly how Im trying to trap him. I could ask him a million other questions, but I know because this would make a headline, so Im going to fucking ask him about that.

I think thats unfair, I say.

All right, sorry, that is unfair, Eno says.

Weve spent most of the time talking about politics.

Only because I asked you to, he replies sullenly.

OK, were going to have to have to wrap this up now, the publicist says.

I dont want to wrap it up on a badvibe, Eno says, talking fast and breathing heavily.

But weve ground to a halt. Im not sure that even his Oblique Strategies could help us now.

Im sorry, he says. Im very tired today because I didnt sleep last night. And I knew I was going to be ratty, so Im sorry about that. But I really dont want to spend the rest of my life Im now 68, so I might have another 15 to 20 years left talking about my history. So, given the little time Ive got left on this planet, I would really love to focus on some of the new things Im doing.

What new stuff have we not talked about that he would like to talk about, Iask. Silence. I point to the serene orange lightbox image in front of us, and ask if thats a recent piece of work. Yes, thats one of my new pieces. Yes, this is stuff Ive been doing for hospitals, he says. I was invited to make some of these for rooms where people are spending a long time in stressful situations. With that he calls the interview to an end.

Reflection is out now on Warp.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/jan/23/brian-eno-not-interested-in-talking-about-me-reflection

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