As part of The 1975’s takeover of The Face, we’re releasing a series of podcasts featuring frontman Matty Healy in conversation with his musical heroes.
It’s hard to exaggerate the all-round cultural significance of Brian Eno.
He’s a producer, conceptual artist and theorist who pioneered the ambient genre and the idea of generative music. In a five-decade career, this one-time member of Roxy Music and lifelong experimentalist has collaborated with multiple artists including David Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo and U2, helping them all expand their musical horizons.
He’s also a famously nice bloke. And, it turns out, he’s a big admirer of The 1975.
In this podcast, Healy and Eno express their admiration for each other’s work and dissect the concepts behind ambient music and abstract art, the exciting potential of gaming, the sly wit of Bowie, and the difficult task of making decent political music.
Want to hear more of these? We also have podcasts featuring Matty talking to Stevie Nicks, Conor Oberst, Steve Reich, Mike Kinsella, Kim Gordon and Bobby Gillespie.
Welcome back to everybody who’s been listening to these instalments of conversations that I’ve been having. Today I’m joined by a man who needs no introduction, it’s Eno. How are you?
I’m very well, thank you.
Thanks so much for doing this, you know what I’m like about you and having the opportunity to talk to you a little bit at length is amazing for me. So yeah, there’s so much stuff that I’d like to cover, really. To jump in, could you explain for people listening, the concept that you talk about of “scenius”.
Sure, yes. So normally when people talk about artists, they refer to them as a “genius” – a scientist is a genius. And this is very much the idea that one person comes up with a great idea all on their own that nobody else expected. But actually, if you look at history and creative situations both in the arts and sciences, what you discover is that there are lots and lots and lots of people chipping away at something all together. And one of them finally kind of gets it or pieces it together or makes a public statement about it. But generally, my way of saying this is, is that great ideas are usually articulated by one person but they’re generated by a whole community of people. That community includes a lot of people who aren’t obviously contenders, you know. For instance I got particularly interested in early 20th century Russian painting when I was at art college, and was very surprised to find out that some of the most important figures in that scene were salonistes and gallerists and curators and collectors, as well as all the other artists. It wasn’t only artists who were talking to each other, there were writers and all sorts of people, and some of them were just people who’d put on good parties where people tended to meet up and talk. I thought there must be a word for the creativity of a whole situation or a whole scene, so then I changed the word “genius” to the word “scenius”. So that’s where that came from. I think it’s very important in music in particular, because we’re so often inclined to think that – sorry – the lead singer is the important person, but with every group that I’ve ever known that was any good, it was the chemistry of the whole situation that really…
Sorry to interrupt you, but yeah, this is touching on another one of your ideas that you talk about quite eloquently, about chemistry almost in a kind of alchemy sense, do you know what I mean? I found it interesting because the way that my band is set up is very much a back and forth between me and George, and like you say, in those kinds of collaborative relationships there’s normally one who makes a lot of noise and normally one who, I don’t know, makes sense of that. So yeah, it’s interesting to hear you say that because that relationship is very much part of my output, you know.
Yes, and it really isn’t to do with the quantity that anyone is giving. I always use the analogy with the difference between iron and steel. Steel is iron with 4% or 2% carbon added, so the carbon is a tiny amount quantitatively in the whole thing, but it makes a huge difference. Steel is a completely different material from iron. And it’s that little tiny bit of carbon that makes the difference. So quite often in bands you find that there’s one person who doesn’t say much, but when that person does say something it tends to push things off into a different direction. Sometimes that something is only “no” – the person who says no is sometimes a very useful person. You get one person that does a lot of saying “yes” – I’m a yessir myself: “Yeah that’s great, let’s do that, yes, yes, yes!” And then from the back of the room every few hours comes, “no”.
Exactly. I think every great writer needs a good editor, do you know what I mean? To create an environment where you can have those people as close as maybe we would have when you’re trying to create is really important. I mean, it’s so nice talking to you, I remember last time we were together we were drinking that weird tea and I was asking you about cowboys and farmers and all those kinds of things, but the thing that always kind of strikes me with you is that you kind of never play up to this wizard role that’s kind of imposed on you. There’s this kind of active investigation that goes along with your creativity that I can see, that kind of isn’t really interested in a lot of the things that are put on you, this mystique or these robes as I would call it. I remember you saying that there’s this idea that once you understand something artistic or once you strive to understand the formal structure of something artistic, the mystery almost disappears. And the thing with me, if you look at a wider context like religion, I’ve always liked the idea of being fascinated by looking at my garden without having to believe that there’s fairies at the bottom of it. Do you know what I mean? And I think that investigation that you have with music, that you’re not really interested in the kind of mystique or cultural aspect of it – you’re kind of like a scientist, really, in your investigation of sound and stuff. Is that a fair assumption?
Yes, I think what I would say is that I like trying to take the mystery out of things because it always fails. You always discover new ones. So I’m always interested, I have been interested for years in one major question from which a lot of other ones derive, and the major question is: why do people want to have art in their lives? Why do we want to make art? Why do we want to watch it, listen to it or see it, whatever it is? Why should we? Why would people have aesthetic preferences? Why would you like pink better than green? Why would you like The Beatles better than Beethoven or whatever? So the question that has really interested me for a very, very long time now, since I’m getting so old, is the question of what does art do for us? Humans don’t do things randomly and they don’t keep doing things if they aren’t getting a reward from them. The question is, what is the reward we’re getting? So I keep trying to pull bits of art apart, to see what’s left.
Let’s stay in that place because I know that you’ve got more to say about that when you talk about the purpose of art or the desire for creation. Me and George speak about that a lot and you can look at kind of just the meditative qualities of doing, whether it’s sport or meditating itself or creating. It feels like when you’re in those states, they put you into this kind of primordial state of consciousness where you’re just kind of being or you’re just existing. I’ve heard you describe it as losing yourself – art, religion, sex, these are all forms of relinquishing responsibility of almost being and kind of giving it up to the moment. And that, again, opens up the question for me. I know that obviously, because you pretty much invented it, when we talk about ambient music, but these are the things that I start getting interested in because one of the reasons I’ve spent so much now of my career in ambient music and the creation of it or the chasing of it, is because I feel that it’s the only kind of art form really, that commands me how to feel. Like literature, words, visuals, they’re all inherently suggestive whereas it feels like there’s this removal of interface when it comes to, not to pander to you, but one’s first experience of listening to Apollo or something like that. There’s this kind of innate quality of human understanding that goes with the experience, for me, of ambient music. It is part of that losing oneself, do you know what I mean? And the consumption of ambient music is the only thing that I kind of get into the same place as I do when I’m creating music.
Yes, well the interesting thing about music as an art form, is that it has always been non figurative. With painting there was this big moment in the early 20th century when abstract painting suddenly appeared, Kandinsky and all those Russians suddenly started doing pictures that didn’t have a subject. Until that point, painting had always had a subject, had been about something.
Yes, that’s right, exactly, that was the preoccupation. And then in the 19th century sex came into it a little bit.
But generally, you’re right – it was religion, nature, sex, those things. It was actually about something. Music never really had a subject, music is and always has been an abstract form of art. And so I think that’s very interesting because people are baffled still by abstract painting and say, “What’s it meant to mean, what’s it supposed to be about?” The question they never ask of music. Everybody accepts this completely abstract art form very readily and with great enjoyment, it seems to me. So given that music already starts out as abstract, one of the questions I was interested in was how abstract can you actually make it? And I remember when my first album that I released that was called an ambient record, which was Music for Airports, when that came out there was a review in an American magazine where the guy said, in very critical terms, he gave it a very poor one star or something. He said, “This music has no beat, no words, no melodies and no chord changes.” And I thought, ah, that was a success then! I thought it was good, he’d put his finger on exactly what I was trying to do. He thought it was a mistake, but.
I think one of the things that’s so interesting about you is that you manage to make accessible bodies of work, especially your later stuff that was still in the world of art music. But it’s interesting because it always has this kind of idea that form is boring. That funny story, I don’t know if you remember telling it but you’ve told it about, is it someone from Kraftwerk came up to you and told you that they were in pursuit of the perfect signwave?
Oh yes, it was the guy from Tangerine Dream, yes.
Guy from Tangerine Dream! And your response to that, like most people, is that the perfect signwave is inherently boring. It has zero imperfection therefore zero character or personality. And I think that the removal of form such as lyrics or even turnaround – I was talking to Steve Reich the other day about turnaround and stuff like that. The kind of removal of those formal ideas was such a revolutionary thing in music. And what I was also talking to Steve about and which I want to talk to you about, is how your influence has been so wide reaching, especially into electronic music. I kind of wanted to talk to you just about what your relationship is with technology. I’ve been talking a lot because my album is about to come out, kind of talking about… I’m super into technology and the internet and tech, it’s very much an interest of mine. One of the things about this situation that we’re in – that I don’t wanna talk about a lot because it’s not that relevant to art, but the situation that we’re both in now, we’re both in this kind of pandemic situation. What’s really interesting is that people don’t really like technology that isn’t seamless into their life. It’s a bit like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s cool, but let me know when it works or when I can just run it on my iPhone.” What this situation has done is that it’s kind of pushed people towards either more rudimentary forms of technology that are kind of in development, or stuff that people wouldn’t have thought to use like Zoom or those things that we were trying to do when we were trying to FaceTime before. But what’s quite nice about it is that in the early days of the internet, from what I saw, was that the utopian ideal of the internet was about the extension of pre-existing relationships. So you can talk to your grandad who lives in China or you can send Bob from work an email when he’s in Frankfurt. It was all about this kind of extension of pre-existing relationships, it wasn’t really about the wider idea of social media and debating with strangers and stuff like that. What’s quite nice is that I can see now, I think because everybody’s being driven to using these apps – business is gonna get behind it and there’s going to be a bit more investment in these kinds of technologies. There seems to be this search for tactility in the internet world, in the way that I used to love liner notes when I bought an album and now you don’t get them, so you get stuff like an expanded digital artwork on iTunes that no one wants to look at. Do you know what I mean? There’s always the search for replacing our kind of tactile relationship with it. You see polaroid cameras and vinyl are having a resurgence because people want touch. Are you interested in any kind of forms of technology at the moment? I think for example that VR is gonna change the world, and I think I could talk about that for ages. Do you have any kind of exciting prophecies for the world of tech?
Well, something I’ve been very keen on – you may know about it a bit – is this generative music area that I’ve been working on now for quite a long time, actually. Funnily enough, which sort of started in my mind when I first heard Steve Reich’s tape pieces. It’s funny that you should mention Steve Reich, because those early tape pieces like Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain, when I heard those, my mind was really blown. I thought, “Oh my God, you can make an amazing symphonic piece of music out of 1.8 seconds of tape.” Because that’s the loop length of It’s Gonna Rain. It’s a tiny, tiny loop going round. If your listeners haven’t heard it, it’s hard to explain and I won’t try, but it’s really worth listening to, could I just recommend that people give that a try.
But it sort of gave me the idea of creating machines in a way, conceptual machines, not physical machines with nuts and bolts and wheels turning, but systems that produced music. So instead of sitting down and thinking, “I’m gonna write a song,” – a perfectly decent job to do – what about sitting down and saying, “I’m going to design a system that will produce kinds of music that I couldn’t even imagine?” So this is what I started working on many, many years ago and Music for Airports is an example of that, and all of those other ambient records are, really. And I think the interesting thing about them is that they’re a very interesting marriage between technology, what’s technologically possible at any moment, and between you as both the composer and the listener. So you’re the composer in that you build the system that creates the music but then you listen to it and you think, “Oh, that bit’s good. What’s making that work like that? Oh, I don’t like this part, what do I have to change in the rules of the system to make this part work better?” So I try to explain it to people by saying the conventional view of how you compose music is a sort of architectural view. You have this thing in your head that you want to make real, you’ve got this piece of music already in your head, and you’ve just gotta think of a way of bringing it out into the world somehow, making it audible. So this is kind of like how an architect would imagine a building and then draw it up, and it gets built. But generative music isn’t like that really – generative music is like creating a scene of some kind and then planting it in the garden and watching it grow, seeing what comes out of it and then tweaking the rules a little bit so the seed produces different types of flowers. So it puts you as a composer into a different relationship to the work, I think. It puts you in the same place that the audience is in a lot of the time. Now, the thing about this, is that I started doing it many, many years ago, before computers even existed in a laptop form. But computers made it so much easier to do. You can now do it with the computer in a person’s phone. I’ve released with my friend Peter Chilvers several apps like this, where we’re using the phone as a little computer which generates permanently changing, always different music. So this is to me a very interesting idea, the idea of making music that has no end, infinite pieces of music that just keep going and don’t repeat. And then of course, the applications of generative music are just starting to become clearer now – games.
Well games, I can imagine, is a big one. It’s so fascinating that idea of kind of being, essentially… When it gets to the compositional element of making music when you’re talking about your generative music, you almost go back to the structure of what creates it. It’s almost like Oramics, early Daphne Oram kind of, do you know what I mean? That kind of thing of altering the architecture of the instrument in order to get a different output, do you know what I mean? Is that what that humancipator thing is that you showed me?
Yes, yes that’s right. That’s an example of that. It’s a way of sort of creating, well, I’m trying to think of a way of saying this that will make sense to people who don’t know about MIDI. It’s a way of creating a sort of envelope of possibilities, and saying, “These are all the things that could happen.” And you make sets of rules about the things that can happen and the things that won’t happen. And you say, “Ok, now go. Explore that space.” And the music is an exploration of the combinations of all those possibilities. So you’ve composed it in the sense that you’ve said certain things can never happen, some things will happen quite a lot, and some things will happen rather rarely.
It’s like Minecraft or something.
Yeah, yeah. It’s very much like that. It’s very similar to a lot of the things that are going on in games, I think, which is why I think – although I don’t play any of them – I think games are in a way the most interesting art form at the moment.
I completely agree. There’s a limited set of games that I play but they’re normally ones that kind of really spike my creative desire, do you know what I mean? I have this idea that I don’t really like stuff unless it makes me a little bit jealous.
That’s what I think!
So I tend to kind of want to know what’s going on and why I’m feeling this way, and why that’s making me think it’s really cool, and all those kinds of things. But I’ve heard you say it and it makes me laugh, you said you essentially feel sometimes that you’ve only ever had one idea.
Well, talk to me about those two ideas.
Well, the first one is this notion of asynchronicity, if you like, of seeing what happens if you free things from being connected to each other. So if you think of most music, it’s got a beat, it’s got bars, it’s got moments where everything does the same thing at the same time. So all the elements of the piece of music are kind of bolted together, they’re working in consult with each other, and that’s generally the definition of music. Ambient music, well the kind I make anyway, doesn’t do that. It says, here’s a whole lot of elements like things in a landscape, if you like. And they have separate lives. That bird flying up there, has nothing to do with this fox down here, and neither of them know anything about what’s going on in the river. So they might all respond to big conditions like nighttime or winter, but they don’t respond to each other, they’re independent. So this idea of creating music in the way you might create a landscape or ecology – an ecosystem – is interesting to me. That the fact of things not being synchronised is a way that you could make music as well. So that’s the first idea, and the second idea was just this notion of generative, which I think I named – I don’t think anybody had come up with the term “generative music” before I did. And that idea is, as I was just explaining, is the idea of taking the composition back a step from, “I’m the person who designs precisely how this piece of music will sound,” to “I’m the person who designs the machine or the system that will make this music; and the music will be something that I didn’t exactly predict.” So that’s it, those are my two ideas.
They’ve done you well, to be fair Brian. They’ve lasted, they’re pretty long standing ideas. If you’re gonna have two…
There are quite a lot of permutations of the two ideas as well. You could do quite a lot with two ideas. God, if I’d ever had a third one, think what could have happened?
Okay, a couple of things that I wanna ask you: another thing that has got me through countless long studio sessions is the idea that inspiration does not come looking for you. This is an idea that I got from you. I remember you talking about… actually, I’ll just let you talk about it, yeah.
I’m glad you’ve mentioned that, actually – in fact, Picasso said something that I’ve always quoted and I’m never sure if I’ve got the quote exactly right, but I think he said, “Inspiration does happen, but it has to catch you working.”
So that’s exactly it.
That’s it I think. The feeling that you’re not going to be producing works of great wisdom and brilliance every second of your life. A lot of the time, it’s just spent sharpening the pencils and tuning the instruments and getting ready to do something. I think of it like, you wouldn’t trust an athlete who said, “I never really run except when there’s a race,” which is kind of what a lot of young artists feel they should be doing. They think they should be always at their absolute genius best, but a lot of the time you’re just keeping the engines running, you’re keeping yourself fit in a way. You’re paying attention.
I’ve heard you talk about this before and I’ve heard you talk about how there may be an unequal distribution of natural talent across people in the world. But you’ve spoken about how, for every one of those people, there’s also an unequal distribution of readiness.
Yes, and I think that’s the more important part of it, actually. You know, sometimes people say, “Oh, he was so lucky.” Then when you look into it, you find out that he wasn’t that much luckier than anybody else, but he made something of the moment. Somehow he was able to translate it into something. Now, I am a very lucky person in that I grew up in a semi-socialist England, so I had the benefit of free education, free healthcare and so on, benefits that a lot of people don’t have any longer. But within that, well there’s that… I think it was Pasteur who said, “Chance favours the prepared observer.” And my version of that is, luck is being ready. Luck isn’t something that just happens to you, it’s something you open yourself up to. It takes alertness, alertness is really the key factor actually, both in your life as an artist and your life as a human being. Alertness is noticing something different, something interesting, something that you otherwise could overlook. I remember reading years ago, an interview with a very successful Chicago police detective. He had a very good record of solving crimes, and the person writing the book I was reading said, “So what’s the trick?” and the detective said, “My rule is if you do a double take, do a triple take.” So he’s saying, if something catches your attention, don’t pass it by. Pay attention to it and think, why am I looking at this? What is interesting me about this? And I think I’ve always kind of been able to do that, to stop and say, “Ah. Now that’s funny. I like that. Why do I like that? What’s special about this that I haven’t experienced before?” And I think if you’re not in the pursuit of imitation, then alertness is what you need. Alertness is spotting the new, imitation is learning the old. They’re both important but I’m no good at the learning the old part. That’s why I can’t play anything.
Okay, a couple more things Brian I just want to talk to you about. I know we were talking about “scenius” before – not so much in a collaborative sense but you know, the idea of being part of a scene can be incredibly informative to one’s output. You’ve famously worked with so many people. What’s your favourite Bowie anecdote?
Oh, we had such a good time in the studio together. It’s hard to come up with one, but there are some quite funny ones. The thing that people never really got about him, because I think he slightly concealed that part of himself, is that he was incredibly witty and a very, very funny person. And so we spent a lot of our studio time in character. We both loved Peter Cook and Dudley Moore – he would be Pete and I would be Dud. We would spend weeks in character, doing work that was not intrinsically humorous but in these strange characters we’d taken on, and we used to use the Oblique Strategies sometimes just to get us started on something, and we were working on a piece, I think it was the piece that became Moss Garden on the album Low. Anyway, we were working on that piece and we had each pulled an Oblique Strategy, and the rule was that we didn’t let the other person know what our particular Oblique Strategy said. So on that occasion, mine said, “Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency,” and his said, “Destroy the most important thing.” But we didn’t know that when we were working, so we had this whole morning of working on this piece where he was continually undermining what I was making on purpose, and we were doing this and at some point he looked up and he said, “I do believe we’re working at cross purposes here, Dud.” It doesn’t sound so funny on telling, but after the three hours of struggle, it was just the most hilarious moment. We both fell on the floor laughing.
It’s that point of madness where you’re both pushing so hard, that everything kind of breaks.
Yeah, yeah. It’s lovely when that happens. First of all, it’s lovely when people can both be incredibly engaged in something and really, really passionately engaged in it, but detached enough about it to have a laugh, as well. So nearly all the good working relationships I’ve had, had a lot of humour in them, actually. In fact I find that people who are very gifted are often very funny, too. The gift can extend into humour, because humour, if you think about it – humour is always based on seeing a situation from two different sides at once. The joke is always when you’re led to believe you’re looking at one perspective and then suddenly you find you’re looking from another.
Of course. My dearest friends… I love the language, the use of language in the words “sense of humour”. It’s not necessarily the funniest person, the person with the best sense of humour can sense where the humour is, it’s this kind of intuitive idea of where almost the truth is in a situation. I do find the people with the best sense of humour tend to, you know… A good joke is normally almost always the best and most cutting way of telling the truth, no? That tends to be the thing, so it surprises me not that Bowie was as funny as he was.
He was also a bit of a practical jokester. That produced some funny results.
Well, Brian, thank you so much for talking to me, I could talk to you for hours but I know you’re a very busy man.
Thank you so much Matt. You know, you said something earlier which I meant to comment on. You said, “You pay attention to the things that make you envious.” I know exactly what you mean there. When I hear something and I think, “Shit, I wish I’d done that.”
Why didn’t I think of that? Why didn’t I think of that?
Yeah, why didn’t I think of that? So I very much have that feeling. In fact, I’m very much guided by that. So it’s almost a slight sort of anger with myself of, damn, I could’ve done that! I nearly was doing that! And I didn’t do it. I have to say, there’s one of your songs I felt that way about, that song Love It If We Made It.
I thought, “Oh my God!” I’ve been trying for years, I’ve been thinking, could anyone ever write a good political song? It’s very thin ice to tread on that. So often it ends up being kind of hectoring or naive or something like that.
To accept a compliment, that’s amazing for you to say. The thing is with that song, the balance that I’ve struggled with in that whole album Brian, was the idea of kind of posing questions: can the centre hold? Is this weird? Should we be worried about that? I think that with Love It If We Made It, because there’s a kind of inherent lack of opinion, there’s an inherent lack of judgment. It’s more just a voyeuristic view of the chaos that we’re now kind of tapped into from the second we wake up to when we go to bed, you know what I mean? There’s also, I hope, a little bit of hope in that song. So the fact that song resonated with you makes me so happy, because that idea of the pursuit of the truth, or kind of being outward, or you know, leaving in the nasty bits… those are things that I’ve learned from artists like yourself. So that’s… I’m really pleased with that.
Well, I never wrote a song like that. I wish I had, but I didn’t. That song really made me think, “Oh, there is a political music possible.” Because for God’s sake, if I could, I would write political songs now.
Right, because it’s all about documenting the time, you know what I mean? I look back at even moments that weren’t that politically fuelled, people like Dylan and the Cuban Missile Crisis or whatever it may be. These times, they need to be documented. I wasn’t even thinking about a next record, but we’ve kind of all been thrown into this new situation, so I think that we have started on a new record and it is a very outward lying thing, so if we do manage to physically be able to see each other again, maybe you’ll come down and help me with it.
Oh, that would be wonderful. I’d love that.
Mr. Brian Eno, thank you so much for your time, you are a gentleman and one of my heroes. I can’t thank you enough.
Well, thank you very much Matt. Thanks for speaking to me.