Brian Eno

May 8, 1982

On May 8, 1982, Deirdre aired her “1st Annual Brian Eno Birthday Celebration,” a two-hour special which surveyed Eno’s music from Roxy Music to the (then-)present day, including his just-released album "Ambient 4: Land" and 1978's landmark "Music for Films." Eno was Deirdre’s favorite artist, a figure who loomed large via his own work and his equally influential collaborations.

In preparation for the show, Deirdre managed to get her hero on the telephone the day prior. This is Deirdre’s original cassette of that conversation, in which they discuss Eno’s turn away from vocal music, his penchant for perfumes, why he doesn’t perform live, and his video installation work, among other topics.

Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Deirdre O'Donoghue: Hello, Brian Eno.

Brian Eno: I'm sorry we're late. I've done a number of interviews today, and each one overran until I was just hours overrun. Please forgive me. Secondly, thank you very, very much for the flowers, which just arrived.

Oh, great. Excellent. Well, that's also by way of “happy birthday.”

Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.

So anyway ... There are a few of us here doing some very experimental kind of things. And about once a month, I do a two-hour special. ... So now it's your turn … The idea of kind of the collapse of categories in music, that seems to be happening a great deal more. And I call it public music. I don't like to call it popular music ... So you've been, at least to my mind, and any number of other people, real responsible for a lot of developments in music away from the equal-tempered scale, bringing different kinds of rhythms and beats, and getting them out across to the public. And that's kind of the shape the show has taken. Frankly, I think it's gonna be one of the best ones I've done. So that's what I'm about. And I'm a small Irish person in Santa Monica.

That's a very funny description. [Laughs]

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There may be a couple of real dumb questions, but not too terribly dumb, I hope. And if they're too terribly dumb, just tell me. And I guess the first thing would be about current projects you're working on. What's happening in the continuum of your life right now? Besides a lot of interviews.

No, there haven't been too many interviews. Actually, the reason I've been doing the interviews is, there's a selfish reason, which is that I've been working on a piece of writing for some time. Well, it's writing and diagrams. I'm fascinated by diagrams. And I'm using the interviews actually as a way of generating some more material. I enjoy writing, but I find I tend to write in a fairly formal style. And I was reading some time ago a transcript of an interview. And I thought, "Yes, I said that fairly clearly. That was very simple and clear." And I suddenly realized that I could put all these interviews to use by getting transcripts and re-transcribing them for my own piece of writing. So I'm trying to write in a simpler way. I suppose this is a technique of doing it. I suppose it's really an expansion of some of the ideas that are contained in the “Oblique Strategies” that I published.

There was a part in one of the old interviews I read, it was either '77 or '78, [where] you're talking about the discursive element in both doing interviews and in lyrics. And I found in an old notebook a William James quote, because I'd gone back to read “Varieties of Religious Experience” again. And the idea that just kind of fit together was ... that there are doorways through which one sees the wildness of life.

Yeah, nice idea.

I think that's something that you do in the very energetic songs. For example … One of the phrases that stood out in my mind for a long time is the idea of looking for the perfect ratio. There are just constant flashes of: This is not just music. This is a person talking and telling me something. It's a doorway through which I see that wildness from a different point of view.

Well, there's another line from one of those songs [1977's "King's Lead Hat"] that I've been thinking about a lot lately, which is: "The biology of purpose keeps my nose above the surface." I like that one. Makes me laugh … My feeling for music, and the reason I'm interested in doing it -- in fact, the reason I can't stop doing it -- is because it's the place that I use to work things out in, that's all. It's my practice, you know, like other people have practices of various kinds. And for some, it's a formal religious practice, if you like. For others, it's a physical discipline of some kind. 

For me, it happens to be music. More recently it's been extending a little bit into other areas as well. But at the core of it is music, I suppose. It occupies so many different parts in my life. It's not something that I feel separate from, you know. I think about things in terms of ... I translate them into diagrammatic musical terms, if you like.

"The biology of purpose keeps my nose above the surface."

One of the things that was occurring to me as I was listening to all the albums was that the words seemed to be going away. There were fewer and fewer words.

That's right. I think what's been happening is that the words and the music are separating out. Because, like I said, I am writing a lot now, but it's coming out as writing. It's not coming out as words in a song. And the music is coming out as more purely music. It doesn't have a verbal aspect to it at the moment, anyway. But there is a reason for that as well ... The consistent direction I've had for the last few years is towards a kind of music that was more and more to do with a sense of place, and with a sense of some kind of psychic environment one might choose to find oneself in. And it was also to do with a quality of feeling alone in a place. It's a quality that I like very, very much, and it's a feeling I enjoy when I find it in music. 

One of the difficulties with singing or with having lyrics, as soon as you do that, there's another person in that piece. For the listener, he's not alone in that piece of music. He's watching the performance of the personality. I felt more and more that I wanted to make music where the listener became that person in the piece, where they weren't told where to go, exactly ... It would be like presenting someone with a forest. You drop someone in the middle of the forest, you say, "There you are. Have a good time." And you can either give that person a very strict path through the forest, pointing out all the highlights, “And here's the tallest tree, and here's a big hole.” and so on. Or else you can say, "Well, look. Here's a forest, you just walk around it as you like." 

More and more, I've been enjoying this idea of just walking around the thing as I like. And I find, on listening to pieces like the ones on this new record and some of the other things, more and more I find different directions in them. And I find secrets in them that have been latent there for a very long time. Things that I'd forgotten, or didn't even ever realize about the piece.

I've seen more movies. I've had more wonderful adventures listening to "Music for Films." They're little movies.

That's right. Well, that was the other meaning of that title. Not many people picked up on that. When I called it "Music for Films," I didn't only mean music that had been used in films. I meant music to evoke filmic-type experiences, you know?

It’s very much that same kind of a feeling. It's very jungle. It's very tropical. It's just exquisite. There's a perfume called Opium which I kind of like.

Oh, I love that one. 

Oh, it always just makes me feel so very good. I feel like I'm being whisked away to a tent with silk pillows or something.

It's funny you should talk about perfumes, 'cause I've been experimenting with them a lot recently … I have a little laboratory at home where I mix various smells together. 'Cause one of the things I want to do in this garden shed project is to constantly alter the smell in there. Not in a very obvious way. But I've noticed a lot. I've been doing experiments, and I notice a lot how people are subtly affected by smell.

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There was a museum show a couple years back about Pompeii ... And they used a lot of different scents to evoke different rooms. You were to have the effect of walking through this villa ... They use different plants, different little ... you know, those little solid air wick kind of sticks. And it did decidedly add to the experience, I really liked it.

Well, a smell is a very strong key, I think.

Little molecules hooking up inside you.

Yeah. It's like, if you were hit by a smell at a particular time, it can open a door to another time and another place with such a strong and certain effect. It really is indisputable. I love that fake thing about smells  ... I've got a good nose, I think. I must have a good sense of smell, 'cause I've always been very responsive to it. And now I decided to try to experiment with it a little bit. I've invented a little machine for dispensing drops of liquid in such a way that I can control the level of smell in a place. I don't know whether I'm going to get that finished for this show. I'm hoping to.

Well, see, now, that's another thing that I've enjoyed with your music and your different things, is that I have found your works to be very challenging in two ways, both in the sense of challenging ... oh, I don't know, the establishment, for lack of a better word, or what is established by kind of breaking through boundaries, constantly nudging things, but also that it's always challenging me, personally. It makes me think. It expands the boundaries of wherever I am at the moment … So it's always a joy to find someone who can do that with sound and pull in all the visual elements that you're talking about. The printed word elements. Smell. It's beautiful.

Yeah, I agree with you. I don't find it very much in music. I find it much more in painting and in films. Those are the two media that I enjoy and, I think, learn most from. I look at a lot of paintings and I go to the movies, I should think, on average twice a week, which I think is quite a lot, really, since I don't do anything else.

You know, I don't listen to all that much. When I do, I listen to .... I mean, I don't go home and automatically put a record on ... I guess I listen on average to probably about 20 minutes of music a day. Except for accidental music, you know, like you hear music in the streets and so on. But actually making a choice about listening to music, it's about 20 minutes a day, I think, or half an hour. And so, some days or some weeks ... I don't listen to anything at all. And then other times, I'll get very interested in something and spend a whole day listening to it over and over. I've been listening to gospel records a lot recently. Very keen on that.

Oh, I should make you a tape of a fellow out here ... at another one of these non-commercial stations. They're two hour-long shows: one's called "The Angels' Music" and the other is called "The Devil's Music." And the one is wonderful gospel, and the other is what they used to call "race music," the old double-triple-entendre R&B. Old Wynonie Harris and stuff.

What a nice idea for a show. 

See, that's the thing about this ... I did commercial radio for a long time and kept getting in trouble for playing things like Eno and Roxy Music. And you're not supposed to play Ornette Coleman on the radio. And it's all very categorized now. So I feel like I'm in heaven with this little radio station.

I would hate to work in commercial radio at the moment … The most soul-destroying job of all.

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Exactly. It's killing. You don't perform live very much. Do you not like doing that?

I don't, really, no. Well, first of all, I don't really have many talents that are particularly geared to performing live. Secondly, I don't like the situation very much. I'm not sort of involved in it, you know. I can stand on stage and think about what I've got to do in the supermarket tomorrow, or something like that. It doesn't grip me in the same way as it seems to grip other people, or it hasn't done in the past, anyway. And the other thing is, most of the work I've been doing is really recorded work. It's to do with the studio, and to do with somebody listening to it in their own place, really, in a space that they like and have set up in a way that they like ... This new record, more than any other, I can't imagine how that could be performed, or what the value of performing it would be. It's not a gregarious type of experience, really.

It's kind of more like, it sounds to me ... You don't watch somebody paint as entertainment.

Exactly. I've used that very analogy myself sometimes. Yes, exactly that. It just makes me very nervous to be watched in that way, yeah.

You know, that's why I do radio. I won't even have anybody around when I'm doing this. It's not safe. A solitary Irish leprechaun here. You've done, with … the cover of "Bush of Ghosts," [it] was described as a video. Are you working with that? 

Well, I have been. I've done quite a lot of video work, actually. But I don't distribute mine. I show them in galleries and museums. Because I like to put them into a room where I can control the light and the seating and everything else. So I've shown them in about 35 museums and galleries. I've got a show on at the moment at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. And another one in Lyon in France, one in Vancouver, and one somewhere else I can't remember. I know I've got four shows on at the moment of videos. But the videos are not ... They're not like pop videos, really. They're extremely slow, sensual type of films.