“Hi. I’m Dan Deacon. Before moving to Baltimore I went to college and grad school at the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase. For the past four years I have been touring a collection of pieces for voice, electronics and audience. In my spare time I enjoying booking shows at various weird places in Baltimore. I’m looking forward to touring less and finishing up a series of pieces for large ensemble. The future surrounds us. Let us begin.”
Dan Deacon has just begun his North American tour following the release of his second album. Released last week by the essential Carpark record label, Bromst an ebullient, anthemic, densely stacked minimalist rave monster recorded with “real” instruments, including a player piano. Bromst is bonkers in the best way: I hear Eno vocals, Koyaanisqatsi-era Philip Glass, Terry Riley, gamelan, Spike Jones, vintage video games, put-your-hand-in-the-air-and-knock-on-that-door techno, organized surges, simple chord progressions embedded in layers of drums and piano notes. (Stream Bromst songs at dan deacon myspace.)
Bromst is a unique album made by a uniquely multi-gifted artist: a class clown from music composition class, a populist intellectual with a fiercely whimsical streak, a serious composer who can elevate an on-the-edge-of-danger dance party into mass communion through charisma, imaginative group gameplaying and a certain fearlessness. If you haven’t witnessed Deacon live, check out the two youtubes included in the text below; in one, audience members sing from sheet music in a basement party; in the second…well, to write about it would be to reduce it. Goosebumps, baby! I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a performing artist so adept in creating group public joy without pandering—or one whose abilities, interests and ethic are so perfectly attuned to what the times call for.
There’s a lot more to say about what Deacon is up to, and why it’s so vital and inspiring. (A good place to start is this extremely perceptive thinkpiece by Rjyan Kidwell; also check out C & D’s interview in Arthur No. 27 with Deacon and director Jimmy Joe Roche about their “Ultimate Reality” film, available here.) I wanna wait to get my thoughts together on all of this til next week, though, cuz this weekend I am venturing for the first time to psychedelic Baltimore to see Deacon and his new 14-piece ensemble perform Saturday night as part of the 6th Annual Transmodern Festival.
But there’s no reason not to post the following conversation now, conducted by phone at 11am on consecutive days in February from two secret locations in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood (thanks Geoff, thanks Jack). Dan was waking up in Baltimore. The first day, midway through an answer to my second question, he confided, “I’m having a weird allergic reaction. The whole right side of my body is swelled up and I can’t open my eye all the way.” But I thought he was talking perfect sense and he was up for it, so we kept on rolling. The following is a condensation from those two conversations; any mistakes in transcription are mine, and will be corrected…
Arthur: That’s a great, evocative album cover. How did you come up with it?
Dan Deacon: I was camping with my dad this summer and one morning I woke up early, because you tend to wake up early when you’re camping, and the light was coming through the tent and it just looked really nice. I started thinking about tents, as a structure, as a place in which to live, and being a very old, old thing. I thought, I’d love to make a tent, an old fancy European-looking tent that you’d see in a movie like Lord of the Rings, where they have that kind of encampment set-up and some of them are just shitty tents, shantytowns, and then there’s the beautiful one. I realized I knew nothing about making a tent, I know nothing about construction, or sewing, so I designed it on paper first, then started to build it. It became this nightmarish project, but I’m really glad I did it. It’s 10 foot x 10 foot x 10 foot, it’s a hexagon-shaped tent, so it’s ten feet between opposite points of the hexagon, then ten feet straight up. I also wanted something [for the album cover] that could exist in reality, so if I used it in the live show, the audience could have some sort of connectivity to it, which a lot of what the record is about—about interconnectivity and feeling attached to things that otherwise feel abstract or you have no attachment for.
INDOOR THUNDER: Landscaping the future with Brian Eno
by Alan Moore
Remove ambiguities and covert to specifics.
The first half of the twentieth century saw all energies and the agenda that had driven Western culture from its outset reach their logical albeit startling conclusions in the various fires of Auschwitz, Dresden, Nagasaki, after which we all sat stunned amongst the smoking fragments of our worldviews, all our certainties of the utopias to come revealed as flimsy, wishful, painted sets, reduced to vivid splinters, sharp and painful. There was scorched earth, there was shellshock, there was no Plan B. Hiroshima rang through the traumatized and anxious mindset of the 1950s, through Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture, its shuddering reverberation somewhere between funeral knell and warning seismic tremor. Our response to the bad news carved a division through society, between flat denial on the one hand, paralyzed hysteria upon the other; between those who doggedly refused the notion that tomorrow might be different from today, and those fixated by the mushroom clouds who scorned the notion that there might be a tomorrow. Both these attitudes, you’ll notice, have conveniently avoided any need to think creatively about the future, have dodged any obligation to consider the Long Now. Tomorrow is today with smaller radios or it’s strontium and ashes, and in either case there’s no need to prepare.
Throughout the 1950s there was very little ground between these two terminal visions, one complacent in its sense of stasis and the other in its sense of doom, but such ground as existed was staked out and cultivated by the era’s artists, by its avant-garde musicians, its Beat poets. By the middle ’60s they had turned the thin conceptual corridor between Eisenhower/Macmillan monotony and Oppenheimer Armageddon into thriving, fertile territory where the future tense could once more be employed with meaning, where future itself could once more be imagined, could take root. In England, grown up from the ferment and foment of the moment, an exuberantly progressive Art School scene together with a network of experimental and impromptu Arts Laboratories were the psychedelic backdrop that the next wave of creative talent would emerge from in the early 1970s, once all the counter-culture crackle of the previous ten years had run its course. The fairground ozone glitterfog of Glam Rock with its twilight sexuality and its somehow nostalgic futurism boiled up from the dayglo debris in bohemian basements, happened happenings, a rich mulch of dreams crashed and trampled and ploughed under. David Bowie and Steve Harley sprang from Arts Lab roots in Beckenham. Brian Eno spent the 1960s soaking up the influence of tutors such as the composer Cornelius Cardew or Tom Phillips, author of the treated masterpiece A Humument. At its deepest and most interesting subterranean extremes the hippy underground became the velvet goldmine.
The peculiar electricity that sparked back then amongst the leopard skins and sequins came from tensions that went further than the obvious sexual ambiguity of heterosexual bricklayers in lippy. There were also stress lines spanning past and future, the subculture caught between them like a lurex Janus, one face with its yearning Garbo gaze trained on a celluloid romance of yesterday, the other staring through its greasepaint thunderbolt into the alien dazzle up ahead, dynamic conflict that was evident in Bowie’s mismatched eyes, in the fraught brilliance of the period’s most emblematic pop group, Roxy Music. Here the sound was tug-of-war taut, stretched between the MGM lounge-lizardry of Bryan Ferry’s retro-fitted vision and the squelchy sci-fi shimmer that Brian Eno dressed it in, Noel Coward on the set of Logan’s Run. When the rope inevitably snapped, the synthesizer artist/non-musician, suddenly cut free from the opposing pull of any gravity, seemed to rise instantly to a conceptual stratosphere remote and previously unglimpsed, dragging the decade with him by its iridescent quiff.
It’s difficult to overestimate the manner in which Eno’s subsequent solo career has impacted with culture, in terms of both its complexity and the sheer breadth of its blast radius. Back in the first flush of the ‘70s his manifesto, yet to be unpacked, was nonetheless there to be read in “Baby’s On Fire”’s two-note minimalist flourish, in the cascading metal vistas of his work with Robert Fripp. It could be seen in the inventive pilfering from Chinese picture-story propaganda that engendered Taking Tiger Mountain…, in the thinking behind the ingenious, endlessly useful deck of creative prompts labeled Oblique Strategies that he and Peter Schmidt released in January 1975. It was even apparent in the mantelpiece clutter of Here Comes the Warm Jets’ picture sleeve, the pornographic playing card that referenced the album’s title, the sly and understated sense of humor. Rapidly transcending his considerable status as Glam icon Eno became instead the most coherent and most capable example of a cutting edge that pop culture had witnessed, became something new and without precedent, something refusing definition save in its own self-invented terms.
If there is anything that’s more authentically remarkable than Eno’s almost total single-handed transformation of the way we think about our entertainment culture, more striking than his casual invention of the sample or of ambient music, then it is the quietness and above all discretion with which he’s accomplished everything. It is the unobtrusiveness with which he carries out his dynamitings and his demolitions, the delicacy of his bulldozers that clear way the parlor walls while everybody’s having tea, and no one notices. We pass the sugar and try not to mention the roof’s gone. Many of his pop contemporaries, perhaps mindful of the fact that ultimately they have little that’s original to say and no expectation of effecting any noticeable change within society will compensate by flaunting ersatz dangerousness in their lyrics, their appearance or their lifestyle, whereas Nature tells us that the genuinely dangerous beasts lie low in the grass and do not choose to advertise their presence until it’s all far too late. Working at culture’s liminal extremes, deep in the social utlra-violet, he is taking Tiger Mountain by stealth. Implacably intelligent and utterly unsentimental, he got the job because he was so mean, while somehow appearing so kind.
His function, frequently, is catalytic, sparking a profound reaction in which only he himself will not be noticeably changed. Eno’s collaborations with his former Glam associate David Bowie later in the 1970’s, most notably on Low, were massively important to the shaping of the Punk and New Wave movements without ever being seen as part of those phenomena. His sampled TV news report of Dutch industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer’s death on R. A. F. provided House music with all its aural furniture by way on an anonymous charity shop donation. Even throwaway remarks such as his comment that while only a few hundred people ever listened to the Velvet Underground they all formed bands are endlessly recycled without any real awareness of their source, and yet his sphere of influence continues its expansion unabated. His ubiquity would seem to imply that while only a few hundred people ever paid attention to Brian Eno’s work, they all formed countries.
Propaganda for a state wholly of mind, his oeuvre acts upon the world around it like a beneficial virus, ideas that infect the host, transform it to a vector by which the infection may be further propagated. As with all successful viruses, there is a strategy by which the host’s immune defenses and resistance to the ideas can be circumvented, and in Eno’s case that strategy is one of simple beauty and necessity. His notions, packaged irresistibly within a haunting and transporting drift of notes and tones are simply too profoundly lovely, are too vital and too obviously true to foster any opposition, any barricades. Whether it’s the elegiac end-of-season seafronts of “Some Faraway Beach” or the mesmerizing glass-and-raindrop crawl of “Thursday Afternoon,” the final “It’s the stars…” refrain that ends his wonderfully cross-purposive collaboration with John Cale, Wrong Way Up, or The Shutov Assembly’s tingling, thrilling “Ikebukuro,” there is a sublime, uplifting presence that informs each piece and brooks no opposition, an enlightening eunoia, beauteous thought that changes people and their landscape from the inside out.
Avoiding all classification and restriction by defining himself doggedly in terms of what he’s not, the non-musician has been able to ignore all boundaries, can access areas where musicians are not usually encouraged: futurology and film and fashion. Perfume. Politics. He is tomorrow’s perfect occupant, the model for what humans can achieve when unencumbered by the luggage or the language of the self-set limitations of our prison past, and better yet he makes it all look like such fun. Upon the one occasion when I had the privilege of meeting him, at the recording of an interview for Radio Four’s Chain Reaction series, he turned up wearing the clothes he’d worn the previous day after his daily consultation of the Oblique Strategies pack had admonished him severely to “Change nothing.” Having buffed my shoes up to a fine sheen in an effort to impress him even if the toying with my hair and simpering failed, I was surprised when he insisted upon polishing his own shoes just before we went on air. I pointed out that this was wireless and that nobody would notice, to which he replied by asking if I didn’t think that an impression of one’s dusty shoes could somehow be transmitted over radio? I was transfixed, and honestly had no response to this spontaneous Zen koan. What’s the sound of one shoe gathering dust?
Brian Eno is one of our modern culture’s brightest lights, never more radiant than in that culture’s most obscure and interesting corners, someone we should all be grateful we’re alive at the same time as. He’s the ambient motor hum, the alpha wave harmonic barely audible behind civilization. We should all sit quietly and listen.
Alan Moore recently retired from mainstream comics writing, and will soon be marrying his longtime girlfriend and collaborator, artist Melinda Gebbie. He will be presenting a piece about William Burroughs at this year’s Patti Smith-curated Meltdown festival in London.
A legendary live Robert Fripp & Brian Eno bootleg recording known as “Air Structures” is now available as a legitimate release—Fripp & Eno, May 28, 1975, a three CD-length digital download, direct from Fripp’s DGM label.
Notes from the DGM site:
These show notes are written by long-standing Frippertronics expert and unofficial archivist, Allan Okada, whose help in the restoration of this concert has been invaluable.
This historic recording documents an extremely rare and classic performance of a mysterious collaborative tour from two of the most creative and fascinating figures in rock. It is one of the most rewarding live recordings this writer has ever heard. For any fan of ‘No Pussyfooting’ or ‘Evening Star’, this live recording is of epic significance and thanks to the efforts of Alex Mundy, is now also comparable in audio quality, by synchronizing the most complete and best (by a mile) available live bootleg recording with Eno’s stage tapes recently discovered. This tour also represents a turning point for both artists, about to enter new frontiers professionally and personally: Eno as an ambient music pioneer and Fripp’s re-emergence as a “small, mobile, intelligent unit”.
Here is the lead up to this 5th of a 7-show European mini-tour. Fripp just recently disbanded King Crimson at a point which many would describe as their artistic pinnacle. Eno also recently parted ways with Roxy Music at a similar juncture and then aborted his first and only extensive solo tour after only a handful of shows, due to a collapsed lung. Fripp & Eno live in concert? What would they do? All the shows in Spain and France were, not surprisingly, accompanied with unrealistic fan expectations, hoping for a presentation of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ combined with ‘Baby’s on Fire’ perhaps? What this audience got was something entirely different. The programme was largely improvised and totally instrumental. Adding to the event’s unorthodoxy was the absence of all conventional stage lighting. The sole illumination was provided by Malcolm LeGrice’s colour saturated and looped short film ‘Berlin Horse’ projected behind the two shadowy figures on stage, visually mimicking the music. The result was an unprecedented live performance format, years ahead of its time. It was also mind-boggling to most of the unsuspecting 1975 audience, yielding wildly different reactions. Reportedly about half the shows on this tour were also plagued with some sort of major technical hazard, stemming from the venue, the PA or the duo’s stage equipment. In Saint-Étienne, the audience went as far as booing the duo off the stage! Fortunately for us here, this Paris Olympia performance was technically flawless and from a musical standpoint, incredibly inspired.
Starting with the pre-recorded primordial drone ‘Water on Water’, the duo eventually walks on stage. Fripp begins playing through the “Enotronic system” (since Eno, not Fripp operated the tape machines on this tour). It’s important to note that at this time, the mechanics of the Revox tape delay system was a mystery to the guitarist. This must have surely added a heavy dose of Eno’s “idiot glee” to the entire proceedings. Fripp moves this piece into uncharted territories with short volume pedal sweeps of lunacy before detaching from the delay system and beautifully soloing over the familiar backing loop of ‘Swastika Girls’. Very astute listeners will detect the unrealized main theme from King Crimson’s ‘Blue’ off the top. An intermission has the audience treated to Eno’s seminal ‘Discreet Music’ before the duo return to the stage with another improvised loop morphing into the now familiar ‘Wind On Water’ landscape. The sublimely serene ‘A Near Find in Rip Pop’ follows with Fripp soloing over a beautiful, strummed guitar piece (from the ‘Evening Star’ sessions) enhanced with synthetic animal screeches utilized months later on Eno’s ‘Zawinul/Lava’ track. Then just as you feel relaxed, Eno’s loop changes to something akin to a gigantic, looming dark cloud as Fripp hits the distortion pedal and fires off some solos of truly monstrous intensity. Eno gently takes the proceedings back down to Earth again by introducing the now infamous ‘Evening Star’ backing loop over which Fripp treats us to yet another wonderful solo before leaving the stage again, while ‘An Iron Frappe’ continues to envelop the crowd. The duo reappears for the final ‘Softy Gun Poison’ complete with tapes of sinister laughter and mysterious chatter (foreshadowing moments of Fripp’s upcoming ‘Exposure’), before leaving the stage for the last time, while (the then unknown) ‘An Index of Metals’ terrorizes the bewildered audience as they exit the venue. All in all, this lucky Paris audience was treated with the entirety of both classic albums as well as enough new material to constitute a third. As a bonus, we are also presented with Eno’s stage tapes in pure format including Test Loops from the sound check. What more could you ask from a live recording? Absolutely essential listening.
Flipping sonic channels on a cosmic TV, we begin this episode of Arthur Radio as sound traveling through an electrical conduit, crackling back and forth between fragmented news stories, advertisement jingles, and satellite static. At the end of the wire we are released into a gaseous, airy atmosphere, where we mutate into Krypton floating in a fluorescent purple light bulb. It is in this alien terrain that we meet our otherworldly special guest James Ferraro @ 55:55 mins, who slowly takes a human form before our eyes.
Manning the helm of a translucent convertible, he drives us down an interstellar slide until we eventually land on Highway 1, blaring an 80s hit grittily at top volume on the car radio, an orange pink and yellow sunset sparkling above the horizon. Many miles away, at the top of Mount Everest’s K2, an avalanche begins to rumble, stirring the perfect sea of snow below. We are everywhere at once; all possibilities exist simultaneously. Traversing between them has never been easier.
PART 1: In which our heroes call upon the dosed horn of John Coltrane, the open time slots of Fela Kuti’s studio, and the hallucinatory mojo of Kathy Acker to remove the barricades for to invoke a dance sigil in service of the psychic liberation of times square: hub of consumption, barometer of culture, shrine of empire. Use Your Feet For The Feat Of The Defeat Of The Demons Feasting On Your Future!
PART 2: In which comrade to the cause Nonhorse finds space amidst his beyond–mere–mortal–multitaskings to build a roomy nest of codified cassettery from which to deliver a highly prismatic and severely discorporating live tape manipulation set. Abridged here, the fulllll badass 2.5 hour tilthabreakadawn extent can be siphoned from the bountiful tank of the Newtown Radio archives. HEAVY
Many leagues below a murky, oil-filled pocket of subtropical waters off the southern coast of the United States, abyss creatures continue to communicate through light and vibration. In the “midnight zone,” a formidable black swallower feeds off of a hydrothermal vent, shrouded in a darkness thicker and blacker than deepest outer space. An opalescent dumbo octopus floats serenely by, her shiny coating picking up hints of a nearby jellyfish‘s flashing stroboscopic light, which illuminates a pulsating haze of red around them. On the very bottom of the ocean floor, a sea dandelion sits quietly, swaying back and forth to the rhythm of tectonic plates stirring below her…
Above: Special guest DJ Ron Like Hell, a resident purveyor of good taste and mind-expanding musical knowledge at northern Greenpoint’s favorite record-vending establishment, Permanent Records. If you are in the New York area on Friday, June 11th, go see him DJ at The Loft above Public Assembly.
(Above: This episode’s collage — double-click to view fullscreen + scroll)
For Transmission #10 of Arthur Radio, we started by visualizing ourselves in a black void, lost in time somewhere between the 1970s and today. Using LED-powered building blocks, we constructed a musical pathway in order to make sense of our surroundings. Brick by colorful brick, we bridged the gap between the oily rainbow pools of German psychedelic krautrock jazziness all the way to the shimmering mists of other-worldly electronic noise being produced by the likes of contemporaries Jonas Reinhardt, Arp, Stellar Om Source, and our very special time-traveling guests, Blondes.
Standing on the other side of the bridge in the murky “now,” we found that transversing between the two realms was easier than we thought. In fact, it seemed that they were always connected by an invisible passage, for the electronic explorers of today were born of very same primordial space sludge that spawned krautrock pioneers Dorothea Raukes, Jean Michel Jarre, Manuel Göttsching and friends, some 40 years ago.
The following description was taken from the back of “The LYTE,” one of the very first audiovisualizers of its kind made in the 1980s. Its sentiment echoes how listening to Transmission #10 makes us feel, and we recommend that you meditate on it for a second before you take that irrevocable plunge, hit “play,” and start time-traveling on your own:
The written word cannot fully describe what the eye and ear can perceive. Tone by tone you see an exact, shimmering definition in light of what you hear. Exotic patterns are born, grow, contract and change shape through an infinity of dazzling complexity; each momentary image a precise electronic expression of the sound you hear…
“I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history’s moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.”
With vintage Russian black humor, Orlov described the social collapse he witnessed in Russia in the 1990s and spelled out its practical lessons for the American social collapse he sees as inevitable. The American economy in the 1990s described itself as “Goldilocks”—just the right size—when in fact is was “Tinkerbelle,” and one day the clapping stops. As in Russia, the US made itself vulnerable to the decline of crude oil, a trade deficit, military over-reach, and financial over-reach.
Russians were able to muddle through the collapse by finding ways to manage 1) food, 2) shelter, 3) transportation, and 4) security.
Russian agriculture had long been ruined by collectivization, so people had developed personal kitchen gardens, accessible by public transit. The state felt a time-honored obligation to provide bread, and no one starved. (Orlov noted that women in Russia handled collapse pragmatically, putting on their garden gloves, whereas middle-aged men dissolved into lonely drunks.) Americans are good at gardening and could shift easily to raising their own food, perhaps adopting the Cuban practice of gardens in parking lots and on roofs and balconies.
As for shelter, Russians live in apartments from which they cannot be evicted. The buildings are heat-efficient, and the communities are close enough to protect themselves from the increase in crime. Americans, Orlov said, have yet to realize there is no lower limit to real estate value, nor that suburban homes are expensive to maintain and get to. He predicts flight, not to remote log cabins, but to dense urban living. Office buildings, he suggests, can easily be converted to apartments, and college campuses could make instant communities, with all that grass turned into pasture or gardens. There are already plenty of empty buildings in America; the cheapest way to get one is to offer to caretake it.
The rule with transportation, he said, is not to strand people in nonsurvivable places. Fuel will be expensive and hoarded. He noted that the most efficient of all vehicles is an old pickup fully loaded with people, driving slowly. He suggested that freight trains be required to provide a few empty boxcars for hoboes. Donkeys, he advised, provide reliable transport, and they dine as comfortably on the Wall Street Journal as they did on Pravda.
Security has to take into account that prisons will be emptied (by stages, preferably), overseas troops will be repatriated and released, and cops will go corrupt. You will have a surplus of mentally unstable people skilled with weapons. There will be crime waves and mafias, but you can rent a policeman, hire a soldier. Security becomes a matter of local collaboration. When the formal legal structure breaks down, adaptive improvisation can be pretty efficient.
By way of readiness, Orlov urges all to prepare for life without a job, with near-zero burn rate. It takes practice to learn how to be poor well. Those who are already poor have an advantage.
BEFORE AND AFTER SILENCE On the eve of the release of his first album of vocals songs in decades, pioneering musician-artist-thinker BRIAN ENO speaks with Kristine McKenna in a conversation as wide-ranging and profound as his singular career.
I’ve met lots of charming people in my life and Brian Eno may well be the most charming person I’ve ever met. What’s the secret of his devastating charm? It comes down to a few things. He has impeccable manners. He gives you his full, undivided attention when he speaks with you. He’s interested in everything under the sun. He has a wonderful sense of humor. Finally, and most importantly, he has an incredibly light touch. What I mean by that is that he can discuss just about anything and be genuinely involved without getting hot and bothered. Eno so relishes the process of examining things from various angles that he can’t be bothered to take it personally if you don’t agree with him. He’s fun.
Born in Suffolk, England in 1948, Eno was in art school in the early‘70s when he became a founding member of pioneering glam band, Roxy Music. He left the group in 1973 and embarked on a solo career that quickly expanded in several directions at once. Regarded as the inventor of ambient music—atmospheric washes of sound that settle in like weather and eschew the linear structure central to most music—Eno helped pioneer the use of sampling and computers in the recording studio, has contributed to more than 150 albums as producer, composer or performer, and has overseen the making of critically acclaimed records by David Bowie, U2 and Talking Heads. A visiting professor at London’s Royal College of Art since 1995, Eno has created audiovisual art installations at sites around the world since the early ’80s, and in 1983 he was a co-founder, with Anthea Norman-Taylor, of Opal Records. Five years later the co-founders married and settled in London, where they’re raising two teenage daughters. (Eno also has a 30-year-old daughter, Hannah, from a previous marriage).
One thing Eno hasn’t done for quite a while is sing, so the release of Another Day on Earth—his first record of songs in more than two decades—is something of an occasion. This was the ostensible reason we recently hooked up to chat, but as is always the case with Eno, our conversation roamed far and wide. Herewith, a few of the high points.
Arthur: What seemed desperately important to you as a young man that no longer seems quite so pressing?
Brian Eno: I’ve somewhat lost faith in art and the cultural world because I think it has no faith in itself. Culture is the most important thing we do, but it seems to me that we don’t take it seriously, and the visual arts in particular are in very dire straits at the moment. I don’t think any of it makes much difference, although there are some painters working now that I like very much. Lari Pittman, for instance, makes beautiful paintings that absolutely blow me away.
If you could own any artwork, what would you want?
There’s a room at the Museum of Modern Art that has a beautiful Rothko, two de Koonings, and a huge Monet Water Lilies. I’d be happy to have that room.
What aspect of middle-age weren’t you prepared for?
That women would find me more attractive. I’ve never thought that highly of myself so this came as a bit of a surprise. Perhaps it’s just that as you get older women are more inclined to tell you how they feel. When people are young they tend to beat around the bush a lot of the time.
How many times have you been in love?
Maybe half a dozen times.
What do you know about romantic love today that you didn’t know ten years ago?
That women are much more romantic than they care to let on—the old clichés are much truer than people care to admit. I would add, however, that notions of romance seem to become more potent for men as they age, too, and it starts to seem like more of the reason that you’d want to do it. You get into the joy of the process more as you get older and care less about the cum shot.
Why does love die?
It often happens that you love someone because they reflect you particularly well, and you basically like the person because they like you. This is a rather slender basis for building a relationship but it’s a trick people use to intrigue you—they look very interested so you think gosh, what a clever person! They’re really interested in me!
How do you explain the aversion to aging that’s an intrinsic part of western culture? Is it simply a fear of death?
I don’t think it’s fear of death so much as fear of the loss of one’s powers. For instance, I notice it in my eyesight. I hate the fact that I can’t see as well as I used to, I’m aware that I’m not seeing the detail I used to see, and I miss that visual side of my life everyday. It’s interesting that as you get older your vision treats your contemporaries better. You look at people your own age and think O.K., she looks nice, then you put your glasses on and think, good lord, do I look like that?
What’s the greatest privilege of youth?
The fact that nobody wants anything from you, you’re free to do anything and you’ve got every avenue open to you. When you’re young you have this capacity to roam, which just disappears. When you’re older either you’re not successful, and many avenues have consequently closed to you, or you are successful and there’s a huge pressure to do more of what you’ve done before. I know so many musicians who’ve told me that when they were young words just flew out of them—sometimes they didn’t even know where they came from—because when nobody cares, you don’t have all these voices in your head saying “that’s immature, you’ve been there before, we’ve heard so-and-so do that.” Because there are no critical voices in your mind it just throws out stuff. I’ve lost that freedom as far as lyric writing goes.
Your new record has a very wistful quality; were you feeling that way when you made it?
Yes, it is something of a getting older record. The other thing I hope it conveys is the idea that each day will pass as all the others have, and it will be just as amazing and disappointing as all the others have been.
The feeling you just described has to do with the fleeting and ephemeral nature of existence, and yet the work you do with the Long Now Foundation is predicated on notions of permanence and longevity.
Yes, Long Now is about thinking long term and was conceived to pose the question; if you really believed there would be people on earth 10,000 years from now, how would that affect how you live today? Most of us live as if there isn’t going to be a future, and few of us are conscious of how heavily we tread on the earth and what we leave behind. These are hard questions to ask ourselves, of course, because essentially they ask you to unpick your life. We’re born into intensely constructed lives that involve high energy consumption, the eating of expensive food—all the things I do along with everybody else I know.
We all live in varying states of denial of the fact that there are a number of converging crisis bearing down on us right now. One of them is the increasing prevalence of really nasty diseases spread by air travel—I have a theory about air travel, by the way. I think we’ve reached the peak of air travel and that it will go into decline for three reasons. One is that it will become associated with the spread of diseases — people will be unwilling to expose themselves to just to go on holiday. People will either drive somewhere or they’ll stay home. Two, there will be a few more spectacular terrorist incidents, and we all remember the effect that had on air travel last time. Three, sooner or later governments are going to have to tackle the fact that air travel is the hugest producer of pollutants we have. There’s been a big debate going on in England about a wind farm they’re thinking of building in the north of the country, and the argument for it is that it would prevent 250,000 tons of pollutants going into the air per year. That sounds good until you realize that one plane doing a London to Miami route for a year releases half a million tons of pollutants into the atmosphere per year. I’d be quite happy if there was a credible world movement against travel because communities would begin to return and people would start to rediscover where they are now. And needless to say, the romance of travel is diminished dramatically by the fact that no matter where you go there will be a Gap store.
Who makes you feel starstruck?
No stars do—it’s funny but I’ve never been impressed by those kind of celebrities. The closest I’ve come to being star struck is by the biologist Richard Dawkins. I’m so impressed by the work he’s done that when I met him I found myself wondering what I could say that would possibly be of interest to him.
What do you long for?
Discipline and some kind of routine. There always seem to be so many things going on in my life and I’m never quite prepared for any of them. Take a simple thing like collecting cuttings out of the newspaper—you’d think that would be a pretty easy thing to organize. I’m always cutting things out, and there are little stacks of clippings all around my studio, but there’s never any time to create a filing system and actually file them. In my imagined life of discipline and routine there would be 20 minutes each morning to file clippings, then half an hour for a swim, which is something I actually do manage to do most days. I just wish there was more of that structure.
What’s your idea of an important achievement?
Years ago my assistant bought a chair for a thousand pounds at a fishing lake owned by 300 fishermen, and nearly every weekend he goes there and basically meditates with a fishing rod in his hand—that’s what people are really doing when they fish. This strikes me as a great thing to achieve, probably because it speaks to my hankering for simplicity and routine. I also admire people who say ‘fuck this’ to the lot they’ve been dealt in life and demand something more for themselves. I have a nephew who has Lowe’s Syndrome and he’s got very poor eyesight and several other little things wrong with him, but this kid is so full of life, partly because my sister—his mother—told him ‘don’t accept your lot.’ She could’ve taken the attitude, ‘oh he’s disabled, he can’t do much,’ but she just sort of threw him into life. So, to make maximum use of what you’ve got is an important achievement. Take Lou Reed as a guitar player. The early records by the Velvet Underground have some of the most inspiring guitar playing I’ve ever heard, but I don’t think anyone would say Lou Reed is a great guitar player. He just knows how to use the gift he has to maximum effect.
Which song is in your mind when you think of Reed’s playing with the Velvet Underground?
“What Goes On.” I almost included a cover of the Velvet Underground song “I’m Set Free” on this record. I did rather a good version of it, too, and I will release it, but I didn’t want to make a record that was too long because I hate long records and think people don’t listen to them. I remember working on Laurie Anderson’s album Bright Red and there was a song on there that was just gorgeous, but she made it track 13 and I’ve never met anyone who’s heard it. By the time people get to track 13 they’re off somewhere else.
What’s your favorite song today?
I can never give one answer to any question, so I have a few. I spent the day digging a fish pond so I was listening to my Ipod, and I’d programmed a song into it by a Turkish singer named Belkis Akkale who has the most erotic voice I’ve ever heard. It absolutely drives me mad and my hear leaps with joy when she sings. Funnily enough, there’s a song I did with Bowie on the record Outside called “We Prick You,” which is amazing. When I heard it today I thought to myself, how on earth did we get that? I rarely listen to my old records and I must say, I was impressed. I’ve also been listening to an inspiring song by Me’Shell N’dege’Ocello called “Loyalty” that’s on a beautiful album she made called Bitter.
What was the last thing you learned?
I’m reading a fabulous book at the moment called Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by a guy called James Scott. The first section of the book deals with city planning, the science of forestry, the invention of surnames, and weights and measures, and it made me realize that everything in society is built on fundamental infra-structural divisions. They’re so deeply embedded in the way we live that we’re often unaware that they’re at the core of many of the problems we wrestle with. That’s why the attempt to export free market capitalism to what was formerly the communist world hasn’t gone smoothly; there’s an intricate infrastructure of social agreements that must be in place for such things to work.
The first time I interviewed you was 25 years ago, and thinking back to that time it seems the world was a much safer and slower place. Is it simply a trick of the mind that we tend to recall the past as somehow simpler, or is the world actually picking up ever greater speed and complexity?
I don’t think it’s a trick of the mind. A few years ago the U.N. published a graph that charted various indicators of human well-being like security, equality, freedom, employment, access to clean water—all sorts of things. It was interesting to me that there is objective evidence for the incremental changes people feel, and the rather alarming conclusion they drew was that Western civilization peaked in 1976. I think it’s true that up until the early ‘80s people felt they were on an upward curve, at least in our culture. This isn’t true for every culture, but here in the West I think people believed things were getting better and globalization was a good idea. Today, most people seem to feel that the threats outnumber the promises and the dangers outnumber the freedoms.
So what are the long-term implications of this U.N. graph? That man’s on the road to extinguishing himself?
I think there’s a very good chance of that, actually, and having young children I find it absolutely alarming to contemplate what kind of world they’ll be living in when they’re my age. There have been various points in human history when people felt the end really was near, but the difference now is that we’re more powerful than we’ve ever been. Any one of us as individuals is almost as powerful as whole nations were in the past, in terms what we can handle, damage and effect. Of course, we can do good things too, but those things are less easy to achieve single-handedly. Good projects require co-operation, but you can create quite a lot of damage all by yourself.
An unfortunate shift in America’s political landscape is the fact that the will of the people no longer seems to mean much; our government does what it damn well pleases regardless of public response to their decisions.
I think that’s true. In the ‘60s people perhaps naively thought that democracy meant what it’s supposed to mean, but today, with Fox News and professional liars in politics, we’ve come to realize that democracy doesn’t mean anything really. As was evidenced in the recent U.K. elections, things aren’t quite so dire yet in England. Yes, Tony Blair was re-elected, but he won with a much reduced majority and a strong message from the people which was this: don’t fuck about with us. It became increasingly obvious to the British people that Blair had deceived them, and that the story of why we were going to war was untrue, and his re-election was essentially a vote of confidence for the Labor Party which has been a quite successful government in many ways—except for its alignment with Bush. England is basically a center-left country and I don’t think any members of the Labor Party approve of Bushism as a style. Bush is a very charismatic man, though, and I think Blair is a bit of a groupie. Obviously, Bush is an ignorant bully but he’s a confident man, and lots of people really go for that.
What’s the first thing you’d do if you were running the world?
I’m a patron of this thing called the Global Ideas Factory that was founded 15 years ago, and it’s an organization that collects ideas about how to make the world a better place. These ideas range from what to do with dog pooh to how to solve the global energy crisis, and some of these ideas are totally amazing. The first thing I’d do would be to set up an international body to examine the feasibility of some of these ideas. We simply waste the wisdom of our great thinkers—it’s amazing how little we use of human intelligence—and creating an internationally funded global ideas bank committed to actually doing something would be a way of putting a world changing culture in place.
To what degree do we inadvertently fictionalize our own past?
I’ve often thought that children should be taught how to watch television, read papers and listen to the radio, because most of our experience now is lived through media in one way or another. That’s particularly true in America where many people get most of their information about the world from television, which fictionalizes the past to a dramatic degree. That’s part of their raison d’etre, to tell us stories about the past.
Towards what end? How does it serve us to fictionalize the past?
It doesn’t serve us at all. Occasionally, for the sake of family coherence, you might tell a story that you know is a rather rosy version of events, but generally it’s imperative to maintain as accurate a grip on the past as one can manage. Very few people seem to appreciate the effort the Germans have made to not fictionalize their past, and it really pisses me off when that idiot Rumsfeld talks about old Europe as if to imply, “what do they know?” Germany has made a huge effort to face its past and come to terms with the fact that it acted absolutely abominably, and this is something America never has done and never will do. America will never ever say the Viet Nam War was a terrible mistake and what happened to the Vietnamese people was a disgrace, but young Germans talk about World War II with genuine passion and honesty.
There’s been quite an uproar about Downfall, the recent film about Hitler; many people have objected to the film on the grounds that it’s dangerous to humanize Hitler. Do you find any merit in those objections?
No, I think this is an important aspect of not fictionalizing the past. It’s a dangerous fiction to regard Hitler as a one-of-a-kind monster. I read an interesting book last year called Defying Hitler by a German historian named Sebastian Haffner, who was born in 1906 and grew up in Berlin where he watched the growth of the Nazi phenomenon. What becomes terrifyingly obvious in reading his book is how easy it is for a society to slip into barbarism. It starts very gently with all the intellectuals and clever people saying ‘bloody Hitler, what an idiot, he’s not going to last.’ All the things we’ve been saying about Bush, who was regarded as just a joke when he first appeared on the political scene. Things get worse and people start saying ‘shocking, disgraceful, we must get rid of this guy, but I’m busy right now writing a book—when it gets bad we’ll all pull together.’ But by the time it reaches that point it’s too late and there is no easy exit.
This is why I’ve started to get political in the last few years—I think we’re at the beginning of a new kind of technocratic tyranny. The manipulation of public opinion is so easy now; for evidence of that look no further than the fact that in a matter of months it was possible to convince most Americans that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the Twin Towers. It was just incredible. A key strategy in the manipulation of public opinion is to get the public excited about moral issues that don’t really matter like abortion and gay marriage. In England the issue is immigration, which is a minor problem but is something everyone feels they must have an opinion about. Governments love those issues because while everybody’s arguing about them, they’re left alone to pursue the business of world domination.
How did having children change you?
It certainly anchored me much more. I don’t like to be away from my children for too long because I hate the thought that I might miss some little part of their story. It also made me think about the future a lot more, and made me realize I had the capacity to feel absolutely unqualified love. One day a situation came up where there was some danger and I realized that without question I would’ve sacrificed my own life without even thinking about it. This came as a surprise to me because I’ve never considered myself a generous or altruistic person, and I don’t regard myself as brave in any way at all.
Do you believe in destiny?
No, but I believe that if you believe in destiny it will make a difference in what happens to you. Some people think ‘I am chosen and I’m a favored person,’ and that gives them a confidence that has the effect of making them chosen. The reverse happens as well. Some people consider themselves cursed and believe nothing will ever go right for them, and of course, nothing does.
What role does faith play in your life?
Last year I went to see Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak, and I was struck by the fact that on several occasions he made the observation, ‘you have no idea what goodness there is in people.’ This really impressed me, given that this was a guy who’d really seen some of the worst that people are capable of. He was talking about the Truth and Reconciliation Council and the great surprise of that endeavor was the incredible generosity of feeling people had, and their ability to forgive really awful things. So, I agree with Desmond Tutu’s comment, for the simple reason that I have faith in human intelligence.
Kristine McKenna is a Los Angeles-based writer. She recently co-curated Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & his Circle, a historical survey of West Coast Beat culture that opens in September at the Santa Monica Museum, accompanied by a catalogue published by D.A.P. She is presently co-producing a documentary film about the Ferus Gallery.