BRIAN ENO, interviewed by Kristine McKenna, with an appreciation by Alan Moore (Arthur No. 17, July 2005)

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Available from the Arthur Store


INDOOR THUNDER: Landscaping the future with Brian Eno
by Alan Moore

Remove ambiguities and convert 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.

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A MAN THAT MATTERED: Joe Strummer, remembered by Kristine McKenna (Arthur No. 3/March 2003)

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A MAN THAT MATTERED
Joe Strummer was a spectacular, inspirational human being

Text: Kristine McKenna
Photography: Ann Summa
Design: W.T. Nelson

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (cover dated March 2003), shortly after Joe’s untimely death on December 22, 2002.

When the Clash first burst on the scene in 1977 I dismissed them for the same reason I’ve always hated U2. Their music struck me as humorless, self-important political blather that wasn’t remotely sexy or fun. Definitely not for me. Nonetheless, being a dedicated punk I had to check them out when they made their Los Angeles debut at the Santa Monica Civic on February 9th, 1979, and what I saw that night changed my mind—just a little, though. As expected, Mick Jones came off as a typical rock fop who clearly spent far too much time thinking about neckerchiefs and trousers. Joe Strummer, however, was something else. With the exception of Jerry Lee Lewis, I’d never seen anyone that furiously alive on stage. Legs pumping, racing back and forth across the stage, singing with a frantic desperation that was simultaneously fascinating and puzzling, he was an incredibly electric presence.

At the press conference following the show that night, L.A.’s ranking punk scribe, Claude Bessy, jumped up and snarled, “This isn’t a press conference—this is a depressing conference!” (Jeez, tempers always ran so high during that first incarnation of the punk scene—who knows why the hell our panties were in such a twist!) I remember that Strummer looked genuinely hurt by the comment. Mind you, he was a working class Brit so he wasn’t about to start sniffling in his sleeve, but he didn’t cop an attitude either. I was touched by how unguarded and open he was—and I was certainly impressed by the mans vigor. I wasn’t surprised when I subsequently learned that Strummer ran three marathons without having trained at all. His preparation? “Drink ten pints of beer the night before the race and don’t run a single step for at least four weeks before the race.”

That first show at the Santa Monica Civic didn’t transform me into a Clash fan, but Strummer interested me, so when the band showed up in 1981 in Manhattan, where I was living at the time, I decided to see what he was up to. The Clash had booked a nin- show engagement at Bond’s, an old department store on Times Square in Manhattan, and this turned out to be not a good idea. The place wasn’t designed to handle the crowds the band drew, and the engagement turned into a nine-day stand-off between the band and the fire marshals. I attended three nights in a row and can’t recall them ever actually making it to the stage and performing. But then, that was business as usual during the glory days of punk, when gigs were forever being shut down, aborted, abruptly canceled. This was political theater, not just music, and nobody embodied that idea more dramatically than the Clash.

Cut to June 14 of the following year and I finally saw the Clash succeed in a completing a full set at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. By then, I’d finally begun to appreciate the breadth and fearlessly experimental nature of the Clash’s music, and Strummer was at the peak of his powers as a showman at that point. The huge hall was packed, and it was as if Strummer was a maestro conducting this undulating mass of sweaty people, with the mysterious power to raise or lower the pitch at will. Boots, beer bottles and articles of clothing flew through the air, people leapt on stage, leapt back into the arms of their friends, Strummer stood at the microphone stoking the fire, and somehow managed to keep the proceedings just a hair’s breadth short of total chaos for two hours. It was a commanding display from a man who clearly knew his job and knew his audience.

Following the break-up of the Clash in 1985, Strummer charged head-on into a busy schedule of disparate projects. He acted in several independent films and composed six film soundtracks, including one—for Alex Cox’s lousy 1988 film, Walker—that was remarkably beautiful. I wrote an admiring review of the score for Musician Magazine, and a few months after it was published Strummer was passing through L.A. and he invited me to lunch in appreciation for the supportive words. We were to meet at a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, and though I was nervous on the way there, he put me at ease the minute we met. Strummer was such a genuine person that it was impossible to feel uncomfortable around him—I know it sounds corny, but he truly was a man of the people. He was funny and generous in his assessments of people, but he didn’t sugar coat things either–he had no trouble calling an asshole an asshole when it was called for. The thing that ultimately made Strummer such a spectacular human being, however, is so simple that it barely seems worth mentioning: he was interested in people. He wanted to hear your story and know what was going on in your neighborhood, he asked how you felt about things and was an empathetic listener—he paid attention! The other thing I immediately loved about him was that he was an enthusiast and a fan.

Just how big a fan he was became clear to me a few months later when he guest hosted a radio show I had at the time on KCRW. My show was at midnight on Saturday, and KCRW’s office is hard to find, so our plan was to meet behind the Foster’s Freeze at Pico and 14th at 11:00 P.M. He roared into the parking lot exactly on time in a car with four pals, and the lot of them tore into the record library at the station looking for the records on Strummer’s play list. His plan was play all the records that shaped his musical taste as a teenager in the order that he discovered them, and the show he put together was equal parts history lesson and autobiography. Included in the far-flung set were tracks by Sonny Boy Williamson, Lee Dorsey, Captain Beefheart, Bo Diddley, Hank Williams, and loads of fabulous, rare reggae and dub. His loving introduction to the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” brought tears to my eyes. Several fans crashed the studio when they heard him on the air and realized he was in town, and he welcomed them all. It was a wonderful night. He had fun too, and as he thanked me and said goodnight, he kissed me on the cheek and I blushed.

Strummer spent the next ten years struggling to re-start his career post-Clash and stumbling repeatedly. “The only thing that got me through was sheer bloody-mindedness—I just won’t quit!,” he told me when I interviewed him in October of 2001. We were talking on the occasion of the release of his second album with his five man line-up, the Mescaleros, Global A Go-Go, which was rightfully hailed as the best work Strummer had done in years. He was happy with the record, and when I saw him perform at the Troubadour a few weeks after we spoke, he seemed happy in general.

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Above: Joe Strummer leads an impromptu dancing-on-the-tables moment at a restaurant in New York City, sometime in the late ’90s. (Photo courtesy Chris from Hellcat/Epitaph.)


“I’ve enjoyed my life because I’ve had to deal with all kinds of things, from failure to success to failure again,” Strummer told a journalist from Penthouse Magazine in 2000. “I don’t think there’s any point in being famous if you lose that thing of being a human being.”

That’s something that was never a danger for Strummer. During that last interview (printed below), I asked him what the great achievement of punk rock had been, and he replied, “it gave a lot of people something to do.” I loved the complete lack of self-importance in that answer, however, this isn’t to suggest that Strummer ever broke faith with punk. “Punk rock isn’t something you grow out of,” he told Penthouse. “Punk rock is like the Mafia, and once you’re made, you’re made. Punk rock is an attitude, and the essence of the attitude is ‘give us some truth.’

“And, whatever happens next is going to be bland unless you and I nause everything up,” he added. “This is our mission, to nause everything up! Get in there and nause it out, upset the apple cart, destroy the best laid plans—we have to do this! Back on the street, I say. Turn everything off in the pad and get back on the street. As long as people are still here, rock’n’roll can be great again.”

Thank you Joe for bringing us the good news.

* * * * *

The following conversation with Strummer took place in October 2001, on the eve of his final U.S. tour during the winter of 2001-2002.

Arthur: You say the great achievement of punk rock was that ‘it gave a lot of people something to do.’ What was its great failure?

Joe Strummer: That we didn’t mobilize our forces when we had them and focus our energies in a way that could’ve brought about concrete social change—trying to get a repressive law repealed, for instance. We’re stuck in a kind of horrible holding pattern now, and it seems to me that the only way to change it is if we get hipsters to stay in one place long enough to get elected. The problem is that no hipster wants to get elected.

Arthur: I saw the Clash several times during their U.S. tours of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and I remember the sense that something profoundly important was at stake at those shows, that they were about something much larger than pop trends. What was at stake?

Joe Strummer: In the rush of youth you assume too much—and so it should be—but we felt that the whole machine was teetering on the brink of collapse. Some amazing things went down in Britain during the ‘70s—the government decided they could disempower the unions by having a three day week, for instance. Can you imagine that? Monday morning you wake up, and suddenly there’s only a three day week, from Monday to Wednesday. There were garbage strikes, train strikes, power strikes, the lights were going out—everything seemed on the brink, and looking through youthful, excitable eyes it seemed the very future of England was at stake. Obviously, that’s very far from the feeling these days, when everything’s pretty much smugly buttoned down.

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BULL TONGUE "TOP TEN #1" by Byron Coley & Thurston Moore

BULL TONGUE
by Byron Coley & Thurston Moore

April 5, 2009

TONGUE TOP TEN #1

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N.


1. Narcolepsia is a new fetish noise tape label out of Portugal. The first two releases show a promising wide view of what fetid broil squirms in the contemporary noise landscape. First is someone/something called N, with a tape titled Smash My Brain I Can’t Tolerate, which is basically this Italiano dude Davide Tozzoli obsessing on fairly traditional noise moves a la M.B., Atrax Morgue, Merzbow et al. But the dedication and intent is genuine and is decent…nothing too startling or new but that’s kind of the point, the aesthetic. So be it. All you have to do is be beat, dulled and lose yrself in unrequited fantasies of erotic death. Second release is Body Count by An Innocent Young Throat-Cutter, the duo of Houston noise honcho Richard Ramirez and compatriot Isabella K. This duo has been documenting itself quite regularly through Ramirez’ Dead Audio Tapes imprint in super tiny editions. Not that this tape is going to reach that many more harsh wall noise freaks but it is a fine addition to their insane legacy.

2. Holy Crap. Screamingest, wobbliest No Wave screech of the year comes not from the bowels of New York, but from the lost tape archives of Vancouver, Canada. Tunnel Canary was an extremely raw co-ed trio whose entire previous known ouevre was some obscure cassette comp action. Now, Rundownsun has released a massive 2LP set, Jihad, collecting studio and live smeech that is some of the most pugnacious art punk you’ll ever hear. Ebra Ziron’s vocals make Lydia Lunch sound like Dean Martin in a mellow mood. Really fucking ripe! Lotsa weird bass stylings, scuzz generation from both electronics and guitar…what a pretty goddamn picture. Amazing to think this jabbering, destroyed masterpiece has been unheard for almost 30 years. Nice work. Somebody.

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Talk Normal


For ass-burning contempo No Wave sludge, nothing has been in higher recent rotation than Secret Cog, the self-released debut CD Brooklyn’s Talk Normal. Andryo Ambro and Sarah Register create a feverish hybrid of Lydia’s “crying guitar,” the maniacal yodel-power of Die Kleenex, and the part of the Magic Band the Minutemen also embraced, which probably means the Urinals are a shadow influence. Regardless, the five songs here are totally wired, and just blow away the imaginary competition.

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"Twice a day for the last 32 years": DAVID LYNCH on meditation – interview by Kristine McKenna

Above: “Lynch gives some background on how he got involved in transcendental meditation and how it informs his consciousness and creativity.”

After the jump is an interview with David Lynch by Kristine McKenna, originally published in Arthur No. 20 (January 2006)Continue reading

BRIAN ENO – appreciation by Alan Moore, interview by Kristine McKenna.

(Originally published in Arthur No. 17, July 2005)

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.

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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: How many times have you been in love?

Maybe half a dozen times.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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!

Arthur: 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?

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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.

Arthur: 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 has published two essential collections of her interviews:Book of Changes (2001) and Talk to Her (2004).