Published Feb 22, 2011Brian Eno really needs no introduction. Arguably one of the most influential figures in modern music, Eno is still blazing new trails 40 years into his illustrious career. He has no interest in discussing Roxy Music, David Bowie, U2 or his own past. And rightfully so, given that the last several years have been among the most productive: he's revitalized the songwriting and recording techniques of Coldplay, revamped a fruitful working partnership with David Byrne, and delivered a critically acclaimed new album on Warp Records with two young acolytes whose own works can only be described as Eno-esque. This past January, Eno visited Calgary and Vancouver to deliver, among other things, a lecture on creativity. He has a strong, specific, and incredibly self-aware vantage point into the creative process, and so the following conversation delves deeply into the mind of one of music's great thinkers to try to get at the root of why he's lasted for so long, and just how his current projects keep him interested in new music.
You're giving a talk about creativity. That's such a broad topic by anyone's standards. What's your vantage point into that?
That isn't exactly what I'm talking about, as such. I don't actually know for sure which of two talks I'm going to do tomorrow yet. 'Cause I kind of do it slightly depending on how I feel that day and what the audience looks like and what I've been thinking about lately.
So I should ask, what do these talks usually centre around?
One of them is somewhat about my work, in the sense that I trace a story through 20th century art ending up at me. It's not to say that's the only story by any means, and that you can trace lots of other stories that end up in a lot of different places. But I try to look at the roots of where my ideas come from, and what connections I see with what's going on in other art forms and in the sciences as well, and in the view that humans have of themselves now as distinct from the view they may have had 100 or 500 years ago.
So that's one possible story I may tell. The other is where I try to answer the question of why do we enjoy art? Why are we interested in art? Why do we have aesthetic preferences? Why should we prefer some things to others? What is that all about? So that's a slightly more theoretical talk, but it might be that one. I don't know.
You mention the roots of creativity. If you were to wrap that up in a nutshell, how would you define those?
Well, first of all I think that it's a continuum. We mistakenly tend to think there are creative people and uncreative people, but actually everybody is constantly being creative. For example, the sentence you just said is a sentence you've never said before, I'm almost sure. The sentence I just said was one I've never said before. So people are constantly inventing and creating and doing new things, but we dignify certain parts, certain aspects of that more than others.
So, I think that we call artists "artists" because they're people who decide to spend their lives specializing in that thing, doing that thing of trying to get somewhere new, as it were. But actually there are a lot of creative people all the time out there doing all sorts of things creatively, and I think that it's very simple. That's what makes us such a successful species, such a dangerous one as well. The fact that we can ask ourselves a question that no other animals can apparently ask themselves, which is that we can say, "What if? What would happen if I did that? What would it be like if there was a world like this? What would it be like if you changed this aspect of the world?"
That of course is not only the basis of all art, it is also the basis of all science as well. What would happen if we did this? Now, the "what if" questions are all questions that require imagination. They engage your imagination in the attempt to answer this. And we all do it all the time, as I say, we just reward some people disproportionately for doing it.
So creativity, by that definition, is a matter of overcoming self-perceived obstacles.
Yes, and I think also of recognizing what it is you're actually doing and taking your own ideas seriously, because one of the other things you notice is that a lot people have ideas but don't do anything about them, don't have faith in them actually. You very often find, with students if you're teaching, with musicians if you're producing, that you have to actually reflect people's ideas back to them with a bit of a shine on them for them to be able to say "Oh, it is a good idea, isn't it?" People are quite reluctant often to trust an idea that they didn't have – that they've had themselves.
A friend of mine – a very intelligent friend of mine – said to me, we went to an exhibition once and he said: "I don't think that's really art." and I said, "Why is that?" And he said: "Well, because I had an idea like that once." And I said, "What, so you think that if you thought of it, it couldn't possibly be art?" He said, "Yeah, I guess I do think that really."
You have your own new album out with Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins, you've been answering and maybe posing a lot of these creative questions with bands like Coldplay, you've done work with David Byrne recently. They're all very different creative processes. With whom do you ask these questions, and with whom does the process become maybe more natural an experience, so that you don't feel as though you're coaching along?
Well, I suppose they're all different sorts of friendships, these things. Some of them are very much based on friendship and others aren't, actually. I'm friendly with many of the people I work with, but with some of them, the friendship aspect is not at all an important element of the work. With others it's very important. So that's the first thing to say. It isn't to do or not to do with being friends.
It's to do with whether there's some sort of interesting chemical compound made by two different personalities working together. Sometimes it takes a while to discover what that compound is, and what the right quantities of each constituent should be. I always tell people that, you know, steel is just iron with four percent carbon added, or something like that. The chemistry within a group of people working is sometimes very, very exotic. You might have one person who appears to be very marginal to the process but occasionally, they make an intervention, and it sends something off in quite a different direction. So, their contribution doesn't look like much in terms of time, but in fact it's very important.
Regarding the collaborations I've been engaged in, some of them – the one with David for instance, David Byrne – was mostly done by emails. I would send him MP3's of things I'd been working on – music – and he'd write a song over the top and send it back to me. Then sometimes when he'd send it back I would think, "Oh, that song would work better if he had two verses there instead of one, and there wasn't so much of this section," so I'd edit it and say: "Try that". So, we spent hardly any time together in the making of that, you know, in the same room, I should say.
And yet, something like Coldplay is the opposite end of the spectrum where you really are coaching them quite closely to bring out their greatest potential.
Yes, well, that was the case with the first record I did with them. On this one I have a slightly more unusual relationship, which we call the cat-flap arrangement.
Which is what?
So there's a cat flap in their studio, and I occasionally crawl in and have a listen to what's going on, make a few comments and crawl out again. And you know, they occasionally will say, "Uh, got any time next week that you can make it through the cat flap?" So it's a much more distant relationship this time. They've picked up the cues from the last time and are kind of running with them this time.
I think what happens after you've worked with people a few times, you start to understand which part of the process somebody is really useful for and that's when you want them there.
Right, so there's a lot less talking going on essentially.
Yes. And I think you don't want everybody there all the time. It's not very productive. If everybody's there all the time, probably 60 percent of the people are not doing anything, so they are sort of sitting around reading things or looking at things on Google, or fiddling about, or whatever they're doing. It's much better to have a smaller number of people in the room and have focused attention, then have everybody there. I always think that since somebody's reading a magazine in the studio, it's like a leak. You know, there's sort of something disappearing through that hole.
A focus drain, yeah. How did you meet Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins, and how does that relationship work?
I was in a second-hand musical instrument shop in Nottinghill Gate, and this is a place that sold a lot of guitars and amps and was usually a nightmare to go into as a result, because there'd always be pouting young guitarists screaming in the corner. And I went in once and there was a young guitarist not pouting and playing very quietly and very beautifully and I got his number and called him up a while later and that was Leo, so that's how I started working with him.
And then once I said to him, you don't know any keyboard players do you? I need somebody to try something, and he said, oh yes, a friend of mine I used to go to school with, and that was Jon. I've worked with the two of them ever since.
That's quite random.
Well, if it hadn't paid off the first couple of times, then I would have gone and found somebody else. There are quite a lot of people that I've had passing working relationships with, and not continued them. But those two were really refreshing to work with.
You can hear that on the album, too. I wanted to ask, those two artists can broadly be defined as people who are either directly or indirectly influenced by your past work and you wouldn't say that for Coldplay, necessarily, at least not on the surface, and David Byrne, he's more of a contemporary. Is it different working with people who have this sense of perhaps intimidation or respect that comes in to the picture when you're in the studio trying to collaborate as equals?
The respect very quickly diminishes. Really, it's never a problem. I'm not an intimidating player. I can't play anything. I don't think I'm a very intimidating person either, so people quite quickly are reassured. Plus I'm very encouraging. What I should say actually is that I'm very opinionated. If I hear something I like, I'm very supportive of it and I really encourage it, and if I hear something I think is not very interesting, I immediately say, I'm just not interested in going there.
So, I think people know where they stand with me. I make it very clear pretty early on. That's brilliant, or that's crap, and I don't recognize very many places in between.
You seem to be doing quite well with collaborations in the past couple of years. Do you feel that – since we were talking about overcoming creative impasses – is collaboration one of those methods for you?
Well, it does help a lot because people never do what you expect them to do, so it throws you into a different place actually. You suddenly find yourself having to manoeuvre your way out of something or trying to make good on something that you don't quite understand anymore. So that's all good healthy stuff, really. Throws you off balance.
And I think the other thing is, if you're working with somebody else, it creates a different tempo of work. You feel you have to come up with something. You know, you can't just sort of fiddle around on the edges, they're expecting something from you. They're expecting some kind of sign. So I think it makes you take more risks actually. It encourages you to try something for the sake of keeping the ball rolling.