Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphaville By Lester Bangs

Brian Eno photographed by Noah Sheldon

From Noah Sheldon:

For your reading pleasure, a great unpublished interview with Brian Eno by Lester Bangs from 1979.

Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphaville
By Lester Bangs


The other day I was lying on my bed listening to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. The album consists of a few simple piano or choral figures put on tape loops which then run with variable delays for about ten minutes each, and is the first release on Eno’s own Ambient label. Like a lot of Eno’s “ambient” stuff, the music has a crystalline, sunlight-through-windowpane quality that makes it somewhat mesmerising even as you only half-listen to it. I had been there for a while, half-listening and half-daydreaming, when something odd happened: I starting thinking about something that didn’t exist. I was quite clearly recalling a conversation I’d had with Charles Mingus, the room we were in at the time and the things he’d said to me, except that I had in reality never been there and the conversation had never taken place. I realized immediately that I was dreaming, though I had no memory of falling asleep and had in fact passed over into the dream state as if it were an unrippled extension of conscious reality. So I just lay there for a while, watching myself talk to Mingus while one-handed keyboard bobbins pinged placidly in the background. Suddenly I was jolted out of all of it by the ringing phone. I stumbled in disorientatedly to answer it, and hearing my voice the called asked: “Lester, did I wake you?”

“I’m not sure,” I said, and told her what I’d been listening to. She just laughed; she was an Eno fan too.

Brian Eno, one of the emergent giants of contemporary music, can be a truly confounding figure. Everything about him is a contradiction. He’s a Serious Composer who doesn’t know how to read music. What may be worse, he’s a Serious Composer who’s also a rock star. But what kind of rock star is it that doesn’t have a band and never tours, also enjoying the feat of being allowed by his various record companies (mostly Island) to put out an average of two albums a year since 1973 when none of them has sold more than 50,000 copies? (In the midst of this prolific output, he was quoted in pop papers everywhere, insisting that he was not a musician at all.) A man who (artistically speaking) goes to bed with machines and lets chance processes shape his creation, yet dismisses most other modern experimental composers for the lack of humanity in their work. Everybody’s favorite synthesizer player, who says he hates that instrument.

Listing all the projects he’s been involved with in his career so far is a bit like trying to enumerate the variegate colors and patterns on a lizard’s back. With Bryan Ferry, he was a founding member of Roxy Music, one of the watershed rock bands of the Seventies. He’s been part of the Scratch Orchestra and the Portsmouth Sinfonia, two famous experiments in mixing musicians from the entire spectrum of technical facility, from virtuosi to people who couldn’t play at all, in the same performing situation. He has engaged in several ambient collaborations with Robert Fripp, co-piloted the last three David Bowie albums, and guested on sessions all over the map, from Matching Mole to a remake of Peter and the Wolf. He has produced Television, Ultravox, Devo and Talking Heads, and his standing with New Wave rockers in general is summed up by the graffiti which recently appeared in several spots around the New York subway system: “Eno is God.” And yet, for all his support of musical primitism (he produced Antilles’ controversial No New York anthology of Lower Manhattan saw-off-the-limb bands), with his interest in the sociology of mechanical systems he’s an avowed cybernetician, which he calls his “secret career.”

The first time I interviewed him I had no real plans for doing a story; I had been following his work for years, and just wanted to find out what kind of guy he was. I didn’t expect much, really, or rather what I expected was either some narcissistic twit or more likely a character whose head was permanently lodged in the scientific/cybernetic/conceptual art clouds. Somebody who might be nice enough but was just a little too… ethereal.

The person I did meet that day was relaxed, gracious, and, to use his favorite word, one of the most interesting conversationalists I’d run into in some time. Unlike most rock people, he was interesting in lots of things beyond music and kicks; unlike many academic types, he recognized that a lot of the things he was interested in were somewhat arcane or overly theoretical, and that the jargon some of these concerns inevitably arrived in was incredibly dry. “Most of what I do has been thought about rather than talked about,” he said at one point, “and my resources of information are kind of quasi-scientific, which means that the language that comes out is really objectionable in a way.” He seemed kind of amused by this, when not at pains to make sure he wasn’t boring his guests to death. One of his biggest problems seemed to be people who wanted to impress him and acted like they knew what he was talking about when they really didn’t, letting him go on and on and on when he knew he had the tendency to get carried away. The clincher came at the end of the interview; it was getting towards dinnertime, and suddenly I had this picture of a Britisher who for all I knew didn’t have that many friends here, sitting in his hotel room in Gramercy Park all night, so I asked him if he’d like to get something to eat and then come over and listen to some records. “Sure,” he said, and then “Uh, say… um… would you happen to know any nice girls you could introduce me to?”

Which was certainly something Ian Anderson never said when you interview him.

Continue reading the rest of the story on Noah Sheldon’s site