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"Ireland is like a shelter from the storm. It's a place to escape, a refuge. The groups that succeed are the ones that stay where they are, where they've always been." — Edge


Propaganda, Issue 16
In between giving a talk to the European Parliament and putting in an installation in a cave in Lanzarote, Brian Eno, musician, artist, full-time creative person and (Zoo) television consultant, found time to talk to Propaganda about collaborating with U2 on records and on tour.

Brian Eno is standing outside the Civic Centre in Lakeland, Florida, next to a large satellite dish that bears the emblem "Zoo TV." In some ways he is responsible for the dish, or at least as responsible as anyone else. Bono has described Zoo TV as the idea of this former member of Roxy Music. "In collaboration, yes," comes the cautious reply from the man who made Music For Airports. I mean, the idea to make a stage set with a lot of different video sources was mine, to make a chaos of uncoordinated material happening together..."

His very English voice, with just a hint of Suffolk in it, trails off and then begins again. "The idea of getting away from video being a way of helping people to see the band more easily...this is video as a way of obscuring them, losing them sometimes in just a network of material."

Mr. Eno, the man who made My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with David Byrne, is in Lakeland for two nights only. He is here as a kind of television consultant, a Zoo Television consultant, advising band and production team as to what is and isn't working visually during the rehearsals for the new tour. He kindly finds time to talk to Propaganda, but first has to fend off some rather more philosophical enquiries from Barry Devlin on behalf of Dreamchaser Films.

For example, when he has said that the video is obscuring said band, he is asked whether it is, therefore, "a metaphor for the kind of album it is...or just a good idea?"

"I think it does connect a lot to some of the material on the album; "Zoo Station" and "The Fly," particularly. A lot of the material seems to be about people grasping at currents of information that are flying about and quite often in the songs you get a sound that is very non-typical of rock music.

"It is very crude and dirty, the sound of big machines. To me it is the sound of data flying about. I like the idea of making the concert the place where you intercept some of that. Which is what this is for, of course." "This," as is clear from the direction of his right hand, is the satellite dish. He describes the new show as "a kind of sponge" soaking in local and satellite TV channels, phone conversations, pre-prepared video material and live concert TV. Eno's original idea was to have all the monitors on wheels so that the entire architecture of the set was constantly moving. No doubt to the quiet relief of the crew, this proved impractical. He has also contributed himself to a number of the timed sequences for the Zoo TV show reels that turn up on the vidi-walls during the concert.

The man whose diary tells him that he will shortly be going to the Winter Gardens in New York to put in a "sound installation" called Tropical Rain Forest, clearly would not have been interested had Zoo TV merely turned into some kind of avant-garde version of video-reinforcement.

"Just the idea of seeing big people with microphones as opposed to little people with microphones is a very boring way to use video." On the other hand, after seeing a rehearsal, he was actually wondering if a little of the old reinforcement might not go amiss. "I thought we'd gone too far in the other direction and I imagined people after about four numbers thinking, 'Where are the band -- this could be anyone we're looking at.' "

But in the main he loves the messiness of the proceedings, the unruliness of the marriage of band and technology. In fact, he says that "idea of untidiness" was important all along from the birth of Achtung Baby in Berlin and Dublin, and as Zoo TV emerged swiftly on its heels. "This wasn't the kind of music where you set up a neat little stage with a nice screen at the back -- it is really the opposite of computer music this. It couldn't be more tactile than it is."

Eno, as he has done for several years for U2, popped in and out of the recording studio as the new record was being made to observe, to interfere -- and then, just as suddenly, to leave again while those remaining, namely band and Daniel Lanois, reflected on whether he might just have something there.

One advantage for him over the others because of this was that he achieved a distance from the record as it was being created: "It was much easier to discern the whole identity of the album because I wasn't really listening to details. I'd come in and say, 'Yeah, this record has a particular feeling in this direction,' and this industrial thing was one that I identified very early and very much encouraged. I thought that was a great new direction for it."

He was excited by the "industrial" elements, even taking to trying to unvarnish material he felt was overdone. "The intention was always to produce something less controlled into the whole thing, something that would be on the fringe of musical sound and just ordinary sound that you hear on the street."

Eno knows the recording studio better than most people know their living room. It was in 1975 with the release of Another Green World, an album of song and instrumental miniatures, that he turned the recording studio into an essential tool in the compositional process itself. Discreet Music, in the same year, set a "self-regulating" musical system in motion and let it run its course with surprisingly appealing results. Ten

Ten years later he released Thursday Afternoon, a soundtrack to his video of the same name, and the first compact disc-only recording. He became fascinated by the medium's potential as a way of painting -- he studied to be a painter at art school in the '60s -- and has staged more than 50 installations of his work.

On the face of it, turning up for a week during the making of Achtung Baby and then leaving for a month or two, which he did at least five times, would appear likely to cause maximum irritation and distraction. He has a theory as to why, in contrast, it worked well. "A very fascinating thing happens to people when they're listening to music for a long time, which is that they can hear it even when it's not playing. So if you know a piece of music terribly well and the mix changes and the bass guitar goes very quiet, you still hear the bass. You're so accustomed to it being there that you compensate and remake it in your mind."

He illustrates by citing the little-known fact that when you hear a piece of music down the phone line, you also think you hear the bass line, even though "it's not physically possible because the frequencies are too low." He returns to the studio situation: "I'd go in and say, 'The song has gone, whatever it is you liked about this song is not there anymore. Sometimes, for example, the song would have disappeared under layers of overdubs. One was like that -- 'End of the World' got like that at one point, 'Light My Way' also at one point.

"When people get excited about an idea it's usually to do with a particular combination of elements that exist then, they are excited so they work on it and they keep adding to it and because they are familiar they are still hearing those original elements, but if you come along as an outsider you hear this huge crust over the top of the song and you don't hear those elements anymore."

His job, he believes, was to strip things down a little and remind Daniel and the band members of what it was they liked about a song in the first place. He has worked with Daniel Lanois for many years, first introducing him to U2 in 1986 [sic] when he engineered The Unforgettable Fire which Eno produced. He believes they are a good combination now that, three albums later, the roles have changed, because Lanois creates long-term environments where magic may occur, whereas "what I'm good at is coming in and looking at the whole picture and saying, 'There's an implication here that you could take a lot further -- are you interested in that?' " He also likes to concentrate on songs that "don't fit," songs that everyone may like but no one knows quite what to do about to make them work: "In a way, I'm not so interested looking at the songs that are obvious great hits -- I think they are solved problems. What thrills me is to see something that everyone knows has got something, but they don't quite know what it is. To fiddle around with that for a while is quite a lot of fun." His own favourites on Achtung Baby he cites as "So Cruel" and "The Fly": "It's lovely to have a song with such undertones of evil coming out."

Eno first became well known as the androgynous synthesizer player in Roxy Music in the early '70s, later developing into one of rock's most sought-after producers. Originally he didn't want to work with U2 at all. It was partly because he had had enough of rock music and partly because he didn't feel he wanted to wreck U2's career. "I was aware that if I did get involved in working with rock music my interest would be in making it less rocky and more diffuse, less directed towards the normal feelings of rock music." But the band persisted and he finally agreed to make The Unforgettable Fire with them. The marriage was creatively healthy, the record winning critical praise for its departure from the direction of its predecessor, War, and they reunited for The Joshua Tree, again a success, this time winning a Grammy Award. Five years and another record later and he is on the road with them, advising on one of his strangest "installations," Zoo TV.

Over these years he believes U2 have changed significantly and also not changed at all. "They are much more ironic now, and I don't mean by that that they are therefore not sincere, because I think irony and sincerity aren't exclusive. But when I first met them they were entirely in the sincere mode and they were in the middle of the thing, but now they are capable of being in the middle of it but also standing outside it and realising that they are playing with form and they can twist forms around."

He says they are not more "style conscious" but are more "conscious of styles." "They are conscious that what they are doing is collaging different emotional landscapes together." Ironically, while an unashamed fan of their music, he believes it is a non-musical element which is the key ingredient in their success; what he calls the lack of politics between the members. "In nearly all the bands that I've had experience of, there's been a huge under-the-surface diplomatic scene going on the whole time -- this person can't work with that person unless this other one's present because he can talk to him through him, and this person has to do overdubs because otherwise he gets in a real bad mood -- that kind of thing takes up so much of the energy of ordinary bands."

He says the biggest thing about U2 is the trust and loyalty amongst the members, that they don't have to waste time and energy proving themselves to each other. "That means that all the attention is focused on the job, which is, 'how do we make great music?' It doesn't mean that everyone agrees the whole time, but it means that their attention is focused on what they are doing. What they are doing is not a vehicle for any of them to gain dominance politically over any others and it really is with a lot of bands."

Eno believes that Achtung Baby is a brave album, when it would have been easy to make a Joshua Tree Part Two, courage which stems from respect for their audience. "They don't have to be an innovative band. In fact, it probably doesn't pay them to -- they'd be better off financially just settling into a rut."

He believes the U2 audience are respected in neither being given the same music again and "treated like dummies" nor in being given "any old experiments to look at..." He is all too aware that successful artists can often go all "experimental," releasing any work in the name of art. This is intriguing coming from Eno, the great experimenter, who has made an art out of reinventing music by playing with its edges, who would like to see an official release of the notorious Berlin sessions bootlegs ("because they're great"), and who persuaded them to put "Elvis Presley and America" on The Unforgettable Fire, a work in progress if ever there was one.

"There was a thought to write words for it and do it again," he recalls. "But there was such a weird magic about that, that it would never have got back to that. It would never had happened again."

But then he did produce The Joshua Tree too, and that was hardly inaccessible. "I remember saying early on that this would be a really commercial record, and at that time no one really believed that. I always had a lot of confidence in that one." He believes that Rattle and Hum "cleared the decks" for Achtung Baby to be as radical as it has turned out, which also bodes well for U2 being one of the very few bands to be a "great" band, "not just over one decade, the '80s, but over two. I think they've done it, they've certainly spanned this part of the decade."

It's in the chemistry and he senses that the chemistry is still very much there. "They really are a group, the only real group I've ever met. They realise that intuitively and there is a great loyalty, perhaps because they realise that none of them would have been a musician without the others." Then he adds quizzically, "I can't imagine what kinds of bands they would have ended up in."

© Propaganda, 1992. All rights reserved.