Design and Damage: A chat with author Geeta Dayal about Brian Eno’s Another Green World

Another Green World

According to music, art and science writer Geeta Dayal in her new 33 1/3 series book on the 1975 album Another Green World, several things went through Brian Peter George St. Baptiste de la Salle Eno’s mind when he was struck by an automobile shortly after finishing it. As he was leaving Basing Street, his label owner’s legendary church turned into a recording studio, he had a loop of thoughts mixing though his mind as the heavy metal object slammed him to the earth. These thoughts included ‘That may be the last thing I do’ and ‘Isn’t the brain an incredible thing? It’s a 24-track tape with all these things going on at once.’”

“Always Crashing In The Same Car” is a song on David Bowie’s Low album, an extremely monumental combination of pop music and art song that in many ways mirrors the short vignettes of dark mood and vivid color Eno released on AGW two years earlier. This first part of Bowie-Eno’s Berlin trilogy is probably the record that would end up inspiring U2 to assimilate that same adventurous, amorphous palette beginning with their work with him as producer on the recently reissued The Unforgettable Fire.


With his suitcase full of synthesizer, Eno had done magical work as an androgynous noise freak (in both meanings of the term) in the British art-rock band Roxy Music, after many years of collaboration and involvement in the avant-garde classical music scene. Upon leaving that band, he combined his diverse yet reportedly “non-musical” creativity with intuitive, experienced players like John Cale, Robert Fripp, Phil Collins, and others who technically knew more than him but could be played with and inspired in new ways.

AGW was Eno’s fourth solo album and, listening to its unique combination of computer blue decay and gentle tribal-cum-cabaret vocals, seems to be the pivotal transition when Eno started bucking the reins of rock songs of for his later work in ambient soundscapes. His next release, Discreet Music, was inspired while he convalesced from the 1975 auto accident, as he half-way listening to a cassette of harp music his proto-punk girlfriend (Judy Nylon) put on the stereo as he healed, mixed with the heavy rains falling on the window outside.

As I read Dayal’s skilled tale of Eno in these events, I was helplessly drawn into this awe-inducing history of synchronistic creation and self-challenge. I begged her for an opportunity to ask her a few questions about the writing of her volume for the Continuum series. Being that she is one of the most instructive and entertaining of the presenters we often have at Seattle’s annual EMP Pop Conference, I wasn’t too surprised she graciously allowed me to do so.

Why an album by Brian Eno?

I got into Brian Eno’s music as a teenager, but I got into his ambient work first and his rock music much later. I’m 30 years old now. When I was 17 or 18, I was really into electronic music. (I still am.) I bought my first Kraftwerk record when I was 13 and that’s probably what inspired me to go to MIT at a fairly young age. Electronic music just seemed like the natural soundtrack for a place like MIT. I had friends who built homemade synthesizers and robots and things like that; I made lots of short films and studied the brain.

It’s funny, because I basically worked backwards with Eno. I started out listening to the ambient records, then heard the rock albums, and then heard Roxy Music last. It was interesting to hear Eno that way, because I could really see his work as part of a continuum.

As for Eno’s other productions, I love Talking Heads and David Bowie and No New York (the inspirational early New York post-punk compilation). I was never a huge fan of U2, so I was never one of those people who knew Brian Eno because of U2. It was really sort of the other way around -- I paid closer attention to U2 because of Eno.

Is there a particular reason you picked this specific album to document? Was it a tough choice over something more explicitly textural, less song based? Are there other Eno albums you could have arguably picked, based on your own personal feelings for them and/or overall cultural importance?

Oh, definitely. I thought about Taking Tiger Mountain [by Strategy] and Before and After Science, and On Land. I love all of those albums to pieces. But Another Green World tells a better story. I chose AGW specifically because the year it came out -- the year 1975 -- documented a transition. The Oblique Strategies cards came out that year. Obscure Records, Eno’s label, started that year as well. Discreet Music, which revealed a new direction, was released that year, too. It was really a banner year in terms of Eno’s creative development.

As I write in the preface of my book, my book deals, first and foremost, with the creative process. Another Green World, and the seemingly ad-hoc way in which it was made in the studio, fits in very well into a story about process. At the end of the day, it’s sort of arbitrary. I could have written Before and After Science on the cover and I would still have spent half the book talking about Discreet Music and art.

I like how you compare AGW record to Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon (from that same year), in which through expansive cinematography background becomes foreground and the singer/song just become part of the whole aesthetic experience. Can you say what inspired you to think of it that way?

I watched a lot of footage of interviews with Eno while working on the book. I came across a brief interview that Eno did for Irish television. In it, he talked about how Barry Lyndon was one of his favorite films. He didn’t get to offer much in the way of an explanation as to why it was one of his favorite films; the interviewer didn’t ask very good questions and she seemed to be hurrying him along, and the TV show was full of quick cuts that made it difficult to glean any in-depth information. It was maybe five minutes long. I watched Barry Lyndon and read about how it was made, and I was inspired to connect Barry Lyndon to AGW. Both the album and the movie happened to come out the same year.

It seemed natural to talk about Eno’s work in terms of film. I’ve always viewed music, film, and visual art as part of a continuum. For me, they’re all interconnected. I despise the term “multimedia” because for me, everything already is multimedia, and always has been, if not always directly. (I hate the word “interactive” too, because all work is interactive; it’s the active interaction between your brain and the piece of art that makes art interesting.) The creative process can take on many physical forms. Eno works all along that continuum as well; he describes his ambient music in terms of painting, works with video, and makes albums like Music for Films.

As you so carefully describe the recording sessions for AGW, Eno collected a lot of different kinds of musicians and worked together with them as if the studio itself was an instrument. Do you think this was the first album Eno recorded where he was totally conscious of that idea?

If you look at the list of people who have worked on Eno’s solo albums in the 1970s, it’s a pretty fearsome list. Before and After Science had Jaki Liebezeit of Can on drums! Robert Wyatt did backing vocals and some of the percussion on Taking Tiger Mountain. John Cale played viola solos on AGW. You had Phil Manzanera and Robert Fripp doing a lot of the guitar work on various albums, and so on. Eno clearly had amazing taste in collaborators. He had assembled an impressive roster of players for his solo albums prior to AGW; some of the people who played on Another Green World played on previous Eno albums. But AGW was the first record where Eno tried to generate almost everything in the studio, without demos. It’s a quite a feat if you think about it; that whole album was created within the span of a few months. You could view the unique mix of musicians on AGW as a big, living synthesizer, with a mind all its own. Everyone generated their own sounds, their own melodies, their own timbres, their own ideas.

Do you think Eno felt he was part of a zeitgeist at that time -- as you describe the contemporaneous King Tubby Meets The Upsetter with jacket photos of recording consoles, the edited single release of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”; Moroder’s production on Donna Summer’s Love To Love You Baby LP -- or would he have then been blending cybernetics and synthesizers regardless?

Eno is very English, of course, but sonically I’d place his mid-1970s work alongside some of the stuff coming from Germany at the time. If you listen to AGW with Harmonia’s Musik von Harmonia and Deluxe, Cluster’s Cluster II and Zuckerzeit, and Can, it makes a lot more sense.

Kraftwerk, Moroder, and King Tubby were all part of Eno’s zeitgeist too -- not in terms of sonics, necessarily, but in terms of ideas, of creative use of electronics and the studio environment. I’d place Miles Davis’ electric stuff in there too, for its radical use of the
studio.

Do you have any personal experience with cybernetics, or other ideas that Eno himself has drawn inspiration from for AGW in, say, your own work as a writer?

Yes, I did. I studied brain and cognitive science at MIT, a department that Norbert Wiener -- the modern father of cybernetics -- helped to establish. I concentrated in systems neuroscience. There was a big photo of the bespectacled, bearded Norbert Wiener in this big long hallway at MIT called the Infinite Corridor, that I had to walk by every day to go to class.

I was hoping to study the brain as a whole, integrated system. But neuroscience is very segregated. For example, the computational neuroscientists and the neuropharmacologists don’t really talk to each other. One person is modeling the brain with computers. It’s likely that this person writes software and talks about math and neural networks. The other guy is also studying the brain, but he’s working in a wet lab, most likely, on mouse models. Then there are the psychologists, in all their different flavors, and the neurologists who work with patients, and so on. These people don’t have as much in
common as you’d think, and they each have their own models of how the brain works.

Cybernetics is appealing because it connects a lot of different things and analyzes them as a unit. It studies the gestalt of an organism, the wholeness that the German psychologists celebrated in the early 20th century.

How much did you know about Eno before taking on this book? I admit that I was someone who had read a lot of his interviews but still thought he was “a musician’s musician,” more like those he chose to work with on AGW (Robert Fripp, John Cale, Phil Collins). Do you actually believe he was as much as a “non-musician” as he claimed to be while recording the album?

I thought I knew a lot about Eno before I started this book. I already had most of his albums and had read several of the other Eno books. But that was hardly the tip of the iceberg. I did a ridiculous amount of research -- I was literally knee-deep in a pile of books at one point -- and I had a hilarious stack of papers, probably 1500 pages of interviews and articles from the last forty years, covering the floor of my apartment. Plus Oblique Strategies cards and reel-to-reel tape recorders and huge piles of notes and who knows what else.

I spent almost $100 to buy a copy of the out-of-print book More Dark than Shark, which came out in 1986. From there, I realized that the Cornelius Cardew part of the equation was something I really needed to understand. I spent a great deal of time trying to understand Cardew and The Great Learning, especially “Paragraph 7,” and got really fascinated with Cardew’s life story. I spent a lot of time reading John Cage’s writings, a lot of time studying up on Steve Reich, and cybernetics. I wanted everything I wrote, even the most airy pontificating, to be based on a lot of research. There’s nothing in my book that I didn’t think very hard about. That’s why it was so interesting to me to write this book -- it felt, at times, like trying to solve a very strange and very hard puzzle. I wanted to fill in gaps left by other books, to say something new, instead of simply rehashing everything that had been said before.

You describe Lou Reed’s usually-deemed-abrasive Metal Machine Music (created around the same time as AGW) as “comforting,” such as when you were trying to go to sleep in the city. You make a strong case for Eno’s work as being more like Earl Grey than mainlining espresso, but is there anything about his music that you find disturbing, unsettling?

I actually have Metal Machine Music in three redundant formats -- the double-LP, the mp3s, and the CD -- in part because I was really wearing out the vinyl by keeping it on my turntable all the time. I literally did play it every night to help me sleep, for years!

There are darker elements to some of Eno’s ambient music that I’d find unsettling to listen to in my room alone with the lights off. Parts of On Land and Music for Films are really dark, moody, and sometimes a bit creepy. I find certain songs on Taking Tiger Mountain [by Strategy] to be melancholy -- I’ve always found “Mother Whale Eyeless” to be really sad, and I’m not sure why. There’s a line about a “pie shop in the sky” that I find strangely heavy with pathos, for some odd reason. Probably also because it sounds like Eno is singing from the end of a very long paper tube -- it sounds as if he’s at some great distance from you. The nonsensical strings of words make me chuckle, but they can be oddly wistful nonetheless.

You used obscure and noteworthy interview sources from before and after the album was recorded, a lot of which are from the era’s rock press. As someone who is astonished by what Eno has to say about politics and society otherwise, I know it must have been hard to whittle your writing into mostly focusing on his ideas for AGW. Are there any other cultural aspects to this release or to Eno’s worldview in general you wish you’d had more room for?

There are so many different directions this book could have run with. The challenge, really, was to focus these ideas into what I set out to do -- a book about process.

I had gotten in touch with Dieter Moebius from Cluster and I wanted to write a whole chapter on Cluster and Harmonia, and Eno’s visit to Germany in 1974, for the AGW book. That is the chapter I wish I had included. I would have liked to have written more about (producer) Conny Plank as well, and hope to remedy that with the next big project I’m working on.

How is your next book on electronics going? Is there a specific assertion, or is it an overview of the various genres? Any idea when it might be out?

I can’t say much about it right now, because I’m in the process of trying to pitch the proposal. But it will be a big book about music and the brain, that takes a different tack from the books that are out now. It’s a specific assertion I’m working with, which incorporates some of the themes in the AGW book and really runs with them.

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4 Comments

  1. Jonathan C
    Posted December 28, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Very cool interview.
    It’s good to see commentary like this from authors on the subjects they write about.
    I’ve heard about this book before but haven’t purchased it yet.
    Estey is always outsmarting every other music scribe in the city. Bastard.

  2. indie69
    Posted December 29, 2009 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    Really, really impressive interview. Autobahn was the first record I purchased as well, followed by Oxygene and Tomita’s “The Planets”. I discovered Eno not long after, having seen him referenced on another album (was it The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway?) and was hooked. I was a very strange little boy.

    I MUST buy this book now. I didn’t even know this series of books existed. Thank you a thousand times.

  3. Eric
    Posted December 29, 2009 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this interview. I reviewed Dayal’s book on my site a few weeks ago and it is nice to find out more about how she positions herself vis-à-vis mid-1970s music and art. Dayal’s answer to your second question is actually quite pertinent and provides a good overview of what she set out to accomplish with the 33 1/3 book.

    I must also confess that I share similar obsessions and that would include Metal Machine Music which I own on quadraphonic 8 track. Great album and effectively introduced and discussed in Dayal’s book.

    Do let us know if you find out more about the upcoming book project on electronics.

    and here is a link to the review if interested: http://machinemusic.org/2009/12/08/book-review-dayal-eno-another-green-world/

  4. Luis Alfredo Garcia
    Posted January 15, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Im still amazed; about the contents of this interview, along the years ;I has been always influenced in the Eno’s works; and a few minutes ago, looking at the bay in front my balcony, I was listening Dunwich Beach Autumm 1960, one of my favorites; wondering about, those real inspirational motives, textures, experiences, which impulses and inspires Eno in this wonderfull work becoming a legacy which belongs to the Humanity and the generations to come...I must add; I was listening this genius from I was a 16 years old, Im now 47; and Im still discovering sounds and reflections; of my own feelings through all this years in Eno’s music....its real curious to me; the fact than in the interview wasnt be touched the point about the the influence of the Zen in Eno’s works ...Would anyone write to me something about this? The Zen is a way of life...could be the way of his life? the way of Eno’s creative explosion or implosion towards and through the infinite....?
    I really appreciate the oportunity of write my comments; and Ill be happy to interchange any opinion or just simply talk about this wonderful subject. Luis Alfredo Garcia Miami Beach Florida 01/15/10

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