Brian Eno: 'It's simply not my temperament to look back'

In a rare interview, Brian Eno tells Nick Duerden why it pays to be precise, and why that long-awaited Roxy Music reunion tour is never going to happen.

I am seven minutes early for my appointment with Brian Eno at his work studio, located at the end of a pretty west London mews, and my prematurity is quickly noted the moment I enter. I see him sitting over there, at a table beneath a skylight, but am directed by his assistant to a corner of the room behind a bookcase that obscures him from view.

In compensation, I am offered tea and a croissant, and I pass the time admiring his Bafta (for his contribution to the soundtrack for the 2011 Channel 4 urban drama Top Boy), and the countless hefty coffee-table books on art, photography and design. The seven minutes pass in near-silence until he announces that he is ready, and his assistant leads me the five steps to his table where I am greeted with a swift handshake, a cursory nod and a demeanour that suggests, "Right, to business."

Interviewing one of the world's most respected music producers and cultural icons is a curiously exacting business. I am afforded a precise 45 minutes of his time, and when, halfway through our chat, he jumps up from his seat to play me Elvis's 1961 hit "His Latest Flame" in full, he tells me not to worry, that he will add the time it has taken to listen to the record – two minutes and seven seconds – to the end of the interview. At first I think he's joking, but he isn't. At the end of my allotted time, additional minutes are indeed added. Everything with this man lies in the detail.

Eno releases a new album tomorrow. Called Lux, it is another of his ongoing ambient projects, which he started in the early 1970s. The album comprises just over an hour – or, to be Eno-ishly specific, one hour, 15 minutes and 21 seconds – of artfully constructed somnambulant minimalism, the kind of wafty piano-led music so difficult to write about with any accuracy that it is tempting simply to refer vaguely to it as an ethereal soundscape and move on.

I tell him that I fell asleep to it, very pleasantly, the night before our meeting.

"I've done much the same thing," he says, smiling to reveal one, possibly two, gold teeth glinting from inside his mouth. "It's a fine way to enjoy the record."

Lux was commissioned by the board of the Great Gallery of the Palace of Venaria in Turin, Italy – essentially a corridor connecting two palaces that attract up to a million visitors a year. This is no ordinary corridor, but rather one of rare baroque beauty that careless tourists nevertheless bustle ignorantly through. How better to encourage that they linger longer, the board reasoned, than to pipe in some subliminal music written by the master of such things?

Of course, to ignorant ears, one ambient album sounds much like the rest, and one wonders whether Eno wasn't tempted to offer something from his back catalogue (he has released many ambient albums over the decades, among them 1978's Music for Airports and Music for Films, and 1983's More Music for Films). But for Eno, this is an art form that requires microscopic levels of precision. To illustrate, he draws a series of fine lines and symbols with a pencil on the metallic lid of his MacBook, and uses phrases such as "echo systems".

However, when he arrived in Turin to unveil the piece, and took in the splendour of the corridor for the first time, he realised he'd got it all wrong. "The music I'd made was very crepuscular, while the building itself was full of light and windows, and responsive to the outside, to the weather. I had to start over."

The palace's board of governors told him not to trouble himself, they already loved what he had come up with, but an insistent Eno returned to his studio, and tweaked endlessly. The process, he reveals, was "blissful".

"When people think of a composer –Beethoven, say, or Mozart – they understand that every note is specific, and carefully detailed. My kind of composing is more k like the work of a gardener. The gardener takes his seeds and scatters them, knowing what he is planting but not quite what will grow where and when – and he won't necessarily be able to reproduce it again afterwards either.

"What I'd done initially with Lux was, I'd killed the soil. I'd fertilised everything perfectly, but put in the wrong flowers. It was too garish."

As he says this, with a mischievous glint in his eye, it is difficult to gauge whether the man is being entirely serious, or impishly living up to the perception many have of him, as wildly pretentious. If nothing else, it's good for the brand.

He laughs. "People do dismiss ambient music, don't they?" he muses. "They call it easy listening, as if to suggest that it should be hard to listen to. That's a very 20th-century, art-world kind of idea: that art is only really valid if it takes you by the lapels and attempts to wake you up from your useless bourgeois existence. I find it questionable that art has to somehow be disruptive, don't you?"

rian eno is not only one of the most influential figures in the world of music, he is also one of the most amorphous. The man doesn't fit the cliché of the rock-star elder statesman at all, and he shapeshifts constantly. He was once a proper rock star, in the early 1970s, as keyboardist for Roxy Music, when he made up for a fast-receding hairline with a dress sense that would make even Lady Gaga balk. But he soon quit, by all accounts weary of the frequent clashes with singer Bryan Ferry, and unimpressed with the largely vacuous life fame so often seems to usher in.

He became a composer thereafter, making not just album-length ambient music but also tiny snippets which went on to be used in computers and mobile phones and all manner of apps, and also became a much sought-after producer, bringing his often unique musical vision to some of music's most defining acts: David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and, most recently, Coldplay. Yet he will refer to himself as a producer only in inverted commas, his fingers making rabbit ears in the air while insisting that, "mostly, I sit with bands and help them compose the music itself; I don't just make a kick-drum louder".

Outside of this work, he has written books, curated festivals and exhibitions, and been a newspaper columnist. He paints (his are mostly large, messy canvases) and, in 2007, was appointed Youth Adviser for the Lib Dems, a role that was never fully explained to him then, and has not been fully realised since. He is referred to, variously, as a boffin and a genius, as well as pretentious, and it is entirely likely that he is supremely satisfied at being quite so many things to quite so many people.

Now 64, he remains creatively undimmed and self-consciously youthful in much of his outlook. A lot of new music, he tells me, is "wank", but still he likes to listen to as much of it as he can, and is just as often wildly impressed by what he hears. Though when I ask him to recommend something he has recently discovered, he reaches for k the ancient Elvis track, plays it at earsplitting volume, and dances along to it, grinning wildly.

Afterwards, I ask him to describe to me a typical working day. He answers in perhaps the only way he can: with great specificity. "The only things that do have any sort of regularity are the following: I go for a walk in the mornings with my friend John Reynolds, the producer and drummer. We walk his two huge dogs around Hyde Park for about 40 minutes, and always at very high speed. I live about 10 minutes away from my studio – actually, eight minutes and 49 seconds – and I always walk to work. I work on whatever project I am currently engaged in until my stomach tells me it's lunchtime, which it does every day on the stroke of one o'clock. Remarkable. Then, in the afternoon, I continue making music, painting, writing."

If he is working on a musical project –and he seldom isn't – then he will stay in his studio long into the evening, and if it is going particularly well, he will set up a camp bed and spend the night there, fully immersing himself in the fruits of his labour. "I do love being in my studio," he beams. "Especially at night…"

o some, it may seem strange, contradictory even, that a man who makes such deliberately left-field music has also helped to make Coldplay one of the most commercially viable bands on the planet today. Eno has produced their last two albums, 2008's Viva la Vida and 2011's Mylo Xyloto. Both have sold millions, elevating the band into the super-league and consequently, in this country at least, ensuring that they are endlessly vilified. Whenever Eno's oeuvre is examined by writers and scholars – and it often is – there is a suggestion that he must be doing this solely for the money, that pursuit of such blatant commercialism should be beneath someone of his elevated status.

"The English are constantly in knots over this sort of thing, aren't they?" he laughs. "If something is successful, it can't possibly be any good. Anything popular is populist, and populist is rarely a good adjective."

How often does he feel the need to defend Coldplay? "I remember very clearly when I was young, and we were all into the Velvet Underground and Jefferson Airplane. And then Abba came along. Now, everybody secretly loved Abba, but you could never admit to it. You would have to listen to their records guiltily at home, because they weren't cool. Everybody liked them, for a start – your mother liked them! – and so they had no subversive cred. Of course, now, in retrospect, we can all see that they wrote amazing songs, and that they really were a great band."

Eno had previously received similar flak for working with U2. He produced several of their albums, including 1987's defining The Joshua Tree. And U2, he tells me, are essentially the Abba of their day. "Some of their best songs are fantastic, and you can't argue with that. You can't. I was in a taxi the other day when 'With or Without You' [from The Joshua Tree] came on the radio, and I just thought, 'Bloody hell, that's good.' Because it is!"

But Eno, the perpetual forward-thinking type, doesn't dwell on such nostalgia for long, and would rather people around him didn't either. Before agreeing to this interview, for example, I had to confirm to his management that I wouldn't focus too heavily on his former glories. It's as if he is fearful that reflecting on his past might leave him stuck there.

"It's simply not my temperament to look back," he reasons, "which is why, for example, I could never tour with Roxy Music again." A reunion tour has, he confides, been on the table for some time now, "but I keep telling them I don't want to do it". Bryan Ferry, and the others, I say, must be terribly annoyed with him. He smiles. "No, no. They are nice people; they understand."

His assistant appears now, to mark the end of our chat, but Eno, mindful of Elvis's mid-interview intrusion, permits me my promised extra time, and takes me into his studio where he lets me hear some work in progress, more ambient music that he is road-testing by playing on four separate boomboxes on an endless loop. "It's been going for five days solid now," he says triumphantly. He explains why this has been necessary, but I fail to catch the gist.

And then, abruptly, our discussion comes to an end. "I'm sorry," he says, "I have to pee. Goodbye."

I check my watch: 12.07pm. Fifty-three minutes until his stomach tells him it's lunch.

'Lux' is released tomorrow on Warp Records

Eno: all the angles

Heroes

David Bowie

One of a trilogy of Bowie albums Eno collaborated on – the others being Low and Lodger – Heroes was released in 1977. Eno played synths and keyboards, as well as influencing the overall sound of the album: a Rolling Stone review at the time claimed: "Bowie shows himself for the first time as a willing, even anxious, student rather than a simple cribber. As rock's Zen master, Eno is fully prepared to show him the way… Eno clearly has effected a nearly miraculous change in Bowie."

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

Devo

Both Eno and Bowie expressed interest in producing the debut album by the American New Wave band; in the end, it was just Eno who would steer their chilly, ironic 1970s synth-pop, which included a robotic cover version of the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction". Such high-profile support won them a record deal with Warner Bros and the album was released in 1978.

Remain in Light

Talking Heads

Eno had worked with Talking Heads on several albums, but his production on 1980's Remain in Light helped move their sound forward; the record was ahead of its time in its experimental use of African polyrhythms and the looping of melodies and beats. Eno – who also played on the record – was initially reluctant to produce, following tensions with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne during the recording of their collaborative album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Happily, the band's initial work on the album soon won him round.

The Joshua Tree

U2

Probably Eno's most commercially successful outing, U2's fifth album topped the charts around the world in 1987. As on their previous record, The Unforgettable Fire, Eno was to co-produce with Daniel Lanois, working alternating shifts in the studio with the band. Eno helped create the lush, layered arrangements and sonic soundscapes that proved so crucial to the record's appeal.

Viva La Vida

Coldplay

Coldplay's 2009 album was another mainstream hit for Eno, who was credited with adding new textures and nuances to their crowd-pleasing stadium rock. Not that he was entirely happy with the result – he told them there was room for improvement, and was keen to get back into the studio. When Eno produced their next album, Mylo Xyloto, he banned singer Chris Martin for the first few weeks, to allow the band to experiment more.

Holly Williams

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?