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

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