04/11/2006: "discover the recipes you are using and abandon them, part II."
Here's the extended remix of the paragraph I wrote below.
To understand Eno's techniques in the studio, the worst thing to do is to read up on how records are actually produced. There are two recent books of note on the role of the producer -- The Producer as Composer: Shaping the Sounds of Popular Music by Virgil Moorefield, which devotes almost an entire chapter to Eno, and Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, by Peter Doyle. Echo and Reverb is a lot more successful in discussing Eno because the author ends his story in 1960, sidestepping the question of Eno entirely. Moorefield is a professor of music; Doyle writes mystery novels. And so maybe it's not so surprising that Doyle is better at explaining the art of production.
Eno's best work is years behind him, but that doesn't stop the phrase "working with Brian Eno" from having an almost magical ring to it. Has-beens with deep pockets still turn to him to add interest and a bit of mystique to their flagging careers. To wit: Paul Simon's new album "Surprise" features Eno as producer. "Working with Brian Eno opens the door to a world of sonic possibilities," read Simon in a prepared statement.
So what's it like working with Eno in this world of sonic possibilities? You can imagine being in the sprawling English countryside somewhere, in a grand old manor with dark wood paneling and thick Oriental rugs. Eno asks if you want some tea, and slips into the kitchen. You sit on an overstuffed leather armchair next to a roaring fireplace. There's a big pile of "oblique strategies" cards scattered on the floor. Each one has a sentence on it, engraved on heavy card stock. You pick one up. It reads:
What is the reality of the situation?
You're not sure. You take a look around the room. Everything is melting.
Eno comes back with a teapot and two dainty teacups. He takes a synthesizer out of a cupboard and doodles a bit on it. "Tell me what's on your mind," he says in a soothing tone. You try to say something, but you realize that all your thoughts have been vaporized. Eno smiles serenely. Panicking, you pick up another oblique strategies card.
Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them.
How do you understand a producer who has generated reams of words and yet claims that words are meaningless, who says he doesn't like to talk about the past but can't help referencing it in his rhetoric about the future, who fades to the background as easily as he rushes to the surface? In the liner notes for Music for Airports, he wrote that the record was designed to be "as ignorable as it is interesting." Eno, too, is as ignorable as he is interesting. It seems like a fool's game to construct a narrative around someone whose entire modus operandi seems based upon denying any threads of narrative structure.
Frustrated by this, I put on Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy), and as "Mother Whale Eyeless" was spinning these lyrics flew out:
"Take me--my little pastry mother take me--there's a pie shop in the sky..."
The proof was in the pudding. The answer was suddenly crystal-clear: I had to see how Eno worked. Not in the studio, but in the kitchen. (Not The Kitchen, the Manhattan art space that Eno frequented in the late '70s.) This was not without precedent. In one of the most revealing and trenchant pieces of music journalism ever written, the late and great Minneapolis zine Gourmandizer ran a interview with producer Steve Albini in which he divulged the bonkers eating habits of the bands he worked with. The article ended with Albini's personal recipe for mayonnaise. On German television, there was a popular ongoing cooking show in which musicians were invited to make their favorite foods. For one episode, Blixa Bargeld of Einsturzende Neubauten dourly constructed an entire meal in black, centered on a squid-ink pasta with squid-ink sauce. This tells me more about him as a person than his most recent record did.
"I'm starting to think that all the world's problems could be solved with either oyster sauce or backing vocals," wrote Eno in his diary A Year with Swollen Appendices, published in 1995. In Eno's interviews and personal writings, there are repeated references to food and to cooking. There are also references to cybernetics and gardening, among other things, but the food references are the most interesting. He writes again and again about cooking in his diary, and a few themes keep popping up. Noticed: a definite tendency for making improvisational, intensely flavored (but not terribly spicy) dishes with odd combinations of ethnic ingredients, and a blatant disregard for recipes or notions of authenticity. He is liberal-perhaps too liberal-with his use of garlic. He displays a penchant for using thick bottled sauces, particularly black bean sauce and oyster sauce, in dishes that don't seem to call for them. References abound to eating rich truffle-based dishes, especially truffle risotto, with U2 and being nonplussed. "I'm sick of restaurants, and more sick of what they cost," wrote Eno. "Decided to take a more creative approach to eating from now on. Four clues: (1) less, (2) cheaper, (3) faster, (4) more portable." His own risotto methodology is bonkers insane. After all, this is a man with a certain passive disdain for rules. To this day, he is possibly the only art-school graduate to take a leak in Duchamp's urinal and get away with it.
In 2000, Eno wrote:
"I'm quite a good cook! But my style of cooking is let's see what's in the kitchen, and think of something imaginative to do with it. Which is exactly the same idea one has as a producer. So as a producer you say, let's see what is in the studio, who's there, what they can do, what tools we have available, and let's see what we can do with it. The other way of being a chef or a cook, which is not the way I like, is to have a recipe, to get all the things that the recipe suggests. To carefully measure them out, follow the program, and then to end up with the expected dish. That's sort of the opposite of what I do. Both as a cook and as a producer."
Some of Eno's most memorable musical moments in the '70s were created with the aid of the wily Robert Fripp. Fripp, of course, was an ace guitar player and a total muso; Eno was a dabbler and an avowed non-musician. Some of Fripp's best guitar solos on Eno tunes came out of Eno goading Fripp into making sounds that Fripp protested would clash dissonantly with the song, according to the conventional rules of music theory. But Eno insisted that they try it anyway, and Fripp found to his amazement that his odd guitar lines fit the song's lines perfectly. In a way, Fripp was the oyster sauce in Eno's green-bean-and-balsamic-vinegar recipe--the element that shouldn't quite work but did.
When did Eno start thinking the way he did? My guess is that his path to lifelong weirdness began at age 11. In the archives of a defunct '70s rag about synthesizer technology and hairy prog bands called Synapse that I've talked about here before, Eno talked about his kooky uncle:
At the age of 11, I had this uncle--a real uncle this time--who's like the eccentric of the family, very nice man, and he had spent some years in India. So he had these kind of strange Indian ideas about things. He's quite eccentric, very strange, always trying out weird experiments at home, building ways of distilling liquor and stuff like that, and taming the strangest animals, like rooks. He was very important to me, because he represented the other half, the sort of strange side of life, and he was to me like all that music was as well. And I would think, "Where's he coming from?" as they would say now. I used to go and visit him regularly, once or twice a week, and he used to talk and introduce me to ideas.
At around this time, his uncle showed him a book of miniature Mondrian reproductions. Eno was instantly captivated by Mondrian's coolly intersecting lines and clean rectangles in primary colors--so much so that he enrolled in art school to study painting. But it was the world of cassette tapes that fascinated him in school, the gooey analog quality to them, the ability to record and re-record and create small, contained messes. To this day, I don't think Eno has ever quite created a record with Mondrian's flair for simplicity.
Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue (1930)
It so happens that Mondrian had severe issues with eating. "He was terribly thin, and seemed to live mostly on currants and vegetable stew, because he followed the Haye diet," recounted fellow artist Naum Gabo after his death. Mondrian attempted to eat scientific combinations of food, adhering to a rigid grid of what he could and could not eat. Eno, in comparison, can't even make rice without dousing it in black bean sauce and sunflower seeds. Even Eno's most spare ambient records display an abundance of layers and a baroque sense of eccentricity. But not too abundant--as he complained once in 1983 about the overblown pomp-rock of the '70s, "rock became grandiose and muddy, like a bad cook who puts every spice and herb on the shelf in the soup."
It's all about balance and knowing when to stop, I guess. "If you're an intelligent cook, you'll abandon the recipe at a certain time. You taste the dish and you realize there's the seed of an interesting new taste. So you work on that and forget you were making chicken Kiev, or whatever. You make something new."