Musician, super-producer, author, artist, now curator of Vivid Sydney’s music programme Luminous. Brian Eno may have done it all, but he loves nothing better than limitations
Andrew P Street
What governed your choice of performer for Luminous? Who I wanted, and who I could get.
No over-arching aesthetic then? Yes, there is. The overarching aesthetic is “things I like or want to see”. Things I think are at the cutting edge of some-or-other form of music I’m interested in. Things that, to me, seem like pioneers.
So Ladytron, who push a retro-80ssynth sort of thing, are pioneers? Well, it’s interesting. I think in music there is no history any longer: everything is present. This is one of the results of digitisation, where everybody owns everything: you don’t just have your little record collection of things you saved up for and guard so carefully.
What gets lost in that process? What’s been lost, which is evident particularly to my generation because records were so crucially important to us, is that music so much defined a cultural position. One knew somebody by their choices in records. What then happened was that music became like water – in fact, slightly cheaper than water – and so now there’s a completely different attitude to it. Something else has been gained.
Is there an upside? The music doesn’t carry so much ideological baggage with it. I remember when it was politically uncool to like ABBA, for example, and absolutely essential to claim you admired the Velvet Underground. A lot of that is gone and it’s good that it’s gone too.
Your own music is often very experimental, yet you’ve worked closely with huge mainstream bands like U2 and Coldplay... would it be an unfair oversimplification to say they’re simply buying themselves some Eno cred? Well, no.
That’s impressively candid. I don’t think it’s an unfair assessment, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing for them to do. Actually the real reason they’re doing it is because, like everyone else who’s smart, once you’re successful it’s very easy to get stuck.
Stuck? Because absolutely everybody in the universe is encouraging you to do more of the same thing. And I don’t, basically. I’m always interested when I hear something that’s like a little shoot that I haven’t heard before, and I go “Oooh, that’s exciting, let’s see where that goes.” It’s hard for people to realise how rarely that happens for big bands.
So your job is to limit what a band does? Oh, definitely, yes: every week there are a thousand new ways to waste time in the studio. And what so often happens when one has trillions of options is that you think you’ll find an answer if you keep looking long enough. It’s never true, in my experience. I notice when I’m drawing with a pencil that I very quickly get to the point of knowing whether I’ve got an idea or not because the tool doesn’t offer that many options. And similarly with more simple instruments like electric guitars and drums and so on.
But your own life is an example of wild, distracting options: you make music, you write, you paint, you work with corporations, you’re involved with [futurist thinktank] The Long Now... you hardly seem to be limiting your own options. Well, I have fairly powerful focus when I need to have it, and I also have enthusiasm for what I’m doing. And I of course have the same problem that every other musician working with electronics does, which is that there’s constantly new stuff to find out about; but I have an idea of which area would interest me and go somewhere new, and I don’t bother to look at the rest of it. Life is too short.
And yet you’re involved in the development of [iPhone selfgenerating music program] Bloom: clearly you don’t ignore new technological developments... No, but that’s because I’ve had this idea of generative music for a long, long time, and whenever I see a new chance of doing that I’m very interested. I realised three or four years ago I wasn’t going to be able to do generative music properly without involving computers, and it kind of stymied me: I hate things on computers and I hate the idea that people have to sit there with a mouse to get a piece of music to work. So when the iPhone came out I thought “Good: it’s a computer that people carry in their pockets and use their fingers on” – that was interesting.
Isn’t there some irony in your hating music for computers, given that you created the world’s mostheard piece of music [the Microsoft startup sound], designed for a computer? Well, it was for a while – I made one a long time ago, for the 95 Windows, so I had what, a billion or two listeners...