He is the collage-maker of sound that has been influencing the world’s thinking, seeing, and hearing for more than 50 years. So it was a revelation to learn that Brian Eno can even influence your sense of odour. Upon my arrival at his studio in Notting Hill, I was groomed with various rare, self-made perfumes that he was carefully taking out of shabby, hidden leather suitcases. I first had the honour of meeting him in Paris in January 2019 for the controversial DAU project led by the director Ilya Khrzhanovsky. As a harpist in Teodor Currentzis’s ensemble, we played Brian Eno’s music at the Théâtre de la Ville. To escape a classical setting, I was dressed in a burka and played the strings with a vibrator to distort the sound. So it’s always in an unworldly setting that I meet my idol, whose input to music has been as great as a universe and whose name is now officially an asteroid. ‘Art is all you don’t have to do’, he said once. And with this generous artist, while breathing in the iris-cassis ambient (what else?) air of the place he calls home, we dived into a long conversation about all the things we don’t have to do as artists and those we should do as citizens of planet earth.
It’s strange to bring up such a matter while I’m smelling this irresistible perfume, but I’ve been meaning to ask for a long time. Would you tell me why the music business in your times was golden and in mine it’s rotten?
I have to say there is a lot of amazing music out there now, especially in England. But there certainly are some differences from the old times. For me the biggest difference is really based in the social arrangements we have now, as opposed to the ones we had in the past. If you think of the period from the end of World War II until about 1975, economists call it ‘the golden age of capitalism’, because women acquired more rights, as did ethnic minorities and disabled people, people of different classes were able to move through society, workers got better protection, unions were more powerful. All the things that socialist governments want. So in my opinion it shouldn’t be called the golden age of capitalism. It should be called the golden age of socialism. This was a time during which some version of socialism really worked well.
One of the things that resulted from that was a new level of social mobility. So kids like me, from a working-class background, got a decent education because it was free. That’s disappearing. We got proper healthcare, because that was free. And that’s disappearing, too. And most important of all, when you left college, as I did, and didn’t get a job, because you wanted to do something creative, the government looked after you—somewhat reluctantly, but it did. So many good bands and good artists came out of that period.
This is a big difference between the music business now and then—the absence of a working-class voice. There’s a lot of fantastic music now, and it’s nearly all from the middle-class voice. I have no problem with this; it’s the voice of people who have an expectation of stability and increase. But it’s just one voice. I want to hear voices with some anger in them, voices of people who live closer to the edge. Some struggle. Some desire to change the world. And that’s what the working-class voice can offer. The middle-class voice is one of melancholy. The working-class voice is one of anger. If you think of The Beatles, it’s very nice pop music, but they were angry too. There’s something about John Lennon’s voice that has that kind of resentment. You don’t hear it so much today, at least not outside Afro-American music.
You certainly won’t hear it in pop music. Because in order to become popular you have to have a rich background to support you, or a record label. And the label tells you, ‘You have to be active on Instagram’. How can you cultivate angriness if what you have to do is post hip pictures? That’s why I call the current music business rotten, not because there aren’t good musicians out there.
I feel that the next really big band is going to have no Instagram account, no Facebook account, and no Twitter. Put a band out there and try to keep them a secret. Say, ‘Sorry, there are no publicity photographs on that one. If you want them, you have to go and find them yourself’. People would love that. We’re so tired of stuff being pushed on to us all the time.
True, but it would need a good music business to support that, which doesn’t exist, as far as I’m concerned. They know they won’t make money out of you, so they don’t invest money in you. Is this why you support the universal basic income?
Yes, that’s right. I think the only thing the human race is really good at is generating and developing knowledge. Everything we can do as a species comes from that. The reason we can live at all is not because we’re fast or strong, but because we’re clever. We know how to look at the world and find things out about it and control it in different ways. Intelligence is our medium, our nourishment. Therefore, I want to make a society that produces a lot of knowledge. And to do that I think we have to use everybody in it. Not just a few people who go to posh schools, but all kinds of intelligence. The intelligence that kids who do graffiti have, or kids walking on a trapeze. So, what does it take to be creative? A certain cast of mind, but more importantly, it takes the right situation. You can’t be creative if you’re tired from doing a horrible job and all you want to do is get home and get drunk.
Yes, but I’ve realised the following: if I have a free day and I want to dedicate it to working on something, it’s always the least productive day. I have the feeling that time pressure actually stimulates your creativity. If it’s not urgent to be creative, then you shouldn’t be.
I think that on those days off, you’re not actually wasting your time. You’re digesting. I love deadlines. If I didn’t have deadlines, I wouldn’t finish anything. And the deadline for me is the moment when you pull your stuff together, but the stuff needs to be there in the first place. That stuff is always growing up in you, and occasionally you have to sew some of it together and make a package out of it. All that development takes time and company. Company is what people always forget. It’s through conversation and collaboration with other people that you really develop your own ideas. Until you put them in front of other people and see how they work when they’re no longer under your control, you don’t know what the value of those ideas is.
I certainly think the UBI would be a wonderful thing. But Dostoyevsky said, ‘Give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread’. Maybe if you give people enough, they will just play video games.
I think there will be a percentage of people who won’t get off their video games. And it might be as much as 15 percent; I don’t know. But what percentage of people are right now doing equally meaningless things? It could be 60 or 70 percent. It’s not as if you’re exchanging wonderful, meaningful lives for people playing video games. There have been experiments.
How did they try the experiments?
They took a small city in Canada. I think it was about 4,000 people. And for two or three years they were on a universal basic income. They could still have jobs if they wanted to, but they were provided with enough money to keep them alive. Three results kept coming up. One was a dramatic increase in community engagement; people started getting together to do things, like fix up that little park that was a mess, or stop cars going down those streets, little things like that where people started caring about their shared experience. That to me is absolutely the most important thing. The second thing is that the prescription of psychoactive drugs, tranquilisers and so on, went down. People were reporting much less mental anxiety, psychosis, and loneliness. And the third thing is that educational achievement improved. The last one is a bit mysterious. It’s thought it’s because the parents were more at home and helped kids with homework. There haven’t been many UBI experiments, but those three results keep coming up. I agree, it’s not without problems. The question is whether it’s better than what we’re doing now. And to that I can answer with absolute certainty: yes.
Do you think creativity is something that everybody has?
Yes, I do. I don’t say that everyone has the same kind of creativity. I used to do a talk sometimes where I tried to understand why people do art. Or why they are interested in it. In fact, why do we have aesthetic preferences? Why do you care whether your trousers are blue or green? They might not care about that particular issue, but there will almost certainly be some other aesthetic issue they care about. For instance, their haircut, their car, their wallpaper, the music they listen to, the TV they watch. In order to talk about art, you have to frame it at its widest possible angle. So you have to include Cézanne, but also cake decorators. You have to include Beethoven, but you have to include beadwork as well. Or the things mothers do for their children, dressing them, making them look ‘cute’. It comes from the same creative place, but we have a history of not taking all these things seriously, partly because they are not part of the economic world, partly because they are often done by women and we are used to thinking that the important art is done by males. So, to your question: yes, I think everyone is creative, but in this new definition. And there’s of course a difference in degree; some people like it so much they make it their job.
And what happened in the end with the experiment in Canada?
Well, a right-wing party was elected and they shut down the experiment. And all the results were put into boxes and were forgotten about until a few years ago, when a sociologist called Evelyn Forget found the documents and decided to analyse them. It was she who published those results. But the messages are not heard that much because they don’t fit well into the conventional narrative of capitalism.
Why wouldn’t such a philosophy fit a conservative party and only serve the ideology of a left-wing party? It seems as if it would serve the individual.
It’s interesting because the UBI has more support at each end of the political spectrum than in the middle.
So the far right and far left?
Yes. The important thing for capitalists is to keep the wheels of industry rolling. They want consumers to buy what they produce. Unemployment would be a problem for them because it would mean people without money. It’s a kind of strange future, but you can understand how it would fit the philosophy of a conservative. It means the wealthy keep taking profits because there’s still a class of consumers who are buying.
However, if we don’t figure out how to solve the climate change problem, then what’s the use of anything?
I’m sure the right will soon understand about climate change, within two or three years. This isn’t going to be an argument anymore. Partly because the empirical evidence is increasingly strong. But also because the industries needed to deal with climate change will be very valuable industries. And they’re going to want a piece of that. The right will always change its mind if it’s a question of preserving its own privileged position.
It seems like in Germany the Green party is going take over.
Yes. I think it’s good, except for one thing: they are quasi-fundamentalists on some issues. The Green party, for whom I have great respect historically, in my opinion made a huge mistake in getting rid of the German nuclear industry. Now Germany has become almost the dirtiest country in Europe in terms of its carbon footprint. They had to replace all that nuclear capacity with coal.
Was that a decision of the Greens?
They pressed for it. They are very anti-nuke. I was anti-nuke as a kid—living next to the biggest and oldest nuclear power station in England. It never had any problem at all. But I became anti-nuke like all my friends, and then one day I thought, ‘You know what? We never had any problem living next to Sizewell B’. Nuclear power in Germany has also never had a serious accident. But coal is a permanent ongoing accident. People are dying every day from the fact that we’re burning coal. It doesn’t happen in a single event like Chernobyl, but it is happening—all the time. I firmly believe that we’ll eventually come up with better technologies than current nuclear power, but right now we are very far from being able to use only renewables. Right now, if we get rid of nuclear, we’ll replace it with coal plants. There isn’t another option to generate energy at that level and with that consistency.
Do they have the same attitude in England?
Yes, people in England are generally also anti-nuclear. There has never been a serious nuclear accident in England. Nobody has ever died from radiation poisoning. It’s by far the safest form of energy that we’ve ever had. But we’re still anti-nuke.
No, it’s the media. Well, you’ve heard or Fukushima?
OK, everyone’s heard of Fukushima. And everyone thinks that it’s a terrible nuclear disaster. But do you know how many people actually died of radiation poisoning in Fukushima?
Zero. None at all. That accident was a flood, a tsunami that hit a very old nuclear power station. Twenty thousand people died from the flood, and some radiation was released, which has so far had no casualties. Radiation is something we have around us all the time. This building is radioactive. There’s always radiation in the atmosphere. But it is such a good story for the media. They love it! And of course all the companies that are peddling coal and oil love the story too. Because nuclear can put them out of business. They don’t give a fuck about windmills.
Yes, well, another issue I would like to touch on is your engagement with Palestine and your decision not to perform in Israel. Are you still supporting this decision?
Yes. I’ve been to Israel and Palestine three times now. And I think anybody who goes there has to come away with quite a few feelings. One of them is that the treatment of the Palestinians is one of the most disgusting things happening in the world at the moment. And the fact that it’s happening with our approval and our help—
Mostly the Americans though.
Israel is a big partner for us when it comes to weapons. Britain is one of the biggest weapon-sellers in the world. Britain makes its money from banks and tanks. That’s where much of our money comes from. Banks because we’re the world’s primary money-launderers: the crooked money passes though England to be hidden away by posh public schoolboys. And tanks because we make weapons: we’re in the top six weapons-exporters. That’s why we’re suddenly big friends with Saudi Arabia, our biggest customer. Doesn’t matter how many journalists Saudi Arabia chops up and buries in the garden. We’ll still be friends with them. I hate the hypocrisy of that, just as I hate the fact that Israel can get away with being an apartheid nation. And be proud of it.
But this is politics. You would be there as a musician. In my head music is uniting, so if you performed there you would spread the message. At least to those who can understand this.
Do you think exposure to art makes people better?
It depends on what kind of art. In your case, definitely. There’s harmony. There’s melody. What you do would definitely stay with people. They would go home with a smile. And maybe subconsciously they would learn important lessons.
We all agree that art is powerful, like religion, science, ideology, the law. It has the power to move you, to make you cry, to make you want to be a different sort of person, to live a different sort of life. But when we talk about religion or science or ideology, we recognise that we are talking about things that can be used for good and for ill. Religion has offered comfort and inspiration to people, but it has also offered oppression and torture. Science has given us power over nature, but also new ways of killing people and destroying the planet.
When it comes to art, we are inclined to talk as though there is no possible downside. Art, we seem to think, is automatically and unambiguously good for us, like sunshine. But if that’s really the case, wouldn’t the people who have the most exposure to art—artists themselves, and curators and collectors, avid concert-goers and gallery-visitors—be simply the best people? After all, they spend vast amounts of their time bathed in art. At one point, Himmler had the greatest art collection in Europe—most of it stolen from French and Dutch Jews. Was he a great human being as a result? During the Bosnian War, the Serbian terrorist Arkan married the famous folksinger Svetlana Veličković. She used her considerable talents to spur the Serbian militias on to even more vicious feats of ethnic cleansing. We call art like that propaganda—designed to persuade you of a political position by manipulating your emotions. Is that kind of art good for you? Or do we say ‘No, that doesn’t count as art’?
Well, art does good when the receiver understands it. Could Himmler understand art?
This is the problem. What you said may be true for some people, but for a lot of people in Israel, the triumph is that they got Radiohead to perform. It was a propaganda victory. It vindicated them. It wasn’t just about music; it was about endorsement. Let’s assume that Radiohead and Nick Cave didn’t go there for the money, but for truly idealistic reasons—because they really believed that their music had the power to bring that country closer to peace. They aren’t propagandists, and they’re clearly good artists, but I think they were used. Remember: art is powerful, but like fire is powerful. It can cook your dinner, but it can burn your fingers.
A few elections ago an advertising agency approached me to license one of my pieces for a campaign they were doing for the Conservative Party. I turned them down, and I assume that Nick Cave and Radiohead would have done the same. And yet this would seem to me inconsistent on their part. If you really believe that your art is good for people, and beyond politics—which was essentially the argument they used to justify breaking the boycott in Israel—why not let the Conservative Party use it for their promotional campaign?
Whatever I might think about the power of my music, I would not want my name associated with certain ideologies or political positions. Israel is very clear about its use of culture as a form of promotion for what it calls ‘Brand Israel’. Art is a thing of power. And this power can be used for all sorts of things by all sorts of people. What Israel has been doing is using cultural power as a way to say, ‘Look at us, we’re a civilised, intelligent, forward-looking, avant-garde, experimental nation. Just don’t look at those Palestinians’. I don’t think any Palestinians were able to come to those concerts. They wouldn’t get through the checkpoints. This pretence that we’re going to play for everybody, well, you’re not playing for everybody, but for the people who aren’t effectively prisoners.
I once played with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, this project by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, where Israelis and Palestinians play together.
Oh yes, I’ve heard of the orchestra.
I must say it worked. Even though the Israelis were hanging around with the Israelis and the Arabs with the Arabs, which is normal, when they played music, they were one body. Because that’s how an orchestra works: you have to play with your neighbour. But if the Palestinians are not allowed to come to the concerts—
Well, yes. Many people have tried to solve this by saying, ‘I’m not performing if Palestinians are not allowed in the audience’, but it hasn’t worked.
With Barenboim, it kind of worked. He even played Wagner in Israel!
Wagner is not such a threat. The threat to them is people questioning their sole ownership of Israel. I saw this morning an interview with Naftali Bennett, who’s the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party. At some point he says, ‘Look, you have to understand this: Israel is a Jewish state. It has always been a Jewish state. It’s written in the Bible. If you want to change that, you have to change the Bible’. Now what kind of argument is this in the 21st century? He’s probably the third most powerful politician in Israel, and he’s justifying his views by reference to an old book. And his views are widely reflected across the whole spectrum of the right in Israeli politics. Which is about 90 percent of Israeli politics.
An Israeli friend of mine says that the only way anything is going to change there is by people from the outside taking a position. There isn’t a possibility of people doing it in Israel at the moment. They’re so propagandised. It’s a little bit like that period in the Soviet Union where people completely believed in the Soviet myth. Like Americans today believe in the American myth. You could not have said to them that there are some changes that will make things better for you.
Change is something that terrifies people.
We could talk about the Israel story for a long time, but what I would like to say is that the cleverness with which they have used the anti-Semitism accusation is really the big problem. This is unfortunately the problem now in Germany. Of course Germany has a particular history to deal with. But Talib Kweli was supposed to play at this festival in Düsseldorf and he’s just been stopped because he supports BDS—the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement. Now this is taking us into the Orwellian world of thought crimes. Kweli believes that musicians have the right to say, ‘I will not perform there because I don’t agree with the nation’s politics’. Nobody would argue if you said that about Russia. Or Syria. Or China. Or America. I criticise America all the time, but nobody tells me, ‘You’re anti-American. You’re anti-Christian’. We’re able to make the distinction between government policy and people everywhere else.
Nowadays with social media, labelling people has become so easy. It’s amazing how there’s no freedom of speech. We’ve fought for this and people are still afraid of expressing their opinions. It’s anachronistic.
It has to do with how lazy people can be. You can find sources of information that are reliable, you can find people who write clearly after investigation, or you can go on the internet and get fed a load of shit. It comes down to laziness. If you want to change the world, do it. Don’t talk about it. If you think Amazon is a crude employer, then stop buying stuff on Amazon! If you think television is giving you fake news, then stop watching television and find more reliable sources. They exist.
It’s this comfort culture.
Yes. Why don’t we show a bit of spirit and design our own world?