The Cure Trilogy Show at Vivid Live, Sydney Opera House

First published at Time Out Sydney, 1 June 2011

The Cure soundcheck at Vivid Live: pic by Daniel Boud, who is a freakin' photography legend-genius:  http://danielboud.com/

The Cure soundcheck at Vivid Live: pic by Daniel Boud, who is a freakin’ photography legend-genius: http://danielboud.com/

First up: if you’re going tonight, stop reading now. There are some spoilers to come regarding the setlist and I don’t want to ruin the surprise. “But APS, the show’s their first three albums: I know what the setlist is.” No, you really don’t. Stop reading – but just know you’re going to have a very, very good time. Oh, and that you should take the toilet breaks when they’re offered. You’ll thank me.

Still with me, rest of you? Let’s press on.

This show, nice Vivid Festival surprise that it was, seemed to be an odd decision on the Cure’s part. With the best will in the world, and acknowledging that they do have some genuinely classic albums, their debut is… well, a bit shit. Robert Smith acknowledged as much at the time, fuming that manager/producer Chris Parry put Three Imaginary Boys together from sessions Smith was unhappy with, and it never even got a proper release in Australia with Polygram opting instead for the superior best-tracks-from-Boys-plus-singles-and-b-sides mish-mash Boys Don’t Cry.

Yet here is Smith, flanked by his long-time rhythm section of bassist Simon Gallup (1980-1982, 1985-present) and drummer Jason Cooper (1995-present), neither of whom played on the album. How would Cooper handle Lol Tolhurst’s enthusiastic-yet-unschooled drumming? How would Gallup take on Michael Dempsey’s fiddly basslines?

The answer, it turns out, is they don’t even try. Cooper stuck with his trademark straight-ahead drumming (either “solid” or “dull”, depending on your inclination) and Gallup (looking inexplicably good for a 50 year old) tended to stick to the root notes. And you know what? It worked.

The set began with the classic ‘10:15 Saturday Night’, then the band slowed down the fidgety ‘Accuracy’ to great effect and the crowd went nuts for ‘Grinding Halt’. And that’s the song that really showed off the sort of Jam-style power-trio the Cure were then, even as the following – the stately, economical ‘Another Day’ was probably the clearest indication as to what was coming on the next few albums. And Robert was in playful form, explaining “I don’t really like this one” before the misogynist thrasher ‘Object’ before busting out harmonica for the terrifying side-one closer ‘Subway Song’.

Side two, a couple of classics aside, is mainly a garbage dump. It never sounded better, though, as the trio powered through the punky cover of ‘Foxy Lady’, ‘Meathook’ and the absolute throwaway ‘So What?’ (“I’m amazed I remembered as much of that as I did”) before the first of the redeeming moments: ‘Fire in Cairo’, with Smith trying to cover both his and Dempsey’s riffs since Gallup wasn’t up to the job. Then it was ‘It’s Not You’ (‘Object’ again, effectively) and the magnificent title track, and that was that. One album down, and a break for the bar.

The stage was reset for Seventeen Seconds, with keyboardist Roger O’Donnell (who joined in 1987, left in 1991, came back in 1995 and was dismissed in 2005) joining the aforementioned trio. The instrumental ‘A Reflection’ acted as the perfect curtain-raiser before one of the band’s enduring classics: ‘Play For Today’ with pretty much the entire audience singing along with the keyboard riff. ‘’In Your House’ was downright magnificent and ‘At Night’ haunting, and everyone went freakin’ nuts when O’Donnell hit that opening A that heralded the beginning of ‘A Forest’. A superb set, and that’s two albums down.

And so on to Faith, with the Cure’s co-founder – the aforementioned Tolhurst – sharing a stage with Smith for the first time in 22 years after a post-band relationship that could be described as “colourful” (and also, “litigious”). From the second that ‘The Holy Hour’ began the sound was massive, with Gallup’s bass hitting the room in the collective solar plexus, although Tolhurst’s role seemed to be resticted to “busy work”: the former drummer and keyboardist was left on auxilliary percussion for the most of the set, although he did hit the keys for ‘All Cats Are Grey’ and the title track. And his work wasn’t flawless – his messy rototom rolls did little to enhance ‘Doubt’, for example – but dear god, it was good to see him on stage.

So yes, three albums, all sounding great. And then the encores began.

Oh sweet Jesus, the encores.

You know how the Pixies pulled out their contemporaneous b-sides when they did their Doolittle show? Well, basically, that: the three-piece version kicked out ‘World War’ and – dear god! – ‘I’m Cold’ and ‘Plastic Passion’ before Roger and Lol joined for a triumphant ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, ‘Killing An Arab’ and, possibly best of the night, ‘Jumping Someone Else’s Train’ (and Gallup actually played Dempsey’s bassline, bless him) which segued into its b-side ‘Another Journey By Train’, and they left the stage. The perfect end to a genuinely wonderful night.

And then the crew brought a new setlist out.

And then the band returned with (mainly) instrumental b-sides ‘Descent’ (Smith quipping “not even we know this one”) and ‘Splintered in her Head’, before going into a triumphant version of non-album single ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ and Pornography’s lead single ‘The Hanging Garden’.

“What a perfect way to cover off that entire period, ending with the precursor to the fourth album,” I thought. “That’s pretty much every song they recorded between 1978 and 1981.”

And then the crew brought another setlist out.

And then, friends, the moment which I had been waiting for since becoming a Cure fan at age 10.

The. Cure. Played. The. Fantasy. Trilogy.

See, between the punky-goth band they were and before the pop band they were to become came three transitional seven inches in the early 80s, which were the three songs with which I fell in love: ‘Let’s Go To Bed’, ‘The Walk’ and – and you should probably sit down at this point, although no-one in the Opera House did – ‘The Love Cats’.

Holy mother of fuck.

It was glorious, playful, joyous, and when Smith fucked up the ‘Love Cats’ bridge he recovered by pointing at himself and asking the crowd “How could you miss someone as dumb as this”?

It’s a memory I’ll be taking to the grave.

Vivid, thank you.

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The Cure at Vivid Live, May 31-June 1 2011

This was published online at Time Out Sydney after the first show and before the second…

Daniel Boud makes the best photographs on the planet. FACT.

First up: if you’re going tonight, stop reading now. There are some spoilers to come regarding the setlist and I don’t want to ruin the surprise.

“But Andrew, the show’s their first three albums: I know what the setlist is.” No, you really don’t. Stop reading – but just know you’re going to have a very, very good time. Oh, and that you should take the toilet breaks when they’re offered. You’ll thank me.

Still with me, rest of you? Let’s press on.

This show, nice Vivid Festival surprise that it was, seemed to be an odd decision on the Cure’s part. With the best will in the world, and acknowledging that they do have some genuinely classic albums, their debut is… well, a bit shit.

Robert Smith acknowledged as much at the time, fuming that manager/producer Chris Parry put Three Imaginary Boys together from sessions Smith was unhappy with, and it never even got a proper release in Australia with Polygram opting instead for the superior best-tracks-from-Boys-plus-singles-and-b-sides mish-mash Boys Don’t Cry.

Yet here is Smith, flanked by his long-time rhythm section of bassist Simon Gallup (1980-1982, 1985-present) and drummer Jason Cooper (1995-present), neither of whom played on the album. How would Cooper handle Lol Tolhurst’s enthusiastic-yet-unschooled drumming? How would Gallup take on Michael Dempsey’s fiddly basslines?

The answer, it turns out, is they don’t even try. Cooper stuck with his trademark straight-ahead drumming (either “solid” or “dull”, depending on your inclination) and Gallup (looking inexplicably good for a 50 year old) tended to stick to the root notes. And you know what? It worked.

The set began with the classic ‘10:15 Saturday Night’, then the band slowed down the fidgety ‘Accuracy’ to great effect and the crowd went nuts for ‘Grinding Halt’. And that’s the song that really showed off the sort of Jam-style power-trio the Cure were then, even as the following – the stately, economical ‘Another Day’ was probably the clearest indication as to what was coming on the next few albums. And Robert was in playful form, explaining “I don’t really like this one” before the misogynist thrasher ‘Object’ before busting out harmonica for the terrifying side-one closer ‘Subway Song’.

Side two, a couple of classics aside, is mainly a garbage dump. It never sounded better, though, as the trio powered through the punky cover of ‘Foxy Lady’, ‘Meathook’ and the absolute throwaway ‘So What?’ (“I’m amazed I remembered as much of that as I did”) before the first of the redeeming moments: ‘Fire in Cairo’, with Smith trying to cover both his and Dempsey’s riffs since Gallup wasn’t up to the job. Then it was ‘It’s Not You’ (‘Object’ again, effectively) and the magnificent title track, and that was that. One album down, and a break for the bar.

The stage was reset for Seventeen Seconds, with keyboardist Roger O’Donnell (who joined in 1987, left in 1991, came back in 1995 and was dismissed in 2005) joining the aforementioned trio.

The instrumental ‘A Reflection’ acted as the perfect curtain-raiser before one of the band’s enduring classics: ‘Play For Today’ with pretty much the entire audience singing along with the keyboard riff. ‘’In Your House’ was downright magnificent and ‘At Night’ haunting, and everyone went freakin’ nuts when O’Donnell hit that opening A that heralded the beginning of ‘A Forest’. A superb set, and that’s two albums down.

And so on to Faith, with the Cure’s co-founder – the aforementioned Tolhurst – sharing a stage with Smith for the first time in 22 years after a post-band relationship that could be described as “colourful” (and also, “litigious”).

From the second that ‘The Holy Hour’ began the sound was massive, with Gallup’s bass hitting the room in the collective solar plexus, although Tolhurst’s role seemed to be resticted to “busy work”: the former drummer and keyboardist was left on auxiliary percussion for the most of the set, although he did hit the keys for ‘All Cats Are Grey’ and the title track. And his work wasn’t flawless – his messy rototom rolls did little to enhance ‘Doubt’, for example – but dear god, it was good to see him on stage.

So yes, three albums, all sounding great. And then the encores began.

Oh sweet Jesus, the encores.

You know how the Pixies pulled out their contemporaneous b-sides when they did their Doolittle show? Well, basically, that: the three-piece version kicked out ‘World War’ and – dear god! – ‘I’m Cold’ and ‘Plastic Passion’ before Roger and Lol joined for a triumphant ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, ‘Killing An Arab’ and, possibly best of the night, ‘Jumping Someone Else’s Train’ (and Gallup actually played Dempsey’s bassline, bless him) which segued into its b-side ‘Another Journey By Train’, and they left the stage. The perfect end to a genuinely wonderful night.

And then the crew brought a new setlist out.

And then the band returned with (mainly) instrumental b-sides ‘Descent’ (Smith quipping “not even we know this one”) and ‘Splintered in her Head’, before going into a triumphant version of non-album single ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ and Pornography’s lead single ‘The Hanging Garden’.

“What a perfect way to cover off that entire period, ending with the precursor to the fourth album,” I thought. “That’s pretty much every song they recorded between 1978 and 1981.”

And then the crew brought another setlist out.

And then, friends, the moment which I had been waiting for since becoming a Cure fan at age 10.

The. Cure. Played. The. Fantasy. Trilogy.

See, between the punky-goth band they were and before the pop band they were to become came three transitional seven inches in the early 80s, which were the three songs with which I fell in love: ‘Let’s Go To Bed’, ‘The Walk’ and – and you should probably sit down at this point, although no-one in the Opera House did – ‘The Love Cats’.

Holy mother of fuck.

It was glorious, playful, joyous, and when Smith fucked up the ‘Love Cats’ bridge he recovered by pointing at himself and asking the crowd “How could you miss someone as dumb as this”?

It’s a memory I’ll be taking to the grave.

Vivid, thank you.

Stephen Hawking vs the Space Aliens, or “Cosmologists Say The Darndest Things!”

Written 5 July 2010

Stephen Hawking is, let’s be clear, a smart fellow.

In fact, “smart” doesn’t really appear to do him justice as a description: he’s a freakin’ genius. And if there’s one thing that he’s a big ol’ geniusin’-freak-genius about, it’s the cosmos. He knows his cosmos like the back of the hand with which he moves his chair. If there’s a person more au fait with the secrets of the universe, it’s hard to imagine who’d they’d be.

Stephen Hawking, welcoming our new insect overlords (not shown)

Stephen Hawking, welcoming our new insect overlords (not shown)

Gamma ray bursts? He’s totally down with them. Expansion of the visible universe? Got that nailed. Mathematical models explaining how black holes will eventually evaporate due to the fleeting appearance of particles that bubble up in the quantum foam of space-time? This dude quite literally wrote the book on it. The man is a seriously bright sort of a person.

So: why does he occasionally say such silly, silly things?

You see, here in Australia, the Discovery Channel is about to screen the fist episode of Into The Universe with Stephen Hawking, a show about the cosmos (good) which is zippy and informative (good) and this episode should pique people’s interest on the biggest subject of all: the origins of life (also good).

Where things get the tinsiest bit not-good is just after he says some very reasonable things about how the universe appears to be made up of pretty much the same stuff all over – there don’t appear to be completely different elements to the west of the Universe, the same laws of physics appear to apply everywhere we look and so on – and that it’s therefore reasonable to assume that life has probably turned up elsewhere. That’s all fine (if speculative, at least until we find some evidence that there’s life anywhere else – currently, it’s Earth: 1, Entire Rest Of Universe: 0).

Then again, the notoriously liberal media are aware that space aliens have a right-wing agenda. Maybe Hawking is on to something…

So far, so uncontroversial.

Then he gets into a bit of fun, if somewhat pointless, speculation about what life might look like on other planets (spoiler alert: big ol’ suction-snouts), which pads out the running time a bit and gives the animators some showreel footage for any future job interviews at LucasArts, and then raises the question “how might we try to communicate with other interstellar civilisations?” before concluding “we shouldn’t, since it might make them come and steal our resources.”

Here’s the scenario as Hawking proposes it:

Highly advanced civilisation develops incredible technology. Said technology, which includes mighty spaceships, requires enormous energy demands. Civilisation depletes resources on home planet due to said energy demands. Civilisation leaves its ruined planet and becomes spacefaring, roaming the cosmos looking for new planets to plunder. Earth, being covered in awesome things like water and air and other nice stuff, is a tempting target – especially after we draw attention to ourselves by sending radio waves to the rest of the Universe. The spaceships lay waste to Earth, taking what they need before moving on. It’s not explicitly said, but I can only assume that the White House is the first target, followed by other photogenic landmarks around the world.

Now, I should make clear that I’m not and never have been Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, but I’m prepared to proudly hold my BA (+ Philosophy hons) high and say this in response: bollocks, Professor Hawking.

And, if I may expand: bollocks bollocks bollocks and bollocks.

My testicle-heavy riposte isn’t simply in response to the implied notion that civilisations automatically become spacefaring when they get to a certain level of technology – although I am going to paddle in that metaphorical estuary for a moment since I think it’s a briny point worth making.

Obviously a civilisation can’t become spacefaring unless it reaches an enormously sophisticated level of technology but – as we’re learning here on Earth – creatures that have developed on a terrestrial planet are, by definition, not designed to live in space. Evolution, it turns out, is not speculative.

We marvellously adaptive and ingenious humans have scurried all over the planet’s surface but even we haven’t colonised the deep ocean trenches or inside volcanoes or up in the stratosphere, since we die under those pressures/temperatures/lack of breathable atmospheres.

Yet all those environments are much, much less alien to us than space: gravity is much the same, for example, and we’re still protected from cosmic rays and highly charged particles by the Earth’s magnetosphere. In space, human bodies are entirely inappropriate for the conditions.

Everything from the way our circulation works to the degree of radiation our cells can take before the DNA is damaged has evolved as per Earth-surface standards. Any species evolving on any other planet is going to develop to thrive under the conditions of that planet – the local gravity, the amount of energy it gets from its sun, the weight of its atmosphere and so on.

These are not simply curly technical problems likely to be solved via advanced spacecraft engineering. Any sophisticated technological species will have to be very highly evolved which means it’s going to be adapted to its specific environment – not the resource-poor vacuum of space.

It’s just possible that there are life forms of some sort floating in the thin gas between the stars, but they’re not going to be sophisticated enough have civilisations. Something as simple as a virus could possibly survive in deep space, but a virus can’t develop starship technology: they’d never find arc welders tiny enough, for one thing.

Develop enough to have complicated things like brains that can even conceive of space travel and, somewhat ironically, you’re going to be so well suited to your environment that you won’t be able to leave it. Genetic engineering might mitigate some of these problems, in the far off sci-fi future, but my deep love of Star Wars isn’t enough to shake my suspicion that there are exactly zero mighty starships currently ploughing the galaxy’s spacelanes.

But that’s a secondary issue. The main reason why I have a gonad-themed response to Hawking’s position is that a civilisation which is so energy starved that they’re forced to roam about the place plundering other planets will seek to use as little energy as they can in the process. It’s simple economics: there’s no point plundering a planet’s resources if you use up more energy in the act of plundering than you gather post-plunder.

This means that if there are viable plunderin’ alternatives a) said fleet of hypothetical starships are probably not going to explore the planets deep in a star’s gravity well, since they will be harder to survey and energy-expensive to leave, and b) they’re not going to waste energy dealing with a technologically-advanced indigenous society, even one whose powers are feeble in comparison, because dealing with any threat of combat, however small, is always going to use more energy than dealing with no threat at all.

Of course, as noted, that’s assuming that there are viable plunderin’ alternatives: but what if Earth is totally special?

We’re back at the thing Hawking was talking about before, how the Universe is made of much the same stuff and the laws of physics are universal. In other words, there’s nothing unique to Earth compared with the rest of the solar system (aside from life, or so it appears).

There’s plenty of water out there, especially in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud at the edge of the Solar System: a plundering civilisation could happily harvest comets out there without any interference. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, iron, hydrocarbons, methane – they’re all on other planets and moons, often in easier-to-get-at forms. Why bother even running an assessment to see whether these pesky humans pose any threat at all when you could save time and fuel merrily harvesting minerals off the moons of Neptune, say, with no living thing within billions of kilometres of you?

In any case, I find the idea of any civilisation traveling from star to star in search of anything whatsoever to be unlikely in the extreme, simply because of the staggering distances involved.

A civilisation facing ruin from resource depletion would surely be more likely to focus all of their efforts on drawing as much energy as possible from their sun, for example, than they would on pissing energy away building huge spaceships and hoping like hell they found something to burn out there in the cosmos. A theoretical interstellar civilisation might want to pop by our planet for many reasons, but I don’t think grabbing a metaphorical cup of sugar (or carbon) is likely to be one of them.

Or, to put it another way, bollocks.

The Apples in Stereo interview

Originally published at Time Out Sydney 6 September, 2009

The Apples in Stereo’s leader Robert Schneider explains why non-standard harmonics are like avocados, among other revelations

large-Apples

Lovers of sweet, sweet pop music, take note: the singer/songwriter/main creative force of The Apples In Stereo, Mr Robert Scheinder, is on his way to Australia and will be doing some intimate solo shows while he’s here. This is a major cause for celebration as Schneider’s one of the greatest writers of melodic, harmony-drenched guitar pop on the planet (as the new Apples Best Of, #1 Hits Explosion, makes more than clear).

The Apples In Stereo - #1 Hits ExplosionHowever, that’s not the only reason he’s coming to our nation. He’s one of the guests of Queensland’s Big Sound music conference, where he’ll be imparting wisdom to the next generation of young musicians and producers. Not that he’s actually thought it through at this point…

“Oh my goodness. Oh my gosh. I have no idea,” he responds with machine-gun pace when asked what he’ll be talking about. “I don’t think I have any wisdom to impart.  Maybe I could tell you how to mike a snare drum or something like that. Um, I don’t know. I haven’t really planned anything out exactly in that way. I just thought I would let the spirit of pop music speak through me for a short time. I mean I’ve spoken at some maths conferences and stuff like that, but I do like public speaking and stuff. I guess it’s just not a particularly well planned out sort of thing.”

Yes, aside from all things musical, Schneider’s a total maths nerd. How many other indie pop musicians can you think of who’ve developed an entire musical scale based on logarithms? The scale made its debut on some interludes on 2007’s superb New Magnetic Wonder, as well as creating a strange, unnatural-sounding chime intro to ‘Can You Feel It?’, which begs the question: since the scale sounds so “wrong” to most people’s ears, how on earth does a melodic pop nut like Schneider even think in those terms?

“It was hard for me to write in such a strange scale,” he admits. “It makes my brain feel like it’s twisting in my head, but I really like that feeling. On the new Apples record that we’re working on, I’ve just finished a song where a lot of the chord progressions are in both regular scale and the logarithmic scale, but the solo sections are played in the logarithmic scale.”

He pauses for a second for breath. “I called it a ‘non-Pythagorean scale’, though, but that’s just because I thought ‘logarithmic’ sounded kind of cold. It’s something that seems so futuristic. Often when you say futuristic you get kind of a cold feeling, but in reality one would like to imagine that the future will be very warm – not in a global warming kind of way, of course. I mean more emotionally warm.”

As to where his interest in experimental music comes from, he credits “my friend Jim Mcintyre [Apples co-founder and leader of Olivia Tremor Control] and Jeff Magnum [reclusive genius behind Neautral Milk Hotel], they’ve all been really into experimental music for many years. I mean, I’m not really in an experimental scene as most of my friends are. I’m more interested in the pure tones, not so much the music theory aspect. I’m interested more in the strange harmonies, that’s what really turn me on. Like my ear might crave them from time to time like, you know, an avocado or something. Or a fig!”

While it’s good to hear that Magnum is still experimenting with music, like everyone else who had their mind blown by Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 swansong In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (which Schneider produced, incidentally), it would be even better news if he’d just pick up a standard-tuned guitar and, just as a suggestion, write some fucking songs.

“I guess I understand,” Schneider laughs. “But for me, him being one of my best friends, I don’t really think about it. It’s just like: OK, he’s not producing songs. But at the same time he’s informed me a lot because I’ve only really ever released pop music.”

And pop music is the plan for Schneider’s Sydney show – which is not to say that he’s actually got that at all worked out either, really…

“I kind of just pull out the acoustic guitar and close my eyes see what song I’ll play and usually I’m able to remember the whole thing and usually it impresses me by the time I’m at the end of it,” he laughs. “Oh, except that at the end of it, it’s always like ‘oh, man‘ because I’m playing acoustically I don’t have a planned ending so you sort of have to come up with something clever on the spot, and then it’s the next song. That’s my plan of action.”

Robert Schneider plays at the Hopetoun on Sat 13 Sep. #1 Hits Explosion is out through Popfrenzy

Brian Eno interview

First published in Time Out Sydney, 15 May 2009

(So, back in 2009 I interviewed Brian Eno for the Luminous Festival – which was an early run for what became Sydney’s Vivid Festival. Eno was the first curator of the festival, choosing all of the acts and arranging collaborations. And yes, interviewing him was 100 per cent a dream come true.)

The man's basically a genius, let's not muck around.

The man’s basically a genius, let’s not muck around.

What governed your choices of performer for Luminous?
Two things: who I wanted, and who I could get.

So there wasn’t an overarching aesthetic?
Yes, there is. The overarching aesthetic is “things I like or want to see”. Things that I think are at the cutting edge of some-or-other form of music that I’m interested in. They’re all things that, to me, seem like pioneers.

So you would argue that Ladytron, who many critics would consider to be pushing a retro-80s-synth sort of thing, are pioneers?
Well, it’s interesting. I think that 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. My daughters have 50,000 albums or something each, but not only that they have albums from every era of popular music history, from doo-wop onwards, and they don’t really know what’s current and what was done a long time ago. For instance, they were listening to something a few nights ago – some prog-rock thing, I can’t remember what it was now – and I said “gosh, I remember when that came out we all thought it was really boring,” and she said “what? Is this old then?” [laughs] To her, and many of her generation, everything is equally present so “retro” doesn’t really have quite the same meaning.

But surely something crucial has something been lost in that?
I think something has been lost, and something else has been gained. What’s been lost is evident particularly to my generation because records were so crucially important to us: they so much defined a cultural position and one knew somebody by their choices in records, so it was really the centre of a cultural conversation. And part of the reason for that was that you had to make quite a big investment in your record collection: they were expensive and so you didn’t have that many of them. And I think when you make that kind of investment in something you take it seriously and become committed to it – and you get the benefits of taking it seriously and being committed to it. 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. And the healthy part of this new attitude is what I was explaining before: having this undifferentiated field that’s pretty much free of prejudices. The music doesn’t carry so much ideological baggage with it as it used to. I remember when it was politically uncool to like ABBA, for example, and absolutely essential to claim that you admired the Velvet Underground. I think a lot of that is gone, and I think it’s good that it’s gone too.

Is that the only plus?
No, the other thing that I think has happened is that when the music becomes effectively free, everything else that is non-copyable becomes valuable. For instance, performances: there’s so much more live performance in England now than there has been for years, probably ever, and bands take their live performances very seriously. They make records to promote performances, basically, whereas we used to do performances to promote records. Suddenly performance is again very, very lively and interesting, at every level. With the big bands now it’s like the circus coming to town when they turn up, and they really go to town on the technological aspects of what they’re doing. And festivals: there are far more of them than there have been. They’ve become alibis for new sorts of temporary communities among young people, which I like. I think that’s all wonderful.

That’s certainly true in Australia too.
The other thing that’s happened is that because it’s very difficult to sell CDs now, instead what you do now is make fantastic packages. This is becoming a quite new art form, I think. I bought a boxed set the other day – it’s six CDs of early American religious music, old 78s [78 rpm LPs] that have been put onto CD – and it’s in a beautiful wooden box and there’s a a fantastic book with it. It’s a real piece of musical archaeology, beautifully produced, wonderfully done. It’s a combination of beautiful listening experience and academic text and art object – and that really only came about because you can’t make money selling CDs any longer.

However, if the sense of a record as being “a record” of a particular time is lost, doesn’t this feed into a general short-termism in people’s thinking with regards art, politics, social movements…?
You know, I don’t think that’s so. I think the same thing is happening in politics, and possibly across the board, that people have become disaffected with the idea of single, unifying ideologies. So everybody is mixing and matching, picking bits of this and bits of that, and it’s very difficult to find any interesting political thought on the committed left or the committed right. They’re simplistic. They actually seem historical and out-of-touch. To me all the interesting thought is coming from people you can’t place on that spectrum somehow. Their ideas exist all over that spectrum – and I think the same thing is true with music. There are so many bands now that one finds interesting because of the combination of all of the possible historical threads they could have chosen, the ones they have chosen to weave together, you think “ooh, that’s interesting, how could somebody put those things together and get away with it, and make something I like?” So I think that’s kind of what’s happening now with painting, and politics, and economics.

Certainly it’s been an interesting time for economic dogma…
Oh yes – the whole meltdown of the world financial system has really disabused a lot of people of what seemed to be a dominant and here-to-last-for-a-long-long-time ideology, the free market. And remember, it was only 19 years ago that Francis Fukiyama published his book The End of Historywhich claimed, with absolute confidence, that we’d found the solution and it was market capitalism and economic liberalism. And it was only nine years ago that the Americans published their national security document which spoke of this century as being an American Century and that the American approach was the only one left standing after the 20th century. So in a very few years theres’s been an incredible change in atmosphere, and I think it’s been across the board. I don’t think it’s gonna last forever – I’m sure it will harden again into ideologies and simplistic theories, but for the moment, it’s exciting.

Well, the Iraq invasion put the lie to the idea that the free market necessarily brings democracy, and the rise of China disproved the notion that democracy is necessary for a robust economy.
Yes, exactly. What’s happened in the last few years is that there have been some very expensive experiments, Iraq being one of them, and China being another, and Russia being another: that’s another example of authoritarian capitalism. This was thought to be a contradiction in terms – it would have been described as an oxymoron to say “authoritarian capitalism” because the idea, in the Fukiyama picture of things, was that neo-liberal capitalism automatically produced all the social benefits that they were so proud of. And then along comes China and Russia, two countries that clearly are very different, both from us and from each other, and they’ve found two other solutions to the equation. It doesn’t turn out to have one solution.

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.
Well, it’s not completely wrongheaded. I’m sure like everybody they want to work with people they like and whose work they admire, and they like mine, they like the things I’ve been involved with, so yes: I’m sure part of it is them saying “I’d like a bit of that as well.” And why not? That’s what I would do if I were them [laughs]. So I don’t think it’s an unfair assessment, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing for them to do. They wouldn’t be upset by somebody saying that to them. If you said “so, are you just trying to buy a bit of Brian Eno’s credibility?” they’d say “well, yeah, maybe.” But 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?
Yes, because absolutely everybody in the universe is encouraging you to do more of the same thing. And I don’t, basically. I don’t do it on principle. I’m just not interested in doing more of the same thing. I’m always interested when I hear something that’s like a little shoot, a little bud 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, when somebody is really pushing the new things that they’re doing rather than the old things.

So your job in the studio is to limit what a band’s doing?
Oh, definitely, yes. Because the possibilities increase exponentially: every year there are a thousand new ways to waste time in the studio – every week, actually. And in fact what so often happens when one has trillions of options is that you think you’ll find the answer somewhere among the options if you just keep looking for long enough – and it’s never true, in my experience. The answer, whatever the answer is, is in you. I always notice when I’m drawing with a pencil, which is a very limited tool, I very quickly get to the point of knowing whether I’ve got an idea or not, whether anything good will happen or not, because the tool doesn’t offer than many options for experimentation. You very quickly do all the things you could do with it. And similarly with more simple instruments like electric guitars and drums and so on. Once you get into ProTools, that deadly infection, then anything is possible. There’s the famous joke about the producer who holds down the talkback button in the studio and says to the band “That was absolute shit. Come in.” Because it so often happens – in ProTools you can sort-of fix anything up to make it sound half decent, and I don’t like that. I don’t like to work that way.

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 do have periods where I am completely lost. And I find I have one useful talent, which is that I can completely forget everything else when I’m working on one thing. I have fairly powerful focus when I need to have it, and I also have enthusiasm for what I’m doing. I have strong opinions, basically, and I think that’s another reason why people like me in the studio, because I get either totally indignant or very excited about things. I rarely feel lukewarm about anything because it really is of no use to anyone to say [affects bored tone] “oh, that’s quite good.” That doesn’t help at all. You want strong positions, and I take strong positions without any effort. 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 just decidenot to find out about a lot of it. I sort of have an idea of which area of things would interest me and go somewhere new, and I don’t even bother to look at the rest of it, I don’t want to know. Life is too short.

What sort of things have you ignored recently?
Well, a synthesiser company recently offered me – very kindly – this fabulous new synthesiser, and I had it for two or three days at the studio and I thought “to actually understand this would take about six months, otherwise I’m just going to use the presets they put in there, and I’m much too arrogant to do that.” So I sent it back. I thought, “It’s a waste on me. Give it to some youngster who can really learn it.”

And yet you’re involved in the development of [iPhone self-generating music program] Bloom: clearly you don’t ignore new technological developments…
No, but that’s because for a long, long time I’ve had this thread that I’ve been carrying through, which is this idea of generative music, and whenever I see a new chance of doing that I’m very interested. So the iPhone offered that possibility, because I had realised three or four years ago that I wasn’t going to be able to do generative music properly– in the sense of giving people generative music systems that they could use themselves – 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 then when the iPhone came out I thought “oh good: it’s a computer that people carry in their pockets and use their fingers on”, so suddenly that was interesting again.

Isn’t there some irony in your hating music for computers, given that you created the Windows start up chime? I mean, it was designed for a computer and was reportedly the world’s most-heard piece of music.
Well, it was for a while [laughs]. I made one a long time ago, for the 95 Windows, so I had what, a billion or two listeners…

The Sydney Opera House presented Luminous, which ran 26 May–14 Jun 2009.