How We Met by Brian Eno and Tom Phillips
Interviews by Lucy O'Brien. First published in The Independent, London, 13 November 1998
Musician and rock producer Brian Eno was a founder member of Seventies band Roxy Music, and went on to pioneer ambient music with such albums as 'Music for Airports' and 'My Life in the Bush of Ghosts', a collaboration with David Byrne. He has produced albums by Talking Heads and U2. Now 50, he lives in London with his wife, Anthea Norman-Taylor.
BRIAN ENO: I first met Tom Phillips at Ipswich Art School in 1964. I was a 16-year-old student and he was one of my tutors. We used to call him "Black Tom" because he always seemed to dress in black. He had a black beard, black hair and rather haunted black eyes as well.
He was very authoritative, whereas a lot of teachers in the Sixties had an "anything goes" attitude. And he had a rigorous approach to being an artist. I remember working on a painting for some time, and he looked at it in his sceptical way and said: "It's rather slight, isn't it?" That discomfited me, but it didn't annoy me. His coolness was intriguing. Also I think I wanted that kind of rigour. The artists of the past who impressed me were the ones who really focused their work. Mondrian, for example, he was the product of that kind of thinking - making clear decisions about what one wanted to do.
Tom and I became close. He valued me on the course and I admired him. I remember him saying once: "If students were transferred between colleges like football players, you'd be worth pounds 10,000," which was a lot of money then. He was very interested in music and literature, in fact they were equal interests. He also introduced me to the idea that I could make music, suggesting I listen to people like Christian Wolff and John Cage. Through Tom I fell into the experimental music scene. We'd frequently go to London to concerts where there were always the same 35 or 40 people, it was such a tiny scene then.
Cage in particular was influential for me. In his case, composition was a way of living out your philosophy and calling it art. That was also the message that came over from Tom: if you wanted to be an artist there had to be a motivating force which was more than simply wanting to add attractive objects to the world.
After Ipswich I moved on to another art school in Winchester. I was Head of Entertainment, and used to import interesting composers and poets, including Tom, to perform there. When I moved to London after leaving college in 1969, I lived next-door-but-one to Tom in Cam-berwell. For a while I was his assistant, painting for 10 bob an hour. I loved it.
When Roxy music happened in the early Seventies, I don't think Tom paid much attention to it. He was sceptical about pop music, and thought it a waste of my talents. I suppose he felt, on the one hand, "Nice he's doing it", but on the other, "It's a real pity is that." Even though I'm known as a pop musician, I have a seriousness about what I do. This was unusual in rock music because there was such a suspicion of the intellect. Everyone was supposed to be like Keith Richards - passionate and messed up. I was aware of seeming rather prissy and an egghead because I liked using the other half of my brain as well.
In 1978 I produced a recording of Tom's opera Irma, which was generated from his book A Humument. It was a fraught experience. The composer Gavin Bryars had arranged a very operatic, romantic version which I really wanted to change. If you work as a pop producer, you can say: "I think that chorus stinks, let's change it." In classical music that's sort of unsayable because it's in the score. So this was problematic for me - not all of it was to my taste.
Having said that, nothing about Tom has irritated me for long. Because of his clarity of direction he can come over as a bully, but I don't think he is. He's just sure of what he's doing and wants to get it done. It's a sign of the awfulness of the English art world that he isn't better known. Tom has committed the worst of all crimes in England. He's risen above his station. You can sell chemical weapons to doubtful regimes and still get a knighthood, but don't be too clever, don't go rising above your station.
The smart thing in the art world is to have one good idea and never have another. It's the same in pop - once you've got your brand identity, carry on doing that for the rest of your days and you'll make a lot of money. Because Tom's lifetime project ranges over books, music and painting, it looks diffuse, but he is a most coherent artist. I like his work more and more.
Painter, poet and composer Tom Phillips, 61, has exhibited world-wide; his work is in the British Museum, the Tate, New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. His books include 'A Humument' and an illustrated translation of Dante's 'Inferno'. He is married to the music critic Fiona Maddocks.
TOM PHILLIPS: When I went to teach at Ipswich in the Sixties it was quite a sleepy place, but the art school had been taken over by a dynamic futurist called Roy Ascot who wanted to run it as a sort of experimental course. As one of a team of quasi-progressives, the first thing I did was present the students with a life model and say: "Just make lots of dots as quickly as possible and see if you can say something about the model." Everybody did this very diligently and pretty boringly, with one exception. There was this strange blond boy in the corner who did millions of dots and then tore the whole thing up into the shape of a human being. I thought that was a pretty skilful interpretation, in fact the only interpretation, of what I'd asked people to do, so it was a good start.
When I first met him, Brian dressed conservatively, like a normal Ipswich boy. But he was also pretty weird- looking, very strange and fey, an oddity. It was soon apparent he was the brightest student. I was a lousy teacher, and desperate to find bright students because you don't really have to teach them, you just talk to them. Good teaching can show students a few gates to open I wasn't able to help anyone who wasn't busy pushing at them already.
I had links with a musical world Brian didn't know. I introduced him to Cage, for instance. Cage was what you'd nowadays called "empowering". He made you realise that there wasn't a thing called noise, it was just music you hadn't appreciated. When you're a young artist, all you seek is licence, and Cage had done that, shown that this gate was open. I remember a game emerged between me and Brian and a couple or others which was called "sound tennis". We went around Ipswich buying up old wrecked pianos and put them all round the room. Then we played a kind of hand tennis and scored according to the quality of noise we made when hitting a stripped piano. It wa a rather good game.
After Brian left Ipswich we kept in touch. There was that funny interim period when someone is an ex-teacher and you can't be a friend in the ordinary sense. When a student is 16 and you're almost 30, they can't understand why you don't commit suicide you're so old, but now we're almost of the same generation, the divide doesn't seem big at all.
When he was in Roxy Music, that was where I lost track a bit. To me it was the least interesting part of Brian's world, because although it included interesting artistic risks, the packaging had got a bit glamorous. It was a launchpad to a superstardom he has used very well. That's fine, but I think Brian found it a distraction. His fame among people who weren't interested in what he was really into impeded him for some time. When you're much brighter than your audience you have a problem.
There are parallels in our approach. We both let anything in, and nothing is excluded. Brian has benefited his musical world by giving it another armchair to relax in. And he's also spread certain standards around. Young rock musicians now look to Brian Eno as a kind of touchstone.
The only dispute I've ever had with him was when he put out a version of my opera Irma on his small record label Obscure. The record turned out a bit of a disaster, a bit too smoothed down. Irma was a score with variable possibilities, but you'd always know what was "it". That was the criterion. Having said that, the leeway, the margin of change was enormous. That might not seem so to Brian, willing to throw everything up in the air and let it land where it may. But it's wrong to think that scoring something pins it down. I've seen four productions of Otello, for instance, and now I'm working on one, and the differences are staggering.
The dispute didn't threaten our friendship, though, because these are all partial things towards some other goal, which you learn about as you go along. If you die learning, you're all right. Brian and I have recently worked on a project to trace the lineage of a student. We're both flattered by the research, tracing who taught me, who taught them, and so on. There is a direct line of tutelage from me and Brian through Frank Auerbach, Sickert, some Romantic artists and French portrait painters, to David, Ingres and Primaticcio, ending up at the Renaissance painter Raphael. If there's a consistent thread running through that, it's the word "probity", to do things properly, with a kind of dedication that doesn't allow you to fudge.
I've known Brian 35 years, and he's always been a support. There've been times I've done something in some obscure place in a ghastly hall and I think no one's going to come, and Brian turns up, out of a schedule you can only imagine. That's real, unspoken support. And Brian gives me a certain energy. When someone is in the same world as you, you don't feel so alone. I value that as much as anything.