Roger Eno on ambient music, life in rural England and his love for eccentric French pianist Erik Satie

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If time machines existed, Roger Eno would teleport to the outer Paris suburb Arcueil, circa 1900. There, with “a top shelf gin to help break the ice”, he’d introduce himself to eccentric pianist Erik Satie, on his daily trek into town.

Satie, you see, is 60-year-old Eno’s hero, his haunting, early minimalism the chief influence on his music. He shares the Frenchman’s dictum that less is more, even less is better, eschewing “circus-like” trills and solos for sparse notes that respect the spaces between them.

Chances are the pair would get along famously: both enjoy a drink (Satie enough that it killed him); long, inspiring walks; and collaborations with other artists, musical and non. Eno, who likes a good meal, might politely eschew Satie’s dietary staples – strictly white foods, among them grated bones, animal fat and fruit mould – but he’d give cold white wine with Fuchsia juice a go. After all, when in Paris, with Satie…

“Knowing Erik’s proclivities, I reckon the gin would win its way into his heart,” says Eno down the line from his Suffolk home. “I’d bring a sandwich, too. Satie once wondered why everyone would offer him a drink, but nobody offered him a sandwich.”

He pauses for a laugh. “I made a Satie pilgrimage a while back, went to his tiny apartment, the bar nearby and placed a flower on his grave … I’ll never forget hearing him for the first time. I thought, if someone can write music so exquisite, with so few notes, I’ll have a crack myself!”

Indebted as he is to the ‘Gymnopedist’, Eno owes as much to a cornet he hasn’t held for almost 50 years, but which sparked a “lightbulb moment” that gave his life clear direction. “I was 12 and had just failed my primary school exams,” he recalls. “I was touring this dead-end school, terrified of it leading to a dead-end job, when I saw this cornet in the music room, put it to my lips and blew a note. It was amazing. There and then I knew what I’d be doing forever.”

And it wasn’t moving furniture.

By the late-1970s, when famous older brother, Brian, had abandoned avant glam rock for quiet, incidental music he termed ‘ambient’, Roger was studying composition, honing his skills on a plethora of instruments in a German oompah band, punk outfit The Willies, chamber ensembles and that which came most naturally, himself on a piano with good sustain.

He was teaching music therapy at a psychiatric hospital in 1983 when Brian and renowned producer Daniel Lanois enlisted his help on a series of atmospheric pieces to accompany For All Mankind, a silent documentary comprising footage from NASA moon missions. The resultant soundtrack, Apollo, became an ambient classic, dramatically shifting Eno’s orbit.

Satie-inspired debut Voices was warmly received in 1985, so too its richly pastoral follow up, Between Tides. He never returned to the hospital, but his multiple albums since have been music therapy to a global audience: exquisite, bewitching works in which you became happily lost.

“I knew with those records that I’d had enough of the sensible nine-to-five world and wouldn’t be going back,” says Eno. “But then it’s hardly a sensible world, is it, working in a psychiatric hospital?”

He laughs again. It’s a favourite feeling, however difficult at times. Eno knows well what Satie called “the icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness” (said after splitting with his only known lover, the artist and model Suzanne Valadon).

In Eno’s case, the emptiness isn’t lost love (wife of 32 years, Bee, is his “rock”), but a crippling depression that vanishes for long stretches only to reappear without warning. “I’ve had it recently and it’s debilitating,” he says. “I’d be practicing for upcoming shows, for instance, and things I thought sounded wonderful suddenly sounded like shit. It’s so hard to get a grip on!”

For this reason, Eno draws a clear distinction between the oddly comforting melancholy his music evokes and depression. “The idea of melancholia is that you can enjoy, for instance, melancholic poetry. But you can’t do anything when you’re properly depressed, except wait for it to pass. When it’s gone, the last thing I want to do is put myself anywhere near that feeling.”

“The idea of melancholia is that you can enjoy, for instance, melancholic poetry. But you can’t do anything when you’re properly depressed, except wait for it to pass. When it’s gone, the last thing I want to do is put myself anywhere near that feeling.”

Instead, he’ll walk and cycle though picture-postcard Bungay and its verdant surrounds, stopping, as Satie would, to jot ideas into tiny notepads. He’ll write ‘day job’ music in the morning and playful ditties at beer o’clock, some he’ll share with friends at the boozer later on. You can see and feel the quaint market town in his music: its bucolic fields and nearby coastline, cobbled and cottaged lanes, the warmth of multi-generation locals. Indeed, Bungay stars in the visuals set to back Eno’s upcoming appearance in Melbourne, which will be his debut solo appearance in the city.

“It’s quintessentially British, our town, so pretty, untouched and preserved, but the reality is that generations ago, two, even three families shared some of these cottages, often in squalor,” he says.

Fascinated by this, Eno and a videographer friend used an “extra sweet” colourisation process to accentuate the town’s quaintness, a subtle dig at how history is being skewed. “We’re making up these stories about the past, turning it into a comfortable place, which it often wasn’t,” says Eno. “This in turn is affecting decision makers. I mean look at this Brexit trial we’re going through. Goodness me!”

This ability to look beyond the surface of things is the nub of Eno’s work. What tunes present themselves he strips to bare bones, no easy task when they’re skeletal to begin with.

“I try to remove any artifice. I’m not interested in music ‘going places’. I specialise in getting a terrific sound from a piano rather than setting off fireworks. A rather tardy analysis of what I do is play slowly and quietly.”

At least solo, that is. As musical gun for hire (Lou Reed, David Gilmour, Tim Robbins, The Orb, Marianne Faithful … the list goes on) Eno has played practically everything on practically everything, cornet included. (He collaborates often with fellow ambient composers, not least his brother, to which he gave three tracks to a soon-to-be-released bonus CD for an Apollo reissue, celebrating 50 years since the first moon landing.)

“I find solo shows terrifying at first, but then it’s wonderful taking these pencil sketches and letting the audience and the room fill in the colours. On stage with others, though, is where I’ve literally been brought to tears. It’s the nearest I’ve come to a spiritual experience.”

“I find solo shows terrifying at first, but then it’s wonderful taking these pencil sketches and letting the audience and the room fill in the colours.”

Such moments tilt Eno towards the spiritual side of agnosticism, and find him joining “ridiculous churches”, mostly for a laugh. “One is particularly fantastic,” he says excitedly. “It’s called the Apathetic Agnostic Church and their hook-line is, ‘we don’t know and we don’t care’.  I wrote them a hymn and was bestowed a professorship or something.”

One organisation, however, the Spiritual Humanist Church, struck a chord with Eno, enough that he became a fully-fledged minister on-line; If you don’t ‘believe’ or simply don’t know, and live in the Suffolk area, he does a good funeral.

“You can’t just dig a hole, throw a body in it and pretend nothing has happened,” says Eno. “Families, regardless of belief structure, need a closing ceremony.”

Satie, founding and sole member of his own church: The Mystical Order of the Rose Founding and Cross of the Temple Grand Grail, would have likely concurred. So too might he have shared Eno’s view that the arts, above all disciplines, are the “nearest you can get to a special something”, music especially.

“I love sitting in old gothic cathedrals where stone angels are playing gitterns, lyres and trumpets,” says Eno. “I think to myself, all you painters and poets, get to the back of the queue, you’re not going to the heavens first.”

With that another brief pause, followed by a laugh.

Roger Eno will play in a triple bill with Mary Lattimore and Julianna Barwick at Melbourne Recital Centre on June 29, 8pm. 

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