Rick Holland Poet/Eno collaborator ruminates on the music of words (Part 2 of 2)
September 7, 2011
The other day, I shared an interview compiled from a series of emails exchanged with the UK-based poet Rick Holland, who most recently worked on a collaborative album with rock’s most famous intellectual, Brian Eno (Eno collaborator/poet Rick Holland corresponds on craft – An Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 1 of 2]). Drums Between the Bells (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the limited edition on Amazon) saw release by Warp Records back in July. I had been exchanging emails with Holland since late June, as he considered several questions I had about his collaborative work with Eno.
He took his time, and I offered it to him. He wrote out my questions and journaled answers in hand-written notebooks before writing me back with thoughtful answers. But he also sent me back some spontaneous emails with thoughts on further questions. Though this certainly allowed for much editing of thoughts, I think it appropriately reflected the craft of what he and Eno did together. After all, Drums Between the Bells, with its electonic-based music and deliberately read poetry (sometimes presented in a haze of another layer of electronics), is anything but a jam record. The Eno/Holland collaboration is a thoughtful work, and grows with age and listening investment.
When I began my undergrad art studies in the early nineties, I took a mix of Eno’s instrumental music on a portable cassette player to art galleries and parks. Who better to offer musical accompaniment to art? His music can range from subtle drones to hyperkinectic layers of poly-rhythmic dissonance. It also defined a new genre of music in the mid-seventies that Eno himself coined: ambient. What better composer to offer a musical track to a poet who crafts artistic prose that can both observe the world on its existential face and cut into the fabric of perceptions? My favorite track on Drums, must be “Pour It Out,” adapted from Holland’s poem “New York” from his Story the Flowers book (It’s all there):
But then the album as a whole offers its own dynamic journey through a variety of prose and musicality (In the interview below, Holland notes the complete process of writing, recording and producing this album took eight years). Throughout our correspondence, Holland offered some dense insight into the process of crafting Drums Between the Bells, and also provided an illuminating look into the mind of a poet well-suited to work with someone as intellectual as Brian Eno. Before I continue with this interview, which you will find concluded below, I feel it’s important to contextualize the significance of a new, original, Eno-composed album featuring words.
Eno has been recording solo albums since 1973. He broke out of England’s post-prog scene of glitter and feathers glam rock, after leaving Roxy Music. All the while, he made a career of coming to terms with the role of words in music. Eno famously considers the function of words within songs as just another instrument rather than a literary narrative with a message, as the implications behind the latter throw in a huge monkey-wrench into the ideas of composition for him.
Citing from Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, the Eno-centric website More Dark Than Shark, quoted Eno as having said, “[Lyrics] always impose something that is so unmysterious compared to the sound of the music [that] they debase the music for me, in most cases.” That was back in 1985. I thought surely his attitude towards lyrics had changed by the time he recorded his first solo vocal album in 25 years, 2005’s Another Day on Earth (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It seems it has. In an interview with Sound on Sound (a music magazine for the studio engineer) promoting that album, Eno said of his return to music with vocals: “The simple answer is that five or six years ago I noticed that I was starting to sing again and enjoying it. Also, since I stopped doing vocal albums and worked on the landscape side of music, certain technological developments have happened that give you the possibility to shape your voice, and that reawakened my interest.”
This technological idea of obscuring the voice of the singer was key for Eno, in that it seems to separate identifying the singer with the words he is singing. “One of the reasons I stopped making vocal records was because I was fed up with the identification that’s always made between the voice on the record and the composer, as if this person singing was some sort of extension of my personality,” he continued in the 2005 interview. “But I don’t care about my personality being the content of the thing. I always liked the idea of seeing what I was doing the way a playwright might think of a play or a novelist might think of a book.” So chalk up Eno’s growing distaste for lyrics to the influence of mostly “illiterate” music journalists and fans he must have encountered during his many years as a rocker.
To the ears of this writer, Eno’s attitude to lyrics produced some amazingly surreal and pure prose in his early years, but the later years of his lyrics never seemed to stand out as some of his more remarkable works, as it all must have worn thin on him by then. Now here comes the 32-year-old Holland, invited by the 63-year-old Eno to provide him with some of the most refreshing words in many years for Eno to work with. The result, which suitably features an array of guest vocalists who have nothing to do with the rock world– as noted in the first part of this interview series– certainly has brought my attention back to words entangled in Eno’s music. In the end, Drums Between the Bells offers something even more interesting than Eno’s most recent work with a better known songwriter and long-time collaborator, David Byrne, for the pleasant, albeit predictable, 2008 album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).
With that context in place, on with the interview with Holland, who, in this part of the feature, offers his ruminations on the best place to listen to Drums Between the Bells, the music of words and even an evaluation Eno’s early explorations of lyric-writing on 1973′s Here Come the Warm Jets (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) and 1974′s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (Support Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon)…
Hans Morgenstern: Can I just say that I read this article (Clash Music’s Aug. 7 interview with Holland), and the fact that Brian says Drums Between the Bells is a good album to “wash up to” was funny to me because that was the first way I heard it (whilst taking a shower). So where’s the best place to hear the album in your opinion?
Rick Holland: In a state of stillness akin to lucid dreaming where surface concerns are replaced by free and contemplative activity that is not self-conscious. In the absence of this elusive brain state, washing up sounds a pretty strong contender. I have most enjoyed listening while driving on a long journey; though the best time for achieving this brain state seems to be in the middle of the night listening to incidental sounds mashing up – I like to use the sounds as triggers to imagine whatever comes into my mind. A flow is achievable in this state that is very much reduced when ‘recording’ art from imagination to medium. Getting near to that state is probably ‘the best place’ to listen to this album, where judging brain is dampened and imagining brain is electric, and as free to move as electric as long as the circuit is in place and not interrupted.
As I noted in an earlier post on Drums Between the Bells (Brian Eno reveals full streams of 3 tracks from new album), I was attracted to this Eno record because he seems to finally be dealing with lyrics on a deeper level than usual. Has he told you why he was interested in putting your words to music?
Strangely enough we have never had that conversation, we just got to work. I did learn through the process that ‘lyrics’ served a greater master: ‘sound’ in world Eno, but also that he was not closed to them as carriers of their own potential, but that he was overjoyed for the ‘meaning’ to become tied in with different axes of sound and atmosphere, and be loosely and ambiguously tied to the more conventional systems of language.
The whole album could have been done differently; it spanned eight years or so, and at any particular juncture in that time I would have had strong ideas about what could have been done differently. There were techniques available in the last three weeks of work that were not available in the first seven years, and early tracks with components that were lost forever in archival glitches and were rebuilt. There were times when I wanted only to feature the voice, and other times I wanted the voice obliterated into signals bearing no obvious resemblance to speech. At various points we would try versions of each of our visions, and make a piece that really and truly was not the end product of either of those visions. I would make the whole album differently if we started again tomorrow, and so would Brian. From ‘Drums Between The Bells’, all of the experiments have been successes in my eyes, but all of them have also suggested future alternatives. People who listen to the record will have strong ideas of what can be done differently too. That is one of the album’s great strengths; it moves in between territories, music, words, sound, that are familiar and then alien and many points in between. That aspect of it I wouldn’t change at all.
Do you have any rhythm or music in mind when your poems come out of you?
The words themselves dictate the rhythm, set it running like a free drum part, but I would say I have an instinctive relationship to music and rhythm in my writing more than a trained one. To steal directly from something I heard Rakim say in a documentary the other night, ‘I was trying to rhyme like John Coltrane played the sax’. Fundamental rhythms and music have moved me since I can remember, and these are definitely built in to my writing without ever feeling the need to adhere strictly to traditional ‘poetic’ forms and meter.
From what source do you find most inspiration comes from when composing?
The world playing out in front of me. If pushed to identify a trigger, I would say pattern formation followed closely by sound. ‘Artificially’ speaking, music and especially live performance fills my gut with a kind of adrenalised need to express something.
Have you read reviews of the album? What do you think of the reception? Do you think music critics are “getting” it?
I went on a journey with the criticisms of the album. I ignored common wisdom that says ‘do not read reviews’ and actually ended up being encouraged to read them and respond in a ‘blog conversation’ with Brian (which itself headed off piste straight away). Like everything, some are good and some are bad, but of the critics who were able to put time and investment into listening and avoid the understandable traps of rushing out copy, I think the reception was fair. For a reviewer wanting to be transported without challenge, ‘Drums Between The Bells’ may seem an unnecessary challenge of disparate ideas and sounds. And it is completely reasonable to expect music to be a portal to elsewhere that doesn’t need to be ‘got’. If a reviewer came to the album with no expectations and a little time to think, they almost unanimously found things that resonated strongly in the experience. There are of course plenty of comments, good and bad, that are wide of a mark that I would recognize, and a few that have made me want to contact the writer and vent some spleen, but life is short.
I would say that our need as a society to quickly package anything is indicative of a wider approach to the world that has serious pitfalls, but I am not so self-important to think that someone ‘not getting’ this album is significantly important to the wider good of humanity. I wish people would stop harping on so much about ‘Art’, ‘Poet’, ‘genre’ and other blanding agents, but it is for each person to decide how he or she perceives what is really only a collection of sounds and relationships, like any music. Brian and I came up with some categories for songs when putting the running order together, they were ‘think’, ‘look’, ‘feel’ and ‘soul,’ I think, or similar with several crossovers.
I’m very curious of what you think of Eno’s early forays into lyrics, which he himself has called nonsense, but I feel have an unabashed surreal quality.
I scanned (thanks to Enoweb) through the lyrics for ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ because I haven’t listened to that album, so I thought it would be a good appraisal of the ‘lyrics’ as standalone … the scanning happened quite fast until I hit ‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk.’ This was the first thing that caught me as more than words to be sung that had been transcribed. From what I know of Brian, the sounds will most likely have come before the actual words, but in this automation there is still subconscious coupling of sounds with emotions, and emotions with word choices, and word choices with streams of more ‘macro’ patterns of thought.
Rappers freestyle in 16 bar salvos. Through practising and writing more, the rhythms and internal variations within those rhythms develop so much so in the best rappers that they become second nature until they act as a conduit for whatever the consciousness wants to express. I think good lyrics are the same beast and are no less ‘poetry’ because of it; if anything they are more so, as they are perhaps more likely to avoid the pitfalls of over-analysis on the way out.
‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk’ on the page could be about any ‘authority’ figure in any walk of life who is more bluff than balls, and it also has interjections from less primary sources of input like modernist poetry (which may have taken that tendency to mix and match from a world of songs and televisions and technology anyway). ‘More fool me, bless my soul’ sounds like a blues phrase co-opted, especially repeated. The ‘perfect masters/thrive on disasters/look so harmless/til they find their way up here’ is pure 16 bar beat riffing when I read it on the page. So, in the interests of science, I listened to the song after reading the lyrics to see what happens to them in the song…
At which point I realised I have heard this song before! No matter, I wrote all the above before realising that. The ‘more fool me, bless my soul’ was unsurprisingly musical, though more Buddy Holly than I was expecting. The lyrics in this song are certainly not nonsense, though that doesn’t mean that they have been set out to work as words on a page (which, in this case, they certainly do. I enjoyed reading them).
I’ll try the same approach with the ‘Whale’ song [“Mother Whale Eyeless”] you mentioned, which I haven’t heard before.
This reads like an appraisal of life in a country even more at the mercy of its media and propagandas than the one we live in now. It reads as highly political and highly poetic. ‘Don’t ever trust those meters’, ‘there is a cloud containing the sea’, ‘parachutes caught on steeples’, these all sound like the product of automatic writing that has been introduced to and bedded into an environment; the environment has been made by constantly observing the world in an imaginative way (‘stirring the air’ I called this in my own early poems about escaping from the claustrophobic world around me). At its start it reminded me of the impression I got from ‘A Day in the Life’ when I listened to it as a kid. ‘Got up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…. somebody spoke and I went into a dream’. It says the details of our politicised lives are as ridiculous as they are pervasive, and that we, as individuals, are in turn angered, powerless and gloriously alienated from those details. Our bonds in life are all constructs ultimately.
Then I listened to the song…
“Mother Whale Eyeless” is a fascinating song, unmistakably Brian in places, I would have to say. That brilliant simple guitar riff after about two minutes, the change and shift with the female chorus vocal. But anyway, the words, the words. The thing is, the morning papers, tea and other details are already shaken to their core by the way they are sung and spiral away from the details I picked up reading the lyrics straight away. It says a lot about the ‘lyrics’ debates that go on, the words on a page are a wholly different animal from the words performed and adorned.
If I had just listened to that song straight away, I would not have listened closely to most of the words, I must admit (though certainly would have picked up more with repeated listens). I would have started in the kitchen, then moved on to the guitar-feeling and then moved into the otherworld of the clipped female chorus and settled on the statement, ‘In another country, with another name/ Maybe things are different, maybe they’re the same’ as a carte blanche for anything that doesn’t make sense to float on unrepentant for being nonsense, because it might make sense under different circumstances, and the next evocation of something more ‘graspable’ may be just around the corner. I’ve always made these kinds of allowances listening to music, ever since I can remember. There is something perfectly sensible about that approach to writing words and to listening to them too. The eyeless whale chuckles at the world’s myths. Nonsense?
If I had to choose between the two experiences, in this case, I would choose reading the words, which is a surprising outcome. ‘Mother Whale Eyeless’ is a poem on the page for me (maybe because I approached it like this first) and the song is an event with some exciting moments but holding less meaning overall for me, at this moment. Perhaps this tells us that anything is ultimately what we make it. Perhaps it also tells us that Brian was writing poetry in spite of himself, and perhaps it also tells us that his instinctively curious approach to the world manifests itself clearly in the groups of words he chooses to fit together, which certainly isn’t a surprising outcome. I mentioned (skilled) rappers earlier so used to their molten bedrock that what they can sprinkle on top of it is almost instinctive. This doesn’t make their output less important or interesting.
Brian understands his vocabularies and their potentials so well that the more cumbersome ‘word’ part I would imagine does not excite him as much as other things: ‘sound’, ‘voice’, ‘space’, ‘colour’ being a few. Doubly so when you consider that he has been making music for several decades and is always keen to explore new possibilities.
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Many thanks to Rick for taking the time to entertain these questions and offering such an enlightening look into the experience that culminated in one of the richest albums 2011 has had to offer! Not to mention indulging me with his honest view of some early iconic Eno glam rock songs that he had never heard to start with.