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To the Moon and Back: Brian Eno on Revisiting ‘Apollo’

Kory Grow

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Brian Eno strongly believes he saw the flight path overhead of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into space, when he was 12. “I was very excited by it,” he recalls now. But within a few years he lost his interest in space travel. By the time Neil Armstrong bested Gagarin by setting foot on the moon on July 20th, 1969, when Eno was 21, he didn’t expect to be impressed. “It just seemed to me like one of the many amazing things that was happening in the Sixties,” says the composer, now aged 71, on a call from his home in England. “Everything amazing was going on.” But when he witnessed the event, it brought him back to how he felt in his youth.

“I was sitting, watching the television with my art professor from a few years before, and it was a full moon,” he remembers. “And I looked out the window and saw it up there and had this startling realization that what I was seeing on the television was actually happening there. And that was really, very … ” His thoughts trail off. “It was a very, sort of shocking moment in a way. It wasn’t really until the moon landing itself that I actually suddenly thought: Oh, my God. That’s really happening.”

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Although Eno says the moon landing and space didn’t immediately inspire him to create music, it provided the spark for the entirety of his 1983 ambient work Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. He made the music with his longtime collaborator Daniel Lanois and his brother, Roger Eno, to accompany filmmaker Al Reinert’s documentary For All Mankind, but they completed the music well ahead of the film’s 1989 release. The record paired long, contemplative synthesizer passages with country-esque steel guitar, because Eno was astounded that some astronauts had traveled with tapes of Buck Owens. The album became an underground classic and got a second life when filmmaker Danny Boyle used its “Deep Blue Day” in Trainspotting and “An Ending (Ascent)” in the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony.

Perhaps the most surprising turn of events, though, is that the notoriously unsentimental Brian Eno has returned to the album, authorizing a reissue of Apollo and reuniting with Lanois and Roger for an accompanying release, For All Mankind. The two records will come out together, officially as Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks — Expanded Edition, on Friday, a day before the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The 11 new songs feel like distant cousins to those on Apollo: still otherworldly, yet strangely human, thanks to Lanois’ sparse guitar playing. A track like “Capsule” contains both acoustic guitar and Brian’s trademark keyboard textures, while the synths of “Like I Was a Spectator” whoosh around listeners like the northern lights. The way Eno tells it, the record came naturally to the trio.

“I didn’t really have to watch For All Mankind again to make this music,” he says. “I had watched it about a year before, so it was quite internalized. I was so impressed by some of the footage, I didn’t have to watch it again.”

By the summer of 1983, when Eno & Co. created Apollo, Brian was already well established as an ambient artist. He had cut his teeth playing the synthesizer with the glammy art-rock group Roxy Music and making his own avant-garde rock albums before creating his first album of atmospheric sounds, Discreet Music, in 1975. Within a few years, he made the landmark 1978 LP, Ambient 1: Music for Airports. He had already worked with David Bowie, crafting magnificent compositions like Lows “Warszawa” and co-writing “Heroes”; he had recorded the African-influenced My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with David Byrne; and he was still a year away from co-producing U2 with Lanois. He’d also been collaborating with Lanois — who would go on to produce records by Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young — on atmospheric albums like Ambient 2: The Plateaux of MirrorApollo, in some ways, was an interstellar extension of these sonic excursions.

“We were already well organized with our sounds,” Lanois says. “We didn’t have to suddenly whip up a whole new recipe.”

The biggest difference this time was that Brian brought his brother, Roger, into the fold. Roger is about a decade younger than Brian and spent his teen years playing euphonium and studying music in college. He was around 24 when he flew to Ontario, Canada, to work on Apollo. It was his first time visiting North America and his first time in a recording studio, so Brian and Lanois decided to have a little fun with him.

“When Dan and I picked him up at the airport, we did it in disguise,” Brian recalls. “We pretended we were two other people who had been sent to pick him up. We had spent about a day rehearsing this. We went and got a hold of all sorts of new clothes, developed new ways of walking and talking.”

They convinced their friend Michael Brook to drive them to the airport and tell Roger that they couldn’t make it but that he had to give a ride to these two other guys. “I was a kind of whacked-out, doped-out, Sixties, washed-up star, down on his heels,” Brian says. “I had a droopy mustache and sort of spangly jacket, and much-too-tight trousers. Dan was my ‘manager,’ Louis Belson, and he was wearing the biggest purple bowling shoes you’ve ever seen. They were about each about 16 inches long.”

“The costumes were nice,” Lanois says. “We thought they were real drug-dealer outfits from the Seventies. We were pretty good actors; I just need to get a better agent.”

“I saw these two strangers that looked like acid casualties or scag heads; they looked in a real bad way and both of them were virtually silent,” Roger recalls. “I tried to broach conversation with these people. The bloke next to me had kind of sandy hair and I noticed that every time he breathed out, his mustache moved like a little flag, and I realized that this was a false mustache. Then I realized they fucking duped me completely. This was about 20 minutes into our journey.”

“There were a lot of increasingly cruel practical jokes which I won’t go into,” Brian says. “It’s funny, a lot of the most ‘elevated’ music I’ve done has been in a situation where there was a lot of humor around. I imagine people think that if you’re a serious artist doing serious work, then you must be very serious. In my experience, this isn’t true.”

When the time came to focus on the music, the trio surrounded themselves with the imagery of space. Roger recalls watching reels that Reinert sent over, but Brian remembers focusing more on still photos. “I find the photographs more inspiring somehow,” he says. “We had pictures stuck up round the studio, and the way it worked was that a piece of music would start to develop, and one of us would say, ‘Look at that picture there. Doesn’t that look like what we’re doing now?’ And we would work towards that. We didn’t ever do what they call ‘spotting to film,’ where you have the film and go, ‘See that moment where he turns round? We need a sting there.’ All that bollocks is the death of Hollywood music really. We just gave them two hours of music and said, ‘Do whatever you like with it now.'”

“One thing that struck me when watching it was the bravery of Mike Collins who was just left all on his own,” Roger says, referring to the astronaut who manned the spacecraft while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored the moon. “I just thought about the staggering loneliness that man could have felt. That’s how we approached the writing of it, trying to inhabit the emotions and accentuate the existing beauty in the film.”

Although they filled the record with quivering synths and the aural equivalents of astral phenomena, the three musicians also wanted to give their soundscapes a distinctly human quality. This was partially because they learned that the astronauts brought cassettes with them into space, and two out of three of them picked country tapes. (Neil Armstrong chose much more extraterrestrial-sounding theremin music, and one scene in For All Mankind shows one of the astronauts playing the Richard Strauss piece featured in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.) But it was the country aspect that stuck with Brian.

“I just love the thought that they were these people doing this amazingly avant-garde thing — leaving the planet — and they were playing country & western music,” he says. “It made complete sense to me emotionally because, in a sense, country & western is part of that American idea of the frontier and the new world. It gave me a more interesting place to start making music instead of just some kind of impressionistic space thing. The idea of using instruments like pedal steel guitar in space music, that really made sense to me.”

“Commerciality was the last thing from our minds,” Lanois says. “We just wanted the most beautiful music that would put people in a very special place. … That’s the job of music to want to elevate someone to the point of wanting to make a bit of a difference, even if it’s jumping up and down.”

“What you don’t hear on the album is the extreme and heartfelt laughter that went into making it,” Roger says. “It was one of the nicest periods of my life. I was with my brother, who I love dearly, and I had met Dan and we got on great. And Dan’s brother Bob was there, and we just really enjoyed each other’s company as much as we could and had lots of beer and just huge laugh sessions. It was fantastic.”

When Reinert’s For All Mankind finally came out in 1989, Brian was pleased with the way his music complemented the imagery. Ultimately the filmmaker used some of the music that was on Apollo along with other works in Eno’s oeuvre. The thing that struck him about the documentary, though, was just how magnificent it looked.

“I love the film,” Brian says. “There are some moments in that that are still so resonantly beautiful. One in particular that comes to mind is when they approach the surface of the moon and then they fly under it. It’s just something you don’t imagine doing. You can imagine flying and landing on the moon, but to fly under it and ’round the back of a planet like that, so you’re upside down relative to the surface of the planet, that really shook me somehow. I love that part of the film.”

But the music of Apollo got a second life beyond For All Mankind. Filmmaker Danny Boyle was so taken by the album that he used the sublimely serene “Deep Blue Day” to score a scene in his 1996 movie Trainspotting where a character dives cinematically into a toilet. “I enjoyed how they used that piece of music,” Lanois says. “I was touched. I mean, Music for Airports is one thing, ‘music for toilet bowls,’ that’s another.” Music from the record would also make it into the films Traffic and 28 Days Later, and Boyle would again use a song from it, the warm and gentle “An Ending (Ascent),” in the opening of the 2012 Olympics in London. “We got more income from Trainspotting — from that one use in that film — than what the whole album made,” Brian says.

“I think it’s really touching that people see Apollo as a classic,” Lanois says. “We were certainly doing what we thought was close to our hearts. But it also means a lot that Apollo and the other ones we worked on have inspired other musicians to make ambient music and textural music. Brian Eno was ahead of the curve.”

When Brian realized the 50th anniversary of the moon landing was coming up, he decided to get the band back together. He talked to his brother, who lives near him, and got in touch with Lanois and they each agreed to send Brian three pieces of music for him to work with. Roger sent MIDI files — sort of computerized sonic maps that tell where sounds should go, making it easy for Brian to massage them into something new — and Lanois sent his own recordings, such as the guitar-centric “Capsule.” Unlike the first album, none of them worked together in the same studio, but they were still able to make a record that served as an echo to the original.

“Brian is pretty much the best at sonic manipulation,” Lanois says. “I knew that if I gave him some nice melodies to work with, he would probably modify them in such a way that the melodic force would always be there and there would no doubt be some sort of a textural angle he would make more special. Because I know how Brian works, I sent him things that were viable in his studio. I don’t like to waste the maestro’s time.”

“It’s an ideal process, because Brian loves fiddling around with things,” Roger says. “He’s a genius at that.”

“It wasn’t hard to find the headspace,” Lanois says. “The lessons I learned working with textures, synths, and ambient music with Brian Eno in Canada have never left me. So it wasn’t too hard for me to get back into it because I’ve always appreciated what we did back then.”

Lanois was still a fan of “Deep Blue Day,” which he likes for what he calls its “dancehall sound,” and decided to revisit that feeling and approach, so he came up with a newer “dancehall theme” and sent it to Brian. For inspiration, he watched some NASA footage slowed down. Brian in turn took the piece and “manipulated and chopped it around” and gave it a new chord sequence. That track became the gentle “Capsule.” “We were a few thousand miles apart but in the same room in spirit,” Lanois says.

One big difference between the albums is that Brian prefers modern technology than the instruments he used on the original. “There’s an incredible nostalgia about ‘hardware synths,’ and I just don’t share that at all; I love ‘software synths,'” he says, making a distinction between keyboards with their own built-in electronics and ones that can have infinite sounds when interfaced with a computer.

The other difference for Brian was that he has amassed around 5,800 pieces of unreleased music in his archive since the early 2000s than he can work with for new music. Nowadays he listens to those and thinks about how he can finish them. He simply plays the pieces on random while doing mundane tasks like “washing up or having to write some emails” and listens for something to grab his attention. “I’m quite often pulling out old pieces and working on them again,” he says. And with a laugh, he adds, “I don’t have a social life.”

Midway into our conversation, Brian puts the For All Mankind album on to find the names of some of the compositions. As he searches for “Fine-Grained,” a quiet place with dreamy guitar and lots of reverb, he seems particularly struck by what he’s hearing. “‘Capsule,’ yes, beautiful piece,” he says of a shimmery Lanois number. “There are some lovely pieces on this record, I must say. It’s a good album. It’s always interesting to hear things again, ’cause I never listen to things again. As soon as I finish them, I go and make something else.”

Some of the guitar numbers on the For All Mankind album are his favorites. When asked about the country influence on Apollo and whether he hears the same vibe on the new album, he says he does. “It suits me,” he says. “I like simple, major chords as a building block. I’ve always liked country music. It’s music for grownups as opposed to music for adolescents, which is what pop music is.”

Being grown up is also what inspired Brian, who recently had an asteroid named after him, to revisit Apollo. For him, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing serves as a yardstick for humanity and what we’re capable of.

“The trajectory of the world changed,” he says. “The period from 1945 to 1975, say, which is known by economists as the Golden Age of Capitalism, is entirely wrongly named in my opinion. It was a period of incredible social growth. Women got their rights and minorities got their rights. There was religious freedom in Europe, free healthcare, free education, workers’ rights were improved. There was new mobility between the classes and so on. These are all things that any socialist government would have been very proud of having achieved. I think that period should be named the Golden Age of Socialism. What we’re in now is the fucking Golden Age of Capitalism.”

“With those [Apollo] space missions, we were all riding an incredible wave of optimism,” Lanois says. “The Cultural Revolution at that time suggested a brighter future for all. … And now we move to modern times, and they’re more self-absorbed times. We’re not thinking about the cultural revolution we’re standing within now. The revolution seems to be more about our personal needs. It’s time to put our heads together, whether we listen to Brian Eno or Noam Chomsky or the sensible mother next day. She might know something.”

The way the world has changed weighs heavily on Brian, whose liner notes for the expanded Apollo release appeal to the listener to take care of the planet. One space-age worry he has is “if enough rich people become convinced that they can abandon the earth when we’ve fucked it up enough.” He says he’s also seriously looking into legal action against President Trump for the ways he has rolled back environmental policies that affect climate change. “Surely there must come a point at which that’s illegal,” he says. “If Holocaust denial is illegal — which it is and should be — why isn’t climate-change denial illegal as well?”

Although space travel inspired him to make the Apollo album and For All Mankind, Eno’s thoughts on the matter now, with this new release, are very grounded: “We’ve got to make this planet work.”

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