By TalkU2 contributor Soloyan
In 1987, I became a U2 fan. I was 13. It quickly became clear that I was a “The Edge” nut, as I started to learn the guitar when no-one was paying attention. I also started to get my hands on as many things he had done that I could. Pretty quickly I learned about a soundtrack called Captive. On the record sleeve that I spent hours deciphering was another name: Michael Brook. Somehow, that name stayed under my radar. I made the link with him and the Infinite Guitar Edge uses on With or Without You, which led me to buy an e-bow (at the time the closest thing you could find to try and nail that sound).
It’s only around 2002 that I heard that name again. Peter Gabriel had just released Up, on which was a song with Indian singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Since Jeff Buckley had named him as an influence, I went and explored his discography and found Michael Brook’s name yet again.
Just a few years ago, I was browsing through film scores to illustrate some family videos and was very surprised to find Michael Brook’s name. Again. I ended up using this track from The Perks of being a wallflower soundtrack :
So… when Michael Brook’s name came up on a U2 fan forum, I had to engage into the conversation. Sadly, it didn’t go as I had hoped. Instead of discussing Michael Brook’s music, we ended up doing a pillow fight of sorts.
Eventually, I thought speaking with Michael Brook himself was probably the best approach to sort things out and shine a light on his amazing body of work. Mr Brook was kind enough to agree to a Facetime audio meeting earlier this month.
Thanks for agreeing to this talk. Since we’ll put a link to the mu:zines article that covers your whole career, we’ll focus on your work with U2, and The Edge in particular. All right ?
That’s fine. It’s something that people often seem to be confused about. I never worked with U2. I met them, and I’m friends with The Edge. But I’ve never worked with U2. Somehow people assume that, and I’m uncomfortable with it. It sometimes ends up in the press and it looks like I’m trying to grab some kind of reflected glory that is just not mine.
All right. That’s the point of our discussion, to be specific about what you did and your impact. How did you become involved with The Edge, if not with U2 ?
I met The Edge through Brian Eno. At the time, I had just moved to England, around 1985. Brian thought that The Edge might be interested in the Infinite Guitar. He thought we might have some common areas of interest. We got together and then Edge asked me if I could build him an Infinite Guitar, which I did. Then… I think it was either late 1985 or 1986, he asked me to help him work on a soundtrack for a film, which he had not done before. Neither had I. We worked on that album and… that was kind of the extent of our work together. We’ve stayed in touch over the years but that was the only work we did.
Where did the idea for the Infinite Guitar come from ?
In 1983, I still lived in Toronto, and I went to see Bill Nelson performing. He started his set using an e-bow. I was just starting my first solo record, Hybrid. Bill played a kind of introduction for the set, using an e-bow. I thought 2 things : 1/I really wanted an e-bow, and I didn’t know what it was, at the time and 2/what he was doing had quite a considerable overlap with what I was doing on my solo record. I was worried that it was gonna sound like I was copying what he was doing. But it turned out that it was a very small part of the whole evening. Of course there was no internet or anything like that, so I wrote to the guy who made the e-bows… and he lost my order. I had time booked in a recording studio to do further work on my album, Hybrid. So I thought maybe I can try and make something that will act like an e-bow, just giving me the control over the sustain of a guitar. So, I did some experimenting. I had been building a little bit of electronic stuff before. I’m not very knowledgeable but I knew a bit about it. So, I developed the Infinite Guitar and it worked great for what I wanted to do. It’s a little bit different than an e-bow but similar. Finally, a year later I got an e-bow but for my purposes the Infinite Guitar was better.
You can’t do anything with your right hand when you’re using an e-bow. You also need to change the guitar settings mid song if you want to throw the e-bow away and pick up the strings with your fingers. Edge needed something more practical on stage.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know if he’s using it on stage anymore or not. I know that Fernandes made a pick up assembly with a sustainer in it, which is pretty good. They may have been influenced by the Infinite Guitar, I don’t know for sure. An then the Moog Guitar, which I’ve never tried, is apparently fantastic. It’s much more sophisticated. They stopped making it. It was expensive and not that many people wanted it. Now, you can’t get them.
Ed O’Brien from Radiohead went to see you and asked for an Infinite Guitar but it didn’t work out, apparently ?
That was when I just moved to California. I had spoken to some manufacturers about manufacturing the Infinite Guitar. Also looked into patenting it, which was a complicated process, because the fundamental principle of the Infinite Guitar was actually patented in 1943, when somebody made a sustaining piano. I could have probably obtained a narrow patent but I didn’t have much money and I gradually decided I would rather make music than instruments. When Ed called, I was both deciding I didn’t want to build electronics anymore and I wanted to work more on music. Also, I kind of thought maybe I would benefit more in the long run by being only one of three people who had one, which I did ! I’ve had a few sessions jobs because of that. In retrospect, maybe it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to build one for Ed. But I was kind of caught up in a lot of other things and kind of changing my point of view about it all.
Sometimes choices are to be made.
Yeah. And no big deal.
Ed ended up building his own signature guitar with Fender and it has a sustainer.
I didn’t know that. The Fernandes sustainer is good. A friend of mine has one and I’ve tried it. I’m an amateur electronic designer. There are some compromises in the Infinite Guitar that Fernandes probably fixed. The Infinite is controlled by a foot pedal. You can kind of bring it in and out. It’s part of the expression, when you’re playing it. With the Fernandes you can’t easily do that, you have to flip a switch, turn a knob or something.
You said that you met Edge in 1985, does it mean you had no involvement at all with The Unforgettable Fire ?
I wasn’t involved in any of the U2 recordings. I was in Dublin a little bit when we were recording that soundtrack for « Heroine ». I think they’d already finished Unforgettable Fire by then. I don’t remember when it was ?
It was released in fall of 1984.
I was working and around Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois at that time. We were all using Dan’s studio in Hamilton, so I knew they were getting involved with U2, but I wasn’t at all.
There is a scene in a documentary about Unforgettable Fire where Brian Eno is holding the e-bow on Edge’s guitar. They’re both experimenting. I guess that’s where the idea of you meeting Edge came from.
Maybe ? I didn’t know that.
Did you couple the Infinite Guitar sounds with keyboard sounds ? I know Edge does that on With or Without You.
I have done things where I would sometimes use a guitar to MIDI converter at the same time, but not that much. It’s sort of difficult to trigger the MIDI notes in the way you want them to. Usually, I’m just using treatments with the actual sound of the guitar. Sometimes after I’ve played it, sometimes during.
What was your job on « Captive » ? Was it producer ? Additional musician ?
It was kind of a confusing aspect of things. Edge just called and asked if I could help him with a soundtrack album. I went over to Dublin and we started working on it. There were no specific roles that people have. After we worked on it for about a week or something, we were trying to figure something out and he said what do you think? You’re the producer. No one had asked me to be the producer, so I didn’t know I was the producer (laughs). It was just a collaborative process where would either come up with ideas or help the other realize his ideas. Sometimes I played a bit, sometimes Edge played. I think Larry came in and played drums on a track. Then we got to work with Sinead O’Connor. There were no firm category of what role people were playing.
What do you think you brought to The Edge ? What did he learn from you ?
To tell you the truth I don’t really know. I think one point of confusion in the public has been that, coincidentally, before we had met, we were both doing guitar work using a syncopated delay. That’s a signature part of Edge’s sound and I was doing it as well. I didn’t know he was doing it and I don’t think he knew I was doing it. I’m not sure I did have an influence. I guess, possibly, the idea of playing very slow guitar parts, which I had done on Hybrid? It’s more partly ambient, but of course Edge was involved with and listening to works by Brian Eno which were also ambient, so… I couldn’t say that concept came from me. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure there was any influence.
And did you learn anything from The Edge ?
I think something was reinforced. Which was that, by using syncopated delays, you could build out quite an orchestrated part from a very simple thing that you were playing. I knew that, but I felt it more strongly after working with Edge.
You influenced each other but it’s hard to quantify ?
Yes, it really is. And when you’re in the middle of it, it’s sometimes hard to perceive if any of that’s happening at all.
There are a few works of yours that I want to share with U2 fans because I’m convinced they can appreciate them. On Hybrid, you seem to be testing the Infinite Guitar, using a kind of… almost Arabic scale or something ? It’s not a pop song scale, right ?
It’s more influenced by Indian music.
Hybrid is produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. I’m hearing drum sounds that could have been on a Peter Gabriel record, keyboard parts that sound a lot like Brian Eno. Who did what on that album?
Dan was working with Peter Gabriel at the time so he used parts of that. I hadn’t heard that record, it hadn’t been released yet. Dan introduced the idea of having echo on percussions but the echo was EQ’d quite strongly to have a very different timber. That’s certainly part of it. For keyboard parts, I really don’t remember if Brian played any or not, to tell you the truth, it was a long time ago (laughs).
How did the album come up ? Was it through jam sessions or did you come up with parts and added layers ? How do you create ambient music ?
I think the process is a much more exploratory one. You start with one part or some idea and that’s when it’s good to collaborate because some people will say “what if we added marimba to this ? “, or something like that. Then, also a lot of the process involves composition by changing the sound or adding a reverb or an echo. Musical studio treatment is a big part of the process. And then you just let the music take you wherever it goes. Sometimes you even throw away the original idea. One thing that Brian used to do was to cut off and create some magic. Everything was done on analog 24 tape, and there was a mixer. To get a mix with this kind of stuff, it was very, very complicated. Long chains of effects and things like that. Sometimes there was magic where you would put the wrong tape on, and play it through the mix for another piece. It was a kind of random process that sometimes generated really magic results that you would never think of.
Brian Eno invented games to insert accidents into the creative process.
He’s very good at that.
Listening to Searching on Sleeps with Fishes, you don’t sound like The Edge but it’s as if you were from the same planet.
And on Slipstream, from Cobalt Blue, you make the Infinite Guitar sound like nothing else, not even a guitar. How did you do that ?
I wanted it to feel like middle eastern or Arabic. I think I used a very radical equalization and distorsion. I don’t remember what else I did.
You talked about The Edge’s signature. How would you describe it ?
I’m not sure that’s a big part of what he does now but for a period of time he would generate this kind of arpeggiated sounding guitar parts by having a syncopated delay. So he would play ta-ta-ta-ta-ta and it would go taga-daga-daga-daga-da, you know, that kind of thing. It sounded fuller than what he was actually playing. I think that’s a big part of this period of time of his sound.
Maybe that’s how you ended up on the same planet ? On Cobalt Blue, there are tracks like Ultramarine or Ten… are you using a Stratocaster with delay ?
Yeah. It’s a fake Stratocaster. I was experimenting on my main guitar, which is a Stratocaster and then I thought I should get one to experiment on, in case I mess it up. So I just bought a very cheap Japanese copy of a Stratocaster and it became my main guitar. I still use it.
Japanese guitars can be very good.
Oh, yeah. This is a great guitar.
On Skipwave you’re using heavy harmonics. It’s from your 1992 release Cobalt Blue. How long did it take to record it ?
It was probably a period of two years. It was quite a challenge because I was working by myself a lot with a 16 track tape recorder. It was hard to work in a vacuum. Both Dan and Brian were involved at a certain time but not that much. It was mostly me in my living room. That’s definitely not as much fun as collaborating with other people.
Were you aware that, at the same time, Edge and Bono had worked on a soundtrack for an stage adaptation of A Clockwork Orange in London? The harmonics you’re playing Skipwave sound a lot like what Edge is doing on the only track that was released from that soundtrack. It’s called Alex descends into hell for a bottle of milk.
(Laughs) I didn’t know that. I’ll check it out. Also on Ultramarine there’s a lot of harmonics. I’m kind of surprised nobody else has played with that technique, that I know of. It’s almost like the way a bass player uses their thumb to slap the strings. I’m kind of surprised other people don’t do that. I mean it’s difficult with the tuning, you’re very constrained. Maybe there aren’t that many pieces that you can do with a guitar on normal tuning.
My theory is that anyone who would do that would start to sound like The Edge and maybe back off…
It may be what’s happening.
When Edge recorded the song The Unforgettable Fire, I believe he tuned every string so that it would sound good in the context of that song. It’s a totally custom tuning, for the harmonics.
Ok, I see.
How did you do the transition from ambient to world music ? You’ve released quite a few records for Real World, Peter Gabriel’s label.
I was had amateur interest in Indian and African music and I think some of that influenced Hybrid. I think Peter Gabriel heard that and thought I might be a good producer for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. That’s kind of how I got into it. And then I think because I had done that, Youssou N’Dour’s manager thought I might be a good producer for him. And then I just kept building, really.
And how do you go from there to Hollywood ?
When I moved to L.A., which was about 20 years ago, that’s when the music industry started to decline. I think initially because of piracy. The kind of music I was doing, you couldn’t possibly earn a living doing anymore. I had always wanted to do soundtracks. It was completely coincidental that I got the opportunity over a period of time to transition into doing film scoring. And now, that’s pretty much what I do all the time. It’s kind of a similar process for me, as for making albums. There are differences, but I still got to make up music and experiment and explore. It’s pretty good. Luckily, I got that because there’s no way I could earn a living playing music if I was doing albums anymore.
Every score you’re making up sounds like Michael Brook and yet they’re very different from one another, wether it’s The Fighter, Into the Wild or Brooklyn. How come ?
I don’t find any conscious decision is required. I just try and do what music seems like it will work in a way I know how to do music. I don’t consciously try to make it sound like me or anything. Maybe because I don’t have a musical education like I don’t read music sort of constraints what I do and that in itself can become part of a style.
I’m a strong believer in that. In U2’s case, there’s a big difference between how Larry used to play the drums before he took some classes in the mid 90’s and after. He’s a world class drummer, now, but his original style kind of vanished, as a result.
I have one last question. One of our members came up with the theory that you were, in fact, heavily involved in the recording of The Unforgettable Fire and that you can’t speak about it since you signed a non disclosure agreement that would make you lose big money if you spoke about it. What do you make of that ?
(Laughs out loud) Ha ha ha ! Well, what can I say ? I can’t imagine why that situation would happen, why would anyone care if it was public knowledge that I was involved or not ? For one thing. Other people were involved, why would I be the one who had to be a secret ? I wasn’t involved and nobody gave me a lot of money for not making it, ha ha !
It’s a shame !
Yeah ! I wouldn’t have minded it ! Ha ha ! But if they still want to pay me for not being involved, they still can do it.
Well, next time I bump into The Edge I’ll make that happen, I promise.
My many, many thanks to Michael Brook for his generosity and talent. I also want to thank the TalkU2 team for providing a place for this piece, as they’ve provided a free space for us to talk.
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