In March 02021, We Are As Gods, the documentary about Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand, premiered at SXSW. As part of the premiere, the documentary’s directors, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, hosted a conversation between Brand and fellow Long Now co-founder Brian Eno. (Eno scored the film, contributing 24 original tracks to the soundtrack.) The full conversation can be watched above. A transcript follows below.
David Alvarado: Hi. My name is David Alvarado. I’m one of the directors for a new documentary film called We Are as Gods. This is a documentary feature that explores the extraordinary life of a radical thinker, environmentalist, and controversial technologist, Stewart Brand. This is a story that marries psychedelia, counterculture, futurism. It’s an unexpected journey of a complicated American polymath at the vanguard of our culture.
Today, we’re having a conversation with the subject of the film himself, Stewart Brand, and Brian Eno.
Jason Sussberg: Okay. In the unlikely event that you don’t know either of our two speakers, allow me to introduce them. First off, we have Brian Eno, who’s a musician, a producer, a visual artist and an activist. He is the founding member of the Long Now Foundation, along with Stewart Brand. He’s a musician of multiple albums, solo and collaborative. His latest album is called Film Music 1976-2020, which was released a few months ago, and we are lucky bastards because it includes a song from our film, We Are as Gods, called “A Reasonable Question.”
Stewart Brand, he is the subject of our documentary. Somewhere, long ago, I read a description of Stewart saying that he was “a finder and a founder,” which I think is a really apt way to talk about him. He finds tools, peoples, and ideas, and blends them together. He founded or co-founded Revive and Restore, The Long Now Foundation, The WELL, Global Business Network, and the Whole Earth Catalog and all of its offshoots. He is an author of multiple books, and he’s currently working on a new book called Maintenance. He’s a trained ecologist at Stanford and served as an infantry officer in the Army. I will let Stewart and Brian take it from here.
Stewart Brand: Brian, what a pleasure to be talking to you. I just love this.
Brian Eno: Yes.
Stewart Brand: You and I go back a long way. I was a fan before I was a friend, and so I continue to be a fan. I’m a fan of the music that you added to this film. I’m curious about particularly the one that is in your new album, Film Music. What’s it called…”[A] Reasonable Question.” Tell me what you remember about that piece, and I want to ask the makers of the film here what it was like from their end.
Jason Sussberg: We can play it for our audience now.
David Alvarado: You originally titled it “Why Does Music Like This Exist?”
Brian Eno: The reason it had that original title, “Why Does Music Like This Even Exist?”, was because it was one of those nights when I was in a mood of complete desperation, and thinking, “What am I doing? Is it of any use whatsoever?” I’ve learned to completely distrust my moods when I’m working on music. I could think something is fantastic, and then realize a few months later that it’s terrible, and vice versa. So what I do is I routinely mix everything that I ever work on, because I just don’t trust my judgment at the moment of working on it. That piece, the desperation I felt about it is reflected in the original title, “Why Does Music Like This Even Exist?” I was thinking, “God, this is so uninteresting. I’ve done this kind of thing a thousand times before.”
In fact, it was only when we started looking for pieces for this film…the way I look for things is just by putting my archive on random shuffle, and then doing the cleaning or washing up or tidying up books or things like that. So I just hear pieces appear. I often don’t remember them at first. I don’t remember when I did them. Anyway, this piece came up. I thought, “Oh. That’s quite a good piece.”
David Alvarado: I mean, that’s so brilliant because it’s actually… We weren’t involved, obviously, in choosing what music tracks you wanted to use for your 1976 to 2020 film album, and so you chose that one, the very one that you weren’t liking at the beginning. That’s just incredible.
Brian Eno: Yes. Well, this has happened now so many times that I think one’s judgment at the time of working has very little to do with the quality of what you’re making. It’s just to do with your mood at that moment.
Stewart Brand: So in this case, Brian, that piece is kind of joyous and exciting to hear. These guys put it in a part of the film where I’m at my best, I’m actually part of a real frontier happening. This must be a first for you, in a sense, you’re not only scoring the film, you’re in the film. This piece of film, I now realize as we listened to it, then cuts into you talking about me, but not about the music. You had no idea when they were interviewing you it was going to be overlaid on this. I sort of have to applaud these guys for not getting cute there and drowning you out with your own music there or something. “Yeah, well, he is chatting on, but let’s listen to the music.” But nevertheless, it really works in there. Do you like how it worked out in the film?
Brian Eno: Yes. Yes, I do. I like that, and quite a few of the other pieces appeared probably in places that I wouldn’t have imagined putting them, actually. This, I think, is one of the exciting things about doing film music, that you hear the music differently when you see it placed in a context. Just like music can modify a film, the film can modify the music as well. So sometimes you see the music and you think, “Oh, yes. They’ve spotted a feeling in that that I didn’t, or I hadn’t articulated anyway, I wasn’t aware of, perhaps.”
Stewart Brand: You’ve done a lot of, and the album shows it, you’ve done a lot of music for film. Are there sort of rules in your mind of how you do that? It’s different than ambient music, I guess, but there must be sort of criteria of, “Oh yeah, this is for a film, therefore X.” Are there things that you don’t do in film music?
Brian Eno: Yes. I’ll tell you what the relationship is with ambient music. Both ambient music and most of the film music I make deliberately leaves a space where somebody else might fill that space in with a lead instrument or something that is telling a story, something narrative, if you like. Even if it’s instrumental, it can still be narrative in the sense that you get the idea that this thing is the central element, which is having the adventure, and the rest is a sort of support structure to that or a landscape for that.
So what I realized, one of the things I liked about film music was that you very often just got landscape, which wasn’t populated, because the film is meant to be the thing that populates the landscape, if you like. I started listening to film music probably in the late ’60s, and it was Italian, like Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone and those kinds of people, who were writing very, very atmospheric music, which sort of lacked a central presence. I like that hole that was left, because I found the hole very inviting. It kind of says, “Come on, you be the adventurer. You, the listener, you’re in this landscape, what’s happening to you?” It’s a deliberate incompleteness, in a way, or an unfinishedness that that music has. I think that was part of the idea of ambient music as well, to try to make something that didn’t try to fix your attention, to hold it and keep it in one place, that deliberately allowed it to wander around and have a look around. So this happens to be a good formula for film music.
I really started making film music in a strange way. I used to, when I was working on my early song albums, sometimes at the end of the day I’d have half an hour left and I’d have a track up on a multi-track tape, with all the different instruments, and I’d say to the engineer, “Let’s make the film music version now.” And what that normally meant was take out the main instruments, the voice, particularly the voice, and then other things that were sort of leading the piece. Take those all out, slow the tape down, often, to half speed, and see what we can do with what’s left. Actually, I often found those parts of the day more exciting than the rest of the day, when suddenly something came into existence that nobody had ever thought about before. That was sort of how I started making film music.
So I had collected up a lot of pieces like that, and I thought, “Do you know what, I should send these to film directors. They might find a use for these.” And indeed they did. So that’s how it started, really.
Stewart Brand: So you initiated that, the filmmakers did not come to you.
Brian Eno: No. I had been approached only once before. Actually, before I ever made any albums I’d been approached by a filmmaker to do a piece of music for him, but other than that, no, I didn’t have any approaches. I sort of got the ball rolling by saying, “Look, I’m doing this kind of music, and I think it would be good for films.” So I released an album which was called Music for Films, though in fact none of the music had been in films. It was a sort of proposal: this is music that could be in films. I just left out the could be.
Stewart Brand: You are a very good marketer of your product, I must say. That’s just neat. So from graphic designers, the idea of figure-ground, and sometimes they flip and things like that, that’s all very interesting. It sounds like in a way this is music which is all ground, but invites a figure.
Brian Eno: Yes, yes.
Stewart Brand: You’re a graphic artist originally, is that right?
Brian Eno: Well, I was trained as a fine artist, actually. I was trained as a painter. Well, when I say I was trained, I went to an art school which claimed it was teaching a fine art course, so I did painting and sculpture. But actually I did as much music there as I did visual art as well.
Stewart Brand: So it’s an art school, and you were doing music. Were other people in that school doing music at that time, or is that unique to you?
Brian Eno: No, that was in the ’60s. The art schools were the crucible of a lot of what happened in pop music at that time. And funnily enough, also the art schools were where experimental composers would find an audience. The music schools were absolutely uninterested in them. Music schools were very, very academic at that time. People had just started, I was one of the pioneers of this, I suppose, had just started making music in studios. So instead of sitting down with a guitar and writing something and then going into the studio to record it, people like me were going into studios to make something using the possibilities of that place, something that you couldn’t have made otherwise. You wouldn’t come up with a guitar or a piano. A sort of whole new era of music came out of that, really. But it really came out of this possibility of multi-track recording.
Stewart Brand: So this is pre-digital? You’re basically working with the tapes and mixing tapes, or what?
Brian Eno: This was late ’60s, early ’70s. What had happened was that until about 01968, the maximum number of tracks you had was four tracks. I think people went four-track in 01968. I think the last Beatles album was done on four track, which was considered incredibly luxurious. What that meant, four tracks, was that you could do something on one track, something on another, mix them down to one track so you still got one track and then three others left, then you could kind of build things up slowly and carefully.
Over time, so, it meant something different musically, because it separated music from performance. It made music much more like painting, in that you could add something one day and take it off the next day, add something else. The act of making music extended in time like the act of painting does. You didn’t have to just walk in front of the canvas and do it all in one go, which was how music had previously been recorded. That meant that recording studios were something that painting students immediately understood, because they understood that process. But music students didn’t. They still thought it had to be about performance. In fact, there was a lot of resistance from musicians in general, because they thought that it was cheating, it wasn’t fair you were doing these things. You couldn’t actually play them. Of course, I thought, “Well, who cares? It doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters is what comes out at the end.”
Stewart Brand: Well, I was doing a little bit of music, well, sort of background stuff or putting together things for art installations at that time, and what I well remember is fucking razor blade, where you’re cutting the tape and splicing it, doing all these things. It was pretty raw. But of course, the film guys are going through the same stuff at that time. They were with their razor blade equivalents, cutting and splicing and whatnotting. So digital has just exploded the range of possibilities, which I think I’ve heard some of your theory that exploded them too far, and you’re always looking for ways to restrain your possibilities when you’re composing. Is that right?
Brian Eno: Yes. Well, I suppose it’s a problem that everybody has now, when you think about it. Now, we’re all faced with a whole universe of rabbit holes that we could spend our time disappearing down. So you have to permanently be a curator, don’t you think? You have to be always thinking, “Okay. There’s a million interesting things out there, but I’d like to get something done, so how am I going to reduce that variety and choose a path to follow?”
Stewart Brand: How much of that process is intention and how much is discovery?
Brian Eno: I think the thing that decides that is whether you’ve got a deadline or not. The most important element in my working life, a lot of the time, is a deadline. The reason it’s important… Well, I’m sure as a writer you probably appreciate deadlines as well. It makes you realize you’ve got to stop pissing around. You have to finally decide on something. So the archive of music that I have now, which is to say after those days of fiddling around like I’ve described with that piece, I’d make a rough mix, they go into the archive — I’ve got 6,790 pieces in the archive now, I noticed today. They’re nearly all unfinished. They’re sort of provocative beginnings. They’re interesting openings. When I get a job like the job of doing this film music, I think, “Okay. I need some music.” So I naturally go to the archive and see what I’ve already started which might be possible to finish as the piece for this film, for example.
So whether I finish something or not completely depends really on whether it has a destination and a deadline. If it’s got a destination, that really helps, because I think, “Okay. It’s not going to be something like that. It’s not going to be that.” It just clears a lot of those possibilities which are amplifying every day. They’re multiplying every day, these possibilities.
Stewart Brand: One thing that surprised me about your work on this film, is I thought you would have just handed them a handful of cool things and they would then turn it into the right background at the right place from their standpoint. But it sounds like there was interaction, Jason and David, between you and Brian on some of these cuts. What do you want to say about that?
Jason Sussberg: Yeah. I mean, we had an amazing selection of great tracks to plug in and see if they could help amplify the scene visually by giving it a sonic landscape that we could work with. Then, our initial thinking was that’s how we were going to work. But then we ended up going back to you, Brian, and asking for perhaps a different track or a different tone. And then you ended up, actually, making entirely new original music, to our great delight. So one day when we woke up and we had in our inbox original music that you scored specifically for scenes, that was a great delight. We were able to have a back and forth.
Brian Eno: Yes, that’s-
Stewart Brand: Were you giving him visual scenes or just descriptions?
Jason Sussberg: Right. Actually, what we did was we pulled together descriptions of the scenes and then we had… You just wanted, Brian, just a handful of photographs to kind of grok what we were doing. I don’t think you… Maybe you could talk about why you didn’t want the actual scene, but you had a handful of stills and a description of what we were going for tonally, and then you took it from there. What we got back was both surprising and made perfect sense every time.
Brian Eno: I remember one piece in particular that I made in relation to a description and some photographs, which was called, when I made it, it was called “Brand Ostinato.” I don’t know what it became. You’d have to look up your notes to see what title it finally took. But that piece, I was very pleased with. I wanted something that was really dynamic and fresh and bracing, made you sort of stand up. So I was pleased with that one.
But I usually don’t want to see too much of the film, because one of the things I think that music can do is to not just enhance what is already there in the film, which is what most American soundtrack writing is about… Most Hollywood writing is about underlining, about saying, “Oh, this is a sad scene. We’ll make it a little sadder with some music.” Or, “This is an action scene. We’ll give it a little bit more action.” As if the audience is a bit stupid and has to be told, “This is a sad scene. You’re supposed to feel a bit weepy now.” Whereas I thought the other day, what I like better than underlining is undermining. I like this idea of making something that isn’t really quite in the film. It’s a flavor or a taste that you can point to, and people say, “Oh, yes. There’s something different going on there.”
I mean, it would be very easy with Stewart to make music that was kind of epic and, I don’t know, Western or American or Californian or something like that. There are some obvious things you could do. If you were that kind of composer, you’d carefully study Stewart and you’d find things that were Stewart-ish in music and make them. But I thought, “No. What is exciting about this is the shock of the new kind of feeling.” That piece, that particular piece, “Brand Ostinato,” has that feeling, I think, of something that is very strikingly upright and disciplined. This discipline, that’s I think the feeling of it that I like. I don’t think, in that particular part in the film, where that occurs, I don’t think that’s a scene where you would see discipline, unless somebody had suggested it to you by way of a piece of music, for example.
Stewart Brand: And Jason, did you in fact use that piece of music with that part of the film?
Jason Sussberg: Yeah, I don’t think it was exactly where Brian had intended to put it, but hearing the description, what we did was we put that song in a scene where you are going to George Church’s lab, Stewart, and we’re trying to build up George Church as this genius geneticist. So the song was actually, curiously, written about Stewart and Stewart’s character of discipline, but we apply it to another character in the film. However, what you were going for, which is this upright, adventurous, Western spirit, I think is embodied by the work of the Church Lab to de-extinct animals. So it has that same bravado and gusto that you intended, it was just we kind of… And maybe this is what you were referring to about undermining and underlining, I feel like we kind of undermined your original intention and applied it to a different character, and that dialectic was working. Of course, Stewart is in that scene, but I think that song, that track really amplifies the mood that we were going for, which is the end of the first act.
Brian Eno: Usually, when people do music that is about cutting edge science, it’s all very drifty and cosmic. It’s all kind of, “Wow, it’s so weird,” kind of thing. I really wanted to say science is about discipline, actually. It’s about doing things well and doing things right. It’s not hippie-trippy. Of course, you can feel that way about it once it’s done, but I don’t think you do it that way. So I didn’t want to go the trippy route.
David Alvarado: Yeah. We loved it. It still is the anthem of the film for us. I mean, you named it as such, but it just really feels like it embodies Stewart’s quest on all his amazing adventures he’s been on. So that’s fantastic.
Brian Eno: One of the things that is actually really touching about this film is the early life stuff, which of course I never knew anything about. As women always say, “Well, men never ask that sort of question, do they?” And in fact, in my case it’s completely true. I never bothered to ask people how they got going or that kind of autobiographical question. But what strikes me, first of all, your father was quite an important part of the story. I got the feeling that quite a lot of the character that is described in there is attributed to your father has come right through to you as well, this respect for tools and for making things, which is different from the intellectual respect for thinking about things. Often intellectuals respect other thinkers, but they don’t often respect makers in the same way. So, I wonder when you started to become aware that there could be an overlap between those two things, that there was a you that was a making you and there was a thinking you as well? I wonder if there was a point where those two sort of came together for you, in your early life.
Stewart Brand: Well, you’re pointing out something that I hadn’t really noticed as well, frankly, until the film, which is what I remember is that my father was sort of ground and my mother was figure. She was the big event. She got me completely buried in books and thinking, and she was a liberal. I never did learn what my father’s politics were, but they’re probably pretty conservative. He tried to teach me to fish and he was a really desperately awful teacher. He once taught a class of potential MIT students, he failed every one of them. My older brother Mike said, “Why did you do that?” And he said, “Well, they just did not learn the material. They didn’t make it.” And my brother actually said, “You don’t think that says anything about you as their teacher?”
So I kind of discounted — as I’m making youthful, stupid judgments — him. I think what you pointed out is a very good one. He was trained as a civil engineer at MIT. Another older brother, Pete, went to MIT. I later completely got embedded at MIT at The Media Lab and Negroponte and all of that. In a way I feel more identified with MIT than I do with Stanford where I did graduate. In Stanford I took as many humanities as I could with a science major.
But I think it’s also something that happened with the ’60s, Brian, which is that what we were dropping out of — late beatniks, early hippies, which is my generation — was a construct that universities were imparting, and I imagine British universities have a slightly different version of this than American ones, but still, the Ivy League-type ones. I remember one of the eventual sayings of the hippies was “back to basics,” which we translated as “back to the land,” which turned out to be a mistake, but the back to basics part was pretty good. We had this idea, we were immediately followed by the baby boom. It was the bulge in the snake, the pig in the python. There were so many of us that the world was always asking us our opinion of things, which we wind up taking for granted. You could, as a young person, you could just call a press conference. “I’m a young person. I want to expound some ideas.” And they would show up and write it all seriously down. The Beatles ran into this. It was just hysterical. Pretty soon you start having opinions.
We were getting Volkswagen Bugs and vans. This is in my mind now because I’m working on this book about maintenance. We were learning how to fix our own cars. Partly it was the either having no money or pretending to have no money, which, by the way, that was me. It turned out I actually had a fair amount, I just ignored it, that my parents had invested in my name. We were eating out of and exploring and finding amazing things basically in garbage cans and debris boxes. Learning how to cook and eat roadkill and make clothing and domes and all these things. This was something that Peter Drucker noticed about that generation, that they were the first set of creatives that took not just art but also in a sense craft and just stuff seriously, and learned… Mostly we were making mistakes with the stuff, but then you either just backed away from it or you learned how to do it decently after all and become a great guitar maker or whatever it might be. That was what the Whole Earth Catalog tapped into, was that desire to not just make your own life, but make your own world.
Brian Eno: I’m trying to think… In my own life, I can remember some games I played as kids that I made up myself. I realized that they were really the first creative things that I ever did. I invented these games. I won’t bother to explain them, they were pretty simple, but I can remember the excitement of having thought of it myself, and thinking, “I made this. I made this idea myself.” I was sort of intrigued by it. I just wondered if there was a moment in your life when you had that feeling of, “This is the pleasure of thinking, the pleasure of coming up with something that didn’t exist before”?
Stewart Brand: There was one and it’s very well expressed in the film, which was the Trips Festival in January 01966. That was the first time that I took charge over something. I’d been going along with Ken Kesey and the Pranksters. I’d been going along with various creative people, USCO, a group of artists on the East Coast, and contributing but not leading. Once I heard from one of the Pranksters, Mike Hagen, that they wanted to do a thing that would be a Trips Festival, kind of an acid test for the whole Bay Area. I knew that they could not pull that off, but that it should happen. I picked up the phone and I started making arrangements for this public event.
And it worked out great. We were lucky in all the ways that you can be lucky in, and not unlucky in any of the ways you can be unlucky. It was a coup. It was a lot of being a tour de force, not by me, but by basically the Bay Area creatives getting together in one place and changing each other and the world. That was the point for me that I had really given myself agency to drive things.
There’s other things that give you reality in the world. Also in the film is when I appeared on the Dick Cavett Show.
Brian Eno: Oh, yes.
Stewart Brand: Which was a strange event for all of us. But the effect it had in my family was that… My father was dead by then, but my mother had always been sort of treating me as the youngest child, needing help. She would send money from time to time, keep me going in North Beach. But once I was on Dick Cavett, which she regularly watched, I had grown up in her eyes. I was now an adult. I should be treated as a peer.
Brian Eno: So no more money.
Stewart Brand: Well… yeah, yeah. Did that ever happen? I think she sort of liked occasionally keeping a token of dependency going. She was very generous with the money.
The great thing of being a hippie is you didn’t need much. I was not an expensive dependent. That was, I think, another thing there that the hippies weren’t, and that makes us freer about being wealthy or not, is that we’ve had perfectly good lives without much money at all. So the money is kind of an interesting new thing that you can get fucked up by or do creatively or just ignore. But you have those choices in a way, I think, that people who are either born to money or who are getting rich young don’t have. They have other interesting situations to deal with. For us, the discipline was not enough money, and for some of them the discipline is too much money, and how do you keep that from killing you.
Brian Eno: Yes. Yeah. I’ll ask the filmmakers a question as well, if I may. It’s a very simple question, but it isn’t actually answered in the film. The question is: why Stewart? Why did you choose to make a film about him? There are so many interesting people in North America, let alone in the West Coast, but what drew you to him in particular?
Jason Sussberg: I’ll answer this, and then I’ll let you take a swipe at this, David. I mean, I’ve always looked up to Stewart from the time that I ran into an old Whole Earth Catalog. It was the Last Whole Earth Catalog, when I was 18 years old, going to college in the year 02000. So this was 25 years after it was written. I sort of dove into it head first and realized this strange artifact from the past actually was a representation of possibilities, a representation of the future. So after that moment, I read a book of Stewart’s that just came out, about the Clock of the Long Now, and after that… I’ve always been an environmentalist and Earth consciousness and trying to think about how to preserve the natural world, but also I believe in technology as a hopeful future that we can have. We can use tools to create a more sustainable world. So Stewart was able to blend these two ideas in a way that seemed uncontroversial, and it really resonated with me as a fan of science and technology and the natural world. So Stewart, pretty much from an early age, was someone I always looked up to.
When David and I went to grad school, we were talking about the problems of the environmental movement, and Stewart was at the time writing a book that would basically later articulate these ideas.
Brian Eno: Oh, yes, good.
Jason Sussberg: And so when that book came out, it was like it just put our foot on the pedals, like, “Wow, we should make a movie of Stewart and his perspective.” But yeah, I was just always a fan of his.
Brian Eno: So that was quite a long time ago, then.
Jason Sussberg: Yeah, 10 years-
Brian Eno: Is that when you started thinking about it?
Jason Sussberg: Yeah, absolutely. I had made a short film of a friend of probably yours, Brian, and of Stewart’s, Lloyd Kahn. It was a short little eight-minute documentary about Lloyd Kahn and how he thought of shelter and of home construction. That was after that moment that I thought, “This is a really rich territory to explore.” I think that actually was 02008, so at that moment I already had the inkling of, wow, this would be a fantastic biographical documentary that nobody had made.
Stewart Brand: I’m curious, what’s David’s interest?
David Alvarado: Yeah, well, I think Jason and I are drawn to complicated stories, and my god, Stewart. There was a moment in college when I almost stopped becoming a filmmaker and wanted to become a geologist. I just was so fascinated by the complexity of looking at the land, being able to read the stratigraphy, for example, of a cliff and understand deep history of how that relates to what the land looks like now. So, I of course came back into film, but I see a lot of that there in your life. I mean, the layers of what you’ve done… The top layer for us is the de-extinction, the idea of resurrecting extinct species to reset ecosystems and repair damage that humans have caused. That could be its own subject, and if it’s all you did, that would be fascinating. But sitting right underneath that sits all these amazing things all the way back to the ’60s. So I think it’s just like my path as an artist to just dig through layers and, oh boy, your life was just full of it. It was a pleasure to be able to do that with you, so thank you for sharing your life with us.
Stewart Brand: Well, thank you for packaging my life for me. As Kevin Kelly says, the movie that you put out is sort of a trailer for the whole body of stuff that you’ve got. But by going through that process with you, and for example digitizing all of my tens of thousands of photographs, and then the interviews and the shooting in various places and having the adventure in Siberia and whatnot, but… When you get to the late 70s, Brian, and if you try to think of your life as an arc or a passage or story or a whole of any kind, it’s actually quite hard, because you’ve got these various telescopic views back to certain points, but they don’t link up. You don’t understand where you’ve been very well. It’s always a mishmash. With John Markoff also doing a book version of my life, it’s actually quite freeing for me to have that done. And Brian, this is where I wish Hermione Lee would do your biography. She would do you a great favor by just, “Here is everything you’ve done, and here is what it all means. My goodness, it’s quite interesting.” And then you don’t have to do that.
Brian Eno: Yeah, I’d be so grateful if she would do that, or if anybody would do that, yes.
Stewart Brand: It’s a real gift in that it’s also a really well done work of art. It has been just delightful for me. I think one of the things, Brian, it’ll be interesting to see which you see in this when you see the film more than once, or maybe you’ve already done so, is you’ve made a great expense of your time and effort, a re-watchable film. And Brian, the music is a big part of this. The music is blended in so much in a landscapy way, that except for a couple of places where it comes to the fore, like when I’m out in the canoe on Higgins Lake and you’re singing away, that it takes a re-listen, a re-viewing of the film to really start to get what the music is doing.
And then, you guys had such a wealth of material, both of my father’s amazing filmmaking and then from the wealth of photography I did, and then the wealth of stuff you found as archivists, I mean, the number of cuts in this film must be some kind of a record for a documentary, the number of images that go blasting by. So, instead of a gallery of photographs, it’s basically a gallery of contact sheets where you’re not looking at the shot I made of so-and-so, you’ve got all 10 of them, but sort of blinked together. That rewards re-viewing, because there’s a lot of stuff where things go by and you go, “Wait, what was that? Oh, no, there’s a new thing. Oh, what was that one? That one’s gone too.” They’re adding up. It’s a nice accumulative kind of drenching of the viewer in things that really rewards…
It’s one of the reasons that I think it’s actually going to do well on people’s video screenings, because they can stop it and go, “Wait a minute. What just happened?” And go back a couple of frames. Whereas in the theater, this is going to go blasting on by. Anyway, that’s my view, that this has been enjoyable to revisit.
Brian Eno: When you first watched… Well, I don’t know at which stage you first started watching what David and Jason had been doing, but were there any kind of nasty surprises, any places where you thought, “Oh god, I wish they hadn’t found that bit of film”?
David Alvarado: That’s a great question. Yeah.
Stewart Brand: Brian, the deal I sort of made with myself and with these guys, and that I made the same one with [John] Markoff, is it’s really their product. I’m delighted to be the raw material, but I won’t make any judgments about their judgments. When I think something is wrong, a photograph that depicts somebody that turns out not to be actually that person, I would speak up and I did do that. I’ve done much more of that sort of thing with Markoff in the book. But whenever there’s interpretation, that’s not my job. I have to flip into it, and it’s easy to be, when you both care about your life and you don’t care about your life, you would have this attitude too, of Brian Eno, yawn, been there done that, got sent a fucking T-shirt. So finding a way to not be bored about one’s life is actually kind of interesting, and that’s seeing through this refraction in a funhouse mirror, in a kaleidoscope of other people’s read, that makes it actually sort of enjoyable to engage.
Brian Eno: Yes. I think one of the things that’s interesting when you watch somebody else’s take on your life, somebody writes a biography of you or recants back to you a period that you lived through, is it makes you aware of how much you constructed the story that you hold yourself. You’ve got this kind of narrative, then I did this and then of course that led to that, and then I did that… And it all sort of makes sense when you tell the story, but when somebody else tells the story, it’s just like I was saying about conspiracy theories, to think that they can come up with a completely different story, and it’s actually equally plausible, and sometimes, frighteningly, even more plausible than the one you’ve been telling yourself.
Stewart Brand: Well, it gets stronger than that, because these are people who’ve done the research. So an example from the film is these guys really went through all my father’s film. There’s stuff in there I didn’t know about. There’s an incredibly sweet photograph of my young mother, my mother being young, and basically cradling the infant, me, and canoodling with me. I’d never seen that before. So I get a blast of, “Oh, mom, how great, thank you,” that I wouldn’t have gotten if they hadn’t done this research.
And lots of times, especially for Markoff’s research…So, Doug Engelbart and The Mother of All Demos, I have a story I’ve been telling for years to myself and to the world of how I got involved in being a sort of filmmaker within that project. It turned out I had just completely forgotten that I’d actually studied Doug Engelbart before any of that, and I was going to put him in an event I was going to organize called the Education Fair, and the whole theory of his approach, very humanist approach to computers and the use of computers, computers basically blending in to human collaboration, was something I got very early. And I did the Trips Festival and he sort of thought I was a showman and then they brought me on as the adviser to the actual production. But the genesis of the event, I’d been telling this wrong story for years. There’s quite a lot of that. As you say, I think our own view of ourselves becomes fiction very quickly.
Brian Eno: Yes. Yes. It’s partly because one wants to see a kind of linear progression and a causality. One doesn’t really want to admit that there was a lot of randomness in it, that if you’d taken that turning on the street that day, life would have panned out completely differently. That’s so disorientating, that thought, that we don’t tolerate it for long. We sort of patch it up to make the story hold together.
Stewart Brand: That’s what you’ll get from the Tom Stoppard biography. Remember that his first serious, well, popular play was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and it starts with a flip of a coin. It turns out his own past of how he got from Singapore to India and things like that were just these kind of random war-related events that carved a path of chance, chance, chance, chance, that then informed his creative life for the rest of his life. There’s a book coming out from Daniel Kahneman called Noise, that Bachman and Kahneman and another guy have generated. It looks like it’s going to be fantastic. Basically, he’s going beyond Thinking Fast and Slow to…a whole lot of the data that science and our world and the mind deals with is this kind of randomized, stochastic noise, which we then interpret as signal. And it’s not. It’s hard to hold it in your mind, that randomness. It’s one of the things I appreciate from having studied evolution at an impressionable age, is that a lot of evolution is: randomness is not a bad thing that happens. Randomness is the most creative thing that happens.
Brian Eno: Yes. Well, we are born pattern recognizers. If we don’t find them, we’ll construct them. We take all the patterns that we recognize very seriously. We think that they are reality. But they aren’t necessarily exclusive. They’re not exclusive realities.
Jason Sussberg: All right. I hate to end it here. This discussion is really fascinating. We’re getting into some very heady philosophical ideas. But unfortunately, our time is short. So we have to bid both Stewart and Brian farewell. I encourage everybody to go watch the film We Are as Gods, if you haven’t already. Thank you so much for participating in this discussion.
David Alvarado: A special thanks to Stripe Press for helping making this film a reality. Thank you to you, the viewer, for watching, to Stewart for sharing your life, and Brian for this amazing original score.
Brian Eno: Good. Well, good luck with it. I hope it does very well.
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