Time & Place: Brian Eno Ambient 1: Music For Airports
Russian Circles was tracking our third album Geneva at Electrical Audio in Chicago back in the spring of ‘09. I was crashing on a couch at Mike’s apartment during the recording process. Most nights, I would go to sleep listening to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports on headphones. I had never fully embraced Eno’s work prior to that timeframe, but the album completely won me over in those weeks that we were in the studio. Writing and recording Geneva was a very positive experience. We had written most of it in a basement of a house in rural Wisconsin during the winter of ‘08/’09. We’d hole up at the house for a week at a time, drinking coffee and writing at a relaxed pace during the day, then drinking beer and playing cards while listening to records at night.
Touring on the record, however, was less than ideal. Every tour on that album seemed to have a stumble. The very first show of the very first Geneva tour, we had a guitar stolen off the stage at the end of the night. A guy literally walked onto stage while we were packing up, grabbed the guitar, and walked out a back exit. We were in two automobile accidents over the course of the next year, one of which totaled our van, trailer, and a large chunk of our gear. But the most frustrating setback came on our first European tour to support the album.
There were a few issues here and there over the course of the tour: some ongoing gear problems, some glitches due to some rescheduling of dates, a pesky stomach flu among the ranks, etc. But the real issue came at the very end of the six-week trip. We had two shows left: a set at the Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, Netherlands, and a fly-in date in Athens, Greece. The night we played Roadburn we got the news that the European airspace was shutdown due to volcanic ash resulting from an eruption in Iceland. We would be unable to fly to Greece the next morning for our final show. What was worse was that our flights home were booked out of Athens, so we wouldn’t be able to fly home either. We were stranded. The Athens promoter was flexible enough that we could reschedule the show whenever the airspace opened back up, but the forecast for that happening was fairly grim.
We spent nearly a week at a hotel attached to Schiphol Airport. Every morning we would wake up, walk down to the terminal to see if any flights were announced, then walk back to the hotel and rebook our hotels through Priceline. It was strange: all the hotels in the area were booked solid because of stranded travelers and the terminal at Schiphol started to look like a refugee camp, but somehow we were able to rebook our rooms through Priceline every morning. In many ways, it was a very relaxed several days despite the uncertainty of our departure date. I worked out at the hotel’s gym, used their sauna, and took the train into Amsterdam to pass the time. At some point they started recommencing a few flights and we were able to get to Greece. In Athens, the laid-back vibe the previous several days disappeared. There was still no guaranteed day we’d be able to fly back to the States. We were staying in a hotel in a neighborhood filled with junkies. We had a bag stolen while checking in. We tried to count how many heroin needles were littered on a single block, but gave up because the number was so high it became depressing. People were nodding off on the sidewalk. A man without pants and with shit running down his legs was begging for change. The government was proposing austerity measures, which meant there were protests in the streets. Local businesses would only accept cash, but anarchists had smashed all the ATMs in the area. There were burned out cars on the street. Between the junkie-zombies, natural disasters, and civil unrest, it felt a little like the end of the world.
But we got home eventually, after about an additional ten days or so. We acknowledged our Athens experience by titling our next album Empros, which means “onward” in Greek. We also gave a little shout-out to the airport that had been our refuge at the beginning of the ordeal by titling a song “Schiphol”, a composition meant to capture the subdued melancholy of those days before moving on to the dramatic conclusion of our tour in Athens.
I just returned from another European tour a couple of days ago. The trip was about as smooth and hassle-free as one can hope for. No volcanoes. No theft. No van wrecks. We played “Schiphol” every night, and about halfway through tour Mike started playing a couple of passes of the main piano melody from the first track off Eno’s Ambient 1 before going into our own homage to the airport. Part of me hoped there would be some folks out there that recognized the melody and made the connection between Eno’s piece and our song. At least one person in Copenhagen noted the melody, yelling out “Music for Airports” later in the set. Whether or not anyone picked up on its relation to “Schiphol” is unknown to me. But it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately the interlude just made me happy to think of how things have come along in the last few years—from the idyllic moments leading up to Geneva’s release through the hardships of those tours, from the difficult process of creating Empros through the reassuring tours in its wake, and, finally, being in the position to reflect on those experiences while moving onward to the next chapter.