Brian ENO, Holger CZUKAY & J.Peter SCHWALM

Sushi. Roti. Reibekuchen

out May 24, 2024

Grönland Records

By the late 1990s, Brian Eno was, to all intents and purposes, a studio-bound musician. Performance, it seemed, was not for him. He’d famously left Roxy Music in 1973 after he’d found himself “thinking about the laundry on stage”, and since then he’d made only sporadic forays into the live arena, even then merely as a member of short-lived ensembles. Indeed, once the 1970s had ended he’d appeared more enthused about concepts like “Quiet Clubs” or “Quiet Rooms”, site-specific installations – ongoing to this day – in which his light sculptures, ambient sound and especially selected furnishings provide a refuge from everyday stress and noise. These couldn’t be more different to the flamboyant outings with which he’d originally made his name and which had threatened to upstage Bryan Ferry.


Instead he’d spent this time creating similarly inclined art, in addition to working on solo releases, which continued to explore often ambient realms and, increasingly, self-generating music. There’d also been collaborative endeavours of one sort or another, including albums like 1983’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks with his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois, and 1990’s Wrong Way Up, recorded with John Cale. That’s not to mention high profile production duties for the likes of U2 and James, and he’d even found time to compose Microsoft’s Windows 95 startup theme. It’s no wonder, then, that, in early 2023, he was still telling journalists that “I would rather drive nails into my scrotum than go on tour”. It’s not like there weren’t other things to do.


On August 27, 1998, however, he emerged casually once more in front of a crowd, dressed in a scholarly black polo neck and black jeans, accompanied by four musicians. One was the co-founder of pioneering German band Can, Holger Czukay, with whom Eno had first worked on 1977’s Cluster and Eno, and again the following year on Eno, Moebius and Roedelius’ After The Heat, and who’d been pursuing a career in what he called “radio painting” with solo albums like 1979’s Movies and 1987’s Rome Remains Rome. Another was J.Peter Schwalm, the much younger leader of Slop Shop, an improbably named but increasingly well-regarded electro-jazz project for which Eno had professed admiration. Rounding out the group were Raoul Walton and Jern Atai, members of Schwalm’s band, with the subsequent show an extended, three hour improvised session. And yet somehow this monumental evening, this one-off meeting of talents, has been all but forgotten by history. Even David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach, his weighty biography of Eno, devotes less than a sentence to the event.


The venue was the Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany), which was located in Bonn, still home to the reunited country’s government. The occasion was an opening party for an exhibition of Eno’s Future Light-Lounge Proposal multimedia installation, housed in a small room filled largely with what 235 Media described as “semi-transparent sculpture(s) wrapped in parchment paper with a video monitor or projector hidden inside”. The Thursday event, meanwhile, which took place outdoors, was given an unlikely name: SUSHI! ROTI! REIBEKUCHEN! An appetising prospect, one might say.


The name came from the food that would be served during the evening: sushi, from Japan; roti, originally from the Indian subcontinent; and potato waffles, known in the Rhineland, where Bonn is located, as Reibekuchen, though elsewhere in the country, perhaps more poetically, as Kartoffelpuffer. This whimsical menu had been conceived by Eno with his great friend, Rolf Engel of Atelier Markgraph – a Design Studio for Spatial Communication based two hours’ drive away in Frankfurt – who, as master of ceremonies, had hired three top level chefs to keep guests well fed. And, by all accounts, there were a lot of guests present: estimates vary from one to two thousand.


Eno had billed the ‘show’ as a “High-Altitude-Food-Performance with Incidental Music by Slop Shop and Brian Eno”. Norbert Kanter, the museum’s Project Manager for New Media, told Wired magazine more prosaically that the event “will be like a party, with music, cooking, and a surprise guest.” But when asked for more details, he had none. No one at all knew what would unfold because Eno had always envisioned it this way. On top of the fact he seemed far from comfortable performing alone, this was why he’d gathered these musicians.


Eno had been introduced to Schwalm’s music during a visit to Engel’s office, when he’d been given a copy of Makrodelia, Slop Shop’s debut album, distinguished by its minimalist electronica and subtle swing grooves. Three days later he’d contacted Schwalm to profess his approval of what he called its ‘space jazz’, confessing he’d been trying to achieve something similar in recent years. Before long they were bonding over Miles Davis, but subsequently they’d met only twice, once in Schwalm’s Frankfurt studio – “I was sockless and shoeless,” Schwalm remembers, “and after he came in so was he” – and another time, with Atai and Walton, at the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The building had been funded by the War Child charity on the back of concerts organised by, among others, Eno, Luciano Pavarotti and U2 in the wake of the 1995 release of Original Soundtracks 1, a collaborative album recorded under the name Passengers.


Otherwise, until Eno and Schwalm walked into the rehearsal studio the day before their performance, this was the length and breadth of their acquaintance. Moreover, when Schwalm arrived in Bonn, he still had little idea of Czukay’s involvement. They’d certainly never encountered one another in person before. But, as he had with Eno, he immediately got on well with his fellow German, with the three quickly finding common ground in both music and their sense of humour. That said, when Czukay, Schwalm, Atai and Walton began jamming around ideas Schwalm had prepared with his bandmates, Eno simply stayed on the side-lines, watching.


The following night, beneath clear skies, they slipped quietly, one by one, onto a stage filled with tangled cables and musical gear. Engel had arranged for Eno to have equipment similar to his studio’s set up, and for the next three hours or so they extemporised, often constructing more robust music upon initially ambient foundations, pivoting between eerie soundscapes, dub, electronica, musique concrète, even drum and bass, playing to their strengths. Each had his own role, with Eno and Schwalm working with synths, sequencers and processors as they led Atai and Walton’s tightknit rhythm section, while Czukay, in a chestnut waistcoat and black T-shirt, his trademark handlebar moustache and hair a startling white, was, Schwalm recalls, the ‘soloist’. “It was so much fun watching him constantly changing his tapes. All those voices were played by Holger. Sometimes I didn’t know where these funny noises were coming from. At one point the Pope suddenly started speaking!”


Meanwhile, the audience, including a throng of German celebrities, snacked on the titular cuisine and nursed glasses of free wine. Of course, although Eno had intended to provide only background music, there was no way it could be ignored. For starters, as Schwalm points out, “we had some really intense, rhythmical pieces where it’s hard to eat, and you can’t eat for three hours anyway”. There was also the inescapable detail that this was one of the first times in a quarter of a century that Eno had been seen playing in public, so people could be forgiven for getting excited. Somehow, nonetheless, the group managed to maintain the informal mood of the previous night’s rehearsal, even wandering off-stage at times. Legend has it, in fact, that the only reason the concert ended, after an additional hour of improvisation had followed an initial two-hour session, was because the police arrived to turn off the power.


Afterwards, they celebrated with drinks of their own, delighted by what had transpired, before heading their separate ways. Eno and Schwalm would go on to meet regularly for a number of years, releasing an album together, Drawn From Life, in 2001 – they joined one another on stage on a handful of occasions too – but though Schwalm and Czukay occasionally spoke on the phone about further activity, this ultimately never came to pass. Typically, in an example of Eno’s fondness for new technology, the event was simultaneously streamed on the internet, and yet it’s unlikely, given its still-primitive nature, that many were able to watch. Until now, therefore, few beyond the crowd that night are aware of the chemistry that developed. The five musicians never played together again.


Fortunately, Schwalm ensured that this singular evening was documented and, a couple of years later, though a few tapes were sadly missing, he went through the recordings, choosing the sections he felt best represented their achievements. Afterwards, however, with Eno striding ever forward artistically, the recordings were consigned to the archives. Twenty-five years on, the release of this hour-long, distilled SUSHI. ROTI. REIBEKUCHEN finally allows a never-to-be-repeated partnership to reach the audience it deserves. Inevitably, it still sounds as fresh as ever.


Wyndham Wallace, Berlin, 2023


With grateful thanks to J.Peter Schwalm for his recollections and time