Brian Eno breaks down expansive new album, eulogizes friend David Bowie
Over the last 40 years, Brian Eno has been the sonic mastermind behind some of rock’s greatest albums: The 67-year-old British musician produced beloved albums like 1980’s Remain in Light by Talking Heads and 1987’s The Joshua Tree by U2. Eno also played a pivotal role in recording David Bowie’s vaunted “Berlin” trilogy. And in recent years, he’s lent his forward-thinking sensibilities to recordings by the likes of Coldplay and James Blake.
But Eno — who achieved nameless digital age ubiquity as the composer of Windows 95’s startup sound — has also has spent the last five decades building a massive catalog of groundbreaking ambient and experimental recordings, including his 1975 masterpiece Another Green World. That’s the groove he’s returned to with his new album, The Ship, his often-atmospheric ode to society’s fragility and his first solo full-length since 2010’s Making Space. (Eno released Someday World and High Life, his two collaborative albums with Underworld’s Karl Hyde, in 2014.)
Eno didn’t conceive the album’s four tracks — two of which clock in at 18 and 21 minutes — as a record from the start, though. “The way the whole piece started out was not as a record but as an installation,” Eno tells EW. Only after a friend of Eno’s heard the music at an exhibit in Stockholm and asked the musician for a recording did he consider its possibilities as an album. “It took me by surprise a little bit,” he says. “I wasn’t planning it as my next record project when I started it.”
The Ship‘s pieces fell into place from there, whether it was Eno’s use of a special gadget to derive lyrics from pornographic songs sung by soldiers in the First World War to his decision to have Peter Serafinowicz — an actor whose satirical Donald Trump videos Eno lauds — recite those words on the record.
Eno connected with EW to discuss what his music has in common with Picasso’s paintings, his connection to the Velvet Underground’s music, and why he’s over the “orgy” of internet sentimentality.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Ship sounds distinct from the rest of your catalog. How did the music’s vibe develop?
BRIAN ENO: I was asked to do a multichannel installation piece for a gallery in Stockholm. I was making something that was meant to be experienced in a space, not on two speakers or two headphones. I was imagining, OK, people are going to come in, it takes them three or four minutes to settle down, to get comfortable, so I don’t want much happening in the first three or four minutes. It isn’t until about six minutes or so that I actually start singing. I was always constructing the piece thinking of people [being] in a space and able to move around inside the space to change their mix of it by moving closer to one sound source than another.
It was a long, long time before I realized this could be an album. The only reason I realized it was because a painter friend of mine went to the installation and said, “I really like the music, would you mind making me a tape of it? I think it would be nice to have that on while I’m painting.” I made a stereo mix of it and thought, “This really works as a piece of music, not just as a sort of sound sculpture.”
You’ve always pushed the boundaries of technology and recording techniques. Did you use any new methods on this album?
I’ve been working with Markov chain generators which are statistical randomizers. I was using them to generate text and, in some cases, music as well. Like all varieties of randomizers, what matters crucially is A) what you put in the front end and B) how much you select what comes out of the backend. It’s not magic — they’re tools.
The story that is read by Peter Serafinowicz on “Fickle Sun (ii) The Hour Is Thin” is generated by a Markov chain generator. What I put into the system in the beginning was some dirty songs by First World War soldiers — they used to take old songs and would put their own words to them which were often totally pornographic. I had some of the warnings and terms of conditions that appear at the bottom of emails, where they say “If you have received this email in error…” I like that kind of technical language. Then I had accounts written from the lifeboats by people watching the Titanic sinking. And also part of a book about the blitz over London.
All of that stuff went in and then the statistical generator reconfigures it. It might be mixing a bit from a bawdy song with a very serious account of weather conditions over London in 1941. It churns out tons of stuff. The trick is to go through it and find the bits that surprise you.
How did you settle on having Serafinowicz read that part?
He’s a voice genius. He’s taken films of Trump doing political talks or interviews or whatever and he’s re-voiced them. He’s using exactly the same words that Trump is using, but he’s done them in different voices. He has one in a very [adopts accent] upperclass, patrician, English voice like this. [ends accent] So Trump saying the same things about Mexicans and what have you, but in that kind of voice. It’s absolutely hilarious.
You’ve talked about some of The Ship‘s reference points: The First World War, the sinking of the Titanic. Why did those events inspire you? Why do you think they still resonate today?
I see the First World War and the sinking of the Titanic as analogues of each other; what I see there is the collision of this technical and political hubris. The thought that “Oh, we know how everything works now.” Then, of course, you saw they actually hadn’t. The Titanic collapsed and the First World War was an unmitigated disaster.
By the end of the 20th century and into the beginning of this century, there was this mood around that we knew the answers to things and we only had to get rest of the world to fall in line. There’s that famous article written by that famous idiot Ken Adelman, one of the neocons, which is called “Cakewalk In Iraq.” It was in the Washington Post; I’ve got the cutting framed. He describes a situation where the Americans land and they’re greeted with flowers and the whole thing is over in a week. This is exactly the same thing as happened the first time around, a hundred years before.
Those are the things I like thinking about, but the record is about itself. Just like a Picasso painting of a woman, the interesting thing is not the woman and whether she had children or which city she came from or how tall she was. The interesting thing is the painting. There’s a limit to how much emphasis I would put on having to know all of that background in order to make some sense of the music.
The record ends with a Velvet Underground cover. What is your connection like to their music?
They were probably the most important band to me, in the sense that when I first heard them I was struggling with this issue of whether I was going to be a visual artist, which is what I had trained to be, or whether I was going to do music. And if I did music, was it going to be experimental music or pop music? I [wanted] to do all of them. I couldn’t think how that was possible — then I heard the first Velvet Underground album.
How did you choose that song specifically?
The Velvet Underground’s first album was quite radical and the second album was even more radical: Very violent, aggressive, out of control screeching. But the third one was very quiet and [had] very beautiful songs. It was such an amazing shock. I thought, “How amazing that they have the balls to do that.” On that album was “I’m Set Free,” which has the words “I am set free to find a new illusion.” That always meant a lot to me, accepting the idea that you don’t go from ignorance to truth but you go from one kind of ignorance to another kind of ignorance. The search for truth is a fruitless search, essentially. What you need is to search for a workable hypothesis. You just try on a different kind of ignorance and work with that.
I recorded this song 15 years ago, but it sat there in my archive. I always loved it, I just didn’t know what to do with it. It didn’t fit on any of the albums that I made. But then I went to see a production called Political Mother by the Israeli director Hofesh Shechter. The piece was so angular and violent and very, very abrasive. But at the very end of it, everything cuts and it goes into this beautiful Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides, Now.” It was just the most amazing feeling. It was like sinking into a beautiful bath after a violent day. I thought, “That’s a shape that I like. Just go off on a very different tangent and end in another place completely.”
Your version of “I’m Set Free” is such a lovely tribute to Lou Reed, who passed away in the time since your last album. With the passing of artists like David Bowie and Prince this year, we’re seeing so many musical tributes. What do you think is the appropriate way to honor these late artists?
I’ve stayed away from doing any of that sort of honoring. I can’t bear all that sort of Twitter s—. What the f— is the point of all that? Just shut up! So I didn’t really take part in any of that. As soon as David died I got several hundred inquiries, would I say something for this channel or that channel and this newspaper or that newspaper. I didn’t want to. I thought, “This is just business for you, so you can go and do your business somewhere else.” I think very fondly of him, but I don’t want to bathe in it.
[Rock and roll] artists are now starting to die — it’ll be my turn soon. And I really hope that people don’t have this orgy of “Oh, wasn’t it all so great, wasn’t he so fantastic.” I can’t bear all that. Of course we can remember a genius like Prince or David Bowie, but there’s something horribly sentimental about most of the reminiscing that’s done.
[Bowie] dealt with the whole thing rather well. I quite admired the timing. Really, it was brilliant! It was a production. He wrote to me just before he died. When I read that email again it’s obvious to me that he was saying goodbye. He knew about it and he took control of it. He wasn’t running scared from it. He wasn’t denying it. That’s quite a good lesson for all of us… But he couldn’t control the f—ing storm of Twitter s— that followed, the poor guy. I can’t bear Twitter. It’s like a blitz of trivia. Isn’t there enough trivia? There’s so many interesting things to look at. I just can’t stand it.