“This is what I can’t bear about fans: they assume songwriters are writing about themselves all the time” - Brian Eno’s quest to deliver “interleaved stories”

Brian Eno 2016 solo shot against a dark background
(Image credit: Shamil Tanna)

Brian Eno is many things to many people: composer, producer, songwriter, painter, videographer, cultural theorist and more. But the self-confessed “non-musician” is perhaps best known for his role as an ambient pioneer, beginning with such 70s landmarks as Discreet Music and Music For Airports. Along the way, he’s rammed his CV with the great and the good of the past four decades, from Robert Fripp, Cluster and Genesis to David Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Harold Budd.

His propagation of generative music, a system that blends disparate tracks into an infinite set of combinations, has extended into his work as a visual artist. 2006’s 77 Million Paintings, for example, used video and music as a self-generative model for PCs. Eno has also applied his ambient aesthetic to software for video games and iPhone technology, as well as composing the start-up music for Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system. Whether you’re aware of it or not, chances are that your life has some Eno in it somewhere.

In the sedate confines of a panelled room above a Notting Hill boozer in 2016, the afternoon sun seeping through the windows, it’s hard to equate the 68-year-old Eno with the dashing young androgyne who first came to fame as keyboardist with Roxy Music in 1971. Yet the same core properties continue to guide him – a bright and malleable mind, an unshakeable sense of curiosity about the world around him, the opportunity to reshape musical elements from the past into an imagined future.

He’s thoughtful and articulate in conversation, as you might expect. But he’s also warm and quick to laugh, with an easy manner that belies his public persona as a somewhat starchy boffin. In fact, it’s not difficult to agree with the verdict once put forward by Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright. “I’ve often eulogised Eno’s musical abilities,” the late keyboard player remarked, “but alongside his talent, he’s also a very nice guy. Sickening, isn’t it?”

We’re here to talk about The Ship, Eno’s first solo album since 2012 and the 27th of a remarkable creative life. A “succession of interleaved stories”, born from experiments with 3D recording techniques, it’s informed by the Titanic, World War I and random pieces from emails and discarded lyrics. It also happens to be one of the strongest releases of his entire career.

Where did the idea of The Ship come from?

I’m very interested in history, especially the First World War. After the First and Second World Wars, the War Office invited ordinary soldiers to talk about their experiences and they recorded them. The Imperial War Museum now houses about 500,000 statements by British soldiers. And of course the experience of war from the bottom, looking up, is quite different from the top looking down. You have to imagine 17-year-old boys from Devon or Suffolk, from farming communities, suddenly plunged into this thing and trying to make sense of it. So I was fascinated by that for a long time. Then I started thinking about how the Titanic was a kind of premonition of that war.

In what way?

The Titanic had all the hubris of an advanced, very pleased-with-itself civilisation. The unsinkable ship: “Look at this, the peak of what we can do.” And of course the war started on exactly the same basis. Everyone thought it was going to be a pushover. Then, if you go forward 100 years, we had the exact echo. Democratic capitalism thought it had sorted everything out – “We can just keep on manufacturing wealth and things are going to get better and better” – but suddenly you had the total catastrophe of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the banking crisis. Those were both Titanics in their own way. Which is why I find it so interesting today, because we’re going through another period like that.

The other striking feature of The Ship is that it finds you singing again. What brought that on?

I always thought that you had to have chords, beats and structures with singing, which is absolutely antithetical to the ambient-scenic thing. But I thought, “Why don’t I put that on top of that [Eno puts one hand over the other] and see what happens?” And it worked!

The other thing is that singing gets you into this thicket of interpretation, where people automatically assume that the words must be what it’s all about. And that’s absolutely not true in my case. This is what I can’t bear about fans. They always assume that songwriters are writing about themselves all the time. Of course they’re not. You wouldn’t imagine that in any other art form. Shakespeare didn’t think he was Hamlet or Macbeth or King Lear. They were characters who stood for certain sets of values.

Robert Fripp once told me that the key to creativity, in regards to his work with you and David Bowie, was “fun, play and laughter”…

The play thing is absolutely critical. Everybody knows that children have to play with things to see what they do. As Robert says, when we were working together, we were just laughing all the time. David and Fripp were both very funny people. I saw Robert the other day, actually, when he came to hear The Ship. [Laughing] He said: “Brian, I must say that no other man can wring more meaning out of a tonic to subdominant shift.” It was a typical Fripp comment.

You’ve been sitting on your cover of The Velvet Underground’s I’m Set Free for over 10 years. What made you finally release it on The Ship?

I’ve loved that song for ages but didn’t really have a context to release it in. Then, a few years ago, when I was curating the Brighton Festival, I saw this piece called Patriot Mother, by Hofesh Shechter, an Israeli theatre director. It’s an amazing piece – angular and frantic and very loud. And he has a huge band, with five guys playing heavy metal guitar, a real assault on the senses. After about an hour it suddenly changes into the orchestral recording of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. It was devastating to have all this stuff – new and edgy and sharp and abrasive – and then to have this beautiful breath of emotional sound. So I wanted to do something like that on this album with I’m Set Free.

You first heard the Velvets on John Peel’s radio show while you were at Winchester School of Art in the 60s. What impact did that have?

Within the first few moments, I thought, “Okay, this is important.” I could hear the La Monte Young influence, the sort of drone thing that John Cale was doing on the viola. I think I heard Heroin first. So I bought that album [The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967], which not many other people did at the time. It might be hard for some people to understand, but they were a big influence on Roxy Music. Bryan [Ferry] liked them as well and we both knew about their connection with Andy Warhol, which gave them a sort of cultural position.

When we started Roxy, rock’n’roll was really 15 years old. And in that time you had the whole of doo-wop, Elvis, the Liverpool scene, psychedelia, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, this incredible compression of all that stuff. The history of the music form was already substantial enough to draw from.

We were pop artists in the little ‘p’ and big ‘P’ sense. Bryan had studied with Richard Hamilton at Newcastle, who people often say is the father of Pop Art, and I’d been tutored by one of his most brilliant students, Roy Ascott. So we both had that connection to the idea that culture was its own subject, as it were, and kept redigesting itself all the time. And that wasn’t an idea you were supposed to like back then. That’s what The Velvet Underground represented to me. They sort of endorsed all those things that people had said were wrong about pop music.

Brian Eno with Roxy Music, 1972

Brian Eno with Roxy Music, 1972 (Image credit: Getty Images)

The Ship also ties in to your current 3D installation…

That came out of a fascination with loudspeakers. If you think about it, most of our musical experience is from loudspeakers. We think we’re listening to guitars and violins and voices, but we’re actually listening to little pieces of paper or plastic moving, which in itself is quite strange. I’ve been studying loudspeaker design a little bit and in my studio there are long springs in a block of concrete and steel, sitting on a table. At the top of those are little speakers and there’s a piece of music that goes with that. I call them Speaker Flowers. If there’s a breeze they move and a very high-pitched piece of music comes out. When I started doing that singing on The Ship, I thought, “Wow, a song you could walk about inside!”

I have these ideas of much more complicated versions of this. Suppose, for instance, that you could do it so that inside this teapot [lifts the lid of a small green teapot on the table between us] there’s a speaker and you have to get quite close to hear what it does. Imagine if you could activate a whole space like that, so that under the carpet there’s something going on. So the music is made up of all these different voices coming out.

Aside from experiments with speakers, what’s next for you?

I’ve been involved in David Byrne’s next album. My friend Peter Chilvers and I started to develop software to try to understand what real drummers do. Real drummers don’t play the same thing over and over – they drop notes out, they change the attack, they sometimes double up or triple up, they roll, all these things. So we got software to try to do these things randomly. And now I have these amazing sort of funk robots. They really sound like weird and interesting drummers, with a really unusual sense of logic.

So I was wondering what to do with these things and decided to send a little MP3 over to David. The next day I got one back from him with a really good song over it. I added a little bit more and sent it back to him. And that’s what’s happened. I’ve sent him these really unusual drum tracks – great rhythms, but angular and almost sort of awkward – and he’s been writing songs on top of those. It’ll be fascinating to see how it all turns out.

The prog lovers' guide to Eno

Another Green World (1975)

Arguably his finest hour, Eno’s third album strikes a near-perfect balance between avant-rock and his burgeoning fascination with ambient music. Old pal Robert Fripp adds devilish guitar to St. Elmo’s Fire and the more restrained I’ll Come Running, while John Cale and Phil Collins fetch up on the jazz-scented Sky Saw.

Before And After Science (1977)

This schizophrenic gem is evenly weighted between Eno’s experimental prog pop and his more minimal side. Side One is all layered edginess, from the majestic King’s Lead Hat (an anagram of Talking Heads) to a sample-heavy Kurt’s Rejoinder. The second side is altogether more pastoral, exemplified by Eno’s collaboration with Cluster on By This River.

Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978)

The first of Eno’s ‘Ambient’ series consists of a set of layered tape loops of various lengths. His creative vision for music “as ignorable as it is interesting”, all glacial drift and formless intonation, was designed to subliminally calm the anxiety at airport terminals. Indeed, New York’s LaGuardia Airport installed the album for a time.

My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981)

Having already produced three albums for Talking Heads, Eno hooked up with David Byrne to fashion this mesmerising collage of sounds, named after an Amos Tutuola novel and partly inspired by the solo work of Can’s Holger Czukay. Cue a febrile mix of tribal funk and weird ambience, peppered with samples of gospel choirs, radio hosts and exorcists.

Small Craft On A Milk Sea (2010)

While Eno’s post-80s catalogue contains such underrated treasures as Nerve Net (1992) and 2005’s Another Day On Earth, his Warp debut saw him join forces to telling effect with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams. Its gliding improvised textures, including offcuts from Eno’s soundtrack for The Lovely Bones, are quietly compelling.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.