Brian Eno’s deep and submersible 19th studio album, The Ship, is the first LP in a 45-year career that combines the art-rock vocals of albums like 1975’s Another Green World with the free-flowing, pulseless drifts of his pioneering ambient work. Mixing song, texture and his recent explorations with immersive installations, The Ship first set sail with Eno’s experiments with a “a three-dimensional piece” for Swedish electronic music laboratory Fylkingen.
“It was all pretty much normal until, at a certain point, I realized that I could sing the lowest note of the piece, which is a very low C,” says Eno. “Well, I’ve never been able to sing low C before. As you get older, you know, your voice drops, so you sort of gain a semi-tone at the bottom and lose about six at the top every year. That’s what’s happened to me. So I’ve suddenly got this new, low voice I can sing with, and I just started singing with that piece. And, so it was the first time I thought, “Oh, what about making a song that you could walk around inside?”
A recent installation in Geneva – and soon one in London – will feature the piece sent through “several loudspeakers placed on monolithic structures.” For lyrics, Eno fed material into an algorithmic text generator: a lifeboat passenger’s description of the sinking of the Titanic; dirty soldier’s songs from World War I; failed lyrics of his own. And if that all sounds a little heady, The Ship lands on shore with a gorgeous, straightforward cover of the Velvet Underground’s bleary-eyed 1969 song, “I’m Set Free.”
Before The Ship docks on American shores on April 29th, Rolling Stone talked to Eno about Kanye West, David Bowie, the Velvet Underground and, of course, a whole lot more.
The lyrics to The Ship were assembled by a Markov text generator. What texts did you put in there?
I don’t know if I can remember all of the things, but one was a description of the sinking of the Titanic from one of the lifeboats. Somebody who was in a lifeboat, watching the ship going down. Another was some soldiers’ songs from the First World War – because they used to sing very pornographic songs. So they were sort of musical songs that they changed the words of. Another source was those disclaimers that they have at the bottom of emails. Then there was some of my own work, some writing I had done.
Which pieces of your own writing?
Some failed lyrics, actually [laughs]. I was recycling failed lyrics. There was also part of an essay I’d written about London in the blitz. And then I used a Markov chain generator to rejig the material, and then I printed out 10 or 15 pages of it, and I just went through with a highlighter and every sentence that I liked, I marked. It was incredibly coherent! The sentences I chose are then used almost exactly in the order they appeared.
The lyrics don’t sound like they were spit out of an algorithm at all!
Well it’s quite an interesting algorithm. And also there was a lot of selection going on. I probably used two percent of what I produced there. So it was quite selective in the end. Nonetheless, there are sentences and word combinations there that I would never ever have arrived at the other way. I would never have said, “The hour is thin,” for example. As soon as I saw it, I thought, “Wow! That really makes sense.”
Who is reading the email disclaimer in there?
I don’t know if you know, but Apple computer can speak your text. But do you know that you can also get voices that are Spanish or Flemish or Chinese? If you get a Spanish voice, it’s intended to make the kind of noises that a Spanish-speaker would make. But if you take one of those voices and get it to speak English, it sounds… it’s like English with a very strong accent. I used the Flemish-speaking lady quite a lot. [Mimics a Flemish accent] “And she speaks like this, with this very particular Flemish accent.” My mother was Flemish, you know, so I like that accent.
I’m trying to find other ways of using voices. It’s something I’ve always been interested in, because I just think that singing is treated with such stupid sacredness in pop music. You know all the things that people do to guitar sounds and drum sounds and bass and synthesizers and everything else, they do everything they can to them. They squeeze them, they squash them, they pull them, they stretch them, but the voice is always left so alone because it’s supposed to be the honest and sincere part of the recording. I can’t bear that. I think it’s up for grabs, you know? You can do whatever you like with it, really.
How did you tweak your own voice?
It’s a program in Logic called Vocal Transformer, but I’m using it to do two-harmony voices. And I love the sound of those voices because they’re sort of sexless. They’re neither male nor female, so they have a sort of muted ghostliness to them, which I think works.
Have you been been paying attention to rap music these days? Because if anyone is really running with the idea that the human voice is something that can be mutated and transformed, it’s people like Future and Kanye West.
Yeah, I agree, and I like it a lot. But I’ve been saying it for a long time! [Laughs.] I keep saying to people, for the last 40 years, “The next thing is the voice!” The most interesting things, at least to me, in terms of vocal manipulation, are happening in Arabic music right now. Arabic pop music has some incredible things going on. They just make you laugh, they’re so ludicrous. So it takes all of the sort of filigree decoration of Arabic music and multiplies it by 10, so people are doing impossibly fast decorations. It’s very nice.
Why did you decide to finally release a Velvet Underground cover?
Well it comes from an album that made a lot of difference in my life. Probably my favorite pop record of all time, I guess. I recorded that song actually about  years ago, and I sat on it for a long time. The body of it. Anyway, I always liked it, and I never saw a place to release it.
I went to see a performance by Hofesh Shechter, the Israeli choreographer. And it was an amazing, amazing piece of frantic choreographic activity. And then suddenly, at the end, it all stopped, and a Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now,” but the orchestral version, started up. And it was such an incredible mood shock, to go from that franticness of the dancing to this amazing-sounding huge orchestra and smoky, big warm sound. So I remembered that. I thought, “What a great idea, to just have a change of that kind into that sort of warmth.” And I think the reason I loved that song was because of the, well I think it’s a beautiful song musically, but the key line is, “I’m set free to find a new illusion.” And that’s what I really like. The idea that you don’t go from illusion to reality, but you go from one illusion to another one, or one story to another one. That seemed to me to be a nice way to seal that record.
The most famous quote about the Velvet Underground has been attributed to you over and over again. Can you confirm that you are the one who said it?
Do you mean the one about…
“Only 30,000 people bought the record, but…”
They all started bands. Yeah, I did say that. I said it to Lou, actually.
What did the Velvet Underground mean to you as a young man?
Well, I was in art school when I first heard the Velvet Underground. In fact, the Velvet Underground was, in a way, my gift to Roxy [Music]. That was the thing I sort of took into the band, the idea that you could operate at that level of artistic seriousness, if you like…. They didn’t seem to be connected to the entertainment business. A phrase I’ve always hated, actually. I will never be accused of it. They seem so deliberately un-entertaining. I liked that. But what it meant to me, was… I struggled for a long time at art college about whether I become a pop musician or whether I become a painter, a fine artist. I really loved things in both of those fields. And then, one of the things the Velvet Underground made me realize, was that actually, they could be the same thing.
Since we’re still so close to the loss of your friend David Bowie, do you have a memory that made you confident of his unique genius?
The only thing I can say is that watching him work out a vocal for a song was very, very interesting to me. I’ve never seen anybody do that in quite such a studied way. What it was for him was finding out who the person was singing it, so trying out different voices and different inflections of voice and standing in a particular way. So it was like a method actor. Once he knew who this person was, who was doing the singing, everything else fell into place.
Kanye West is actively tweaking his latest record: He put one version on a streaming service and the idea is that he’s going to keep going in and fixing it. And the album is never really “done.” You did sort of a similar thing when you pulled My Squelchy Life in 1991 and then turned it into Nerve Net in 1992. How do you feel about this new idea of the album that he’s sort of putting forth right now?
I like that idea. I have a piece at the moment playing at the Natural History Museum, and I installed it about four or five weeks ago and then two weeks later, I went back and put a whole new piece in [laughs].
None of the posters acknowledge this. The posters always say, “Music by Brian Eno,” but they don’t actually say which piece. I don’t see why music should ever be finished, really. It’s fine that music has its own life. This actually always happened to written music, because written music was always open to interpretation. If you hear a Furtwängler version of a Beethoven symphony and then you hear a Simon Rattle version, it’s definitely changed. It’s interesting that records, of course, don’t change, which is both the miracle and the downside of them, that they they’re static. So, of course, what I was doing with generative music all these years, with the various apps I made, is to try to make a kind of music that doesn’t sit still, that keeps changing.