Brian Eno on Kanye West, David Bowie and His Immersive LP ‘The Ship’
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.”
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