Brian Eno began his workday by drawing a small card from a box that sits on a desk in his London studio. The box was labeled Oblique Strategies, a system Eno devised in the 1970s with artist Peter Schmidt to help break creative logjams, giving cryptic suggestions like “Emphasize the flaws” or “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” “Today, mine was ‘Be extravagant,'” Eno says. “I thought, ‘I’ll be extravagant with time.’ So we went for a walk in the sun, on this flimsy artistic excuse.”
Now, as the afternoon sun shines through the ceiling windows, Eno is jamming in his studio with his six-piece band. He plays a guitar set sideways on a podium, so he can scrape it with a slide while manipulating a fuzzbox to warp the sound, over the band’s fractured Afro-funk groove. “This is something we’ve never played before, and probably never will again,” Eno says with his mischievous-schoolboy grin. “It’s like watching the sausage get made. Sausage and politics – they say you should never watch either one being made. I would add music to that list.”
At 65, Eno remains a blur of restless creative energy. Today he’s jamming with Karl Hyde, from the U.K. techno crew Underworld. Their new album, Someday World, is the last thing anyone would have expected from this duo – a set of verse-chorus-verse pop songs. But they’re not playing these songs live; instead, they’re already back in the studio improvising new material. “The time to make something is when the energy’s up,” Eno says. “I bore very quickly. I can’t be bothered to do things over. It’s not out of some sense of nobility and commitment and progress – it’s just that I want to keep myself interested. I tire quickly of things that are too coherent.”
Nobody could accuse Eno’s career of coherence. The man has spent the past 40 years opening up new styles of music, then moving on to his next idea. He broke out of the English prog scene as Roxy Music‘s synth wizard, soon going solo for experimental classics like Another Green World, inventing ambient music in his spare time. He collaborated on hugely influential albums with David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, and composed the Windows 95 start-up theme.
His studio is an airy music lab – white walls covered with paintings, stuffed bookshelves, a discreet tool shelf, two mirror balls, a whiteboard with notes like “two-voice tension” and “tempo mapping.” In the studio bathroom, there’s a framed LP cover: The World of Steam, a vintage field recording of train noises. Almost apologetically, Eno says today’s session has to wrap up by 6:30 – that’s when his local group of amateur a cappella singers comes by. “It never stops around here,” he says, shuffling a stack of sheet-music folders.
While the band takes a break, Eno perches on a chair, mending a shoe with a broken heel. Eno is all crazy-uncle charm, with his silver beard and red spectacles, dressed in a dark shirt, jeans and neon-blue socks. His gift of gab is legendary; in U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” video, you can see him go off while Bono sits on a sofa and nods. (Who else could out-talk Bono?) Yet he’s a generous conversationalist – like an improv comedian, he responds to ideas with “Yes, and . . .” Then he usually comes back with a better idea.
Born in rural Woodbridge, England, the son of a postman, Eno went to art school to study painting – he only moved into music after a chance meeting with Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay on the London tube. In the early Roxy days, he was a glam theorist in feather boas, throwing odd electronic noises into the mix. Since then, he’s worked with everyone from Coldplay to Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. “Everything interesting I’ve ever done comes from excitement,” he says. “To get myself in that mood, the best strategy is to create an unfamiliar environment where I don’t have habits to fall back on. . . . I have to invent something to get excited. And when I’m excited, I invent things. So it’s a circular process.”
Despite his cult cachet – and all the singing he does on Someday World – he has little interest in the personality-driven side of pop. “I’ve never been a fan of anyone.” Seriously? “Seriously. I love a lot of people’s music but I’ve never been a fan of them. I never thought that because people made great music they would be interesting people. In fact, the opposite has often been shown to be true.”
Yet he’s worked with some of music’s biggest personalities – almost as if he’s a mechanic who helps clear their personalities out of the way of the music. “I wouldn’t say I ever thought of myself in those terms,” he says with a politely skeptical chuckle. “But it’s easy for people to become slaves of their success. They don’t trust the idea that going somewhere completely different can be as good. So it can be refreshing when they meet someone who says, ‘That one is weird – I like that one.'”
These days, all pop music is full of contrasting ideas from different eras jammed up together – in other words, it’s come to resemble an Eno record. “My daughters, if I look at the playlists in their various listening machines, there’ll be a doo-wop song next to a hip-hop song next to a folk-rock song,” he says. “Whereas, for us, you knew you had to hear the new Hendrix record, the new Stones record. There was a canon. Just like in every art form, there’s a period when there’s a canon, then there isn’t any longer. Because the distribution improves and there are too many things around. So listeners are more active than ever. They have more to look through, more decisions to make.” He laughs grandly. “Poor bastards.”
The band gathers again, riffing to a sampled loop. For a man who dubbed himself a “non-musician” – he once tried to get that officially listed as his profession on his U.K. passport – Eno seems right at home, snapping his fingers and nodding his head. Lyricist Rick Holland spontaneously writes words on a sketch pad and hands them to Eno or Hyde to sing. (Sample lyric: “One neon feather/In a new world.”) After manhandling his guitar, Eno plays a synth with elbows sticking out like a cartoon chimp. He picks up a cheap white plastic megaphone and whistles through it into the mic, making horrific feedback squeaks, then yells, “OK, up the tempo!”
The groove builds to an intense peak – then abruptly stops dead when the power cuts off. “The amp has blown up,” Eno says. “It’s all right, we’ll just turn it down a bit.” He fusses with the amp and glances at one of the laptops. “Wait, the computer says ‘overload’? Well, then, technical difficulties.” Shut down in midgroove, the musicians range from frustrated to crestfallen. But Eno just rubs his hands together in delight. “That’s great!” he crows. “It gives us a chance to start anew.”
This story is from the May 22nd, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.