For Brian Eno the biggest surprise in life these days isn’t that, at age 63, he continues to be one of the world’s most sought-after record producers, making platinum sellers with the likes of U2 and Coldplay. Or even that he remains a prolific solo artist four decades into his career, turning out three albums in the past two years. Rather, it’s his positive attitude.
“Something I’ve realized lately, to my shock, is that I am an optimist, in that I think humans are almost infinitely capable of self-change and self-modification, and that we really can build the future that we want if we’re smart about it,” he said. Given Eno’s characteristically eclectic form of brain gymnastics, the conversation was only partly about his new album, “Drums Between the Bells” (Warp), released recently.
Ask Eno a question – about lyrics, say, or his song writing process – and an hour later you walk away with an unsummarizable catalogue of big ideas on music, history and technology, as well as a reading list to keep you occupied for a month. In a recent telephone interview from his studio in London, Eno enthusiastically discussed evolution, the meta-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, the effect of cloud music services on creativity and why “music” itself is an outdated term. (His suggested replacement, for which he has even designed an app: “sonema,” which, he says, connotes a sense of “sonic immersion and environment” more appropriate to the 21st century.)
And, not least, he explained his thinking behind “Drums Between the Bells,” a collaboration with Rick Holland, a young British poet, that is a kind of test of the limitations for interpreting the human voice.
To make it, Eno gathered various acquaintances with striking speaking voices – a graphic designer, an employee at his health club – and had them recite Holland’s lines, which express cosmic wonderment and artistic ambition in emphatic, Twitter-length phrases (“invent new colours that fly”). Then Eno stretched and tweaked those recordings to bring out quirks in the speakers’ enunciation and tone, and, pushing the songs further into a realm of artificiality, added a glitchy electronic soundtrack.
The effect, in tracks like “Bless This Space” and “The Real,” is a disembodied sing-speak that recalls both Brechtian Sprechstimme and those robotically stitched-together announcements in the subway.
“What I wanted to end up with,” Eno said, “was something that occupied a slightly different part of the spectrum between speech and song. So it wasn’t just speech and wasn’t just song, but some new hybrid in between.”
The album came about partly through the experimental spirit that has always guided Eno’s work and partly as a result of his long-standing vexation with the confines of traditional pop song writing. He began toying with recording speech back in the 1970s, the era when he grew from being the keyboardist and technical wiz in Roxy Music first into an influential-yet-little-heard solo artist and then into a really-influential-and-very-widely-heard producer and collaborator, working on landmark albums by David Bowie (“Low”), Talking Heads (“Remain in Light”) and U2 (“The Unforgettable Fire”), among others.
In recent years Eno has added to his portfolio the role of public intellectual, lecturing at museums and serving on the board of the Long Now Foundation, which is concerned with the next 10,000 years of human life. Led by scientists like Matt Ridley, who wrote “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves,” Eno has become convinced that, contrary to millenniums of pessimism, civilization is actually getting better all the time. Last year he programmed the Brighton Festival in England, which in addition to his audiovisual installation “77 Million Paintings” included a panel discussion called “Reasons for Optimism.”
That open-mindedness extends to his work. The sound of voices mutated into semi-human form may creep out some listeners, and early reviews of “Drums Between the Bells” have been mixed. But when Eno revisited the music of the spoken word about a decade ago, he came to see in it the potential to subvert some of pop’s fundamentals.
“The whole history of pop music had rested on the first person singular, with occasional intrusions of the second person singular,” he said. (To illustrate his point, he briefly affected a teeny-bopper croon: “I am this, I think this, and you do this, and you are this.”) “I was so bored with the idea of the whole song being based around some individual’s narrative. So I started working on ways to try to get rid of the idea that the voice in the song was the voice of the song, that that was the centre of the meaning of the song.”
Manipulating such a basic tool of human communication, he said, “separates the voice from the kinds of emotions you might normally associate with it, so it becomes more emotionally ambiguous; it means there’s more interpretive space given the listener.”
In 2002 he encountered Holland, then 24, at a student multimedia performance in London, and they began to work together the next year. Eno, a constant tinkerer whose studio shelves are filled with his unfinished works, began squirrelling away potential tracks for the project in a folder on his computer labelled Hollandry, and over the past eight years the two men met when Eno’s schedule allowed.
“We just worked when we could fit it in,” Holland said, then corrected himself: “Well, more when he could fit it in, to be fair. I was ready whenever the phone rang.”
Describing his philosophy of studio work, Eno tries out another big metaphor: cowboys versus farmers. Most of what happens in a recording studio is repetitive monotony, tilling the same soil over and over to make slight improvements – insufferably boring, in his view. Eno prefers to see himself as a cowboy – or, even better, a prospector – constantly seeking out new territory, never staying in the same place for long.
“In my normal life I’m a very unadventurous person,” Eno said. “I take the same walk every day and I eat in the same restaurants, and often eat exactly the same things in the same restaurants. I don’t adventure much except when I’m in the studio, and then I only want to adventure. I cannot bear doing something again, or thinking that I’m doing something again.”
He paused a moment.
“Of course, like anybody I repeat myself endlessly, but I don’t know that I’m doing it, usually,” he added, and laughed.