Rain noises for sleeping, chill beats for studying, spacey melodies for getting stoned: The ecosystem of sounds known as ambient music excels at blocking out the world. But Brian Eno, the man who named the genre, has spent a life recording songs that reflect the reality around him. In the 1970s, the drab bustle of an airport terminal and the ruckus of New York City helped inspire him to use then-novel synthesizer technology to paint pastoral soundscapes: the yin to the yang of modern life.
On the new album FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE, the 74-year-old Eno now reacts to the global climate crisis—and uses his own voice for urgent purposes. Blending ambient music and operatic pop for his first vocals-driven solo album in 17 years, he croons about ominous visions in a tone that’s notably lower than he sounded in his early days as a rock-and-roll front man. “I found a new voice, and with it a new way to sing,” Eno wrote in an email after we chatted on Zoom last month. “And with that, a new set of feelings that suddenly became singable … regret mixed with joy, or melancholy with resignation.”
On a 2021 podcast episode, Eno—whose résumé also includes playing keyboards in Roxy Music and producing for Coldplay and U2—said that he often dislikes when lyricists strain to fit important messages into their music. But when I spoke with him, he wasn’t shy about conveying a political agenda. At one point, he got up to show me a T-shirt he’d had printed with an environmentalist slogan: WE’RE ON THE SAME SIDE. (Last year, he founded EarthPercent, a nonprofit to make the music industry greener.) Bespectacled and sporting a neat, white beard, he also fulfilled his reputation as an artist-intellectual, pausing after each question before giving a considered, forceful answer.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Spencer Kornhaber: In the past, you’ve expressed some ambivalence about how lyrics work on the listener. What is the role of lyrics?
Brian Eno: So many of the songs that I’ve loved all my life, I still don’t know what the fuck they’re about. For me, lyrics are as impressionistic as any other aspect of the sound. I resist saying “This is what this song is about,” because if that was really all that it was about, I would’ve just written the lyrics down and put them in an envelope and sent it to somebody.
Kornhaber: This is your environmentally themed album, so you do have a message here. What’s the likelihood of that message making change?
Eno: One of the things that art does is it suggests things that you might pay attention to. It’s a way of saying, “Why don’t you look at this?”
I’ve been thinking about the word propaganda. I came up with another word a few years ago, which is prop-agenda. Propaganda is easy to detect and defend against because we recognize it. Prop-agenda is what our governments do now. They put something else on the agenda, misdirecting you away from what people would prefer you didn’t think about. It’s the essential ambience of commercial life, really: that we keep your mind preoccupied with shit.
What are the chances of changing anything? Well, things do change, and they always are changing. I’d like to give people the feeling that they could be included in this process. All the decisions you make as a consumer and as a parent and as a worker are part of the machinery of how the world changes. So saying to people, “You’re already an agent of change. Are you conscious of that? And would you like to take more control of that?” That’s the first message for me.
For big social movements like the climate-change movement, the critical moment is when people [within it] start to realize how big it is. At the moment, we’re still acting like we’re the embattled resistance fighting against huge forces like the market and corporations. But in fact, everything’s on our side, except a few intransigent systems that certain people—by and large, rich people—have a huge interest in maintaining.
Kornhaber: Do you want to be making prop-agenda? Is it okay for your music to be thought of that way?
Eno: The agenda is currently dominated by the usual preoccupations of the media, which is bad news. What I would like to say is that there’s actually a lot of good news, but it is not dramatic. Mostly it’s to do with things like technical changes in solar panels. Within every field that I know anything about—arts, sciences, economics, government, politics, and so on—I can see movements that are all preparing for a different future. We’re making progress. There’s this huge root system growing underneath our feet. I would really love to make people more aware of that.
Kornhaber: That’s an interesting way of framing the new album, which, to me, is a little devastating. There’s an apocalyptic mood. How does that fit with this desire to kind of wake people up to the positive?
Eno: I think there’s only a couple of places where it’s quite gloomy.
Kornhaber: Maybe those hit me more. Like “Garden of Stars.” That’s a very powerful song; it’s scary.
Eno: Oh, yes, yes. Well, that’s the gloomiest one. But do you know what I was thinking about when I wrote it? These people who believe the universe is a game that’s been constructed by some other being. Like, if you were now playing World of Minecraft, in that little world you are a god because you can change the rules. So the supposition, which apparently Elon Musk believes in, is that the universe is a generative world and we happen to be living in it.
I was just writing that song as though that were true. The I in the song is the person building the world. And that person can switch the world off if they want to. They can gleefully watch it collapse under its own internal forces and contradictions. If you’re a simulationist, you can find that acceptable and quite amusing. We’re just an accident of the design.
Kornhaber: In the music of the album, there are a lot of low, groaning, distorted sounds that are really remarkable. What am I hearing?
Eno: Partly because I don’t have bass and drums on there, there’s a lot of space for those kinds of sounds. Often when I’m making a piece, I’m thinking like a painter: I need more shadow here in order for this brightness to shine.
One of the catastrophes of recording lately—not so much now; people got wise to it—but there was a period when people wanted every instrument to be at the front of the mix. I call those “cocaine mixes,” because they often seem to accompany the ingestion of lots of cocaine. Everything is brightened up and sharpened up and pushed to the front of the mix. Of course, that means that everything is in the same place, essentially. You start to realize after a while that in order for something to appear bright, there has to be something dark beside it. And vice versa.
So just from a purely painterly point of view, those [low] sounds are counterpoint to the higher, brighter sounds that I’m using. I want to make universes that seem credible, which means that they have threat as well as joy in them. Even the one song you’re talking about, “Garden of Stars,” has joy to it. It’s slightly manic, because the guy [who runs the simulation] is rubbing his hands and therefore sounds quite dangerous.
Kornhaber: Making art that considers the end of the world is an ancient preoccupation. What is your relationship with that history?
Eno: I have a resistance to it because of its religious connotations—and the notion that within religion, apocalypse is sort of welcomed. I would do everything in my power to prevent [apocalypse] if I could. I don’t see any redemption in it. I just see a nasty, messy end with no winners, except the animal kingdom. They might be very happy to see us enraptured.
Kornhaber: Ambient music in the early days was meant to push back against oversaturated capitalism. How do you think that has panned out as the influence of ambient music has moved through the culture?
Eno: Well, I think it does make a difference. Somebody I think is very disruptive, in a good way, is Marie Kondo, and her message is similar. She’s saying, “Do you really want that much? Wouldn’t you actually enjoy it more if there were less of it?” Ambient music is music that leaves a lot of things out. It’s doing the opposite of what a lot of entertainment music is doing, which is trying to keep your attention, catch it and tweak it at every bar. This is saying, and she’s saying, “What about a world in which the most active thing is your own thought?”
Those things have made a huge difference to what people think their lives are for and what they should find enjoyable. Of course, the rest of the culture still goes on. It’s not all going to suddenly disappear because Marie Kondo and a few ambient records come out. But I think it does give people an alternative way of thinking about who they are.
Kornhaber: It’s interesting that minimalism has become a rich person’s aesthetic in some ways. What do you make of that?
Eno: It is partly because they have the luxury of asking themselves the question “What do I really like? And can I have it?” If you find out that what you really like is peacefulness, not a continuous, hectic barrage of exhortations to buy things, then if you’re rich enough, you can insulate yourself from all of those things. Wealth is insulation really. You can’t blame people who can afford it for following [minimalism]. But, of course, music is quite cheap.
Kornhaber: On Spotify, utilitarian mood music, such as rain noises for sleep, is so popular. What do you make of its ubiquity now?
Eno: It tells you what people want in their lives, doesn’t it? It tells you that people think they’re not getting enough of that, whatever that is.
I was wondering the other day why, in a lot of music, the reverbs keep getting longer and longer. And I thought, well, it’s because big reverbs give you a sense of a big space. That’s not something that most of us have. Fifty percent of all humans now live in cities, and the numbers are going up all the time. A lot of our evolutionary history was spent in big, open spaces, and so we obviously still have a hankering for those. So we choose them in virtual ways. That music you’re describing to me sounds like a virtual countryside.
Kornhaber: There’s birdsong on this album. What’s interesting about birdsong to you?
Eno: Its suggestion of the outside. Music is nearly always an inside activity, and one of the main things I wanted to do with ambient music is to say “I’m not telling you where the edges of this music are.” In quite a lot of my ambient records I’ve included deliberately nonmusical sounds at the edges of the mix to blur the boundary between the music and the rest of the world. It’s embracing everything and saying “Think of all of that as music.”
That’s one of the reasons that people like ambient music when they’re working. The rest of the world no longer seems like harsh pokes and jabs into your concentration. Now it all seems to belong under one umbrella. Birdsong is another of those edge-blurring sounds because it says to you, you’re outside, or at least your window is open. It says you’re not stuck in a small room, though in fact you may well be.
Kornhaber: That idea of everything being music—there’s also an environmental subtext to it. Is that part of the goal?
Eno: Yes. Ecosystems aren’t bounded. A lot of the mess that we’re in comes from the idea that systems are separate from each other—that we can suck up resources of the Earth and chuck the trash back, and that’s outside. There is no outside. That’s what we have to remember.