I first heard Roger Eno via Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, the dreamy music written for the NASA footage-based documentary, For All Mankind. The album featured him collaborating with his brother, Brian Eno (Tape Op #85), and Daniel Lanois (#37, 127). Since then, Roger’s made countless solo albums, many of them which remain centered on his pastoral piano compositions. Mixing Colours, the first album of solely him and his brother, came out in 2020, and highlights Roger’s keyboard melodies, which were electronically modified by Brian. On his new release, The Turning Year (via the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label), Roger instead blends his organic piano pieces with the string ensemble, Scoring Berlin, tracked at Berlin’s venerable Teldex Studio.
My first introduction to your work was Apollo. I thought it was one of the most beautiful records I’d ever heard.
It was remarkable, that. It was the first time that Brian and I had worked together; as well as Daniel, who on his own is a remarkable talent. I didn’t realize what that record would come to mean to a lot of people. The word “seminal” is often overused, but it did kick something off, didn’t it?
It’s a different style of “ambient” music. That record is so much about moods, but there’s also country music and almost classical, thematic music.
Exactly. It was a great thing. The making of it was an utter joy. We were making each other collapse laughing all the time. Put those two together, and you’ve got a real blessed situation.
Did you go to Hamilton, Canada, to work at Daniel’s [Grant Avenue Studio]?
Yes. I’ve got very fond memories of it. I’ve still got a lucky Canadian dollar coin that a man gave me who was shoveling snow. We got to talking; he obviously recognized my accent and said, “Here, have one of these!” I’ve still got it. I did a lottery scratch card with it. I hadn’t done one of those for ages. I scratched with this lucky coin, and I got enough money to get another scratch card. So, it works!
Low power magic.
With the collaboration on Apollo, what was the process for coming up with the basics of a piece and then adding to it?
It was a great situation, because there were no… I was going to say “rules,” but that’s not right. There wasn’t a leadership structure, so no one felt inhibited about saying, “I’ve got this. Let’s try this out.” People would run with that. If there was any chance that it would be good, then it would be pursued. Also, and this is still true with Brian, Danny, and myself: There aren’t any egos to deal with. It wasn’t as if someone said, “No, I don’t like it,” that the other person’s going to cry. It was very, very easy to work.
Did you have video of the film to view and write to?
Yes. It might have been on Betamax [videotape]. The great thing was it was the first cut of that film. I recently saw another version of it, which is covered in people talking. It ruined it. The first one was almost silent. There were a few people speaking at points. This second version piled on a load of dialog. The one that we worked to had these glorious, long images that – in our opinion – needed music to them. One of my favorites is when the landing craft is approaching the Moon, and the Moon gets closer and it gets bigger, but very slowly. Then, the landing module goes under the Moon into darkness. It’s such a beautiful thing, the gradation between this stark, white Moon and then to these different colors of blue until it ends up in darkness. It takes ages, and it is utterly beautiful. The mood is there. All we had to do was enhance it.
That would have been a quite fun project to work on. Nothing had to be carefully synced, as in some film score work.
After Apollo, you did the solo albums Voices and Between Tides. How did you see every opportunity to make a record? Did you try to visualize each in a different way?
Pretty much. I didn’t think of them as progressions. I didn’t think, “I ought to do this now, because I’ve just done that.” There are some artists that deliberately press boundaries, or explore all the time. I work the other way. I polish. I’ve got these little stones or gems that I’m constantly dealing with. I’m putting them in different orders and making them re-interesting. That’s how I look at it. A lot of it is piano-based, rather than thinking, “I know, I’ll start programming synths.” Come on! It doesn’t intrigue me. So, yes, the other thing is that someone will come along and say, “We’ve got these forces for you to use.” Like, for example, “There’s this good quartet.” Or I bump into a singer that I like. A lot of it is serendipity.
That seems to be the key for the new record. You’re on a more classical-known label, Deutsche Grammophon.
Now you’ve made a very organic-sounding, piano-based record with strings.
I knew I’d be making this for a while, so I was collecting pieces that I thought would be applicable. I realized this was going to be a good record right at the end, when I was doing the running order. I don’t like speaking like this, because it sounds very big-headed. I don’t mean it like that. Sometimes I just don’t know. I’ve ended up with something and I can go, “Oh, that’s okay.” Thank god it was better than that. It was the running order that put the cherry on top. Listen through, and it perfectly blends until the end, which blends back to the beginning. It’s got this lovely circular structure, where it goes back to the beginning; which, of course, is a very holistic way of looking at it, isn’t it?
Right, that makes sense. An album, as a piece of work, always needs an arc of some sort.
It’s not heavily mastered; not a very limited or compressed presentation. There are a lot of dynamics in the album.
That’s the joy of working with great players. As far as I know, there was hardly any desk work done, in terms of faders. We were using beautiful vintage Neumann mics and preamps. We had truly great players. I also had a sensational instrument: I was using a mid-’50s or ‘60s Steinway B, which has a warmer sound than the later Steinway Ds. Those are made huge, to compete against orchestras. The Steinway B is more the “chamber” model. It’s got a lovely warmth to it. Put those together and we don’t need to do much at the end.
Were you playing live with the strings for this project?
For some, yes.
This was done at Teldex Studio, right?
Yes. In Berlin. Incredible facilities. Probably the best studio I have ever worked at. The engineer, Tobias Lehmann, is a Tonmeister. He’s amazing. Amazing ears and technical knowledge. He’s like a physicist as well as a musician.
How did the sessions proceed? Were some of the songs done as piano performances and then adding strings?
Yes. Why did we do that? Because I was scared to make a mistake, to be honest. I was the weak element in that, because I’m used to improvising, doodling, and thinking, “Oh, that’s good,” and following where the music is going from there. That wasn’t appropriate for this, because there were written structures for the strings to follow. In English terms, I got the willies. Quite often I’d do my bit, and then they’d put theirs on top. We had two or three days to record. I knew they [the string players] wouldn’t make errors, because they’re fantastic.
With tracks like these, at this moderate tempo, was there a click track in your headphones for the piano performances?
No, I don’t think there was a click track. With a click track, the problem is that I haven’t got any element of flexibility. Even if it’s just a tiny bit, like a hesitancy that allows humanity to pop in. Even if it’s kind of a mistake, then we know humans made it.
“Hesitancy” is the perfect way to describe an element of your playing.
That’s a big part for me. The other thing I use a lot is space. I leave gaps. Which is a nightmare if I’m playing with a click track because I’ve never get silence. How can I possibly leave a long drift when I’ve got that bloody thing going?
And, on a technical front, if you’re wearing headphones it can bleed into the mic’ing of the grand piano, or especially upright pianos.
I’ve run into that a thousand times in the studio. I love this record, but the previous record, with Brian, Mixing Colours, was completely different.
I listened to that over and over for months. Finally, one day I was like, “MIDI! He’s sending his brother MIDI files.”
Well done you for getting it. That’s exactly what I did. I’d get up most mornings and – if it’s not lovely weather or I want to bike ride or walk my dog – I’ll come straight upstairs to my studio. The bedroom’s a floor below. I’ve got a good place to work here, and it’s left alone. I made a point of improvising. I used [Apple] Logic. Whatever came out, I’d keep maybe a couple of editions or get rid of some notes, but then I’d send them as “postcards” to friends of mine. I’ve got a very good visual artist friend of mine, Dom Theobald, who did the cover for Mixing Colours. I’d send him a track I thought he’d like, and I’d send my brother a track. Various people. Like postcards, “This is what I’m up to at the moment.” Of course, my brother, being brighter than me, thought, “Oh, these could make good soundtracks; pieces for film.” I think he collected about 80 pieces that I’d sent him. Then our manager, Ray Hearn, said, “No, this isn’t film music. This is an album.” That’s where it came from. The birth was me doodling, half-asleep with a cup of tea, and then sending them to Brian. He asked, after a while, “Could you send MIDI files as well?” So, you’re absolutely right. That’s what happened.
How much did he modify them? Were some of the tempos elongated?
Oh, god; you know my brother. [laughter] One of my favorite tracks on it is called “Iris.” It’s a piece of mine that Brian put into Logic and turned around, so we’re hearing it backwards. It’s one of my favorite pieces on the whole album. Isn’t that great? It goes back to the process of Apollo, doesn’t it? When he played me this, I didn’t get pissed off and say, “What the fuck are you doing, turning my music the wrong way around?” This was a great approach.
Was that in any way tied in with the reissuing of Apollo, and making the For All Mankind newly-tracked bonus disc that you all did before this?
Interesting. There were a couple of points before this. An orchestra had transcribed Apollo to be played live. They invited me along to play my parts. There was the re-release of the Apollo film, and consequently the record was re-released as well.
With the new “bonus tracks.”
Of course. So yeah, there was some of that, but it certainly wasn’t in the forefront of our minds. But put us both together, and maybe you’re going to get something similar! [laughs]
With your composition style, do pieces usually originate from improvisations?
Yeah. Largely that’s the case. As I said about polishing the stones, unless I deliberately want a different starting point, I’ll start with pieces that I’ve done before. Then I’ll think, “Hang on. I’ve already done that god knows how many times.” Then I’ve got the problem of saying, “Do I effect this?” I can do anything now with Logic. “Do I alter the melody?” Or frankly, “Is it really worth it?” Would I rather go to the pub instead?
Yeah. Most of them are born from improvisation.
Before a concert, do you have to go back and study your own work to remember the form?
Yeah, I’ll write crib sheets. I don’t have to do the whole thing. Particularly in live performance, I like improvising anyway, so there will be a starting point that I’m solid on. This is the same process I use if I’m doing music live for silent film, which is another thing I love doing.
Right, I read about that.
I’ll start with a kind of “home” that I can always go back to. It’s also good for listeners to have reference points because it lends itself to, “Oh, I see! That means that.”
Themes for each character and such?
You’re doing quite a bit of composition for TV and movies and right now. Are you recording at your home studio?
Yeah, I’m doing a documentary right now, and recording it here. For State of the Union, I used a studio in London, because I wanted live players. It was me on a piano, with upright bass, a sax player, and a fantastic drummer, Sebastian “Seb” Rochford. I used AIR Studios. We needed proper mic’ing, separation, and all that business.
Were you working up compositions at home and then bringing them in?
How did scoring Nick Hornby’s State of the Union TV series come about?
When I got invited along, I spoke to Stephen Frears, the director. I don’t live in London; I live out in the sticks in East Anglia. I don’t network a lot, deliberately. I like being left on my own. But I asked Stephen, “What made you think about me?” I naturally thought Brian would have mentioned me to him. He said, “It was David Gilmour. [Tape Op #138]” I worked with David a few years ago, on his Rattle That Lock album. I went down to his huge farm in East Sussex. A nice, easygoing bloke. Completely self-effacing. He’s got such a modesty to him.
This is how word spreads: When you work for someone, and they think you’re good. The critical thing is that you’re not an ass; you’re pleasant to be around. There are so many musicians who are capable, but you want someone you like spending the week with. Laraaji [Tape Op #141] was like that. He’s just a nice bloke to be around. You can buy technical skill, but you can’t buy personality.