"I'm completely devoted. I'm better than your wife right now."
As a producer, Daniel Lanois has helped create several of the most monumental albums of the '80s and '90s: U2's Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree (both coproduced with mentor Brian Eno, along with Eno's own album Ambient 4: On Land), Peter Gabriel's So, and Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind.
He has also produced progressive, career-enlivening albums for the likes of Willie Nelson (Teatro), Emmylou Harris (Wrecking Ball), Neil Young (Le Noise), and The Neville Brothers (Yellow Moon). His diverse productions share signature elements of rhythmic propulsion, voluminous soundstages and sonic complexity.
Lanois has another career as a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist who has covered a matrix of French-Canadian folk, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock, and ambient disciplines since 1989's Arcadie. His recently released Flesh and Machine is an exploratory album of dense ambient sounds developed from acoustic sources of drums, voice, guitar, and steel guitar into new sonic materials. The album is a master class in musical texture and sonic shape that rewards a close listen.
I spoke with Daniel before a performance in Brooklyn about his approach to producing, his experiences with Dylan and Gabriel, and his latest solo work.
JB: In a couple interviews with you I read how you describe the music coming together from little discoveries and by-products and mistakes, in a kind of cumulative way. Is that accurate?
DL: I’d say that’s accurate. I wait for some little piece of magic to guide me to the next position. Not everything we do is fascinating at first. I just get on with working in the most pedestrian way really, and if I’m lucky enough to hit on a sound that seems special, then I just use that as a stepping stone to the next stage. That special sound will be inspiring to me, and I’ll just see what else comes my way. If I don’t have a great sound, then I don’t come up with much. It can even be for the discovery of a melody. If I sit down with my steel guitar for example, and I have an inspiring sound—could be a nice clear sound or could even be in a more private setting—then that makes me bump into melodies that I wouldn’t come up with otherwise.
As a photographic analogy, if you get up in the morning and the sun is beautiful, suddenly even a piece of construction equipment looks beautiful up against the apple tree; there you go, you’ve got a beautiful picture. If the light’s not beautiful you might just walk by thinking, “boy I gotta get out of this dump!” You just never know how it’s going to come your way.
JB: You do a lot of preparation when you’re going into a recording project and I’m wondering what that entails. Is it researching the artists you’re producing? Is it more reflectively thinking about how you want to approach it? What’s that preparation process like?
DL: The preparation is mostly about not wanting to waste people’s time once we get in the workplace. I imagine the needs we’re going to have on that day, and I just try to have that all organized. Some of it is not very glamorous, like checking power sources and making sure we don’t have any loud fans where we’re going to record quiet things. As technology has moved on, one problem is that computer equipment is noisy because it’s got cooling fans. When you’ve got an “ooohrrrrrrrr” sound happening in a place where you’re going to want to make delicate music, you've go to put your computers in a sound-proofing cooler, maybe in a closet. So some of it is just fundamental 'plumbing.'
Then of course it goes on from there; I’ll think, what instruments will people be playing? If I’m working with Dylan, I want to make sure I keep all his live vocals. I anticipate that Bob might want to change some lyrics, or maybe improve a couple of vocal lines. If he’s playing an acoustic guitar, and his vocals get into the guitar mic, when I punch in the new vocal part, I’m not going to be able to have the acoustic in because it’s going to have the wrong lyric. So then I design a pickup for the acoustic guitar, so that Bob is playing acoustically. But I keep a little amp in the corner that is in fact the source of the recorded sound, so that when I drop in the other vocal, the other lyric line, I still have a clean guitar sound without the other lyric on it. Another example is if I want to have a band room where we’re still working on songs, but we want to be singing in the band room and we want the PA to keep everybody excited about the work, the PA can’t be screaming into the drums or you’re going to ruin your drum take.
It's just things like that, really. Probably the least glamorous aspect is something that I’ve put a lot of time into so that we’re not presented with a problem on the day and we have to stop and say, “OK, everybody stop now and give us a half hour because we got a problem to solve.” There will always be problems, but let’s not have plumbing be the problem. Emergencies are one thing, and they will always come your way, but certain things are not emergencies, they are fundamentals. So most of my prep goes towards fundamentals.
JB: A lot of that has a direct effect on the mood and psychology of what you’re working on: if everything’s set up, people can come in and be at ease. With your Dylan example, you understand his particularities and you’re anticipating them. It’s an anticipation that matches the situation you’re working in.
DL: Absolutely. When you have a room full of smart people, what are you going to do with your time with them? I want to talk about smart things. I want to know what’s going on with them philosophically, what they’re driven by, maybe records they love. They might bring something to my attention, something that they grew up with, that they admire a certain kind of sound. This has happened with Dylan: he said to me, "there’s some records that I really like from the 40s and 50s and I’d like for you to hear them; not to mimic them, but just to understand the energy of them, and the beauty of them." That’s the kind of conversation that I want to have with people that I work with.
When I worked with Neil Young, he said to me, "I’d like to make 10 acoustic songs and I’d like you to make that recording for me and film me as well." And I said, "OK Neil, sounds great, we’ll do both of those, I will record you and film you. " I have a very nice little Guild acoustic guitar, it’s a little beauty. I put a pickup on it, we had a very good acoustic sound. It was a nice C24 stereo mic. But then I had six other sounds available to me that start with that pickup. From the pickup, I ran a long cable down the hall to a nice little amp with tremolo, then I hid an echo box—I had more of a direct echo sound from my Korg echo machine system.
But this kind of thing does not happen fast. You run into ground issues, so you want to solve all your radio frequency problems and your ground issues before Neil walks in the door. So when Neil Young walked in the door, I said, try this little Guild that I’ve prepared for you. He picked up the Guild and he loved it. He said, “this is the most magic sound I’ve heard in years. Let me leave my Martin in the case and I’m happy to try out the Guild.” Had I waited for him to pull out his Martin from the case, we would’ve been working on a Martin sound for three hours, maybe six. But because I was smart enough to anticipate what he might need—per his request, I did not ram anything down his throat—I presented him with an acoustic guitar as he asked me to record for him.
So there it is: it’s not some wild stroke of imagination or anything, it’s just a little bit of anticipation and, as usual, prepare. Don’t wait for people to come in to pull out your equipment.
That's a lesson that I learned in Toronto when I was a kid, when I was a session guitar player hired to play guitar on a bunch of sessions. I noticed that all the studio people were forever rummaging through closets, fishing out equipment for the application at hand. Hours would go by, people would be in the game room playing pinball while some other guy hit the snare for hours on end, and I said to myself, “is this what rock 'n' roll is about?” The Ramones walk in the door and they’re going to play pinball? No way, man! I want the Ramones walking in and rocking out!
I imagined what it might be like if I went to Detroit. What were the people at Motown doing? Well, they had a house drum kit. James Jamerson, that's where he plugs in his bass —it doesn’t become a Farfisa organ by night, it’s the bass sound! So I decided then that I’d work with my “stations,” in my own recording studios. I had all my sound stations plugged in all the time. That’s my bass sound, that’s my drum kit—already mic’ed, so in a split second, you've got the house drum sound. And on and on: my processing gear, same thing. This is how I get my VCO sound, this is how I get my delay, this is how I get this that and the other thing. I had a nice house menu. If they walk in, they might not have to pull the bass out of the case. Because I’ve got a nice bass, well-maintained, hand-picked, with beautiful sound, and I can go, “try this bass sound.” Nine times out of ten the bass players say, “that’s a better sound then I get.”
JB: With Dylan, and every other artist you’ve worked with, you've had a philosophical discussion about what people want to do. It sounds like a pretty active thing, as opposed to feeling it out without talking about it. Can you tell me how you approach those conversations? Are you pretty direct about it with these artists?
DL: Yes. I’m lucky to have worked with some quite undeniable talent, so what gets talked about before the studio is pretty important to me. I did pay a visit to Bob’s house to listen to some songs long before we went in the studio and he just had the piano and it was just the two of us in a quiet room. We talked about his songs, but we also talked about records that he loves. I left Bob’s house with a nice bit of homework to do: records he wanted me to listen to that I’ve listened to over the years but hadn’t heard in a while, including a Little Walter record.
The records I listened to per Bob’s recommendation all had a sense of discovery about them—a sense of urgency, a sense of the rise of the medium. To get back to photographic terminology, long before everybody had a camera in their hands, there was a fascination with the lens. The photographs that came out of the 50s, kind of around the birth of rock 'n' roll, often had an innocence about them. Even the little Kodak snapshots were beautifully framed. There was a sense of something unfolding.
So with Bob, the challenge was that we can’t pretend to be in the 50s, because we are now in 1997. So what are we going to do? We appreciate the tonalities of the references, but what we’re in fact addressing here is innocence, a naïve spirit, and a collision of harmonic structure—the ebb and flow and communication by proximity and presence of people. Bob wanted people in the room, unlike the record we made in ‘87, Oh Mercy, where it was just him and me and two chairs. And I appreciated what he was talking about.
So then I thought, we have an opportunity to create "depth of field."s It’s something we love as human beings because it’s part of our defense mechanism. If something sounds dull, then it’s far away and not going to eat us. If it sounds crisp and in your ear, then it might be a buzzing bee, and so on. That instinct in us is as a defense mechanism, and also for music appreciation. So I decided that I would embrace natural depth of field: if somebody sounds far away on the record that’s probably because they were far away from Bob’s vocals. And so I saw this as a window of opportunity and that record has a lot of that in it. I’m not going to let preconception shackle me, I might have preferred another kind of approach. But given that it was Bob’s request, I said, OK, I will respect your position and your request, and I’m going to make damn sure that we work within that, but what’s most important is: we must make a classic.
The thing that frightened me the most about going into Time Out of Mind is that I did not want to sound like a bar band playing the blues. The blues is a very dangerous territory to walk into because so much great work has been done in America. “You’re going to enter the arena of blues, in 1997, really? That’s pretty fascinating. Wouldn’t you do it in 1947, or ‘57? Wouldn’t that be better? Yes, but I wasn’t born!” So, working within the framework of blues, how’re we going to make it special? There lies the challenge. Other people had a go at it, Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones had a go at it. He recorded Time Out of Mind and they didn’t get magic. Ronnie’s terrific and I wouldn’t disagree with any philosophy that he has. But in the end, did you get it, or did you not?
And so I had to find a way to blaze through the confines of regular blues and build something special. I kept waiting for that one little crack of light to shine through the door that would give me an opportunity to do something original within the familiar framework of blues. It doesn’t take a lot for me to notice it, it takes a lot to do something about it. That record is a blues record, but it has other dimensions in it. What are the other dimensions? They’re a little hard to talk about because they’re largely driven by instinct, and vision, and what it is that I have in me that allows me to seek out the unusual and get magic even within a familiar form. And that lives beyond academic measurement, that’s just down to what I call the 'soul-o-meter.' At every bend in the road, what are you responding to? Are you going to let a cliché dictate how you see your day, or see your life? Not me, man. I wait for that one little thing that’s going to be different and original and I just go after it in a big way.
JB: With all the big talents you’ve worked with, it seems like you would sometimes get into a situation where obviously you’re working for a common purpose, but there’s some pushing back and forth in terms of resistance you might get from an artist. What’s that dance like, how do you know how to handle yourself?
DL: I find that resistance can be dealt with through a lot of suggestions— “maybe this way, maybe that way, have you thought about this…”—and you give a lot of suggestions when things are not going well. Resistance only happens when things don’t go well. That’s because people are trying to figure out how to solve a problem. The best way to solve a problem is to not have a problem to begin with. I always say, if you get a great first day, you get to have a second day. If you’ve got a problem on the first day, you might not have any work on the second.
JB: What about the story of you and Peter Gabriel duking it out where you nailed him inside his barn? With that, you’re taking a pretty active stance in getting him to do something, even though it’s for mutual creative benefit. When you get into that kind of a situation, one when you’re really going to push somebody, what is navigating that like?
DL: Nailing Peter into his writing room was a reminder to him of my commitment to him. What I’m saying to Peter when I nail him in the room is, “I’m not here to waste my time. I’m one of the devoted record making specialists, and I’m here for you, to serve you. I’m not taking phone calls, I’m not lining up the next project, I’m completely devoted to you. I’m better than your wife right now. That’s how devoted I am to you. And I’ve come a long way, and I’m here to make a masterpiece, my friend. And if you’re going to dilly dally on the telephone, or try to handle other aspects of your business or your life in my presence, you’re going to hear about it.” It’s as simple as that. You want diplomacy and kindness and consideration? Get another guy. Because I’m the biggest asshole in the world and you’re fucking gonna hear about it. That’s it.
JB: I understand it better now: taking your commitment seriously as the reason for pushing back. And at points of resistance, you’re both looking for solutions. It’s only at times when you’re trying to get someone to match your energy and commitment where the static is more likely to happen.
DL: I think people feel the presence of commitment and it’s very contagious. If you’re in a work situation and it means a lot to you, other people are going to feel that. It’s not just breezing in and out of a job. And I’m not the kind of person that’s about to let up or accept middle ground. That’s why I don’t like to make records that much; because they really hurt me. I’m not 20 years old and I don’t want to hurt myself that way anymore. Plenty of producers out there are breezing in and out of projects. They do terrible work and have no shame about it. They might say, “you know, I made the phone calls and the emails went out and we brought in the players and that’s what we got, and that’s life, and maybe we’ll get it right on the next one.” I can’t live with that. I can’t live with mediocrity or diplomacy or “we have to make a compromise because of x or y.” That doesn’t appeal to me. When I worked with Bob Dylan on Time Out of Mind I had to ask the drummer to go home. I said, “I’m sorry, you sound like a barroom drummer. We’re about to play the blues here, and I want somebody from the South who’s a master on the high hat and the person I’m going to recommend is Brian Blade because he came up in church, he knows how to play for singers, and he’s not gonna sound like a bar musician.” Now, what kind of a person does that? That person might have to be an asshole. You’re going to send somebody home, and you’re going to bring in somebody else. That might be cruel to somebody. And I don’t mind.
JB: If you’re going to be the nice guy, you’re not going to fulfill your responsibility to make the best work that you can.
DL: Yeah, man. How many records do you hear out there that are average? Most of them.
JB: What kind of criteria does a potential project have to pass to make you wanna go out and work on it?
DL: Well you know I’m only ever mining—"soul mining" I call it —I can’t continue with something until we have a beginning: some kind of a vision that shows a lot of promise.
It’s a little hard for me to talk about this right now because I’m not producing anymore. I’m just devoted to the stage and what I’m doing with my sonics. Bringing the studio to the stage really appeals to me right now, just entering a new chapter of creativity, where I don’t want to be huddled up in a conventional studio someplace. I want people to come to the stage, that’s what I want right now. Some of the magic that the stage has to offer is what appeals to me. We tend to sound better on stages. I’ll show up for a show and we’ll do a sound check and it’s like, wow, isn’t this amazing. You don’t hear a squeak in the bass drum pedal, you don’t have ground issues, it’s a just a magic moment and everything sounds beautiful. That’s what I look for now. I never know where I’m going to find it. I’m not looking to be in that producer chair for two, three years at a time anymore.
JB: Do you see a cyclic pattern in terms of when you’ve gone back to making your own music? Some of those albums you did in the 80s were two-year projects or longer. Is there something that you sense in yourself when you say, I have to go explore my own work just for me, as a musician and as my own artist ?
DL: Yes, I’ve noticed that the chapters in my life have lasted maybe 5 to 7 years where I’ve been really excited about a certain direction. I came up as a studio rat. I was always a musician first. I loved it. I wanted to make records more than anything. And I was quite prepared to have my artistry serve other people’s work, and I’ve enjoyed helping people. It’s in my nature to offer kindness and support. And I still do that within my own music. I’ve got a very smart crew on the road with me, the idealistic young artisans who want to grow and do special things, so we’re still doing the same thing, we’re just on the road with it. I love projections and films and I work with a fella by the name of Adam Vollick who’s from Canada, and we get excited about visuals, and “let’s try this, and magnify this, and make this more psychedelic, use this lens…” That’s what fascinating to me right now: this cottage industry, this little gang that I have. It's Almost like the feeling of a first band where you’re hometown buddies and you really feel the nucleus of it. So that’s where I’m at right now, believe it or not. It would be easy for me to just throw a lot of money around, like, “yeah, there’s a lighting company in Berlin that did the Nine Inch Nails show, let’s call them up,” which is more like a stadium rock mentality. And I think people are getting tired of that. I have this conversation with my friends from U2. Is it going to be, “One more time, the biggest thing ever? Get the earth to stop rotating for the show!? Defy gravity!?” I think as people get bigger and richer— this is not specifically about them—but you get the impression that you just buy anything. “Let’s buy a show!” But I found something else; I’ve gone back to the beginning of things for myself. I like this nucleus I’m working with, I like the restrictions of my little team. I feel like the Ramones right now.