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Daniel Lanois: I Look for Commitment and a Lot of Heart and Soul

Nenad Georgievski By

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If there is anything that I have learned from all of the artists that I've worked with, it's that they have a similar appetite to know what lies ahead, around the bend, what's over the mountain. It's just the way it is.
Whenever I'm asked to name a list of Top 10 all time favorite records, the list slightly changes and shuffles every time. However, one of the most common denominators to those diverse lists is producer/musician Daniel Lanois. Often called a "studio wizard" or "studio magician," this producer has become renowned both for his proficiency in the studio and his gift for motivating and enabling people to reach new creative heights. Armed with an intuitive combination of emotions and technical proficiency, over the last 30 years he has been involved in some of the most ambitious and progressive new music as either a producer or an engineer, burning the midnight oil in his own laboratories. Those to have benefited from his presence include groups such as U2 and the Neville Brothers, as well as singers Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson, Neil Young, and many others whose work often helped define the sound of various eras.

Even before the famous teaming up with British producer Brian Eno, Lanois, had a good reputation as a producer and in the early '80s he was named Canadian producer of the year for the work he did with Martha & The Muffins (his sister's new—wave band). In the beginning, he built a simple studio in his parent's basement in Hamilton, Ontario with very little technology. He then moved it to Grant Avenue, Ontario, a three storey Victorian House. At the time, Eno, who was living in New York heard the sounds coming out of that studio and arrived there in 1980. Before long, these two fell into a fruitful working relationship. The house became a laboratory for processing sound and during this period an avalanche of genre defining ambient records were made by pianist Harold Budd, trumpeter Jon Hassell, producer/guitarist Michael Brook, pianist Roger Eno and the Lanois brothers themselves. Even Eno famously recorded albums such as On Land (EG, 1982) and Apollo: Atmospherics and Soundtracks (EG, 1983).

The Grant Avenue sound gave emphasis to textures, nuances and treatments which were transferred to mainstream rock when Eno and Lanois recorded U2's Unforgettable Fire (Island, 1984). This record is a document of a group on the cusp of something and the start of a fruitful collaboration from where Lanois and Eno went on to produce a string of several milestone records for the band, from the watershed record Joshua Tree (Island, 1987) to Achtung Baby Achtung Baby (Island, 1991), All that You Can't Leave Behind (Island, 2000) and the final No Line On The Horizon (Island, 2009) where both Lanois and Eno were credited as co-writers. The stint with U2 also opened doors to other intriguing projects and blockbuster productions, like Peter Gabriel's Birdy (Charisma, 1985), So (Geffen, 1986), and Us (Real World, 1992) or Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy (CBS, 1989) and "Time Out of My Mind" (Columbia, 1997) which ranks among the best of his career.

Imbued with riskiness, experimentation and tons of soul Lanois navigated these artists towards highly creative peaks which resulted not only in landmark creations in their own, individually rich careers, but also watershed records that were both signs of the times whilst pointing to the future. Another thing that is characteristic for Lanois is that he is always in the trenches with the artists playing, meaning his role is often blurred and there are no distinct separations whether he is "just" a producer or a contributor. In fact, he is a collaborator on every step of making of a record. In the late 1980's, with the success of his work, Lanois bought a house in New Orleans and turned it into the Kingsway Studios, where he recorded the Neville brothers' standout Yellow Moon (A&M, 1989) and Dylan's Oh Mercy as well as his own first solo record, Acadie (Red Floor Records, 1989).

In between these huge productions he would record his own albums which reflected his folk rock interests, like For the Beauty of Wynona (Music on Vinyl, 1993), Shine (Anti, 2003) or Belladonna (Anti, 2006), which married his talent for textures and ambiances and the use of lap top guitar. His passion is best reflected in the documentary film he recorded Here is What Is, which reads like a diary where with the help of director Adam Vollick he recorded sessions for his album of the same title, but also productions he did in that period with U2, singer Sinead O'Connor, The Band's keyboardist Garth Hudson.

His latest offering is an all instrumental record titled Flesh and Machine which carries the spirit of exploration of his work with Eno in the '80s whilst also, in Lanois' opinion, producing symphonic sounds of the future. This record also embraces a cinematic element as Lanois joined forces with Robert Milazzo of the Modern School of Film in order to present videos for each song on this record.

All About Jazz: Can you elaborate on the creative process behind Flesh and Machine? How did you capture ideas as they arrived for this record?

Daniel Lanois: It's a very technologically driven record and I use a lot of sampling and dubbing. But I sampled my own instruments and my own voice. Well, I sampled other people's records as well (laughing). This allowed me to have a very unique personality and for the record to find its own direction. I have dreams to step into the future with my sonics, so I decided to go after symphonic or orchestral results but without the sound of familiar orchestral instruments. I wanted brand new ones that haven't been heard before. So that was part of my driving force and criteria.


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