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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.

AAJ: You've previously mentioned that you want to take the recording studio to the stage with this record. Can you elaborate on that?

DL: Quite specifically, I'm taking the multi-track machine on the stage and I have my sampling and dubbing equipment, so I have my echoes ready before the show. So every melody or a track is obviously a set of prepared tracks. What I do on top is brand new. And I have a tour coming with Brian Blade on drums. So it's me and Brian, and he plays on top. We're inventing new sounds, new dubs, new performances that belong to the night of the show. I'm very excited about it as I've never done this before. I have done it in the studio but people don't see what I do when in the studio. So this will be a chance to bring out that part of my craft.

AAJ: The new record brings together distinct features from two recent records of yours, like Belladonna and Black Dub (Jive Music, 2011). Somehow I think it combines the melodicity, the textures and dub effects of both records. Can you please compare and contrast Flesh and Machine with Belladonna and Black Dub?

DL: Thank you for noticing. What you say is true, that this is a philosophical continuation with the two records you referenced, especially when Brian Blade is playing the drums on a good few songs. Regarding Belladona, it was also a sonically adventurous record, so you could see that I still carry the torch of those values. But even beyond that, I think the references go back to the Brian Eno chapter of my life when in the '80s I made ambient records with Brian. I really appreciate the values we all offered then, and Brian is very devoted to ambient music. We all rolled up our sleeves and worked, guided by his vision. These aren't specifically the same sounds but the philosophy is very similar.

AAJ: To my ears, Flesh and Machine does not recycle the past with Eno, but it is mining for the future. This is a step forward rather than looking backwards.

DL: I wake up every morning with sonic ideas in my head, and I'm interested in the symphonic sounds that were provided to this record. I like the idea of a button push of symphony without the orchestral sounds of the instruments. So I'm very proud that the sounds are brand new. For example, there is a title on the record "Two Bushes." It's very symphonic but there is no understanding what the instruments are. Those are brand new sounds that allow the listener to be taken to a journey. And those are my responsibilities. My job is to take the listener on a sonic journey and I hope I achieved it (laughing).

AAJ: On this record, you team up with Robert Milazzo of the Modern School of Film to present a series of videos for the instrumentals. Could you tell us something about that, please?

DL: It's an idea we had early on, that would be a nice compliment from filmmakers if they were inspired by the music and made short films for the songs. I got very nice submissions. J. MckKay made a beautiful film of his daughter dancing on the porch to the song "Iceland." Then, Atom Agoyan provided me with a beautiful set of images. I'm very grateful and very surprised that these filmmakers would take time out of their schedules to provide me with something so beautiful. And I'm secretly hoping that when we get them all coming in we can have a show in Toronto. I have a temple in Toronto ( I call my shop "The Temple") and I would like to do an installation there where I will show the films by these wonderful contributors and have my music be experienced by surround sound—a 16 speaker installation. It was a very unexpected result and this will be the beginning of something that will keep evolving. I keep inviting filmmakers to provide films, we even have repeats, you know. We have three nice films for one song. We'll show one for a while, then switch to the other. It's really a nice way of not only showing films by established filmmakers, but amateurs as well, because we have invited unknown filmmakers to send in their stuff. We got some nice surprises. I think in these times it is nice to spot any kind of rising talent.

AAJ: You have a habit of videotaping all of the sessions you do. Here Is What Is, shot by Adam Vollick and the recently re-released Building Wrecking Ball (the making of Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball)are the prime examples of that. What has made you want to invite audiences behind the scenes during the "Making of" the process?

DL: I wish I could film everything, but I don't (laughs). Some of the most inventive things I do happen spontaneously and usually there is no camera around. We've been filming live, and that has been very interesting because of the new electro angle of the live show, there is a lot to be seen, about mixing and dubbing. We are taking a camera on the road now. Adam Volick will be traveling with us for a couple of weeks, and Brian Blade will be on the drums, and we will have a new way of looking at this body of work. It's nice to see how things are made. I'm not that much interested in making rock videos, but I am interested in exposing how things are done.

AAJ: The film shows how you immerse yourself in the studio. Do you operate on instinct in the studio?

DL: In the studio I use a digital machine called the Radar, which is a Canadian machine. That's my recorder, otherwise I use an old console. But my processing boxes are brand new. I keep my ear to the ground with the various types of processing devices. I'm not using Pro Tools, since I use the Radar system. Sometimes it is a bit of a harder job but I still have my beat-boxes and my Roland TR-808, which is the backbone you hear in the sound of a song called "Opera." That's the Roland TR-808 through some echo boxes. I still have Morley pedals for my bass. I use it for some of the bass sounds. I use a combination of ancient equipment and new technology—flash and machine, really. I hope it tells you something about it.

AAJ: When it comes to production, what are the things you look for in people's music which will decide whether you produce them?

DL: I look for points of strength. It's nice if there is a singer in the band and for the singer to have a big personality, something unique about their voice. I also look for commitment and a lot of heart and soul, because in the beginning what we do, which is representing the artist, plays a big part in the equation. Yes, you can apply a lot of muscle and you can pay your advertising after, but essentially it needs to have a lot of soul and it needs to be in existence for the right reasons. So, authenticity is the beginning, and then advertising comes later (laughs).

AAJ: Where is the meeting point between the artist's ideas and the producer's ideas about the outcome? Is your primary aim as a producer to help realize an artist's vision, or to expand it?

DL: I think the producer's job is to produce something magical within the offering of the artist. And I find that a vision comes together quite quickly when a magic moment appears. When that magic moment appears, a new vision comes into play and I don't think people should assume that people are coming into studio with a small vision and that it's all we operate by. I think people are hoping that they are going to bump into something fresh. When that happens then we get to be naive all over again in terms of freshness, and then a brand new vision comes into play for both parties.

AAJ: With some artists you've worked with over a series of albums (like U2, Gabriel, Dylan), does your function alter as you get more familiar with each other?

DL: There is no doubt that there is a relationship that develops and people's roles change. When I first started working with U2 I was to be the engineer of the project, and then everybody in the camp realized that I was very musical. And I was able to make contributions with harmonies, understanding of rhythm and the arrangements -I was able to enter the world of music with them and not just sitting in the technician's chair. Everybody in that camp is very smart, so they realized that my talent was such that I was able to be as much a musical producer for the record making process as Brian Eno is. So that became the strength of that relationship. Everyone knows how to work with equipment to a certain degree, but what is most important to that relationship is the evolution of our musical minds. That's it; you are able to work with the strengths of the people in the room.

AAJ: 30 years ago, U2 contacted Eno and you to produce their record, the seminal Unforgettable Fire. What was the reason for the band to contact you and Eno? What were you able to achieve that the band and other producers couldn't? That record caused seismic shifts in the band's sound and pointed at new maturity.

DL: Brian Eno and myself are very interested in presenting new approaches to the artists that we work with. One way of describing this process is deconstruction—the capacity to deconstruct. A melody makes this, a certain approach makes this, but then, on a second day, Eno and myself, might present the project with another way of looking at that composition. For example, the song "Beautiful Day" that we made for U2 started out as a rock song where everybody played in the room at the same time, but then on the next day, Eno and myself were together before the band came. Brian designed this rhythm box approach, very high speed—"boom chi-chi boom." It gave a motion it did not have before. So, when the band came in they were able to jump on that with their instruments and the song now had a kind of drive in it that it did not have before. In my experience, artists really appreciate that kind of contribution where they get out of their usual way of looking at a piece of music and take it to the next level.

AAJ: How do you look back at the making of Achtung Baby? It is a watershed record and in many ways it represents the equivalent of the Sgt. Pepper of the '90s as it captured the zeitgeist of the transitory time it was made in. It also captured the essence of the various styles of music that were booming in the underground and were ready to spill over ground.

DL: We had a very powerful and inventive team, Eno, Flood and myself. We were very much in control of the equipment, and we were very devoted to the work. Plus, all of the guys in U2 wanted to make something special. Ultimately, that record has a fantastic combination of very raw rock rhythm section, the drums and the bass are very, very raw, and the toppings -the melody, Bono's vocals, guitars —all of the toppings are very inventive. The rhythm section is very classic, but everything else on top is heading to the future, so it is a beautiful blend of these two qualities.

AAJ: How has that relationship evolved further? You are credited as a co-writer on No Line On the Horizon.

DL: Well, the fellas, invited myself and Eno to be co-writers. I think they realized that we had done plenty of work in the past with composition, and decided that these people were so long with us and let's invite them to write some songs. So, that's how this thing came to be. But, it was a very different time. No Line on the Horizon was years later than Achtung Baby. People had very different minds.

AAJ: What is it that keeps people like U2, Dylan, Gabriel, Neil Young, hungry to keep doing it at this point in their careers?

DL: That is a very fundamental question and that question applies to the whole world and not just the artists that I work with. What keeps us interested in innovation? We are human beings, we evolve and we like new ideas. With my current work I want to invent sounds that take us to the future. 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. Even after 60 years of rock and roll we still have an appetite to know what might be the new thing, what expression still needs to be expressed, and so on. So, as we grow and as we grow through life we look things differently when we reflect on our work.

AAJ: How do you approach work when it comes to working with all these people who have different working methods? How do you inspire commitment? How do you inspire inspiration?

DL: I try to inspire the room we are working in by applying commitment. I have always been devoted and committed to every project I have worked on and I think that it's contagious. If an artist feels that the person they have brought into their world is working hard for them, wants the best for them, they are very committed, then I think that becomes very contagious and has a snowball effect. It's like passing the ball to somebody else, and he throws it back at you and somebody makes a score. You can't do everything by yourself and it's nice to have a friend who believes in you. So, when I'm into projects I have a very simple rule, not to be making phone calls about the next thing but just to concentrate on the thing you are doing and to make it a masterpiece.

AAJ: One of the chief characteristics of most of the music that you write or you help produce is the presence of a spiritual element which contributes to the soul effect these records have.

DL: Well, we certainly like to arrive at soulful results. Somehow it refers to the spirit. I've always believed that part of my job was to raise the spirit which is a way of talking about having a glance into another dimension or to allow people's emotions to be absorbed by the music. There is a term I invented called "emotional phase cancelation." If you are feeling sad and you listen to a sad song, the sad song will eat your sadness and you will be happier. I think another ingredient that I stand by, and it's nice if the music has it, is without question the yearning. We are seekers and we are trying to elevate ourselves into another spiritual dimension. That is why people go to churches, that is why people take drugs or drink, that is why people meditate. We are interested in other dimensions because we are very intelligent (laughing). So if there is anything that you hear in my work that has some sort of tonality that invites the listener to question or to look at life slightly differently, it's because I'm driven by that natural instinct that we have as human beings to raise the spirit.

AAJ: Since a lot of people have benefited from your presence in the studio, what are some of the things you have learned from the likes of Dylan and Gabriel?

DL: Again, that's a natural byproduct of working with people. When you collaborate with someone then of course you go with new knowledge and new inspiration, especially if you were lucky to have worked with some of the greats, as I have. I made two albums with Bob Dylan, which are good albums, and you leave the arena feeling stronger about certain aspects of my work. We leave something behind but we also take something with us. That is the nature of this by proximity, which is probably the true meaning ...my life experience and my osmosis—my proximity.

AAJ: How does recording in locations like big mansions rather than classical studios influence the records you produce? Beside Grant Avenue, you've had other mansions/studios like Kingsway studios in New Orleans and a new one in LA or you've worked at Gabriel's Real World Studios?

DL: We like to keep things simple, fresh and fun, and I like to reconfigure my studio wherever she wants. The one in LA houses many rooms. I made the Neil Young record in the front room and the foyer, and now the equipment is packed up in the lower lever where there's more lavatory down there. It's fun to reconfigure it that way. I've done some work in Jamaica, I like working down there. Even though I didn't have a lot of equipment, there was a lot of passion. It is very important to keep excited with so many studios it is easier than ever and I still like to do it, put equipment in a truck and go somewhere, set up and off you go.

AAJ: Recently, the soundtrack you did for Billy Bob Thornthon's film Sling Blade was re-released and throughout the years you would do occasional soundtrack work. Most of your work has that cinematic quality.

DL: I like films a lot. I'm not that interested in scoring films, to be honest with you right now. I like when people use my music, put it in films -that's a surprise. But at the moment I'm not really looking for scoring films. Most films have music supervisors and they choose music from all kinds of sources. That's ok, but I don't really want to be a part of that. I'm happy when someone uses something of mine, but for the next few years I won't be scoring anything.

AAJ: How do you look back at the making of the soundtrack for the Million Dollar Hotel (Island, 2000) as part of the Million dollar band?

DL: For that movie we put a little band together with Brian Blade on the drums, we did it in Ireland in U2's studio. It was something Bono felt strong about and I decided to help my friend. So I did. We grooved together and knocked it out. I remember we wrote very beautiful music and we wrote "Falling at your Feet" (singing the song). That song came pretty quickly. A little magic from Bono and I played the guitar. It all came very quickly. AAJ: This song also appeared on you next record, Shine, and both versions are beautiful.

DL: Yes, but they are different. Mine has more harmony in it and Bono sings that backing vocal. It has been announced that you've been named creative director for a music streaming service which has a different agenda than other services of this kind.

DL: Regarding the music streaming, I was contacted by people from Montreal, Uprise FM. What we are hoping to do is to provide unusual content to our subscribers. We will be offering some specials. Wherever I go, people play great music so we will record and film these spontaneous sessions. That's what gives us an opportunity to offer something different than the others.

AAJ: You'll soon be embarking on a tour.

DL: I'm happy to be taking the studio on stage now and it is all about playing live for me now. I'm excited about that. I like to communicate with an audience. My electronic Radar allows me to play festivals, but it is also something that sounds good in a small venue, 1000-2000 people.

AAJ: Another area of interest for you is that you will be organizing concerts and doing remixes. I hear the first band to be taking part in these activities will be desert blues band Tinariwen.

DL: Yes, November 10th at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn we will have Tinariwen and I will be mixing/remixing one of their songs. I did something like this before and it was very good. It's just an opportunity for new crop fertilization. We are going to be doing something special on the night as we are going to be sharing the stage. Brian Blade wants to play with Tinariwen and vice versa, Tinariwen's percussion will be playing with me. This is going to be a bohemian night where we will collaborate and exchange. If this goes well, I hope there will be more and more. Perhaps we will record those nights as they happen and stream them on Uprise. I will be curating new events and be in charge of all music. It will all be available in some form.

AAJ: As someone who has worked in the music industry playing many different roles, what do you think makes a great artist?

DL: What makes someone a great artist is the understanding of who they are and that they have something unique about them. They are the best they chose to be. I think what makes a good artist is something unique in expression.

Selected Discography

Daniel Lanois, Flesh and Machine (Anti, 2014)
Daniel Lanois, My Music for Billy Bob (Red Floor Records, 2014)
Black Dub, Black Dub (Jive Records, 2011)
U2, No Line on the Horizon (Interscope, 2009)
Daniel Lanois, Here is What Is (Red Floor Records, 2008)
Daniel Lanois, Belladona (Anti, 2005)
Daniel Lanois, Rockets (Anti, 2005)
Daniel Lanois, Shine (Anti, 2003)
Bob Dylan, Time Out of My Mind (Columbia, 1997)
EmmyLou Harris, Wrecking Ball (Nonesuch, 1995)
Daniel Lanois, For the Beauty of Wynona (Music on Vinyl, 1993)
Peter Gabriel, Us (Real World, 1992)
U2, Achtung Baby (Island, 1991)
Daniel Lanois, Acadie Gold Top Edition (Red Floor Records, 1989)
Bob Dylan, Oh Mercy (CBS, 1989)
The Neville Brothers, Yellow Moon (A&M, 1989)
U2, The Joshua Tree (Island, 1987)
Peter Gabriel, So (Island, 1986)
U2, The Unforgettable Fire (Island, 1984)
Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno Apollo: Atmospherics and Soundtracks (EG, 1983)

Photo Credit: Carlos Osorio

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