Daniel Lanois: The Blacker the Dub, the Sweeter the Juice


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By Dennis Cook

Infusing music with soul is no easy task. And we're not talking some stock R&B thing, this is soul in the archetypal sense—the invisible, overarching embodiment of things beyond the world we can see and taste. Soul in music is what makes it more than ditties meant to shift units and pass the time. Soul in music is what makes it breathe and leap into our hearts and minds, and yes, bodies, to live anew in our own strange ways. It's there in the intentions of the players in a way that transcends language. And there is abundant soul, in this wonderful, fully fleshed sense, inside Black Dub, the boffo new project from celebrated “studio rat" Daniel Lanois.

In Black Dub, whose raw, thickly conjured self-titled debut arrived on November 2, Lanois is joined by highly regarded studio bassist Daryl Johnson, drummer extraordinaire Brian Blade (Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman, Joni Mitchell) and vocalist-songwriter Trixie Whitley, the daughter of the late, utterly great Chris Whitley. The combination is as crazy talented as one might imagine but also a good deal earthier and readily appealing than such high tone combos often turn out to be. The burn of the blues, the raised hand exultation of gospel and irresistible shuffle of vintage rhythm 'n' blues swirls within their future-forward energy and gutbucket, immediate rock feel. Whitley is a force of nature and one of the few young singers that might have joined the roster of Atlantic Records or Stax-Volt back in the day. And the instrumental vets sound looser and more engaged than at almost anytime in their past. That's not a dig against their worthy pedigrees but the interplay and atmosphere of Black Dub suggests a giving way to a bubbling group-think that's really intoxicating. The songs rock, from the minimalist “Ring The Alarm" to the more structured pieces like “Nomad" and “Canaan," and allowed time to really seep into one's consciousness, Black Dub is a quintessential grower that hints at amazing live incarnations to come from these initial seeds and a wide open studio landscape for the quartet down the road.

JamBase was fortunate to snag a few minutes of Lanois' time and found him to be a straight shooter of the first order with pretty much the best attitude about making music one could find.

JamBase: One of my favorite things about any new band is when you get a sense of their personalities and how the music was made just from listening to their debut. I get a strong sense of that listening to Black Dub.

Daniel Lanois: It's quite a blend of spontaneous elements—as is the case with “Surely," which is live off-the-floor, vocal and all, and we're quite proud of that one because it's quite classically written and performed—and without a doubt the people in the band are good improv artists. We have Brian Blade on the drums and I've never heard him play the same way twice.

JamBase: How did you guys come together? This combination of individuals seem to have an intuitive empathy for one another as players.

It came together in my head originally. There's a lot that comes to me as I play guitar and sing but I also love to just play guitar and let someone else sing. And when I ran into Trixie Whitley in Belgium, I had not seen her in a good few years and she told me she was playing drums and writing songs and singing. When I heard her I thought there was something really clear and honest about her position. I recorded a couple of songs including “I Believe In You," which is on the Black Dub record. She got it in one take and I thought, “Whoa, there's something going on here." I've only ever responded to invitation or natural chemistry, so I thought maybe it was time to huddle up and form this little band.

I can't really recall you being in a proper band for a very long time. You're an active musician who usually plays on the records you produce but this seems like something fairly new for you.

Exactly. It's all new. I was in a few little bands in the beginning, playing on the rooftop of my mother's house and such. I made a bunch of records with bands no one has ever heard of and never rose in popularity, but I have to say I appreciate the camaraderie. Maybe those feelings never go away, like falling in love for the first time. Even in midlife you don't want those feelings to ever stop [laughs]. Some feelings you don't want to ever go away.

There's a sense of excitement about making music together in Black Dub that's palpable. You don't need to be told that something cool is happening in this band. It's there in the music. You all seem very turned on by what's happening together.

I think that's true and it's a compliment hearing it from you. We're not industry driven or force-fed. We're happy to be associated with Jive Records, who bring us to their arena, but the inception of this was driven by chemicals—not the ones you take but the ones that already exist in your body.

The core of this is you and the rhythm section with Trixie riding on top. There's something cool about the trio configuration. No one can hide in that setting and everyone just has to throw in.

Are you talking about three in a trio or threesomes [laughs]? I have to agree with you, man. I love it stripped down. I wish I'd made more records that way, but I'm starting to now. I love it when it's hands-down, just three people and it's just, “What're you gonna play?" And then play every note like it's the last note you'll ever play. Trixie joins us on the second drum kit on a couple numbers live and she plays keyboards on “Ring The Alarm" but aside from that it's pretty much down to the bone.

Every individual part is available to the listener in a trio. There's no real clutter.

Yes and God bless us for having the courage to do that! I know the record's not entirely like that but live it will be.

What was the recording process like? How did you go about adding things after the fact? One of the first words that jumped into my head with this album was “viscous."

Hmmm�some things have come from me being a studio rat. There's an instrumental on there called “Slow Baby" and that's pretty much a studio sculpture. The guitar playing is pretty spontaneous, done in one take, but the groove and loops and all that came later. I love flirting with machines and flesh, constantly trying to combine the two. I live in the memory of my heroes who tried to pull this off. Sly and The Family Stone did a song called “In Time" on the album Fresh, and that's a bad dog of a marriage! I love “Sexual Healing," which is a Roland 808, one of the seeds. We're still trying to do this now, and we have so much technology available to us. The question is: What's the most fascinating thing you can do with that? The quest goes on.

I always find the marriage of technology and human beings music to be an interesting one. In the right hands it's magic. Is there a better rhythm sound than Prince's drum machine programming in some ways?

There are always people involved, so that's one thing to keep in mind. I often reference Suicide, this band from the 70s in New York City. They probably couldn't afford a drummer, so one guy does the music and one guy sings. You gotta love that! In my early days in New York City I got to hear The Fat Boys, just three guys with one of them doing the beats on a microphone. They got to show up to a gig with no gear. More power to them!

You've used an expression called “spotting" to describe some of your approach to music, and I wanted you to elaborate on what that means. Often musicians feel undue pressure to come up with something totally new and “spotting" seems to suggest being part of a long lineage.

Spotting is really a term for remembering anything special that goes on through the day. As songwriters we're spotters all along. You might hang around in a bar and listen to a conversation, and they might say something really profound people can relate to and you snatch it for a song. Or it can be something as simple as [sings], “I heard it through the grapevine." A simple lyric like that can spawn a whole song. That's what spotting is about. It's not anything new. I think people have been using spotting all along to bring common street terminology into popular song.

As a record maker it's my job to notice things that are special during the workday. Perhaps somebody plays a riff or little melody and they might forget it because they moved onto something else a minute later thinking that idea wasn't absolutely fulfilled. They're right but that doesn't mean it couldn't be fulfilled if you just paid attention to it. That's what spotting is about to me—noticing what's fantastic in any given moment.

I like all the echoes of different things on Black Dub. It's clearly a rock record but there's a gospel undertow to parts and a whiff of Lee “Scratch" Perry's Black Ark years, where the production was often done on the fly and was immediate and inspired as the music unfolding around the board.

The number one rule is to get rid of all chairs. No chairs at the console and when you do your work. That way you're not fucking around for hours. You get the job done and then go to the bathroom. That's what I learned from Lee “Scratch" Perry [laughs]. These fat fuckers show up in these sound recording magazines and they need a $12,000 multi-pivot office chair to function. Stand up! What are you made of, man? What I got from Lee Scratch was make it lean and mean and get the fuck out of the building.

Amen is all I can say.

Having gotten that out of the way, I don't like comfort. Comfort isn't a very good association, right? You might want it in your waterbed but you don't want your music to be easy, breezy and comfortable. I like to think that Black Dub has crossed the line into the discomfort zone. I don't want to be comfortable anymore.

Rock has become like a costume that people slip on. It's lost its danger, its middle finger in many ways.

I asked Iggy Pop how he stays so skinny, and he said, “Steak and coffee." Then I read about a legendary [Stooges] performance in England where the set was only 42 minutes long. People would be bitchin' now. There'd be a revolution if you only played a 42 minute set, but at the peak of that great punk era in the 70s there was no messin' around. They delivered just what needed to be delivered. I'm not saying I've done that historically but it sure appeals to me now.

Even if you haven't done it before, if the light bulb goes off in your head you can do it now. My mom always says that if something is really true it will pierce you like an arrow. It's not always pleasant or easy to come up against genuine truth but there's no mistaking when we have to change.

Your mother told you that? Let's bring her onboard. As the truth bites and stings, I remember just what we were [a lyric from Lanois' song “Blackhawk"]. Iggy Pop once sang, “Here comes success/ Here comes my Chinese rug." You end up looking at rugs and drapes instead of making fuckin' rock 'n' roll. Come on!

I was discussing how vocals sound these days with a friend recently. You'd never get an Aretha Franklin or most of the Muscle Shoals soul and rock artists from the 60s & 70s today. They all pushed the meters into the red and distortion and spontaneity were keys to their sound and appeal. That unpremeditated roughness has been sanded away by Pro-Tools, etc. now. I catch a bit of that classic vibe in Trixie.

We don't use auto-tuning or anything like it. I look her in the eye while I'm playing guitar and we deliver for the moment. But I have to say I quite like the auto-tuning thing when it's taken to an extreme, where Cher has a hit with it or hip-hop records where it's clearly radical auto-tuning. If you're going to plug in the fuzzbox, then go for it. But the easy, breezy mid-zone of it is unappealing. I don't like to fool people with anything. Why not just tell it like it is? It's okay. Life is short [laughs].

Just in talking to you for a few minutes, I get the sense that Black Dub has freed you up in some ways, that something cool has cracked inside you in discovering this band.

A studio rat needs a balancing act. I love the studio and I've come up with a lot of things that've never been heard before. I'll always go there when I need isolation from the big, bad world. But, without a doubt, the challenge of living this band is to line 'em up, pants down and see who can deliver. Oh heavens, I think I've slipped into arrogance [laughs].

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