In the liner notes to Daniel Lanois’ 2003 album Shine, the musician and producer writes: “What a privilege to be able to make music. And what an honor to have it received and appreciated.”
“Appreciated” may be something of an understatement, given Lanois’ legendary reputation in the music industry and the ample praise heaped upon him by his peers — most recently with the announcement of his induction into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame on March 22, 2012.
- Daniel Lanois. Photo © Zoran Orlic; all rights reserved
Lanois has made an indelible mark on the industry by producing career-defining albums for Peter Gabriel (So, Us), Emmylou Harris (Wrecking Ball), Willie Nelson (Teatro), Robbie Robertson (self-titled) and his frequent collaborator, Brian Eno. Together with Eno, Lanois produced groundbreaking records with U2, including The Joshua Tree, The Unforgettable Fire, and Achtung Baby.
Hailed by Rolling Stone as “the most important record producer to emerge in the ’80s,” Lanois would go on to produce what many have called Bob Dylan’s “comeback” album, 1989’s Oh Mercy, then later 1997’s Time Out of Mind, which would go on to win three Grammy awards including Album of the Year.
Lanois’ atmospheric signature sound can also be heard on albums by The Neville Brothers (Yellow Moon), Neil Young (Le Noise), and seminal U2 projects like How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (he also co-wrote the music on U2’s latest, No Line on the Horizon).
His forays on the big screen include soundtracks to Sling Blade, the theme to David Lynch’s Dune, along with a film chronicling the recording of his own album, Here Is What Is. As a solo artist, Lanois’ personal catalogue includes numerous albums, from his acclaimed 1989 debut Acadie to the self-titled 2010 release from his latest project Black Dub.
Lanois sat down with Rock Cellar Magazine to chat about his four-decade career in music and his upcoming induction into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame.
ROCK CELLAR MAGAZINE: First off, congratulations on the lifetime honor being presented to you at the Canadian Music Industry & Broadcast Awards gala taking place in Toronto.
DANIEL LANOIS: I’m very touched that people are paying attention to my work. It’s been a good few years in the laboratory. We selflessly go into the depths of the open heart of the laboratory and work on our wares and skills. And hopefully we find a home for all that work, as I have, and to be recognized for that work is really terrific.
RCM: Do you take the time to reflect on your early work by listening to albums you’ve produced for artists like Martha & The Muffins, The Parachute Club, or Ian and Sylvia Tyson?
DL: I find reflection in my past work by bumping into it along the way, like when I’m walking down the street and I hear something coming out of a shop. I’ll hear it and say, “Oh, that sounds familiar,” then I go “wait a minute, I made that!” It’s kind of sweet to be immortalized by the radio and immortalized by someone’s record collection. All accolades aside, it’s really lovely to be reminded that we touch a few hearts.
RCM: You and your brother Bob made your first recordings in your mother’s house in Ancaster, Ontario, right? What did that first recording space look like?
DL: Our first studio was all about the basement of my mother’s house (laughs). There was something about being subterranean — a kind of density to the sound — that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. But listening to my recordings from back then, I think “Wow, there’s something to the old basement sound.” And it was terrific to have the support of my mother, who was an angel through all this as she had a rumble under her bedroom for a good too many years.
- Lanois and his brother Bob
RCM: You and your brother recorded everyone from country artists to Haitian choirs. Did those sessions lead to you working with artists like Raffi, Willie P. Bennett and Nash the Slash?
DL: I always had an appetite to get to the next level with a studio and I just did the best I could. And once I got out of my mom’s basement — she threw us out — we went to the “big city” -that would be Hamilton (laughs)… and started a little studio there (the renowned Grant Avenue Studios).
- Grant Avenue Studio; Hamilton Ontario
We made records there for a lot of years — very good records. I think we can safely say that it’s not about where we were geographically located or how much gear we had, but rather what’s inside a man’s heart, and that’s the fuel we operated by.
We were pretty much on fire, as I am now, but certainly as a young man. I loved what I was doing so much and there was nothing else that compared to it.
RCM: Do you remember the first album you ever bought?
DL: There was an instrumental hit when I was a kid called Wipe Out by a band called The Surfaris. It was a drum instrumental, you might remember, with this great snare drum solo. The first time I heard it, I loved it so much that I went out and bought the single and the flipside was a song called Surfer Joe.
RCM: Tell us about the Hamilton music scene in the 1980s, and your role in it.
DL: I think of music scenes as chapters in a way. I’ve lived through a few musical scenes that I’ve loved, but they never last. They’re like waves coming from the ocean with a lot of power but then they always go away. We’ve seen it in Toronto, that whole kind of nightclub scene that was there when I was a kid. There were lovely places to play at, but they don’t exist anymore. They’ve been knocked down and replaced by malls and so on.
I think we really need to honor the fact that we are touched by a certain direction or a vision at a given time. Then there’s the responsibility to bring that vision into focus and do something about it. Create work when the iron is hot. That’s when you strike. — Daniel Lanois
RCM: You obviously struck when the iron was hot by pairing with Brian Eno to produce U2’s 1984 landmark The Unforgettable Fire. What is recording with U2 like?
DL: They’re a very spontaneous band in the studio, when we knock these songs out. They just kind of come up with ideas and the next thing you know you’re on a barge on a speeding river and you’re just doing your best to hang on. You just do whatever you can to turn it all into something. It’s like a bunch of wild horses. The beginning of their tracks are often quite renegade, in the way that Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is a renegade record.
RCM: Time Out of Mind is considered by many hardcore fans as Dylan’s best record since Blood on the Tracks. What was happening in that Miami studio when you were producing that album?
DL: There seemed to be a lot of emotion dripping in the room, and I knew we had something going on with Bob with Time Out of Mind. We had a very big band, including two of the greatest drummers on the planet (Brian Blade and Jim Keltner). It was a very big moment for all of us, because you take a risk when you have a very big band. We had 11 people on the floor, so it was kind of a hard one to corral. But once we got the beast inside the corral, our job really was to make sure the magic moments were noticed and worked on and recorded. A lot of preparation went into those Miami recordings, and I knew something was resonating there.
- Bob Dylan’s Lanois-Produced Albums
RCM: Producing Neil Young’s latest album Le Noise (2010) must have been a very different experience, since it was basically just him, his electric guitar, and a battery of echoing effects and ambience. What was that like?
DL: Working with Neil Young is a powerful experience, because as a Canadian kid, he’s one of my heroes. He’s a generation ahead of me. So, I always considered him a trailblazer of sorts. And we need that when we’re coming up. We need to know that somebody else hit the puck before we got to it. And Le Noise was a chance for me to work with one of my heroes. It was a bit mystical.
RCM: Seeing Bob Dylan and Neil Young in concert, they never seem to pander to their audience and rarely say even a few words. It adds to their mystique.
DL: Both of those artists are highly intelligent and speak very eloquently. The amount of knowledge they have in them is incredible. For them to choose silence except for whatever turns up in their music in concert is very courageous. It’s courageous of them not to contaminate the night with too much banter or drivel, because the music really is the summary or paradigm — the emotions you live by — so they have a lot of power in those moments on stage, in those notes and in the messages in those songs. As an audience, if we hear even one proverb that we like in one night, then that’s worth the price of admission. And it’s up to the troubadour to provide us with that.
- Neil Young & Daniel Lanois (Photo – Jeff Chiu, AP)
RCM: What else mystifies you about music?
DL: How mysterious the process of making a record can be, and how it lives beyond our preconceptions. I find that fascinating. A lot of what we do can’t be talked about because it’s beyond our skills, equipment and know how. It’s a little bit like storytelling at a dinner table. You can have the presence of company and you will rise up to their presence, maybe propose the best toast or tell the best story in the heat of that moment, like you never have before or perhaps ever will again. Something happens in the heat of that moment that you can’t duplicate. That moment makes you a great storyteller. So we look for those moments when making a record, and they’re still mystifying to me to this day.
RCM: Peter Gabriel is kind of mystical, don’t you think?
DL: When I first met Peter, I thought he was a relative of mine, so I do have a little mysticism in myself.
RCM: Do you ever listen to Peter Gabriel’s So? Your experimentation and rock sensibilities really shine in bombastic tracks like Sledgehammer and Big Time.
DL: I’ve actually been listening to So a bit lately, and what I think about when I hear those songs is my time with Peter. We did that album over the course of a year. I was like a monk living in the bell tower of a house and I didn’t really go anywhere. I would just wake up each day and go back into the record every morning and what you’re hearing on that recording is a labor of love. Plus, I really cared about Peter.
RCM: What qualities do you think all these artists you’ve produced value in you? Work ethic? Integrity?
DL: I would guess it’s my sense of commitment, and that I care about the project. I think that’s what people respond to and the thing that rubs off on them.
RCM: Each time you go into a studio to work with artists like Peter Gabriel, Neil Young or Bob Dylan, do you notice how their influence has rubbed off on you?
DL: Life provides inspiration for songwriting and certainly the studio is no exception. If I get to work with some of my heroes then by osmosis and proximity, some of that is going to make its way into my work. Who we choose to hang out with, who we philosophize with is a very big part of our artistry. It’s also the joyous part when I think about the exchange between Neil Young and me, those memorable days and nights. I may not see him for a year or two, but the moments that I’ve spent with him are still reverberating inside me.Young, Dylan, Peter Gabriel — they’re all PhDs of sorts.
RCM: Tell us about producing and playing bass on Willie Nelson’s atmospheric Teatro (1998).
DL: Willie is a profound spirit and there are only a handful of people like him in the world — someone who lived through the dancehall era of the ’50s. He understands the power of song and he understands harmony. I think he’s really just a great force to be around, and I’ve felt it. He’s a very giving soul and a very hard-working man.
- Lanois & Nelson. Photo by Donata Wenders from the Daniel Lanois Collection
RCM: Where do you think your own work ethic comes from?
DL: I was a kid who delivered The Globe and Mail for years. I had a little paper route, and believed in hard work and skill building. I’ve always lived nose to grindstone. But more importantly, that opportunity gave me a chance to think and be imaginative and dream as I did my route every morning. I joke with some of my friends and say, “Some of us still get up early and deliver the morning paper.” I think opportunities are only good if you’ve done your preparation.
RCM: You’ve had plenty of awards, roles and accomplishments in the music business. Is there one form of expression you find most fulfilling?
DL: I think playing pedal steel provides me with a sanctuary. On a Sunday, I will play my steel without any kind of expectation from myself. I’ll play to stay connected with my instrument. I think we all need a rock to stand on in these mass electronic times and the pedal steel guitar is that rock for me. The pedal steel, it’s a beauty, but it requires a lot of skill. It’s humbling in a sense. It doesn’t have a lot of razzmatazz in it. It’s not like you can push a button, move the mouse and get a good sound. It’s kind of like being a clarinet player, it’s not going to sound like an oboe — it’s a clarinet!
RCM: What about your style of guitar playing. Did you take lessons?
DL: I had plenty of lessons as a young guitarist. I studied finger picking extensively. I studied classical music and also folk music. Then I’d pick up the pedal steel guitar which is also a finger picking instrument, and to this day, I’m a finger picker. I don’t use a flat pick. And what’s fascinating is I don’t just think in terms of chords, I think in terms of bass lines for my thumb.
Then if I’m singing, I try to provide singing with harmony and I’ll need the upper strings. So it’s quite a complex thing as you start to get into the world of four-parts. Punk music has the same thing in it, four-part harmonies. I sang in the choir for years and that’s four parts. So the four-parts keeping coming back up in my music over the years, and finger picking is part of the four-part way of making music.
RCM: Was there anyone in particular who influenced your style of singing?
DL: I met this fellow Daryl Johnson, who is a great singer and bass player out of New Orleans. As a Canadian kid, I chose to go south of the border to learn grooves and bass lines and certainly New Orleans has a lot to offer that way. He was part of my band (Black Dub) and I was able to, again, by osmosis and proximity tap into this man’s excellence as a great singer.
RCM: Tell us about your latest band, Black Dub. Is it on hiatus?
DL: Black Dub is on the backburner right now while our bass player Daryl Johnson is in jail and because our record company went out of business. I’m also a little tired of pushing the rock uphill. But Trixie Whitley (vocals) has been invited to this festival (Greenbelt Harvest Picnic at Christie Lake) I have outside of Hamilton in August, and hopefully she’ll turn up for that and grace us with her presence.
- Black Dub. Photo from the Daniel Lanois Collection
RCM: Do you have any plans to work with Black Dub drummer Brian Blade?
DL: After my induction in Toronto, I’m playing two nights — I call them “The Black Box Nights” — with Brian Blade, who will be joining me on drums. I’ve done preparations and I will do like what The Mad Scientist, a Jamaican dub specialist, does. I will provide the room with these sonics I’ve been working on religiously for the last month. Then we will have associated films because we also make art films. What I’m planning on doing is curating the night and I’ve very excited to provide such a night like Black Box.
RCM: Is Jamaica still your main residence these days?
DL: Yes, I have studios in Jamaica, L.A. and Toronto.
RCM: That studio you have in L.A. is an architectural marvel.
DL: The Bellavista— it’s just the name of the house written on the gates — is clearly a devotion of artisan work from the 1920s. They must have brought in iron and mortar specialists from Europe. It’s quite Mediterranean.
RCM: As you reflect on your four-decade career — from mom’s basement to The Bellavista, so to speak — is there a certain quality you see in your music-industry peers. Is there something that Willie Nelson, Peter Gabriel and U2 all have in common?
DL: Most people who get to that position are great human beings and souls. Anyone who has fought their way from the bottom and gotten to the top, and U2 would be an excellent example of that. They are the most giving human beings, and that’s something I really appreciate in them. My one Irish friend said to me once, “Yeah, U2 is a massive operation, but there are four generous hearts at the centre of it.” I don’t know what else to say about them other than I’m blessed that our paths crossed.
Some artists, like Bono and Bruce Springsteen are just the voice of a generation. These are people with good values who want to leave the world a better place than they found it. And that’s pretty much our jobs, not just as artists, but as human beings. Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, U2 — they’ve touched hearts. May we all touch a heart somewhere, sometime.