- 14 Apr 03
Pioneering ambient artist, film-scorer, and producer of choice for everyone from Willie Nelson to U2, Daniel Lanois has assembled one of the most impressive CVs in modern rock. And with his new album, Shine, having just hit the racks, he’s far from done yet, as he tells Peter Murphy
And you shall know him by the trail of record sleeves – as a solo artist, as a film scorer and above all, as the producer of landmark recordings by U2, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and The Neville Brothers among others. Daniel Lanois has journeyed from his origins as a Canuck studio-rat, Brian Eno collaborator and roots-ambient wizard to take a place at a mythical intersection of 20th and 21st century cosmic American music. Bob Dylan loves him because he’s capable of capturing the clattery one-take spirit of the ’50s; U2 have returned to him again and again because, among other things, he can spot the elusive germ of a great song and preserve it through endless musical mutations and permutations.
To coincide with the release of his third solo album Shine, Lanois was recently given the opportunity to expound his sonic philosophies in a keynote speech at the South By Southwest symposium in Austin, Texas, and by all accounts it was one of the highlights of the event.
“That was great, I wrote a Beat poem and just invented this term called ‘soul mining’,” he explains, on the phone from Los Angeles. “It was almost like the reverse of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower Of Song’ where we were going down the mine shaft, with coal dust in our eyes, operating at the back end of 50 years of rock ’n’ roll. And going down the mining shaft I meet, oh, I meet all kinds of characters: Dr Dre is working with Leonard Cohen, and Porter Wagner asks me why TV shows sounded better in the 60s than they do now and so on. It was a lot of fun; I played a little steel guitar, sang a song and did an impromptu question-and-answer, I just jumped down into the audience with a radio microphone.”
This looseness has carried through to the music. Less linear than his first two albums, Shine interpolates low key, almost confessional songs with further explorations into amorphous atmospheres. The ten year gap since his last album For The Beauty Of Wynona was, he says, largely due to production work:
“It was really two years in Dublin with the boys, a year with Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, another year, the months just fly by and you look up and think, ‘My God, I haven’t put out a record in a while.’ I really just pour myself into my productions, take them very seriously, and so I don’t consider them easy money or side projects or anything like that. They receive all the creative energy that I might have at any given time.
“But y’know, there’s no really good reason for not having put out a record, I could have put out several, but the years just went by and here I am. I have a lot of material for many other records, and it’s really just a matter of deciding how to put them out. I have some psychedelic music from Mexico, ’cos I was in Mexico for a year, and I’d like to put out a kind of a Bitches Brew sort of record, very exotic and psychedelic and transcending. I also have enough music to do a really beautiful pedal steel guitar record, my ‘sacred steel’ record. That might be the next one I go after.”
Lanois’ rehabilitation of the pedal steel has been an ongoing obsession. Three of the chamber pieces on Shine are mini concertos for the instrument, and three years ago, talking about the recording of the Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack and specifically ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’, Bono spoke of the icy sci-fi tones Lanois was coaxing from it.
“Yeah, I invent a whole upper octave to the instrument that’s not manufacturer recommended,” he explains, “and it’s very difficult to play up there because it means your frets get smaller as you get into the third octave, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it, I’ve invented my own tuning and found my own voice with the instrument. I don’t play it in the conventional country and western manner, and it’s really opened up a whole set of possibilities for me, I play it every day. In fact I have it set up here in the other room, I can give you a little example of it, I’m just walkin’ over to it now… here’s the bottom end of it (low droning noise)… now it goes to a higher register (shimmery keening sound)… that’s the register Bono’s talkin’ about, so it’s more of that crying upper voice soprano sound.”
Given that U2/Lanois/Eno productions are almost always described in cinemascopic terms, it comes as little surprise that Lanois should have diverted into soundtrack work between production jobs. In the early ’90s he scored Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade, a piece of work he considers as legitimate as any of his solo endeavours.
“I came in late in the day,” Lanois recalls. “Billy Bob Thornton had heard my first record Acadie and thought there was a ghostliness to it that would apply to his work, and he gave me a ring and asked would I be interested in looking at this film with view of scoring it, and I said I would. He said, ‘The only thing that I ask is that you pour your heart and soul into it should you choose to accept the job, because that’s what everyone has done so far on the project.’ And I promised him I would do that if I accepted. So I watched it and I thought there was something magnetic about it, and eerie, its tranquillity. I showed it to a friend of mine up in Canada who was a bit of a movie buff and a good sounding board for me, and he took it home and he called me the next day and said, ‘You have to do this, this could be the best thing you ever did.’ So partly on my friend’s recommendation I decided to go after it, but what was great about that was working one on one with Billy, and apparently that’s a rare relationship in film-making because most films are made by committee. And so I kind of got spoiled.”
One of the standout tracks on Shine, although by no means the most accessible, is ‘Matador’, a brooding instrumental piece that sounds like something from Bowie’s Berlin period meets Angelo Badalamenti.
“It does have a Berlin thing about it,” Lanois considers. “To me, the chords in that, I mean, I’m gonna stop being humble for a minute, I think that’s a masterpiece, I really do! And I challenge anyone to present me with a modern day classical piece that’s as powerful as that.”
With this track in mind, Lanois reckons that his time spent recording U2’s Achtung Baby in Hansa By The Wall in Berlin had something of a delayed trickledown effect on the new music.
“Yes, that town did have an effect on me. After work I would do field recordings – or city recordings in this case. We were in a hotel near where the streetcars ended their route, and the trains would have this squeaky wheel sound, almost like somebody playing a little theremin or something. I would go out there at night and record these, and I always had this feeling and memory of this kind of squeaky wheel symphony happening at nighttime. But it was also a dangerous feeling place; at one point there I was chased by a gang of thugs. During one of my recordings a car full of questionable drunk young men were looking to beat up a hippy like myself.”
More Berlin stories: one of Shine’s highlights is the gorgeous, delicate Lanois/Bono composition ‘Falling At Your Feet’, rescued from its relative obscurity in Wim Wenders’ Million Dollar Hotel.
“Yeah, I wanted to give it another life. I think on The Million Dollar Hotel the record company were hopin’ that that would just disappear and everybody kinda pretended it never happened. Y’know, they didn’t want a pimple-faced kid running around the campaign of a U2 record, so it never did get that much of a chance. I wanted to put it on this record and Bono was kind enough to put a vocal on it for me.”
Lanois’ blending of traditional song structures with space-aged sounds and settings brings to mind something the U2 singer said about the Blade Runner score some 20 years ago – that while Vangelis’ music was beautiful, it should’ve contained more ethnic elements to reflect the subcultures of the cityscape, bits of Cajun or dub reggae offsetting the electronica.
“Yeah, I think I’m with him on that,” Lanois says. “The music is kind of transparent and it’s fine, but I think somebody could’ve pushed the envelope a bit better. But I really dig the idea of having one foot in tradition and still lookin’ into the space age. On the song called ‘As Tears Roll By’, the opening riff, that’s a loop, that’s a sample from a Charlie Patton record from the late ’20s. I had never done that before so blatantly.”
It’s funny how field recordings by the Lomaxes or Harry Smith sound positively avant-garde next to modern recordings on the radio.
“I know. You hear some nice things on the radio; I quite like the Snoop Dogg track called ‘Beautiful’. There are moments out there with modern day radio where I think, ‘Wow, they’ve really done it’. The rock seems to have suffered a little bit. We’re seeing a lot of revisits and reinterpretations but I don’t know that we’ve quite caught up to Led Zeppelin yet. Some of it is a lost art, it’s an interesting medium to revisit, but historically we’re not wearing those shoes right now. You can’t replace synchronicity in what an entire generation is going through, that’s the part that you can’t reinvent.”
So how does he approach recording a quintessential four-piece rock band like U2?
“Well, I usually set up a band room, we could call that the rock room for now, and then we set up more of a living room, and the living room is where people discuss ideas and try out riffs and it’s more of a thinking tank, for comfort, where it’s not about blasting out the room. I usually use a combination of the two. Sometimes we’ll put something together in the quieter setting, the living room setting, and the ideas come into focus there, and having brought that to some kind of a conclusion we will then go into the band room and bash one out. But the bashing out is not always the best thing because it’s hard to fundamentally communicate ’cos it’s so loud, but at least with U2 we’ve always done that: have a band room but then have a more intellectual circle, and great things come of that.”
Given that U2 have often described what they do as songwriting by accident, it’s no surprise that in his Austin address Lanois stressed the importance of listening and of following one’s instincts, especially when it comes to knowing at what point to push the record button. But if the studio magic often happens when least expected, has he missed any great performances over the years?
“Yeah, we’ve all missed some,” he admits, “but I always record. One way to deal with it is just have a policy that your premature recordings are to be regarded as documenting ideas that might fly by. That’s sort of a good way of justifying it, because the early takes often have a fragment that allow you to spot maybe a hook line or a melody or just something special that allows that part to stand out. Often, even if it’s just a ten second little piece over a four minute performance, that’s enough for me – I can just stop the press and say, ‘Okay you guys, listen to this little segment here, it’s got something very special about it that deserves repetition, let’s put it at the front and the middle and the back and see what we have.’ It’s kind of a building block technique, even if it doesn’t provide you with an entire performance, often an idea is the foundation to something original.”
Is he working on the new U2 record?
“No, I’m not. I just saw (Paul) McGuinness a couple of nights ago. They’re in the studio and I think they’re working with Chris Thomas (Roxy Music, Sex Pistols, Pretenders – PM). I spoke with Bono about it, he said, ‘Well, we decided to go old school’, and obviously I’m not available ’cos I’m working on my record. I’m not sure that they could stand listening to Brian Eno grumbling for another eight months! And I’m not sure that Brian would want to be grumbling for the next eight months! I’ve done four records with them, so it’s a little bit of an old marriage, but there’s a lot of respect there, and I’d happily lend them my ears any time they want them.”
Cut to one of those rare cases when a U2 connection works against a producer: the unfathomable omission of Dylan’s astonishing ‘Series Of Dreams’ from the Lanois-produced Oh Mercy sessions.
“‘Series Of Dreams’ could’ve been the opening track of that record,” Lanois says, “and I would’ve put it on there rather than ‘Political World’. I take responsibility for that. We had recorded that song, and it sounded different than everything else on the record, and I thought there might’ve actually been a little too much of a U2 tone to it, and having just come out of a couple of U2 records I felt it might be unfair to Bob to put that personality on his record. It was only a minor concern, but it really sunk into him and in the end he said, ‘No, I don’t wanna put that on.’ I shoulda kept my mouth shut! But it is a great piece of music and holds a lot of emotional power and is probably the most testimonial piece to come out of that body of work.”
Can he remember recording it?
“I sure do. I brought in a rockabilly band that I liked a lot, the rhythm section was from Austin, Texas, But the driving force of it, aside from the lovely tom-tom work, is the 12-string guitar that I played on there viciously, and it reminded me a little bit of some of those ’60s Phil Spector hits like ‘And Then He Kissed Me’, that kind of hyper energy. I like that kind of vibe from the ’60s music and I thought it was a relative. It’s a classic. I’m glad it got out there somehow.”
The Man With The Golden Ear
The Essential Daniel Lanois Productions
Time Out Of Mind: Bob Dylan
Some Dylan-ites might make a strong case for Oh Mercy, but this is more cohesive, a creaky deserted fairground of a record populated by weary ghost songs like ‘Love Sick’ and ‘Not Dark Yet’.
Robbie Robertson: Robbie Robertson
Perhaps not the master’s return it was hailed as on its release, Robertson’s debut solo album nevertheless contained a handful of his best tunes (‘Fallen Angel’, ‘Broken Arrow’), while Lanois’ sure hand on the desk brought the former Band-leader from the old west to the 21st century with ease.
The Joshua Tree: U2
In tandem with Eno, Lanois helped U2 realise the not unambitious task of creating a sprawling mythopoeic soundtrack to 1980s America, co-opting elements of blues, gospel, folk and hard rock into the band’s post-punk roots.
Wrecking Ball: Emmylou Harris
At last, Harris found a producer, a band and a set of songs to match her god-given voice. Listen to the title tune and ‘Where Will I Be’ and just call her angel of the mourning.
Teatro: Willie Nelson
Setting up the braided bard in the aged theatre that gave the album its title, Lanois expunged all traces of MOR from the Nelson record and instead plumbed his love of all things Mexican and Spanish-Mariachi, particularly the Texan’s prowess on the nylon string.