You like Daniel Lanois' music, even if you don't realize it. He's the guy who took a promising post-punk band from Dublin called U2 and helped them make their three best albums, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Auchtung Baby. He's the force behind Bob Dylan's later-career resurgence with Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind. He produced Peter Gabriel's legendary album, So, and has collaborated countless times with Brian Eno. He has been personally sought out by artists like Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, The Neville Brothers, The Killers, and Martha and the Muffins to help craft their sounds in the studio. In short, he's everywhere.
The Hull, Quebec native started recording songs in his mom's basement as a teenager and ended up as one of Brian Eno's proteges by the early 1980s. What makes Lanois a good producer is his hands-on approach in the studio, where he is known to collaborate with artists and often ends up with co-writing and performance credits. “I realized that was one of my talents - that I was an all arounder. I could sing parts, I could suggest harmonies, and that's how it started,” says Daniel Lanois. A Lanois album has a distinct sound, and you can hear it in everything from stadium anthems like "Pride (In the Name of Love)" to his own, widely-covered "The Maker."
Earlier this year, we visited Lanois in his trailer before his performance at Festival d'ete de Quebec. His mind is always full of sound production ideas, I couldn't get past pressing "record" on my phone before I got a lesson in sound recording. “I like the sound of those iPhones. They sound surprisingly good.”
Have you ever messed around recording with iPhones before?
Oh yeah, I've recorded masters on things like this, on pocket recorders. We stumbled upon it a couple years ago. My brother was filming with a video camera and we also did a board recording of the stage, and then we hooked the two together. We were looking at the picture and the board, and the camera sound was on by mistake and it added an extra element of excitement. So we started doing it properly, setting up secret recorders around the stage. We call it the Walking Multitrack, so wherever you're going you bring little recorders, whether it be iPhones or zooms, and kind of pepper them around the place and synchronize them afterward. You get a whole multitrack.
And this is how you record live shows now?
Whether it's for a show, or let's say there's a jam session in this trailer, you fish out your recorders and pepper them around the place and you get home and find some nice surprises.
Of course, you're not always the one behind the mic. You also play on a lot of the recordings you produce. Where does that come from in your understanding of what a producer is?
When I started in my mom's basement I did everything. I was the piano tuner, I was the engineer, I was the producer, I played parts. If I could play better than other people then maybe I would play the bass part, just to be helpful. And I continued that tool box, if you like, just in the name of helping people. I never wanted to muscle in on people's songwriting or anything like that, I just wanted to make sure that they walked out at the end of the day with something to show for their effort.
You've said before that "One" by U2 is your definitive song. That's an interesting choice, since it's not your own song, but you were also heavily involved in the production.
Well the song "One" evolved in the studio. It was not a written song that was brought in, so we tried many different angles, many chord sequences, and so I was very involved from the ground up on the song. I felt like it was something that was really dear to me, and I really wanted the song to work for them because it was a pivotal point in the making of that Auchtung Baby album for them, and so I really got in there and fought for the song and fought for them and really wanted it to succeed. And when it did, I really felt like it acted as a springboard for the whole album to come into focus. It's important to have a pillar to stand on and I wanted to make sure we had that one in our pocket - a pillar to stand on, so we could get on to some other work and other things. I stood by that song, and I really fought for it in the name of the band and all, so it was sort of my baby. And they're all my babies in the end, but that was the beginning one, ya know?
You and Edge have a similar guitar playing style in a lot of ways. Did that come out of working together in this period?
Edge had his echo guitar sound before I came into their [U2's] world, he was using a Memory man. When I got to working with them, he was using a more complicated machine called a Korg SDD 3000, which had longer delays, and it's at that time that I got interested in the echoes. So he already had his sound, it's not something I brought to him, but I really liked his rig and brought his sound into my world and did my own experiments with it. And over the years, through the making of different records, we shared some ideas. I brought in a secret weapon pedal, a wah distortion pedal that I picked up at flea market in San Francisco, and it became quite a big part of the Auchtung Baby sound. And then my roommate at the time, a Canadian named Michael Brook, invented the infinite sustain guitar so we brought that in. We had kind of a sandbox that we shared for a good few years, and we ping-ponged some sounds around.
A lot of exchanging guitar tones?
Yes, and also I grew up as a studied musician and Edge did not so I was able to introduce him to some other inversions of chords that he liked. What's that one… [sings] "You've got to get yourself together 'cause you're stuck in a moment…"
You mean "Stuck In A Moment That You Cant Get Out Of"?
Yeah. So that kind of root to third to major four to root, that's an inversion that I showed Edge, and he thought, "Oh, that's pretty cool." It's just an E chord with a third in the bass, but for a guy who didn't come up studying, that was a new trick.
In an interview you did with Pharrell a year ago, you said you're really into hip-hop, but he didn't ask why and then you got on to something else. So I want to ask, what do you like about hip-hop?
I like hip-hop because there's a lot of clarity in the bottom, and it takes bass to a whole other level. I really like some Lil' Wayne, where he takes the bass drum and he gives it a note, and that becomes the bass part for the song. So tricks like that. Taking him as a point of reference, he's new generation New Orleans, and I came up through New Orleans partially working with the Neville Brothers, and I heard Lil' Wayne and thought, "this is a young guy who is taking the thing to a whole other level." And I've even borrowed a few things from Lil' Wayne since then. On my new record, I took Brian Blade's acoustic drum performance and I isolated the bass drum, and through some computers, I provided myself with a palette of notes - a seven note mode that I could play to Brian's bass drum - so it became the bass part. So it's completely locked like in hip-hop. It's on a track called "Sioux Lookout" from my new album.
If a hip-hop artist called you up to produce their next album, would you be down?
Well it depends on how great the lyrics are. If it's as good as, "And if the posse has good luck, girl, let's get butt naked and fuck!" If something that poetic comes my way then I'm in.
[Laughs] So you're down!
Well you know what I would be able to do - the one thing that everyone shares in common is they hope to get to a soulful place in their music. Specifics of style, genre, aside, that's what usually floats to the top—something that has a lot of heart in it and rings true and has authenticity in it. So my work on a good day has that intact, and I would like to bring that to the hip-hop community. I think that would be cool.
Daniel Lanois is currently touring Canada and his new album, Flesh and Machine, comes out on October 28.
Greg Bouchard would also like to produce an album for Ice-T, but the beverage - @gregorybouchard