SOUL FIRST Daniel Lanois (Pt. 1)

An intimate
conversation with the legendary producer, who talks Dylan, U2, Neil Young, his
own band Black Dub, and much more.

 

BY MARCUS BLAKE

 

I met Daniel Lanois at a photo exhibition for charity in Beverly Hills a few years
back.  The night before I met him, I was
watching the making of Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking
Ball
album on TV.  Being one of the
many fantastic albums that Daniel has produced and played on over the years, he
appears all throughout the documentary. 
It’s funny how these things happen. 
One night, I’m watching Dan on TV and the next night, I meet him.  We had a nice conversation when we met.  I couldn’t help but ask him about working on
Peter Gabriel’s So album,
particularly on “Don’t Give Up”, Peter’s duet with Kate Bush.  He told me that that was originally going to
be a duet with Peter and Dolly Parton! 
And so began a friendship with a “you learn something new every day”
moment each time I am with Daniel.

 

Anyway, at that meeting, I invited Daniel to a show I was
playing with Rollins Band at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles, the following week.  To my utter astonishment, Daniel came to the
show!  Even more astonishing, Daniel
called me and my Mother Superior compadre, Jim Wilson, to come over his place
and make some music with him shortly after! 
How Lanois saw the compatibility of the way we make music with Rollins
Band to the way he makes his own music, I’ll never know, but I am thankful he
took a chance on us. 

 

Fast forward in time a bit. 
We’re at Daniel’s house once again. 
Daniel pulls out a Christmas card that Bob Dylan sent him.  He opened it up and it simply said, “From one
searcher to another.”  Then, it struck
me, Lanois is a searcher.  He titled his
new autobiography Soul Mining: A Musical
Life
(recently reviewed at BLURT) and I know exactly what he means by
that. 

 

From his early work creating sonic landscapes with Brian
Eno, to making some of rock n’ roll’s most endearing music with U2 beginning
with the Unforgettable Fire in 1984
to 2009’s No Line On The Horizon (not
forgetting the absolutely legendary, multi million selling, Grammy award
winning albums, The Joshua Tree, Achtung
Baby
and All That You Can’t Leave
Behind
), Lanois leaves his indelible mark on each project while never
detracting from the fundamental sound of the artist.

 

It’s impossible to go through all of the man’s work at one
time.  His career covers so much great
music: from the aforementioned U2, Peter Gabriel & Bob Dylan to albums that
he’s produced and played on by The Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Willie
Nelson and Neil Young (to name just a few), to his own work, beginning with the
stunning Acadie album to his new
band, Black Dub’s recent release, (reviewed here) with gems like the Slingblade soundtrack and Shine along the way. 

 

Let’s not forget the man kicked Bob Dylan’s ass to make his
two best albums since Blood On The Tracks:
Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind!

 

So I won’t try to interview Daniel about each work of
his.  If you want to know about that, get
his book. Instead, I prefer to talk to him as a friend like I’ve always done. Only
now, you’re in on the conversation…

 

***

 

BLURT: What is being
a producer to Daniel Lanois?  Also, is
there a sound that you try to go for with each production and a sound you try
to avoid?

 

DANIEL LANOIS: At first it was survival.  I had a recording studio, at first, in my
mother’s house when I was a kid.  But, I
had to make a living, so, I started helping people.  I found that people appreciated my help
because I cared.  I cared about my
business.  I cared about their work.  I cared about everything.  That seemed to be what people responded to
the most in a work relationship with me. 
Most of the guys on the street can record but I think because I care so
much and I want the best for them and the best for me, that’s what makes me
different.  That’s what’s it all about
for me.  I didn’t want to be a record
producer, I didn’t even know what that was. 
I just got called that along the way. 

 

  Did you consider yourself more of an engineer
at the beginning then?

 

  I never used any of
the terms.  I don’t even like
“engineer”!  That title is as if I serve
engines or something!  I just thought of
myself as a guy who did everything.  I
was able to work on arrangements.  I was
able to record and mix.  I was able to
supervise artwork.  I was able to deliver
a 1,000 pieces of vinyl.  It was a
business.

 

  So, you were involved in the process of
making vinyl, too, in the early days?

 

  Yeah, we had a
relationship with a vinyl company in Toronto.  We would get 1,000 pieces of vinyl for “x”
amount of money and I would do different kinds of artwork in color or black and
white for different prices.  So, we had
an “all in” package.  That was kind of
fun because it taught me about business as well as making music.  As we know, it all runs in tandem, you can’t
just be a brilliant musician and pay no attention to how you’re going to pay
the rent.  That’s how it started for me.

        In regards to
the second part of your question, about my sound, in Toronto
and in the southern Ontario
region where I grew up as a teenager and where my studio was, all the studios
were quite the same.  They were all
clean.  They had a grand piano… maybe an
organ but that was it, no other instruments. 
No microphones left out, nothing else. 
The regional tendency was to strip everything down and neutralize the
console so when the morning session came in then, they wouldn’t have any of the
junk from the session from the night before. 
There weren’t that many great records coming out of Toronto. 
I was wondering what that was all about and then I realized that the studios
had no sounds, they just had equipment. 
So, I decided to do it like Motown, where they actually had a
sound.  I had a permanent drum kit
already miked up and a good bass rig and so on. 
So, I went up that street because I saw it as a window of opportunity.  They [people who recorded there] had
instruments and I knew what I was doing so I started collecting instruments and
building sounds.  So, when people walked
in, they didn’t even have to bring their own rig. 

 

  Much like when I come to your place to record
or play music with you these days. 
You’re ready to go!

 

  Yeah, that’s it,
Marcus.  It’s the same thing.  That philosophy has never waivered.  That’s what started building my sounds.  I actually had a sound when everyone else
didn’t.  So, I thought that was a
natural. I just kept rolling that way and it evolved from just instruments and
sound stations.  It evolved into sonics
on a console.  I refined that considerably
when I had a chance to work with Brian Eno. 
The way we would do it was that we would have lots of effects going on
all the time but we weren’t just monitoring the effects.  I routed the effects back to two tracks of
the multi track and monitored that. 
Meaning, that at any given time, if I pressed “record” on those two
tracks, I was able to capture the sound of the day.  And having captured it then, it’s there
available to me for mixing.  The other
thing that can happen is, those mixes that are already printed can now be put
back through the chain of effects and be reprinted again on two other tracks
and, this is where it gets really interesting, you start to get voltage control
oscillation on top of voltage control oscillation and that’s when effects get
more interesting and more musical.  You
get interesting harmonic results and so on. 
So, I’ve been using that technique ever since.  I don’t just listen to effects, I print
them. 

 

  So the sounds almost play off of each other,
then. 

 

  Yes, the sounds
almost take on a life of their own once you start challenging conventional routing
of effects.  Just to give you an idea of
the most pedestrian effect, let’s put a little reverb on the vocal.  So, you put a little reverb on the vocal but
it’s likely going to be quite fluffy and something you’ve heard before.  But if you take that and put it through vco,
it then goes into a delay and then gets floated and equalized so, the chain of
events in the routing then can start to get musical.  It’s a hard thing to describe.  It leaves us open for the unexpected. 

 

  Is that what you always strive for?  The unexpected?

 

  In a given work day,
there will be surprises.  Some of them
will be effect related.  Some will be
sonic related.  Somebody will come up
with a riff or a beat that’s not part of the plan of the day and often, those
are natural beginnings to new ideas.  I
pay attention to them.  I document them
and remind people of them.  We
essentially build own menu of unique ingredients from the immediate team. Some
great songs have come from that technique. 
Just to use an example, in the U2 recording process, we had a great drum
beat that Larry Mullen had played from a song that we had moved away from.  We didn’t think it was going anywhere but the
drums were amazing.  We decided to
nurture those drums and build a song on top. 
We came up with this production for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m
Looking For” which was one of their big songs. 
So, the drums were unrelated to the song itself.  The drums had magic in them and that’s always
a good place to start from.  I usually
don’t move ahead with the process if magic doesn’t already exist.  I don’t wait for magic to come in the back
end or the mix.  I always start with
something remarkable.

 

  You’ve been known to edit pieces together to
make a master take.  For instance, you
did that for “Duo Glide” from Here Is
What Is
(Lanois’ film/audio documentary on a year of his music making
life).  Did you do any of that for the
Black Dub [Lanois’ new band with singer
Trixie Whitley and Brian Blade on drums
] album?

 

  The Black Dub album
has drums that were recorded in Mexico.  Then, I replayed all the instruments and
built a song on top of it called, “I Believe In You”.  And then, you were with me playing bass at a
concert at Massey Hall in Toronto.  We did a version of “Ring The Alarm” that
night.  I took those drums, and built the
Black Dub version of that song.  There
was fire in those drums.  They were
isolated enough from the other instruments; it made them viable.  So, that’s what happens. I think there’s no
substitute for getting it all at once in the studio, but I do use a bit of
studio trickery and magic if it works in favor of the project. 

 

  Let’s talk more about Black Dub.  How did the whole concept of Black Dub come
about?

 

  I had in the back of
my mind that it might be nice to serve a top notch singer.  I’m talking about someone who has the gift of
powerful vocal delivery and I think Trixie Whitley has that.  I met her in Belgium.  I was a friend of her father and was aware of
him [singer/songwriter/guitar player Trixie Whitley is the late Chris Whitley’s
daughter].  Chris was a writer/great
singer/guitar player.  So, I was aware of
the family talent.  So, when I bumped
into her in Belgium,
she let me hear what she was up to and I thought she had a great energy and
spirit.  So, I invited her to test out a
couple of songs and there wasn’t any pressure and they worked out well – and I
thought maybe it’s time to put this collective together called Black Dub. 

 

  With Trixie doing the majority of the singing
for Black Dub, did that free you up to concentrate on your guitar playing?

 

  Yes, I quite like
serving a singer with my guitar.  I can
really feel it onstage.  I can harmonize
with her and hold back when she’s singing and when she stops singing, I can
lash into a supportive melody or some kind of riff.  It’s pretty cool; actually, it reminds me of
some of the soul bands I saw as a kid where the singers are really going for
it.  They were lean, mean and there’s not
a lot of clutter on stage.  We’re
essentially a trio, musically, and Trixie occupies the center with her
vocals.  It’s pretty great.  I like it a lot. 

 

  Where do you see Black Dub going from
here?  Do you see it evolving in any way?

 

  Well, we’re
obviously going to be touring.  We just
did our first tour. 

 

  How did that go?

 

  It went great.  We just did the east coast of the United States.
We had a lot of fun.  We’re going back
out early in the new year and then we’re going to be doing festivals as well
through the summer.  We’re already
talking about doing the next Black Dub album in Jamaica. 

 

  You have a place in Jamaica, right?

 

  I have a place in
Negril.  That’s my main residence.  There’s something amazing about that
apartment.  Jamaica is a place that has a lot
of poverty and I think there’s something special about those self entertaining
societies.  When there’s not a lot of
money to go around, someone will start something at a roadside party.  They will have a party, put up a P.A. and the
next thing you know, the whole town will go for it.  If we did that here in North
America, we would be shut down because we don’t have a
permit. 

       It’s funny how
sometimes a third world country will afford more freedom than the more
developed countries.

 

  Do you think you found a happy medium between
making your own records and making records for others?  What is it that you wanted to bring out
differently with Black Dub than with the other records that you recently worked
on, like Neil Young’s Le Noise?

 

  The Neil Young album
has a lot of dubs in it.  The name,
“Black Dub”, came partly from my appreciation of dub music from Jamaica.

 

  Oh yeah?

 

  Yeah, there’s this
new dub technique, which is sample based and it really shows up on the Neil Young
record.  I think the Black Dub record and
the Neil Young record run in tandem somehow because I’ve noticed historically
with my work that any given pocket of time will produce a body of work that is
related between a few different artists.

 

  Kind of like The Neville Brothers album,
Dylan’s album and your own Acadie album? 

 

  Exactly like
that.  Yellow Moon with the Neville Brothers and Oh Mercy with Bob Dylan and my first record.  So, that’s an example of this course as of
events when I was working with Eno in the early ‘80s.  We had a scene going, making ambient records,
then we brought that to Dublin
to first work with U2 and some of that sound spilled onto the Unforgettable Fire record.  So, that’s human nature, that’s
evolution.  Looking at movements and
scenes at a given time, there will be a synchronicity even if it’s an idio-synchronicity. 

 

  What do you want the reader to take out of
your new book, Soul Mining?

 

  I’m hoping Soul Mining will be an inspiring read of
a young, hopeful person chasing their dreams. 
Beyond specifics of our line of work, I think anyone who’s interested in
chasing an idea will draw something out of the book.  It’s an against-all-odds story.  It’s the story of the rise of a young kid,
embracing skills and so on.  So, it’s
really a lot about skills moreso than chance encounter. 

 

  The cool thing is, you even talk about some
of your skills in the book.  For example,
in chapter 15, you talk about multi tracking and explaining that and going
through different recording techniques with Eno.

 

  Yeah, I mention that
skills are very important and developing them doesn’t happen fast
particularly.  I think you have to devote
at least five or ten years to a particular craft to be the best at it.  If you want to be the best, at least I do, I
wouldn’t just turn up at an invitation without thinking I could pull it off or
bring something to the table.  I have a
very high regard for skills.  I think a
great time to develop skills is during the teenage years.  So, if somebody is lucky enough to have found
something they love when they are ten years old, for example, and go after that
for the next decade, you come out at twenty years old as an incredible
expert. 

 

  Yeah, that and a genuine love for the
instrument or singing or whatever you do.

 

  Yeah, it’s a
sacrifice really.  When I think back, I
loved playing my instrument as a kid. 
There were not a lot of garnishings in my teenage years.  I was more impressed with developing my
skills than taking up horseback riding or karate or something, which a lot of
people do but when you get to be twenty years old, you might not ride the horse
anymore or you don’t practice martial arts. 
Those, I regard as garnishings and that’s terrific, except that if you
want to be the best at something by the time you’re 18 or 20, I think that
teenage time should be spent at skill building.

 

To be continued
tomorrow…

 

Marcus Blake performs
with Mother Superior, Rollins Band and Pearl
(just to name a few); he additionally has a series of interviews with record
producers in Spanish magazine Popular 1. Contact him at the Mother Superior
website.

 

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