SOUL FIRST Daniel Lanois (Pt. 2)

More of our
conversation with the legendary producer.

 

BY MARCUS BLAKE

 

Mother
Superior/Rollins Band/Pearl bassist Blake recently had an in-depth discussion
with his friend and collaborator Lanois, who discussed everything from working
with Dylan, U2 and Neil Young, to his own band Black Dub, his recent memoir
Soul
Mining, and his theories about recording. Go here to read Part 1. (Pictured above: Lanois and Blake onstage.)

 

***

 

BLURT: Let’s talk
about your tools of the trade.  You’ve
got your 1953 Les Paul Goldtop and your Vox AC 30’s.   Do you have any favorite pedals and
microphones you like to use?

 

  DANIEL LANOIS: I’ve
started using very few pedals.  In fact,
on the last tour, I was only using my delay unit.  I was using this little Korg that does repeat
echoes and modulates.  There’s a few
boxes that do that even a Memory Man will do that.  So, for my own playing, I find it’s best to
have that one device.  It just makes for
a better tone.  On this last tour,
Marcus, I brought two tweed Fender Deluxe amps from the late 1950s rather than
a Vox because my Korg has two outputs. 
It has a dry output and an effect output.  I really enjoyed the twin amp technique which
we miked to stereo.  It’s a really good
sound.  I think every bit as good as a
Vox and about 10 % as loud.  A Vox can rip
your head off!

 

  It can! (laughs)

 

  Or the bass player’s
head off if you point it in the wrong direction! (laughs)

 

  Oh, I love it!  (laughs)  Do you have a favorite vocal microphone for
recording for, say, Bono or Trixie?  They
belt it out when they sing!  They are
known to be really loud singers.

 

  Yeah, for a belter,
a Shure Beta 58 is a good friend.  The
good thing about a dynamic mic, like the Shure Beta 58, is that you get natural
isolation.  So, you can get right up on
those mics to sing which means you don’t have so much of the instruments
bleeding in, which can make a junky sound. 
So, I highly recommend the Shure microphone for that.  We used that on Neil Young’s record.  All the rocking tracks, he sang in a 58.  For the acoustic tracks, where there’s not so
much volume interfering with the vocal, I like to use a Sony C-37A.  It’s a tube microphone from the 1950’s. 

 

  Is that the microphone you used with Bob
Dylan?

 

  It’s the one I used
with Dylan, with Emmylou Harris and, mercifully, with Neil Young.  It’s a great tube mic, that has a big capsule
sound and the thing that’s nice about it is that you can get right up close on
it and it does not break down.  Sometimes
those German mics, like the U 47, can’t handle that kind of closeness and moisture
and just stop working. 

 

  You’ve worked with so many great musicians
and artists over the years like U2, Dylan and Peter Gabriel: who would you work
with again?  Also, there have been other
artists that you’ve tried to work with like Mick Jagger and Robert Plant which
didn’t work out.  Why didn’t that work
out?

 

  I did some demos
with Robert Plant which were meant for a Robert Plant/Alison Krauss
record.  Alison, unfortunately was not
feeling well and couldn’t make the session. 
Robert turned up and we did some songs with him.  We wrote some songs together and recorded
them.  There are four of them that turned
out great.  The Plant/Krauss record never
happened so those songs are sitting on the shelf.  We may rekindle that fire because three of
them are real standout tracks. 

 

  So, your collaboration with Robert Plant may
still happen yet then?

 

  It could still
happen and there’s even been an in-house interest in inviting Robert to be a
guest singer on the next Black Dub record. 
Maybe we can use a couple of those tracks.

 

  That would be cool!

 

  That would be cool
because Black Dub is a collective.  We
welcome input from people.  Maybe the
next Robert, if he doesn’t mind the idea, would be a guest on a couple of
tracks.

 

  You have to tell me about Mick Jagger.

 

  I was going to make
a record with Mick but it was my turn to get ill.  I got sick and I couldn’t fulfill my commitment
to Mick.  We tried a couple of
times.  Years ago, I met Mick in the late
1980s with a view of working on a record with him at that time.  That didn’t come together.  It was more about scheduling then.  And then, more recently, I was ill.  Our time will come.  He’s a great singer.

 

  Is there someone you would love to work with
that you haven’t worked with yet?

 

  I used to say Neil
Young to that question but I just made a Neil Young record, so, there it
is.  Maybe if we resurrected Miles Davis
and Jimi Hendrix. 

 

  Is it true that Jimi Hendrix is a huge
influence on your guitar playing?

 

  I love Jimi
Hendrix.  I think he was the greatest we
ever had. 

 

  Do you try to emulate some of Jimi’s
production techniques for your own records? 

 

  I love the production
on Hendrix records.  So, they are a point
of reference for me.  Those records are
viewed as so pure without too much outside interference.  But on studying Hendrix productions, there’s
a lot of layering.  There are a lot of
emotional layers and sonic layers.  For
example, “All Along The Watchtower” has got pretty striking acoustic guitar
playing.  You don’t think of it with that
but that’s what it has upon closer inspection. 
That kind of [sings “ching ching
ching,” imitating the guitar intro
]. 
There’s something resonating there. 
I don’t even know if it’s Jimi playing it.  Did you ever hear that Dave Mason was
involved in this?

 

  Yes, I’ve heard Dave Mason and even Brian
Jones from The Rolling Stones was reported to have played guitar on that track
!
Actually, that’s a Stones recording
technique that a lot of people don’t realize. 
For instance, in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, there’s an acoustic
guitar underneath the electric guitars as kind of a bed underneath of it
all.  So, that’s exactly what you’re
talking about.

 

  Yeah, having a
secondary instrument in unison to the main part is a technique that I like to
use.  It’s an old Nashville technique
where the bass player and the left hand of a piano would be playing the same
line.  [Starts singing a walking bass/piano riff]  It’s like a written part and you don’t really
hear the piano part.  It’s like a big
truck in the bottom end.  We use it on
the Black Dub record, on “I Believe In You.” 
There’s an electric guitar that shadows the bass part.  It took a long time to do that because it’s a
complex bass part. 

 

  Yeah, there’s some amazing bass playing on
the album.  How important to you is bass
in the mix in all the records that you make?

 

  Bass is very
important to me.  Funny enough, as a kid,
I didn’t get very good bass sounds in my early recordings.  I always felt bad that I didn’t know how to
do it.  Then, I had a chance to work with
Rick James and then I realized the economy of a bass part.  I like a bass part that’s well written and
that’s not smearing the whole track and which then can be turned up quite
loudly in the end.  You don’t need to add
too much more if you have a great bass part. 
Then, the role of the guitar could be harmonizing with the lead
vocal. 

 

My bass sounds got from being the worst to the best!  (laughs)  I was so determined to get it right.  I started studying records… a lot of them
from New Orleans.  Once I had a great
education, I was able to pursue the bass and succeed with it. 

 

  On the new Neil Young record, the bass
frequencies blow the listener away

 

  Yeah, the Neil Young
record has got great bottom.  That’s a
bit of trickery, Marcus.  We used one of
those cheap DJ machines that give you an octave.  We put that on Neil’s guitar, which has two
outputs.  His three bass strings come out
of one output and three top stings out of the other.  So, by isolating the three bass strings, I
was able to send that to one of those DJ boxes. 
But, the DJ effect box didn’t track everything.  Maybe 60% of it was great and the rest was a
blur.  So, where I had the “blur
problem”, I cheated a little bit, I went to my Moog Taurus pedals and
supplemented whatever that was not tracking properly from the DJ box. 

 

  Do you have a favorite song off the Neil
Young record

 

  I’m pretty proud of
“Walk With Me”.  Structurally, it was
something I was involved with quite a bit in an arrangement for Neil.  In fact, the song begins halfway through the
performance.  I lopped off the front of
the song.  Then, I included those lyrics
in the back end, where the back end goes into this secondary chapter; where it
goes into a shuffle.  It’s just something
that I hit on with my dubs, this little shuffle thing that Neil loved and he
encouraged me to go the distance.

       I think
sonically, my favorite track is “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You”.

 

  Why is that?

 

  I think that’s where
we really got the balance of the vocal and the guitar right.  First of all, all of the vocals and the
guitars are live.  There are no vocal
overdubs.  So, part of the challenge is
having your amps cranked up to ten but getting a nice developing on the
voice.  That was one of the last tracks
we recorded and at that time we had just found a “sweet spot”, isolating the
amps around the corner of the foyer and in the other room, on the padded
rug.  So, if we had to do it all over
again, I would start it with that sound and go from there.

 

  How did the concept of recording just Neil
and his guitar come about in the first place?

 

  It was only ever Neil
and his guitar as a concept.  He called
me to record him doing ten acoustic songs and to film him because he liked the
Black Dub films that we had up on YouTube. 
So, he saw excellence in our work. 
He called and said, “Hey!  Could I
tap into the thing you’ve already got going?” 
I said, “Sure, no problem.” 

        The two
acoustic songs on the record, we recorded on our first get together under a
full moon.  That was a three day session.  The acoustic songs are “Peaceful Valley
Boulevard” and the other being “Love And War”. 
We got them tracked very early in the project and I’m very proud of them
sonically.  They’re great songs.

 

  Is that one of Neil’s things, to record under
a full moon?

 

  Yeah, Neil likes to
record under a full moon.  So, we did four
full moons.  And, of course, in between
the full moons, I added some of my sonics, my dubs.  But, his performances were all done under a
full moon.  He knows, historically, those
have been productive times for him.  If
the moon has the power to move the sea and the tide, then it probably does
something to our innards.  I just
followed his intuition and gave it a try and he was right. 

 

  Does a lot of your work in the studio and on
stage involve intuition and playing off of each other?

 

  Lucky for us, in the
record making world, we can change the direction of the ship quite well.  We’re not operating by blueprint or
architectural designs.  All we know is
that we want to make a great record.  So,
if the byproduct seems more interesting than what we’re going after, I usually
shift with it. 

 

  Let’s talk about different studios that
you’ve had over the years; from Teatro to your current one in Los Angeles to
the one you’re now working on in Toronto. 
What’s the latest with the one in Toronto?  Is it finished?

 

  I’m standing in the
Toronto studio, talking to you right now. 
It’s pretty much done.  Now, it’s
down to finding sweet spots.  There’s a
little decorating to do.  I want to put
in a nice bar. 

 

  Can you describe your new studio?

 

  Yes, it’s an old
Buddhist temple.  It’s an “L” shape on
the main floor, which is where we currently have our equipment.  It has an archway from one room to the
next.  The main room has a very tall
ceiling.  The light that comes through
there is very beautiful.  So, there’s a
shape that shows up on the wall.  It’s
kind of like a sundial.  It’s got a lot
of spirit in it and that’s what drew me to it initially.  I thought if it was good enough for the
monks, I would give it a try!  Then,
there’s a same “L” shape on the lower level, which is the basement level.  That might be the most dense sounding part of
the building.  I may end up with a studio
down there.  But, at the moment, I‘ve got
a studio on the main floor.  I have transportable
equipment in there, which my studios always have.  I like to move thing around to the project at
hand.  It’s private.  I want to make it a very musical place for me
and my friends and I want it to be a good hang as well. 

       The studio in
California, the El Teatro, might have been my favorite studio because it was
massive.  It was an old theater, an old
cinema house.  My engineer, Mark Howard,
and I took out a bunch of seats in the middle and built a riser stage.  So, all of our equipment was on stage.  The cool thing about having seats was that we
could invite an audience over.  We had a
screen and I had my motorcycles in there. 
I really believe in keeping all of my equipment plugged in and ready to
go as we spoke about earlier.  So, that
was kind of the ultimate studio.  I tried
to find a cinema in Toronto but didn’t so, I went for the Buddhist temple.

 

  What happened with El Teatro then?

 

  I was only renting
for El Teatro so we were there for four years. We started and finished Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind record there.  We did Willie Nelson’s album [titled after
the studio] there.  We did the soundtrack
for a film called Slingblade there.  Then my partner, Mark, wanted to go to Los
Angeles and start his own thing.  So, we
packed up and that was that.  But it’s
still for rent!  (laughs)

 

  You mentioned Mark Howard.  Would you consider him your secret weapon?

 

  Mark Howard is
resourceful.  That’s what’s great about
him.  He can do great studio set
ups.  For example, I wanted to go to
Mexico a few years back and do some work down there.  So, Howard drove an eighteen wheeler down
there and set up a studio for me in the mountains.  It was pretty amazing.  He’s a good road dog.  He’s got that kind of experience and
know-how.  He can throw something
together in an afternoon.  Beyond his
capacity as a set-up man, he’s very qualified with sounds.  He surprises me with set-ups.  Even without any input from me, he’ll dial
something up. 

 

  We can’t do an interview without mentioning
Brian Blade.

 

  Yeah, Brian Blade is
a bad man on the drums.  We just came off
the road and we’re reviewing our films and recordings and I’m reminded all the
time on how great he is and how dedicated he is.   The churchman… he’s everyman really.

 

  As a bass player, when I play with him, he
makes me play differently.  He’s that
inspiring. 

 

  I noticed that,
Marcus.  In a good way, yeah?

 

  In the best way possible.

 

  I find that, maybe
in the way the you feel when you play with him, I can back off a little bit and
not feel that I’m carrying all the weight for the group.  You can hit on a nice, long note and enjoy
the ride.  I think when you’re not trying
so hard, then it becomes more musical. 

 

  You mentioned that you are working on films
from your tour?

 

  Yes, we have a
simple technique on the road.  Our
cinematographer, Adam Vollick, travels with us. 
He’s on stage with us and he puts the lens at what he sees as the most
interesting moment on stage at a given time and that gets projected on screen,
above us.  That’s really good for people
a little further at the back because they can’t see idiosyncratic details of
somebody’s handwork or Brian with the sticks. So by having that up on the
screen rather than disconnected visuals, the audience feels like they’re in on
the story.  They don’t mind Adam up there
because he’s serving them.  I think it’s
a very inclusive angle on things.  Then,
we come home and we have a film! 

 

  Video along with audio has always been very
important to you, right?

 

  We come home with a
film.  We use a technique that’s pretty
fascinating.  We come right off the stage
with our microphones and plug them into our own preamps that we carry on the
road.  It’s a box, maybe an 8U High
preamp.  That gives us 16 preamps.  So, the mics plug into those preamps and
those preamps plug into my Radar recording system.  Then, the Radar patches into the house
console.  So, we don’t need a [mobile
recording] truck in the alley or other people to be recording on a separate rig
or anything.  The chain of events from a
mic to the listening console that we use, gives us a multi track
recording.  So, any given night, we have
multi track recording and a film.  It’s
very, very economical. 

 

  I can’t wait to see the finished product.

 

  Yeah, I think you’re
going to like it.

 

  You seem to be constantly searching.

 

 The creative process
is a searching process.  You’re always
looking for something that you haven’t done before.  As innovative spirits, it keeps you asking
questions about possibilities.

 

  Do you think your motorcycle accident made
you think more about searching than you have previously? [Lanois was in a very serious motorcycle accident
last year, while in the middle of working on
Le Noise.]

 

  The motorcycle
accident has certainly made me aware about mortality.  I was right in the wings of mortality!  Then, you come out of that and realize how
special life is.  You take nothing for
granted.  I want to play every note like
it’s the last note I’ll ever play.  I
want to be doing significant work .

 

  How are you doing now?  Was it difficult for you to travel?

 

  I’m doing okay.  My rib cage in the back, just below my
shoulder blade, is pushed in about an inch and a half.  My bone broke and it never sprung back
out.  That was pretty terrible for a long
time because I couldn’t lay down.  Those
broken ribs were like knives cutting into me so I had internal bleeding.  Even to this day, when I lay down, it feels
like there’s a lump inside of me.

 

  Did it affect your guitar playing at all?

 

  No, because all the
weight of the guitar is on the left shoulder.

 

  Finally, you said in your book, that Chris
Blackwell likes the records that you and Eno produce because they have soul but
your sonic experiments are hard for him to digest.  Do you think that soul and experimenting vs.
being commercial is a constant struggle for you?

 

  I’m still dedicated
to the cause of mixing machine with flesh. 
Whether that be with beat boxes or things like that.  I think if you start with soul, then,
whatever you try to frame around that, should work.  Soul first, and then go from there. 

 

***

 

Thanks to: Margaret
Marissen, Adam Vollick and Keisha Kalfin.

 

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.

 

Black Dub’s
self-titled album is out now in all fine record stores and digital outlets
everywhere.
Soul Mining: A Musical Life,
the book by Daniel Lanois and Keisha Kalfin, is published by Faber & Faber.

 

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