Having already enjoyed a 40 year career as producer, performer and songwriter, the man who’s got Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, U2 and Emmylou Harris on speed-dial shows no sign of letting up. In 2014 he just might be, our correspondent muses, the hardest working man in showbiz.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Daniel Lanois sounds somewhat groggy. “Hey man, thanks for getting on the phone so early in the morning with me,” he ventures, somewhat meekly. It’s no problem for us at this end of the conversation, I assure him. After all, it’s noon here, east coast time. Still, being that it’s 9am in L.A. where Lanois is phoning from, it could be considered ungodly early for any musician, much less one who’s known for maintaining such a prolific prowess.
Nevertheless, duty calls. Lanois’ first order of business is to discuss Flesh and Machine, his latest album and easily the most ambitious effort of his career. It finds veering into sonic terrain eerily reminiscent of the dreamy atonal soundscapes once conceived by avant-garde composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley. And although it lacks material that could be deemed of the hummable variety, these vague instrumentals are draped with hushed halo-like effects, a mix of random rhythmic pulses, droning tones and a brief shimmering sparkle. For the most part, the material is amorphous and elusive, neither here nor there, but wafting weightlessly through atmospheric realms in-between.
Even so, for all its obtuse designs, Flesh and Machine represents another adventurous advance in a nearly 40 year career that’s been marked by both invention and innovation. An erstwhile master of ambiance and intrigue, Lanois’ unique aural imprint has at various times informed the works of Bob Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Robbie Robertson, and Emmylou Harris, giving each artist the rarified feel of gothic haunts and shadowy domains. By turns both a producer and a player, he served an apprenticeship with ambient auteur Brian Eno early on, and indeed, Eno’s influence is especially evident here. Indeed, it’s yet another testament to the unique imprint Lanois has left on modern music.
So if Lanois was sleepy to start with, he quickly perks up when the subject of the new album comes up.
BLURT: How did this new album come about? It’s certainly different.
LANOIS: Hours and hours were spent in the studio coming up with these sounds. There are times where you don’t know if you’re hearing humans or animals. There was this village across the way and a coyote going crazy in the distance. I enjoyed picking up those native chants. As record makers, we look for what we call” liftoff,” where the music lives outside the musicians and it just takes off. The music takes on a life of its own. I tried to pay attention to my liftoffs as much as I could on this record, and that’s usually the part people respond to. Something that triggers the emotion in the listener. I think that track “Iceland” has that about it. It has that air of tranquility that makes you want to be a bit more sentimental, to be with your lover. I see myself as a sort of sound specialist, and I like to create that imagery for my listeners. That’s largely my criteria when it comes to my recordings.
It’s a very organic album, and a very daring album at that. Even though you have a loyal following who admire and appreciate your work, is there ever any concern that this might be a bit too adventurous even for them?
Well, I’m counting on a lot of word of mouth with this. Sometimes there’s no better way of spreading the gospel than to have somebody whispering in somebody else’s ear about a work they’re excited about. The commerce for this is probably on the stage. I’m using the phrase, “I’m taking the studio to the stage.” I’m bringing a multi-track with me into live performance. I do a lot of sampling on the side. I think it would be nice to be the Lee “Scratch” Perry of Quebec. (Laughs) I like surprising people. My job is really to take them on a journey or a trip. So we’re doing that on the stage. I’m performing with Brian Blade on drums and so I’m very excited about that too. I’ve got him convinced to follow metronomic time and he’s wearing headphones during the entire show. [Ed. note: Blade also plays with Lanois in the ensemble Black Dub.]
It sounds like no two shows are going to be alike.
Yes, that’s true, but what will be constant will be my metronomic sources. There will also be some films to run in tandem with the show. A friend of mine came across these early animations that actually precede film, and we’re showing those on a screen behind the stage. We’re trying to present the music in a very adventurous fashion. Even though the spine might be metronomically driven, the toppings fabulously belong to the moment.
With the live dubs we sometimes get a great one and sometimes we get a bad one, but I try to shut it off immediately if it’s a bad one (laughs). It’s about as far away from jazz as you can get, but the spirit of it is very close to jazz, especially those artists in the ‘50s who didn’t want to be in big bands any more. People like Miles Davis and John Coltrane – they joined combos, smaller units. They pushed the envelope. I see that as part of my responsibility. I don’t just want to reference what’s been done in the past. I want to take it into the future. So part of my criteria is to experiment with new forms and try sounds that drive it into the future if I can, on record and on stage.
You are definitely a triple threat — as an artist, as a producer and as a songwriter. You may be the hardest working man in show biz.
(laughs) Especially since we lost James Brown. Thanks for the vote of confidence, especially on the melody front. It’s good to be reminded that they should exist. This album isn’t entirely melodic, but some of it is melodic, and I’m proud of that. I think a song like “Iceland” has a lot going for it melodically. It has a lot sonic layering. But I can play it live on stage and it can be touching in its simplicity.
Some things on the record are quite pure, and other things are quite out there. The final song on the album, “The End,” got into quite a mess. I call it “The End” because I said I will never do it again (laughs). But then again, I like that it’s not a peaceful track. I like that it’s threatening in a way, and it’s saying, “We’re not going to take this anymore.” It’s kind of reflective of the madness we’ve created around the world. You watch the news for a day and it’s not hard to figure out the problems we have to deal with around the planet. So I see “The End” as maybe the representation of a young heart in a troubled zone, trying to figure out what’s going on in one of those bombing zones. We’re so lucky to be in this continent.
There certainly seems to be a duality to this record. It’s very cerebral and yet there are parts of it that really hit you in the gut.
Thank you, my friend. I caught the tail end of the cultural revolution of the ‘60s and I knew what was going on in people’s minds and in people’s hearts. They were looking for something, and I think as human beings, we are fundamentally seekers. That’s part of our intelligence and evolution. We want to get things done, but also respect the past. At the same time, we often want to tear things down. I’m not promoting war here, but I am promoting deconstruction, and a lot of this record was done through deconstruction. The spine of a lot of these pieces was removed and the ornamental and hidden details of this work was brought to the fore.
There’s a track called “Two Bushas” – a busha is a trailblazer in Jamaica, by the way. It was written by my friend Rocco DeLuca [whose recent, Lanois-produced album is reviewed HERE at Blurt]and he asked me to do some processing and enhancing, so I stripped everything away and just saved the two tracks that I had done the processing on. He said, “That’s so beautiful, That’s where I see symphonic music going in the future.” So I took that as a compliment and put it on the record. The details that were in shadows were now in the foreground, and one isn’t aware of the original song at all.
You’ve been accorded such honors and acclaim throughout your career. Does that give you a high bar to live up to?
I’m driven by invention. That’s part of the mantra that I operate by. But part of me is very naïve, and so when I step into a situation, I think, “These people are the best in the world. It doesn’t matter that we don’t have everything available to us. We will draw on the talents in the room and really make this work. That’s how I imagine people go into marriage. I’ve never been married, but you have to believe at that moment it’s all going to work out. So I love the people that I’m with and I believe in them, and I roll up my sleeves and bring it to paradigm. Whoever’s in the room believes in that idea and we bring it to a pinnacle. A couple of years later I could be thinking,” Wow, I was really naive,” and it could have gone all wrong,
Nevertheless, you bring this distinct ambiance and atmosphere to the albums you produce. It clearly seems a lot more of a thoughtful process than merely arranging the musicians in a circle and extracting a live vocal. Does that approach ever take the artist by surprise?
Hey man, if you’re lucky enough to have a great first day then you get a second day. That’s basically how it goes. When I went to work with Robbie, he obviously rolled the dice on me. He was a hero of mine but he didn’t know me. We both came from Canada, but that was it as far as the connections were concerned. He had this idea about a song called “Fallen Angel,” and he said, “I don’t know what to do with this. I have a few chords and a bit of a melody.” So I asked him to leave it with me and I plugged in this beat box (sings the beat) and I asked Tony Levin to play along with the chords. There was a snippet of a thing he played (sings the bass part) that sounded like a Jamaican thing. So I asked him to play that same thing rhythmically throughout the entire song, and he did, and then I asked him, “Tony, would you double that on a Telecaster?” And he said, “I don’t play guitar!” So I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take off the top two strings and you can play it like a bass.” So he doubled the part, and we got this beautiful groove. Then I added some atmospheric guitar, and when Robbie came in, he said, “What the hell is this? This is beautiful! Daniel, I will never doubt you ever again!” And that was our first day. And like I said, if you have a good first day, you get a second day.
And apparently, you get a lot of good first days! So the obvious question is, with all you do and all the demand for your services, how do you pick your projects?
I used to go from the stage to the studio, but now I’m taking the studio to the stage. I’m on stage with my multi-tracks, and while I sing some songs, I’m not afraid of doing instrumentals either. There are a lot of beautiful films that run in tandem with my electronic music, so I try to raise the spirit and give people a good time, so that when they leave the theater they have something to think about that they might not have had when they walked in. We’re just trying to take the studio to the stage and have it all be one. So if anyone wants to work with me, have them come to my stage (laughs).
Breaking down barriers.
Well, we try. Why not? I was lucky enough to be gifted with a talent. I like helping people and making things happen. Let it live on. It’s going to change year to year of course, because people change. That’s what we do. So I don’t want to be the kid who went to Ireland and made a record with U2 in 1983. I love that record, but I’m not going to do that record now because we did it back then.
Are you still in touch with Brian Eno?
Oh absolutely. I did a tour in England with Emmylou Harris after the reissued Wrecking Ball album came out, and Brian came backstage. It was lovely to see him. Then I went to his studio and he showed me some of his recent visual experiments. He’s always on a roll. He said he would provide me with a film for one of my instrumentals, so I’m waiting on that.
Wouldn’t that be great to be able to get on stage and say, “Eno made me a film for one of my tracks!?”
Lanois’ North American tour started Nov. 9 in Toronto. Dates at his official website.