Lanois and his P-90-stocked Les Paul.
Photo by Adam Vollick
Beyond considerations of genre, style,
or age, Daniel Lanois will ultimately be
counted among the most creative, original,
and resourceful artists to sit behind a mixing
desk. His triumphs are legendary—U2’s
The Joshua Tree
and Achtung Baby
with Brian Eno), Peter Gabriel’s So
and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind
has added color, immediacy, and intriguing
atmospherics to records by Willie Nelson,
Emmylou Harris, and Robbie Robertson.
This year, he tackled one of rock’s most coveted
production gigs—manning the controls
for a Neil Young album that Lanois says will
deliver some of Young’s most unexpected
and enormous electric-guitar sounds ever.
If Lanois has a knack for guitar tones, it’s
because he’s also an exceptionally inventive
player. Solo efforts like The Beauty of Wynona
and the soundtrack to Billy Bob Thornton’s
showcase Lanois’ masterful sense
of touch, space, and composition, and his
dark and haunting Belladonna
remarkably expressive pedal-steel technique.
In his latest project—a band called Black
Dub—Lanois explores music in the context
of an ensemble. Working with vocalist
Trixie Whitley, master drummer Brian
Blade, and bassist Daryl Johnson, Lanois
has forged a somber, celebratory, and
groove-heavy sound. The band’s debut
album, Black Dub, frames Whitley’s expressive
vocals in a spacious sonic environment
that’s quintessentially Lanois.
Fresh from receiving clearance from his
doctor to tour after recovering from a
motorcycle accident that broke 10 bones,
the modest, soft-spoken, genial, and
gentlemanly Lanois chatted with Premier
about getting big results from lean
production, capturing unique tones, and
how he crafts some of the spookiest guitar
sounds in the business.
Though you produce contemporary
music, you draw inspiration from timeless
musical sources. What sounds turned you
on in your formative years?
Coming up in Hamilton, Ontario, the
radio was my source of knowledge. The
Motown thing was happening. I also liked
surf music a lot—especially its story-telling
aspect. I was into the Surfari’s “Wipe
Out,” but I really like the flip side, “Surfer
Joe.” For a kid who hadn’t traveled much,
Surfer Joe sounded like a pretty cool
character. When music got psychedelic, I
was fascinated with the sonic experimentations.
I started getting the impression
that there were no boundaries and you
could go after whatever you were dreaming
about. I’ve been operating that way
Did any guitar players from that period
make an impression?
Jimi Hendrix was probably the most visible.
He’s still one of the greats for me—maybe
the greatest. I heard “Foxy Lady” and
thought, “That’s where I want to go.” I also
really like the instrumental music of the late
’50s, like Santo and Johnny.
Which records of the period became production
touchstones for you?
I never listened to records for production value
or thought of the word production or thought
I’d be a producer. I only loved records for how
they made me feel, and I was inspired by that
more than technique. And really, falling in love
is probably the first stage of production.
You’re a very sensitive, inventive, and
melodic player, but you’re not too doctrinaire
about technique. Has that helped you
stake out some of your own ground?
A big part of finding my voice as a guitar player
was right-hand technique. I studied fingerpicking
as a young player. Some of it was classical, some
of it was Travis picking. But it was mostly very
traditional technique that didn’t apply to anything
]. But it became clear
this was a unique way to play when most other
players were just using a flatpick. At this point,
I’ve almost banned the flatpick altogether.
Chipped, dusty, and oh so lusty: A close-up of Lanois’ trusty Firebird V.
Photo by Melinda Dahl
Maybe it’s as simple as flesh on steel, versus
plastic on steel. It promotes a certain kind
of tone I like. And tone often commands a
direction for playing. When I get my tone
going through that approach, I don’t feel
any inclination to play fast, which lends itself
more to nice melodies.
In the capacity of producer, what do you
look for in a guitar solo?
Pretty early on in a project, I’ll build a menu of
sounds from the work at hand—things that help
us find a personality for that record. Projects
are very sound driven, initially, and someone
might play something interesting that I’ll document
and add to the menu for that project.
I’ll often try to steer the guitar player to those
sounds and try to harness them over the course
of the project. The idea is to remind them of
their most unique expressions.
While there are signature sonic qualities
and atmospheres in Daniel Lanois productions,
few of your records sound the same.
Is that something you strive for, or are you
just responding to the needs of the artist?
My taste is evolving all the time, and the
things I get excited about change. If you
look at the ambient chapter of my work, five
to seven years later I’m doing very different
things. What’s driving me philosophically
or spiritually is pretty important, too. That’s
where it gets fascinating. I tend to take on a
project or work with a group because I like
the people and think they have something in
their hearts and their heads that will take the
music to an innovative place. That’s what I
look for, even now on the Black Dub record. I
believe in [Black Dub singer] Trixie Whitley—
she’s a deep soul and I’ve been a friend of
the family. So I trust that association spiritually
and I believe it has reason to exist beyond
specifics of music. Having those connections
is what inspires you and gets you through the
work. If I’m surrounded by deep souls, I know
I can trust the music in the end.
I suppose that personal empathy is vital
even for a garage band.
That and the existence of a garage!
[Laughs.] That’s important too—the idea
of working with what you’ve got. I love
the resourcefulness that comes from the
garage. I’m not in a garage as we speak,
but it’s pretty close—pretty renegade.