Lanois’ ’60s Gibson Firebird V—which he loves to plug into a cranked amp for delicate fingerstyle work—rests on a golden divan. Photo by Melinda Dahl
You seem to interact with the guitar quite
physically. Seeing you play live, it’s sometimes
difficult to see how you achieve some
of your modulation effects. Do you get
most of it from leaning a bit on the guitar
neck or do you use a processor?
It’s mostly the fingerpicking angle and
bending the neck. But I always try to harmonize
with the singing too—which usually
involves a lot less strumming—and that kind
of playing invites that bending approach.
The bending of the neck lends that tiny bit
of vibrato that probably sounds a bit different
than a whammy bar. It’s a lesson I
learned from Jimi Hendrix, because he was
always leaning on something and fooling
with pitch, whether it was the whammy bar
or the neck.
”Slow Baby” is a great showcase for that.
I actually did that with my goldtop Les Paul
and a Vox AC30—no effects, just neck wobble
and a lot of volume.
Is “Sirens” all looping?
That’s a Boomerang pedal. I’ll work with
loopers by putting something in—maybe a
minute-long section—and just stack things
up. That usually makes for a very long piece,
then I go back and shorten the whole thing
to three minutes paying attention to every
chapter and removing the dead wood. But
“Sirens” is all one take—no overdubs except
the Boomerang processing—plus an edit to
trim the fat. I got what I got. I’m not sure I
could ever do it quite that way again, which
is some of the beauty in it.
How does playing with a vocalist affect
your guitar approach?
I stay out of the way! [Laughs.
] I use the old
Frank Sinatra big-band technique: When
Frank sings, no horns. When Frank stops, baa
boo dop, boo dop
Working as a producer must instill a sense
of economy as a player.
Well, I’ve learned it’s nice to not have a muddle
come mixing time. It’s best to be lean and
somewhat specific about your playing so you
don’t have a bird’s nest at the end. It’s what I
love about more riff-based music, funk music.
It’s usually quite lean in its structure. It’s taken
me a while to get to that place myself. But
the results show up on the Black Dub record
quite nicely. A lot of the most beautiful productions
I’ve been involved with were empty
landscapes. I love U2’s “With or Without You”
because the rhythm section occupies the
bottom, but there’s nothing in the midrange,
save for the vocal, because The Edge’s guitar
is in the stratosphere. When you hit on a successful
but really spare blend like that, it lives
on like a beacon forever to remind you how
good lean and mean is.
Your pedal-steel playing is so lyrical and
immediate. Do you feel it offers a purer
expression of yourself—or a certain side of
yourself—than other instruments?
There are two aspects of the pedal steel
that keep me really interested in it—melody
and the fact that I get better results the
less busy I play. Those things pushed me
in a certain direction that’s very unlike the
high-speed Western swing pedal steel players.
I love that sound, but I don’t do it at all.
I chose to slow the thing down and really
let it breathe—which makes it a whole new
instrument, sonically and compositionally.
Sometimes I think about steel guitar like a
string quartet—at any given time you can have
four notes interplaying. It’s still mystifying
to me. But you can’t put it down for too
long, or you’ll lose your technique and the
ear for it. And every note really demands
attention on a pedal steel.
How did your recent sessions with Neil
It went really well. He’d seen the Black Dub
videos on YouTube and fell in love with them.
He really liked that the camera was filming
from the perspective of a single individual and
that it captured a true live performance rather
than being reshaped in the editing room. So,
initially, he asked if we could do that—film him
and make an acoustic solo record. And it went
from that to something much more fascinating
over the journey. We employed the Black Dub
approach I’ve been using, which is very much
inspired by the work of [legendary reggae and
dub producer] Lee Scratch Perry. But rather
than using just echoes, the way he did, I pull
individual elements out of a recording, manipulate
them in multiple and more subtle ways,
and put them back in the tapestry in such a
way that you can’t really see the sutures. In the
end, we got a massive electric-guitar sound.