Lanois and his Bigsby-equipped Les Paul get into the groove with
Black Dub drummer Brian Blade. Photo by Adam Vollick
How did you get such a massive sound?
When Neil called, I had a renegade setup in
the foyer of a house in Los Angeles, which
Neil really loved. The big secret weapon,
though, was Neil’s Gretsch White Falcon,
which has a pickup that’s split, so the three
bass strings come out one jack and the three
top strings come out the other. We’d route
those to two different amps, and that was the
beginning of the new expansive Neil Young
electric sound. I could treat the three bass
strings differently for a certain part of the
song—and, man, I loved that! That was fun.
Did you have any trepidation about working
with Neil, given his well-documented
aversion to production?
I always have fears. I’m a human being. But
I combat fear with preparation. So I spent a
couple of weeks preparing for Neil—working
with potential guitar sounds, vocal sounds,
and even on the film end—really working on
shots and lighting with the cinematographer
so that when Neil walked in, I had something
to offer him. Then I just handed him my little
Guild acoustic, which gave him a whole new
sound he hadn’t heard before. And once he
heard that, he was really inspired to start.
If he’d walked into a blank studio with a lot
of handshaking, we wouldn’t have had that
Lanois onstage with Black Dub vocalist Trixie Whitley. Photo by Adam Vollick
Is it difficult to shift between producing artists
like Dylan and Young, who move fast and
like first takes, and those who make intricate
albums and approach the studio more intellectually,
such as U2 or Peter Gabriel?
They’re very different processes. But even for
Peter and U2, who really push for newness
and originality and take a lot of time doing it,
raw performance is still a friend. The end of
Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”—the whole
ad-lib section at the end—happened in a
very spirited moment that lived very far away
from the initial rhythmic discoveries the song
was built on. And I think all these artists, no
matter how different, want some spontaneity
and freshness and for the thing to have some
combustion. Artists who like first takes—Neil
Young, Dylan, and certainly Willie Nelson—you just have to be ready for them. You learn
to treat the studio like a stage and create an
atmosphere that invites a good performance.
But you also make sure everything is right—no crackles and hum. The worst thing you can
do is say, “Stop everything, we have a broken
cable.” But I tend to live beyond those concerns
now, just through preparation.
After worrying about someone else’s work
so deeply, it must be nice to do something
more personal, immediate, and seat-of-the-pants—
like a solo instrumental piece or the
Sling Blade soundtrack.
There’s something wonderful about singularity,
and I love going to that place where
there’s no interruptions, no outside opinions
or influence. I just find my center, find my
sound, and out of that emerges a pretty pure
form. I feel that way when I’m playing pedal
steel, certainly. Being alone is probably the
setting that enables me to get to the deepest
within myself as a player.