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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 Young go?
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.