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’sThe Joshua TreeandAchtung Baby(co-produced with Brian Eno), Peter Gabriel’sSo, and Bob Dylan’sTime Out of Mind—and he 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 Wynonaand the soundtrack to Billy Bob Thornton’sSling Bladeshowcase Lanois’ masterful sense of touch, space, and composition, and his dark and hauntingBelladonnareveals a 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 withPremier Guitarabout 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 ever since.

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 contemporary [laughs]. 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.