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 stepping-off point.

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.