Daniel Lanois: Sonic Alchemist
The celebrated producer and steel-guitar wizard reveals his secrets for coaxing futuristic sounds from vintage gear.
Few producers have made a sonic imprint as deep as Daniel Lanois, whose signature approach—complete with mysterious colors—is at the core of great records by U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, and Emmylou Harris, among many others. As a player, Lanois has a singular, understated approach to both the 6-string and pedal steel. And as evidenced by his latest solo album, Flesh and Machine, he has the uncanny ability to extract new sounds from his goldtop Les Paul, Sho-Bud steel, and Fender tweed amps.
Now 63, Lanois has been a purveyor of sound since the late 1970s, when he jointly acquired a 4-track with his brother, Robert. They set up shop in their mother’s basement in Ontario, Canada, charging $60 per day for their services, and their early clients included local talent like the future funk star Rick James and the children’s singer Raffi.
In the early 1980s, Lanois experienced a pivotal moment when he lent a hand to one of Brian Eno’s pioneering ambient works, Ambient 4: On Land (1982), along with Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983), which Eno recorded for a documentary on space exploration. The two also worked together in producing U2’s The Unforgettable Fire (1984), and this led to Lanois producing Peter Gabriel’s So (1986) and U2’s The Joshua Tree (1987), both major commercial breakthroughs for the Canadian musician.
By the end of that decade Lanois found himself working in New Orleans, where he recorded the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon (1989), perhaps the group’s finest album to date, and where he also worked on what was arguably Bob Dylan’s best record in years, Oh Mercy. That same year Lanois released a solo debut, Acadie, which merged New Orleans rhythms with the more ethereal sounds he’d developed since working alongside Brian Eno.
On subsequent solo outings, including For the Beauty of Wynona (1993), the soundtrack for Sling Blade (1996) and, more recently, Here Is What Is (2007, linked to a documentary of the same name), Lanois further revealed his ability to reconcile seemingly disparate worlds, such as rootsy country and celestial sounds. And he continued to wear a producer’s hat on the albums he made with Emmylou Harris (Wrecking Ball, 1995), Dylan (Time Out of Mind, 1997), and Neil Young (Le Noise, 2010).
We asked Lanois to share what he’s learned in his far-flung musical travels and how he’s applied it to guitar, why he has an affinity for vintage gear, and about the idiosyncratic creative processes behind Flesh and Machine.
Daniel Lanois’ fingerpicking approach is to play the guitar as if his three right-hand fingers are like the limbs of a drummer.
The new album sounds at once familiar and strange. What were you thinking about when you made it?
I was thinking about where music is headed. It’s very splintered—it means something different to a lot of different people. To me, as a devoted sonic specialist, I see it as presenting unusual and unique sounds—sounds whose sources people can’t quite pinpoint.
Take “Sioux Lookout” on the record—that’s something tribal, samples of chanting people, samples of recognizable instruments I played, warped in such a way that they take on another personality or face. I appreciate that we as human beings respond to symphonics. The classical repertoire itself is only so interesting to me, but I like the capacity it has to cause the listener to feel deep emotions. So I tried to create symphonics, but with new sounds. I think that’s part of the future, to maintain what we love about symphonics, but to take them to all new dimensions.
Describe your formative musical experiences.
They have occurred at various times, sharp bends in the road that provided me with new directions. When I first started working with Brian Eno in the ’80s, I was very skilled and qualified, a good and studied musician and engineer. But I wasn’t quite so focused, and I was impressed how devoted Eno was to something esoteric, working in an ambient manner, and how he put all of his skills to work in this direction. It definitely set a nice standard for me. I’d come from poverty and my work as an engineer had been all over the place, somewhat of necessity, as I had to do what I could to pay the bills and buy equipment to get my shop in order. But then I became more focused, and started working with ambient sounds. That was definitely a serious bend in the road.
My travels later took me to New Orleans to do a record, and that was also life-changing. I was exposed to some of the great bass lines of the South and to the birthplace of a lot of funk and jazz, all adding up to a Ph.D. I actually did get an honorary Ph.D, but I thank not the university that bestowed the honor on me, but the mates I met along the way for my body of knowledge.
Lanois has produced some of the biggest albums in the last few decades, including Wrecking Ball for Emmylou Harris in 1995. Lanois is shown here rehearsing with Harris in Seattle in 2006.
As for lyrical input, I got to sit with Bob Dylan for the making of two of his records, and that work process really raised my songwriting standard. But now I feel at a crossroads again. I love the possibilities inherent to the conventional structure of a song, but part of me sees a crack of light under the door that will allow me to investigate new sonic possibilities.
In any case, those are some of the great pillars of my musical life, the times with Eno, Dylan, and in New Orleans. All have been great teachers to me, and that’s what we hope to get through collaboration. You walk away having left something on the table and having taken something from it, too. I’m forever grateful to have had the opportunity to work with these brilliant musicians, and I think that when good work like this gets done, the records hold up really well, even in these current times.
How has your own approach to the guitar been informed by working with Eno, Dylan, and others whose music you’ve produced?
It’s all helped my guitar playing become better than ever. My steel playing is very unique. I can’t claim to be a virtuoso in the sense that the great Western swing players were, but I’ve invented a form and found my own voice. I play in a lyrical manner, without a pick, flesh on steel, and I use a Jamaican technique: I turn up really loud but play really quietly.
Harmonics can flourish and not get choked up by speed or right-hand technique. My fingerpicking has gotten really good, with harmonics leading the way to the striking of the next note. I’ve really grown to appreciate that angle, and the music that comes out of my steel guitar is always surprising and different every night, depending on the room and the state of my equipment, and how sound waves bounce around the place in a never-ending palette of colors.
I have essentially the same approach when I get on the Les Paul. I fingerpick very lightly with the right hand, and I arpeggiate with an approach that allows me to chase melodies with lower and upper harmonies. You hear a main melody that has support from harmonic companions. The melody is the central character with three- or four-note support. What’s nice about this style is that I don’t need a lot of other players onstage.
What’s it like to play onstage with your recent ensemble, which features drummer Brian Blade and bassist Jim Wilson?
It’s amazing. Together we experience the power of the triangle in which each of three walls is essential: One wall falls and the other two collapse. As long as each wall is fully delivering, the triangle becomes exceptionally powerful. That’s actually my favorite combo expression, as opposed to larger groups. I don’t like listening to a lot of combo musicians onstage at the same time.
Why is that?
I’ve been at shows where I thought the central character was being interrupted by the other musicians playing along and getting in the way. I think it’s insecure to have too many players onstage. I prefer mean, lean, and to the core—especially if a singer is involved. I really want to hear a singer and not the surrounding sonic clutter.
I know that sometimes musicians employ a large cast of supporting players in a live setting, thinking that they have to represent every note on the record. But I subscribe more to the Jimi Hendrix angle, welcoming a new rendition live.
How have you found your own signature sounds in working with such a wide range of artists?
A signature sound is finding one’s voice, and by nature it’s different for everybody. For myself, along the way I’ve bumped into a few musicians who’ve really caused me to look at music in a different way. Brian Blade, the great drummer that he is, being a recent one. I really appreciate his capacity to produce a full spectrum of sound with just one instrument. He’s at the kit, and I swear it sounds as if three drummers are playing at once. He makes every stroke count—his downbeats are monumental. And the leanness of his playing creates complexity, something I particularly admire. I’ve been trying to apply that to my own fingerpicking, to approach the guitar as if my three right-hand fingers are like the limbs of a drummer.
Rhythm is something that we as human beings have responded to from the earliest times, with people beating on logs in a primal way. I feel like I’m an infant in the realm of rhythm. I’ve not made too many rhythmic records, but intend to spend more time on it and fully embrace rhythm. I spend a lot of time in the Caribbean, and I hope it rubs off.
Then there are the other sounds I’ve hit on over years. Working with Eno, I’ve developed such an appetite for creating new sounds. So if not specifically in the sounds with Eno back in the day, the philosophy lives on in the way I’m always on the lookout for the new: a new piece of gear, a new philosophy on melody.
“I use a Jamaican technique: I turn up really loud but play really quietly.”
How did the pieces on Flesh and Machine come to life—which came first, the raw sounds or the compositions?
The record started out in a more conventional manner. I had written some songs, and I had Brian Blade play on them. Then I used a deconstructionist technique, one I’ve done with Eno over the years. We started out with a plan, built it up, and then removed our best original ideas from the picture. So what were garnishes and ornaments became the foreground. This is something I love to do, but it doesn’t always work.
Can you talk about how that technique worked on a specific piece?
The opening track, “Rocco,” is named after my friend [Rocco DeLuca] who did vocals on the track. The spine is a piece of music from Bach, which I laid down with piano and bass. Rocco happened to stop by the studio, and I had him improvise over Bach’s sequence in long tones, because his voice is such a beautiful instrument. He recorded about 20 tracks, back-to-back, and then I combed through everything in his absence and compiled a complete performance through technology.
The end result has these sort of accidental harmonies that remind me of a Bulgarian choir, with these dissonances that make a listener uneasy for a second, resolving into something beautiful and consonant. Using Bach as a starting point took us to different places, and I’m grateful that it turned into something beautiful and unusual.
You have to be humble enough to abandon what in the first place you thought was the best idea, to pursue more interesting sonic directions. That’s largely the philosophy of the record, to surrender to what’s most beautiful and abandon the original plan, no matter how great it seemed. It’s not an easy thing to do, to let go of one’s ego in this way.
Daniel Lanois discusses his music in a roundtable conversation with the New York Times, and also treats the audience to an impromptu pedal-steel recital.
Tell us about the guitars and amps you used on the record.
I generally prefer a 1950s goldtop Les Paul—I have a few. The one on the record is a ’53 that originally started out with a trapeze tailpiece. I’ve always found the trapeze to be problematic, as one bump on it and the tuning just goes bonkers. So I had a friend mount a Tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece, along with a humbucker in the back and a replacement P-90 in the front. For a playable action, the Tune-o-matic is screwed down as low as it can go, practically flush against the top of the guitar. Luckily, the neck angle is just right, so that works out fine.
I used a bunch of Fender tweed amps from the late ’50s. I’ve got some nice Deluxes—some with the stock blue Fender speaker, and in others I dropped in a more efficient ’60s Vox speaker that handles bass better and is louder. I also used a Vox AC30 from the early ’60s, a real powerhouse. Sometimes I split my signal through a Korg delay box and used two amps, one dry and the other wet. On “Aquatic,” there’s my very overdriven steel guitar, through the AC30 and a tweed Bassman, the 4x10 model.
Then I had a tweed Bandmaster of the same era, with its three 10s—that’s a very musical amp. And I used a Fender Harvard from the same period. It’s much smaller, so I can’t expect the same results as from the big boys, but sometimes it suits me well. That’s pretty much it. I don’t use a lot of pedals, though sometimes I’ll introduce a fuzz-wah for a very different time. I have various models, a Vox, a Kay, and other old ones.
It’s amazing what a world of sound you create with the vintage tweeds.
I’ve put a lot of time into the labyrinth of sonic development. It’s always been a question of mine to try to carve out the future of music. I’m not suggesting I pulled it off, but I tried to do so with this album.