Daniel Lanois

Friday, 26 September 2008

Other than being remarkable talents whose careers have been celebrated by legions of fans the world over, what do U2, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Raffi, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Scott Weiland, Robbie Robertson, Luscious Jackson, Ron Sexsmith, Dashboard Confessional and Emmylou Harris have in common? In short, the single most noticeable common thread among the careers of that list of musicians is that, at one point or another, Daniel Lanois has offered his talents for production to at least one record for each. As a producer, Lanois is regarded with some of the highest esteem in the mainstream music business because of his unique, instantly recognizable approach to a recording that has helped to shape the sound of rock n’ roll over the last three decades.

Daniel Lanois’ name first appeared on a record sleeve in 1976. It was Jackie Washington’s Blues And Sentimental album and so began Lanois’ meteoric rise. Since then, he has appeared on releases that span the depth and breadth of the pop, country, folk and rock idioms as producer and all the while has kept up a regular release schedule of his own material in his parallel career. As a rough estimate, in thirty-two years, he has gotten credit of one kind or another on no less than fifty-seven albums [fifty-eight if one includes the work that Lanois has done on U2‘s forthcoming record, to be released in 2009 –ed]; the man is a machine. At the same time, his "other" career in front of the mic that has been lauded in its own right; releasing a succession of wholly unique and incredibly melodic solo albums both of conventional pop and instrumental structures. In that time, Lanois' unique combination of melodic and compositional senses has been the one constant; whether it be Oh Mercy, The Joshua Tree, Acadie, Us or Here Is What Is, each record has the capacity to conjure vivid images and landscapes that are totally unique to Lanois and his production style. Without him managing the booth, while each of the aforementioned bands has been capable of releasing good records, (with the exception of Bob Dylan) none have been able to release an album as good in the same way. That is the power that a good producer holds but, in conversation, Lanois illustrates that his gift as a producer and as a musician lies in his ability to help develop ideas. In fact, Lanois was even good enough to offer his input on what might be the best structure with which to compose an article based on an interview with him.

Bill Adams vs. Daniel Lanois

DL: Hello?

BA: Hello, may I speak with Daniel please?

DL: This is Daniel.

BA: Hi Daniel, it’s Bill Adams calling. How are you?

DL: Oh Bill, I’m doing fine, thanks a lot for calling.

BA: The pleasure’s mine. Is now okay for an interview or are you kind of stacked up?

DL: No, this is good.

BA: Okay, so how are things? Where are you right now?

DL: I’m in Los Angeles.

BA: Oh yeah? Doing what?

DL: I keep a base down here—an office in LA—so I’m just here taking care of a little bit of what we call Red Floor Records business. Red Floor Records is a company that I started about ten months ago and I sell some of my wares on the web site. It’s growing pretty fast too [chuckling] and I make some of my instrumental records available from my back catalog so people can download my music directly from my site as a full fidelity wave file. We’re pretty excited about it and there’s a fellow down here that takes of all of it down here in LA so I’m huddling up with him here just to make sure that everything’s going well for Red Floor.

BA: Oh that’s cool. Now, is Red Floor Records also a record label or is it for your stuff only?

DL: It’s only for my stuff.

BA: Oh, okay. And is the stuff from Here Is What Is already available for download?

DL: Yes, that’s available on the web site, as will be the re-issue of my first record, Acadie, which I now own the rights to. I’ve always liked the idea of running a little corner store and this is sort of an extension of that [chuckling] craving. I think in these fast times, it’s interesting that people are running their own sites and it seems to be a little cottage industry on the rise in the presence of so much technology. It’s pretty sweet you know?

BA: Well, that’s absolutely true. I’ve got a couple of friends that have given up on the notion of record labels and elected to simply do things all on their own.

DL: Oh is that right? Are they from your hometown?

BA: Well, no. Ron Hawkins lives in Toronto, Alun Piggins does too and they both do their business through their web site; they don’t bother with record labels anymore.

DL: Oh cool!

BA: Yeah—Ron also sells a lot of the paintings he does through his site. Anyway, let’s talk about the record—how has Here Is What Is been received so far?

DL: It’s been received pretty well. We had a major premier at the Toronto Film Festival last year and we had a great turn-out for that, we had a similar one in Los Angeles. We’ve sort of been peppering them all over the globe and we tried that as an angle this time just to promote the film and then have the record be the soundtrack for the film. It’s been going pretty well; I met up with Elliott Roberts the other night—Elliott manages Neil Young and is kind of a hero in the management world for we Canadians—and he said that he thought it was my best album so I took it as a compliment [chuckling].

BA: I would too! Uhm, now forgive me because I have yet to see the film. Apparently Maplemusic is shipping me one but because this was all only set up a couple of days ago it has yet to arrive. Is it a concert document?

DL: No, it traveled through a year’s worth of work in the studio. It started in Toronto and went all the way to Fez, Morocco. It includes the recordings from my own record, but also a visit to Los Angeles with Billy Bob Thorton so he’s playing a role in the film, and then Sinead O’Connor’s in there—I went to Dublin to her house and did some work with her. Brian Eno is in there too; we share some philosophical exchanges in Morocco and that’s pretty fascinating, and then U2 is in there as well as we were working in Fez, Morocco.

BA: Oh—that’s cool. I did hear that you and Eno are working on the new U2 record that’s supposed to come out in 2009 or something right?

DL: That’s correct, yes.

BA: That’s cool, so obviously you’re keeping busy. With that said, I know you’re doing a couple of dates, is this endeavor a full-blown tour?

DL: Well, I’m doing a show in St. Catharines, Ontario and then, shortly thereafter, I’m doing an Eastern Canada tour and I’m very much looking forward to that. It’s fifteen dates and then the last stop will be back in Toronto for Massey Hall in November. I’ve never played Massey Hall so it’s something I’m looking forward to a lot. St. Catharines came up as just sort of an isolated invitation, but it was close enough to the Eastern tour that we lumped it in.

BA: That’s cool, so in spite of the fact that it’s sort of a tour, it stands alone for the most part.

DL: No, there will be some more Ontario dates, but I think we can safely say that it’s an isolated invitation and I’m happy for it to be that way. I’m looking forward to seeing Martha Wainwright [editor’s note: Wainwright was replaced on the bill with Danny Michel around the same time as this conversation took place] and Oliver Black.

BA: That’s cool. I’ve actually known the kids in Oliver Black since before they were Oliver Black; they used to be called Lenz Riot many years ago when they were still playing bars around Niagara. The first time I saw their singer, Serena [Serena Pruyn –ed], was actually doing vocals with a blues band when she was still too young to drink. I was working the door for the restaurant the band was playing and half way through their set, they asked her to come up. I couldn’t see the stage from where the door was and when she opened her mouth I had visions of a forty-year-old, Southern Comfort-soaked woman. I walk around the corner to look and here’s this eighteen-year-old kid bouncing across the stage doing it. It was eerie.

DL: Yeah, she’s terrific.

BA: Yeah—good on ‘em that they’re making it work. However, after the Eastern Canada tour, I know you’re keeping a pretty hectic schedule. Other than the U2 thing, what else are you working on?

DL: Well, we’re releasing three instrumental records on Red Floor and they’re part of what we’re calling the Homage Series. It’s going to be three this Fall and then three the following Fall; a total of six discs. The first one will be steel guitar, the second one is sort of a South of the border peyote-like record, and the third will be more acoustic and quite beautiful. These are kind of like side projects and because there is no singing on them, I’ve chosen to release them on my web site in a quieter way but I think they’re going to be very beautiful.

BA: That’s cool, is there going to be hard copy available or is it going to be download only?

DL: It’ll be hard copy and downloadable.

BA: That’s good to hear. I did want to ask too about your production schedule. You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in music from Bob Dylan to Ron Sexsmith to Peter Gabriel—other than Sexsmith whose niece was a classmate of mine in high school and have met a few times, they’re also a series of names that I’ll probably never get to interview….

DL: Well, you never know. Dylan’s probably the tougher one, Peter does interviews. Those are great artists and I’m very proud of those associations….

BA: Well, one of the things I was kind of curious about is that, because you keep a fairly prolific production schedule as well as releasing albums of your own at the very least every year for the last five or six years give or take–

DL: Yeah, that’s about right—that’s pretty accurate.

BA: –Because you keep such a busy schedule in both cases, do you find that one form carries over into the other? Ideas and things that you had, say, for one project manifesting in others or is there one core sound that you consider to be what you gravitate back to when it comes time to record an album of your own?

DL: Without a doubt, there’s definitely an exchange that happens when I work with people and there will be some approaches that we’re excited about—some sonics that we’re dedicated to—and that tends to bleed from one project into another, but I think that’s just human nature; we try to cater to the needs of the songs at hand, but my choice of tools and my approach and what I’m excited about melodically will definitely carry over and one project will effect the other. So that’s why it’s good to hang out with fun people [laughing].

BA: That’s absolutely true, and as you were saying, you’ve got the instrumental records, so I wonder if something else influences those or if they’re all just different aspects of your own personality as far as simply being a matter of alternating what you’re doing so it doesn’t get stale.

DL: Well, my own music is very much driven by my melodies, like I’m working on one right now that goes like this. [begins playing a beautiful and lush piano part over the phone] So that’s the beginning of a little symphony that I’m working on [chuckling].

BA: That’s really pretty. It sounds like it’d be great incidental music in a film.

DL: Yeah sure. It does have a sort of cinematic tone, a lot of what I do seems to. I don’t know where that comes from, maybe that’s how I build music; I have pictures in my head and I have my melodies try to be the soundtrack to what’s going on in my head.

BA: That’s cool, but saying that, what can the folks in St. Catharines expect to see as far as the show is concerned? Obviously, there’ll be some stuff off of Here Is What Is, but what else?

DL: I’m going to be bringing my pedal steel guitar so there will be some nice transcending moments of beautiful pedal steel. I usually respond to the event and to the room and I’m not sure what the setting’s going to be but if it’s a tent and it’s somewhat raucous, then I’ll rock it up a bit and if it’s more intimate and quiet, then I’ll do my Canadian folk songs; storytelling songs that I love to do. What’s the setting going to be do you know?

BA: To the best of my knowledge, it’ll be at Montebello Park so it’ll be outdoor.

DL: Right. Well, if it’s outdoors, what that usually means is that I need to exercise some ‘long-throw’ communication—as I call it—and I know that certain grooves tend to work well so I’ll respond to the needs of the folks and if they’re right close to me, I’ll do intimate things but if it’s further away, I’ll do some sort of groove-driven material.

BA: Will we see any of the stuff from those forthcoming instrumental discs?

DL: Yeah—there will be some instrumental work, I always include a few in my show. There’s one called “Space Key” and it’s one of my personal favorites and I’ve invented a new dimension for that which goes into a more up-tempo, high energy, almost like a trance piece of music. I’m going to Christen that at the Grape Festival.

BA: That’ll be wild. Oh, I did want to ask too if there were any other albums by other people that you were producing in the near future.

DL: Yes—I just finished a beautiful record for a guy called Rocco De Luca–

BA: Oh yeah? I reviewed his last record.

DL: –And I produced his new record. It’s fantastic; it’s really, really beautiful and it’s going to be coming out in the New Year I think. It’s definitely one to look out for though. We did it here in Los Angeles.

BA: Cool. So what else am I very obviously forgetting to ask about? What else would you like to see in this piece?

DL: The Red Floor part of my life is very important and I think maybe an interesting angle to introduce that in the story would be to say that, ‘Ironically, in these times of mass communication systems, there has been a rise in cottage industry. We operate under the assumption that technology will always make this quicker and, with that in mind, you wouldn’t expect cottage industry to rise in the presence of high technology, but that’s exactly what’s happening.’ In a way, these are the new shopkeepers, but it’s a bit elusive isn’t it? You don’t know who’s doing what and I think there’s a lot of big business happening through the internet.

BA: I was going to say—I think it loses a bit of the ‘humanness’, especially where the arts are concerned. On one hand, it is very much a cottage industry, but especially through the internet, it loses a bit of identity and things begin to look progressively more faceless.

DL: Yeah, that’s true. Maybe we should start up that little record store [laughing]. Trust me—I’m a romantic. I miss rummaging. Luckily there are still some good stores, there’s one down here called Amoeba and they’ve got everything including piles and piles of great used records. There are still a few troops standing and making the push for vinyl and I think the internet is a way of spreading the gospel, but I don’t think it’s ever going to change what we love about a hard copy of music or change what we love about live performance. Live performance especially will always be with us no matter what. By the same token, there’s no turning around now; scientists were looking for the digital age and they found it [chuckling].

BA: Now they have to figure out what they’re going to do with it.

DL: [laughing] Exactly.

BA: Well, thank you for taking a couple of minutes. This was honestly an honor and a lot of fun.

DL: My pleasure and I hope that gives you enough to work with in order to make a little story for us and I very much appreciate the support.

Daniel Lanois' Red Floor Records Page
Maplemusic page
Myspace page
Second Myspace page

“Here Is What Is” – [mp3]
“Where Will I Be” – [mp3]

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