Jim Carroll

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Archive: Daniel Lanois

Ahead of his forthcoming Dublin show in 2015, here’s Daniel Lanois talking about why a great producer requires empathy

Daniel Lanois. Photo: Margaret Marissen

Tue, Oct 28, 2014, 14:06


The news that Daniel Lanois is coming to town – he plays Dublin’s Vicar Street on April 15 next as part of the tour to plug new album “Flesh And Machine” (below) – reminds me that I owe him a few quid. Back in 2008, I interviewed him ahead of some Irish performances around the release of the Here Is What Is film (also below) and forgot to pay the bill for the coffees we had. Perhaps the forgetfulness was down to some time with a great interviewee, a producer and musician with some fantastic tales to tell about his life in the music business. Here’s the interview.

Daniel Lanois is spinning another tale. This one is to illustrate that all you need to record a great album is, well, a great musician.

“I was living in Los Angeles and I bumped into Harold Budd at a diner”, he begins. “Just looked up and, hey, there he was at the next booth, having eggs. I’d worked with him before so I invited him to come to my house to see this Steinway piano I had restored. But I secretly miked up the piano and invited some smart girls from the neighbourhood along, got some nice wine in and got him to give a performance. It was awesome, he broke every heart in the room. Afterwards, we slapped some hands, kissed some faces and Harold went home happy.

“A few weeks later, I got him to come back for another party. More girls, more food, more wine, Harold does another performance on the piano. Fantastic. And we have the album “La Bella Vista” in the can. It’s impeccable, a flawless record.”

He leans back in his chair in the Shelbourne Hotel, takes a sip of his double-espresso and grins. That’s all it takes: a musician and the right moment. And Lanois, of course.

He knows all about those right moments. The Canuck producer can be found on the credits of some of greatest albums in your record collection, the ones by Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Brian Eno, U2, Neville Brothers and Robbie Robertson.

Of course, modesty means he downplays his own role in all of this. “There’s a track called “Cold Irons Bound” on Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind” and there’s a moment when you have this bassline and the drummer comes in and I could hardly contain myself when that happened. Now, am I responsible for that? I don’t think so. I might be responsible for putting those guys in the room and deciding on a beats per minute thing and this microphone. A lot of what we do as producers is organisational and mechanical work and you hope you get to that pinnacle.”

What Lanois brings to the party is empathy. “I care about people. It started when I was a kid, when I was running a studio in my mom’s basement back in Ontario, where all this began. My mom was a hairdresser raising four kids, I had the gift of music, what was I going to do? She had trouble paying bills, I had a little recording studio so it was a business.

“When people came around, we offered them deals like two days in studio with 1,000 pieces of vinyl and the artwork thrown in. If we didn’t deliver, we wouldn’t get repeat customers, but people came coming back and the business grew. And the only way you’ll build that kind of business is if you genuinely care about your customer and your hide and your mother’s hide because she won’t be able to do hair forever.”

He still cares about the people he works with. The night before, he was up till the small hours working with The Edge. “Why? Because I love The Edge and I care about U2’s records. I want to look after those guys, their work means a lot to me. It’s not a job, it never was. I embrace the philosophy that you should leave the place in a better state than you found it.”

You’ll find plenty about how he works in documentary flick Here Is What Is. It’s a chance to spend some time in Lanois’s company as he chases the muse and the music around the world. There’s a hell of a lot of wise words and sage thoughts in those 90 minutes which are ripe for the plucking.

There’s even more when Lanois gets to thinking about what motivates him in the studio. “I’m an aesthetics person and I love detail. I notice things like how the brass castor on that chair two chairs over is looking a little lopsided. Nothing gets past me. It’s a terrible place to live, I can tell you, inside this kind of head. In studio, you have to be like that. You have to pay attention to details. It’s all about geometry and straight lines. Musicians like to break that, but you can’t do it without those lines.”

But it’s also about instinct. When Lanois first met Emmylou Harris, for instance, he knew right away what his job was going to be. “I went to Nashville to meet her and we went to her house. I got this real sense inside the house. It’s hard to explain. I operate by feelings and instinct and you got this feeling of old school dignity, this respect for American music, inside her house. I knew there were hidden secrets there that I was not hip to and I knew I’d come out of doing that record with something that I could learn from. That was the driving force for me on “Wrecking Ball”.”

Lanois is a producer who knows what it takes to shape a bunch of songs into a champion album, yet he recognises that changes in the record business will eventually impact on how he works. “You hear stories on the street. Times have changed, people are not buying as much records as before. To be fair, I think the record business got a little too big. I remember going into Warner Brothers in Burbank in the Nineties. There were hallways and hallways of people doing jobs that just didn’t make sense. When the A&R men started getting points on records, things were getting strange. It went too far.”

But making records is not all about big budgets. “You can make music on a back-porch and I could easily be one of them. I can a record in any room with any equipment. That’s not because of computers or technology, it’s down to the music. I could make a record with your tape-recorder if I had the Neville Brothers singing. All I need is a microphone, something to record on and a speaker that is not broken.”

Some of these future recordings may well appear on Lanois’s new imprint, Red Floor. “Major labels are struggling and when you walk into someone’s office with a record by someone who is obscure and niche, they’re not going to talk to you. But Red Flood Records will”.

Lanois’s work diary is still very much full. “Every week, I get calls and I have to turn down stuff, usually because I can’t fit it into a schedule or it’s not the kind of music which excites me. I don’t chase work, I operate by invitation. I’m waiting for Neil Young to call and he’s never called. I call his manager Elliot Roberts every year to find out why he doesn’t call. I’m getting old, Neil.”

He’s excited about what’s happening back home right now. “I’ve seen a few scenes in Canada in my time, but all those involved eventually moved away”, he says. “The current scene belongs to those musicians who decided they could stay on Queen Street and take care of their business from there. It’s a welcome byproduct of the tech revolution. You don’t have to move to Manhattan to be noticed. Good for Broken Social Scene, good for Feist, good for all of them who have the confidence and bravery to do that.”

In fact, Lanois himself is set to join them soon. “I’m building a new workplace in Toronto in a nice neighbourhood called The Junction. I’m going to build a stage in it so you can put on a little show if you want to. I had a stage in the studio I had in that old Mexican cinema in California and that was my best shop ever. It could swing from a performance hall to a recording studio. It will be a good place to sit around and wait for the magic.”