Daniel Lanois: ‘That’s a better headline. F*** the little twerps – especially the ones from Dublin’
U2’s Canadian producer has spent his whole life in recording studios. Now he wants to celebrate that heritage, which ranges from Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Emmylou Harris, in his live show
Studio rat: Daniel Lanois. Photograph: Brad Barket/Getty/CBGB
Sound stage: Bono on U2’s Joshua Tree tour in 1987; the album was produced by Daniel Lanois. Photograph: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns/Getty
Daniel Lanois is on the road again. He’s calling from a hotel in Seattle as his tour heads up the west coast of the United States and into his native Canada. Lanois may be most closely associated with producing acts from U2 and Bob Dylan to Emmylou Harris and Peter Gabriel, but this time he’s sticking to his own work.
He’s currently touring the Flesh & Machine album, which was released last year. An album of intriguing ambient textures and soundscapes, it reminds you of his experimental work with Brian Eno all those years ago but also contains some hugely ambitious and audacious atmospheric sketches.
Lanois says he spent many hours in the studio working on the album. “There’s no doubt that I’m a studio rat – there’s the headline: the studio rat rears his head – and that’s where I spend most of my time. I want to make sonic discoveries, so that I can carry music into the future for myself, so I’m not repeating what I did last year or what someone did a decade ago.
“Let me tell you, every day in the studio is a learning day. At a time when I thought I knew it all, and that there were no new tricks to be had, I still wake up with the hope that I’m going to break into a new sonic dimension – and I like to think Flesh & Machine has a couple of those moments. The research time needs to be put in to make those discoveries, and when the discoveries are made we can bring them to the party in live performance.”
He acknowledges the influence on the new work of his early years with Eno. “I made a lot of ambient records with Eno, and you can hear that textual part of my work on Flesh & Machine. I have such a regard for that man, because those records we made together are part of the record I stand on.”
Lee Scratch Perry
The other loud and clear signal on the album is Jamaican rhythm and dub. “I’ve had a place in Jamaica for 15 years and live part of the year down there. Lee Scratch Perry hangs out at this bar down the street from my house. Put yourself in my shoes as a kid: Toronto is not the rhythm capital of the world, so I had to get my ass out of there to broaden my education.
“I had Detroit, which was pretty good. I had Buffalo, where I worked with Rick James and learned a couple of things with him. I had New Orleans, which was pretty good with bass and rhythm, and I could turn my weakness into a strength. But you have to go to the source to get an understanding, and that led to Jamaica, where the people know something about rhythm which I didn’t, and I went studying my PhD of THC in dub.”
For his current live shows Lanois has taken the studio to the stage. “I’ve spent all my life in recording studios, so I want to celebrate it as part of my artistry and bring it on tour with me. I have an eight-track player, various processing and sampling devices, and dub echo machines to do some live dubbing on stage.
“The other end of the spectrum is I’m dragging my old steel guitar around with me, which has nothing to do with technology, but I’ve got pretty good at playing it and am proud to have that as part of the set-up. The fundamental template is fixed, but what we do on top is totally improvised, which is really exciting for me, the Lee Scratch Perry of Quebec. Hey, there’s your headline.”
Pushed to the wall
He’s joined for the current swing of dates by Jim Wilson on bass and a newcomer, Kyle Crane, on drums. “I heard Kyle playing in a bar down the street in Los Angeles and recruited him. I push him to the wall and he goes f***ing mental, which is great.”
When Lanois spoke to The Irish Times in 2008 he said he’d like to work with Neil Young. “I don’t chase work. I operate by invitation,” he said then. “So I’m waiting for Neil Young to call, and he’s never called.”
Young evidently takes note of The Irish Times, as Lanois then produced his Le Noise album. “That was quite fascinating,” says Lanois. “He wanted to do a solo record with no other musicians, so I had to accept that as a limitation, but I then built a support around him which gave the record girth and power from what is just one person.”
Other than that Lanois has been quiet on the production front. “I haven’t produced a record in a while – the Rocco de Luca record was the last one – and I’m not interested in working with any bunch of little f***ing twerps again in my lifetime. I’m just interested in doing my own music. Actually, that’s probably a better headline. F*** the little twerps – especially the ones from Dublin,” he says, laughing.
He got to revisit one of his previous landmark releases when Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris received the deluxe-reissue treatment last year and he toured with her. “That record has a lot of beauty and devotion, so I was happy to jump onboard for the reissue and the tour. Myself and Jim [Wilson] had to sing a three-part harmony with Emmylou Harris, which is certainly not a chore. That was really special.
“I loved making that record, because we did it fast and I assembled a good bunch of folks who had respect for the form. Emmylou is a great American singer, and I wanted to surround her with people who respected that, including Larry Mullen jnr on drums. I knew Larry loved country music, and I wanted him involved.”
Another old friend, Bob Dylan, came calling of late, too, this time to play Lanois his Frank Sinatra covers. “Bob came to my place in LA, and he played me all that material – 21 songs, two records’ worth of songs. Before he played he started talking about growing up as a kid in a small, isolated town. He said he never got to see what people looked like; he only heard their music. There was no TV or live shows; it was just radio shows. There was a lot of mystery back then, and the music I heard seemed to have a lot of heart. There were a lot of songs in that era written by professional songwriters, but there were also songs written by soldiers at war missing their women back home. That heartfulness really shook him as a kid and became part of his foundation as an artist.
“He wanted to record that material because it touched him so much, and I thought the songs were beautiful when he played them. Great horn arrangements, too. He stood two feet back from the microphone, like Sinatra did, and it’s really great. It’s a pretty humbling place to put yourself in, as a proficient songwriter, that you’re not going to write one song but pay respect to what you’ve come up with.”
Daniel Lanois plays Vicar Street, in Dublin, on April 16th