Daniel Lanois Brings the Studio to the Stage
"I wake up every morning with new sound ideas in my head and we try to put them together in the laboratory," says producer Daniel Lanois." Lanois has lent his attention to sonic details to albums like Peter Gabriel's mid-1980s hit-wielder "So" and Bob Dylan's 1997 Grammy winner "Time Out of Mind." He has worked extensively with U2, collaborated with Brian Eno and released a number of critically-acclaimed solo albums. On his latest effort, "Flesh and Machine," Lanois experiments in his "laboratory," merging the organic and electronic. "More and more, I am seeing my studio as an instrument," he says.
For "Opera," Lanois multi-tracked a sample of his voice with the pitched adjusted seven different ways. "I played the console as if it was a keyboard and I brought the melodies in as I needed them," he says. "So, it is a way of creating an operatic and melodic sound, but that comes from my own voice via the technology."
Lanois is drawn to sounds that can be made without computers, like the voice, the strum of a guitar, the tickle of piano keys. He records those elements, but goes on to transform them. "I mute them, so you don't get to hear them in the mix," says Lanois, "but I draw upon them and sample them, dub them out." As his work in the studio progresses, the origin of those sounds becomes less obvious, but the presence of the instruments is still felt. "I am very close to my laboratory, but the laboratory would be nothing without the hand-played instruments," he says.
Lanois was nine when he learned to play steel guitar. Someone had knocked on the door of his home and asked Lanois' mother if there was a child who wanted to learn an instrument. He picked slide guitar. "I loved it," he recalls. "I walked to my lesson once a week and it was something that really belonged to me. It opened up a whole new arena of dreams and possibilities for me because I didn't play sports and I was not so connected with the other kids."
Steel guitar is present on "Aquatic," a piece so-named for the images that it conjured. "I had this image in my head of being submerged and swimming on the Saint Lawrence River to the mouth of the river, to the Atlantic, and meeting characters along the way," he says. Those characters, he says, drifted in the water. Lanois would greet them, maybe make some small talk, and then continue floating. "The river kept getting wider and wider and wider until I get to the expanse of it and I saw the icebergs and the whales," he continues. "This piece of music, 'Aquatic,' represents that journey of going to a deep place, if not specifically a deep ocean, hopefully, a deep place spiritually to know what the next dimension might be."
Lanois, who is French-Canadian, has a strong connection to the Saint Lawrence river. "The Saint Lawrence was a way the early settler came to Quebec and New Brunswick and made their way even to the Toronto area," he explains. "It has an ancient rhythm to it you can't deny when you put your feet in it."
In his early years working as a producer, Lanois took whatever gigs came his way. "I was engineering, or maybe producing, so that I can pay off my mortgage," he says. Around the point where the bills weren't such a burden, Lanois came into contact with Brian Eno. By this time, Eno was already renowned for his work as a producer (David Bowie's "Heroes" is among his credits) and a pioneer of electronic and ambient music. Lanois and Eno spent a few years collaborating together and their joint efforts include U2's blockbuster "The Joshua Tree." They weren't just hit makers, though. Lanois also co-produced experimental projects, like the Eno/Harold Budd album, "The Pearl." Years later, Lanois is still affected by what he learned from Eno. "The values that we operated by back then are the values that I try and live by today, so that has always stayed with me, if not specifically the sounds, then definitely the values and devotion," says Lanois.
The two worked with relatively little equipment, but knew the gear they had well. Lanois considers this a huge lesson-- "to get really good at a few things"-- and that became part of his personal work philosophy. For his performance on Studio A, Lanois only brought a few bits of gear. "I'm getting to know them pretty well," he says of the pieces, "and so I can do more effective work by being devoted to just a few things."
Similarly, Lanois retains the influence of other artists who have entered the studio with him. He says that he thinks a lot about U2 when he works. "I wonder what the guys in Ireland would think of this and so they become a point of reference for a standard of quality," he says.
Nearly four years ago, when Lanois was working with Neil Young, he was in a motorcycle accident that left him with ten broken bones. He was in intensive care for six weeks. "When I came up to the open air, everything looked pastel and beautiful and the simplest gestures seemed significant to me," he says. Things changed for Lanois after the accident. That's evident in his work. Lanois stepped back from producing other people's work to concentrate on himself.
"When I am working by myself, I see that as sacred time," he says, likening the experience to practicing meditation or Tai Chi. "I can make my mistakes in privacy and hone in on the things that mean the most to me."
But, he's not without collaborators on his own projects. Although Lanois does know how to play drums, he considers himself a "closet drummer" and brought in famed percussionist Brian Blade to play on "The End." Lanois says that this particular piece, with its thunderous rhythm, is a "powerful protest song," he says is intended to provoke listeners to "ask questions about what's going on around the planet." For his "Studio A" performance, Lanois brought in Kyle Crane, a drummer he met at a bar near his studio, to play drums. "I thought he had a lot of heart and a lot of passion and it's nice to be in the company of somebody who is a dreamer like me," says Lanois.
The rhythmic aspects of "Flesh and Machine" have piqued Lanois' excitement. "It's probably the first musical instrument that we, as humans, embraced," he says. Yet, the drums remain powerful. "Even in modern times we respond to rhythm and we like to move," he says. For Lanois, rhythm is a chance to explore a different sensibility than in past solo efforts. "I've done a lot with melody and chord sequences and now to have an opportunity of beat and rhythm and to feel that primal energy come up through my body," he says. "I like it a lot."