Currently enjoying the success of U2's 'The Joshua Tree' album, this French-Canadian producer talks to Paul Tingen about his hand in this, Peter Gabriel's 'So' and other projects.
Contriving curious recording environments and engineering strange treatments of sound are techniques that have made Daniel Lanois' productions of U2, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno best-sellers.
Accusing a producer of making a mess would not ordinarily be a good way to begin an interview. But in the case of Canadian Daniel Lanois, it seems singularly appropriate. His basic working method comes down to creating as big a mess as possible, and then accepting the challenges and limitations this presents him and the artist. And there have been a queue of them eager to experience this "art from chaos" approach, ranging from Brian Eno and Jon Hassell to Peter Gabriel and U2.
Lanois doesn't seem to object to this assessment of his work; in fact, he rather takes it as a compliment.
"It's not far from the truth", he concedes. "What we're talking about here is creating spontaneity and performance in whatever way one can. At the end of the day a good performance will override any production idea or any sonic idea you can have. If you've got a vocal that's strong and transports you as a listener, you're not going to worry what kind of EQ you've got on this drum or what sound you've got from that guitar. The delivery will override whatever small changes you can make in a sound.
"I find that the place where you're recording can also make a huge difference. Unusual locations have much to do with creating a recording environment. Certainly that's how I've worked with U2. We simply bring portable equipment into odd locations. Just the excitement of being in a new place and doing something slightly unorthodox helps to free your imagination. The Unforgettable Fire (U2's last LP) was recorded in Slane Castle in Dublin. The ballroom and the library had so much life and character, you walked in and hit a drum and said: 'My God, is this what we're going to get.' It's really inspiring."
In a similar vein, the latest U2 album, The Joshua Tree which was produced with Brian Eno, was recorded on three different locations: the homes of guitarist The Edge and bass player Adam Clayton, and Ireland's Windmill Lane studio. Peter Gabriel's So, in which Lanois shared the production with Gabriel himself, was recorded entirely in the studio control room and in reverse order: guitars and keyboards first, rhythm tracks last. Producers often talk about "bending the rules", but Lanois seems to take greater liberties than anybody else. And indeed, his productions have an excitement to them which seems to be becoming more and more rare in today's pop music - one of the reasons Lanois currently finds himself in such demand.
THE FACT IS that Daniel Lanois likes to record things differently. Whether it's an unusual location, an unusual setup or unusual equipment, it all comes down to creating an environment which has the highest creative potential for the artist.
"What have you got to lose? You may get a brilliant track, and if you don't then you can always go back to a more standard approach. But it certainly always supplies a few nice surprises in the way of performance.
"I'd like to encourage other people to try it. For people who work with low budgets, renting a house and bringing in some gear is a cheap way to do it. It's in studios that you spend all the money."
Perhaps the best way to understand Lanois' approach is to take a closer look at his recording procedures. Preparations for The Joshua Tree began in May of last year...
"We had this pile of gear that we moved around with us", the producer explains, "essentially a whole studio. We'd bring the stuff into the house and build the whole thing up, with plexiglass doors and things. One of the main features was that we set up the band as if they were playing in a rehearsal environment or even a live setting.
"I think it works very well to do it that way. It pushes the band to work out their parts and get them working as in a live performance. You're not living in a land of promise, hoping that a track will come together with overdubs and manipulation."
Such a setup would be a nightmare for many producers - those that want as much control as possible over the different sections of the track, and hence prefer as much separation as possible between individual tracks. Lanois, however, doesn't share this philosophy, advocating performance as a more valid consideration.
"If a track is well performed you'll get a great mix out of it. It's as simple as that. Separation, or even the acoustics of a room, aren't that important. I've heard great recordings come out of little basement studios. In fact, one of the tracks on The Joshua Tree, 'In God's Country', was recorded live in the basement of The Edge's house - which is not a particularly inspiring place. It's a kind of muggy little room where everything sounds dead. It worked because of the spontaneity and the lack of pressure at the time of recording. Now, you could say: 'You can't record down here. We need a proper room for the drums and we need this or that sort of mic.' But you could spend three days working out a foolproof plan and still not get a performance."
In the case of Gabriel's So, the album was sketched out between Gabriel, guitarist David Rhodes and Lanois: "We started off with vocal sketches, guitars and a rhythm box, putting it onto 24 track, until we had a good representation of the song. We had a lot of fun doing it: we called ourselves the three stooges and we'd wear hard hats, as if we were showing up for work on a building site. If times got tough, you'd look at your mate wearing a yellow hat and everything would be alright."
Entertaining games aside, even Lanois had his doubts about the recording of So. "The three of us would keep working on a song until the mood was completely right, and you couldn't kill it. Then we got the rhythm section in and they would overdub on what we had, using the rhythm box as a time reference although most of the box was eliminated in the end. It's not a technique that I thought would be a good idea years ago, but it worked for that record, and I've heard other people do good work with it."
Another unusual technique used was to record everybody in the control room - including the drums. The producer presents his case:
"It's not very practical, but it is a lot more fun. The communication is a lot better and also I think that it's a great concept for musicians to hear themselves over the main monitoring system. I do vocals almost always in the control room. I can adjust the mix at the same time and get a direct response from him or her."
Lanois decided to switch from a Studer A80 24-track to a Mitsubishi 32-track halfway during the sessions. This was due to lack of tracks and Lanois' anxiety to avoid using synchronisers. It wasn't without problems of a different kind though, as he explains.
"I felt like taking all the A80 information and dumping it onto the 32-track, doing some premixes and getting on with our lives. But when we transferred things to the Mitsubishi, there were some huge surprises - like the bass almost disappearing entirely. So we just dumped some guide tracks and used it for vocal overdubs, for which it is excellent. In the end we did a synchronised mix of the A80 and Mitsubishi material."
With this we hit upon Lanois' preference for old equipment over new.
"You could say: 'You can't record here, we need a proper room for the drums and we need this mic'. You could spend three days working out a foolproof plan and still not get a performance."
"I appreciate the simplicity of old equipment. It's reliable, I feel I can trust it."
Putting his money where his mouth is, the producer is currently putting together a studio with brother, Bob. For this they are buying up 'vintage' equipment. Lanois elaborates.
"We're just accumulating gear at the moment, which is a lot of fun. We got a hold of some old valve mics, like the Neuman U47 and the Sony C500. Of course we will be using the Studer A80 as our multitrack machine. It looks amazing too, so it's fun to be in the same room as that tape recorder. We're also getting an API console, which is still one of the punchiest sounding consoles ever, especially for bass."
But surely, a nice looking tape recorder and a good bass performance from a mixing desk are hardly reason enough to start buying up as much obsolete equipment as possible? Lanois admits that there is more to it than that, although he starts off with one of his favourite topics: the quality of bass sounds.
"I'm very interested in developing and rediscovering the kind of pulse and drive that used to be present in the bottom of old recordings. That must have had a lot to do with the gear which was around at the time. I don't notice that huge a difference in quality between records now and the good records that were made even in the '50s. It's not as if we are wildly advanced now and it was archaic then.
"Some of the vocal sounds from the '50s are the best vocal sounds ever. When you listen to those Elvis Presley recordings, the vocals are right in your face. They're warm and they're powerful and you think 'they did this 30 years ago, what are we doing inventing new microphones?'"
IT WAS LANOIS' individuality that brought Brian Eno to him in the early '80s. Eno, tired of the cost and lack of character of New York studios, was impressed by some demos he'd heard recorded in Grant Avenue studio in Ontario. He thought he'd give the studio a try, and found Lanois and his brother Bob behind the faders.
It was his connection with Eno that was to bring Daniel Lanois into the international limelight, but he'd already made a name for himself in Canada. Born in 1951 of French-Canadian parents, the young Lanois set out to make a career in music. By his mid-teens he was playing guitar professionally in a variety of rhythm and blues bands and dancebands, touring Canada, and occasionally backing strippers.
Lanois studied a little music, took some individual guitar lessons, becoming proficient on the pedal steel guitar and working with a lot of country and western artists. In 1970 he started a studio in the basement of the family house with his brother, pulling a lot of work from various roots music - C&W, gospel, R&B - and also from advertising jingles for the local radio station. In 1980 the studio expanded to 24-track, which was the beginning of Grant Avenue studios.
The first major project Lanois and Eno shared was the latter's collaboration with Harold Budd on Plateaux of Mirror. Eno's On Land album and the Apollo project (on which Lanois also was credited as co-composer) followed. Lanois went on to produce Dream Theory In Malaya, by Jon Hassell, and Voices by Roger Eno. In 1984 Brian Eno invited Lanois to co-produce U2's The Unforgettable Fire, the success of which led to their production of The Joshua Tree two years later and to Lanois making his name internationally as a producer. How does the partnership work?
"Brian tends to work with a greater overview of the project and lets me get on with recording vocals and so on. He doesn't have a lot of patience for homing in on sounds, moving things around, taking a drum performance at one end of a recording and moving it to the other. He likes to be presented with a tape that's in good order, and then he will get on with his treatments. He tends to look at the big picture while I get on with the chores."
Lanois' regards his "feeling" for music as the most important element in his working relationships.
"I think that the attraction with artists like Gabriel and U2 is that they're thinkers as well as players", explains the producer. "In my experience, intellectual people need soulful people around them to bring out the performance in what they do. Although my intellect is alive, I operate more from my instinct. I can recognise a good performance, it's one of the things that I do well under pressure. I know when there are great musical moments going by and I can help people to capture them and get them onto tape. It's a good marriage."
Another of Lanois' specialities - and one he has in common with Eno - is treatment of sound. He has used these techniques most extensively on the ambient albums of Brian and Roger Eno and on Gabriel's Birdy.
"It's almost another side of what I do. I keep treatments available on the console all the time. There's like a bank of 12 or 16 channels that are designated to treatments, and that's all they do. At any given point I can send an instrument or a vocal to these treatments and get a quick impression of what is working and what isn't.
This often takes place in the absence of the band, once there's something on the tape to work with. It's like fun time - try this, try that, modifying what's already there. It's like tinting an existing photograph or having a photograph and increasing the contrast. In a lot of cases I have given new life to a track with these treatments."
One such track is 'In God's Country' off The Joshua Tree.
"The guitar now has a beautiful shimmer which has a lot to do with the mood of the track. What was a fairly straightforward rock track is now undermined by a mood of unrest; not all is well. It supplied Bono with new inspiration. It gave him a clue to modify his lyrics and give the track a greater dimension."
"I can recognise a good performance, it's one of the things that I do well. I know when there are great musical moments going by and I can help people to capture them and get them onto tape."
Although not overtly recognisable, there are a lot of these treatments on The Joshua Tree, as Lanois reveals.
"It seems straightforward but there's a lot of subtle manipulation there. It's not like a boring documentation of a dry room. You want to give more dimensions to a record so that it has a lasting appeal.
"At Windmill Lane they have a big warehouse, so we put a PA there, put the drums through it and re-miked them to get some punch. There's a staggering difference, just piping the instruments to the back of this room added a whole other dimension. Almost like the difference between DIing a synth and putting it through a Mesa Boogie guitar amp. It gave us a result which digital reverb couldn't give us."
MOVING ON TO synthesisers, Lanois alights upon another aspect of The Joshua Tree: Brian Eno's DX7 programming.
"Brian has some very good sounds in his machine. He spent about a year just working on sounds. On top of that, we put all the DX7 sounds through a Mesa Boogie, including the sequences."
And that typifies Lanois' unorthodox approach to recording: the DX7's crystal clarity demands it be DI'd for it to be properly reproduced, so he feeds it through an amplifier designed for the distorted excess of the rock guitar.
"I highly recommend people to at least try playing a synth through amps because you get these peculiar bits of personality. A 12" speaker is not a full range speaker, so you get a denser sound with a little bit more poke and sounding a little more organic. It's because certain frequencies sound louder than others. Also putting a graphic equaliser between the synth and the amp and trying different mics and different rooms may give interesting results.
"We put the drum sequence on 'With or Without You' through the amp because it sounds more like people playing in a room, rather than a machine. There was no contest between DIing it and putting it through the amp."
The areas of sequencing and computer-based equipment is clearly not a topic to which Lanois warms easily, at least not whilst speaking about it in general terms.
"It's just a toolbox, isn't it? The sequencers, the samplers, the drum boxes. It should be used when it applies. It's a matter of serving the song. For example, if you're looking for a mood of discipline or speed, then a machine can offer you that much easier than live playing. That's why we used a sequencer on the beginning of 'With or Without You', we wanted a feeling of discipline. And then when the drums kick in halfway, they mean something.
"I find that when musicians and composers are genuinely excited about their tools, good results will come of it. Kraftwerk are a good example of a group that uses machines well.
There's a stiffness there, but that stiffness is part of the mood that they're trying to get across. Yet it still sounds organic at the end of the day. I don't know how they do it exactly. It probably has to do with the tastefulness of the operators and that they're not relying on those machines to do everything for them."
When asked about his favourite synths, Lanois' initial response comes as no surprise to connoisseurs of his work.
"The Yamaha CS80 is one of my old favourites. It's the first polyphonic synth and it's a fantastic thing. To this day it's got some of the most amazing sounds. I'm continuously impressed with it.
"We used it on So, although the Prophet 5 was the main synth there. Peter has one of the best sounding ones I've ever come across. I also like the little Korg Poly 800II. It's light, you can carry it on a plane and it has some nice sounds. For bass sounds I like the Fairlight. A sampled bass sound has a personality of its own, no matter what you do with it, it's organic and punchy."
Although he presently has no commitments ("I'm taking a break after six years of continuous work"), Lanois' states his plans for the future as "carrying on making records that in 10 or 20 years will stand out as classics". A Lanois solo album also sounds like a possibility.
"I still write material, but when you're so busy working with other people, the tendency is to leave your own stuff until later. I have quite a few unfinished compositions on the backburner. It's mostly instrumental music, although it could become songs. An instrumental album would be easy for me to do now but I need to do some soul searching and decide whether to incorporate vocals or not."
As the interview slowly winds down, one last question suddenly gets Lanois fired up again: Who is the person who has influenced him most?
"My mother. She helped me to get started on my studio when no-one else would. And a strong family bond has been the single most important support. I feel very grateful to have that in this complicated world.
"As a little kid I remember a lot of violin playing and tap-dancing going on during family gatherings. When you're young that makes a big impact. It can really drive you to love music and in my case I took it up and made it my life. During my mid teens I decided: this is it, this is what I want to do."
Interview by Paul Tingen