The Magic of Daniel Lanois (Part 1)
Mark Prendergast interviews this French-Canadian engineer/producer about his long-standing production partnership with Brian Eno and his recent involvement with Peter Gabriel and U2.
Sometimes referred to as a 'sorcerer's assistant', other times as a 'studio magician', Daniel Lanois has recently become renowned in Europe and America for his excellent work with both Peter Gabriel and U2. Over the last number of years, with these artists, he has helped engineer and produce three albums - The Unforgettable Fire, So and The Joshua Tree - that have all topped the charts. His contribution is mercurial; being simultaneously a musician, producer and engineer his work has always been an intuitive combination of emotion and technical wizardry. A long-time collaborator of Brian Eno's, it was through that Englishman's experiments that Lanois came to prominence and to this day the Eno/Lanois association continues to thrive. In the first of a two-part interview, Lanois talks honestly about his musical awakening and how, with Brian Eno, he became involved in some of the most progressive new music to be released over the last decade.
Q: You were born in Ottawa in 1951 of French Canadian parents. Could you tell us a little about your background? Were your parents musical? Did you study music when you were younger?
"My parents were and are musical. There was a lot of fiddle music around when I was a kid, you know, 'cos when the French get together for parties and so on, fiddling and tap-dancing is not unusual. That sort of thing goes on quite a bit in the Quebec part of Canada, the East. It's a French influence and also an Irish influence, particularly in the fishing provinces. My grandfather played the fiddle and my dad did too. He wasn't a professional but he knew a few jigs. My mother sang around the house so I guess there was a musical influence in that way.
When I was about ten years old somebody came around to my house asking if any of the children would be interested in taking music lessons. My mother said, 'Well there's the one who likes music and wants to play clarinet.' And so this man came in and gave me blurb and pamphlets and so on, but they didn't teach clarinet. He eventually talked my mother into having me take steel guitar lessons; I mean that's a long way from clarinet! The chance to play an instrument was fantastic, it was a huge thrill."
Q: Brian Eno has said that you also studied woodwind instruments and that as a teenager you played professionally in rhythm and blues bands, touring throughout Canada. How did this develop?
"I just stayed with the music. I kept taking lessons. I played steel guitar for a while but got a bit fed up with holding the thing on my lap. I would ask my teacher when I would get promoted to holding the thing like Elvis Presley! But I kept it up, took a lot of lessons from some very good teachers, studied theory, played in pit orchestras and dance bands. I did it all, and very young too. It was good experience. A lot of it was, like, strange. I did some very strange gigs. I backed up strippers for a year and a half on the road in the north of Ontario where no-one else would go. They'd send up these revues and I was one of the players in the band. That was a good bit of fun for a while and then I got interested in the music of the time, which was R 'n' B pretty much. I liked Sam 'n' Dave, Wilson Pickett and James Brown so I joined an R 'n' B band. It was after this that I got interested in the recording aspect of music."
Q: In 1970 you and your brother Bob started up a commercial studio in the basement of your parents' house in Hamilton, Ontario. How did you make the jump from playing music to building a studio while still a teenager?
"Well we always had an old beat-up tape recorder around the house. In those days they were still fascinating things because it was a time when most people hadn't even heard their voices played back to them on a tape recorder. There would be that kind of thrill in the air, you know, of recording people singing in the house or just chattering and there'd be a big to-do about hearing it played back. This one tape recorder had a wobble on it. I would record my steel guitar on it and when I heard it played back it had this kind of gurgly/wobbly sound, and I thought 'This is fantastic!' It was probably a piece of dust or chewing gum on the capstan creating the wobble but it was like an early form of sound manipulation to me. At this point, myself and my brother worked very closely on creating different sounds.
It was really a friend of mine, Bob Doidge, who suggested that we start setting up a recording studio 'cos he had gone to the big city, Toronto, and come back with tales of amazement. So we set up a little place in my mother's basement, it was nice. With just one Roberts tape recorder we did, pardon the pun, sound-on-sound recording - you know, record on one track, bounce to the other and do an overdub on-the-fly - and this was all real exciting.
It grew quickly and we had a system whereby we would record on one half-track Revox, a whole band playing onto one Revox tape recorder with no vocals. Then we'd feed that recording back into the mixing console, into the earphones, and then people did their overdubs - solos, background vocals and lead vocal. We would then record that performance along with the initial track onto a second Revox and that was your master. 2-track times two. But it was effective 'cos you had to make a commitment on a blend initially. Whatever decisions you made were final and then you had to superimpose the second performances over the top of that. It was a good education."
Q: Were the recordings you made of your own music or were they of other people?
"Mostly it was friends at first and then I put an ad in the paper to rent the studio by the hour. It was very cheap, something like five dollars an hour. A lot of interesting work came through there at the time. I can remember recording some Haitian gospel groups - very odd. I mean at the time I thought it was just work but some of that was really very good music. It was through this gospel organisation in Ontario who produced records and they liked our studio and its sound. I recorded about 50 gospel albums in my mother's basement!
Q: On a lot of the albums you do now it says that you are an 'engineer' but you talk about being a musician and fiddling around with tape recorders. I thought that an engineer is a person in a studio who knows everything about the equipment and is there primarily in case something goes wrong with that equipment?
"My brother Bob showed me almost everything I know, so I'm not that technical. There was a time when being an engineer was a technical position but that took a shift in the late 1960s. These days, there are people who are terrific at it who couldn't solder two wires together if they had to. You see, these days, just about everybody knows something about recording and there's not the mystery in it that there was at one time. As a result of that shift, creative people started moving into that position of engineering and I just happened to get into it at that time. Then it was expected for the engineer to have some sort of creative input, even if it was just sound manipulation or coming up with a few nice surprises. Up to that point the engineer's job had been to just document the thing and really take instructions."
Throughout the 70s, demand for Dan and Bob Lanois' little studio continued to grow. Most of the music they produced was of the country variety, Lanois being particularly fond of the form. By 1980 the duo had enough business to expand to 24-track and, leaving their mother in peace, they bought a three storey Victorian house nearby in order to continue their activities. Called 'Grant Avenue Studios', it was there that Lanois produced work for such bands as The Parachute Club and Martha And The Muffins that would make him Canadian 'producer of the year' for three years running. More importantly, the unorthodox nature of the studio, its atmosphere and innovative layout, were to attract the attention of Brian Eno and soon albums by Harold Budd, Jon Hassell and Michael Brook would be recorded there with Eno and Lanois playing very special roles.
"It was a fairly narrow house but it was tall. My brother built the studio. We made use of every nook and cranny. There were funny little booths, and we put amps underneath staircases and in the basement. We used to do vocals in the attic - it was that kind of atmosphere. It was a good place. All the stuff I did at the beginning was for Canadian bands. I did three albums for Martha And The Muffins including This Is The Ice Age and Mystery Walk. My sister was playing bass in the band and I got to know them through her. I think they were looking for an alternative place to play and Grant Avenue fitted the bill."
Q: Then you met Brian Eno. What struck you about him that made you feel that you'd really like to work with him in a longterm way?
"Well, I should say that in the early years of music for me, like in my teens and late teens, there was a certain kind of fire in myself that disappeared a bit in my twenties. It's the kind of thing that you either have or you don't have and you can't just switch it on and off. It was something that I'd always hoped would return. When I met Brian Eno that fire came back and the passion that I'd had as a youngster, that naive spirit where you live for your music and your work, it came back to me and it offered a certain kind of clarity to me. With Brian I was able to lose myself in a piece of work for weeks on end. I wouldn't even think of anything else."
Q: It seems strange that Eno, coming from Suffolk, should get involved with someone based in Ontario, such a long way away. How did it happen?
"That was odd, just paths crossing - funny circumstances. He was in New York at the time and had heard a tape that I'd done some work on; some people called The Time Twins from Toronto. He loved the tape. It was a good tape, you know. It was strange and off-balance and new sounding - all the sort of things Brian looks for in music. He found out where it was recorded and just called up and booked some time in the studio. I didn't know who he was. It was for the recording of Harold Budd's The Plateaux Of Mirror. He requested several pieces of equipment that we set up for him. At the time we ran our studio almost like a well cared for restaurant - greeting people at the door, having liqueur in the wash room and the best coffee. We had a lot of pride in it and I think he was taken by that.
I just got really into the music and I was able to help him. You see, as brilliant as Brian is, he does not have formal music training. So something that might take him half-an-hour to work out would take me just a couple of minutes, you know. I'd say, 'Well it's this, this and that and I'll give you a cue where to play it.' So he sort of used me like a right-hand man for a while and he got to trust me and it moved things along quicker. So we developed a good relationship."
From there, Lanois was drawn into a multifarious number of projects with a fascinating group of innovative musicians. Harold Budd's The Plateaux Of Mirror in 1980 showed how atmospheres could play a vital role in enhancing minimalist piano music. Jon Hassell's Dream Theory In Malaya (1981) investigated ethnic/technological fusion and was the first of many excursions into the world of 'future primitivism'. It was also the first interesting application of data sampling in contemporary music. Eno developed his ambient techniques in Grant Avenue Studios and Lanois' involvement in that series of recordings reached a zenith on Apollo (1983), to which he contributed a great deal including some quite beautiful steel guitar playing.
For Eno the Canadian studio and its owners had the necessary perspective for him to work from. According to Brian: "It was never an ordinary studio. Dan's sensitivity to what musicians wanted, and Bob's ability to make it technically possible both contributed to the great success of the place." Over a short space of time Grant Avenue became "a sound processing laboratory" for Eno and his associates, and the music just came and came. Harold Budd's The Pearl (1984) consolidated the stature of the Eno/Lanois production partnership as one of great inventiveness and such albums as Michael Brook's Hybrid and Roger Eno's Voices (both 1985) indicated that texture, nuance, treatments and so forth were now an integral part of musical composition and could, in effect, introduce a completely new vision into rock music production.
Q: When I interviewed Harold Budd last year he was very passionate about how yourself and Brian approached his work. Were the engineering and production on his albums specifically designed for Harold's style of very slow piano playing or did it just all happen by accident?
"At the time we were really involved with a process of treatments and it's not something we just whipped up overnight. For months and months Brian and myself had been developing these certain paths for effects in the control room so we could hone in on them and learn to rely on them. There were certain 'patches' and really it was a network of effects and processes, an electronic network. We were able to apply that knowledge to what Harold was doing on the piano. Some would be pre-recorded atmospheres that Harold would play to but mostly we were just processing his performance through whatever gizmos were in the studio rack at the time. It's the same stuff that everybody uses."
Q: Were they tape devices or boxes?
"They were effects boxes - AMS, Lexicon, Korgs... But early on we used to loop two 2-track recorders together just to create, essentially, a long tape delay. We would feed the sound back into Harold's cans (headphones) so he'd have something to play off of. By hearing the treatments it would inspire certain kinds of playing, certain improvisations. These treatments would not be static, though, they would be performed as Harold was playing. We would change the settings gradually and then fade them into his cans. It was a performance all round."
Q: On that fantastic album by Jon Hassell, Dream Theory In Malaya, you were involved throughout but in particular on the track 'Datu Bintung At Jelong'. The album uses a lot of Malayan tribal sounds which are then 'electronified'. Were you and Brian Eno greatly responsible for the final feel of that record?
"Well, Jon pretty much had his sound to begin with. I just hooked into his plan and carried it through. But at the time, myself and Brian were very much into sampling. This was like the early days when you could only sample one thing at a time and you'd lose something if you took the machine out of lock. Sampling sounds is standard fare these days. It's very sophisticated and you can get it on a keyboard by just walking to a corner store. Fairlight, Synclavier, Akai - every company makes a sampler these days. At that time there was really only one company, and that was AMS, who produced a sampling digital delay and it had just come out. To be able to put a little snippet of information in there and to be able to play it back by pressing a trigger was fascinating, you know. We all had the one AMS unit and you could only replay the sound for as long as the locked button was down, so you had to make decisions. There was more risk involved and it was exciting."
Q: There's a lot of very weird stuff on that album like the sounds of the splash rhythms of the Semelai and those deep, gong-type sounds. Were all of those done on the AMS?
"Well some of the sounds you hear are natural. The splashing sound is in fact a field recording. We made a loop of a particular segment which was, I think, 25 bars long. Jon (Hassell) really fell in love with it. We had this great long tape loop running around the room. I think tape loops are fantastic. We'd have a pulley down one end of the studio linked to a few more at the other end. The pulleys were very elaborate, built out of tape recorder parts, you know - old pinch rollers. We'd just hook 'em up to mic stands and keep moving them further apart until the tapes were at the right tension. The making of that album was a lot of fun."
Q: In 1982 you were involved with Eno's Ambient album On Land, a very strange and sometimes sombre record. On the sleeve it mentions your name only in connection with the track 'Dunwich Beach Autumn I960' where you did 'live equalisation'. It's a very emotional track and I've often wondered what it refers to?
"Dunwich beach is a site in England where a church had crumbled into the sea, just from the cliff eroding. Rumour has it that on the right stormy night you can hear the bells of the church ringing at Dunwich beach. On the album you can hear the sound of ghostly sounding bells. Actually I was involved in the whole record, a lot of bits and pieces, because Brian was going back and forth at that time. I think I did quite a few mixes and the middle and end of the record were done in Grant Avenue Studios. That project was actually begun in New York. It was a sort of backlash to the dense city activity of that place and Brian made a dark organic record in response."
Q: Even though you were quite involved with Eno you must have been doing other things outside these endeavours?
"I was doing a few other things, carrying on with my Canadian productions like with a band called The Parachute Club. I was still doing the gospel music and the country music."
Q: On the next Ambient album Apollo you really came out on the record, like Side 2 that's you all the way through on pedal steel guitar. You were also involved in the writing of eight of its twelve tracks. Was it sort of you saying to Brian, 'I want to really get into this, I want to stop being on the fringes, I want to create the actual music'?
"It wasn't thought out, just at that point whatever it took to get a bit of passion going I'd try. It was not unusual, clearly Brian knew that I could play so if I'm there and I can play, why not play? His brother Roger was around at the time and he would play something, we would plug in and get something going - find a nice chord change and a melody. Then we would decide on roles; well you play that and I'll stay out of the way, Roger will solo here and I'll do a slide solo there - that kind of arrangement. It was all done in good fun and was fairly spontaneous. It was not like a big decision to break into the compositional world or anything. It was Brian's decision to make a record out of it, which wasn't the original intention, 'cos we were working in the studio kind of fiddling around and working on a couple of film soundtracks. This was not the big record or anything."
Q: Were your interests in the studio, electronics and instrumentation changed radically through your work with Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Michael Brook and Roger Eno?
"I think what happened was that Grant Avenue became a little bit of a centre for a scene and that scene was the people we've just talked about. It grew out of mutual interest but in all fairness Brian was largely the instigator of the scene. When projects were finished though, the thoughts and ideas were still there and I would work on techniques and ways to make it easier to do that kind of work. When Brian would come in again I'd have fresh ideas and I could say 'Now listen to this'."
Q: So is this kind of work difficult in a normal studio set-up? Do you need to have a lot of elasticity and flexibility in the equipment you're using?
"I think you just need a bit of commitment. At the time of recording it was really a small simple area that we stretched and expanded, which is the mark of great work. When people decide they are doing this and they are not doing that over there or that over here, they will really understand it well and learn to love it and draw something from it. I think that's what happened, we had subconsciously made a decision to pursue a certain direction and carry on with it. I think it's a result of focus and commitment."
Q: What do you actually look for when you go into a studio?
"There's a certain amount of gear that I expect a place to have for me to be able to do what I do. It doesn't really have to do with the sound of the mixing console, I think it has to do with interesting sounding rooms and enough outboard equipment for me to get on with my processing. I usually like to use an AMS delay/harmoniser. I like the Delta Lab DL2, that's a very good machine. I like all the digital reverberators... although I'm kind of going off reverb these days. There's a time and a place for it. But at the end of the day, it's often the quirky little surprises that you know can give you the most interesting results."
Q: I presume that the ordinary studio situation of a mixing desk and soundproofed rooms, all windowless and claustrophobic, doesn't really appeal to you?
"There's a time and place for that, too. It introduces a certain formality and it tells you this is where you're going to get on with the job. I mean the studio can serve you well in that respect but I still prefer recording in funny places, like houses - bringing in equipment and recording in peoples' houses. That's good because you have the kitchen and people can stay overnight. You can get a good vibe going, a good feeling from a house."
And it was in a house, a very large house - a castle, in fact - that Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno first worked with U2. After finishing the recording of Harold Budd's The Pearl in Grant Avenue Studios, Canada, and after much deliberation (on Eno's part) and much opposition (from Island Records' Chris Blackwell), Eno and Lanois travelled to Ireland to work with U2 on The Unforgettable Fire album. The production was to take place in Slane, County Meath, in a large castle standing on the banks of a river and then finished off in Dublin's finest studio, Windmill Lane.
The Unforgettable Fire was to be a turning point in the career of Daniel Lanois for it was the impact of that album and the detonating effect of its successor, The Joshua Tree, that finally garnered him the recognition that he so long deserved.
Next month, in Part 2, Daniel Lanois talks at great length about the nitty-gritty of producing U2 and Peter Gabriel, as well as his most recent activities.
Part 1 | Part 2
Interview by Mark Prendergast