The Magic of Daniel Lanois (Part 2)
In the concluding part of our in-depth interview with this French-Canadian engineer/producer, Mark Prendergast discovers how Lanois recorded the 'So' album with Peter Gabriel and more about his co-production with Brian Eno of U2's 'The Joshua Tree' and 'Unforgettable Fire' LPs.
The contact with U2 and the remarkable success of The Joshua Tree album have catapulted producer Daniel Lanois into the mainstream of commercial rock and roll. Last month, we concentrated on his early musical involvements and the maturation of his lengthy relationship with Brian Eno through a series of often innovative and never less than stimulating recording projects. It was this very special Eno/Lanois partnership that would bring him into contact with U2 in 1984. It was also this friendship that would indirectly, through the chance hearing by Peter Gabriel of Harold Budd's The Pearl, bring Lanois to England to produce So. In this the second and final part of a revealing interview with this French Canadian 'sorcerer', Lanois reflects positively over the last three years' accomplishments.
Q: In Irish terms the making of The Unforgettable Fire was viewed in much the same way as the making of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper album was here. Its creation was shrouded in mystery. One knew that U2 were making a mega new album over in Slane Castle (and a short film as well) but, to this day, the ins and outs of what happened over there are still pretty vague in most people's minds. Could you elucidate on how that record was actually put together?
"Technically, it was a very humble set-up. We used a portable system from New York. It was a heavily modified Sound Workshop mixing console with a Stevens tape recorder - a kind of portable 24-track machine. It came in flightcases with wheels on so you could pop the lids open and get on with what you were doing pretty quickly. It was good but it wasn't the ultimate technical system. It was more important to capture a feeling than it was to have the very best gear.
There were some funny problems during that session because we were running the system off the River Boyne, using a sort of water-paddle generator system at the back of the castle. It was pretty archaic. At certain times of the day you couldn't record because there was not enough power to supply the equipment. Eventually, we got a proper power truck to come out and one day it blew up and caught fire!" (Laughs)
Q: It was a very long session, about six months by all accounts?
"I wouldn't say it was that long. The castle period lasted for about two months and then we moved into Dublin to finish up at Windmill Lane Studios. Four months is probably closer to reality.
Slane Castle had some great rooms. When I first went there I had it in mind to record everything in the ballroom, which was this beautiful very tall room with big mirrors, chandeliers and windows overlooking the river. As it turned out, it was just a little too 'splashy' sounding. It was good for tracks that had an openness but not good for tracks that were quick and required punch. So we used what they called the library for most of the sessions. It was just a rectangular room but we could achieve a denser more powerful sound. We had The Edge's amp outside on this balcony; like there is this long balcony going around the castle and we had him out there for a little while. Initially, it was for the purpose of isolation but it turned out to be a good sound. We used a close miking technique and it was a great sound."
Q: The Unforgettable Fire turned out to be a very mystical record, full of the Irish climate and ethereal elements. Did you adopt a 'Let whatever happen, happen' attitude or did you and Brian (Eno) say, 'Right, today we're gonna do this and tomorrow we're gonna do that' and so forth?
"There was some structure but experimenting was highly promoted during that period. I think the band were looking to discover a few new approaches and were very much in favour of trying this, trying that. There were a lot of songs, a lot of sketches for that record, which never made it to the finished album. In retrospect, I think the time was split in a slightly off-balanced fashion: too much time to experiment and not quite enough to get down to the hard recording work. Still, the castle sessions produced enough strong songs that required very little improvement in the studio. There was only one track that had to be re-done and that was 'Pride', which was cut in Windmill Lane."
Q: Articles on the making of the record were non-existent in Europe, the UK and America but in Eire there was some mention of how it was done. In 'Hot Press' magazine they mentioned Eno using a strategy board and arcane symbols to chart the progress of the record. The impression given was that he spent a lot of time working things out in notebooks while you were very involved with the musicians. Is that true?
"Well, Brian always has some kind of a notebook on the go, no matter what you're working on, with diagrams and lists and approaches. It's often his way of talking somebody into an idea because there it is on paper, these are the facts and here's the approach. It has its purpose. I worked fairly closely with U2's drummer, Larry, and I had a good rapport with all the players."
Larry Mullen really holds that album together, his drumming was very interesting. I think he's an underrated drummer and so is the bass player, Adam. It's funny they never get much of a look-in when people are doing interviews - it's always Bono or Edge.
"I didn't realise it at the time but when I heard Larry play I assumed he was a brilliant drummer, because that's what I heard with my ears. I assumed he had been that way all along. From my point, it was a naive look at the whole thing and he felt my confidence in him and played like that. It was not until well after the record that I found out that there was a time when Larry went through a period of insecurity with his playing, and I was oblivious to it during the sessions."
Q: There's one track on Unforgettable Fire which only really works with the drums. It doesn't work with anything else and it is impossible to penetrate on a lyrical or melodic level. It's only through the drums one can feel it and that's on the track 'Elvis Presley And America'. Was it the intention to turn that song into a rhythmic jangly sort of track?
"Well that was another track slowed down - in fact, 'A Sort Of Homecoming' slowed down. That drum sound is a very fast performance of Larry's slowed down to give it that kind of deep, rubbery, padded sound like heartbeats. It's a fantastic sound. I was just messin' around in the control room at Windmill Lane Studios and Bono came in, heard it and said 'Boy, this is terrific!' and he sang over it, just two performances over it and in the presence of some guests. It was kind of a throw-away track - an improvisation.
I was fiddling around with effects, turning up echoes here and a compressor there. We recorded it to 2-track at the same time, just as a way of remembering what we were doing. You see, we got to really like these little mixes with sort of ad-lib vocals on them. With 'Elvis Presley', we just put it on the record and I'm not sure that it was brought to a strong enough conclusion but there was the seed of a fantastic idea there. For me, there were some moments in that which were great. What pushed us to use it was because I enjoyed it throughly. I can still get lost in it and be carried away by it - transported - and I look for that in music."
After finishing Unforgettable Fire, Lanois journeyed to the Avon countryside to immerse himself in a project called So, the most recent Peter Gabriel solo release. Considered by some to be one of the best-sounding albums ever released, So featured extensive contributions from Lanois.
He co-produced it with Gabriel himself and co-engineered it with Kevin Killen. He also contributed to the horn arrangements and played guitar on 'Big Time', 'Red Rain', 'Sledgehammer' and 'In Your Eyes'.
The album features a wealth of brilliant musicians from a multitude of backgrounds including Kate Bush, Stewart Copeland and Tony Levin, the former King Crimson bassist whose playing on 'Don't Give Up' is the finest bass I've ever heard in my life. No doubt the entire record was affected by Lanois' immaculate taste and perfectionist standards. It's full of atmosphere and the background sound correlates closely with that of previous Eno co-produced work. But since Eno was not involved, I asked Lanois whether it was a big change to record with Gabriel, first on the Birdy soundtrack (for the Alan Parker film) and then on So?
"Birdy was not such a change. It was really just an extension of what I'd done previously at Grant Avenue Studios (Canada) with the more atmospheric work. I took Peter's multitrack tapes that he had on the shelf and just listened through them, flipped them around and did this and that. I slowed them down, sped them up and just found a few things that I thought were nice and did mixes. A lot of them he really liked and they got used in the film. Peter knew that I had developed a skill for that sort of work and that's why he got me in to do it.
The So album... now that was quite a bit different to what I had been accustomed to doing. For one thing, it was a one-to-one relationship. Peter doesn't really have a band, well he does have a band but they're not there all the time. So there was a tendency to work alone quite a lot."
Q: It was recorded at his own studio deep in the country?
"Yeah, in the West Country, a very nice location in a valley. Hmmm, a fantastic place but the truth of it is that there was good equipment there but not very well installed. All this has changed now that Peter has had a new studio complex built but So was done in the old place, where it was a bit 'functional', you know. The new place is totally amazing and he's called it The Box. It's in the same district but in another valley.
Technically, there were some difficulties with So. It's a good-sounding record. When I hear it on the radio I think, 'Hmmm, now that's got something'. We captured a sound and I'm very pleased about that."
Q: How long did it take?
"Too long! Peter can be a quick worker but he's a man who likes to investigate all the options. If you work with him you have to be aware of that and not let yourself fall into that dangerous zone of considering so many things that you end up not making a good choice. At a point he has to be pushed into a direction that is the right one or else the options and permutations can just go on and on and on. The whole record, from day one to the delivery, took a year with maybe a two-week break. But, in all fairness, the first six months were spent doing sketches and developing the compositions, so I was a composer's chaperone there for a while."
Q: What instruments did you play on the album?
"I played a lot of guitar, a green Fender Jazz Master which you don't see very often now. It doesn't have much sustain but it does have a good dense sound. I also played percussion and whatever I could get my hands on. I played the guitar just to help out Peter, you know, just to give him some company. You see, I find that musicians get into a groove a little quicker if you're playing along. They don't feel like they are being observed at that point. I did that with Peter and along with his guitarist, David Rhodes, we nicknamed ourselves The Three Stooges."
Q: I heard that the three of you wore these yellow helmets?
"Oh, the hardhats. Imagine showing up in a studio to work with your colleagues wearing a certain hat. After a while it's not funny anymore but it gives you a certain kind of cohesive spirit - and it's a reminder that when things get heavy you're still wearing a funny yellowhat and that can lighten the tension in a good way. It was like going to work back in Canada, I even had this lunch pail as well!"
Q: Even though it was another huge success, not much has been said about So in terms of how it was made, etc. It's another mysterious Lanois endeavour.
"Yes, it's a mysterious album. What's interesting about that record, is that if you listen closely there aren't that many unusual instruments on it but it sounds sonically innovative.
It was created with a fairly limited supply of tools, if you like. Most of the keyboards are acoustic piano, Yamaha electric piano and Prophet 5 - an old Prophet 5 polysynth, one of the very first ones to come out. Also an old Fairlight Series II with some good sampled sounds. Yet So has a variety of sounds and you don't get the feeling that it's the same things over and over again. It's another lesson in the theory of the small toolbox and learning to love your tools. Learning the difference between that setting and this setting and not necessarily using wildly different instruments or components to come up with variety but using a concentrated small area and drawing a lot from them.
As an example, if you're a vocalist you are given one tool - your vocal chords. You can't stick a ROM cartridge in your brain and sound like somebody else for the afternoon, you sound like yourself no matter how hard you try. So you learn to deal with subtle changes - subtle changes in expression and tone - and that's how you provide variety in your work.
I think the same thing can apply with instruments and it can be a problem these days dealing with options in sounds. I mean, you can get a synthesizer that has 500 pre-programmed sounds in it. Imagine having to go through those and make decisions! At the end of the day, the most important component in the making of a record is excitement and commitment. If someone is excited about a new sequencer, sampler or drum machine combination, they will come up with nice results because they're thrilled to death with having these tools. Another person may choose a nice old acoustic guitar that he's constantly inspired by and will write many songs and deliver a better performance because of that acoustic guitar. It's a different toolbox and one is not greater than the other."
Because of the success of The Unforgettable Fire, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were invited back to Dublin to do another U2 album in 1986. As everyone probably knows, this was called The Joshua Tree and became Eno and Lanois' biggest production success ever. Throughout the record one can hear the effective uses of ambient washes and atmospheres. On 'With Or Without You' in particular, the floating spirals of the Eno/Lanois touch are breathtakingly beautiful. The complexity of the production sound and its multi-dimensional quality make for an album that's never short on surprises, a creation that in time would deserve the accolade of 'classic'.
Like its predecessor, the making of The Joshua Tree was a mysterious project that few people in Ireland, or anywhere else, knew anything about. What transpired was that tracks were laid down in bursts at the private residencies of U2 guitarist The Edge and bassist Adam Clayton in South Dublin and later more were recorded in Windmill Lane Studios, Dublin. Lanois contributed a lot of the guitar parts and his old friend Bob Doidge arranged the strings on 'One Tree Hill'.
Q: Was The Joshua Tree a very different experience to The Unforgettable Fire or was it just an extension of the same thing?
"It was different. We had it in mind right from the beginning to record as much performance live off the floor as possible. That was pretty much a unanimous decision 'cos, as you know, studios can be a pitfall if you live in the land of promise and rely on overdubs to pull a track together. If you get the feeling off the studio floor and it's complete in itself, maybe minus a few components, then you don't have to live with a promise that it might come together further on down the line. So that was the thought and quite a few of the tracks did end up that way.
Now to support that idea we decided to use cans (headphones) very little, to not use them at all, in fact, if we could get away with it. So we set up a monitoring system, essentially stage monitors - wedges that sat on the floor. Larry (Mullen, the drummer) would have a pair behind him and Adam had two. He would put his foot right on the monitor and we would feed him the drum signal, so that he'd get instant contact with the kit. Even though the drum kit was slightly isolated with some separator walls, it felt like a stage.
We duplicated this set-up everywhere - in Windmill Lane, at Adam's house, at Edge's house. We used three recording locations and we got good results in all of them. Having the monitoring on the floor gave the place a certain kind of power that you just don't get with cans. The problem is that there is a certain kind of regeneration that happens when you're recording like this, you have to deal with sound spillage. I mean, if you get a lot of the guitar sound leaking onto your drum microphones, you can't change your mind about using the guitar if you want to use the drums. So the price you pay is that you have to make a commitment to what you put down and either use it or throw it all away."
Q: On the track 'With Or Without You', Adam Clayton plays the heaviest bass that I've heard on any record. It's like a steel bass and it really hits you square in the face when it comes on. Actually, on the whole album the bass and drums are really powerful, they really come right up. How was that done?
"On 'With Or Without You' I think the bass is the essence of the song, that kind of heartbeat sound establishes the mood, the tension. That was done with the one bass that Adam hardly ever plays - an Ibanez, just out of curiosity. That also was one of the few tracks that was sequencer-based. We used a Yamaha system whereby a little ongoing sequencer part was run through the whole song. As a result, the song is performed to mechanical time. In fact, the first third of the song is electronic drums with some of Larry's sounds and then he kicks in further down the line with the acoustic kit. There is a certain sound you get from that approach, a discipline, it's almost Germanic."
Q: You contributed a lot to the musical side of the album. You played Omnichord guitar, additional electric guitar, the tambourine and also sang backing vocals with Brian Eno and The Edge. On which tracks did you play guitar?
"I played guitar on 'Running To Stand Still' and 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'. I played the percussive part on 'I Still Haven't Found...', the guitar you hear on the introduction is in fact the part that I played. It's a kind of style that is similar to the undercurrent of Peter Gabriel's 'Sledgehammer' on So, that sort of muted sound. I played the Omnichord on 'Trip Through Your Wires'. The Omnichord is almost a toy instrument that I think was designed for family entertainment. It's an electronic autoharp and it has the chord figures at your fingertips with the actual names on them. You take the chords that you want and it has a series of contact points that you strum with the right hand. It produces this beautiful bell-like sound and in the case of 'Trip Through Your Wires' it sounds like an organ. I plugged it into Edge's gear, his echo devices and whole amplification system. If you listen closely to that track you can hear this jangling in the background."
Q: You talked with reference to So about using the limited toolbox and getting as much out of what instruments you had as possible. Were there any specific instances of this on The Joshua Tree?
"Yes. On 'Running To Stand Still', the slide guitar part was just amplified through a blaster [A fuzzbox? - Ed] that was in a lounge next to the main studio at Windmill Lane. Edge was working on a guitar part in there and I walked in and said that's a great part and a great sound - don't move! Let's not try and re-create it in the big studio, stay right there and we'll bring in a pair of cans and a microphone and we'll just record it. He was just practicing with his guitar plugged directly into the microphone input of the mixer. I think he had two different blasters but no guitar amp. The blaster was amplifying his slide guitar in a lovely way. He had honed in on this sound and sort of altered the EQs and controls so that it was pleasant to him and there seemed to be a purpose to the settings."
Q: The Joshua Tree involved you, Brian Eno, Flood and Steve Lillywhite, as well as a bevy of local technicians. How did this work out?
"First of all Flood, myself and Brian were there right from the beginning - that was the team, if you like. It was early 1986 when we started and this was the unit that saw the project through from beginning to end. It was done in patches though, two weeks here and two weeks there. I was flying back and forth to Canada and so on.
But because we ran over time, Flood had to leave and Brian couldn't be there for all the mixes. We couldn't deliver the album later than January 15th '87 and we were now understaffed, since I was left on my own. We tried to convince Flood to see it through but he had other commitments, so names were suggested for a replacement and Steve Lillywhite's came up. He wasn't doing anything in London for a few weeks so we followed through on that.
He brought his engineer, Mark Wallace, over with him and we had two studios going simultaneously. Seven tracks were mixed at Edge's house with myself and Dave Meegan on the Amek 24-track set-up, while Steve worked on four tracks at Windmill Lane - 'With Or Without You', 'Bullet The Blue Sky', 'Where The Streets Have No Name' and 'Red Hill Mining Town'. Steve did some good work and I very much appreciated his input, and most of all his spirit, because we needed a lift at the time. To see a fresh face and a fresh attitude was good. 'Bullet The Blue Sky' was an amazing mix and that didn't come easy. Steve came in for the last three weeks of the record and it was a big help."
Q: Did Bono or Edge get you and Eno to do anything really unusual during that album or did everything happen spontaneously?
"I wouldn't say there were any conscious direct suggestions that created left-turns. I think some of the circumstances caused some interesting results, like one day Edge wanted to do a guitar part but because of a communication breakdown the road crew had removed all the equipment from his house and taken it into storage. We wanted to record a guitar part and there were no amps and no guitars! But there was this Roland Chorus amp and one reject guitar that was left in the closet. It had been forgotten because nobody liked it and it was considered to be just a piece of junk. It was an electric guitar with no frets but it had machine heads. It had this funny corrugation filed in the neck, which was plastic. It was very hard to play and it had been given to Edge as a promo item." [Editor's note: could it have been a Bond guitar?] "We started fiddling around and hit on an amazing sound, a sound that Edge would have never dreamed of. We put it on 'Exit' and it's a very, very dirty guitar sound like the sound of a machine that's alive, grunting and grinding."
Q: Did Brian Eno and you have any direct input into the compositional side of the songs on The Joshua Tree?
"Some of what you hear on that album is us but a lot of the input myself and Brian had is not sonically apparent. For example, 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' was very different before we put in our two cents worth. The early version was good but light and cheerful. But instead of letting it fall by the wayside we sort of introduced an idea to the band, which gave the song another life by pushing it in another direction. We suggested a different melodic approach to Bono, which improved the song.
We also did a lot of screening of Bono's lyrics. He had reams and reams of lyrics all over the place. Edge, myself and Brian would just look at the words and suggest things. You see, when he sang them against a backing track they wouldn't quite sound the same or seem to fit as well as when written down. A new word or line might just pop out when he'd be singing that was better than the original he'd written."
Q: You were hanging out with the band in America on the last tour. Did you expect the album and the single 'With Or Without You' to be so successful over there?
"I didn't know what to expect, you know. You have to remember that when you are finishing a project your nose is right to the grindstone and you're just doing the best that you can. I knew that the record had a lot of heart and great intentions and I knew the lyrics were good and that we got good vocal performances from Bono. I felt that it would at least be well received by the fans but I had no idea that it would be as strong a commercial success as it has been. That certainly wasn't the intention. I was just barely hanging in there, doing the job, and that's what came out. It was a big thrill being in the States at that time."
During the making of The Joshua Tree, Lanois took four weeks off to go to Los Angeles to work with former Band guitarist Robbie Robertson. In fact, Robertson came to Dublin at one stage so that U2 could get involved in the project. Lanois rates Robertson's work highly and says "I think there is a naive spirit to this record, which is something that is not that easy to get when you've been in the business as long as Robbie has."
Presently, Lanois has shifted operations to London and is currently working with Eno and Harold Budd in Suffolk on yet another project. For practical reasons he has discontinued operations of his Ontario Grant Avenue studio but continues to operate closely with his brother Bob. He has also been accumulating equipment so that he can put together a new private studio - "vintage equipment like valve amps, an API console, an early Neve console," he explains. "I like old stuff because it's always big, dense and powerful. But one of the great contributions to modern sound is the blaster. I collect them, I've got 12 blasters. For me, they enhance the sound of tapes."
His listening music is wide-ranging but he cites Suicide, an early '70s rock 'n' roll group ("They had passion and madness") and a record of Bulgarian singers as his present faves. After hours of conversation, I'm 100% convinced that Daniel Lanois is only in this business for the music. Whenever he talks about his art, a wistful look comes over his face like that of a child suddenly awakening to the joy of life's simplicities. His future looks bright, one that will bring even more interesting sounds to the ears of the world.
"You see, the thing that U2 have is total commitment and that's what I look for in music. To me, one should give oneself to a piece of work. It should be of good quality and it should be life-supporting. It should lift somebody a little in their listening life. And that's what that U2 song 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' does."
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Interview by Mark Prendergast
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