- Since his pioneering work with Brian Eno in the early 1980s, Daniel
Lanois has been
Figure 1. Album cover for Rockets
- Born in Quebec, Lanois began his career in Hamilton, Ontario, where
Brian Eno famously sought out his studio. For many years, he ran Kingsway
Studio in New Orleans, while making records in Ireland, France, and
California with U2, Gabriel, and Nelson. Lanois now lives and works
in several locationsamong them, Los Angelesand continues
to produce, compose, record, and perform live. We begin the interview
with questions about these places, and about what impact place
in general has had on his work. Having chosen locations for living
and music-making carefully, Lanois makes an interesting case in todays
often homogenized, multi-national rock music scene: the same musical
qualities that transcend the local have often been inspired by intensely
regional music cultures. In particular, we try to probe connections
between the Acadian traditions he grew up with and the Southern vernacular
styles he has often worked with.
- Lanoiss latest musical preoccupation has been with the pedal
steel guitar. He is working on an album of solo unaccompanied tunes
on the instrument, and our interview was an excellent occasion to
learn about him as a composer and instrumentalist. His interest in
the pedal steel also resonates with certain qualities of his production
sound, what writers and critics have called atmospheric,
ethereal, melancholic, and spiritual.
We were lucky to be given a performance of some of his new pedal steel
tunes in his recording studio in the basement of his Los Angeles home,
which we recorded and include in the interview as streaming sound
- The pedal steel brings us to a discussion of the 1950s pop duo
Santo & Johnny and early rock and roll. For Lanois, the focus
of popular music has changed over the past fifty years from live performance
(and the documentation thereof) to recordings that stand on their
own. Nonetheless, in a typically postmodern spirit, Lanois has simulated
the aesthetic of older recordingsaccidental distortion replicated
by effects and filters. The rest of the interview mainly concerns
Lanoiss personal style as a producer and as an artist. Through
the use of certain tools and a particular approach to
the production, he has built (at least the reputation for) a signature
sound. While Lanois questions this kind of consistency
in his work, his comments on production and composition nonetheless
reveal bases for consistent sonic elements.
- Popular music producers do not get the press that the artists
they produce do; but they make choices that are as artistic
as those who play or sing. Like studying other
famous producers such as Phil Spector, Giorgio Moroder, and Quincy
Jones, looking at Lanoiss work teaches us more than studying
just one artist. His work can tell us about the history of
rock music in over the past two decades; beyond individual idiosyncrasies
like Peter Gabriels vocal timbre or U2s political agenda,
Daniel Lanois gives us hints toward common aesthetic qualities of
a range of artists. As a producer of his own music and of others,
he has had an enormous effect on the development and definition of
genres within popular music: his vision of meaning and depth in music
has rubbed off on a generations worth of rock recordings.
- Jonathan Greenberg: How do you like
living in Los Angeles?
- Daniel Lanois: I dont really
live here. I spend most of my time in Canada and Jamaica, so Im
only just passing through here. I like it a lot. I think its
a great city, great crossroadsalways something going on. Its
much like other cities that Ive been in [in that respect].
- JG: You had your studio in New Orleans
for a long time. What did you get out of New Orleans musically? Was
there new music to discover there?
- DL: You know, New Orleans is fantastic.
Figure 2. Daniel Lanois. Photo by Jennifer Tipoulow
- JG: Did you [as a French-speaking
Canadian] feel any particular kinship being in a historically francophone
area like New Orleans?
- DL: A little bit. I might have felt
more of a connection with some of the rural people, the Cajun community.
But it was architecturally very much what you talk about, Spanish
and French. You can still see all the influence there …
- JG: So, youve recorded all over
North America, and youve worked in Europe: does where you are
when youre recording an album, when youre writing songswhat
effect does that have on the music that you make?
- DL: In Jamaica, where I have my cottage,
its a small town, and theres not a whole lot of music
there other than church music, singing groups. Its not a crossroads
for popular culture. On occasion, therell be a street festival,
and thats where you get to hear a lot of music. They still like
their big PA systems down there … In New Orleans and Jamaica
and these more out of the way places music is about celebration, and
they just kind of set it up any old place and start. You drive in
Jamaica, and somebody will just set up a PA on the roadside next to
a little coconut stand, and you go, What is this about?
and then at night people are dancing—its lovely. And the
same thing with the rural part of Louisiana, in the Cajun community.
The music actually has a function there. You know, you want to dance
on the weekend. So it serves the community. And thats lovely.
Its nice to see there are still pockets of that.
Figure 3. Rockin' Dopsie
- JG: Would you play with these people,
like in Jamaica?
- DL: In New Orleans, I played with
a lot of bands there. In fact there was a great zydeco banda
guy named Rockin
Dopsie, though hes not around anymore—and I used to
go and hear him at a little club called the Maple Leaf. I got to meet
him, and I invited him to play on Bob Dylans record, O Mercy.
- JG: I ask that because we can hear
that influence on some of the records that you made in New Orleans.
Your first solo albumone of the greatest things about it is
that its called Acadie and here you were absorbing Louisiana
culture, and in the album you hear these cultures trying to meet.
- DL: I suppose there was a retracement
of ancestral footsteps [on Acadie.] The Cajuns are originally
from Canada. I just felt some kind of an itch to go down there and
see what it was it was all about. And I was able to make some kind
of a musical connection between the Cajun community and myself. As
a record maker, I was interested in what the Neville Brothers were
up to, and trying to get into the neighborhoods there.
- JG: Weve been talking a lot
about the influence of place on your music, yet theres a tension
in your music between a sense of place and something that transcends
that sense of place. Your studiowherever it isis going
to have a sound that goes beyond where you are. You have this clear
fingerprint on what you do that people talk a lot about.
[DL is playing recordings of him playing pedal steel during the interview.]
- DL: Did you hear it on that steel
guitar just now?
- JG: Yes.
- DL: I dont know what it is
or where it comes from, because these little steel guitar recordingsthey
dont have any production on them. Its just a guitar. People
talk about my sound, but Im just playing one instrument hereits
not much of a sound.
- JG: How can you not have any production?
If theres a microphone, youre choosing what microphone
to use …
- DL: Point being, that [recording] was essentially a documentation of playing that happened in the momentit was a two-track recording. I suppose the thing that has served me best has been the ability to spot a little bit of something special at a given moment and say, OK thats it right there. Lets concentrate on what is glaringly special at the moment and make something out of it. And I still operate with that criteria. If I hear something that I think resonates true, then I just beam in on it and say, thats it, and not try and incorporate too much.