Producing Depth of Field: An Interview With Daniel Lanois

  1. Since his pioneering work with Brian Eno in the early 1980s, Daniel Lanois has been
    Figure 1. Album cover for Rockets
    one of the most influential producers in popular music. His production credits include: U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind; Peter Gabriel’s So and Us; The Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon; Willie Nelson’s Teatro; Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball; and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind. Lanois has also made four albums of his own: Acadie, For the Beauty of Wynona, Shine, and Rockets. [see discography]*

  2. 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 locations—among them, Los Angeles—and 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 today’s 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.

  3. Lanois’s 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 clips.

  4. 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 recordings—accidental distortion replicated by effects and filters. The rest of the interview mainly concerns Lanois’s 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.

  5. 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 Lanois’s 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 Gabriel’s vocal timbre or U2’s 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 generation’s worth of rock recordings.

    Producing Depth of Field: An Interview With Daniel Lanois

  6. Jonathan Greenberg: How do you like living in Los Angeles?

  7. Daniel Lanois: I don’t really live here. I spend most of my time in Canada and Jamaica, so I’m only just passing through here. I like it a lot. I think it’s a great city, great crossroads—always something going on. It’s much like other cities that I’ve been in [in that respect].

  8. 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?

  9. DL: You know, New Orleans is fantastic.
    Figure 2. Daniel Lanois. Photo by Jennifer Tipoulow
    I made a great Bob Dylan record there called O Mercy [listen], my first record [with him], and a Neville Brothers record called Yellow Moon. One thing for sure is that a lot of the great musicians come from the South. And for a Canadian kid to go down there and be exposed to the rhythms, the bass lines, the piano playing, it was really a great education. I met Brian Blade there, a really great drummer. I still work with Brian. We’re doing some shows this summer. We’re gonna do three shows with Dave Matthews in Florida: big places, big stadiums. Should be cool.

  10. JG: Did you [as a French-speaking Canadian] feel any particular kinship being in a historically francophone area like New Orleans?

  11. 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 …

  12. JG: So, you’ve recorded all over North America, and you’ve worked in Europe: does where you are when you’re recording an album, when you’re writing songs—what effect does that have on the music that you make?

  13. DL: In Jamaica, where I have my cottage, it’s a small town, and there’s not a whole lot of music there other than church music, singing groups. It’s not a crossroads for popular culture. On occasion, there’ll be a street festival, and that’s 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—it’s 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 that’s lovely. It’s nice to see there are still pockets of that.

    Figure 3. Rockin' Dopsie
  14. JG: Would you play with these people, like in Jamaica?

  15. DL: In New Orleans, I played with a lot of bands there. In fact there was a great zydeco band—a guy named Rockin’ Dopsie, though he’s 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 Dylan’s record, O Mercy.

  16. JG: I ask that because we can hear that influence on some of the records that you made in New Orleans. Your first solo album—one of the greatest things about it is that it’s called Acadie and here you were absorbing Louisiana culture, and in the album you hear these cultures trying to meet.

  17. 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.

  18. JG: We’ve been talking a lot about the influence of place on your music, yet there’s a tension in your music between a sense of place and something that transcends that sense of place. Your studio—wherever it is—is 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.]

  19. DL: Did you hear it on that steel guitar just now?

  20. JG: Yes.

  21. DL: I don’t know what it is or where it comes from, because these little steel guitar recordings—they don’t have any production on them. It’s just a guitar. People talk about my sound, but I’m just playing one instrument here—it’s not much of a sound.

  22. JG: How can you not have any production? If there’s a microphone, you’re choosing what microphone to use …

  23. DL: Point being, that [recording] was essentially a documentation of playing that happened in the moment—it 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 that’s it right there. Let’s 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, that’s it, and not try and incorporate too much.


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* Thank you to Caroline Sprinkel and Tanya Merchant for their help with this interview.



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