Producing Depth of Field: An Interview With Daniel Lanois


  1. OM: Besides Santo & Johnny, who are the other steel players that you listen to or feel that you’ve been influenced by?

  2. DL: I was into David Lindley in the 70s, who used to play with Jackson Browne. Real good. He’s a straight slide player, he’s not a pedal player. I always liked the passion in his playing. And then I was a fan of Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas soundtrack. It was an influence on me. Again, no pedals—Ry plays just straight-up slide. There was a guy in my neighborhood when I when I was growing up, Bob Lucier. He was my teacher and he used to play in country & western bands around the neighborhood. And in Toronto at the time the strip was really happening, Yonge Street, a great crossroads of all kind of music. There was a great blues club, and everybody went through there, including Muddy Waters. Then there was an R&B club where I got to hear James Brown, Wilson Pickett, all the best soul artists—Sam & Dave—all the best soul artists of the time. And I used to play at the club called Brown Derby. I was just a kid—I was like 15 years old—and I was in a show band. It wasn’t much of anything, we just used to do like show music, you know. But what was important about it was these other clubs that were on just the next block, so we played a lot of sets, six or seven, and in between I would run to other places and hear the other bands, and then come back for my next set. So it was a cool hang, and I got to hear some of the greats of that era, just from playing on the strip. It was kind of the last of that era, and a couple of years after that it all disintegrated …

  3. JG: What years was this?

  4. DL: This would have been like late 60s. It’s how I imagine the strip here in Los Angeles would have been around the same era: Little Bobby Darin would be there, and the Stones were hanging out, and it was not sort of an embarrassment of tourism as it is currently. Last night I was hanging out with my buddy Robbie Robertson, who is a generation ahead of me, and he really remembers that time, you know, traveling and playing with Ronnie Hawkins. Back then it wasn’t so much about making records, it was about playing, and records were a by-product of an already existing live performance ensemble. And that was the meaning of the word “record”: “Let’s document something that’s going on.” In our contemporary times, bands get put together with the view, “We’re gonna get a record deal, we gotta get a publishing deal, we gotta get everything worked out, and once we got everything worked out, then we will play.” So, it’s just like a mirroring of what we talked about earlier, the self-entertainment society that has music out of necessity. It loves music, needs music, and it’s gonna have music absent of any industry. So I still have a soft spot for that thought, that romantic notion.

  5. JG: It’s funny though, that you, of all people, have romanticized that kind of live music culture, when you have made much of your living as a record producer.

  6. DL: Yeah, yeah. It’s a contradiction for sure.

  7. OM: And the way you use sounds that are difficult to produce live.

  8. DL: Yeah, well you know Jimi Hendrix used to say the same thing: “That was a recording, and this is live.” By the time I came into the picture, the studio was not a place of documentation anymore. It was like, OK, you’ve heard all those great inventive British recordings, the Beach Boys stacking up harmonies; and it’s like wow,

    Figure 7. Daniel Lanois. Photo by Jennifer Tipoulow

    all these possibilities were available to us. So, for me to be a documentary recordist at my time, I would have been, like, way backwards. So I just chose to go with the new frontier. I wanted to be an innovator. I was hanging out with Brian Eno, and it was all about pushing the boundaries. Interfacing—in school you’re taught that this goes here, then you plug it into that, then over here, and that’s the way it is. And you challenge conventional interface and that’s when you start stumbling onto the cool sounds. It’s like, “OK, we’ll take this thing that’s normally the last thing in the chain and put it in the front,” and so on. So by monkeying around with the rules, myself and Brian Eno were able to hit on some pretty cool stuff.

  9. JG: … which then went right back into that live music culture. When those bands that you guys were producing had made a record, they then used a lot of that stuff when they went out on tour. I remember seeing Peter Gabriel on his Us tour around ‘92 before I’d heard the record. But it was obvious that what he was doing in this big stadium, wherever he was playing, had some amazing production effects that he would have never thought of without the record.

  10. DL: Well, yeah. Folk music. I’ve seen that on the U2 shows. They took it to a whole other level where they would actually take things from the record, like, they’re just like little sounds that are kind of cool and signatures on the record. At their shows they have a whole sort of city under the stage of people doing things. I’d say probably eighty percent of their set is to fixed time, allowing them to play the same tempos as the record and therefore pull some of the sounds off the record. I mean, the Edge, [U2’s guitarist, who often plays multiple guitar tracks on a single recording] bless his heart, is covering ninety percent of it. He’s only one guy up there, we gotta give him a break. So some of the Eno-sonics or whatever are always kind of on a computer down in the underbelly of the operation.

  11. JG: And that’s not a bad thing.

  12. DL: That’s show business. That’s OK.

  13. OM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’ve got a paint box of production tools, and that any artist who comes to you to work on a record has access to your whole palette of influences and sounds. How would you describe that tool box? What is in it?

  14. DL: Well at any given time I’m excited about some tools. Currently my pedal steel guitar playing is pretty up there, so that would be one of the ingredients. And I’m never that thrilled about too many ingredients, it’s usually three or four, where I’m really focused and I understand. Aside from what I’m currently excited about, I try and keep a lot of my past tools that I’ve used, I keep them around and lubricated. They’re just classics. If you want a harmonium sound, if you like that sound, then there’s no substitute: it’s like a little pump organ, it has a beautiful sound, and it never goes out of fashion. And if you want that sound, then you have to have it, or else you gotta rent it, and you may not get a good one. So part of the responsibility is to hang onto the tools that have served me well, and just say, “OK, that’s for that sound, it only has two sounds.” And the same thing goes with microphones—certain microphones just have a certain sound, and that’s that It’s kind of like a lens, you know. You want a nice twenty millimeter Leica from the early 60s? You’re not gonna run to Good Guys and hope to find it. Instruments, amplifiers,
    Figure 8. From a Leica ad, circa 1953
    microphones—those are all pretty important to me. Funny enough, the recording medium I think is less important to the personality of a record. Over the years I’ve used whatever medium is available at that time. I first started just a two-track recorder, and then every step of the ladder up to twenty-four-track; then I moved into digital. Currently I use a Canadian digital machine and I still have my analog machines. But the medium—that’s almost like talking about what kind of film you like to use. What’s probably more important is your lighting, your subject, what kind of lens you’re using, how big your format is.

  15. JG: And your ideas, right?

  16. DL: Exactly. You’re gonna hang from the ceiling with two tennis balls. OK, that’s that shot. So people talk about the medium a lot, like it’s the most important thing. It’s about the ideas and the vision and who’s in the room and what you’re gonna do. That’s probably the most important thing. But you know, whenever I can, I keep the tools that have served me well.

  17. OM: So ultimately it’s about good players, good instruments, and good songs.

  18. DL: Yeah, it’s that, but it’s also what is unfolding at the moment. Some of the things I’ve done very well didn’t start out as songs. They started out as people playing together, and something would erupt, and it would conjure up some kind of an image. Like I stopped in Dublin before Christmas to work with U2 for a week on their new record [How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb], just to help them out a bit. They were having a little bit of trouble with the beginning of one song, and I said “Just abandon what you’ve got and let’s play it again.” So we just huddled up on the couch—myself, the Edge, Bono, Adam—and we just had a little clicker in the headphones because Larry was going to overdub his drums after. And we just

    Figure 9. Lanois and The Edge in concert

    said, “OK, let’s play the whole song up to this point, and we’ll just recreate a whole new beginning.” And we did, and it started having this sound, and I said, “You know it’s kind of like windshield wipers in the rain, door opening, and looking off into the distance,” and it almost became like a cinematic moment. You couldn’t explain how it happened, or how it got there, or what you plugged into what—it’s just what happened, it’s just the image of that recording. We edited that to the main body of the song that they had already put a lot of work into … And it was magic.

  19. JG: You do a lot of what we do as musicologists, which is to analyze the music and talk to the band and help them make sense of what’s already going on so that they can fit the last piece in.

  20. DL: You talk about it after. What often happens in my little world is I’ll see a possibility and it’s just on the edge of taking place. And I’ll just kind of push it that way [gestures]. It becomes a game of psychology at a certain point, and you want to trick people into a situation. Sometimes they know they’re being tricked, and that’s good. It’s like telling the same story again and you added some embellishment, and everybody in the room keeps quiet about it, because they know you’re lying—maybe there’s one newcomer, and that’s enough to go on.

  21. OM: You’re also known for being a meticulous producer in terms of documenting, actually writing down some of the things that you do. There were three thoughts I had about your notebooks: maybe you kept them for posterity, or perhaps it was your own way of working things out through your own notes, or maybe it was like the results of a chemistry experiment.

  22. DL: I use these big books, and I’ll show you [he shows us his notebook]. I start with a graph, and then, if I have an idea—the windshield wipers in the rain, dark night, slow tempo, landscape, humble beginning, story-telling very much at the forefront of this idea—that goes in the box. Then the next box will the be for the next day, maybe the arrangement of the same song, a description of each section and so on. And so you actually write down useful information. Then maybe at dinner time, let’s make a list of our favorite titles so far. And then in about three or four days that page will be full of information that’s relevant to the project. And then glancing at that one page, you’d be surprised at how much inspiration you can get and reminders of what people said. And so it becomes like a personal menu or journal relating to that project without preconception. Not something that I wrote before I got there, it was written during the process. I find that these writings become the personality of that project; it’s almost like paying respect to that project.

  23. JG: When we read that you kept these notebooks, we were thinking, wouldn’t it be great to get these published and read through them?

  24. OM: This is what musicologists dream about.

  25. DL: One of them is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’ve got to get it back, they’ve had it for a couple of years.

  26. JG: Well, someday, there’s a market for it. People who like this music—scholars at least, but fans, too—would love to see how this stuff was dreamt up.

  27. DL: I have a lot of extensive notes from the 80s. And a lot of the struggles I was going through are all in there. Not particularly about the people I was working with, but about myself.

  28. JG: Do you go back and look at those old notebooks?

  29. DL: I’ve looked at them and they’re quite touching. What’s touching about them is the amount of dedication and arrogance. I don’t mean arrogance in a negative manner, just sort of the arrogance of concentration, having made a decision to not be distracted by anything other than the work. I’m not saying I was right, but that’s definitely where I was at. Just the dedication, the commitment. There’s so much dedication and commitment in my work and in those writings of that time, that I’m aware of the fact that I was probably like an emotional midget in other areas. It was completely out of balance. Still looking for balance.

  30. JG: You’ve said you’ve always written music, always composed music even before you had made your own solo records. Do you think you came at it from the point of view of a producer? When you conceptualize songs, when you first think of a song, do you think about how you want it to sound in a fuller sonic sense?

  31. DL: I can do that now, I could not do that then. Because now I have so much technique. Like that track “Deep Blue Day” which I mentioned that shows up in that Trainspotting movie. OK, “Deep Blue Day,” I know how to make that, we could do version two. Back then, it was all discovering. So, I still like to make the discoveries. That’s probably the most fun. But if you said to me, “I really like this kind of a feel,” and you played me something I’ve done before, I would remember how to do it, and could probably do it again.


Previous 1 2 3 4 Next



Greenberg and Mather: Lanois Interview

Review Essay

Levitz: Angora Matta


Neal: Race Music

Talbot: Scarlatti

Woodworth: Musicology