Producing Depth of Field: An Interview With Daniel Lanois


  1. JG: When you write a song, what’s the process? Do you start with lyrics, chord progressions, how does it go?

  2. DL: Sometimes it’s just melody and then I fill in the melody with words or maybe a catch phrase—melody has a pretty big role. And there are times when I just write words and then I apply music to the words after that. That can be good, too. But I keep an “orphanage” and I have one of these little mini-disc recorders and I hammer out ideas in there. And the best ones usually come after coffee first thing in the morning. There’ll be like a string of about twenty of them. And maybe there’ll be half a dozen that are special. And it’s those little—I call them seeds—it’s those seeds that will ultimately become songs.

  3. OM: What are the sources of inspiration for your lyrics?

  4. DL: Usually, personal experience. A title. Sometimes I’ve been influenced by film. I have a song on my first record called “Ice” which was influenced by a movie [Track 16] about a guy who loves his girlfriend so much he kills her by the riverside. So there have been times when I’ve really been influenced by film and by already existing stories. I was staying at a friend of mine’s apartment in New York, and she was a famous folk singer in the 60s, and so she had stacks of old songbooks. I was just kind of glancing through them and I saw a tiny piece of lyric that said “Silium’s Hill.” And so I wrote a song called “Silium’s Hill” not knowing anything about what it was.

  5. JG: I noticed that on your second solo album, there were at least a few tracks where your voice had been put through an effect.

  6. DL: Oh yeah, I was kind of going through a bad time on my second record vocally. It was a very strenuous time for me, and so it sounds strained a bit on the record.

  7. JG: But there is some kind of effect there, no?

  8. DL: It’s probably just distortion.

  9. JG: You’ve done that with other bands too.

  10. DL: Yeah. With Bono on Achtung Baby.

  11. JG: But it’s always interesting to me when somebody uses distortion on the voice, because the voice is such a personal thing. It’s not like distorting a guitar, which is already an electronic signal. Distorting the voice seems like a pretty heavy decision.

  12. DL: If you study your rock and roll recordings of the 50s, there’s a lot of overdrive going on, because the medium up to that point had been largely about miking things from a distance. You wouldn’t put a
    Figure 10. Album cover for Oh Mercy
    microphone right on a horn or somebody’s face. So, when rock and roll came along, it was louder than anything that had happened before, and the microphones and the preamps were overloading. You hear those old Little Richard recordings—they’re distorted, and it’s part of the greatness of them [listen]. And when I worked with Dylan, he said “I like the sound of records from the 50s. Why can’t we get that today?” And I didn’t know how to answer that, and I listened to them. He gave me a list of records he liked and I checked them out, and sure enough they were all kind of fucked up and distorted. And I wanted to make sure that he had access to those colors, and I found a way of mixing the very high fidelity with overdrive.

  13. JG: In a way that sounds a little different from the 50s.

  14. DL: Yes, it could never be the same. And there’s a lovely sense of depth of field on that record, and that was [done] in an old fashioned way. Just have a lot of people in the room. Somebody sitting further back, and they sound further back—the opposite of isolating then recreating space with mixing. Natural depth of field is a lovely thing. It’s comforting. As humans we like it, we see it every day—just looking out a window. It’s not a fabrication of depth—it’s real depth. And when we’re exposed to real depth in a record, I think we find comfort in it.

  15. JG: You’re saying that one of the ways you achieved that was by putting lots of people in the room?

  16. DL: Yeah. Just the way things sound naturally in a room. I mean, you already hear the beginnings of messing with depth of field in old John Lee Hooker recordings where his amp will have all kind of reverb in it, but his voice will be bone dry and then you can hear his foot, you know? Playing with depth like that is really exciting to me. And I think, when you get people in a room, you’re suddenly presented with a challenge and lots of possibilities—how I imagine it would be like being a lighting director. You’re presented with a scene that has a hundred characters instead of four, and it’s like, “God, how are we going to deal with this situation?” And at the moment, your resourcefulness kicks in and your past experience. When you’ve had all that experience, you’re like a cat: you fall on your feet no matter what’s thrown at you. And it’s nice to challenge a master. It’s good to insult a master, and say, “OK, you think you’re good, well, we’ve got a hundred more people here than what you thought we were going to have, and we want them lit, and we’re shooting in twenty minutes.”

  17. JG: I like that idea—it’s like you’re trying to get the listener to experience that space. Recordings are often put in opposition to live recording, because [a] recording could have been made anywhere on earth at any time and we don’t know where it is. But that anonymity is what you’re trying to break through—you’re trying to get the listener to experience that space itself—to be able to put themselves a little bit in that room.

  18. OM: Music writers seem to use some similar words over and over again about your music and productions. What do you think of “melancholy,” “spiritual,” and “searching”?

  19. DL: A friend of mine said, “The searching thing, that’s good. Because if you stop searching, then you won’t be innovating any more.” So, I’ll take it as a compliment.

  20. OM: What about “haunted” and “extraterrestrial”?

  21. DL: Yeah, more compliments. “Out of body” is one I like to use these days, which is like being a channeler for a minute, staying outside your ego and receiving some kind of signal or information. There’s something beautiful about that—if that happens to come to you and you’re able to get it on a recording, you could actually say, “I’m not responsible, it was just something that I felt.” Which is a nice thing, because, again, it operates outside of vanity, outside of ego and braggartry.

  22. JG: How wide ranging are your listening habits?

  23. DL: Very wide. A lot of my listening is chance listening, just in people’s houses. A friend of mine has a clothing store and I hear some tracks in there. I like going to bars that have really good juke boxes for that reason—it rocks my world for an evening. In a way, it’s a very luxurious time because we can look at the history of music and influences and we get to be a genius at choosing. It’s like, well, that’s the best track from ’82. That’s why DJ’s are kind of the contemporary heroes, because all they need is a record collection,
    Figure 11. Album cover for The Chronic
    and if they’ve got good taste, and put time in, they get to show everybody else who’s busy doing other stuff that they’ve picked some really cool records. So it’s really a great time in regards to studying what fifty years of rock and roll has had to offer—you just hand pick the best cherries. And I never get tired of really good retro radio. If somebody plays me an old track that brings me on my knees, I think, thank you—it’s like food for me. But I feel the same way about contemporary music, anything that’s great, you know. Even though I don’t play the record all the way through, there’s a couple things on the Destiny’s Child record that I think are technological giants. Some of Dre’s grooves, are like, “Wow, don’t know how you did it.”

  24. OM: Where do you see your own work going now?

  25. DL: I’m going to do this pedal steel music. And I have so much stacked up material. Great psychedelic stuff from Mexico. So I’m probably going to put out a pedal steel guitar record, and then following that I’ll put out a more tripped-out, psychedelic, really peyote record.

  26. JG: It’s funny how, when you play the pedal steel, the way that you are hunched over the instrument. I kept thinking, that’s unusual for rock music. Because often, even with a keyboard player, they’re a little bit more upright. Guitarists—you can see their whole body. And here you are at the pedal steel and you’re like a mechanic. It’s like you’re at the mixing board.

  27. DL: I’m working on a stand-up model, so don’t worry. I just haven’t gotten the legs long enough yet. I don’t go for the hunched over thing in motorcycles, and I don’t like it in music either. I’m just a victim of design here for a minute. Don’t worry, I’m coming up with my stand-up model.

  28. JG: You know, I kind of liked it. It was like the genius working at his instrument. It taps into a cerebral quality in your music.

  29. OM: Referring to the train sounds at the end of “The Collection of Marie Claire” you said in an interview, “I try and promote as much strangeness as possible because I think that’s what makes records interesting in the end.” How does a rock and roll aesthetic—a live aesthetic—work with the whole idea of strangeness? Are those different things? Or is there a priority there?

  30. DL: I suppose the contradictions that happen—for example, we’re all looking for inner peace, tranquility, and a large population is carrying a yoga mat around—but we put up with sirens and dogs barking and leaf-blowers: we tolerate an awful lot in an urban environment passively, and we try and balance that out with the readings and the prayers and the meditations and so on. When I see those kind of contradictions it sort of appeals to me, that we still have the beauty of the church bell, or the romantic sound of a train, and then that would all be insulted by so many other things. In fact, I have a track called “Sirens” that I’d like to play for you one day that is about that. It’s beautiful, and then as it evolves, there’s more and more contradiction, the metal ripping, and plastic burning. It’s just like it’s disintegrating into ashes, but the beautiful melody keeps playing, almost like the sinking of the Titanic. So, it’s nice to mix. I think great art has always had contradiction in it. The peacefulness of that Hopper painting, “Nighthawks”: the tranquility of that image and the reassurance of

    Figure 12. Edward Hopper, Nighthawks

    opulence and there’s so much confidence and so much wealth in this culture, and yet the people at the bar are lonely. And so, the loneliness sort of intercepts the seemingly stable parts of the painting. The last supper will have betrayal hidden in there somewhere, and so on. So I think that if you can get that in music, it’s a cool thing.


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