Daniel Lanois (Interview): "We want to build things that haven't been heard before"
Updated: May 10, 2021
Buddhist monks used to chant and meditate on the very spot where Daniel Lanois is creating his sonic adventures these days. There might be a lot of parallels one could draw between the monastic practice and the sonic explorations of one of the greatest producers and sound architects in contemporary music (the focus, the concentration, the clarity, the reduction). Yet, it was a mere coincidence that Lanois' Toronto studio used to be a Buddhist monastery, he says: somebody sold it, somebody else bought it.
In this very studio, Daniel Lanois has recorded his newest chapter — once again with a seemingly religious connotation: "Heavy Sun" (recorded with a band of the same name) is his take on gospel music. Here, a modern four piece vocal ensemble meets the organ as the sonic centre, augmented by electronic fragments. It"s not a traditional gospel record of course, but a fresh addition in Lanois' discography that is once again very much different from the last one.
Whether he lets his ethereal, almost ecclesial pedal steel collide with the frantic electronic fragments of Venetian Snares ("Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois", 2018); whether he writes music for an action-adventure game ("Music From Red Dead Redemption 2, 2018)"; whether he searches for his own versions of reggae and dub infused rock ("Black Dub", 2010) or most recently gospel: Daniel Lanois' different projects have one thing in common, and that is his relentless lust for sonic exploration.
Always present are the elements to Lanois' sound that makes his sonic universe so distinctive: His sense for depth of field and atmosphere, the lushness of sounds deriving not from indulgence but reduction, clarity and focus.
I had the pleasure to talk to Daniel Lanois via Zoom about his sonic approach, working with U2 and Bob Dylan, his new record "Heavy Sun" and more.
Mr. Lanois, I would like to start off talking about gospel music, as there have been quite a few points of contact in your career.
Very early on, in my first studio that I ran with my brother Bob, we had a thing going with a Christian organization. They brought touring bands, singing quartets — oftentimes to tour in Canada, and they stopped at my studio to make a record in two days. I got to hear a lot of that lovely singing and I learned a lot about the placement of harmony parts. I was always really touched by the structure of that music. Also, I sang in church choirs, and the school choir as well. I was lucky to be exposed to the structure of harmony singing pretty early on.
You're also part of the gospel band The Hallelujah Train, together with Brian Blade.
My good friend Brian Blade's father runs the Zion Baptist Church in Louisiana, and so I got to sit in with that band a good few times and got exposed to the church culture in Louisiana. And there"s a lot of roaring singing that happens in that world.
How did the record and the band come about?
I met Johnny Shepherd through the Zion Baptist Church. He was the choir director, organist, and a great singer himself. I really got to appreciate his talent. And when his term came to an end at the church, I invited him to join myself with Rocco DeLuca and Jim Wilson to start a quartet. So these fine young men joined me and we wrote some songs. We decided that we would embrace the spirit of gospel music — and be involved with that sound, which seems to bring joy to people who will listen to the records.
The organ is an essential part of "Heavy Sun".
We've always had a love for the Hammond organ. The Hammond organ for those who don"t know, took the place of the pipe organ in churches that couldn't afford a full pipe organ. So they became a very popular instrument in the 40s and the 50s in America, and in a lot of Southern churches. It developed its own position in the community because not only did it ring in the churches, but it became part of the bands of the soul music era of North America. So when this kind of church music hit the charts with the coming of Sam Cooke and such artists, the organ was a very big part of the pop music sound. I"ve been in love with the Hammond organ since I was a kid myself. I"ve always had them around the studio. So we dusted off the Hammond organs when Johnny came to Los Angeles to join us. It became part of the "Heavy Sun" sound, I love it. Something about it that kind of wakes up to the ecclesiastical corner of one"s brain, you get to be part of gospel music.
Electronic elements also play a big role on the record. How were those sounds created?
The electronic part of things is a nice example of how to mix tradition with new technique. There's a technique that I use in the studio, I call it the house dub technique, where I extract from the already existing ingredients in the multitrack and then put those sounds back into the relevant parts. Oftentimes, I can turn one of these little samples into a human voice sounding orchestra by rebuilding and repositioning. So I create a harmonic orchestra externally. Then we put it back into the multitrack. It"s a very tedious technique, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone, but it's part of what I do.
A big part of your work is building sonic bridges from past to future, from tradition to present – would you agree on that?
I think that's very well put. You know, we obviously have heroes from the past and music we grew up with. And then we want to make modern records as well and try to do things that are unique. That criteria has always been part of the program. We want to build things that haven't been heard before. And probably more important than all that, you know, we hope that we bump into a little bit of magic along the way. And when we do, we take the magic moment and build upon it, expand upon it — and hopefully that will dictate where the record wants to go. That part of things never goes out of fashion for us.
The record is infused with a positive message. Was inspiring courage in people important to you?
I like the word courage, because it's something you can't learn. It's something that you try to embrace and adapt. Hopefully. I guess the songs have an underlying message in them of hope and discovery. It gets said that it was a record that came out a good time because of the pandemic, as a bit of a remedy to the isolation and loneliness that a pandemic has taken us to. Maybe such a record allows us to keep a few doors open and let some fresh air in.
"There were a few points in the making of 'Time Out Of Mind' when I felt a masterpiece was tapping us on the shoulder."
Your studio in Toronto used to be a Buddhist monastery. Does religion play a role in your work?
The Buddhist temple that I'm sitting in right now, that just came as a coincidence. The monks were moving out, they sold that temple and we took iit. We kept a lot of what they had built, and hopefully the feeling that they stood by and the philosophy that drove them is still on the walls. But that's a coincidence. I mean, I came up as a Catholic kid, I served at the altar and so I was close to the church growing up. But that's part of who I was as a child, I don't really carry that with me anymore. But we try and be good human beings and maintain our values. I like to think that as people we try and make ourselves better. And if people can people feel that then because of that record, that's a good thing.
How do you choose the next steps, do you have some sort of master plan or do you follow your intuitions and moods?
I never had much of a master plan other than responding to invitations as they came my way. If they were interesting, then I would say yes. But I think to head towards a masterpiece is always in the back of my mind. I wouldn't want to go into a record unless I thought I could make a difference to the artists I'm working with or to myself.
When do you know something is a masterpiece, let's talk about Bob Dylan's "Time Out Of Mind" as a specific example.
There were a few points in the making of "Time Out Of Mind" when I felt a masterpiece was tapping us on the shoulder. I knew Bob had written some fantastic lyrics. I knew that he wanted to make a record that had some of the deep down and dirty sounds he loved on rock and roll records and that he grew up with you know. We referenced a lot of the great blues records that were done quite quickly from a long time ago. And we recognized that they had urgency in them. We took a lot of care in preparing. We had Brian Blade and Jim Keltner on the drums, and Tony Garnier on the bass for the making of "Time Out Of Mind". Those are some of the greatest musicians in America. We also had Jim Dickinson and Augie Meyers playing Organ, two very different players, both fantastic. And I knew we would get something fantastically celestial from Dickinson and that we would get that Tex Mex rock and roll feeling from Augie, that sweat dripping close to the border. And there was me, a Canadian Kid, hungry to know about all that, venturing to the south to become a musicologist of sorts. We wanted to make something fantastic for Bob.
Have there ever been disagreements in your productions regarding which direction the music should go — the artist wanting to go in one certain direction, you into a quite different one?
I don't recall a clash of opinion that way. Bob and I, in the case of "Time Out Mind" both appreciated the wonderful records that we referenced from the 50s and the 40s. No difference of opinion there. No difference of opinion on the rhythm section either. You're trying to climb to that place where you hope to get to something special, with people bringing in their talents. So I don't think that would be a good place to go to. I admire that Bob knows a lot that I don't know. And he feels the same way about me. That's why we started working together in the first place. That's why anybody works together. If I'm going in with U2, they know that I have a certain kind of musicality, and I built my skills in a certain way that they didn't get a chance to do — because they started their band very young. But while they were doing that, I was making a lot of records with a lot of different people. So they bring me in because I have experience and I can understand the shape of arrangements.
"You just hang on for dear life and hope you come up with something, as The Edge's guitar is destroying my brain cells"
Because you just mentioned U2: With "No Line On The Horizon" they also wanted to create futuristic gospel hymns. I'm thinking in particular of the song "Moment Of Surrender", which you not only produced together with Brian Eno, but on whose recording you also played.
I got to be honest with you all the U2 sessions blur together for me. I made so many. But with "No Line On The Horizon", I remember there being a very action packed band room. We always had two rooms. We had the thinking room and then the inferno room. The inferno room is where you got to wear your fire suit to go in. Because things are going to be blazing. Larry Mullen is going to start hitting the drums and you better get ready. And so at that point, you can't have any kind of a philosophical or cerebral thought. At that point, you just hang on for dear life and hope you come up with something, as The Edge's guitar is destroying my brain cells, because I'm too close to his Vox AC 30. And I'm hanging on for dear life and playing percussion and waving my arms, trying to remember the arrangement. So regarding anything else beyond that, then that puts us in the poetry room. That's the room that has a couch and a microphone ready for Bono. There we run the track with our headphones, and we blast it through the speakers. If we were lucky enough to get one of those jams that got some soul to it. Then off it goes. Then we make more discoveries. So I wish I could tell you there was some grand strategy about revisiting gospel and all that. These are the kinds of things we might talk about at the hotel after work over a pint of Guinness. But when we're in the studio, it's all about whatever makes the hair come up on the arm.
It's said that you wrote the chorus for "Moment Of Surrender".
Do you have the track in front of you? Can you play it for me?
[We listen to about a quarter of the song]
That's a fantastic lead vocal delivery. Way to go, Bono. Oh, my goodness. Talking about modern gospel! And the chords are just so beautiful. It reminds me a little bit of some of what we put in "Heavy Sun", though what sounds like an organ here is actually just a bunch of studio processing that Eno is very good at. If he's the king of ambience I get to be the prince. And the chorus? Well, we all sang it together. I'm not going to take responsibility for this. You're talking about four very talented people, who invited two very talented people to join them to help them along. And we did exactly that. It isn't necessary for anybody to take specific credits for anything.
I read that Eno complained that the band shortened the track, saying something like 'they don"t spot a miracle when it hits them in the face"
I never heard Eno say that. You're gonna have to ask him. (laughs)
In your autobiography, you repeatedly describe how you spend weeks on details. You buy equipment, like effect pedals, and spend weeks making the sounds your own. Or spend days just practicing fingerpicking until your right hand has the precision of a surgeon, as you put it. When was the last time you really "nerded out" on something?
I do it every day. I'm nerding out on the piano right now. I'm not a piano player, but I'm composing on the piano. I'm letting my melody dictate the direction of things. You hit the nerve right there, man — that's what we do every day in the studio. We don't use a lot of equipment. But the few things that I'm excited about at a given time, I try and get really good at it. So we've modified our pianos here. I don't like the bottom end of pianos, because they don't sound like bass to me. So we found a way of hanging some cloth and tea towels between the hammers and the strings. I'll let you hear it here. [plays the piano] Here's the nice soft sound. And then the top end is more like glass. And then, when you go to the bottom, it sounds soft. That's not easy to come by, because nobody wants to screw up a beautiful piano. But we don't mind. We get in there with gaffer tape and tea towels, and I even put condoms on the top of the hammers. Until we come up with what I call house sound.
What do you mean by house sound?
That's a sound that hasn't been heard before that belongs to the house. That would be the sound that we design for this, to specifically cater to the day of work and composition. And that's how we've always made our own discoveries. Those are the sounds that dictate how a record should go. The sonic recipe belongs to that chef, to that kitchen at that time. It's not something that we bought on an app, or went to the music store to buy. We design our own sounds. So when you talk about "Moment Of Surrender", that was the house sound of that time. We were obviously very excited about that chord structure, and that kind of singing and for Bono to be reaching that emotional place at the top of his range. That's the sound that belongs to those people and to Eno and myself at that time.
As different as your projects are from each other, there's always one thing that's very prominent. And that is the lust for sonic exploration.
Well, I'm glad you use the word exploration. There's always an element of discovery with what we do. So not everything is a grand plan. You know, if I could reference Brian Eno one more time: Brian always said that there's nothing wrong with going into the studio without a plan. Should should today be one of those days, then you just tidy up. It might mean sweeping the floor and getting rid of loose cables and refining your instrument, putting on some new strings. You tidy up – maybe your hard drives. Through a moment of tidying up, you might just come upon something that you hadn't expected. Plus we have regular listens to our work. We might listen to the current work at hand. We have quite a body of work, what we call "the orphanage". There are melodies that exist in the orphanage, beats, riffs, maybe things we did back as long ago as Mexico — because I was in Mexico for a year recording. A lot of fantastic things came out of that time. Even though those may not be finished songs, we still pull out what we have of them, because we were excited about some aspect of them. So we do have a nice vast library of exciting moments that we can draw from. But I'll say it one more time: Maybe on the patio the night before you have a grand plan or strategy or some kind of philosophical stance. But the truth lies in the next day in the studio.
Find more information about Daniel Lanois on his official website.
(Annotation: I conducted this interview for Hyperlocrian.com and Rolling Stone. A german edit of this interview was released on the website of Rolling Stone Germany – Markus Brandstetter).