Published Nov 05, 2014Daniel Lanois has been known to invite people to visit "the Temple" — his Toronto studio, Sonic Temple, a former Buddhist temple across from a west end neighbourhood café he haunts.
In a way, that's what the songwriter and producer — famous for his collaborations with Brian Eno (on, amongst other things, U2's The Joshua Tree) and his production work on Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind — is doing with his new ambient album, Flesh and Machine: inviting the listener into his production process and attempting to take the work he does in-studio to the stage.
"I wanted to represent that line or that tightrope that I've always walked, where people don't see what I do in the studio and then a record gets released and I strap on the old Les Paul," Lanois tells Exclaim! "This time I want to incorporate what I do in the studio live. I'm very excited about this more electro angle on things."
This "electro angle" isn't new to Lanois — he cites Eno's 1984 Ambient 4: On Land (to which he contributed) and the 1981 Eno-David Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts as groundbreaking examples.
"There was an ambient-making chapter in Hamilton between 1979 and '83," Lanois says. "We knocked out about 18 albums. As quiet a movement as it might have been, there it is: it happened in Canada and it was part of the spawning of a lot of ambient electronic artists who carried the torch to another place."
None of the sounds you'll hear on Flesh and Machine are "out of the box," nor are they found sounds in a field recording sense. Instead, Lanois's highly individualized process involves recording and manipulating music made by organic instruments: guitar, piano, the human voice, and transforming them in novel ways that sometimes render them unrecognizable.
"Sioux Lookout," for example, originated in a drum performance by Brian Blade. Lanois took Blade's bass drum part, processed it with a hip-hop kick drum sound, and put it through a loud PA with a fuzz wah pedal that gave it a guttural electronic tone. Lanois then "printed" that sound and changed the pitch of the note seven times.
"It allowed me to create a full palette of colours to paint a bass line with," says Lanois. "But not just any bass line — a bass line that's absolutely connected to the bass drum hits."
He then sampled vocals, steel guitar and piano. "'Sioux Lookout,' for me, is a contemporary native cry, because it sounds like people chanting over a village sometimes."
Elsewhere, Lanois took advantage of happy accidents of the recording process to create "Two Bushas" — the title refers to a Jamaican word meaning "trailblazer." Derived from a Rocco DeLuca song (the California songwriter ended up putting the exact same track on his recent self-titled album), Lanois calls the song "an extreme example" of how he likes to work.
"What you're hearing was meant to be a minor personality trait in the back of Rocco's song," says Lanois. "But when I put up the two tracks, I did all my manipulations onto they really stood out as being complete in themselves.
"When you're making record sometimes the best place to go for fresh material is within your own body of work. It's cut from the same cloth, giving you better advantage at continuity — sampling your own work, rather than someone else's — how 'bout that?"
Though it has intense, dissonant moments — the barrage of "The End," for example — Flesh and Machine is mostly a gentle and dreamy listen that ambles along at a contemplative, slow pace.
Of "Aquatic," Lanois says: "I have this image in my head of swimming to the mouth of the St. Lawrence and bumping into schools of characters that hang around for a while then disappear and new characters come into focus — a little like life itself.
"I think 'Aquatic' has a kind of slow pace that allows the listener to get lost. That's really what I was trying to do. Have [the album] be a journey for people who want to put on a good set of cans and be taken someplace."
Lanois is concurrently working on a new steel guitar album, recorded mostly in Toronto.
Tonight (November 5) Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox will be hosting a night called "In Conversation With... Daniel Lanois." An announcement describes the evening like this: "As part of this intimate onstage conversation, Lanois will introduce his upcoming new album Flesh and Machine, with short films accompanying select songs."
Flesh and Machine is out now via Anti-.