Daniel Lanois

Daniel Lanois
Daniel Lanois, producer for Bob Dylan, U2, Robbie Robertson, Emmylou Harris and many others, turns to film with the premiere of Here Is What Is, a meditation on creating music. Stylish yet personal, the film captures Garth Hudson, Sinead O’Connor, U2 and long-time mentor Brian Eno waxing about the art of music. Lanois co-directed and bankrolled the film, which is not a "clip job” collection of music videos and concert numbers. A few weeks before the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Exclaim! spoke with Lanois in his lavish Toronto studio loft where he showed scenes from the latest edit surrounded by mixing consoles, drum kits and his Grammy Awards.

Instead of asking Lanois run-of-the-mill questions about the challenges of record producing, I simply asked him to comment on names and places that have informed his life.

New Orleans 1989
Daniel Lanois: When you're French Canadian you understand the power of the neighbourhood. There seems to be a longer family connection, and music seems to come from that connection. My dad was a fiddler so we had that music in the house all the time. Music was not something you decided to study at 16 and went to school for. It already existed in the community, and that's what I found in New Orleans. It's the heat. The hotter it gets the better the grooves get. I’m interested in the groove so I went to New Orleans. It was part of the education of Daniel Lanois — an understanding of bass lines, in knowing where the funk and blues come from. You can't learn that in school, but if you want to know what you have to be in it.

Martha and the Muffins’ 1981 album This Is The Ice Age [produced by Lanois]
That was an innovative time for Martha and the Muffins. My sister Jocelyn was the bass player in that band. These folks were curious about the future of sonics. That record still holds up. There are all sorts of curious sounds. It's very much a Toronto perspective. The best works resonate truth, and that record has truth in it.

Hamilton, Ontario in the 1960s
I was playing in some of my first bands. There was a building that had been taken over by a bunch of hippies, the old YWCA building that was discontinued. We got to use that building for two years and every floor had a band on it. It was the ultimate Bohemian high-rise and we were at the forefront of the psychedelic explosion. There would be like runaways living in the place, drugs, exactly what was happening in the ’60s — it was madness, but it was incredible. It was like what was happening at Rochdale College in Toronto, but the Hamilton scene happened a little bit before that. I have fond memories of Hamilton being a music town at that time.

Jimi Hendrix
The first time I heard Hendrix, I was in school and it made me want to quit school. I remember the very day [I heard] "Foxy Lady” [sings] ”I’m coming to get you!” and the trembling of the guitar. "Oh, my God, the sexuality in this is really overt.” Can you believe that stuff was part of pop radio at the time? Radio was my whole life. I had a radio in my mom's basement. That's where I heard the best stuff. We used to get radio from Buffalo, Detroit — there was a lot of soul music. I certainly remember FM coming out of Toronto, because there were some wild beat poets doing late-night radio shows. They were probably completely stoned out of their brains and they took their listeners on a trip. It was a great time for radio.

I spoke only French till I was ten, so I saw the world through a French Canadian kid’s eyes. My dad was a carpenter and a drinker. We lived in a government housing district. I remember we lived on the edge of the woods, so my brother and I would play by the river skipping stones, and put pennies on the railway tracks. We were out there for hours at a time and that might have been the beginning of the imagination building. I think melodically there is a strong French Canadian imprints in my work. I've written songs based on some of the melodies that I remember from back than.

"Somewhere Down The Crazy River” [A song on Robbie Robertson’s self-titled 1987 album, produced by Lanois.]
That's a line that Robbie Robertson came up with when he was describing what it was like to hang out in Arkansas with Levon Helm in his old neighbourhood. He was telling me about the hot nights and fishing with dynamite, and was asking for someone for directions for someplace "somewhere down the crazy river.” It was some line he came up with in his storytelling, but I was curious about his stories because I wanted them to be on that record. I had presented him with this toy instrument that Eno introduced me to called the Suzuki Omnichord, like an electric autoharp. He found a little chord sequence with it that was sweet and wonderful. As he was developing his chord sequence I recorded him and superimposed his storytelling, which I was secretly recording, on top. That was the birth of "Somewhere Down The Crazy River.” It's kind of like a guy with a deep voice telling you about steaming nights in Arkansas. So I presented it to him and he went, "Whoa, how did this happen?”

Jimmy Cliff
In the ’90s I went to Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston [Jamaica]. He's a very sweet and profound man. I had brought this book of American Indian proverbs that I showed him, and he was fascinated with it. He'd call it that "little Indian book.” We did four songs together. I don't think they were ever released. It got stuck in the mire of record business. [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell was the instigator of that relationship. I'd have to ask him what happened to that work. It's kind of a shame it never came out.

Berlin, late 1990
Berlin was the choice of location for the U2 Achtung Baby record. They wanted to make a rock’n’roll record, but a European one, and they wanted to be in the city where a lot of rock’n’roll records they loved had been born [by] Iggy Pop, Bowie, Eno. [Co-producer] Eno found himself in the very studio he worked in, in the ’70s. He found it very funny. Hansa Studio had a great ballroom as a studio. We were very hungry at that time for breaking new ground. The innovative energy there has not been surpassed. But I feel the work we did in Morocco recently is as strong as the Achtung Baby era.

Morocco 2007
Morocco, like Berlin, was a chosen location by Bono because he wanted to make a record that had the Arabic feel of northern Africa — not necessarily stylistically, but spiritually. I think he's fascinated with ancient ways. It's almost necessary to visit other cultures if you want to be a well-rounded individual. If you're going to have an opinion about another culture it will be a better opinion if you actually have been there. We've had three writing sessions with Eno and U2, and they have all produced a powerful and brave work. Yes, we were recording. Every situation is a recording situation, because we're so good at recording so you might as well turn it on. We were having this discussion about Morocco, before we even went to Morocco, because the two sessions preceding Morocco were in the south of France, and they even have a touch of Morocco even before we had been in Morocco.

James Brown
Don't get me started there. I was at the Mod Club [in Toronto] last weekend with a friend who went to dance. It all sounded good until "Sex Machine” blew the doors off the house. Here is a guy who invented the form. That's why I have respect for America, because they actually invented forms of music. He started the funk.

"Political World” [A song on Bob Dylan’s 1989 album Oh Mercy, produced by Lanois.]
To open Dylan's Oh Mercy, it's pretty good. What was even a better track that didn't make the record was "Series of Dreams.” That should have been the first track on that record rather than "Political World.” I like what Bob's saying in "Political World,” but I think "Series of Dreams” makes the hairs come up on the arms. I made a mistake. I said to Bob I wasn't sure if it fits stylistically with the rest of the record. It might have echoed something I did in the past. He got a little spooked and said you are right, and took it off the record. I was never able to talk him out of it.

Recording Dylan
Bob is the most dedicated artist I have ever worked for. Shows up, coffee, gets on with the work, modifies his lyrics through the day, then gets out and goes home. [To him] this is not a place to play video games or to get on the phone in the lobby or any of that stuff. Let's get to it, because the human attention span in the studio is only so good for so long. He doesn't want to waste any minute of it. The hardest working man in show business, come recording. Bob Dylan is a spontaneous artist who responds to his environment so you better get your environment ready. If you get good preparation, got a good eye and a good ear and you see the moments flying by, grab them before they leave the room — and you can make a great record with Bob.

Wrecking Ball [Emmylou Harris’s acclaimed 1995 album, produced by Lanois.]
Wrecking Ball developed a sound at the moment of unfolding, once we were in the studio. It echoed some of the sounds that I love on early ’60s records like the Crystals. There is an overpowering physical sensation that I get when I listen to those records, and I never knew how to get it. We holed up in Nashville in a studio called Woodland Studios, like an old orchestra room like a BBC or Tuff Gong studio. I put all these players close together in a circle around Emmylou. What was important to me was to capture live vocals, because she is so great a live vocalist that you don't want to miss her live singing. By having the congregation surrounding her, the instruments bled into her vocal mic and her vocal mic was a Sony C37A that I bought that at Massey Hall, which is sitting right over there [in Lanois’ studio]. It picks up a lot of the room. I found the sound that was bleeding into her microphone had the sound of the Crystals records. When I heard that sound in the cans [headphones] I ran out of the control room and said, "Do not change a thing!”

There is an explosion happening in Toronto right now, certainly a car and condominium explosion. It worries me a little bit. There's a frantic mess and a rush I don't like, but on the other side of the coin there is a Bohemian explosion happening on Queen Street West, Roncesvalles, Parkdale, the Junction. There is a scene building and scenes are very powerful. I think we're going to see a lot of great music coming out of Toronto. People are hungry in Toronto.

George Martin
I don't think I could ever align myself with him. What I like about George Martin’s productions was he was able to bring in classical instruments into a rock’n’roll arena like the piccolo trumpet on [The Beatles’ 1967 single] "Penny Lane.” It's like an orchestral part, beautifully written and played. I could never do that. Those guys in the Beatles were hungry for innovation and they used him as a leaning post on how to bring the past into the future.

In the film, Eno describes punk as if you walk around thinking that other people are brilliant, and they have credible thoughts in your head and you don't — you're just a regular person. It's important for people to know that things come out of nothing, [that] the tiniest seed can become the most beautiful forest. The most unpromising beginning could become something. That's punk, really. "We could be heroes” — that's punk, believing in a small beginning. Punk never affected me much in the ’70s, because I was too busy working. It sort of went by me, but I like Iggy Pop a lot and he still resonates.

We had it coming to us. Simply put. You want to invent that kind of technology, you want to trip over yourself 20 years pushing digital? You're going to get the entire catalog of Blue Note on a tie clip. You asked for it, you got it. I don't think you can stop it. People used to make a party cassette of their favourite songs and this is just an extension of that philosophy. Now you go to someone's house and they give you something the size of a thumbnail... You can't even have an opinion about it — it's just what it is. I think the old saying applies: you want to go after something, it might come after you.