Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Q&A – Hello, My Name Is: Daniel Lanois

| May 6, 2015


Daniel Lanois began his musical life at a young age, working as a musician and recording engineer in his mother’s basement near Hamilton, Ontario. His career took a forward leap following work on groundbreaking ambient records with Brian Eno including 1982’s Ambient 4: On Land and 1983’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. After cementing his global reputation as a producer of landmark albums including U2’s The Joshua Tree and Peter Gabriel’s So, Lanois established his solo career with a series of soulful rock albums beginning with 1989’s Acadie and soundtrack work for films including “Sling Blade.”

In 2005, Lanois released Belladonna, a spacious and otherworldly instrumental project that featured his unconventional pedal steel playing. 2014’s Flesh and Machine was an evolutionary step forward. As its name implies, the album filtered the organic textures of  Belladonna more dramatically through Lanois’ innovative studio techniques. Now, Lanois is bringing that approach to the stage. He’ll appear at The Empty Bottle (May 8) with jazz drummer Kyle Crane and veteran bassist Jim Wilson.

IE: Was the Flesh and Machine material designed to bridge the musical and technical extremes of what you do?

Daniel Lanois: All of these lines have blurred as technology has moved on. I used to try to hide the sutures of my work, thinking, “what happens in the studio stays in the studio,” and that people should appreciate the music in a seamless manner. This time, I decided the studio is part of my artistry. Bringing that to the stage is an unveiling, if you like. I’ve been enjoying that part of it. I go to my dub station and sample and do Jamaican-style spin echoes. It’s not dominating the night, but it’s a good half. At the other end of the spectrum is my steel guitar. We found that the girls love steel guitar, so we’re doing more of that!

IE: You spent April touring throughout Europe. Did you see old friends while traveling?

Daniel Lanois: I was over at Brian Eno’s place when we were in England. He had some very adventurous music he let me hear. The old boy’s on fire. He came to the show, and really liked that we were mixing technology with hand-played instruments. We joked about doing a world tour together billed as “the godfather of ambience and the adopted son.”

IE: Is a piece like “Forest City” on Flesh and Machine a tip of the hat to Brian’s style of ambient music?

Daniel Lanois: It certainly went that way. “Forest City” started out as a one-note source, and I just kept adding to it. It reminded me of the very elaborate processing that Eno and I used to do together. I suppose “Space Love” has a little bit of the Apollo record in it. That was a very special, transitional time for me. My skills were great when I met Eno, but my direction was not so specific. I’ll be forever grateful for Brian coming into my life at that time to provide me with direction. He invented the term “ambient music.” To be dedicated to something so obscure was a big life lesson for me. It was the opposite of what a young guy might think. I thought if I knocked a few commercial hits out of the park in Canada, then that would get me international notice. But it’s the obscure, ambient stuff that allowed me to be invited to work with Peter Gabriel and U2.

IE: How long did you and Brian spend making “Apollo?”

Daniel Lanois: It didn’t take that long. I think it was about three weeks. Eno was living in my house, and that’s all we were doing. One of the lessons of that chapter for me was to live and breathe one project at a time. We were fully immersed in that work. There were no distractions. Brian wouldn’t even allow phone calls for himself. He had this theory that if you took one phone call, you’d need half an hour to get back to where you were in terms of concentration and emotion. It’s an interesting theory to go back to and apply to modern times, in a world of distractions with people constantly being on some electronic handheld device.

IE: Do you hold that practice?

Daniel Lanois: I try. One way I pull that off is to go into the studio in the middle of the night. I’ll go at 4 in the morning. There’s no distraction, because no one else is out of bed. I’ve done some good work on steel guitar for that reason. I make sure that my guitar is already plugged in, set up and well in tune. All my sounds are ready. So, when I go in at 4 in the morning, I’m very fresh and I can capture something quickly. I think some of the best work on the steel guitar has been had in the wee hours. I might just play for half an hour. You might think of it as waking up and remembering a bit of a dream and writing it down on a couple of pages. When you read it the next day you can’t remember what you wrote, but there’s something fascinating about it. It’s sort of fooling the body. How do you find freshness after so many years? That’s one of my little tricks.

IE: Your instrumental music evokes vivid scenes. You once described the apocalyptic sound of “The End” as a song about a boy trapped in a war zone. What is the story behind “Sioux Lookout?”

Daniel Lanois: Sioux Lookout is a geographical location in the north of Canada. It’s a Native community. As I worked on that piece, it developed a tribal or native tonality. I have this image in my mind of a contemporary native chant reminding us to live in harmony and balance with nature. That song has a lot of aggression, especially live. It has anger in it, but there’s something ancient about it. The vocal tones are not lyrical. They’re guttural. I think they might represent what has always been and will always be. That constant we have inside of us that keeps our feet on the ground, come what may with technology. You would think that something has to be lyrical for a point to be made, but we’re quite instinctive as music listeners. If a tonality is suggestive, people have good imaginations and they go to those places.

IE: Not only can people create the visual component, but music carries the emotional component, too.

Daniel Lanois: There’s one piece of music we’re playing live called “Crash Mountain to Senegal.” It’s a rhythmic piece with a lot of beauty in it, but there’s also something powerful and ancient about it. I’ve never been to Senegal, but when I worked with Youssou N’Dour I asked him what it was like back home. He said, “We’re only a dance band in Senegal. We start around midnight and play until the sun comes up. We have one simple job, and that’s to put people in a rhythmic trance.” So, this piece of music that I play on steel guitar has that in it. I’ve been to Morocco, but that’s the only place I’ve been to in Africa. Without ever having been to Senegal, I think I managed to convey that feeling of an exotic place. There’s something very primal about it, so we’re going to give that a try in Chicago.

IE: You’ve got a reputation as a studio rat. Do you love performing just as much?

Daniel Lanois:. We love playing. The more we play, the better we get. That’s the addiction, really. I’ve been making this steel guitar record for the last few months, mostly in Toronto. We’ve been listening to some of those recordings on the road. They’re very beautiful. I think it might be some of my best work in terms of composition and sonic innovation. Part of me wants to get back to the studio to finish that.

IE: Is it steel-focused composition like “J.J. Leaves LA,” or sonic exploration like “Belladonna?”

Daniel Lanois: It’s got a little “J.J. Leaves LA” in it. I’ve discovered some new places to go to on the steel guitar. These compositions have entered a new chapter of melody. Some of it’s heavily processed, and some of it’s very pure. I’m so excited that after all these years of playing that instrument that I would find a new place to go for expression. Not only do I enjoy a lot, but I think it’s unique given the more liquid approach that I have to the instrument.

IE: And the girls like it.

Daniel Lanois: Well, there you go. We have to remember why we got into all this to begin with [laughs].

– Jeff Elbel

Daniel Lanois appears at Empty Bottle Fri. May 8th

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  1. Jodea raeVaughn says:

    Just want you to know I have all your albumns and listen to you daily. Love love love your style.

  2. Lisa says:

    Yes, yes we do…