Q&A: Daniel Lanois
Coming up upon your induction into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame this month after nearly 40 years in the business, can you reflect on what the musical climate was like when you were a kid growing up in Hamilton?
What was happening when I was a kid was that it was radio time. It was a magic world and I spent a lot of time in my bedroom listening to the airwaves. I lived in Hamilton and we got pretty good Buffalo and Detroit radio so I got to hear all kinds of really cool rhythm and blues music that was on the rise at the time. Plus I had a recording studio when I was really young. I started when I was twelve so by the time I got to be in my late teens I was recording some pretty great people; I was recording Rick James. The studio really started booming, so I went from being really isolated to being influenced by the people I was working with and all kinds of windows opened up. Not just windows of business opportunity but windows of music appreciation. That’s when I really got hooked.
Was it any one particular artist or band that hooked you?
I was fascinated by all of it. Obviously the rhythm and blues explosion touched my heart and a lot of other hearts, and it was happening right in our backyard in Detroit. How amazing is that?
In what way were you influenced by the music that was making its way over the border?
You know, just a few miles away, James Jamerson, one of the world’s greatest bass players was living and making music in Detroit. Because of things like that I started to take a look around Toronto and compare and wonder, ‘Why don’t we have a Motown?’ We were so close geographically and yet we were doing such different things.
It was then that I decided to embrace the philosophy of Motown, that philosophy being that you would have a “house sound.” That was the opposite of what was happening in Toronto at the time. Our temperament in Toronto was that every studio was like a blank canvas and you walked in with your vision and asked the studio to follow it. With Motown, you walked into the studio and they already had a vision––a sonic vision.
I decided to go with that, and I decided that the window of opportunity for me was to rebuild my instruments and my sounds and to have stations: A bass station, an organ station, a piano station, an electronic station. Then I started collecting hard to find pieces of equipment that I felt could really benefit vocal musicians, and that’s how I did it. I just built my own sound and that allowed me stand out from the rest of the crowd.
What does the word “sonic” mean to your practice?
I believe that you have to have a sound. Today it’s technological to a degree, but I think having your own sound is finally admitting that you have a voice and you have a direction. That’s something that should be embraced and encouraged.
In that way it’s really the opposite of the “blank canvas”; I wanted my canvas to already have colours so that the people that I work with can be appreciative of the amount of research I’ve done. To this day I go into my laboratory and dial up my sonics, and I’m still fighting for what I’ve always fought for, how to mix flesh and machine. Essentially that is what I do.
At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to commit all of yourself to being the best you could possibly be at producing sound?
That happened when I was about 14. It’s happened a few times in my life, where this wave has come over me, but at about 14 I had that little voice that said to me, ‘You’ve already found your first love, and you never have to change it’.
It seems that many people of my generation have a particular affinity towards a record that you had a big hand in creating and that’s U2’s Joshua Tree. At what point in time did you cross paths with Brian Eno and how did that come to be?
Well, in 1979 I got a call from Brian Eno regarding recording in my studio. I didn’t even know who he was. I was very isolated. But, it was a lovely encounter because Brian Eno was in New York working with the Talking Heads and he already made great recordings with David Bowie and Devo, so he was pretty much at the cutting edge of inventive music at the time.
Even though I was completely oblivious to all this, I certainly quickly learned about him and what a great man he was in terms of concentration. Up until that point I had been recording whatever projects came into the studio because we didn’t have any money. I was just running this little business in Hamilton and we were just trying to pay the bills and see if we could get to the next level.
When I met Eno, he was so devoted to what people might have thought of at the time as “extreme isolated music,” but as I look at it now, those 3-4 years of ambient music recording in Hamilton is a pretty big part of my foundation.
When you began work on Joshua Tree, did you know in your gut that you were creating a new sound and that it was going to be something important?
Well, it was the second record I made with them because we had already made The Unforgettable Fire. But, at the end of making The Unforgettable Fire I said to The Edge that I thought that we had something left to say and I just left it at that. He thought about it, called me back and he said, ‘What do you think we have left to say?’
I told him that I was feeling something inside that we had touched on with the first record, but that we might be able to reach into an even deeper place. I know I’m putting myself in the club by saying this but given the people involved, Eno, the others, and myself, these are some really innovative minds and we have an appetite to find something that’s never been heard before.
What do you think about synchronicity as it pertains to your meeting Brian Eno when you did and in turn helping to shape the career of band like U2?
I do think that there was some kind of synchronicity at play because while I was still in Hamilton I began getting tired of the conventional recording studio and I started experimenting with bigger rooms. When the old Hamilton library moved its books I had connections through the city and access to that building. I made some records in there with my renegade equipment and I really built up an appetite and knowledge of how to use particular spaces. I did that not thinking that there would be any practical application for my experiments, but when I got to Ireland to work with U2 they said, ‘We don’t want to be in a conventional studio, we want to be in a place where we can be inspired by rooms.’ I realized then that there was that synchronicity present.
So, without getting all overly mystical, it’s part of taking a risk you know? Sometimes you do something just because it’s burning in your heart rather than potentially burning in your pocket book. It was never driven by money, it was more about intuition, and it prepared me for Ireland! I think it falls under the umbrella of courage in a strange way because to have faith is to have courage.
Over time you’ve become known for your ability to create “soundscapes” and in doing that nurturing sound in order to capture real human moments. What can you tell me about the process of achieving that?
In the end that’s what a record has to have. It has to have a certain soul content, and it has to represent the artist’s vision. But, probably more importantly, it needs to be a nice snapshot of what’s happening philosophically at the time.
Do you still find yourself being newly inspired by songs you’ve known your whole life?
Oh absolutely. Sometimes just in passing you hear something coming out of a shop door and you say, ‘Whoa, that just really touched me,’ and I like being touched by music. Sometimes I’m even touched by my own, and I think, ‘Wow that sounds so great, hey wait a minute I made that!’
These days I have such a fat catalogue that if I hear “In The Name of Love” I think ‘Oh right I was there for that!’ Or if I hear ‘Most of the time, I’m clear focused all around/Most of the time, I can keep both feet on the ground/I can handle whatever I stumble upon, I don’t even notice she’s gone/Most of the time,’ I think of my time sitting next to Bob Dylan, two guys in two chairs on a back porch, just hoping that this kid from Hamilton could help to make a masterpiece.