Daniel Lanois: The Mercy Seat


In his producer’s chair, Daniel Lanois serves as rainmaker for Bob Dylan and U2. But he’s just as visionary when wandering the ambient-desert landscape of his latest album. By Scott Wilson

Playing six degrees of Daniel Lanois will get you from Youssou N’Dour to Martha And The Muffins in one move. The 54-year-old Canadian-born producer, guitarist, songwriter and singer has been sideman and sherpa to hall-of-famers and also-rans, tuning up for Raffi as a fledgling studio owner in the mid-’70s and picking up Grammys less than a decade later. The onetime Brian Eno acolyte has, like his mentor, seen his name become an adjective. The Lanois sound. The thrum of overdue multiplatinum sales for Peter Gabriel; the rustle of Bob Dylan unfurling his scroll again; the rattle, hum and pop of the great arena-era U2 albums that aren’t Rattle And Hum or Pop. The Lanois sound. Storyville funeral procession, hissing swamp gas, churning overdubs, mirror-smooth high-hats and broken-bone percussion. The Lanois sound.

The succession of albums from Gabriel’s So (1986) through U2’s The Joshua Tree (1987; produced with Eno), Robbie Robertson’s self-titled solo debut (1988), Dylan’s Oh Mercy (1989) and the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon (1989) turned the narrow thatch of unzoned territory between blighted pre-punk and narcotized adult contemporary into a fertile, lucrative Shangri-La. (You know that place as Starbucks now, but that’s not Lanois’ fault.) At the start of the ‘90s, it was hard not to wonder how your favorite rock survivalist would sound dosed up on Lanois.

But his production work since has been selective and infrequent (though hardly without triumph; Lanois’ second turn with Dylan, 1997’s essential Time Out Of Mind, was a hit, and Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball revived her career in 1995). Ten years after For The Beauty Of Wynona, the second album issued under his own name, Lanois released 2003’s Shine, a luminous set of nocturnes that channels Bono’s drama and Dylan’s restlessness. In texture and volume, the new Belladonna (Anti-) recalls prime ambient Eno, but the melodies emerge more easily, flowing outward from Lanois’ watery pedal-steel guitar. It’s a sandy, moonlit ebb tide of an album, the kind of thing best heard through seashells, not headphones.

In last year’s memoir Chronicles, Volume 1, Dylan writes of making Oh Mercy with Lanois: “One thing about Lanois that I liked is that he didn’t want to float on the surface. He didn’t even want to swim. He wanted to jump in and go deep. He wanted to marry a mermaid.”

Speaking to MAGNET from Toronto during a short tour to support Belladonna, Lanois (pronounced lan-WAH) is modest and unmysterious, even as he acknowledges the oceanic mysteries essential to his process.

You’re doing only a few shows as Belladonna comes out. What’s going on later this year?
The album is instrumental. The record-company person who looks after me said, “You should do an instrumental tour. I’m going to introduce you to an instrumental band called Tortoise, and you’ll go on the road with them.” I’ll be touring with Tortoise. I knew about them and have become more familiar with their music. It’s an honor to work with them.

An arranged marriage.
We’re rolling the dice because we haven’t played together. I think that we’re going to be fine. I know these people are sophisticated and highly musical. I quite like that Tortoise has built a reputation with a fanbase, like mine.

What will the arrangement be onstage?
They’re going to be my band. The suggestion so far is them, then me. We may cross-fertilize.

How will things get underway?
We need to have charts made up, of course. I don’t like to rehearse too much, though, once we have a fundamental understanding of where we’re going. Freshness is a big part of live performance. Dictatorship isn’t good. I’ll go to Chicago and pay a visit with my steel guitar and test the waters. Three rehearsals and I’m ready.

You’ve said you work by invitation. Are you a yes guy or a maybe guy?
If someone comes up with a good suggestion, I’ll listen. My career has been based on the unknown and on rolling the dice.

How has that spontaneity affected you on the business side?
I’ve been lucky. My encounters have been musical. Historically, the word “producer” has meant different things. There have been people who are executive producers; matchmakers, if you like. I’ve always entered an arena that’s been set up. When I worked with U2, they were self-sufficient, paying for their own records. I’ve never had to carry the burden of too much bureaucracy. I make it clear that I’m an artist. I say, “Don’t waste my brain time on organizational tasks.” If I’d been interested in auditing people, I would have made 10 times more money.

Do you own a set of Oblique Strategies cards?
No. When I was working with Eno, he had a deck of those cards with him.

Do you remember him or anyone else using them?
[Laughs] No.

Do you have your own strategies, a template?
Talking it out. People think what I do is a technique of getting a sound. It’s heart and soul and camaraderie. I suppose what appeals to me these days is communication with musicians. There’s an awful lot that gets taken care of by having gifted and dedicated people around you.

Is it possible to make a good record without the personal warmth?
It’s possible. That’s how it is with Bob Dylan.

Peter Gabriel seems like a perfectionist, a label that has rubbed off on you. How much of your job is enabler and how much is enforcer?
Peter is a great ideas man. It surprises me what he comes up with. He enjoys having someone around to help him harness the best ideas. He’s like a kid in a playpen with access to a lot of toys, but at a certain point, we have to settle down and pursue a direction. Peter likes to have fun, and we made a point of having fun when we laid down tracks for So and (1992’s) Us. You work with someone for a long time, you leave, and both of you have new ideas via osmosis. They’re living with a piece of you, whether it’s conscious or not. That’s what’s wonderful.

What have you taken from Dylan?
It’s obvious: his way of making profound wit of throwaway. He’s a master. I think about him all the time: What would Bob do? He’s part of my heart and soul, as all the others are, too. It’s my education.

And from U2?
When we work together, it’s a time of concentration. When the concentrated moment happens, it’s simple. I’m very, very dedicated, and they feel it and it’s contagious and I feel the result of my dedication through them and become more crazy about it. It evolves and goes mad. I’m the priest.

Dylan’s book suggests he felt intimidated by what you wanted from him for Oh Mercy.
I’ll never push people around. It’s a psychological journey, no doubt. For me, it’s all about getting priorities straight. I make that very clear. Distractions are not to be allowed.

What’s a distraction?
Cell phones. I threw Gabriel’s telephone in the ravine. My best work with Peter was in the converted cow barn (that Gabriel recorded in before building his Real World studio near Bath, England). Real World is nice—it’s a social setting—but stripped down is better. A little place. When you build something for the project, you’re serious about it.

What do you make of a guy like Steve Albini, who doesn’t want to be called a producer?
I know of Steve Albini, of course. The title “producer”—I didn’t want it. He probably prefers to be called a record maker, and so do I. I’m a musical mind. Years and years of incredible experience can’t be reduced to a title like producer. I’ve always been a guitar player first. I’m less of a studio rat and more of a road dog.

Title aside, what’s your function in the studio?
Everybody needs a hand to hold. It’s nice to have a big brother. It’s very much a game of psychology.

It doesn’t seem like the big-name artists you work with need that, necessarily.
We come into this world needing reassurance, and everybody wants to be reminded of their worth.

What brings that to you?
Live performance is reassurance. When you have an audience turning up to hear you, it allows your resourcefulness to come into play. You only have one chance to lash into a song. We spend a lot of years developing our skills, and it’s nice to put them to the test. It’s almost like being on an extreme roller-coaster ride. You have to live with the rushes and the power of the curves, and there’s no going back.

Is there ever disappointment when an artist you produce uses someone else for their next record?
I’m sure an artist looks at what possibilities lie ahead versus going to bed with the same person. People make their own decisions. I have no expectations about what people do. In the case of Bob Dylan, I’d made a good record with him called Oh Mercy. He was back on track, in a great writing place, a stable place. I quite like Don Was. He’s a friend of mine. But I wish Don had had the courage to say (of Dylan’s 1990 album Under The Red Sky, which Was produced), “It’s not working well, and we shouldn’t put it out.” He says himself it wasn’t a great album. And I ask him why he put it out. Out of concern for Bob Dylan, I ask. You don’t want to be seen as stepping back.

But Dylan came back—and came back to you—with Time Out Of Mind.
The world catches up with an artist for the great one. It’s the power of advertising. Time Out Of Mind got the Grammy, and the next one (2001’s Love And Theft) got all the advertising. Love And Theft is curious and sweet and has humor and revisits some of Bob’s early passions, but I don’t think that’s the record people are listening to.

Do you think you’ll work with Dylan again?
The man would just have to give me a ring. I guess we haven’t spoken in about a year, but I got a Christmas card from him last winter.

What does a Christmas card from Bob Dylan look like?
Like a classic “May the New Year bring you peace and happiness” card. It just said “Bob” on the bottom.

Were you aware that he was writing a chapter about Oh Mercy in his memoirs?
Not until the book came out. I was very flattered. I guess one day he’ll write about Time Out Of Mind.

How important is location in recording?
It depends what’s going on in your life at different times. My first record (1989’s Acadie) was largely about Canadian stories, mixing French and English. Recently, I’ve had the luxury of traveling. I’ve always been fascinated with the South. Traditional Mexican records have the best bass: the classic mariachi stuff, old-school Mexican music. I bumped into Sally Grossman (widow of Dylan manager Albert Grossman and owner of Bearsville Studios, near Woodstock, N.Y.), and she suggested I go down there. I was suddenly faced with tranquillity. I hadn’t heard silence in 20 years. It opened up my eyes and imagination. Without the usual urban congestion, I was able to feel. That was the beginning of the journey for Belladonna. I was listening to Kind Of Blue on the way down there. I wanted to do Miles Davis at least once. And if I can allow a moment of bragging, I think I’ve done it.

Did you still hear music in your head?
The only thing I heard at one moment was a fly. We should all afford ourselves isolation sometimes. I’m not suggesting a desert, necessarily. But silence cleanses the palate. Then you step into another project.

Right. Like getting that fly on tape.
[Laughs] One thing I’m thinking of doing is challenging some of the contemporary classical greats to interpret Belladonna. Maybe I can get the Toronto Symphony to do it.

What happened to Kingsway (Lanois’ famed New Orleans recording studio during the late ’80s and early ’90s)?
Let’s put it this way: I went into that city looking for an education, and I got one—a musical one first. I did a lot for that city. I restored one of the great buildings. I must have spent a million dollars on Kingsway. I brought in a lot of talent. We had great names coming through that town. The idea is always to leave a place in a better state than you found it in. I’m a builder. My father was a builder. Beyond the carpentry, it’s nice to leave something in a good way. I can honestly say that I’ve done that. I was mistreated very badly, though. Somebody sued me down there, and I didn’t get much help from anyone. (Lanois was sued by Barbara Hoover, a New Orleans cultural-scene mainstay who alleged she had contributed to Kingsway’s success.) It kind of ruined it for me, and I was happy to get out. A lot of waste of money, and the person who sued didn’t get any money.

What kind of help would have made a difference?
Somebody, like the mayor, saying, “Danny is having trouble, and he’s done a lot for the city, so let’s get to the bottom of it.” People are cowards, though. Let’s put it this way without getting overly political: America needs to do something about that problem. Everybody is litigious.

Are you more cautious?
Yes. I quite like the naive, Canadian side of myself. I don’t like to have a suspicious mind.

Would you ever live or work in New Orleans again?
I would do a live performance there.

How long did all of this go on?
The problem lasted about 10 years. I sold the house. Nicolas Cage owns the house now or has owned it recently, I think, but he didn’t buy it from me. On the upside, it was a great, fertile musical time with so many strong records that came out.

Can you listen to those records now?

What’s the hazard of a noted producer producing himself?
Objectivity unfortunately disappears quickly. It’s nice to have someone around to remind you what’s great. I go back and reference my early opinions, the reason why you stepped into it to begin with, a melody you thought was the best thing you ever wrote.

How do you do that?
I’m meticulous with journals. I look at my ’80s journals now, and it’s frightening.

That’s Eno-esque.
It is something I picked up from Eno. He’s really the master of the pen.

Would you ever publish your journals?
I don’t think I would do that. For one thing, Brian’s already done it (1996’s A Year With Swollen Appendices: The Diary Of Brian Eno). I’ve thought of maybe making a book sometime and having it be something regarded as an educational book for other folks, a way of looking at arrangements and coming in with a whole new technique.

That sounds more concrete than a set of cards saying, like, “Get a haircut.”
It would be something mixed in with personal experiences and also philosophy. I spend all my time thinking of ideas. It’s kind of a curse. Most of the time, I’m dedicated to writing ideas, brainstorming with other folks. I spent years brainstorming with my brother Bob (with whom Lanois opened Grant Avenue, an Ontario studio, in 1976). We’d run the studio together, then go home and eat, drink and brainstorm.

Brainstorm primarily about music and recording?
About everything. Aesthetics: I’m a very aesthetic person. Architecture, how things are made, the disappearance of the artisans who did the work. I contemplated filmmaking. I’m a closet experimental filmmaker. I keep coming back to that. In the end, that might be my final artistic statement. I’ve been working on a film for some time. I’ve extracted images from that to project at my shows.

Is that Giorgio, the project scheduled at Carnegie Hall in February?
Yes. I found a way to generate images from music, so the live music will generate some of the visuals. Some are prepared. There is also a computer program that responds to the music.

That sounds like synesthesia on a stage. Do you know about that, the name of a purported neurological condition that causes people to see colors or smell odors in response to sounds?
I hadn’t put that name to the condition. I understand that, though. I can’t be oblivious to music.

Even bad music?
It’s the worst. I’ll have to leave a restaurant rather than hear a bad song. Or, sometimes, a good song.

I know what you mean. Hearing a great song over a grocery-store loudspeaker at 2 a.m. when you’re buying cereal hurts the song and hurts the cereal-buying. It’s jarring.
You’re talking about the sacred. But it’s too late. I wish I’d been born 30 years earlier, when you had to go out and buy a record and you didn’t hear music everywhere. In a way, music is less special now.

You’ve built and run several studios. What do you listen to music on at home?
At my place in Toronto, I have a small Bose Wave Radio. It sounds great.