Daniel Lanois Shines Alone

Jun 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Chris J. Walker


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Daniel Lanois is well-known to most Mix readers as the highly creative, best-selling producer of landmark albums by U2, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Willie Nelson, the Neville Brothers and others. But the low-key, easy-going French Canadian native is also a formidable musical talent himself: an exceptional guitarist, songwriter and singer with three fine solo albums: Acadie (1989), For the Beauty of Wynona (1993), and his latest, the recently released Shine. He's seemingly got the best of both worlds — producer and artist — and balancing the two lives has been an interesting juggling act. Lanois is the first to admit that 10 years between albums is “a long time. But I'm always stockpiling music. I've probably got 20 albums' worth in my library. It's a little difficult when I'm doing production for other people: I'm pretty dedicated and don't treat them lightly.” Right now, though, he's in solo-career mode.

“After I finished U2's last record [All That You Can't Leave Behind], I decided that this was my time and just devoted myself to my own music. I took writing sabbaticals in Mexico, Canada and France, and wanted to create a CD that you could listen to from beginning to end and not skip over certain tracks. That's kind of my romantic view on records.” Lanois mentions Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew as albums that meet that high standard. To create a similar aura, he crafted his latest recording, Shine, around four songs that would be, as he puts it, “universally embraceable,” with the other songs being basically “snapshots.”

“One is called ‘San Juan,’” he continues, “and it's this little song about getting away from urban crossroads, finding this small Mexican village and having a romantic life. ‘I Love You’ has dreamy psychedelic twists and some identifiable sonic ingredients such as a repeating theme played on a Les Paul. It's like the theme to ‘A Summer Place’ [a big instrumental hit in 1960], and it has an exotic sound combined with these bells I found in Mexico to create an entire vibraphone out of them. The instrumental ‘Matador’ is all about technology, with one note and I changed that into three with a harmonizer. Then I built them up and stored them with a bunch of different intervals. Ultimately, I played the whole thing on a keypad, not even a keyboard. Also, pedal steel guitar is a big rediscovery for me. Over the last five years, I found my own way of playing it in more of a gospel style. The last song on the record, ‘JJ Leaves L.A.,’ features it.”

In a somewhat disjointed fashion, Lanois recorded bits and pieces of Shine in a variety of locales during a long period of time. He transported equipment from his New Orleans studio to Tijuana and Los Angeles. Additionally, just north of Buffalo, N.Y., on the Canadian side, he maintains a “rig”, in his brother's log cabin in the woods. Around 1997 (he was a bit fuzzy about exact dates), he spent a number of months in Mexico, and that's where he originally conceived of Shine. He fondly recalls the period as “an amazing experience” and did skeleton songs and recordings. Additional songs, augmentation and enhancements were done in Canada, France and finally in his Los Angeles home/studio.

“There was basically 10 years of stuff already recorded,” remembers Adam Samuels, Lanois' engineer, from the producer's home/studio located in the Silverlake area of L.A. He's been working regularly with Lanois for the past three years there, and at Teatro Studios in Oxnard, where they met five years ago. At that time, Samuels was hanging out with Victor Indrizzo, a producer/drummer (Beck, Macy Gray and Drizz) and was just learning the basics of engineering. His attitude and drive impressed Lanois, and they first worked together on Willie Nelson's Teatro CD (1999) at that studio. From there, he did a stint at the Sound Factory, assisting Tchad Blake for a year before he relocated to England. Since then, Samuels, who's also Canadian but was raised in Europe, has reunited with Lanois and is handling his various engineering needs, including tour sound.

“What strikes me all the time about Dan is his absolute dedication to innovation, uniqueness and greatness,” Samuels says. “He doesn't settle for anything less than amazing. He's always fighting, even when you think, ‘I can't go on anymore.’ He'll have his sleeves rolled up and ready to go after it and be thinking about how can we make this great. The song ‘Tears Roll By’ came out of a loop that was made for Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. It just had something that he felt was great. But he worked at it for a long time to develop a song out of it.”

“I did a lot of the parts on the album myself,” Lanois says. “I find that in the heat of the moment, especially at a time when I considered a particular recording to just be a demo, I'll play all of the instruments myself.” For accompaniment, Lanois recruited a few select friends: “On drums, it was mostly Brian Blade, who's my favorite drummer. [Jim Keltner also played drums.] Chris Thomas and Darryl Johnson played bass sometimes, and Aaron Embry was on piano. I'd wait for people to come through town, while in the meantime, I was chipping away by myself. Then I'd invite them in for a few days and see if we could shake up a little dust.”

Samuels helped turn Lanois' living room into a studio, and much of the tracking for Shine took place there during the late summer of 2002. When Lanois was working alone, the pace was relaxed: Typically, recording would start around noon and end by the early evening. However, during sessions when other musicians were used, the sessions went to all hours. “There's a certain aspect of the studio that's ongoingly mystifying to me,” Lanois comments. “You'll tune your instruments and record on one day, and you'll try to overdub a month later and it doesn't quite fit in. I think the molecules are set in a certain way one afternoon and that's the time to get the overdubs done. When ideas are flourishing and things are really going well, that should never be taken for granted. That's really a great time to just get as much work done as you can on a track.”

Samuels says that Lanois' way of using equipment and laying things out is well-thought-out and ensures that sessions go smoothly with minimal complications. “Everything has its own job, and nothing is doing two things,” Samuels notes. “That's a philosophy Dan always tries to put in his studios. An example of that is the main mixing console is not used for going to tape. It's the idea of dedication [of equipment], and luckily for Dan, he's got enough equipment to do that. He has a separate console for going to tape, a Neve Melbourne 12-channel with API preamps. Those are set up with dedicated microphones and sound. A channel that's [dedicated to] the piano microphone is always that. If you sit down at the piano, it's miked up and I know what it's going to sound like.”

Over the years, Lanois has amassed an impressive array of equipment and he manages to put together similar setups wherever he ends up working. Consoles include his vintage Neve 8068, a pair of smaller Neve desks and an Amek. He likes Studer decks but has also found the RADAR hard drive system to his liking; he started using it during U2 overdub sessions in France for their most recent CD. The RADAR was used extensively for recording, editing and mixing tracks for Shine. “I think it's fantastic because you don't do data entry with it,” Samuels says. “Instead, you're listening to music and working with your sound, not waveform pictures and a keyboard. I prefer the sound of the RADAR, too [to other hard disk systems].” The producer did end up using Pro Tools, too, because his engineering friend Tony Mangorian brought in his setup to assist on the song “Falling at Your Feet” (which features Bono on vocals).

Lanois albums always feature unusual processing and sonics, and Shine is no exception. He says he tends to use “whatever I'm most excited about,” which usually amounts to many of the old boxes he's had around for years, such as the Lexicon Primetime and PCM70, and the Eventide Harmonizer. He generally eschews conventional reverb devices; for compression, he uses a Teletronix LA-2A for vocals and a UREI 1176 for bass. Neve 1066s are his preamps of choice. For microphones, he's fairly set in his ways: He says he hasn't seen any improvement in the technology over the years. He listed these time-tested models as favorites: Sony C37A, Neumann U47 and U48, RCA 77 and 44 ribbons, and the more modern Sony 800-T. He also likes dynamic mics such as the Shure Beta 57 and 58, and the Sennheiser 409 and 421. Overall, his only innovation in the mic area was using Sennheiser's radio headphone system during the sessions, which he says, “worked very successfully.”

In many respects, gear is often secondary to Lanois; more important is the sessions' setting and vibe and his willingness to experiment. He often quotes Leo Nocentelli, guitarist of New Orleans' famous funk masters, The Meters: “It ain't the axe, it's the cat who plays it.” Samuels adds, “You can make a great record on anything. The key element I've learned from working with Dan is paying attention to the way things sound before the microphone. If you've got a great-sounding guitar player and amp, then put a [Shure] 57 on it. Or you read a manual that tells you how to get a great guitar sound and do whatever they say. Either way, it'll sound good. But if you've got a guitar player on a crappy amp with bad tone, it doesn't matter what you do, even if you have a super-duper plug-in.”

For Lanois, recording successfully is often about the process itself, and working on so many albums has given rise to a number of personal theories of what works and what doesn't. One that separates him from many other producers is, “I do the mixing as I go along.” He says, “I don't save it for a mixing date. If a track is sounding good after an afternoon's work, I do a mix. I find that the best mixes often come from rough-and-ready situations, when people aren't thinking about things too much.” Samuels adds, “A lot of the mixes would be where I was toying around with a blend after a take. Dan would say from the other room, ‘That's great. You got something there.’ And I would just leave it, even if it wasn't what I was going for. From there, he would come in and we would both be on the console.”

Lanois likes to stay open to new ideas, and it is not at all unusual for him to be working on several different arrangements and mixes of a song at once. “These are lessons I learned from Brian Eno a long time ago; he's the mastermind of unusual balances,” he says. “It's a way of getting you out of your usual habits and may present you with a fresh way to look at a blend. For ‘Sometimes’ [on Shine], the original version was acoustic guitar and me. I was tempted to put that version on the record, but I ended up with four or five different versions. I like having a lot of versions of songs and think you learn a lot by having another bash at it. Additionally, I look for sonic identities: sometimes a riff, other times a tone. A track will come on and it will just have a sound that separates it from everything else on the radio.

“I often wonder, what would my buddy Brian Eno think? He had little involvement with this project, although I did send him the CD at the back end for his views on sequencing. The same with Bono, and he was very useful. While on vacation with his Dublin cronies, they would call every hour as they got drunker and suggest marketing campaigns, among other things. It was a lot of fun. Bono even said, ‘You've got to call the record Shine [which is also the title of one of the songs]. Its got a lot of rain on it, but its also got a lot sun.’ Then he asked, ‘What kind of photograph are you going to use for the cover?’ I said, ‘I've got a picture of me, nighttime, lit up by motorcycle headlamp.’ He said, ‘Perfect, coming out of the darkness; that's great.’ Then he went on to say, ‘That's what it should be when you perform. Walk onstage back-lit and don't let them see your face for the first song.’ He had it all worked out,” Lanois laughs. “He's a very sweet man and I'm lucky to have him.”

Of course, the other side of working with the likes of Bono, Dylan and Gabriel is that beyond the camaraderie is the pressure of having to produce under the microscope, so to speak. Amazingly, Lanois seems to thrive in those settings, yet he admits the tension level on his own project was more intense, especially near the end: “Those folks are all highly intelligent and creative people, and only good comes out of those situations,” he says. “That's a wonderful arena to be operating in, and I like the challenge of intelligence. It allows me to get real resourceful and bring the best out of myself. There is a kind of intensity and there's high expectations, such as with a U2 record. Then I take those same lessons and apply them to my own productions. Yeah, maybe it's a little more relaxed, but at the end, the same pressure exists: You've got to deliver.”

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