Interview with Canadian record producer, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, Daniel Lanois
The inspiration was a duality I had going with Rocco. He’s a slide guitar player and I’m a steel guitar player. We had a nice thing going with these two instruments and the album started coming into focus as something really beautiful in a pure form. I came off the road and just kept going with our exchange and said to him, ‘Let’s make a steel guitar record.’
The title was saying goodbye to a certain way of thinking about music and moving into a new scope, a new dimension. We touched on a lot of Eastern European symphonic and different harmonic sounds, so the record looked like something that belonged to another time, hopefully the future. So, I’m saying goodbye to a familiar language and embracing another.
I did do the artwork [and] I have a whole series of that shot. It’s a photograph of a painted floor, quite a big floor in a set-building shop where they had been dropping paint for decades. I started looking at this floor and I saw so much beauty in it.
What drew you to making an all-steel record and how did you develop your current pedal steel technique?
I wanted it to be in its pure form. I like the idea of committing to such a restriction – we have to be in love with these instruments. Why not go to our first loves and be loyal?
The fundamental steel playing is a place I’ve gotten to when I found my own voice on the instrument. I invented my own tuning – not using the standard E9 national tuning. I have a custom tuning that points me in a certain direction. I’m not a very fast player. As a young kid I played country music [and] did some of the classic finger picking. I’m not going to go at that speed, so I found something that was more melodic and liquid. I play quite dry when I’m on my original steel guitar. They are quite dry. What you’re hearing on ‘Goodbye to Language’ is some of my studio treatments that I’ve gotten pretty good at, just as a process of dubbing and sampling then hitting those back into the track at appropriate harmonic positions.
Does your production approach differ when it’s your record and is it more fulfilling? Does your record differ in approach from another artist?
When I’m producing a record for someone else I’m their friend really, because everyone needs a friend when creating – someone who can offer good objective advice, comments on content. And I like to have that same sort of friend around when it’s my record. I don’t need a musician to be advising me necessarily but I have a couple good friends who have been by my side for a long time. I have these friends beside me who put me in line.
I enjoy helping other folks, so I’m fulfilled in a different matter, especially if things turn out well. I mean we are all fulfilled when we give and it’s good to be generous. My latest slogan is ‘I’m lucky when I’m surrounded by people that I admire.’
You seem like such a strong curator of sounds, but your melodic ideas can be huge as well. How do you create a balance between focusing on the sounds of a record and the melodic content?
Melody never goes out of fashion of course. Lucky for me, I grew up playing a lot of melodies. Growing up as a French-Canadian kid, my grandfather was a fiddler, so I learned very melodic pieces. Then as a young guitar player, I played in a big band in Hamilton – a conventional brass band with a singer, so we played a lot of standards and those old standards had great melodies. As a youngster, I had a lot of that ingrained in me. So I still carry the sense of melody with me and I combine that with my studio sonics and my years with [Brian] Eno, which provided a lot of technique for me. So those two flavours have come up in tandem through years of experience. It’s nice that they co-exist, don’t you think?
Your artistry seems like it’s constantly evolving. How do you stay fresh with your ideas?
Freshness relates to time – how much time are we putting into our work? And how curious are we about what’s going on around us? I listen to the radio, I heard Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ and realized that’s a sample of the Timmy Thomas record that I remember from when I was kid, ‘Why Can’t We Live Together?’. And it very proudly celebrates Timmy and I thought that’s so wonderful that he did that – that he’s as devoted as he is in these modern times to archeological work and wanting to push the envelope for himself. And so the combination of just keeping an ear out to hear what people are excited about and the other part that nobody wants to talk about – the time. I’m still kind of a kid in how much time I put into my work. Most people my age have gone on to have empires and families, houses and cars that go with that. If I could quote a song – I’m still a solitary man. My first love is still music; it gets all my attention. If you’re hearing any kind of innovative evolution in my work, it comes from commitment.
Your records always have such an intimate feel to them. Is this influenced by how the recordings are done or the way the studio is set up?
I know what you mean by intimate – the feeling of being touched by something, which is kind of the opposite of factory sounds I suppose. I wish there was a formula to talk about but that’s probably a personality trait and I really just put myself into my work. So that feeling that you can touch it, really comes from my commitment. I don’t think it’s a button pushing thing.
You’re a big fan of dub music, did you ever do any experimenting with the Roland Space Echo?
I used to have a Roland Chorus Echo for years set up in my studio in Hamilton. One of the greats of that era. We had that going when I was working with Eno doing ambient records. When I worked with Peter Gabriel, he had a similar device that had been mounted with a pedal and he put everything through it – all his keyboards went through it. Solid state, early digital – I forget the model number, but he put everything through it. It shows how terrific this company has been for so long.
What about the 808?
Oh absolutely – you’re talking to Mr. 808! I still have 2 original ones – one of them is right in front of me as we speak. If you listen to Bob Dylan’s ‘Oh Mercy’ record from the late 80s, I used the 808 for a good many of those songs and overdubbed the chords after. There’s a track called ‘Most of the Time’ on that record, it has an 808 intro and it is quite hip hop sounding in its folky way. To this day I still use it. I just received the new TR-8 which I’m curious about hooking up too.
What do you think the future will bring us as far as how people express themselves on instruments?
Some of us studio rats still like some hardware. But I don’t know, maybe the odd gadget that comes along provides a bit of fun. I keep asking for something with auto bass, like a keyboard that arpeggiates with a bass accompaniment. That’s one of the nice things about the Suzuki Omnichord, that Eno introduced me too in the day. We got a lot of songs out of it. If you listen to ‘Deep Blue Day’ on a record I made with Eno called ‘Apollo’, that track also shows up in the movie ‘Trainspotting’. That track has a lovely bottom end, so we slowed down the Omnichord to get that sound. I’m a fan of auto bass that way the bass player is always in tune.
Where do you see a company like Roland can innovate?
I’ve had a lot of Roland equipment over the years. I had a Roland micro-mixer, keyboard mixer, about a 19-inch rack, lots of little knobs. I really appreciated that they had compacted all of that into a box. I’m musical so I like to skate around equipment physically so I like the idea of a comprehensive mixer in a small compartment. I’m interested in the idea of an all-in-one recording box. If a recording box had 24 preamps and it records and it does everything and you hook up all your external speakers and there you go. I think there are a lot of ways to innovate with purpose-built hardware. I don’t want to use a laptop all that much. Looking at screens is okay by me but it just seems so fussy, like a cockpit of the airplane and being asked to do your laundry.
What’s inspiring you lately? I saw you at the Autechre and Venetian Snares show and it seems like you’re constantly learning and keeping yourself really open to ideas.
I’m really proud of the work I’ve done with Aaron Funk (Venetian Snares). I appreciate his commitment to his craft, he does beautiful work. I hear things all the time that I love, when I hear a great lyric for example. I just heard a Chance the Rapper track that sparked my interest. And I keep imagining that there is a young Beethoven standing in front of a Mac’s Milk that’s waiting to be discovered.
What’s coming up for you after that show?
This year is all touring, I’m doing a solo electronic tour. We start in London doing a co-bill with Chance the Rapper. Then I’ll do the Venetian Snares show with Aaron at the Great Hall. In the summer, I’m going to Norway to the Punkt festival, doing shows in Denmark, and Sweden. And then I’ll come back to Canada in the fall to do a Quebec, East Coast and Ontario tour. Looking forward to all of that.
Learn more about Daniel here:
Listen to Goodbye To Language