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14 juillet 2008

All Hands On Deck: Daniel Lanois

by petermurphy, Hot Press

It’s a beautiful loop. Musician and producer Daniel Lanois originally envisioned his film Here Is What Is as a documentary about the making of his latest solo album, but the record in question eventually became the soundtrack to the film.

“I wanted to make a record, and a friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you bring a camera into the studio and look at the situation through a lens?’” Lanois explained over tea in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin last April. “So I said okay, and that opening shot with Garth Hudson playing the piano intro came to us very early on. On the strength of that I decided it seemed like a reasonable idea, and we kept moving from city to city for the purposes of my work. Every town we went to, we caught a little something, and it just started adding up to a nice film. Quite late in the project there was that sit-down with Eno, where we just had a little bit of an exchange, and by slotting in those philosophical moments it just kind of tied everything together.”

As Lanois attests, making a film is an exponentially more challenging enterprise than recording an album, even if your client list includes Bob Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and the Neville Brothers.

“It was very expensive to make, to feed people and put them in hotels, travelling and everything, but I’m proud of it,” he says. “Is it a perfect film? I’m not sure about that, but it can at least hold its head up in terms of having brought quality to the table.”

That quality is evident in the pace of the film. Patient, unhurried, at times it evokes Wim Wenders’ aversion to fast and ostentatious edits.

“Some of the young idealistic record listeners that I know, they don’t want to see fast edits anymore,” asserts Lanois. “They’re curious about the authenticity of something, and to slow the pace down a little bit. It doesn’t mean slow the rhythm down, but just slow the pace of the servings. I wish I had a nice uninterrupted film of the movement of Michael Jackson’s feet. We never see him dance, we see the editing room dance.”

Featuring cameos from the aforementioned Band organ grinder Hudson and Brian Eno, plus Billy Bob Thornton, Sinead O’Connor and drummer Brian Blade, Here Is What Is ventures deep into the music, depicting the recording process in graphic detail. There are a lot of close-ups of hands: on piano keys, on the pedal steel, on the mixing desk.

“Yeah, a bit of a hands theme,” Lanois chuckles. “It started with Garth. And Adam, the guy working the camera, also shot close-ups of my hands on the steel guitar, which is a very complex instrument, and to see how it’s done is fascinating enough to show for a while in itself, so why not?”

At this point, Lanois leans in and examines the interviewer’s fingers. “Can I see that ring?” he says. “What is that?”

It’s an antique ring inset with a blue stone, given to me by a writer friend who maintains a side business selling vintage jewellery. She trawls the net for interesting pieces, winnows through them, evaluates their worth and sells them online.

“In a way that’s what I do with music,” Lanois says. “I select the best riffs, the best lyric ideas, the best titles, the best grooves, pull them out of a day’s work and say, ‘Let’s sweep everything else under the rug and present our best wares.’ It’s incredible what happens through a day, and often times the most signiificant moments will not be noticed because people might think they’ve got bigger fish to fry. But sometimes that one little sliver of delight will be enough to build a whole record on top of.”

One of the more interesting sequences in Here Is What Is illustrates how Lanois approaches mixing as performance, playing the desk like an instrument. Watching him manipulate the various elements of a track like ‘Bladesteel’ is akin to observing a painter at work.

“It’s something that I develop, just trying to tap into my musical gift,” he says. “Not every person at the console has an ability to understand the positioning of ingredients and is able to move the faders in a musical fashion. It’s usually thought of as a technical job, but I like a set-up that forces me to respond to what’s coming up in the arrangement and make it sound more dangerous, or give it a stadium sound, so I see every little bend in the road as an opportunity to present the ingredients in a slightly different fashion.”

In other words, the mixing becomes a much more intuitive and ‘live’ process.

“Absolutely. I think the bedrock of it is it exists as an emotional performance. I usually don’t use computers for mixing, but even if I do, I make my foundation a performance, and then I might add a little something to it, change the vocal performance or the harmonies if I didn’t get that quite right. A lot of mixers start with one sound at a time and build it up, and consequently you might end up with a lovely edifice, but it might not be a place you want to go into.”

One of Lanois’ other specialities is generating ambient sounds of no discernible origin and using them to suggest drama or danger in the mix. These are usually distortions or manipulations of fragments sourced from the artists’ performances.

“I like the idea of, as I said in the film, grabbing a little sample from the available ingredients,” he considers, “almost like taking a photograph of the cloth that you’ve chosen to make a suit out of, and then you just blow up a certain portion of it, and maybe that becomes a pocket. It’s not just a sewn-on pocket from another batch of fabric of a different colour or a different weave, you actually use what’s already there and put it on the item.”

So it’s like a DNA swab or a skin graft lifted from the host body instead of imported from a foreign agency. An organic approach to a synthetic process.

“Yes. And I believe listeners feel that connection, sort of a way of maximising what you have rather than superimposing a bunch of other options, which is the tendency that people have, because there are so many wonderful tools available in making records and mixing. You can try 50 different boxes until you find the one you like, but we have to remember that some of our favourite Jamaican records, the great reggae records, they might only have had one black box, and they put everything through it. There’s some kind of wisdom to that, because nothing lives in isolation, everything is related, it comes from one effect. So I still like to do that, put everything through one echo box.”

Lanois believes that artists can become paralysed by options, and often get the best results through consciously imposing limitations upon themselves, thus encouraging innovation within those confines.

“It can happen even with people,” he says. “There’s something nice about deciding on a group of folks you want to work with. It’s like a group of friends around one table having a great night, and the stories keep getting better and better, and you walk out of the situation and think, ‘Wow, that was amazing!’ You didn’t have to fly in additional comics – the people at the table were funny in their own lives. They were already ridiculous enough!”

Is he a tough taskmaster in the studio?

“I’m tough on myself, and that becomes contagious. When people feel that level of commitment from me they expect it of themselves. It only works if you’re willing to put in the time and the hours, if you’ve high expectations of yourself and are pushing yourself – not in a bad way or anything, but in a committed way – then the rest of the room will naturally respond to that level of commitment, so it raises the standard of work done.”

Is it easier to work with musicians he’s known for a long time?

“What’s nice about working with people you’ve worked with before is you’ve gotten the small talk out of the way and you can pretty much get to the melodies and the lyric and the grooves. I mean, I like a fresh face, I made a record with Willie Nelson and I hadn’t met him before, and I like that record, Teatro. Four days it took, in my old shop in California. That was my best shop, an old theatre, fantastic. There’s something about not having any windows. There was a little popcorn area where you could get a soft drink and sundries, but when you walk into the theatre, it’s a very dark old cinema, and there’s something to not being aware of the day or the disappearance of it, just a timelessness.

“Maybe it has to do with Bob Dylan’s title Time Out Of Mind,” he continues. “I like the idea of working in a dark space, more of a closet. The house that I use in Los Angeles is a beautiful villa, built in the 1920s, fantastic rooms throughout the whole house, and downstairs it has this little servant’s kitchenette, a counter and a sink and shelves all the way around the room, a little octagon shape, and there’s something very sweet about that room, it’s almost my favourite room. I’ve been fantasising about setting up a little tabletop studio and making it so that I don’t have too many rooms to flirt with.”

Location, Lanois says, is a crucial element in the character of any record. One can’t imagine the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon or Dylan’s Oh Mercy having been recorded in anywhere but New Orleans.

“Geography plays a big part in record-making,” he says. “My visit to New Orleans initially was just about education really, I wanted to hear those parade bands and go to some of those clubs to hear some of the Saturday night dance bands. At that time I used to enjoy listening to (Zydeco master) Rockin’ Dopsie, who played this tiny place called The Make Believe, it had been a store at one time and was turned into a little club, and the drummer’s throne sat right in the storefront window, he had his back to the street, and you could look in the window and check out the drummer.”

Lanois is just as effusive about the U2 sessions he and Eno attended in Fez, Morocco, last year.

“I had never been there,” he says. “The Medina was strikingly ancient. I was humbled by how people ran their little shops, these tiny, tiny hovels in the wall, there was a shoemaker in the Medina in Fez, and he just sat while he worked, his little shop was not tall enough to stand in, so he was crouched in this little hole in the wall. If you wanted your shoes fixed you just peeked into the hole and handed him your shoes and he’d mend them. He’d probably crawl out of there a couple of times a day to get himself a cup of tea, but while he was working, that was his little cobbler’s bench, a hole in the wall. It’s very funny, because you enter the Medina and two minutes in, you’re lost. And it immediately becomes like Spinal Tap: ‘Wait a minute – is this the right way?’ And the walls are really tall, and you can see the locals sitting up there laughing.

“But more important to the geography is the setting up of the studio specific to a record. So if you bring in equipment and unload the cases and set up in a room, the people involved in that record are going to feel it’s something special to them. I think that in itself is a good mood-setter, you’re not walking into a generic place. We made the bulk of The Joshua Tree in Adam Clayton’s house, and that was a fantastic room with a plank floor, had a fantastic sound, my favourite kind of room really.”

Does he ever get cabin fever while making an album?

“I’ve talked about it – it’s like being in a submarine.”

Das Boot is often cited as the film most analogous to being on tour.

“Yeah right, on tour especially, oh my god. A solo tour, maybe that’s my next journey. I’ve been designing a travel system, a complete touring system, that is carry-on. Here’s how you carry your personal belongings: you modify a long trenchcoat, all the way to the ankle, with a lot of pockets. And you carry all your clothing and toiletries and personal items in the coat because they can’t tell you to not take a coat on an airplane. Six t-shirts, six underwear, six socks, I wear the pair of pants I got on, one pair of shoes and one hat.

“And with regards to the guitar and the amp, I carry a viola case – the airlines are used to seeing classical musicians so they turn a little bit of a blind eye to it – and I modify a Fender Duo-Sonic guitar, Fender’s tiny short-scale guitar, and I cut the body off of it with a jig-saw, so you’re only left with the neck and the mounting area of the neck, and that fits into the viola case. And then I put a little battery powered amplifier and speaker into the viola case. That is my entire touring equipment. That way you never lose your luggage and you’re always looking good.”

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