For a solid 40 years, Daniel Lanois has played a role on some of the most treasured albums of the modern age, be it as a producer, an engineer, a collaborator or—in the case of his initial gigs working on the first three LPs from beloved children’s artist Raffi—a bandmate.
When an artist wants to dive deeper into the inner psyche of their songcraft, they come to Lanois to assist them in that vision. U2, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Scott Weiland and Dashboard Confessional are just a few of the names who’ve benefitted from his transcendent production work. But in addition to his contract employment for other artists, Lanois has established himself as a formidable recording act in his own right, creating critically acclaimed works as both a singer/songwriter (1989’s Acadie, 2008’s Shine), bandleader (the sole LP from his short-lived rock group Black Dub) and one of the foremost sculptors of ambient music in collaboration with such fellow sonic wizards as Brian Eno and, in the case of his excellent new LP Goodbye To Language, Italian guitarist Rocco Deluca.
Released in the fall, the duo’s collaborative debut marks the Canadian’s first proper return to instrumental music since the incredible and incredibly underrated 2008 Omni Series box set as he and Deluca (whose own eponymous 2014 solo album was produced by Lanois). Utilizing a pair of steel guitars and a custom-made sampler on loan from Eno, these luminous compositions feel east of Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas soundtrack as the treated steel of Lanois and Deluca duel it out on a pastoral soundscape within an abstract Robert Altman film loop deep in the mind’s eye.
Paste Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Lanois about the creation of Language along with more than a few generous anecdotes from his four decades in creative pop music.
: The new album is so beautiful. In fact, it was actually surprising to learn a good amount of the sounds we hear on Goodbye to Language are coming from lap steel guitars.
Daniel Lanois: Yeah, a lot of the times it would just go into full on dubs and crazy processing. It’s just the way I chose to do it with the two steel guitars.
: What kind of pedals or filters did you utilize to get some of the sounds you attained here?
Lanois: Well, most of the big effects you are hearing are dubs. I’d sample the steel guitar and then fiddle around with the sample and spit it back into the track for appropriate harmonic position. That’s mostly what you are hearing; it’s a very laborious process [laughs].
: Dubbing out steel guitars is definitely something I had never heard before, that’s for sure. At least not to my knowledge.
Lanois: I’m getting better at it, too, so I’m pretty excited about the prospects of what’s to come. But that’s how we made the album, man. I tried to follow what seemed to be working for us. We didn’t need to have drums or anything like that. It was just about making a beautiful, symphonic record with unusual chord changes. Some of the chord changes are wild and are kind of rewrites of folk songs in a way.
: The controlling of atmosphere in a sonic way has been your thing for so many years. You are in the business of creating these calming sound environments, and Goodbye to Language is no exception.
Lanois: This time around, because of the complexities of the harmonic structure we went into this symphonic direction, which I appreciated and subliminally resembled to me Eastern European classical records, something like Stravinsky. There’s a part that sounds Chopin to me, and there’s another section that’s a little more Italian sounding, almost like Nino Rota’s theme to The Godfather.
: Are you a fan of some of the newer directions happening in modern classical with the incorporation of electronic elements from composers like Max Richter, Johann Johannson and Anna Weber?
Lanois: We all appreciate the amazing pop explosion that’s happening out there these days. But I think there’s going to be some kind of a backlash where people are going to want something that might resonate through time and is profound in its position and not so star-driven. We’re not looking for a lot of attention here. We’re not about to do cartwheels and splits and have sexy pictures taken of us [laughs]. And I think there’s a real appreciation out there for inner soul music, something that rises up and exists because it needs to and it’s not an industry preconception or anything. Hopefully we qualify as music that will stay with us for a while. Like the ambient records I made with Roger and Brian Eno, they hold up to this day. They’ve become a point of reference for a lot of artists. It’s a nice way to hold your head up when something of yours lives on and hasn’t fallen by the wayside as some kind of fashion trinket, you know?
: Have you ever heard about your ambient music being played for holistic purposes at healing centers or even prenatal clinics for expecting mothers?
Lanois: Yes, I have heard about them. I’ve gotten letters from all kinds of folks who went to some of the records I’ve worked on as a form of healing or a means to put them in a certain state of mind where they’re more accepting of a situation.
: Were you and the Eno brothers even thinking like that back when you recorded albums like Apollo or Thursday Afternoon that this music can be utilized therapeutically?
Lanois: Well, I don’t think we thought about that at the time. I know Brian Eno has been supplying some visual art to clinics and hospitals where patients are trying to get back on their feet. And so he has provided these pieces in meditation rooms, textural sounds accompanying these slow moving illuminated art pieces. I think the purpose of this kind of music going in that direction is more recent, but back in the day we were just trying to make records as beautiful as they could be. Music is healing on a number of dimensions. If music makes you dance, that’s healing in itself. What I was hoping to get to on this record was not be background music for somebody, but rather for the music to have the capacity to pull an emotion out of the listener. We’ve gotten nice compliments from folks who’ve gone on long drives with the album in their stereo. I got a call from a buddy in Canada and he’s been on the road with Neil Young—he’s his visual specialist—and he said that Goodbye To Language has been the soundtrack to this tour for him so whenever he’s on the bus and doing some work, he puts on this record because it offers him a sense of reassurance and grounds him, he says [laughs].
: Speaking of Neil, I’d love to talk to you a bit about Le Noise, which was such a sublime collaboration between yourself and the guitarist. It actually seemed like a healing record for him, considering the folks in his life that he had lost in the immediacy of that recording like Ben Keith and Larry “L.A.” Johnson.
Lanois: And while we were working he had lost Larry. To lose old mates like that, it was something that was definitely addressed in the Le Noise record. It was quite a deep record, you know?
: In many ways it reminded me of your work with Bob Dylan on Time Out of Mind and perhaps even more so Oh Mercy! from 1989, the way in which your production added a new dimension to his music.
Lanois: That record—there’s something private about it, which pulls people in. It feels like looking at those Kodak snapshots. The mystery and beauty and a clarity; it may have had something to do with the approach. I didn’t have a lot of people around when I cut that record with Bob. It was me, Bob and a Roland 808, essentially, for most tracks. And it allowed us to focus on the center and get a great sound on Bob’s vocals and most importantly provide great deliveries. So once we had the center in order, then I was able to add all the other parts on top, like the overdubbed drums on “Most of the Time.” And that’s part of the private feeling of that record. You really feel that Bob is in the room with you can touch the lyrics.
: Were you a fan of the albums that preceded Oh Mercy!, like Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded or even Down in the Groove?
Lanois: To be honest with you, when I started working with Bob I deliberately chose not to listen to his recent works. Just because I didn’t want to be swayed or have any skewed idea of what he was doing and how I could help him. I just knew that he was great and I wanted to him to be great and I wouldn’t quit until we made something great. In a way by being uninformed and more narrow in my approach, it works out for the best because I don’t get too analytical.
: How did you and Dylan connect initially?
Lanois: I was in New Orleans at the time, working with the Neville Brothers; he was on tour through New Orleans. It was my friend Bono who did the magic making, he said, “Well, you hate working with bands, so here’s Bob.” [laughs] It was through Bono’s recommendation that Dylan hired me; he is quite a salesman.
: Speaking of Bono, U2 just celebrated the 25th anniversary of Achtung Baby this past fall, and what always fascinated me about that album was the amount of music that was recorded for those sessions.
Lanois: Well, part of the U2 record-making process is in-studio composition, which means a lot of experimentation and jams. So you could imagine the amount of material that gets recorded. And we finished the record as best we can, but I’m sure the libraries are full other beginnings of songs that could be revisited sometime.
: As a genuine music fan, you can’t help but read the album credits and liner notes to any CD you have in front of you. As the father of a pre-schooler, Raffi’s CDs are certainly commonplace in our heavy rotation, and it was very cool to see your name in the credits of Singable Songs for the Very Young and Baby Beluga. How did you connect with Raffi to work on those titles?
Lanois: I was recording a lot of the folk musicians around my region. I had my studio in my mom’s basement, and that was where we made that first album with Raffi, Singable Songs for the Very Young. I had already recorded his buddy Ken Whiteley who was his co-producer on that record. And we had a little thing going, so I think it was on Ken’s recommendation that Raffi just turned up and off we went. I really cared about what those guys were doing, so I just rolled up my sleeves and helped any way I could.
: You also did some sessions with Rick James. When did those take place?
Lanois: It was way before the “Superfreak” era. We did these demos, he hadn’t exploded yet and he was just busy trying to knock out these tapes to shop around. He came to my place, again, on the recommendation of a mutual friend and I don’t know if those songs ever got released or anything, there were about four or five songs that we did. Man, that guy was so talented. They were these little soulful pop songs he brought with him. There was a lot of musical depth to him, and he’s outdone a lot of people.
: One other key album you had produced that people need to remember is 12 Bar Blues, the solo debut of Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, who as we all know passed away in late 2015. What do you remember about working on that album with him and your time together?
Lanois: He invited me to mix, which always turns out to something more [laughs]. I just appreciated that he was like a kid in a candy store and loved to experiment and try ideas and that as much of a rocker that he was, he appreciated sonic innovation and harmonies like the Beach Boys or the Beatles. There was just something that resonated with me about Scott and we were good friends for a while, but the heroin thing got out of control and I had to disassociate from that world. But before that we were really great pals. We even lived together for a while at the Chateau Marmont, and it was all wild parties and girls and all this other nonsense. It was a good time for a minute there.