One-on-one with the legend who leaves an unmistakable sonic imprint, yet also captures the unique gifts of every artist he produces.
Discussing his process, Daniel Lanois describes pieces of music in physiological terms: Songs have spines and limbs; they glitter or glow when they wear jewels. He has, for decades, found his way into new projects by first identifying that spine, or core, of the music, and then arranging parts around that center. In some cases—such his production of momentous albums for U2, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, etc.—the singer’s voice becomes that core. All else serves and relies on that center.
On Lanois’ ambient records, like his new album Flesh and Machine, that center is simply a beginning: “This is the technique that I’ve embraced over the years,” he explains. “It started when I worked with Brian Eno in the early ’80s; we made a lot of ambient records. You build your music according to plan, and then strip away the spine or the central character of your plan; then you’re left with the ornaments: the overdubs, the garnishings, the effects. By removing the center, I’m left with the garnishings and the ornaments as my center.”
On Flesh and Machine, Lanois has fashioned moving atmospheres from human voice, processed sounds, and traditional instruments, such as frequent collaborator Brian Blade’s drums. Each song creates a scene and a mood; most are quite rhythmic, but they surround rather than ground the listener.
“A lot of what you’re hearing on this record are by-products of a plan that is no longer there. The ornaments seemed to be more interesting than the center. It’s a technique that is easy to pull off in record making, but harder to pull off in architecture!”
Lanois shared details about his latest album, as well as his unforgettable work with other artists as a producer, engineer, musician, and inspiration.
Tell us about the process of making Flesh and Machine. Where, and how, did you create the material for this album?
There’s a track on this album called “Sioux Lookout,” and that’s Brian Blade on the drums—one of the great drummers. When we started that song, I really liked what Brian played but I didn’t like a lot of what else I had on there, so I removed what I didn’t like, and then I thought: Well, the drums sound terrific, but they’re maybe a little bit too simple in that presentation. They sound like a regular jazz kit. I thought, What can I do with this to bring it into the future?
Lanois in his studio with drummer Brian Blade (seated) and engineer Alex Krispin So we sent his bass drum performance to this computer program [Drumagog] that replicates his bass drum performance in an isolated sound, including preserving the dynamics of his performance. That gave me a more hip-hop-sounding rendition of his bass drum. We then sent that to a massive [Axys] P.A. that I have in my studio, so the room was just shaking with this hip-hop bass drum sound. Then we put that through a fuzz wah pedal, and the fuzz wah provided a tone, a note, to the bass drum.
Then I recorded the bass note onto the track, and fed that bass note to an [AMS] Harmonizer and created seven other pitches. I printed all of those onto the multitrack, and then I created a bass line from Brian’s bass drum by playing the faders and choosing the notes that I wanted for the bass journey of the song. This now meant that I was perfectly locked to Brian’s bass drum because he was the source of it all, and it sounds like the most amazing, sticky bass player is following every kick drum beat that’s being played by Brian.
It’s a very long process, and I wouldn’t recommend it necessarily, but that’s how we did it and it gives an idea of how we made the album.
Where did you record?
That process that I just described was done in Los Angeles. I also have a studio in Jamaica and one in Toronto, and sometimes we just do things on the road.
What recording platform do you use?
I use a Canadian machine called a RADAR. Otherwise, I use equipment I’ve collected over the years, from old instruments to favorite microphones and processing boxes. I don’t put all of my eggs in the plug-in basket. I still use some pieces of gear that I like; I still use my AMS Harmonizer, which I’ve been using since the late ’70s. It has a great voltage control oscillator that’s very musical, and I’m very good at working it. By performing the VCO with my hand, I can put a very processed electronic sound into it, but have it sound like a human voice. That’s part of my technique, too.
The worst thing I could ever do is find a setting on a piece of processing gear and go and have a coffee. That doesn’t appeal to me. We don’t like flower arrangements. We like flowers blowing in the wind! [Laughs]
Is that all synthetic voice on the new album? Do you use your own voice at all?
Yes, I use human voice. My voice appears on the track called “Opera.” I sampled my voice and created a palette of notes to perform, similar to the bass technique I just described. But there’s another track on there, “Rocco,” the opening track on the record—that’s my friend Rocco De- Luca. He has the most beautiful voice. Of all the tracks on the record, that one has the most straight-up vocal performance. It’s based on Bach. We have the chord sequence and bass line from a Bach piece, and Rocco jammed a bunch of performances over the top. After he left the studio, I meticulously went through them and created a nice melodic and harmonic journey to the piece.
Some years ago, I discovered these singers from Bulgaria: the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. They sing harmony, and occasionally it gets very dissonant and the hair comes up on the arm and then settles back down to a comfortable place. I wanted to visit what I remember of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir on this piece with Rocco.
Do you have favorite mics or vocal chains, for you or for Rocco?
I usually use just a Shure Beta 58. I generally don’t like to wear headphones, and I like to get right on the microphone. The Shure is a very high-quality mic at a very affordable price; I can get more isolation and better signal-to-noise ratio. But I still have my favorite tube mics. I like to use my Sony C37A that I’ve talked about in other interviews, but consequently, I’ve driven the price of those up to where I can’t afford them any more!
I’ve learned my lesson, though. I’m going to find a cheap piece of equipment, I’m going to buy them all, and I’m going to talk about them in magazines and sell them back to people! [Laughs]
It sounds like the processes of writing and recording were fluid—that there weren’t necessarily separate phases for creating the material, and tracking.
That’s correct. And it’s because I’m very quick to abandon what I thought was my best plan, and chase the thing that seems to be more exciting to me. The plan is constantly changing, and if I happen to hit on a sound that’s inspiring, I just go with it and trust that it will lead me to a fascinating place.
Did you bring in an engineer, other than yourself, on this album?
Yes, a couple of people. A young man named Alex Krispin helped me out quite a bit on this record. Mostly, I need a friend moreso than an engineer! Some things I want to do are sort of far out, and it’s nice to have a mate to help, or just to get down on all fours and plug stuff in with.”
Could you talk about the importance of Brian Blade’s drumming to your music?
What a great, bright light he’s been in my life, first and foremost. He’s just one of the greats, and has everything in his playing that I love about acoustic drumming. We also play in a gospel band together. His father is a gospel singer, and a pastor in Shreveport, Louisiana. We play in his group, which is called the Hallelujah Train. So, no matter what happens out there with technology, and whatever dreams we have about what our music should be, we keep our feet on the ground when we play in his father’s church.
Are certain instruments or pieces of audio equipment shared across all of your studios?
I’m loyal to the RADAR, and I’ve collected nice instruments and microphones over the years, and processing boxes that I really love. I think we can safely say that at any given time through any given era of recordmaking, there have been stand-up pieces that should be cherished and kept alive.
I have a nice collection of Steinway pianos, for example. I handpicked them and restored them, because I understand how important that is. Bob Dylan is a great piano player, and we started and finished his Time out of Mind record on one of those pianos. I thought Bob never sounded better on a piano than he did on that one.
I have my collection of guitar amps and Les Pauls from the ’50s, and that enabled me to chum up with Neil Young. He enjoyed the fact that I feel a devotion to these pieces that he also has a devotion to.
I also have some great consoles: I use a Neve 8068 in my L.A. studio, and I have BCM-10s—those little sidecar Neves. In Toronto I have a massive Midas Heritage 4000 [analog live sound console]. I still really like my AMS Harmonizer, so I keep one in each studio.
How do you begin producing another artist? How does the process you developed with Eno work with roots artists—Emmylou Harris for example?
Emmylou Harris is one of the great singers, as Aaron Neville is, and for that matter, Bob Dylan— one of my favorite singers—and Bono. I’ve been lucky to work with some of the great vocalists, and if you’re lucky enough to be in that arena, then you’re smart to try to capture those singers at their best. I’ve found that those early takes are really important to record making.
With Emmylou, specifically, I made sure we treated her as the center and that she would dominate the picture, and I surrounded that beautiful center with other musicians and other instruments. The vocals you hear on Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball album are all live vocals. There are a few repairs, but not many.
So the technique was [to say], “Okay, Emmylou sit down. I’ll sit real close to you, and let’s play the song and bring in other players around us.” We performed the songs, treating her as the center, and the ebb and flow that happens around her is pretty important. It’s kind of a self-mixing system, because people are not going to obliterate her singing while she’s singing. There’s a built-in respect for such a person. Musicians obviously serve her phrasing at the time.
That takes care of an awful lot of mixing concerns, and then, once I think we have a take, I’d ask Emmy to sing it a second time, and then another, so I have three vocals, done minutes apart from the original, so the spirit of the song is still in the air. Her phrasing, everything about her singing, is still in her. That might not be there two weeks later in overdubs; it has a lot to do with emotions and the spirit of the moment.
With live vocals you have instruments spilling into the vocal mic, which is a big part of the sound, so for the safety overdubs, I have to pipe the sound of the band back to her through speakers to replicate the presence of musicians in the room. She’s wearing headphones on overdubs, so if I don’t give her the sound of the musicians, it’s not going to make any sense.
Do you use the same method with other singers?
With Bob Dylan, same thing. With Bono, same thing, but we always use wedges for his singing. If you’re dropping in a lyric change a week later, you have to pay attention to what you’re feeding back into the speakers.
It gets quite complex, though, because not everything works out with the technique I just described. If I try to do it acoustically and it’s not happening, then I have to have another card up my sleeve. So, I tend to have another technological angle. I made a record with Bob Dylan called Oh Mercy, and on that record, for a lot of the songs I used a bass drum figure on a Roland 808 beatbox. I fed that 808 bass drum figure to Bob in a big Electro-Voice monitor right in front of him, so that became the point of reference for tempo and groove. Then I overdubbed drums and bass on afterward; I played most of the bass on that record myself. Willie Green, who lives down the street, came and overdubbed the drums.
I might have a good idea in my head about an approach, but I have to be humble enough to abandon that should it not be working, and have another approach on reserve.
Do you ever bring other artists whom you produce into your own studios?
I’ve usually gone to them. All the U2 records I did were made in fascinating locations around Dublin, or we went to Germany. We’ve always enjoyed building a studio around a project. It establishes a nice level of commitment to the project. You might not get quite that same feeling walking into a commercial studio. I’ve done that, too, and it’s worked out fine, but there’s something nice about saying, “We’re going to build a place for the artist.” That’s what I did for the Neville Brothers on Yellow Moon. That’s what we did for The Joshua Tree with U2, and for a Willie Nelson record called Teatro.
When I asked Willie how he got started, he said, “Well we were only ever a dance band.” So, I decided I would replicate the dance club that he played in as a kid. I had an old Mexican cinema in California at the time; that was my shop. I put some risers in there and had some dancers in, so he didn’t feel like he was in a recording studio. We got a very nice performance from him. We were able to make a beautiful record in four days.
Lanois has worked on recordings by Brian Eno, Paul Oakenfold, Sinead O’Connor, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Cliff, and so many others. A few of the film scores that include his music are All the Pretty Horses, Good Will Hunting, Trainspotting, and Sling Blade. Here’s a selection of the big albums:
YEARALBUM TITLEBANDCREDITS* 2012 Battle Born The Killers Composer, Producer 2010 Le Noise Neil Young Producer, Production Assistant 2003 Shine Daniel Lanois Artist, Composer 1998 Teatro Willie Nelson Composer, Mandolin, Omnichord, Photography, Producer 1997 Time Out of Mind Bob Dylan Guitars, Photography, Producer 1995 Wrecking Ball Emmylou Harris Bass, Composer, Dulcimer, Guitar, Mandolin, Percussion, Producer, Vocals 1989 Yellow Moon Neville Brothers Guitar, Keyboards, Mixing, Producer, Vocals 1987 The Joshua Tree U2 Bass, Guitar, Omnichord, Percussion, Producer, Vocals 1986 So Peter Gabriel Engineer, Guitars, Horn Arrangements, Percussion, Producer * Note: Other producers and engineers also contributed to some of these albums.
BRIAN BLADE + DRUMAGOG
Engineer Adam Samuels on manipulating bass drum sounds for Flesh and Machine: “We used the Drumagog plug-in on on ‘Sioux Lookout’ and ‘Opera.’ I used Brian Blade’s bass drum to trigger an isolated sound that was then processed through a distortion pedal and amplified thru a P.A. It was re-recorded with a [Shure] Beta 58. This sound was tuned to a few different notes; each note was sent out to a fader on the console. Dan ‘played’ the notes on the faders and comped together a bass line composed of this tuned, distorted bass/kick sound. It has the benefit of being perfectly in time with Brian’s bass drum and it added something magical to the song.”
Daniel Lanois did most of the tracking for Flesh and Machine in his L.A.-area home studio with engineer Alex Krispin. “You know the idea of mixing a record where all the tracking is finished and then you sit down and mix it? That never happened with this record,” Krispin says. “We were mixing through the whole process. I feel a lot of the artistry of this record—the wacky sounds and the very deep soulful sounds—happened because we kept mixing.”
Krispin and Lanois kept several stations ready to go in the studio. “Everything is always left set up,” the engineer explains. “If you have a good bass sound, don’t mess with it. If you have a good drum sound, don’t touch it. It means I can run over to the RADAR, and I know if I hit [tracks] one through six, I know I will have my drums up. I know where everything is.”
Most of the microphones used in Lanois’ stations for this project were Shure SM57s. Both Lanois and Krispin laugh a bit talking about this—probably aware that outsiders may expect to read a very precious list of vintage and esoteric mics. However, the whole concept of leaving stations set up means that versatility and reliability are paramount. “We are fully supportive of the SM57,” Krispin says. “There’s something so magnificent about those microphones. I put them on kick drums, pianos, guitars, bass rigs—it sounds great.”
Krispin shares details about a few of the stations:
“A really important part of the bass sound on ‘Opera’ and ‘Sioux Lookout,’ [which Lanois describes in our interview] is the Axys P.A. speaker stack. We would print a kick drum, tune the kick drum, and then run the kick drum through his Axys P.A. and mike that, really pushing it hard. That’s one of the main stations.
“For another, we had a [Roland] 808 with a little dub setup on it. We were doing a lot of work through that for drumbeats. There was also a microKorg as well as a [Maestro] Rhythm King drum machine, and they were all going into a Mackie mixer that had access to a few different delay boxes that were on aux synths. The dub station signal was taken direct.
“At our guitar station, most of the sounds came from his Fender Tweed amps from the ‘50s—between ‘53 and ‘58. ‘Aquatic,’ for example, which is a beautiful steel piece, came out of two Fenders: one Pro-Amp and one Bandmaster. One is a 310 speaker cabinet and the other is a 15, so they’re bigger than the standard Deluxe Tweeds. We were hitting them through his Korg SDD-3000 delay [rack unit], which he’s been using for years. The SDD-3000 is his preamp, so to speak, and we hit the amplifiers with line-level from that. That was all set up in the foyer of his house.
“Most piano sounds were from an upright Steinway, that we also captured with a 57. We’re not big fans, as you can tell if you listen to the record, of shimmery high end. We don’t use condenser microphones. I just grab a little cushioning—a towel or a little pillow—jam it in the back of the soundboard, and move it around until it sounds good.”