Daniel Lanois – Who are you?
“I like records. I don’t like technology. What’s your record? What are you singing about? What’s in your heart? What’s on the horizon? All of that is fascinating to me.”
“Have you heard about the iPlug?” asked Daniel Lanois. “You put it in your ass, and you think you’ve had a great life. You’ve made love to Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts. And Sissy Spacek. Everybody! You’ve done everything. You’ve ridden with Genghis Khan while you were sleeping. So, you imagine you’ve had this life, but at a certain point it’s like what do you want, what are you doing, where are you going?”
Though Lanois and his interviewer both laughed heartily, the joke was almost as surprising as it was amusing. In his music and profiles, the Canadian musician-producer comes across as more of a cerebral sort, less of a laugh riot. Yet on this morning — and it’s the rare musician who consents to a morning interview — he was funny, frequently profane, shooting from the hip.
And his major target was technology, digital technology in particular, the same technology that has allowed him to practice his studio wizardry with artists such as U2 (as well as Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel and Emmylou Harris) and to take his own career in a brand new direction.
His latest enterprise is Red Floor Records, a website label (redfloorrecords.com) that has made his new Here Is What Is album available as a high-quality digital download for months before its March 18 retail release. The album is the soundtrack to a documentary of the same name, one that chronicles not only the making of the music but sessions with U2, the Neville Brothers and others, as well as wide-ranging discussions with his occasional production partner Brian Eno.
Further plans for the website label include the Omni Series, featuring thematic releases of material from the vaults, including an album of steel guitar instrumentals that has Lanois particularly pumped. The artist’s entire catalogue of solo releases has been reissued through the website as well.
As Lanois acknowledges, the enterprise would not have been possible without digital technology. Yet over the course of a freewheeling discussion, he railed against that technology as more of a curse than a blessing. He likes record stores, shuffling through bins. He likes people talking to people, sharing with people. He doesn’t like the vision of androids plugged into their computers, thinking that they’re connecting with something, experiencing something.
“I think some of what we’re seeing is a bit of a fad,” he continues. “I go to a coffee shop, and I swear to you every person in the shop is staring at a computer. And I think to myself, What the fuck is this? Bunch of losers. C’mon, somebody propose a toast! People think that if they’re not buried in their computers and responding to emails or writing a masterpiece, they don’t have a life.”
Lanois is by no means an analog nostalgic or back-to-mono fetishist. An artistic alchemist in the studio, he has consistently mastered the technology of the times, using the mixing board as a tool for creating musical effects rather than simply capturing musical interplay. But he believes technology in music is way less important than inspiration, spirit and soul, flesh-and-blood interaction. He’s more interested in the artistic equivalent of organic chemistry than digital technology.
“Whether you’re using a mono machine and it’s 1954 and you’re recording Miles Davis, that’s no different to me than when you’re using 7,000 microphones and 7,000 tracks,” he explains. “I mean, you know damn well that all the rock ‘n’ rollers using ProTools are listening to Led Zeppelin records.
“I like records,” he continues. “I don’t like technology. What’s your record? What are you singing about? What’s in your heart? What’s on the horizon? All of that is fascinating to me. It would be like saying to Robert Frank” — the photographer known for the classic The Americans and the notoriously suppressed Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues — “‘Hey Robert. Have you checked out the new digital camera?’ You wouldn’t insult him by asking that. You’d say, ‘Robert, tell me about the shadows in your pictures.'”
Point taken. The new Lanois album is easily the most expansive and arguably the richest of his career, balancing shadows and luminosity, vocals and instrumentals, sensual and spiritual. Much of it features Lanois on steel guitar, an instrument he describes as both “my main ax” and “my little church in a suitcase.” Highlights range from the Dylanesque “Where Will I Be” (recorded by Emmylou Harris on her 1995 Lanois-produced disc Wrecking Ball) and “Not Fighting Anymore” (a close melodic cousin to “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”), to the falsetto soul balladry of “Lovechild”, to the propulsive rock of “Duo Glide”, to the gospel revivalism of “The Last Time”.
His main musical collaborators are Louisiana percussion powerhouse Brian Blade and fellow Canadian Garth Hudson of The Band. The contributions by Hudson are particularly revelatory, as the musician most renowned for his “Chest Fever” organ excursions plays some meditative acoustic piano here that sounds more like Keith Jarrett. The results surprised Lanois as well.
“I was not so familiar with him as a piano player, and I realized how wrong I was,” says Lanois. “He’s a great piano player. I’ve been hanging out with him over the past couple of years, and he’s a very profound person. There’s only a handful of people like him left, who lived through those times and have that musical knowledge. If I was his manager I would just get him a nice Italian suit and a fedora and pick him up in a limo and tell him, ‘OK, Garth, you’re doing Carnegie Hall tonight.’ Give him a Steinway, let him play for about an hour, and he’d touch a lot of hearts.”
Though the album stands on its own without the documentary, it took the film to jump-start the return of Lanois as a recording artist. Call it a mid-life crisis, call it an identity crisis, call it a crisis of confidence. Or call it too many options and too little focus. Whatever you call it, Lanois maintains that if his friend, associate and occasional bass player Adam Samuels hadn’t suggested a documentary, there would have been no album to document.