Flesh and Machine: Daniel Lanois in Dub
An interview with Doug Heselgrave
Daniel Lanois on his love of Jamaican music. Are you ready for ‘Oh Mercy’ in dub?
Want to start a fight in the music journalist’s bar? Bring up Daniel Lanois. Love him or hate him, everyone has an opinion about the renowned Canadian producer and guitarist’s work.
‘He just doesn’t know how not to overproduce. I feel like an archaeologist listening to anything he records – you have to dig through layers of sound to get to what’s really happening in the song!’
‘He’s saved more careers than I can count. He seems to hone in on exactly what a song needs. Listen to his records with Bob Dylan and the new one with Neil Young and you can hear him kick both of their asses and bring out what’s so essential about both of their music.’
Those are just two of the opinions offered to me as I had a coffee before meeting with Daniel at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom where he and Black Dub were set to perform later on in the evening.
In many ways, my assessment of Lanois’ work straddles somewhere between the two polarities offered above. I have loved ‘Oh Mercy’ and ‘Time Out of Mind’ since they were released, but something about ‘Le Noise’ leaves me cold, but it may have more to do with the songs Neil Young wrote than with the sonic whirlwinds that Lanois channelled them through.
As a reggae journalist of many years standing, the name of Lanois’ new recording outfit – Black Dub – naturally caught my attention. Then, when he started discussing the influence of artists like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry on his work (I consider Perry one of the world’s greatest living artists) I just had to hear what he was up to. Not surprisingly, the music Black Dub play isn’t text book reggae, nor is it really dub in the traditional sense, but it is easy to hear how the fractured rhythms, time signatures and echoes of old school dub music has offered Lanois another paradigm for mixing and playing music.
When I met Daniel before the show, he seemed relaxed, attentive and truly happy to discuss how Jamaican music has informed his work. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Daniel: Well, I’d love to meet Lee sometime. I saw him at the El Rey and the Silver Lake Street Festival last year. He’s a poet.
Doug: I’ve been listening to Black Dub quite a lot, and first I’m fascinated by the name of your band.
Daniel: Well, it started because I’ve been living part time in Jamaica for the past fifteen years. I had a place in Negril that I rented from Chris Blackwell for a long time. I did a little bit of work there in the nineties. That’s what attracted me to the place. I’ve always been fascinated by the dub culture. But, my dub technique is not the Jamaican style. I do an extraction or sample extractions from already existing components and then I treat them and put themback into the track. Some of them I do on the fly and they’re quite hit and miss. I just go back and erase the ones that are embarrassing and I keep the cool ones and I gradually stack up a track. Kind of a side track, a special effects track that I call my dub track. So, that’s how I do things.
Doug: So, I read somewhere that Black Dub came out of your desire to work with a band again. Did you have this kind of outfit in mind?
Daniel: I wanted to work with a singer and Trixie Whitely was the singer I was thinking of. I wanted someone of her calibre to play off of.
Doug: What an amazing voice she has!
Daniel: Amazing. That would allow me to concentrate on my guitar playing, song writing and production because those are the things I like to do best. So, that’s it. When I met Trixie in Belgium I thought that maybe she should be the voice of this dream band that I have had in my head for a while. You know some of the tracks like “I believe in you” has a reggae type bassline. A very nice bass line. Did you like it?
Doug: I know the one you mean. Love it. Nice and snaky. This is something I wanted to ask you. You’re playing dub with some very highly accomplished players – I’ve loved Brian Blade and his work with people like Joni Mitchell for years – but they’re not really known for playing Jamaican style music. Was this a conscious choice?
Daniel: Well,no. For me to embrace the term dub is an opportunity for me to be completely free in the studio to do whatever the Hell I want. That’s what I’ve always enjoyed about Jamaican dub music. They were so technologically resourceful even though they were so restricted in terms of what they had to work with. So, I like to operate along that philosophy.
Doug: I’ve talked with Lee Perry about these technological challenges and he said that he came up with lots of sounds as happy accidents because he didn’t have the technology. You’ve got all the technology in the world at your fingertips – does that get in the way of a certain element of surprise and reduce the amount of happy accidents you can have?
Daniel: Well, we all love happy accidents. I’d have to agree with him that sometimes something that you bump into as a byproduct of what you were going after gives you the most interesting bits. So, we keep ourselves open for that, but I don’t use a lot of boxes. I use three boxes and I’m ok with that. I don’t feel that I need to use much more than that. I still use my AMS which is really good for sampling. I sample on the fly and catch little bits, so I side-chain as I go along when I do a dub performance. We have a couple of boxes that add harmonics, so they tap tempo which can be useful. So, some of my pedals are just cheap guitar pedals that I put in a professional application to rock the boat a little bit. You never know what you’re going to get. And, I like mixing beat boxes with hand played instruments. Mixing machine with flesh is still something I like to do. There have been some great examples historically – like ‘In Time’ by Sly and the Family Stone on a record called ‘Fresh.’ It’s excellent. It could be highly regarded by Jamaican standards and otherwise.
Doug: Do you do any live mixing or improvising on the floor with this group. Am I going to hear something that sounds different than the recorded versions tonight?
Daniel: Yeah, Yeah! We carry a surround system, so we’re going to supplement the PA here at the Commodore. So, Mark has license to do some special effects and you’re going to hear some of that tonight.
Doug: So, now that you’re working with dub, it occurs to me that one of the staples of the reggae world is dub versions of existing albums. If you could remix one of the albums you’ve worked on – you know from U2 to Neil Young, which one would you choose?
Daniel: What an amazing idea! I think I could do a nice job of a couple of the Bob Dylan tracks from ‘Oh Mercy’ an album we did together in the late eighties. A good many of the songs are fixed times and beat boxed in source. We added real drums after. There’s one called ‘Most of the Time’ that would be a good one to go after. I think I should give Bob a call.
Doug: That would be fun. I noticed on his website, there was a call for remixes of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’ Some of them were atrocious, but a few of them were amazing.
Daniel: Ha Ha. It’s hit and miss and you never know until you get in there. Yeah, I should give him a call. In fact, it might be a cool record for me to make. I could call some of my past customers and ask them for a track to go after and put out a record of that.
Doug: I’d love to hear it. When I think of ‘Oh Mercy’ there’s such a rhythmic subtext that could be split and blown up.
Daniel: ‘Most of the Time.’ Yeah, yeah. That’d be a good one.
Doug: Finally, you’ve got my imagination going here – if you worked on an album with Lee Perry what would you expect to learn and what would you bring to the table?
Daniel: I don’t know if I could add anything to Lee’s work. We’d have to collaborate. Maybe we should do that record we were just talking about together.
Daniel: In fact, I should do that and call my customers and say ‘I’m ready for this. Lee’s going to do it with me.’ Well, thanks for that. What a great idea.
Doug: Thanks Daniel
Daniel: No thank you. It was so sweet of you to pay such careful attention to this music and hear all of the things you do. Be sure to come out tonight. You’re going to hear some great great drumming – among other things. Thanks again. This was very sweet.
This posting originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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