The method man

A memoir, a Neil Young CD: Daniel Lanois is back. Jonathon Gatehouse on the legend’s search for pure sound.

Roman Cho; Getty Images/ Maragret Marissen

Sometimes Daniel Lanois feels like he’s being held hostage by the ghosts in his head. The brittle hi-hat in Arthur Alexander’s Anna—a soul ballad that peaked at No. 68 on the pop charts in 1962, and is mostly remembered for the cover version the Beatles did the following year. The warbling acoustic guitar of Blind Willie Johnson, a Texas bluesman and street preacher who died in 1945, leaving behind 30 songs and just one photograph. The “multidimensional” quality of old John Lee Hooker cuts: parched vocals up front, the bright tremolo and reverb of the guitar soaring above, and way out to one side, shoe leather scuffing against the studio floor. Sonic building blocks from the past that rattle around the super-producer and musician’s brain, waiting to burst back out in new finery, stretched, tweaked, or sometimes distorted beyond all recognition.

It’s part and parcel of his relentless search for sounds that will elevate a recording from workaday to timeless. The seven-time Grammy winner has a lot of pet terms for the process—a mixture of sacking and sleuthing. Over the years, he’s called it “testimonial exorcism,” “spotting,” and “highly paid vandalism.” But the one that seems to fit the best is Soul Mining, the title of his forthcoming musical memoir. “If you’re trying to solve a riddle, or do something that hasn’t been done before, you’re going to be at it for awhile because it requires a lot of research,” the 59-year-old drawls down the line from Bella Vista, his hilltop villa overlooking L.A.’s Silver Lake reservoir. “You bump into things you don’t like, then you discard them. But oftentimes those by-products are more interesting than what you thought you were going after in the first place. It takes a lot of time.”

There are few, if any, limits. For the U2 classic Bullet in Blue Sky, he found the “tanky” sound he was after by pumping Larry Mullen’s drums through a PA system in an empty warehouse. He and Bob Dylan both plugged into the same old Vox amp on Love Sick, blending their guitars at source. And then there are the Jamaican dub-style riffs he has added to Neil Young’s soon-to-be-released Twisted Road—an album that was supposed to be acoustic and ended up electro. “I love all ideas, even absurd ones,” Lanois writes in Soul Mining.

It’s also the kind of commitment to artistic vision that can border on the scary. Dylan, more than a little quirky himself, devoted a whole chapter of his autobiography, Chronicles, Vol. 1, to his collaboration with Lanois on 1989’s Oh Mercy. Recorded mostly at night in the kitchen of a crumbling New Orleans mansion, the sessions devolved into a titanic battle of the wills between musical eccentrics. “Danny . . . had the confidence to try anything. He cared a lot. Sometimes I thought he cared too much. He would have done anything to make a song happen—empty the pans, wash dishes, sweep the floors,” Dylan writes. “One thing about Lanois that I liked is that he didn’t want to float on the surface. He didn’t even want to swim. He wanted to jump in and go deep. He wanted to marry a mermaid.”

Soul Mining begins with a description of a 1950s Quebec childhood that would warm Cornelius Krieghoff’s heart—all deep snow banks, maple syrup, and fiddle-playing by the fire. But just like the song Jolie Louise from Lanois’s first solo album Acadie, the sweetness hides a sour truth. “My dad was hitting not only the bottle, but also my mother,” Lanois writes. Unable to take it anymore, she finally packed up her four kids and drove to Hamilton, Ont., where her brother owned a bar and a rooming house. Daniel, the second eldest, was 10, and spoke no English. “Music was an outlet for me,” he says over the phone. “I felt a little isolated as a French-Canadian kid having to learn English at the age where it was difficult to fit in. Music became my secret world.” First the penny whistle, then the slide guitar. Before long, he could play almost anything. It was another way to communicate.

He left home for the first time at age 15, hitchhiking to Florida with a friend. Three years later, he and his older brother, Bob, bought Harleys and tried out the Easy Rider fantasy for a while. Lanois admits to a brief experiment with crime—dealing drugs and stealing cars—but soon decided that music was his calling. He played the bar circuit in northern Ontario, touring with a female impersonator, and Miss Montego, a top-heavy Jamaican stripper who would set her tassels alight and rotate them in different directions—a guaranteed show-stopper. His own bands came and went, as did the gigs backing up better-known musicians, although his steel guitar stint for Sylvia Tyson did get him on stage at Maple Leaf Gardens.

He and Bob had always been the kind of kids who liked to pull things apart and put them back together—toys, stereo components, the engine of their mom’s car. A tape recorder purchased at a flea market for their basement musical experiments gave way to a reel-to-reel, then a Revox console, then a four-track. By the mid-’70s, they were offering their producing services to local musicians. Funkster Rick James, then living in Buffalo, N.Y., came for a session (and never paid.) They helped Raffi record his first kids album, Singable Songs for the Very Young. The fee was $1,500, including Lanois’s mandolin playing. It’s still a bestseller, almost 35 years later.

The pair moved out of the basement and established a real studio on Grant Avenue in Hamilton. Hundreds of acts filtered through, including the one their sister Jocelyne played bass for, Martha and the Muffins. In 1980, Daniel recorded some demos for a Toronto band called Time Twins. Somehow, the tapes found their way into the hands of Brian Eno, in New York City. The former Roxy Music keyboard player liked what he heard and booked some studio time to work on his own experiments with “ambient” electronica. Eno was already a big name, known for his work with Robert Fripp, Genesis, and David Bowie. But Lanois, who had never heard of him, made him pay up front. They became buddies and collaborators.

When a hot young Irish band hired Eno to produce their next album in 1983, he brought his Canadian friend along for the ride. Lanois recalls being crammed into a car with Eno and all the members of U2, rocketing around Dublin as Bono screamed along with the tape deck. The Unforgettable Fire, released in October 1984, sold more than four million copies worldwide. The follow-up, The Joshua Tree, released three years later, sold 25 million copies. Lanois’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.

The method is surprisingly straightforward. Forging a common language is the first task—forcing the musicians and recording team to settle on the vocabulary they will use to describe the component parts of each song. Then the diagrams—structural timelines written on a big easel so everyone can see them. “I like to go public with my information,” says Lanois. “And I keep a nice big clock in the studio so somebody at the back of the room can say, ‘Hey, there was something at the 2:32 mark that I’d like to hear again.’ ”

In his own notebooks, the producer sketches far more detailed musical maps with notes on miking, mixing, even where the instruments sound best in the room. (Soul Mining reproduces a couple of pages on a demo for U2’s Pride. “Bass is sounding good at back of studio, therefore drums in reception may be the best idea,” reads one thought bubble.)

Lanois is also a big believer in the idea that inspiration flows from atmosphere. The Unforgettable Fire was recorded in an Irish castle. There were several different set-ups in New Orleans over the years. And for a time, he worked out of an old porno theatre in Oxnard, Calif., up the coast from Los Angeles. Teatro, as he dubbed it, had parachutes hanging from the ceiling, weather balloons that served as floating projection screens for old newsreels and boxing movies, and restaurant booths and bleachers on the floor in case an audience was called for. His album with Willie Nelson was recorded there, as was the soundtrack he composed for Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade. These days he prefers to create a new studio for each project. “It’s almost like decorating the room for an event,” Lanois says. “When you do that, the project feels important. It feels different from the others.”

Then there is the madness. When U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb won album of the year at the 2005 Grammys, Bono joked about people being confined to a “home for the bewildered” after the fraught sessions. “Danny-boy Lanois is like, when you make an album with him either it’s going to be a great album, or somebody’s gonna die. Probably you,” said the front man. While recording So at Peter Gabriel’s English estate, Lanois locked the singer up in a barn and nailed the door shut, in an attempt to force him to finish the lyrics. Dylan writes about the producer smashing a Dobro to bits in a fit of rage. (Although the Oh Mercy sessions couldn’t have been that bad, as the pair hooked up again for 1997’s Time Out of Mind, another Grammy Album of the Year winner.) “We all have high expectations,” Lanois explains. “But I’ve tried to leave the French-Canadian thug behind.”

Closing in on senior status, he may be mellowing. His latest musical foray, Black Dub, is a “collective,” not a solo project. The album, due to be released Nov. 2 (the same day as the book), is a departure from his folkie work in the past—a blend of rock, soul, reggae and dub. “Part of me still wants to go north and write from the tundra,” he says. “But I’ve lived in Jamaica for the last 10 years, and I wanted to carry that rhythmic torch.”

The new band was supposed to have toured this summer, but those plans were cancelled  and the album release pushed back after he piled his BMW motorcycle into a car in June. Lanois punctured a lung, broke 10 bones in all, including six ribs, and spent three weeks in intensive care. He says he has absorbed the lesson about riding a bike in city traffic, but not the one about slowing down. He was back at work almost as soon as he left the hospital, and spent some more time mixing the Neil Young disc, albeit from a wheelchair. “It was kind of a blessing in disguise,” he says. “l think the album is better for it.”

Toronto residents will get the first chance to hear the fruits of the collaboration at the stroke of midnight on Oct. 3, when Lanois is planning to preview four tracks outside City Hall, part of the dusk-to-dawn Nuit Blanche art festival. The electro-Young should fit in nicely with the rest of the night, a sound, light and film show featuring listening and viewing pods scattered across Nathan Phillips Square, each wired with a 24-channel speaker system.

Lanois plans to blow into the city a couple of weeks in advance, and compose some music for the night. He’s got a new Toronto base—a former Buddhist temple that he jokes the monks sold to him when they got tired of the filth and the rats. The sounds for the show are mingling with the ghosts in his head, but he’s in no hurry to force the creative process. “It’s a challenge to be forever looking for new ways,” he says. “But it’s like when you become interested in a woman. A little spontaneity and response to the immediate subject matter go a long way.”

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