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Daniel Lanois: For The Beauty Of Wynona, Vintage Gear

Interview | Producer/Artist By Paul Tingen
Published September 1994

Daniel Lanois has followed up a career producing acclaimed recordings for the likes of U2 and Peter Gabriel with two solo albums which have earned him equal respect as an artist in his own right. Paul Tingen talked to him about the changing directions in his own music.

Ever since his commercial and artistic breakthrough as a producer with the U2 album The Joshua Tree (co‑produced with Brian Eno) and Peter Gabriel's 'So' in 1986, the work of Canadian Daniel Lanois has received almost unanimous worldwide praise. With his now legendary emphasis on 'feel' and 'performance', exemplified in getting artists to record in unusual locations, and his often unearthly sounding 'treatments', he was, and is, recognised as a highly original creative force. Always having given the impression that he was really a musician and artist who'd fallen into record production by default, nobody was very surprised to see Lanois release a solo album, Acadie, in 1988, further increasing his profile; critics admired the exquisite, intimate, acoustic guitar‑based sound and the strongly narrative songs, often inspired by the French‑Canadian folk tradition.

In the midst of the praise, Lanois himself came across as a rather introverted, laid‑back soul. This impression was strengthened when I met the man for the first time in Eno's flat in West London in 1987. He was remarkably relaxed and 'real', displaying not a whiff of star pride; here was a man clearly at ease with himself and his public image. That was then. But things change.

The first sign of this was the trouble it took me to get a second interview with Lanois. Over the years we'd had several brief conversations on the telephone. They were always purely professional, usually when I needed a quote for an article, but it was never difficult to get a hold of him and talk to him. But when, after the 1992 release of U2's Achtung Baby and Gabriel's Us, it seemed time to do another interview, Lanois was suddenly shielded off. I was dealing with people around him for a long time, who clearly were more interested in me writing about his solo album than his production career.

Finally, after dozens of transatlantic phonecalls and half‑promises of an interview, I was referred back to Lanois' record company, WEA UK, who organised the press for his second solo album For The Beauty Of Wynona. What it all amounted to was, in a nutshell, the birth of the image of Daniel Lanois the artist, as opposed to Daniel Lanois the producer‑musician. And with that, it appeared that the gentle, unassuming musician and producer had decided that he wanted to portray a much more aggressive and aloof image. So much was also clear from the cover of his newest album. Acadie's elegant white cover was graced with simple black and white pictures of a melancholic‑looking Lanois. But Wynona featured a disturbing shot of a naked, emaciated girl holding a knife. And the pictures of a brooding Lanois on Acadie made way for starker images of the Canadian, attired in head band and other assorted hippy‑inspired gear.


I finally met up with Lanois in a small room in the London offices of WEA. His naturally attentive and polite demeanour was still there, but this time Lanois appeared closed and restless. Somehow one sensed an underlying impatience.

To pick up a little Fostex studio weighing two pounds with one hand — that to me was a breakthrough!

Much of the music on For The Beauty Of Wynona appears to express a similar feel. Though the French‑Canadian folk‑roots are still there, the carefully sculpted intimacy of Acadie is gone, replaced by a wild orgy of drums, treatments, and distorted electric guitars, and the aim was clearly to achieve a spontaneous, live feel. The result, though in places brilliant, sounds at times also ragged, unfinished, blurred, almost chaotic. "Yes," nodded Lanois, when asked to comment, "Wynona is a much harder hitting record than Acadie. It was built on fiery backing tracks played live by a band, and when you start with that sort of foundation, you're constantly reminded of high energy and anything else which you put on will be a response to that energy. Ultimately you end up with a tougher sound. The tracks on Acadie were usually started from quiet, single‑instrument beginnings, mostly me on an acoustic guitar, whereas on Wynona everything had a raw, interactive, band beginning. I think I've grown a little bit tired of polishing details on records. I'd rather spend my time pushing more rock‑like performances. I think musical recklessness goes a long way on records and you don't hear enough of it. I'm evolving away from the more atmospheric moods of the past. I'm still real interested in setting strong moods in music, but, for example, I'm trying to expand my tool box in treatments beyond pastoral sounding long tones, to shorter, harder, more explosive‑sounding tones.

"I tried to operate extremes on Wynona. A track like 'Brother LA' might grate on you a little bit. It came out of a jam during a party that went out of control. My guitar processer broke down and went into psychedelic feedback. Normally speaking you get a technician in to repair it, but I just loved the effect and built the song around it. When you get a gift like that you use it. On the other hand there's a track like 'The Collection Of Marie Claire' which is down to one dobro. I think there's grit in both these approaches. And we all like a bit of grit when we can get it."

Beauty In Perspective

Lanois carried on to describe the central theme of For The Beauty Of Wynona: "We all know the kind of beautiful and pristine sounding records with a very wide stereo image that have come out over the last years. Yet I don't want to make beautiful sounding records. I want to make records that have beauty in a small part of the picture. A beautiful flower in the corner of a picture of a dirty railway track will show up much more than if it was placed in the corner of a beautiful picture. If everything is beautiful you have no depth. Beauty will only be noticed in perspective, in contrast with something that is not beautiful."

One doesn't often hear an artist say that he doesn't want to make beautiful sounding records, and it's even more unusual to hear a world‑renowned producer make this comment, or to hear him say that he isn't interested in "polishing details on records anymore." Whilst it's true that many records today are over‑worked and that an element of recklessness would have helped them, Lanois' statement seems further evidence of his shift in focus from being a producer to being an artist. Whatever, the parallels between Wynona and Lanois' two most recent major productions are striking.

U2's Achtung Baby has a similar quality of unrest, raggedness and recklessness. Even Gabriel's Us sounds looser and less perfect than its predecessor So, to the point where it elicits off‑the‑record comments from people close to Gabriel that the production is in places 'sloppy' — a striking observation about a project that took almost two years to record!

Feel Barometer

Did problems arise when it came to fusing Gabriel's legendary attention to detail and Lanois' preference for recklessness? The Canadian responds: "It's true that Peter likes detail, but he also likes performance a lot. Having watched Peter for a long time now, I know that this is the aspect of recording that he enjoys the most: giving it hell and jamming it out with the band. His attention to detail generally goes into the area of sonic creativity. He likes to break new ground sonically and I encouraged him to spend time on that."

With U2 there were no possible problems of intention, because both Lanois and the band deliberately wanted to be reckless: "They were interested in having some harder hitting, clear‑cut music. So we managed to re‑introduce some of the fun and fuzziness which were present on some of the records of the '60s and '70s, where the drums were all distorted and there was a fuzz bass going on. I was very much a feel barometer at those sessions. They were investigating new territory, and I kept an eye on the emotions, making sure that there would be enough 'emotion' content on the record." And of course, the Gabriel and U2 sessions in turn influenced Wynona.

"My record was done in short spurts between the cracks of U2 and Peter Gabriel. I once thought that that would be an awful disadvantage, because I wouldn't be able to give my own work priority time. But there's something that comes out of these guerilla sessions, where you are forced in and forced out very quickly. In a way you don't care so much about the results. When you do something that quickly, you don't get a chance to get sentimental about it."

Lanois was born 42 years ago, raised in Hamilton, Ontario. After paying his dues, playing guitar in a variety of R&B and dance bands in his teens, he started a studio with his brother Bob in the basement of his mother's house in 1970. They recorded a variety of roots music — C&W, gospel, blues and so on — and were successful enough to have moved on to 24‑track by 1980. The studio was called Grant Avenue, and developed a name as a place where a lot of innovative work was done. This attracted Brian Eno, who visited in the early '80s and worked with Lanois on an album by Harold Budd called Plateaux Of Mirror. A partnership was born which lasts till this day. Lanois co‑produced Eno's On Land (1982) album with him, and the two collaborated with Roger Eno on the album Apollo, Atmosphere & Soundtracks (1983). During the mid‑'80s Lanois also co‑produced albums by Michael Brook, Roger Eno and Jon Hassell. His big break came in 1984 when Eno invited him to co‑produce what became U2's Unforgettable Fire. The success of that album led to them co‑producing U2's magnum opus The Joshua Tree (1987).

Meanwhile Gabriel had worked with Lanois on his soundtrack for Alan Parker's movie Birdy (1985) and Gabriel invited him to co‑produce his next studio album. So (1986) was both commercially and artistically a runaway success, and Lanois found himself in high demand as a producer. His magic touch subsequently seemed to work for Robbie Robertson (Robbie Robertson, 1988), The Neville Brothers (Yellow Moon, 1989), and Bob Dylan (Oh Mercy, 1989).

Heavy Turkeys

In the late '80s, Lanois moved to New Orleans, where he set up his own studio, Kingsway, a rather funky place located in a large 19th century house. Very little, if any, acoustic treatment was done, an API mixing desk was deposited in the living room, Lanois spread out his guitars and amps and all kinds of other instruments in the house, and recordings take place anywhere, in the living room, in the hall, in the kitchen — wherever the mood of the musicians flowers best. It all exemplifies the performance‑based philosophy for which Lanois became famous. He likes saying things like "when you have a good performance you have a good mix", and takes many of the holy cows of the modern studio, like isolation and control, with a pinch of salt.

Although producer George Martin had already experimented with the principle of renting a house and putting equipment in it in the early '70s, it was Lanois who became most famous for this approach. It also included the record‑everything‑in‑the‑control‑room working method, which had already started to become commonplace in MIDI‑based projects, but was still being avoided by most live musicians. Most famously, Lanois and Eno recorded U2's The Unforgettable Fire in the enormous rooms of Slane Castle in Dublin. Gabriel's huge control room at Real World studios was also strongly influenced by Lanois' off‑beat and experimental recording views.

I want to make records that have beauty in a small part of the picture. A beautiful flower in the corner of a picture of a dirty railway track will show up much more than if it was placed in the corner of a beautiful picture.

Given Lanois' emphasis on performance and feel, one might be forgiven for thinking that he's also one of those producers who doesn't really care what kind of equipment he works on; he certainly tends to place more importance on the user‑friendliness of much new equipment than on its perceived advantages in sonic quality. He argues that we've already had everything we need to make good records for years. His opinion on new recording formats like the ADAT is a case in point.

"I've worked with the ADAT and I think it's a pretty good machine. But it's too heavy. What interests me about that world is the opportunity for compactness, and with ADAT they've missed that. It's a heavy son of a bitch. Try stacking up three of these turkeys and move them around. A 24‑track digital machine makes a hell of a lot more sense. I don't know what the big deal is about ADAT, do you?" The answer, that it offers digital sound quality in a multitrack at a price previously unheard of, didn't make much impression on him. Lanois became impatient, scathing almost: "Oh, come on man, I have a clunky 8‑track Studer with dbx and it sounds fucking great. It kicks ass, it makes great records. People go on about sound quality as if it's now just all come around the corner. That's a bunch of shit. An 8‑track is an 8‑track. Those one‑inch reel to reel 8‑tracks kick ass, they have great bottom and a very sweet top end. It seems to me that things continually appear that we had all along and that people treat them like they're something ground breaking, whereas they're not."


This theme really got Lanois heated, and more annoyance came pouring out when I asked him whether he seriously thought that 8‑track reel‑to‑reel is at root the same thing as 8‑track digital. ""Why are we spending so much time talking about tape recorders when we should be talking about ideas? OK, we have an 8‑track digital. So what? I've had great 8‑tracks all my life. I'll be happier when digital people get really smart and put out a tape recorder that you can carry in one hand in an attache case so that you can go to some place on a two‑second decision to do some work.

"I think that these people actually stepped backward from portastudios. To pick up a little Fostex studio weighing two pounds with one hand — that to me was a breakthrough! Now we have a digital 8‑track but we need a roadie and a flightcase to carry it. I don't get it. If it was really small, I'd be happy to talk about it. But they still haven't come out with a digital portastudio, and they should. If that ADAT looked like a portastudio, ie. had a little mixer and mic pre‑amps and everything, then we could go: 'wowie zowie!'

"I've been asking for this for years, and I think it's sheer laziness on the part of designers that they haven't made them. They've made really tiny DAT machines, why can't they make digital portastudios? I think that they are frightened to enter that world, because suddenly multitrack tape recorders would be inexpensive and everybody would have access to them. For me that's exactly the deal. Tape recorders... talk to me about compactness, about a size that actually promotes spontaneity, not about sound quality."

Clearly, Lanois's tirade finds its roots in the fact that he has no problems with the quality of existing gear. On the contrary. Though he uses digital and MIDI in his capacity as a producer, he generally is a fan of more vintage gear. "Sound quality is not the conversation I want to have, because I've never had a problem with it. I've never had any problems with tape recorders... I take that back. The one thing that has improved with digital machines is that they are great for drop‑ins. If you're not very good at doing drop‑ins, use a Mitsubishi." (laughs). "I will generally use analogue machines, though for vocals I will occasionally use digital. I do mix to digital, to DAT, but I assemble on half‑inch two‑track with Dolby SR. I'll often take stuff that's been mixed to DAT, bounce it back onto the half‑inch and do some edits. What happens in the transfer is that a little bit of the loudness curve of the half‑inch is picked up and the result is a better bass, a better top end and the mid‑range crunches down during hard hitting transient passages, which is a very musical effect."

"I like the idea of digital editing systems that are real flexible, like Soundtools. I also use the AMS Audio File really successfully. But we're talking a different thing here. We're not talking about recording, but about editing, merging mixes and so on, and for these things this digital gear is really handy."

More Information

Lanois tends to get more lyrical when talking about vintage gear. One example of this is his API desk, which graces Kingsway's front room: "The desk came out of the Record Plant in New York. These consoles have a really good and punchy bass. They also have wonderful equalisers. Each channel has a very musical 10‑band graphic with great bottom and top end. I like graphic EQs because they're quick to use. You can make a musical change on them in three seconds, whereas with a parametric it's fiddly, and you might be messing around with something for two or three minutes and still wonder whether you've improved something or not. The graphic is quick and it's visual. You can look at 40 channels in one glance and see what you're doing.

"This brings up the subject of visual communication," exclaimed Lanois, jumping with passion onto what was clearly one of his favourite hobby horses. "What really bothers me is the lack of information modern equipment that works with computer screens provides you with. The concept is usually that when you want a piece of information you have to ask for it, and you're then presented with the relevant part of the picture. You can never see the whole picture at once. But I like to see the whole picture. My intelligence is such that I can take in a lot of information at once and I demand to see a lot of information.

I'll be happier when digital people get really smart and put out a tape recorder that you can carry in one hand in an attache case so that you can go to some place on a two‑second decision to do some work.

"I want to see where I am in a song, I want to see the arrangement, I want to see the movement of the faders, I want to see everything at once. In the same way that when you're flying an airplane, you're not just looking at one gauge, you're seeing all the gauges at once. In short, I don't want one screen, I want 20 screens! I'm sure that the reasons for giving us so little information are purely economical, and I refuse to back down on this argument until the manufacturers finally cough up and give us the goods to work with."

With such emphasis on user‑friendliness, inspired by the conviction that the equipment to make high‑quality records has already been with us for many years, it's not surprising that Lanois' main focus at the studio lies at source, with the feel and the sounds picked up by the microphone. "Performance and tone seem to rule. A great tone is obviously going to promote great playing and great ideas, so I'll always try to get as good a sound from the instruments as possible. Put it this way: as long as a musician has an exciting sound to play to and to play with, you'll get results.

"Some of these exciting sounds can be achieved through manipulation in rack equipment. One of my favourite boxes is the Eventide H3000. I also like the SPX1000 and the Korg A3. The latter is essentially a guitar effects processor, but you can use it on vocals and all kinds of other things. I also like the Lexicon Prime Time. It's got this great little sampler in it which you can quickly drop down a couple of octaves with a twist of the fingers. In general, I like boxes on which you can change the parameters very fast."


The interview was drawing to a close. For a last question I returned once more to the theme of beauty and grit, and things never being given to one in an easy, straightforward package. After his modest beginnings in Hamilton, Ontario, over two decades ago, Lanois has now achieved much of what he set out to do. What has he experienced in finding what he's been looking for? He grinned. "Well, you'd think that after having been in the trenches as long as I have the fun would kind of wear off and that one would like to try one's hand at something else. I can only be thankful that I haven't gotten tired of music. It's funny how the creative process works. It's almost like a drug of sorts. You break through, you get to a place and then you want to understand more. It seems that no matter where you get to, there's always something else coming around the bend that you want to understand, that you want to know about. There's still other paintings to be made. It's what keeps me going."

Talking Guitars

Lanois is a great lover of vintage guitars and guiter amps, and owns an impressive collection of instruments, like various '50s and '60s Teles, Strats and Gibsons. Live, he'll often use a Vox AC30 or a Fender 410 Bassman, with a Chandler Tube Driver and a Korg SDD3000. Acoustic guitars he tends to record via pick‑ups and amps. His favorite combination is Lawrence pick‑ups through small Fender amps like the little Champ or the DeLuxe. "The reason I use pick‑ups on the acoustic guitar is that I like isolating it from the vocals, whilst usually recording vocals and guitar at the same time.

"I'm not such a purist that I have to record acoustic guitars with a mic. I actually prefer the amplified acoustic sound in some situations, because it can give you a little more personality, a little more harmonic distortion. When you turn them up to the edge of feedback, you get some nice surprises. Of course, when it's called for, I'll be happy to record an acoustic guitar in a pure fashion. For that I use whatever works best, which changes from guitar to guitar. But I often use a U47 tube mike, or a little Neumann pencil mike — I forgot the number — they're really full and bright at the same time."