Daniel Lanois: Conversations With A Sonic Mad Scientist

Daniel Lanois: Conversations With A Sonic Mad Scientist

“To take the listener on a sonic journey has always been my quest; for the listener to feel something they’ve never felt before would be the ultimate compliment.”

That’s how Daniel Lanois introduced his track-by-track description of Flesh and Machine, his new album and TIDAL’s HiFi Album of the Month.

Over countless hours spent in the studio, Lanois processed innumerable new sounds to craft a work of complete originality. The album flares with unique sounds and textures, painting sonic landscapes with the free yet tactful brush of an abstract impressionist. The most comparable reference points may be Lanois’ own work: notably his 2006 album Belladona, as well as his work on the ambient records of Brian Eno. Without discounting those time-tested albums, next to Flesh and Machine the former sounds conventional and earthbound, the latter seems so far away in space it appears two-dimensional. This record is more immersive, more stimulating, more alive.

TIDAL had the great honor of talking with Mr. Lanois about the album.

He is, above all, a thoughtful man of great kindness and generosity - and with only as much ego as seems appropriate for the multiple Grammy-winning producer behind landmark albums by Bob Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel, and many others.

In the duration of our conversation he compared himself to a scientist, a preacher, a painter and an explorer – all of which help describe what he’s doing on this record. What’s clearer than ever is that Daniel Lanois is a visionary artist to the highest degree, with ambition and skill to match. For someone with a proven knack for producing commercially successful gold, Lanois is foremost driven by a higher calling – boiled down in the quote above.

While Flesh and Machine may not be heard or understood by the greater masses, those with a receptive ear will be able to appreciate, if nothing else, the experience this sonic mastermind is trying to give them: to take a journey, to hear something they’ve never heard before.

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Talk about Flesh and Machine.

‘The album is obviously very sonically driven. It’s something I spent a lot of time on it in my laboratories. It started out as a more conventional song record, but these distractions that came my way seemed more interesting than the songs, I decided to jump in with both feet toward these new-type sonics.

The sounds are all from my own samplings. Where the sounds are not so familiar – those are all new samples of dubs that I make in my laboratory. On the song “Sioux Lookout” you can hear the strangeness of the callings and the responses; sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re hearing the sounds of animals or the sounds of people. I like this universal language I’m hinting at here. I see it as the tip on an iceberg, a chance for me to step into the future of music.

That sounds ambitious.

[laughs] Well the listeners will tell me if I’m right. But I like this direction a lot – this is really fresh to me. It sounds brand new.

You’ve said that the concept of this material is “taking the recording studio to the stage.” What does that mean?

What I’ve done is I’ve prepared multi-tracks for many titles. I take that multi-track player to the stage, and I‘ve built some ELMs [condenser microphones] running tandem with the multi-track. Where it gets interesting is when we dub and sample from live sources [during the performance] to provide an exciting presentation unique to the night.

On tour I have my friend Brian Blade on the drums, and I supply him with time references to play along to the multis. In this way I’m revealing activities of the recording studio that nobody ever sees or hears. They might hear it on the record as some kind of ornamental detail – but this time I decided to make my studio details, my laboratory details, the center of the picture. I want to present that picture on the stage, so a good part of my set now is quite electro.

It took me a while to work this out with the technology, but I can display in a resourceful manner what it is I do in the recording studio. It’s not, push one button on the computer and have a cigarette – no, no, no – these are complex preparations that require a lot of curation on the stage. It’s a way of mixing performance with technology – hence the title, Flesh and Machine.

Your conviction in live performance is interesting, considering you’re thought of as such an important studio producer. What’s the difference between the studio and the stage?

You know I’ve been walking that tightrope all my life: Should I be in the studio? Should I be on the stage? Now it’s becoming clear to me how they are merging into one. Especially now that this kind of equipment is very transportable, I can get on an airplane with a small case and have access to all my sounds. It’s the most exciting thing that I’ve done, because it keeps me close to my first love, my laboratory, where I’ve been since I was a kid, and brings me to a place where I can display what it is that I do.

And I haven’t abandoned my steel guitar. It’s still my old friend, and my playing is strong these days, so I want to include that as part of my set. Wherever there’s piano on the record there will be piano in the performance. There’s a very sweet piano melody on the record called “Iceland.” Brian and I do a live rendition the way we made it in the studio, taking it to its core.

I have a great love for film, so we’ve also prepared some interesting visuals for wherever we have access to a dark stage. The fellow that I work with, Adam Vollick, has discovered some early 19th century animations: they’re 150 years old, made before film, and they contain these beautiful drawings. We’re going to display those for some of our electric numbers. We’re trying to provide concertgoers with a fascinating visual and sound experience.

You refer to your studio as a “laboratory.” Do you think of yourself as some sort of mad scientist?

[laughs] I think a lot of people would agree with that, and I am quite mad. As I see it, I’m a sonic specialist; I’ve performed a lot of open-heart surgeries with sound. But I like the mad part of myself.

In the past I thought of myself as the guy who does his thing the studio, gets on the stage and strap on the old Les Paul and off you go. But when I look in the mirror these days, I can clearly see who I am and what I’m best at. This is part of my offering in these times, and people have been very kind. That’s what ‘s great about these modern times – it’s open season to whatever the imagination can provide. People are very welcoming and I’m having a really good time with it.

That much shows in the way you talk about it. And from the sound of it, you had some sort of revelation to reach this point.

I think you’re right. I’ve had these turnings in my life along the way. It seems like every five to seven years something strikes me as a direction to go toward – I’ve been very lucky that way.

Sometimes I feel a force coming upon me. At the risk of getting overly mystical here – I’m not very mystical but I believe in this force, and the drives I have. When the force comes upon me, or from inside me, I use it as fuel to get me to the next chapter in my work. I’ve been dreaming about this a long time, but dreams are only dreams until they come into focus, and then you have to do something about them. So I’m spending a lot of time preparing for the live show now, and I don’t think that I’ll ever go back to the studio the same way.

I think there’s a rising congregation; sometimes I talk about it in an ecclesiastical manner. As church attendance subsides, people still have an appetite to congregate and I think live music, live settings, places where people gather in a like-minded way, is part of the future of the spirit, if not specifically religion. I think that this congregation is on the rise, and I want to be part of it. I see a bohemian revolution, coming our way right now.

I hope you’re right.

[laughs] You know, a lot of my friends gather in an old-fashioned way: playing records, telling stories, enjoying a night where things are not made of tiny snippets. We’re not going to change the snippets part of this modern fast world, but we can easily slow things down and appreciate the sentiments and the bond of tranquility. We can follow though and allow something to flourish.

There’s a story to be told – not everything has to be a quick snapshot. I’m hoping to present this on the stage to the people, and I hope they can lose themselves in this beautiful world I’ve discovered. I’d like to stand outside of my own ego. I’d like it to be an experience for folks to leave that night with something they didn’t have before.

Talking about the album and this “new language” you’re inventing, it’s a different kind of listening experience than most commercially successful music, including the major albums you’ve produced.

Well I’m trying man. I’m trying to break new ground. I still live by the criteria that I’ve always lived by: I want to invent things that have never been heard, and provide listeners with a journey. People do it in different ways. I enjoy some of the pop music people are doing these days. I think those people are very brave, but they are oftentimes very self-centered. Once the dust settles on publicity and commercial campaign, it’s nice for a record to live on and still raise the spirits some way or another.

As a self-described “sound specialist,” what does sound quality mean to you?

Well, sound quality starts with the makers of sound. And I try to make something that is very much in focus. Shadows are allowed, and background areas can be out of focus, but your centering must be right. So I always try to have the high fidelity presence to balance out the low fidelity. That brings us to depth of field; not everything has to sit on the same plane. As long as we have details to focus on in the foreground, then we accept those other components that are further away. I think that’s a universal rule in art – in painting, photography, sculpture and sound.

Some would describe this music as “ambient,” a movement you have some history with. What is ambient, and does Flesh and Machine fit into that category?

I see ambient music as something that Brian Eno started in the late ‘70s. He was very driven by a vision he had, and I was very lucky to be onboard with him for the making of a few ambient records. Brian operated by a philosophy. I think I’ve carried the torch of that time onto this record, certainly by devotion, if not specifically by sound. Like Brian I’ve found something in my work that I’m very excited by and devoted to.

I’ve given up a lot of potential commercial opportunities; this is not very commercial music. I want to transport listeners – that’s my job. I may make pop songs in the future, as Brian Eno has done after the ambient records, but that was not my intention this time. I remain loyal to the philosophy of the ambient music I did with Eno, but with my new sounds.

That philosophy being a lack of commercial intent?

It’s more about being devoted to an idea, to a direction, and finding something I’m excited about. Speaking of commerciality, I hope it does become commercial in the sense that I hope people like it and listen to it and tell their friends, that’s commerce I suppose. But I’m not very interested in the more advertising agency type of commerce. I’d like my music to be used in films. If I could provide good filmmakers with this music, it would be a thrill for me, and that’s a commercial avenue as well.

You’re first and foremost known as a “producer.” What does that title mean?

I was given the name of a “producer” – I never asked to be one. I didn’t know what that meant. When I first started I was just a guy with a studio in his mother’s basement, making records because I love music. So I’m a music lover and a music maker.

I’ve certainly sat in that [producer’s] chair and helped a lot of people out over the years – I’m quite proud of that work. The strength of collaboration appeals to me. I get calls all the time from people wanting to do something with me. I’m playing a show in New York with Tinariwen, a band from Mali. I’ve just remixed one of their songs, and we’re going to be sharing the stage in a Masonic temple in Brooklyn. How amazing is that? That’s my idea of an incredible musical exchange.

So there it is, my friend. I don’t have to be in the recording studio to do what I do best, so the word “producer” is an antiquated term for me. I’m a music lover, a music maker, and a collaborator. Most importantly I want to communicate music to people, either by radio, by festival, by intimate concert – anyway that I can. Above all it’s important for me, right now, to be in contact with what I believe to be some of my best work.


All Images by Margaret Marissen.

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