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Interview with Daniel Lanois

Silence, nighttime and the mysteries of the South is what drives Daniel Lanois – guitarist, pedal steel artist and producer. His latest album, ‘‘Belladonna’’ is a travel log from Mexico, where Miles Davis got to join in on the nightly studio adventures.

By Nikki O’Neill, initially published in FUZZ Magazine, Sweden, in May 2006

You’re coming to Sweden by the end of April to play in Gothenburg, Malmo, Uppsala and Stockholm. Who’s joining you and what material will you be focusing on?

- Steven Nistor from Detroit will be playing drums. It’s hard to find great drummers, but he’s one of them. I also have two very good singers joining me: Jim Wilson and Marcus Blake, who plays bass as well. We’ll be playing a cross-cut selection of my musical career so far. We’ll do a hyper-active version of ‘‘Frozen’’ (dub-track off of ‘‘Belladonna’’) and a brand new piece called ‘‘Delaware’’, since that’s where Marcus and Jim are from. It’s highly energetic. I’ve always wanted to write a piece that could speak to the larger concert and festival audience… that has the energy to travel on that great distance. I think I’ve finally managed to write that kind of piece. - Music adjusts itself to its place, as we do to people in a social setting. It starts with a toast, then it evolves to an embracement. Playing live, you start to hear the music through their ears. It’s almost like making love. But you have to stay connected to yourself also. You have to be selfish! Then they’ll have a good time. - Tomorrow we’re playing an outdoor show in Ottawa, Canada. In the snow. People skate to work on the canal there, and we’ll play for 5,000 people on the canal. They promised we’d get a heater.

What made you pick up the pedal steel?

- As a kid in Canada, I grew up with door-to-door salespeople. They were not considered as a nuisance then – they sold linens or something, and you’d invite them in, and ask if they maybe sold pots and pans… I miss that era. It’s Internet shopping now. So one of these salespeople asked if your kids wanted to take music lessons. My mother said: ‘‘Well, Danny here, he likes music’’, and he’d check if you were musical and test you. And he found me to be musical. Accordion or steel guitar – those were his two choices. And I thought: ‘‘well, I’ll pick steel guitar.’’ And it stayed with me ever since. - My first one was an acoustic lap steel – pretty much like an acoustic guitar with extra high action. I’ve played the instrument ever since.

You have a very personal approach to the pedal steel. It goes beyond the usual country or Hawaiian references that show up when other musicians play it.

- I played in lots of country bands as a kid. I admire the tradition a lot. But I regard myself as an innovator. I start out in the tradition that I respect a lot, but then I use my own tunings and magnify the details that interest me.

Your concept of ’’Belladonna’’ took shape when you lived in Mexico for a year and set up a temporary studio in Baja, where you invited musicians like Brian Blade (drums) and Darryl Johnson (vocals). What drew you to Mexico and how was your experience being there?

- As a kid, I was always fascinated with the South… the South always holds a lot of secrets and mystery. The more down South you are, the more mystical and psychedelic it gets. I’ve flirted with New Orleans, I hung out with The Neville Brothers, heard the funk and the horns… But I’ve always liked the sound of Mexican records – the ones on jukeboxes especially. They have the best bass. I’m talking older Mexican records now. - I’m also drawn to Mexican writers, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and their out-of-body perspective. I wanted not to copy their music, but to be rubbing up against the people that were thinking that way. They use their imagination, since they don’t have much in terms of material possessions. They live a simple existence, but have incredible imagination. And that’s a beautiful space.

“Agave” especially sounds like a traveler’s tale from Mexico. In your interpretation, it sounds like a mariachi band meeting Portishead - moody and cinematic.

- Music is about creating an emotion. ’’Agave’’ is a nighttime waltz. Nighttime air is very thick – all these sounds like grasshoppers and crickets come out that you don’t hear otherwise. There’s also a very exotic chord sequence in ’’Agave’. It’s the same way Miles Davis would visit the nighttime, but his music was in a very urban setting. But on this album, I invited Miles Davis to visit this nighttime world with me. ’’Agave’’ is very symphonic – one of the most symphonic works I’ve done. I don’t usually preconceive orchestral ideas, but I know orchestra experience when I hear it.

Your music is often full of layered tracks with guitars and pedal steel. You hear a lot of melodies in it, but it’s also rich with harmonies. What usually comes first when you’re writing – melody or harmony?

- The melodies comes first, usually. I have a whole archive of recorded melody bits, that I check frequently. Harmony mostly comes second for me.

Many associate you with the classic ambient albums you created with Brian Eno in the 80’s, like ‘‘Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks’’. ‘‘Belladonna’’ is also instrumental, but darker. You’ve called “Two Worlds” a comment on the world today. It’s a pretty dark description, with brutally distorted guitars and dissonant noise… and then suddenly this lyrical pedal steel appears in the midst of it all.

- It’s actually two recordings. The more dangerous recording stood by itself, and was done longer ago. The steel guitar was put in later, and it added more complexity to the piece’s personality. I was inspired by artists like Jan Saudek, who took the picture of my album “For The Beauty of Winona” (from -93). There’s the complexity of a beautiful woman holding a knife. It represents the duality of human beings. And that is always a part of all my work.

You’ve played with many great musicians, but Brian Blade seems to have a special place with you. He’s played drums on several of your earlier works, like Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” and “Wrecking Ball” by Emmylou Harris. His feel for tone and texture is unusual among drummers, and he sounds like such a perfect match for your music.

- I’ve known Brian for 15 years and he’s like a brother. We always work best when we haven’t played together in a while. Then we share our new knowledge together. But he has many layers to his personality and a darkness to him that you don’t meet the first time, because he seems very sweet. But take away the first layer, and you have a Black Panther. You go the next layer, and there’s the Baptist preacher. Go to the next layer and there’s Muhammad Ali, at the next layer you find James Brown, then the anger of Elvin Jones and finally you come down to slavery. And Brian is driven by all these layers. I have them too, but my path is different.

When we write music, we connect to emotions as you said. How do you re-connect to a song that you play live long after it’s written and the emotion has changed?

- Emotion comes back in unexpected ways. It’s like re-entering a dream. It is an obligation as an artist to get to that state, or what some like to call ‘‘the zone’’. Live, I often do long instrumental improvisation sections in the vocal songs – this way, you shed all the preconceptions, a little like an exorcism. You get to the truth and the real emotions that are there. Everyday life commands us to act ‘‘normal’’. But we don’t like that in art!

What’s your prime time to create during the day?

- When I have my alone time, which I try to have a few hours a day (this interview was done 7.30 am, Pacific Time – Nikki’s comment). Like a few nights ago, when I was in a city in Canada, and up at four in the morning. I like the souls that I see at that time of night. I walked past a McDonalds, and even got a hot chocolate. There were four people in there… some had been up all night, some were sleeping. They were interesting people all of them. I got back out on the street, and in that part of downtown, they play choral music through the city speaker systems. It was amazing to hear the most beautiful music – I think it was Mozart – being played in the saddest place, and heard by nobody but me. 

What’s your main guitar set-up?

- I have a 1953 Les Paul Gold Top. I love Neil Young’s guitar sound, and his tech modified the guitar for me by putting on a Bigsby tremolo arm, and a Tune-O-Matic bridge to keep it in tune. The P-90 pickups are the original ones, but my back pickup is as loud as my front one, which is unusual for a Gold Top. So I’m very happy with my sound. - I play a Vox AC-30 amp, and I’ve had this particular one since the 80’s. The Edge (U2) turned me onto it. In the studio, my favorite pre-amp is a Neve 1066. When it comes to guitar amp mikes, I use a Sennheiser 490 and just dangle it over the amp. I’m still searching for optimal vocal mikes. I’ve been using a Sony C37A and regular Shure Beta 58… I used the Sony one on Dylan’s album a lot, and on Emmylou Harris’s. I don’t have a loud voice, so I need to sing up close to the mike.

You’re also well known as a producer, with previous works like U2’s ’’The Unforgettable Fire’’ (co-produced with Brian Eno) and the mentioned albums with Dylan and Harris. How do you view production and your role with the artist working with you?

- I allow the artist to live through my personality (this subject suddenly makes his voice very involved and forceful). I operate with a fully modified studio – it’s NEVER neutral. Every single gadget is handpicked for the project. I talk to the artist about their passion, aspirations, sonics they hope to achieve… I don’t take it very lightly. I’m VERY dedicated. I am a heavy hitter, like Muhammad Ali. And I don’t want to get hit back! If you want hear an arrogant man, here I am!! (laughs) ONLINEROCK: You can call yourself that if you like, but it’s not exactly the impression I get from you..! - No, but let’s put it this way: it’s a very serious arena for me. I only enter it when I’m ready.

Are you producing anyone right now, or do you have an artist you’d like to produce?

- No. I’m busy with my own music right now.

Where do you live?

- I live in Toronto, but my main home based is in Jamaica. I try to go there as often as I can. I also live in Los Angeles, in Silverlake. I have a studio there with one acre of land, where I’ve planted 45 fruit trees. We have become too separated from our foods. I also don’t use motorized equipment. Everybody does yoga now, but creates too much noise on their home base. They’ll say: ‘‘I’m going to yoga now’’, but then they call their gardeners and lawn movers and create all this racket. We need to develop a quieter life philosophy.

But you know how people get freaked out by silence... they encounter their thoughts and feelings and emptiness...

- Haha! Yes...

Do you still get around by motorcycle instead of a car?

- I don’t have a car. I have a motorcycle in LA and in Toronto.

When you played at Carnegie Hall during the New York Guitar Festival, you showed projections of your short film “Silvio’’ during your concert. Will we see it in Sweden too?

- I’ll try to bring it, but I’m not in the financial position that I can hire a lot of employees to bring on the road. But images are a part of extension of my sonic philosophy. We actually put out surveillance cameras everywhere – even on my steel guitar, so you saw these giant hands projected on the screen. We also add colors that are driven by the music – kind of like the old light organs, but the technology is far more advanced and space-age now.

Daniel Lanois Gear:
Guitar: 1953 Les Paul Gold Top (modified with a Bigsby tremolo and Tune-O-Matic bridge)
Amp: Vox AC-30 (bought in the 80’s)

Studio Gear:
Main guitar amp mike: Sennheiser 490
Vocal mikes: Sony C37A, Shure Beta 58
Pre-amp: Neve 1066
Stereo compressors: Neve 8068, Neve Melbourne

Nikki O’Neill is a singer, songwriter and guitarist in Los Angeles. She’s taught “Women’s Contemporary Rock Guitar’’ at The New School in New York – the only university-level guitar class in the U.S. focusing on female rock and blues players. She’s been guest teaching at a rock college in Sweden for women only, and interviews guitarists like Warren Haynes, Nels Cline (Wilco) for Swedish guitar magazine FUZZ. She’s endorsed by Daisy Rock Guitars.

Her websites: and

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