Daniel Lanois is one of the most successful Canadians in the music industry.
Some know him from his solo albums and film scores, including the 1996 Billy Bob Thornton hit Sling Blade, but Lanois is also the man behind some of the most influential albums of the last 40 years.
“I started recording in the basement of my mother’s house when I was 12,” says Lanois, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I just bought a tape recorder and I started recording my friends. Then I kept buying more equipment, and more equipment until I got very good at it. By 17 or 18, I was the best in the country.”
Lanois, now 63, say’s he’s not boasting, just that he applied his talent to a medium that interested him deeply.
“I liked to help people with their recordings. I was able to provide people with arranging their songs, I was good at harmony,” he says.
He started recording gospel quartets that would roll through his Hamilton, Ont. hometown. “I recorded hundreds of gospel quartets. There was a Christian music organization that would bring in these gospel quartets from around the world to tour Canada and they would stop in and in two days we would do a recording.”
Although he served as an altar boy for several years, it’s the music of his father and grandfather, both violineux – fiddlers – that resonates with him. “It was the French Canadian culture, all my aunts and uncles would play. That was the first music I heard.”
Lanois followed his instincts as a producer and musician. By 17, he was a master editor and arranger. “I wasn’t a record producer – I never heard the word before.”
Being prepared for opportunity led him to recording bigger acts, he says.
“I was ready for the potential of opportunity as it came my way. Not as a dreamer, but as someone with a dream fulfilled.”
He opened his own studio with brother Bob Lanois and high school friend Bob Doidge in Hamilton – now the legendary Grant Avenue Studio – but he realized the best recordings were coming out of Detroit, not Toronto. “What did Detroit know that Toronto didn’t know? The answer is that Detroit had a sound,” he says.
Studios there were set up. A musician could enter and within minutes be recording. “They had house sound. … I had to follow the Detroit way,” he says. “I was 19, in my studio people could show up and we had sound. I was way ahead of Toronto.”
His career as a producer includes credits on U2 albums The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, along with several Brian Eno albums; Peter Gabriel’s Birdy, So and Us; Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind; and recordings by Dashboard Confessional; Emmylou Harris; Scott Weiland; Sinéad O’Connor and Neil Young.
“I recorded a lot of Canadian records people haven’t heard of because they aren’t big names. But they’re some beautiful folk records: W.P. Bennett, Dave Essig, young Bruce Cockburn … four Raffi records. His first record, I recorded in my mom’s basement,” he says. “Some excellent Canadian folk music. I love them. I put every ounce of my blood into making those beautiful recordings – that is my most significant work. My work done in Canada.”
His work with Martha and the Muffins, which included Lanois’ sister Jocelyne, Toronto’s avant garde Time Twins and Mama Quilla, which evolved into the Parachute Club, “was a conduit to the lesbian bands of the ’70s,” he says.
The Time Twins played Lanois’ recording of them for Eno, of Roxy Music fame, who was fascinated by his work.
“Brian Eno called me the next day – that started this whole thing. I did seven ambient albums with Brian Eno and those records got noticed by U2.”
Eno’s groundbreaking ambient sound and innovative production techniques meshed well with Lanois’ and the two collaborated on several recordings, including several U2 albums.
Lanois’ latest release as a performer, Juno nominated Flesh and Machine, harkens back to Eno’s ambient style.
“Flesh and Machine revisits those values, if not those specific sounds,” says Lanois. “Forest City is the most reminiscent. I’m still interested in textural work that has the capacity to raise the spirit. To change your life, even for a moment – that appeals to me.”
His website includes several films made to go along with tracks from Flesh and Machine. “We thought we’d try something. It was a lot of fun to invite filmmakers to submit films. We showed them at various film festivals. Contrary to popular belief we don’t show them on tour – we’ve abandoned all that now.”
What he hasn’t abandoned is his desire to share music on a personal level. “It’s not about entertainment, it’s about the power of soul. … Something that will stop you in your tracks. Something that will provide you with a night of Bohemia. You can embrace the stillness and let your imagination be your magic carpet. Take your face out of the computer and look at the sky … or take drugs and look at the ceiling of your apartment, or have great sex with somebody you care about. Be an animal again – wouldn’t that be lovely?”
To see the Flesh and Machine videos go to daniellanois.com.