Q&A: Daniel Lanois

The producer of U2, Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson talks about the state of record making

Record producer Daniel Lanois, portrait, Venice Beach, California, September 1989. Credit: Michael Putland/Getty

Life, Daniel Lanois believes, is a series of peaks and valleys, the peaks being those times when "you get lost in your work and you love it and you can't think of anything else." And for Lanois the last two years have been marked by a remarkable string of peaks. During that time he's coproduced three of the most important and influential albums of the Eighties: U2's Joshua Tree (with Brian Eno), Peter Gabriel's So (with Gabriel) and former Band leader Robbie Robertson's debut solo album (with Robertson). If those records haven't made Lanois a household name, they've certainly established him as the hot producer.

"As you can well imagine, when you've got a few records that are doing all right, you get a lot of calls, and it's hard to say no," Lanois says as he sits in the London office he shares with Eno, a frequent collaborator. "But," he adds, "I've learned to say no in the last few months."

Lanois's success did not come about overnight. Born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1951 to French Canadian parents, he was exposed to music from an early age. His father and grandfather played fiddle, his mother sang, and when his family got together, "the old guys would start tap-dancing to these jigs." One Christmas his mother gave him a recorder, and before long he graduated to steel guitar. "I didn't like it very much," he says of the guitar, which he had to hold on his lap. "I kept asking the teacher, 'When do I get to hold it like Elvis?' "

Only eleven years old, Lanois was already hooked on music. Not knowing how to read music, he made up his own notation system. "I had to invent a system of little dots and spacing," Lanois remembers. "It looked a bit like written music — but a little more homemade."

Around that time, Lanois's parents split up, and his mother moved the kids to the outskirts of Hamilton, Ontario, a predominantly English-speaking area. "So there I was — a French kid," Lanois says. "I didn't speak a word of English. Maybe that's why I latched on to the music." By the time he graduated from high school, Lanois had mastered both the English language and the guitar, and he had started crisscrossing Canada, playing with just about any band that needed a guitarist. He eventually found work backing up fairly established artists, like Sylvia Tyson, of the folk duo Ian and Sylvia, and he started doing studio work. In 1970, Lanois set up a studio in the basement of his mother's house — a shoestring operation that Lanois likens to "a little corner store": "I was engineering, bookkeeping, running to Toronto to pick up stock."

By the late Seventies, though, Lanois had outgrown the studio, and he and his brother Bob opened Grant Avenue Studio in Hamilton in 1980. There they built a reputation north of the border for their work with such Canadian groups as Martha and the Muffins (which included Lanois's sister Jocelyn) and the Parachute Club. Meanwhile, down in New York, a demo tape Lanois had made for a Toronto group called the Time Twins attracted the attention of Eno, the avant-garde studio wiz who had most recently been busy recording a series of stark, atmospheric instrumental works he labeled Ambient Music.

Eno arrived in Hamilton with a batch of tapes he'd made with minimalist piano player Harold Budd. "They had a bit of hiss on them, and I thought, 'I don't know-why don't you go back and re-record them?' " says Lanois, who admits he "didn't know Eno from Adam." That album, The Plateaux of Mirror, became the first of several albums of Ambient Music recorded at Grant Avenue. "I just got into that pace," Lanois says. "Really quiet and atmospheric music that paints a very strong picture with slow detail --- almost like musical landscapes."

Then, in 1984, U2 approached Eno about producing The Unforgettable Fire, and Eno asked Lanois to coproduce. That record was followed by Lanois's first outing with Gabriel, the soundtrack of the film Birdy.

Now, in the wake of the success of So, The Joshua Tree and Robbie Robertson, Lanois is starting to work on his own solo album. "I've chosen to set some time aside for myself," he explains. "I think it would be foolish to just carry on working. You run out of ideas, and running out of ideas is a big mistake. Then you're just sort of doing the job because you think it's a job. And at that point you might as well just be working in a lab somewhere."

As a producer, how involved do you get in the actual creation of the music? For example, would you tell Bono that a certain lyric isn't working?

In the case of Bono, I'll get fairly involved. He generally writes more lyrics than he needs, so he'll have an idea of what he wants to do with a song, and he'll walk in with half a dozen pages of verses. So the thing that is helpful is if you can say, "Well, you've got this idea and that idea. Maybe you've got two separate songs here. Therefore, let's put that over here and concentrate on this idea and focus on making this bit of it work."

He needs somebody like that. Edge has been helpful, and Adam [Clayton] occasionally steps in and offers suggestions. If those people aren't around, I take that role, or Brian [Eno] will.

How about with someone like Robbie Robertson, who's been around for a long time but who hadn't made a record in a decade?

Again, I had quite a bit of input. Robbie had a lot of fantastic bits and pieces, wonderful, unfinished ideas. I would hear these ideas and say, "You've got to finish this." Or, "You have to put that on your record." And I would encourage him and push him to finish this thing. Inevitably what we got were tracks with lyrics half done. And I would leaf through all of his ideas and say, "What about this line over here? There's a great verse; have you forgotten about this one?"

You might think it sounds like a wild idea, going through a person's lyric sheet and suggesting that this lyric might work in that song, when it was written for something else. But usually there's a cohesive spirit, a consistency, and ideas are often interchangeable.

Did you feel that it was your job to bring Robertson's music into the Eighties?

It was never conscious. And as far as I'm concerned, some of those early Band records are very modern. They hold up, and they are still stronger than many records done in the Eighties. So I didn't think, "Well, we've gotta use a few new sounds on here, Robbie."

What about the decision to have him record with U2 and Peter Gabriel?

With U2, there were a few songs that we just wanted a really good rock rhythm section for, and I couldn't think of who to put together, and then I thought, "Well, why not make things simple? I'll ask the guys if we can breeze in for a couple of days." So I asked the guys, and they said for Robbie they'd do it. So we spent two days in Dublin, and we came up with a couple of tracks. It was out of necessity; it wasn't something that was planned out months ahead of time. I didn't want to bring in session players and have to deal with all that. I wanted to work with people I knew I could trust.

What was your working relationship with Peter Gabriel like on 'So'?

Peter is an options man. He likes to consider all the possibilities at any given time. So you have to understand that and help him make a decision. You have to say, "Peter, this is it. Forget all of that. Let's go back to this."

On So, I wanted people to understand what he's about and to cut through the mask. He's a man who has hidden behind a mask before. Literally. But my pet project at the time was, What's happening behind this mask? How are we going to get inside him and get it to the foreground? Cut the crap, you know?

What's a producer's most important function?

Keeping track of the big picture. Understanding the intentions of the artist from the beginning and carrying that through to the end. Obeying the ground rules.

What sort of ground rules?

If you want to make a warm and intimate record, where you can feel the presence of human beings, to give you an example, then you have to remain loyal to that concept and not decide halfway that you're going to put a lot of reverb on everything.

Then I suppose another function — the most important, really — is drawing a performance. Certainly in my case, because I work with people who can perform and deliver, and I work to see to it that they do just that. And it would be a crime to put those people in a position where they felt like they couldn't really let loose and sing.

Capturing moments is a great priority. And it's a funny thing about the captured moments --- you never know they're there when they're there, and they usually happen when it's a seemingly light moment, when people are having fun and you think, "This is easy, we can do it again." But that's not the case.

Brian Eno once said that your Grant Avenue Studio possessed a "critical balance between professionalism and spontaneity." Can you explain?

Well, it was sort of like a small Italian restaurant that's run by two brothers and has amazing food. It had a family-run atmosphere — like, my mother would come in and bring in cookies. And there was a big emphasis on detail: the coffee was just the right strength, and we had little liqueur bottles in a little rack in the washroom. My brother had built the place from scratch, and it was one of those places that even though it wasn't perfect, you walked in and you felt that someone had tried the very best to do this thing. It was not owned by somebody who'd never been there, and it was not run by a manager who was trying to hold on to a job. It was two guys, desperately trying to make a go of it.

Even though the studio was fairly successful, you've said that that wasn't a great period in your life.

I was pretty lost. Punk went by, and I didn't care. I was a businessman then. I was building a studio, and I owed the bank money, and all I could think about was surviving. It wasn't as if punk had very much to do with my life. And I was just as much impressed with a good country song — I still liked Don Henley's voice — and I wasn't about to chuck all that out just because the Sex Pistols came around the corner.

Through my twenties there was a long valley where I was doing work but possibly just going through the procedure of it and not really feeling it. And may be you need to do that kind of thing, you know, to wake up after a while and say, "Listen, am I wasting my life? I want to leave something behind that means something. Am I going to follow my own ideas and philosophies, or am I just going to fall in the rut of doing rubbish for the sake of making a living?" It's a very cheap excuse. But if you do even have a glimpse of an escape, just a little crack in the door, you gotta go, go for the light. And that's what I did. After a while, I thought, "I'm not workin' on anything that I don't believe in anymore." And then it was like a big door opening, with a lot of sunlight. And it became very clear that there's no other way. So I suppose that low period just provided me with enough misery that I was able to see the light when it came around.

Working with Eno brought you out of that slump. Many people see the series of albums you made together as a precursor to New Age music.

Well, I haven't heard it all, but unfortunately some of what I have heard sounds like a cliché of what we were doing in 1979. Unfortunately, I get the impression that New Age music is sort of a side issue for some people. Like, "Oh, I can do one of these quiet records and get on Windham Hill." But I don't think it's enough to diddle around and consider it an easy thing to do. Work should never be done that way.

Certainly, Brian and myself were at the forefront of that movement, if you like. But I've gone off it. I'm not that interested in doing quiet, atmospheric music.

What was it about Eno that appealed to you?

Many things, really. His ability to make something out of a minimum amount of tools — some call it "low baggage, high mileage." You know, not needing to have everything around to feel comfortable.

It's really about making the most out of any given situation. If you don't have all of your gear there that day, if your drum kit hasn't arrived but you want to work on a track, well, maybe the drummer should play a hand drum. Or just pound a book or a guitar case. You can get a good vibe going with just about anything. And by having little surprises like your equipment not showing up on the day of your session, well, maybe that's an opportunity, rather than a problem.

You seem to like recording in places other than studios.

I much prefer to be thrown into an unusual location, because it seems to offer more interesting-sounding rooms, more surprises. It also strips away the formality and the chilliness of the recording studio. Recording studios are good places because they can introduce a sense of urgency — you're there to do a job. But at the same time they can be cold.

In the case of The Joshua Tree, we made use of Adam Clayton's home and the Edge's home. Portable equipment was brought in, a studio was set up. And to this day, that's the most interesting to me. I mean, you walk into the drawing room at Adam's place, and it's pure rock & roll. You hit a drum in there, and it's three times louder than it would be in a recording studio. Plus, you get a fantastic view of Adam's garden.

The control room was huge; it was in this big living room, and people would congregate there. And ideas would start flowing; somebody would start singing, someone else would join in, and before you know it, you're singing background vocals in the control room. You know, just the lift of an eyebrow, and you know what somebody's thinking. That's the kind of thing you don't get if you're standing behind a piece of glass and somebody's thirty yards away or talking through a talk-back system.

You seem to prefer a natural sound. For example, you don't use many computers on your albums.

I don't like computers when I see people stuck in their room for months on end, doing this sample and that sample. I think it can be a terrific waste of people's time. But as somebody who has to work with tools. I'm not going to be so silly as to write them off entirely. They have been especially useful when people have been really thrilled with them. If somebody was to say to me, "I've got an amazing bass sound on this Fair-light, and I want to use it," I'd say, "Terrific." "Big Time," on Peter Gabriel's record, was based around a Fairlight bass riff. And it had a certain kind of drive and robotic feel that you won't get out of a played bass.

I suppose it also has to do with what kind of emotion you're trying to convey in your work. The sound of discipline can often be had from machines. That is more difficult with players; with players you can fall into the area of enthusiasm, you know, overplaying. The machines can give you a Germanic, disciplined sound. But I like to use that technology as part of my toolbox rather than the whole toolbox.

Both the Robbie Robertson and Peter Gabriel albums took a long time to record. Can that be a problem?

The pitfall of long projects is that there's a lot of indecision involved in the work. You tend to second-guess certain ideas, and you try something else, and you don't quite throw away the first idea, and then you try a third idea, and it becomes … democratic. And I don't think listeners like democratic music. On the Peter Gabriel record there were just a lot of tracks on the tapes. But in the end we managed to make a fairly direct, soulful record. When I listen to "Red Rain," that's a sonic experience for me, and I worked on it, you know? I still can't believe some of the sounds in the background, like the screaming feedback. It sounds like something falling out of the sky. And yet that's just piano on there. Mostly piano and guitar. It's not as if there were layers and layers of synthesizers.

Part of the Peter Gabriel album was recorded digitally. What do you think about digital recording?

Peter's record was done half analog, half digital. We used the Mitsubishi thirty-two track, which is digital, which was real nice for doing vocals. But the bass wasn't as good on it. Digital has its place. If you have a hiss problem, then it's not a bad idea to use digital in the chain somewhere. But in my experience analog with Dolby is real good.

I think it's interesting in the name of technology to keep these issues about digital and analog open and to discuss them, but I don't think it's got a whole lot to do with the quality of records. I'm happy that CDs are there. I think they sound pretty good, and if a noisy piece of vinyl is frustrating to you, then a CD is a nice idea. But I'll be impressed with digital when they can hand me a package about the size of my hand and say, "Here's your thirty-two-track machine, son."

Because of a tight deadline, Steve Lillywhite was brought in to mix four of the tracks on 'The Joshua Tree.' How did his versions differ from what you and Eno would have done?

"Bullet the Blue Sky" turned out a lot different. I wouldn't have had as many effects on it, because we had a bit of a purist attitude toward some of these recordings, essentially that there was a sound that was captured in performance in a room, and we wanted to remain loyal to that space, to convey that sound. And he was not as sentimental to that idea, so he pulled out all the stops.

"With or Without You" was the one that there was the most discussion about, because Brian certainly had a very different idea of how it should go. I had yet another idea, and Steve pushed the mix in a direction that was a little more mainstream in its approach. When the drums came in, they were a little more crash, bang, which is a sound that Steve is known for. Certainly, Brian would have preferred to have the drums be more mysterious and more supportive.

Was there a specific desire on the band's part to have a hit single on the album?

Well, we knew we needed at least one. But I don't think the plan was to get hit singles. You can't go into a record with that sort of mentality. It will just kill you. All you can do is go in with strong songs, do them the best you can, and then, on the back end, look and see what you've got.

Do you think about radio when you're mixing a record?

I think about radio. I often say, "Boy, that would sound good on radio." I think records often sound fantastic on radio — just driving in your car or walking through a shop and you hear something and it sort of changes your day. So I often think, "Hmm, I wonder what that voice would sound like on the radio." Or, "Let's make it totally dry, and on radio it'll just draw you into the speaker."

I think about balances, you know. I have this theory that there's only ever so much room on a piece of tape and there's only ever so much room in a speaker. And you could have the whole world singing on a song, but it's only going to be so loud, because a speaker only puts out so much volume, and the more information you have, the more you cancel out other information. So I'm really intrigued with the idea of foreground and background, like contrasts, having a voice way up here with the guitar, but maybe a drum very, very far away, small sounding. And with the compressors they use on radio, what happens is the things that you put in the foreground become larger than life, and the things in the background become supportive. If you try and put everything on one plane, you're going to end up with mud.

Are there any other producers whose work you particularly admire?

To be honest with you, I'm not a big fan of record producers, and I don't think so much about how records are made. I'm a fan of songs. Oddly enough, I recently heard a production that I thought was fantastic — an old Patti Page song called "Old Cape Cod." It has absolutely nothing to do with today, but I guess that's part of the charm of it. It's just really American, and naive, of that period. And the sounds are just staggering.

I'm not hearing many records like that anymore. But some old records sound great. You put on a Rolling Stones record from the Sixties, and it's punchy, and the bass sounds real good. I think vocal sounds were consistently better at the birth of rock & roll than they are today. I think it has a lot to do with the mikes they were using; they got very warm, musical sounds on the vocals. And the records weren't nearly as crowded with other information competing with the vocals.

There's a lot of wonderful music out there that's fairly simple. Unfortunately, we haven't been great receivers of simple music in the last decade or so. But I love the idea of records with very few components, just a voice and a few instruments. There's a great need for simple music out there.

What about some of Bruce Springsteen's records, like 'Nebraska,' or some of the songs on his new album?

Well, I'm a fan. I love "I'm on Fire." There's a version of that that's very acoustic, and the drums are just brushes or a light drum part. I think that's a good example of what I'm getting at. What's reassuring about Bruce Springsteen is that there are millions of people out there who are quite happy to listen to a simple approach. I mean, what he's doing is not particularly modern or innovative. He's just really true to a traditional form. I think it's a bit of a slap in the face to corporate manipulation of music.

This is just a generalization, but there are many people in the record industry who don't have a clue. And for record executives to impose their ideas and their views on how things should be done or made in the studio, I think, is a big mistake. I think the greatest service record-company people could do for the music world is to recognize the unusual when it comes around to them in the form of demo tapes from artists. And say, "This is something that needs to be put out in the name of giving a chance to variety and quality."

What artists would you really like to work with?

There was a time when I thought I'd really like to work with Miles Davis. I'm a big fan of some of his work, and it'd still be an honor. But I've lost the animal appetite to do that. I once called Iggy Pop's office, because I wanted to do a record with Iggy Pop. But he never called back. I've cooled a bit on that one. To be honest, I don't have a great hunger to work with established people. I suppose a priority for me is a very believable voice. I need to work with a singer who can do an outstanding vocal in some way or another, be it in character or good pipes, good pitch.

I heard a good singer, I think his name is Joe, from a group called the Bad Brains. I like his singing a lot. I suppose I'd like to work with him some day.

Looking at the U2, Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson albums, do you think there's a "Daniel Lanois sound"?

I think all those records have a similarity in the sense that there's an undercurrent of tension that is created by various treatments and atmospheres that were applied. "Red Rain" is a good example of that. So are "In God's Country" and "Mothers of the Disappeared," from The Joshua Tree. Or in the case of Robbie Robertson, on the surface of "Broken Arrow," you're presented with one angle, and then that is contrasted or undermined by something ominous, something that you feel more than you hear. I suppose that contrast is a little bit of a trademark.

The philosophy of contrast will always stay with me, but the technique of getting it across will change as I mature and carry on with my work. I see it as becoming less atmospheric than it has been in the past.

All the records you mentioned are performance records. They're not records that are based on computer technology. Going for performance and not accepting something until it has a strong personality or mood or feeling --- if that's a style, then it's a style I like.

The artists you've worked with all seem quite passionate.

I gravitate toward more serious work. I gravitate toward a lyric that says something, that carries some kind of weight or substance and that a listener will be able to draw a positive meaning from. And hopefully it'll make some kind of change in their life in a positive way. So I gravitate more toward the melancholy and serious. Darkness with optimism. I'm not so happy-go-lucky that I can overlook the difficulties of this modern world. And if I can incorporate what I feel in my work, then that's my first choice.

Everything has to start with individuals. I think complacency is one of the great modern horrors, you know? To fall into that little rut that you don't believe in, that you don't like. To operate on someone else's rules, rules that you don't believe in, that you don't agree with. I'm not suggesting that everybody has to be a great self-made man, because in reality not everyone is going to be wildly successful at whatever they try. But don't you think that trying is the important thing?