Mastering the chemistry along with the circuitry
Daniel Lanois leads the way down a curving staircase into a dimly lighted chamber of his old Silver Lake mansion. Instruments and electronic equipment, including his first polyphonic synthesizer, hibernate in the gloom, and the walls are festooned with large sheets of paper.
“It’s mostly lyrics,” Lanois says, pointing to the hanging pages. “ ‘Tears of a Thousand Rains.’ I have a beautiful steel guitar instrumental that these lyrics belong to, so I’ll probably use that for my next record.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Jun. 04, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
“Sleepwalk” instrument -- An article in Saturday’s Calendar about producer-musician Daniel Lanois incorrectly stated that Santo & Johnny’s 1959 hit “Sleepwalk” featured a pedal steel guitar. The recording employed a steel guitar with no pedals.
“Posting papers up is still something that I like. It’s an ergonomic that I believe in. I’ve never liked the hidden information network.”
In other words, keep everything out in the open. It’s a philosophical tenet that’s helped make Lanois one of the premier record producers of the past two decades -- a collaborator of choice for a strong-willed elite that includes Bob Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel and Emmylou Harris. He’s won six Grammys, including producer of the year (with Brian Eno) in 1992, while maintaining his cult-like mystique as a bold experimenter.
“He’s very fearless,” says Harris, who enlisted Lanois for “Wrecking Ball,” the 1995 album that transformed her from country thrush into atmospheric chanteuse. “He brought together great musicians who had never worked together before, and I think he had absolute confidence that something interesting would happen. He makes people rise to the occasion. He’s totally focused. There’s no musical world that he’s uncomfortable with.”
Now Harris has returned the favor in a small way, adding a backing vocal to the opening track of Lanois’ third album under his own name, “Shine.” The recently released album, which also features a visit from Bono as a co-writer and singer, focuses more on song craft and simple performance than the electronic atmospherics that, rightly or wrongly, have come to be regarded as Lanois’ studio signature.
It’s still rich in mood, with echo and the instrumental placement creating a spacious stage for intimate, meditative songs, most drawn from folk, reggae and other roots sources. Lanois’ vocals are rough-hewn and natural, and a couple of instrumentals are drenched in the sound of his current passion, the pedal steel guitar.
One of the instruments stands in a small, sunny room upstairs, where Lanois now sits on a couch, cradling an acoustic guitar.
“I’ve got Santo & Johnny up there,” he says, indicating a photo of the Brooklyn brother duo whose 1959 hit “Sleepwalk” was led by a haunting pedal steel sound.
Lanois sings its refrain and seems transported. “An incredible 6/8 rhythm,” he says, “with pure melody and, above all, that pure sexuality -- it was the sexuality of the dance hall. They were the voice of a generation, of sorts, of the instrumentalists.”
Lanois, 51, enjoys expounding like this, but the stereotype of the pop theoretician and mystical musical guru doesn’t quite fit. Lanois may be fond of hosting intellectual soirees at his Italian-style villa, but he also customizes motorcycles and rides them through the desert. On many nights he’ll head down the street to the rock club Spaceland, buy a beer and check out a band he’s never heard of.
He’s in L.A. for only a few months a year. He also keeps an apartment in Toronto and rents a cottage in Jamaica, and he camps out in recording studios for endless stretches. U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” which he produced in Dublin with Eno, his regular partner on the band’s albums, took years longer than expected.
That’s one reason why his own albums emerge infrequently, but Lanois isn’t complaining, either about the pace or about the comparatively modest audience for his solo work. (“Shine” has sold about 23,000 copies to date.)
“The record production is a real confidence builder,” he says. “To have my sonics ride on the vehicle of incredible popularity, be it a Dylan record or U2 record -- it’s kind of like I get to hear my sonic experiments exposed in a very, very big fashion, and that’s pretty remarkable in itself. Obviously I know how to do all that stuff, and I can apply it to my own work.
“See, I grew up in the recording studio, so I’ve never really separated one from the other.”
Lanois isn’t exaggerating. As youngsters in Hamilton, Ontario, he and his brother set up two two-track tape machines in the family basement and began recording music. There he learned about quartet theory from gospel groups, and a lot more from a young musician from nearby Buffalo, Rick James.
“It was a place for me to go, being a shy kid and wanting to do something special,” says Lanois, whose family was steeped in French Canadian musical tradition. “Music’s the thing I kept coming back to. This was my chance because I saw something in it that nobody else saw. So I just ran with it. When I was 18 I was very high grade.”
After opening a recording studio, Lanois met Eno. The esteemed English producer and performer became a mentor and brought him into the U2 fold.
Of all Lanois’ work, though, perhaps the most celebrated is Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind,” the stark 1997 album that restored the singer-songwriter’s reputation as a visionary artist. The two had teamed earlier on Dylan’s “Oh Mercy,” but this one was special from the start.
“Bob read me the lyrics,” says Lanois. “I knew they were specific and powerful and being written from the perspective of someone that had lived a few lives. I thought there was something brave about not playing the youth game here -- ‘This is where I’m standing and this is what I’m seeing.’ ”
In the studio, Lanois simulated the sound of the early rock ‘n’ roll and blues records that were Dylan’s models. But more important than circuitry, in Lanois’ thinking, was chemistry.
“I knew this was a record that needed to come out, and I knew that we needed hungry people around us to make it. Ultimately we put a band together of all kinds of hungry souls -- potentially washed-up people needing to make an impression all over again, somebody new.... Just hungry somehow or another.”
“There’s something that happens in camaraderie that’s pretty great, especially when you’re surrounded by people who love to push the envelope of innovation. I’ve been lucky to have done some of that along the way.”
Where: Henry Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Contact: (323) 464-0808