World of Echo: An Interview With Superproducer Daniel Lanois

Header photo by Ward Robinson, courtesy of the artist.

Bono once told an MTV interviewer that "when he's in the room, you find yourself playing better just because he's around". Emmylou Harris would hire the man because "he spoke a musical language that I responded to a gut level". Neil Young professed that the sculpted tone of his guitars "sounded like God", while a deadpan Bob Dylan would readily admit he was "not above smashing" them when the two would argue over strategy during production.

Daniel Lanois seated at the pedal steel, photo by Laura Cole.

In the realm of the recording arts, one could easily start a round of "six degrees of separation" using the legendary production discography of Daniel Lanois as a jumping-off point. As a long-time proponent of analog processing, precise microphone placement, and pedal steel guitars, his unmistakable sound cultivates a world of echo that amplifies atmosphere above all else.

As a teenager in Hamilton, Ontario, he started a recording studio with his late brother Bob in his mother's basement, eventually cutting his teeth through taking on sessions ranging from Rick James to Raffi. Before too long, Lanois was in demand: he would team up with Brian Eno to help develop highlights of a classic canon of ambient records before the pair found themselves behind the boards for a handful of U2 albums, including The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby—his CV would rapidly expand from there, crossing paths with Peter Gabriel, the Neville Brothers, and Willie Nelson among others along the way.

Daniel's forthcoming solo record for Modern Recordings, Player, Piano, sees the French-Canadian superproducer shift gears and take a left turn towards a series of instrumentals for keyboard. "I don't really care for the sound of modern piano recordings," he confesses. "I decided that if I was going to make a piano record, I wanted it to sound like recordings from the '40s and '50s, back when the piano was soft and beautiful."

Over a few hours on a Zoom call intermittently interrupted by technical difficulties, the patient producer walked us through the making of Player, Piano before retrospectively reflecting on five decades of his perceptive and painterly productions for others.

Daniel Lanois: NPR Tiny Desk Concert, 2015 (Joined by Brian Blade and Jim Wilson)

Congratulations on the new album—it's a real thing of beauty.

Oh, thank you, Nick.

You've described the making of Player, Piano as an experience that transported you—not only to past sessions with your various collaborators, but also visitations with the ghosts of certain titans of the keyboard like Erik Satie and Oscar Peterson. To start, can you lean into that sense of time travel a bit? Why was now the time to make a record of piano pieces?

After all these years, I've always played a little bit of piano and in recent times more than before. Before I had only ever been flirting with the instrument. I've never performed live with it or done that much in the studio with it—of course, we go to the piano for overdubs and so on, but this time around, my touch started getting better and better. It caught the ear of a good friend of mine, Margaret Marissen—she said, "I love your piano playing, you should make a record like that; that's the record I would play." That's all it took, and off we went.

I like softer, more mellow-sounding pianos, so we found a way of treating the hammers a little bit to quiet them down and make them less brash. There was a certain harmonic response to that striking of a soft hammer that seemed to work out pretty well—the microphones loved that.

In regards to the ghosts following me around—that happens no matter what I do. We all come into this as lovers of music that somebody else had done. I was lucky enough to make those beautiful records with Brian Eno and Harold Budd when I was a kid, which have lived on very nicely—I thought, "Well, now that we don't have Harold anymore, maybe I should try and carry the torch somehow or other.

Keep the flame going.


The intersection between performance and processing has long been the guiding principle of your productions, but here, it's especially palpable considering the palette. How do you conceive of the relationship between those two—the playing and the treatment?

The treatments have been with me all along. I was really interested in processing sound to try and get to the outer limits of what was regarded to be convention—I just applied that part of me to this body of work. When it comes to the piano, it usually comes after the fact: I'll play the part and then fiddle around with some effects and whatnot.

The effects that I use have really evolved through time. When I first worked with Eno, we would always float our effects, so they were never just in the mix but ready to be recorded on a couple of tracks at any given time—if we hit on something sweet, then we recorded that, then those tracks could be reprocessed again, a second generation, and then maybe a third generation. Those lessons are still alive: if we hear something we like, we print it—we don't wait for mixing day. That's the philosophy.

In recent times, I've taken an interest in not having long sustains carry through chords: if I've got a stretch of ascending notes, I'll queue up the machine right on the note of the resolve so one note will not bump into the other. I'll play a note and print that, then I'll print the next note separately, and then the next note separately…

It keeps passages more kinetic note-to-note as opposed to being a total wash.

Exactly, you get this overall effect where there's no smearing or bleeding. It's like the opposite of the Taj Mahal.

Would you say that you know your effects well enough that you hear the processing play out before you lay down the track or even the raw take?

I'm glad you mentioned that. I only have ever really used three effects, and so I've gotten pretty good at working the ones that I have. I still use an old AMS DMX 15-80 Harmonizer, which is a delay machine that has a very nice VCO in it. I like the VCOs of that era, and the Lexicon equipment at that time—I've been using their Prime Time for a while now. Those two are the same units I used when I was working with Eno as a kid… the Prime Time units are largely broken now, so I wouldn't recommend them. They're expensive to fix but I still have a few that work.

I still use my Boomerang loop pedal, that old stomper. That's a very nice machine because it does reverse—if you got a little sample and then you push reverse, you get to hear that, and you can play on top of it. It was one of the original loopers to do that.

I also still have the Eventide H3500—that's got some custom sounds in it I built a few years ago. It's got a pretty good low/high octave patch. It's a bit played out for me —Eno and I did it the hard way back in the day because there was no such device that automatically gave you that. We stumbled upon that and honed in on it as a sound, but those sounds are pretty available in any box now.

When it came to those units, I got good at working them, and they're like any instrument, really: the more you use it, the better you get at it. I'd rather do that than try and entertain too many possibilities in my studios. I use the things that I'm good at. I'm okay with limitations, all kinds of them. If I don't have a whole bunch of people around to sing, and I'm producing a record, then I'll just ask the band to do the singing. There might be better background singers somewhere on the planet, but they may not have the reason to be there as the bandmates would.

These are all intangibles that people feel from records, on the level of commitment and why you're doing it to begin with. People feel the naive spirit of a certain time—we make records, and we do the best we can at any given time, and then we listen back to them a decade later say, "Oh, boy. We were very committed to the few things we had available to us, and we did something special."

I've been toying with the idea of getting a side digital console—the latest digital console that has onboard effects, and treating the entire console as an effects unit. Not to have it be my main console, because I still use analog consoles, but to treat it as a sidebar to special effects. I hear wonderful things on other people's records—some pretty adventurous, hip-hop records—that sometimes make me jealous.

Any particular artists come to mind, out of curiosity?

A few years back, 50 Cent had a single out that had the best bottom and a really great bass drum figure, and I thought, "He's got a better bass drum sound than me—let me call him up."

The Neville Brothers - Yellow Moon (from the 1989 album of the same name)

Going back to the timeline from analog to digital—was there ever a technique you used frequently that you've now dropped?

I used to really enjoy doing these half-inch tape loops, which I used when I made a record with the Neville Brothers called Yellow Moon. They're all great percussionists, and so I invited them to lay down those tracks. We'd end up with twenty minutes of people playing percussion, and then I'd choose the best 16 bars and mix them to tape.

In those days, I used to do these large loops that run through the entire studio, around pulleys and mic stands, all that—there was something wonderful about that. I had control over the varispeed, which I miss dearly. The advantage to varispeed with percussion is you might say, "Well, lets try a little slower," or, "Let's try a little faster," and because you don't have any harmonic information you can move the thing up and down.

I currently use a Radar digital machine which comes from Canada. It's a great machine, but just to access vari-speed is enough of a rigamarole. The varispeed button and knob used to be on my MCI or my Otari and it was much simpler. Eno used to give a seminar titled "What's Wrong With The Knob?" We once had one control and now you went to two, and then it just expanded from there—now it's at the point where you have to go to a menu to do things. I miss the ergonomics of some of what the analog machines had to offer for me, although I appreciate that it takes less time now to make a copy of the project—that used to be a long procedure with analog.

It sounds like even with the advent of digital technology, the advances end up being too much of anything in one place.

I also think the sound is different. It's hard for digital to accommodate vari-speed. It's almost like trying to take pigment from one part of the picture and fill it in another. It was an easy task for analog and I think digital still struggles to provide really good vari-speed. I miss the musicality of it.

Would you consider yourself to be sort of a lifelong student of production and engineering? Is there a new technique or piece that you've picked up recently on, say for this record, that you haven't done before?

Record production has so much to do with psychology and taste and inspiration. The more I do it, the less I believe it's about equipment—in fact, it's not about equipment for me at all. When I'm working on a record of mine like this new one—it's all about time of day, how I'm playing, what my mood is. Am I rushing? Why am I rushing? Should I chill? Play it more Cuban? Nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the vibe.

Once my "stations" are in order—and in the case of a piano record, I want to make sure that my three pianos are properly mic'd, ready to roll, ironing out all the kinks of technique—everything's in place, and I'm ready to do some playing.

I made a record with Neil Young called Le Noise. He wanted to work under the full moon, so we did three day stints: a night before the full moon, the night of, and the night after. After that, we'd just pack up and wait another month to regroup. We did that three or four times—he believes in the power of the moon, and how people feel at that time. There's a potency that has come to him that he's been in touch with since the records he made as a kid.

Daniel Lanois, photo by Marthe Vannebo.

I made another record with Bob Dylan called Oh Mercy—that quickly became a nighttime record. He believed that we were satisfied tempo-wise and temperament-wise differently at night than in the day, and I believe he's right. In the nighttime, defenses are down, it gets to be a little closer to the midnight hour—you don't have the daytime pressures of business. That makes its way to the music.

I'm inclined to agree.

You know what I'm talking about—spirit of the moment and no distractions, and you get into a zone. I learned that from Eno a long time ago. He didn't want to be disturbed or distracted in the middle of work because he felt that it would take 30 minutes to get back to the vibe that he was at before he had to take a phone call.

All these things are very important: what state of mind are you in, and are you feeling relaxed? There's nothing wrong with tension and pressure—that's okay too if that's what the music calls for—but if you're trying to get to a place where you want your imagination to run wild and for your wild thoughts to dominate who you are, we have to be reminded that we are dreamers. That's why we get into music—you might just find that little portal that will take us to a place that we've never been to before. We need to be poised and ready to notice the moments for us to crawl through.

Excerpt from "Classic Albums: U2: The Joshua Tree" (1999) on the making of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"

I remember hearing a recent interview where you were asked to look back retrospectively on your production discography. You said that the production you're most fond of embodied a proper representation of the artist or personnel at that particular time and place. I believe you used a photography metaphor— snapping the camera at the right time—that completely aligns with how I view the recording process as a producer. Relaying your words back to you now, does a particular session and its sonic photograph come to mind?

I suppose we could take a time machine and go back to Ireland when I was working with U2 on The Joshua Tree. We're in a fabulous farmhouse, and the room had a very old wood, white plank floor, and it was pure rock and roll in there. It was a nice density, not echo-y.

Drum sound-wise, we hit on something at that era that I felt was really special: any chance we had, I would ask Larry [Mullen, Jr.] to play the drums when the rest of the band wasn't there, just on the off-chance that we might capture a spontaneous beat with that lovely sound in the room.

"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" started out with one of those takes and that became the spine for that song—it hadn't been written yet, but I kept going back to that groove that we got in that room which I don't think we would've gotten that in any other room. We were able to snap the camera on Larry in that beautiful place.

Incredible to hear you talk about that. I do want to talk a little bit about the working relationship with Eno and the several records you produced for others. You of course had the classic run of albums for U2, but you've also done more abstract, ambient-leaning projects for the likes of Harold Budd and Jon Hassell. What has the division of labor between the two of you looked like—does it differ from album to album, or even from one idiom to the other? Or do you not think in terms of that?

When I first worked with Eno, it was on Harold's Plateaux of Mirror album, and we were very, very focused. Harold wasn't even around for that because Brian had recorded the piano recordings in New York—they had rented a Steinway Grand, and so, he had the raw panel performances done already. He came to me with those on a 7.5 IPS tape. They were a little bit hesitant but the vibe was dripping—we transferred those to my multi-track, and off we went with the processing and the editing and so on. There were no other people in the studio, it was just Eno and myself, and that afforded us a certain kind of concentration.

You know what it's like to sit at a table with one person having a certain conversation. If you have more people, two might be talking about one thing, and the other two about another. I loved everything about that focus, it changed my life. I thought, okay, here we are—I'm not worried about doing a bunch of sessions to pay my bills because I don't come from money, and I had to build this recording studio with my brother, and we had to pay the bills and mortgage and all of these crazy things to think about. You don't want to be thinking about a mortgage when you're making music.

I appreciated that Eno came into my life and he had that kind of focus, and that's how he was far ahead of me as a record maker, as an artist. I thought, "I'm never going to look back. I will never do anything that I don't want to do ever again." So it was that lesson, and so, at that time it was just (singing) "just the two of us building castles in the sky…".

We went on to produce other kind of records where there were a lot of people in the room but we never lost track of our stations—Eno always had his synthesizers and whatever equipment he was excited about, and I had mine. I'm a guitar player, so I had my equipment and my pretty good percussion player in my bus. I had my own little sandbox and he had his only like five feet apart.

"An Ending (Ascent)", from Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno's 'Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks'.

These are smart people who knew that we had lots of tricks up our sleeves—we came in and they wanted to know what we were bringing to the table because they were curious about where they could go with sounds, and beyond that, where they could go with discovering new dimensions of sound. They wanted to evolve.

We kept our thing going because we always came up with fast results. I got instant sounds from all our preparations in our stations, and that's how we became honorary members of U2—the opposite of technicians. We were there to inspire and to allow discoveries to be made. Eventually we got the plug to do the engineering and took on that role, but we always had our thing going, Eno and myself. I love that guy. I can't say enough about him. He's one of the brilliant minds.

Even outside of music, our long walks to and from the studio morning to night—I'm a guy who never went to school because I had a studio. There was a fork in the road: I could have gone to university for eight years, but no—I decided that I would do my thing and get better at it. It was my first love.

I got to hear along about art, about life, about countries, about philosophy, how other people live, he'd been to Africa and I hadn't. The time that you spend with a person outside of the studio—these are very important times, they're a big part of the contribution to the recordings. You want to be philosophically aligned with people you're working with.

We got better and better in our separate ways, but I was always ready to roll up my sleeves and do some of the dog work with vocal comps, just to make sure that I didn't waste Eno's time with janitorial work—not to reduce that process in particular, but you got to do it right with an attention to detail. Eno didn't have a lot of patience for this kind of stuff, because it would mean that he wouldn't be able to spend the time with what he does best. So I was very considerate to his vision, and where he wanted things to go, and I tried my best to do some of the dog work that he didn't have to do. There you go.

It sounds like you go micro while Brian goes macro.

Brian is an abstract thinker and I love him for that. He doesn't mind deconstructing something—that maybe there's a direction that we've been hammering at for a while and suddenly he'll surprise everybody with another way of doing it. I might keep hammering away at something for a few days, and he would not have the patience for that and move on to another approach that turns out to be better. I've gotten pretty good at that myself in more recent times. I won't beat things up as much as I used to. Sometimes just having a fresh approach helps—shaking the tree a little bit so that we're not just on the damn same street.

You are no stranger to unorthodox or unconventional recording locations—I'm thinking of Slane Castle where you recorded with U2, but also the abandoned Teatro movie theater in Oxnard, California, where you recorded Willie Nelson and a motley of other musicians. I'm curious what the challenges are of working in these sort of setups where you build an open-concept studio around an artist.

This largely came about from playing live. I was always a touring musician. I played guitar for a lot of people and I found that on the road, we would just bump into some club somewhere that everybody just sounded fantastic in. I thought, "Why can't we sound this good in the studio?" Sometimes you go in the studio and you get caught up in the drum pedal squeaking—could I even think about this when we're playing loud? We started carrying some multi-track recording equipment—I had a one-inch 24-track Tascam with onboard noise reduction.

Oh, man.

I did the most amazing recordings on that thing just from the road, and I thought, "Why are we not getting this in the studio? The bass drum sounds better on the stage." It had a lot to do with not only the equipment we were carrying but the locations—certain venues just had a punch to them. To this day, I think, for example, the Troubadour in LA has a nice punching musical sound.

I've played there before, I love that room.

You can't even analyze it—it's just great. Everybody sitting in that little loft dressing room—that skinny hallway, and it's like, "Okay, everybody ready? Downstairs," and then off, you're immediately on the stage and everybody sounds good. So, why is that happening? We don't need to figure out why, it's just great.

It's a total case of "je ne sais quoi"...

It's beyond measurement or anything. It's just in the walls. There are places like this all over the world with—some clubs in Germany that I've played in. And I start thinking, "Why am I in a recording studio where everything is a problem?" I wanted to get away from problems and I wanted to go to the music.

So, I started experimenting with this kind of stuff in my studio in Hamilton, Canada. The old library had become available to me, a beautiful 100-year-old building with all kind of interesting rooms—and the library had just relocated to a modern location, so I had access to the old building for a while and I made a few records in that place. There were funny hallways, and little back rooms, and still had a bunch of books in there.

I discovered that once you got away from microscopy, it opened up a door to musicality, and that's why I was interested in locations, and making records.

"I Never Cared For You", from Willie Nelson's 1998 album Teatro.

You mentioned the Teatro in California?


That was one of my best shops. We were in a theater. We had a performance and the screen was still there—projections and everything. It was just a lot of fun and it got people away from trying to figure out if their amp was buzzing and all that kind of stuff.

When I made that record with Willie Nelson (1998's Teatro), I asked Willie what it was like when he got started, when he was a kid. He said, "Well, we were a dance band, and we played clubs and people might do a little cheek-to-cheek or a little two-step. They wanted to have a good time on the weekend." The Mexican restaurant across the street from the Teatro had a bunch of benches that they'd modernized, so they had all their old benches in the back and they gave them to me. We set up the tents just like a club with risers and everything, and when Willie walked in, he said, "Man, this is just like the places I used to play at." I said, "Exactly. I designed it after what you told me."

It meant that we weren't thinking about making a record, we were thinking about performing. There's an awful lot that can be said about the performance-to-microscopy ratio. I never even liked my own studios that much. I got somebody in the glass vocal booth and the drums in another booth down the hall. It's like, "What am I doing? That's not how you make music."

It's almost a trap.

You shouldn't separate people. We are micro-negotiators musically, so in some cases we have people sitting close together, as I did with Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball. I was sitting two feet from Emmy, and then Steve Earle is two feet away on the other side, and Lucinda Williams is two feet away on the other. We might as well have been an old bluegrass band in the kitchen. We played our instruments in a considerate fashion to the volume of vocals so we didn't have to blare a sound and try to rebalance it in the studio.

People are people. I'm not saying it's the only way to make records, but if you're lucky enough to make a record with a beautiful singer like Emmylou Harri, you make sure that all of that is intact, and you don't put people too far away. Keep them close. Proximity is a friend to communication and performance.

It's wonderful to hear you lay out this particular era of your production output, this unmistakable group energy of bodies in rooms. As soon as you drop the needle on Wrecking Ball, there's this thereness that you can't really get out of the standard cut-and-dry studio session.

I can't speak for everybody, Nick, but I did what was common sense to me at any given time. With making records, you hope to bump into a sound for a particular record. Emmy had some dulcimers at home. I said, "Well, let's bring those into the studio." I had my electric mandolin, my 12-string guitar, and we'd rented this really nice, bright piano that had a multiple string trimming sound to it. All of that started adding up to the sound of Wrecking Ball.

We were lucky enough to have the most amazing rhythm section. Tony Hall on bass, who I had worked with on that Neville Brothers album, and then I convinced Larry from U2 to come and play the drums. He says, "I don't know much about Emmylou Harris." I said, "Trust me, she's great, come on in. Would you do that for me?" And he came in and it was a modular crew if ever there was one. Tony comes from funk—he's a New Orleans bass player. But the thing about Larry, he loves country music. He loves song structure, and whatever he plays sounds heavy.

Heavy, heavy. You can pick out that drum sound anywhere.

We got to thank Larry for that. I owe him a phone call or a letter, I haven't talked to him in a while. I hope he's doing well.

"Where Will I Be", from the 1995 Emmylou Harris album Wrecking Ball.

It would be remiss if we ended this interview without mentioning your love affair with the pedal steel. I would love to talk to you about what led you to carve out your niche as a player and discover the instrument. I understand that hearing Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk" was particularly formative growing up?

I still love it to this day. That one was lap steel—not pedal steel—but they really hit on something, the tones of that time were some of the best. I started out as a straight slide player myself. I played an acoustic slide, that's how I started playing guitar. The little music school I studied at, they taught accordion and slide guitar. So I said, "Okay, I'll play slide." It was just an acoustic guitar, but high action, and my teacher strummed, and I played the melody. What was nice about those lessons is I was pretty good with melodies already because I started on a penny whistle. You can only play one note at a time, so of course that was a continuation of the development of my interest in melody.

Eventually, I heard this French Canadian guitar player in Toronto named Bob Lucier. He played in a country and western bar called The Edison around the corner from The Brown Derby where I was playing with a show band. In between sets, I'd go and hear him play, and I met him and told him how much I love what he was doing. He says, "Well, I can get you one of these guitars." So he got me my first Sho-Bud—a little single-neck 10-string which I still have—and I took lessons from him as well. He was a beautiful player, with a creamy sound—not too showy. Lots of blue chords and a really melancholy sound. I wanted to play like him.

I got pretty good on steel guitar after a year or two, and I started playing country bands. I was playing more conventionally then, but I wasn't nearly as good as Buddy Evans and some of those great Texas players—I cry when I hear those guys play that good and think "Well, I'll never be that good at that thing." I decided that I would go to a slower way to play and let the notes ring out, let the harmonics do the speaking. That's how I came into my sound. I just kept going deeper and deeper into that direction, and then I found my own voice on the instrument, which is a very important thing to do. As a musician, you could be a copycat, but if you can find your own thing at a certain point—that's a doorway to the wild frontier.

Especially for that particular instrument. It has such a reputation for specific textures and timbres, and it can be difficult to carve out your own niche for it.

Well, every instrument has its cliches. Just because you're a banjo player, you don't have to play ragtime, particularly, you could just find some other way of having the instrument speak. So the instrument does not dictate what gets done with it, it's only a tool. Side-stepping the cliches—not to criticize any genre or anything that came into popularity, an approach on an instrument. There are masters of any given era and we admire them, but with that there is a responsibility that I chose to take on: what am I going to do that hasn't been done before? That's always the criteria in the back of my mind. Can we get to a place where we can say we're doing something original as this?

Daniel Lanois, photo by Marthe Vannebo

One last question—I love this sentiment of yours, again from an old interview: you said that people making records look to have a friend who cares about them, and will ultimately help make decisions that are the correct ones for that body of work. Would you mind riffing on that to close?

I can give you a few examples. I felt that I was a friend to Neil Young when we worked together. Neil's a generation ahead of me, but I'm not too far behind, and we're both Canadian. There was an instant communication and rapport that existed because of that, and I appreciated that he trusted me, and allowed me to have my thing come to full bloom. There's lots of people that can make records just as good as I can, but what might I have to offer to Neil that somebody else would not? I was able to not be distracted by anything. I wholeheartedly devoted myself to him at that time, and I believe he felt that, and that built trust.

Ultimately, he was confident in listening to my point of view and my advice, for example, content we recorded, I think 16 or 17 songs. I forget how many we put on the record, let's say 10. He was able to trust that I would recommend the content of the record, right choices. All the songs we recorded were good, and I thought that some did not belong to that body of work. That's a little bit of an example of a trusted friend in the studio.

We all hope to get there. You don't want to be misaligned or having different opinions and all that. If I can get to that place with somebody I'm working with, then I think I've done a good job.

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