Daniel Lanois,
The TVD Interview

Daniel Lanois is one of the premier sound architects of our time. He has produced some of the largest selling albums of the last three decades, often serving as an auxiliary member of the band in session. He is also a master musician and songwriter who has created an intriguing body of work. His latest album, Flesh and Machine, is a major departure from his previous work. A collection of 11 soundscapes, at times it sounds like sometimes collaborator Brian Eno with a rhythm infusion. Ultimately, it comes off as a bold and totally unique creation, one that Lanois entered with not a little trepidation.

Lanois recently performed his new material at City Winery Nashville, accompanied by a compelling video presentation. For the show, I was seated across from Nashville music legend Mac Gayden. Gayden, who recorded a series of adventurous and experimental records in the ‘70s, has a direct, flesh and blood connection to Lanois. I spoke with Mr. Lanois after the performance, when he reflected on his new direction as well as growing up in Canada.

Flesh and Machine is such a departure for you, musically. How did you choose this new direction?

I spend so much in “the laboratory,” my studio (chuckles), and every day is a sonic adventure. I decided to embrace my experiments and let those sounds be the direction of the next record. I was able to take myself off the songwriting hook, so I wasn’t operating by any of those preconceptions. It was a new-found freedom for me. I still have a regard for conventional songwriting, of course, but I thought this time I’ll have the laboratory experiments direct me into this new frontier.

This music is also more rhythmic than what I’ve done before. I’ve always loved rhythm so to be able to highlight that was something that was special to me.

At your recent City Winery Nashville show, I was impressed by the collaborative process between the three of you, especially Brian Blade. What an amazing drummer!

Yes, he’s just a star and I can’t say enough about him. We’ve been working together over 20 years and he never ceases to amaze me as a drummer and as a human being. He’s a great barometer for the music. Can’t get enough of him!

The performance achieved a deft balance between organic interaction and the electronic sounds you were generating. Does the performance change every night? How does it work with all of your onstage “laboratory”?

Absolutely, there’s a lot of flexibility for improv. I’m working with a little eight track music source and I can mix the ingredients in the moment as I see fit. The toppings are totally improvised and belong to the night, which is exciting. You never know what you’re going to get. I’ve got my sampling and dubbing along with all the equipment on stage. It’s a little bit of a risk; I’ll send something to the sampling machine and I might get a good one or I might not (laughter)! But if I get a good one, I stay with it and add to it, like putting some echo over the top.

That pushes Brian, who is very responsive to what goes on around him, so it could segue way to a very explosive moment for him, and then Jim (Wilson, bassist) will respond to that. The ingredients themselves are preset, predetermined, but the expression of those ingredients belongs to the night.

In that regard, it’s akin to free jazz. Do artists like Ornette Coleman seep into your thinking when you’re performing this music?

That’s a nice compliment, drawing a line of comparison to one of the great jazz musicians of our time. I like to think that we’re operating loosely according to the philosophy of artists like that, to push the boundaries of an existing form. I hope we are carrying the torch of a kind of adventurous thinking to this body of work.

Again, it’s a bit of a risk because I’ve written a lot of folk songs and people expect to hear them. Sometimes, I get a little uncomfortable thinking I might not be supplying the audience with what they came to hear. By and large, though, people who follow me understand that I have an innovative side that drives me, so there has been a “welcome mat” for most of the shows (laughter).

Yes, I was curious what the audience reaction would be myself, although you did perform several of your more traditional songs in the last half of your set. It almost felt like a second show. Does it feel that way to you?

Yes, I’m still trying to find a way for the two worlds to work together. I’m still getting comfortable with the electro part of things because I have to reset so many things on my console for the next number it doesn’t give me a chance to talk or anything. I see it as the tip of the iceberg, really, and perhaps an invitation to do more unusual renditions of older material. That’s still in my head and not on the stage yet, though. I think (the new and older material) are quite separate at the moment.

What struck me is how some of your older songs, like “The Maker,” stood in relief to the Flesh and Machine material. It changed the listening context, allowing me to hear and appreciate the older songs in a new way. The visuals on the screens flanking the stage also contributed greatly to the experience. Did you create all the film that was shown?

I made those with Adam Bollick, a guy from Canada who I’ve known for many years. We share an enthusiasm for compelling visuals and he was a big help to me in putting the show together. There is one number where he fished out some antique animation drawings. Some are circular, some are skeletal and they are fantastically done. They’re like little 45s in how they spin. There’s something very sweet and endearing about them. In these fast times, to see something that elementary have so much life is a reminder that we’re still kids at heart.

Not that I was there, but it made me think of the old Fillmore Ballroom shows, where there was always a visual component that accompanied the performances.

The Fillmore reference is a big compliment. What’s significant about it all to me is that I’m operating with a very cottage industry entourage. We’re just a bunch of hometown guys doing the best we can with what we have. They are very talented people with big hearts and I think people can feel the innocence, that it’s not a “store bought” thing. I’m quite proud of the group behind this. I equate it to starting your first neighborhood band. You’re not going to bring guys in from the next county, you know? (laughter).

Speaking of hometown guys, I watched your show while sitting across from Mac Gayden. You two have a connection in his grandson Alex Krispin, who produced Flesh and Machine.

Yes, it was just an off-chance meeting. I was a visiting professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston and Alex was a student. We reconnected later in Los Angeles and I remembered that he was a great kid with big talent and “go power.” I always enjoy working with young people. They often know things I don’t because they live such interesting lives. Alex is a smart cookie who knows a lot about music.

Regarding music, do you still listen to it on vinyl?

Yes, I have a vinyl collection and Jim Wilson, who plays bass with me, is an expert. We’ve just come back from a record store, in fact! Jim picked up a couple of pieces and we have frequent conversations about records. In the early days, that’s all we had and I’ve made albums that were pressed on vinyl. I had a little company and that’s what we did, doing the recording, getting the artwork together and having the records pressed for people. It was all pretty small, cottage industry stuff.

I have some knowledge about it from that time, including the limitations on length of time per side. I think there was something special about the time limitation which was about 16 minutes per side. There’s something about listening for 16 minutes and then getting up, maybe getting a cup of tea, and then flipping the record over to hear the other side. You get a little intermission and I think there is something nice about the length of that offering. Also, taking the time to look at the album cover, read the liner notes and have a little bohemian moment…I used to have those bohemian nights in the company of friends. It was interesting to enjoy the company of the people you were with while listening to a record. It was terrific!

We are human beings and we like congregation. Technology can be a lot of fun, getting fast snapshots from around the world but there’s nothing like a sit-down, physical exchange. I always say that as church falls into demise, we still have the inclination to congregate whether by a night of music or a festival, or just sitting down to listen to some vinyl.

What was the first record that really made an impression on you?

Well, for me, it was the radio. I didn’t have the money to buy records but I grew up in Canada between Detroit and Buffalo so I got to hear the best r&b radio of the time. That’s what got me hooked and then I started going to shows. When I was a kid I got to see Sly and the Family Stone, Sam & Dave, Muddy Waters and other great acts who came through. That’s when I started getting into vinyl. I would hear about someone, be curious about them, and then go buy their record. I got into psychedelic records and Jimi Hendrix was a big hero. I really liked listening to his albums.

I never went crazy with vinyl because I went straight into record making. I wasn’t a collector, particularly, I was just busy in my studio. I was working all the time making records so I didn’t have time to collect them.

Daniel Lanois’ Flesh and Machine is in stores now. On vinyl.
Daniel Lanois Official | Facebook | Twitter

This entry was posted in TVD Nashville. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

  • Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text