"A game like chess suited me because I was able to put everything from my mind and work with something abstract."
Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois Remember the Making of U2's Unforgettable Fire
October 23, 2009
It all makes sense now, what with 25 years of history behind us, but at the time U2's decision to tap Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to produce the pivotal follow-up to their breakthrough album War was far from the most obvious course of action. Eno, after all, was a cerebral sounding board and problem solver splitting his time between his own projects and happily throwing a playful spanner into the works of others. Lanois, on the other hand, was far from a known quantity, a few years away from the defining work he would go on to do with such acts as Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, and Emmylou Harris. Yet somehow the unlikely combination of this band and these producers worked.
In advance of the 25th anniversary re-release of The Unforgettable Fire, the classic 1984 album Eno and Lanois ultimately made with U2 and the first of their many fruitful collaborations, we tracked down the two busy producers to talk about how they began their now quarter-century relationship with the band.
Pitchfork: Daniel, the story goes that Brian Eno recommended you produce U2 after they first came to him.
Daniel Lanois: Brian and I had been working in Canada in a town called Hamilton. We'd been making ambient records [including On Land and Apollo] for a few years, some very cool records. But I'll be real straight with you. During that ambient music-making chapter, I was pretty isolated. Nothing had really come my way that was illustrious, in terms of invites. I had poured my soul into these ambient works with Eno, and a lot of phone calls were coming in -- David Bowie was calling, Iggy Pop the next day. None of them to me, all to Brian. Brian was pretty much in the fast lane of record making at that point. He was pretty much on the pulse of things in New York City, and then he said that he wasn't producing records anymore. He was finished with it, and was therefore not interested in working with U2.
Brian Eno: I had never worked with that kind of music before, and I was not completely convinced that I would be the right person for it. I thought, well, I can handle the ideas side of it all right, but can I handle the actual traditional production side alright? I knew Dan was very good at that side of things, and very good at working with bands, getting the best out of the players and so on, so I said, "Why not have both of us? We'll sort of overlap in some parts, but we actually sort of serve different functions as well." That was how that working relationship started.
DL: I said to him that I would be interested in working for them because I was looking to sink my teeth into rock 'n' roll. He said, well, perhaps an introduction can be made, because Brian felt that I had something to offer. Beyond my appetite to do good work, he felt that I had something to offer because I had a burning desire. So he accepted a meeting, and we went to Ireland with the idea of getting me on the U2 record.
BE: We had never actually produced anything of anybody else's before, though we had worked together quite a lot. We knew each other well, and we had some respect for each other's different talents. That seemed to me like the ideal situation. We could just do the bits we were sort of comfortable doing.
DL: They were oblivious to my existence, so in the end, he agreed to co-produce it with me.
Pitchfork: U2, particularly at that time, was totally at odds with the kind of music you were making. Why do you think they looked to you as producers?
BE: I think they were very keen on the Talking Heads stuff that I had done. I think they also, dare I say it, liked some of my music! [laughs] The main thing, actually, was that they wanted to go somewhere else.
DL: They wanted to do something different. U2 has been listening to New Gold Dream by Simple Minds as a point of reference, a record they liked. The panorama of the ambiance appealed to them. I think that Bono wanted to get to a place that was wider than stripped-down rock'n'roll, so we allowed ourselves the flexibility to embrace the colors that Eno and I had been developing.
BE: I had this phone call with Bono -- he is the greatest salesman of all time, you have to bear that in mind -- where I said to him, look, what I'm worried about is that I might change things rather unrecognizably. People might not particularly like the new you that comes out of this. And he said, well, actually we want to be changed unrecognizably. We don't want to just keep repeating what we've done before. He said if we wanted to, we're on track for being a band that just does the kind of records we've done so far. He said we want to do something different from that. He said we wanted to be more -- I forget the word he used, but "cutting edge" was the meaning. I thought, OK, as long as you appreciate that there's a risk involved in that.
After that conversation was when I came up with a plan. I thought, well, I knew that Danny was a great producer, and even if nothing about the working relationship between me and the band worked out, they would still have a really good producer in him. In fact, it worked out very well.
DL: The entire record has soft edges, but I suppose it can be viewed as...when you see great photographic images printed from film, the raw edges surrounding the portrait are part of the beauty. The medium presents itself, and therefore the restrictions become part of the dedicated work. I still love that about restrictions. I think we did the best we could with what we had to work with. We had very few tools, and there were no outside influences. We were huddled up as a team, and we got what we got because of what we brought to the table. Part of me likes a more ragged, jagged guitar sound or performance, but our work might not have been as innovative had we followed in the footsteps of what came before. We were very proud of what we had hit on.
Pitchfork: Daniel, you're more of a traditional musician than Brian is, and you obviously bring something different than he does to the albums you work on.
DL: We are similar in the sense that we love soul music, using "soul" as a broad banner for anything that feels right, that has a sense of purpose to it. That's ultimately what we love in records, as a human race. We want to be lifted. But Eno's an incredible catalyst, and has a way of quickly presenting another way of looking at things. That's really his genius, and he's still the best at it. Of course, he might spontaneously come up with a fresh way to look at things, but when the shop door closes, Lanois is still sweeping up!
© Pitchfork, 2009.