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"I tell you, it is not really about what he taught me and what I taught him. It is about what we were both taught by the people that we met." — Bono, on his 2002 trip to Africa with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill


Propaganda, Issue 14
Seven years ago, when Brian Eno first suggested to his French-Canadian sidekick Daniel Lanois that they should take a trip to Ireland to look into U2's invitation to work on their fourth studio album, Lanois was little known outside Canada.

Back in Ireland in 1991, in the middle of producing U2's seventh long-player, he is one of the most sought-after and critically acclaimed producers in the world.

As well as working for U2, he produced Peter Gabriel's groundbreaking So album in 1986, Robbie Robertson's solo album in 1988, Yellow Moon by the Neville Brothers in 1989, and Oh Mercy by Bob Dylan last year.

In between all this work for other artists he also signed to Brian Eno's record label, Opal Records, and made Acadie, his own debut as a recording artist, which featured guest appearances by Larry and Adam from U2, both Eno brothers, Brian and Roger, and the Nevilles again.

Sung in both French and English, the album's title refers to the northeastern spur of Canada, comprising Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Prince Edward Islands, which was settled by the French in the early C17th but became the centre of a bitter struggle for control with the British in the next century and a half. The Acadians were expulsed in 1755, a diaspora eventually resulting in French settlements as far south as Louisiana and the subsequent establishment of the enduring Cajun culture. If it wasn't already abundantly clear in his music, Daniel Lanois has roots that go deep.

The son of French-Canadian parents, he was born in Hull, Quebec in 1951, but when he moved to Hamilton, Ontario at an early age, he sensed a similar culture shock to his Acadian ancestors. Lanois was later to draw on both the music and experiences of his displaced Acadian ancestors, tying them to his own progressive musical leanings. Early on he did stints in local rock 'n' roll and R&B bands and, in 1970, with his brother Bob, constructed a studio in his family basement where they recorded folk, gospel, and country and western artists.

By the early '80s the Lanois brothers were ensconced in a 24-track studio in Hamilton -- Grand Avenue Studios -- producing three albums by Toronto's popular Martha and the Muffins (featuring sister Jocelyn on bass) and Daniel won Producer of the Year for three consecutive years in his home country. At the same time he began pioneering "aural explorations" with Brian Eno (albums such as The Plateaux of Mirror and On Land), which in due course led to meeting U2, and the rest is history.

Propaganda caught up with Daniel Lanois for an hour before beginning another day's recording of the new U2 album. He believes the album is taking shape well and can already hear "a couple of songs at least" that will be worldwide hits. In the studio with U2 everything is recorded all the time. "We run very big reels of tape at a very slow speed so we never lose takes, the tape's always running. If you record a spirited moment, an ideas moment, you can then wind back, do a few overdubs on it and then turn it into a song."

After spending months and months in the studio with U2 in the past few years on three important records, including the current one, there is a unique understanding between Lanois and the members of U2: "It's almost as if having worked together so much [that] there's a filtering mechanism built in, and the things we experiment with which aren't quite there, we just put them aside. We don't have to talk about them a lot."

His time is tight and he wants to make another of his own records this year. "Acadie went down pretty well," he says modestly. "If I can deliver this one for U2 by August, then I can deliver my own next record for January."

Not forgetting the small question of producing Peter Gabriel's new solo album in between as well.

Propaganda: Can you see which way this new U2 record is going at present?"

Lanois: Yes, I can see an identity now that wasn't there so much in Berlin. We were there for five weeks but this last phase in Ireland is beginning to focus it more for me. In the end this record will be basically made in Berlin and Ireland. There was talk of going to London to record but I nipped that one in the bud.

We're not that isolated here, we're in a town, but the power of the sea is something that works all the time, it's a very reliable friend...constantly changing as you look out of the studio window. One day cold, grey and choppy, and another beautiful, aqua blue."

Was the time recording in Berlin useful?

Berlin gave the band a lot of inspiration and was a good move. We were in Hansa studio, an old studio just on the West side of the line, although we were staying on the East side. There we could maintain anonymity and get on with the work, which helps.

Being in Ireland has one or two disadvantages, like friends who you can't say 'no' to, but we're managing to do okay as long as I can keep people off the phone and maintain some kind of order. There was a little more tension in Berlin because we were on a mission there, we were there for a purpose. We'd rented a studio and we were there to establish the identity of the record and to try and push the heavier rock tracks through. It's the band's view that the toughest tracks to get are the hard-hitting tracks, whereas the more dreamier, more melancholy, softer tracks come more easily -- you can write them in your bedroom and do it in a more intimate setting. Hansa was to be the location to clarify what the powerful tracks would be, and I think we did that.

Has the album begun to take on a life of its own?

What happens on a record, especially with U2, is that no matter how much planning goes into the direction of the music, at a certain point, usually about half to three-quarters way through the recording, the record itself determines where it's going. It has nothing to do with the people. Songs write themselves, Bono comes up with the lines that he becomes a slave to -- the best line, the good one, the only one that works -- and therefore he has to fill out the song to accommodate that theme.

Do you find yourself as a producer waiting for that moment?

I worry a lot anyway, but it doesn't help much, so I'm trying to stop that. There are expectations. I'm just hoping to make as special a record as we can. You can't try too hard. When we went into this record there were all sorts of possibilities -- making a big record, making a rock record, making a melodic record, a rhythmic record -- all these components that people want because they're qualities that people love. But in the end you get something which goes a certain way and that's the way it goes.

Some of it is very much like a dance record -- I think maybe that the plastic chandeliers that hang over the consoles have had some kind of effect on us. The one you can hear at the moment is not going to be a dance track. But it'll probably break your heart.

This song you're hearing through the door has a very clear melody, this is a gift. We have a track and we have a melody that's clear and then we have sort of Bongolese, which is like half-words -- it's a vocal and some words peek through and then you lose it again in the track, which is when he's mumbling...this is because he hasn't written anything for this song yet, it's just an emotion.

Is this unusual?

Writers don't necessarily begin to complete a song in one sitting. Writers are always writing lines -- here's a title, here's a good line or a good rhyme, I like this verse, I like this love song idea, here's one about tension. So if you open up a writer's book there are little pockets of lyrics, and because they're coming from one person, those words are pockets. Those modules -- we'll call them for now -- are almost interchangeable, so you might be able to use one module in five different songs, and until you make the decision that this module belongs with that song, it can always be a module moving around. So I want Bono to make a commitment on four tracks...that's my aim in the next week or so.

Are any tracks virtually complete lyrically?

Yes, although we haven't actually done the finished vocals, Bono claims to have the lyrics definitely for there...I'd like to push it to four, and once we've got four they then become the cornerstones.

What is your earliest recollection of U2 as a band?

My earliest memory of U2 would be Boy -- I probably heard it in 1982 after a friend recommended it -- when I was working in Ontario with original bands and working with Brian Eno, producing and engineering. I thought Boy was great, ragged but with a good energy, and I liked the vocal. War is the record I listened to once Brian and I had the invitation to work on The Unforgettable Fire in Ireland.

At that point I was ready to sink my teeth into something. I knew that they didn't want to make War again, they were looking for some fresh input, some innovation. They had done War and were looking to make some new discoveries. They went to Brian Eno because that's what he does, he's an innovator.

But he wasn't really interested in U2 at first, was he?

He wasn't interested in producing bands, he had done that with Devo, Talking Heads and so on. But Bono essentially talked him into it. I said, "Listen, I want to do this record." So he said, "Well, I don't know, let's go to Ireland and see what it's about and I'll just leave you there with it once I'm there."

As you know Bono is a really good talker and he can convince you of anything at a given moment, even if it's wrong -- you might realise it's not the correct decision the next day, but at the time it seems to make sense. They essentially charmed Brian Eno into working on this record, but I was happy to do it.

Was the recording of The Unforgettable Fire a difficult time?

Some of it was stressful, we put too much time into making things that didn't make the record, which is a lesson that artists have to learn. There was one called "White City," which I think is still on the shelf, every now and again rumour gets around that they're going to take it down from the shelf and work on it again. We spent a lot of time on other tracks that didn't make the album too, the titles of which I've forgotten.

But we spent a lot of time re-shaping the sound of U2: Brian and I were heavily into atmospheres at that point, the peak of our atmospheric work, and we brought that to U2, which must have looked like quite a gift from their point of view -- for somebody to come in with eight years' worth of this type of research into their world.

Although, I was surprised in hearing the early U2 records that I was not involved in, that they were already doing that kind of thing to a certain degree. Edge discovering the echo and so on. We'll definitely have to put some experimental moments into this record, a good reminder.

What did you make of U2 when you were first getting to know them?

I thought they were very special people...there was a kind of driving force there that I hadn't seen before, you know you're going to get something out of that much commitment. I really hit it off with Larry, which I think was a great thing because he had been growing as a musician since being a teenager with a lot of energy, and when we started together I just assumed he was amazing. That's what I believed because I had never seen him grow, and this provided him with a certain boost in confidence and he played even better as a result of it. If you really believe somebody is great, they'll feel that and give you even more greatness. It was real good in the drums area on that level -- and we made some nice discoveries, introducing the timbales to the kit and the tom-toms. There was some kind of turbulence we discovered on that record.

Did you keep in touch with the band after completing The Unforgettable Fire?

After finishing that record I went to England and did Peter Gabriel's So record, which did pretty good. I did that on my own but kept in touch with U2, and when they were out on tour I caught up in a couple of places in New York and in Los Angeles.

I had thought we should do at least one more record, I thought we could do better than this. It was an interesting, innovative record and we made some nice discoveries, but I thought a few stones had been left unturned. Perhaps there were some ragged edges -- I thought "Bad" had a great power and mood to it, but maybe could have been a more finished song.

"Elvis Presley and America" had a fantastic sound, but maybe Brian and I were a bit lazy just letting it go out in that shape.

Did you take a different approach with The Joshua Tree?

With The Joshua Tree I thought that this time we could really do something and now that I was producing and not engineering, I could be in touch with the band on a song level instead of worrying about patching up.

The Joshua Tree is a record that had an identity very early on. Brian came in and had a week by himself, a pre-production period. Then I came in a little later and did a week, and the result of those two weeks already sounded like a record...it had a sonic identity very early on. It's important to make a sonic discovery for yourself and run with it, because what makes a great record is not a display of all the possibilities, it's the clarity of a few ideas. I can see it in this new record -- every track has a distinct personality.

With The Joshua Tree this had a lot to do with the setup at Adam's place. The environment makes a big difference, where you make a record will have an effect on you.

Bono has talked about The Joshua Tree being the record where U2 learned how to write songs.

Yeah, there were a couple of melodies written early on, like "With or Without You," which was quite fixed melodically. And when we finally decided on a direction for "Still Haven't Found," it formalised itself quickly. I think the lyrics were a little more categorised, and decided on that in this one. I suppose The Unforgettable Fire has more of a sonic identity, but The Joshua Tree is more song-oriented.

With this one it is too early to tell, I'm in the middle of it so I can't be totally objective. I certainly didn't expect The Joshua Tree to be as big as it was. In fact someone asked how successful I thought it would be about a month before we were to mix, and the answer was you just never know. What I did know is that we would have the benefit of the doubt because the band were in a position where people had strong expectations and fans would buy it. I knew we'd have a pretty good launch, but I wasn't expecting it to be such a huge hit. I'm glad it was though.

You were not involved in the Rattle and Hum project particularly...

I was only involved in one track of that record, which was originally "Tokyo," but I don't know what the title of it is on Rattle and Hum. I'm not very close to that record although there were a couple of great things on it, like the remake of "Still Haven't Found."

When I spoke to the band when they were going into that project, the spirit of it was something kind of throwaway, more of a fun thing, not so serious, connected with the tour. But it's not a throwaway, it became a blockbuster, and it might have been more appropriate to do a throwaway, a snapshot at that point.

There was a fascination they were going through at the time with American music -- who can deny the greatness of the blues, of funk, of soul, a strong force that has affected their music -- but even to step into other music and get it right as they did on Rattle and Hum, is not as good as if you take the inspiration and do something of your own, which I think we're doing with this new record.

It was interesting to hear them borrowing beats from other music, but I think they have some of their own beats that are just as good as that and belong to them. Perhaps another Under A Blood Red Sky would have been the record to put out.

What was the creative process like working with Bob Dylan?

Dylan had all his lyrics written, but in the studio he wrote three new sets of lyrics. The way he works is he writes a song lyrically and then the way you interpret it musically is almost optional -- do it as a waltz, as a rock song, whatever -- to him it's a very flexible area.

Lyrically there is not so much flexibility unless he decides to change it. He changed a lot of his lyrics as he went along and that was really his outstanding strength to me -- he would walk in with a set of lyrics and then modify them. He's really a master of the words.

And it was different again working with the Nevilles?

What I wanted to do with them was to lose some of the barroom affectations they had picked up along the way. Playing these big 2,000-seater clubs for so long they'd developed a bit of a barroom atmosphere and barroom habits -- solos that are too long or endings that are wrong. Club arrangements are showy, designed to impress, but it doesn't always sound too good without the picture.

But they're very good musicians so if you can show them another way to do a song they'll be able to do it that way. So I'd say, "This morning we're just going to do percussion loops, everybody's going to play percussion, let's pick the ten favourite beats." And we'd lay down these great rhythms, everybody pounding drums, and then we'd listen back to these and pick segments that were very exciting and loop them on electronic loop machines, and we'd build a song on top of that...rather than slipping into the old habit of just laying it down with drums and bass.

It was just a way of them looking to their music from a new angle and as a result it's a more interesting record than what they've done in the past. The downside of it is it's not a combo record, you can't hear the clarity of the kit and the bass player; it's more of a melange, a mixture, but I think it's a brew that suited them at that time, it's kind of mystical.

It was Brian Eno who introduced you to U2, but what role does he play these days?

He pops up from time to time and generally rocks the boat -- it's what he likes to do. He's very good with processing, always got a few tricks up his sleeve, so we'll take a track, give him a reel and say, "Do something with this," and he'll generally weird it up and do effects on it.

It becomes kind of a fun week, a week of crazy ideas, and at the end, half of the ideas are good and they are the sort that make up the strange and innovative components of the record. Then he goes away. It's good if somebody can say, "I think it's these you should put on the record," because you're going to have to make that decision soon.

Do you play U2's work-in-progress to others?

I play it to other people all the time, for friends that I trust. I didn't used to do that but I think it's helpful, to hear it through their ears, like exposing the record to an audience earlier on, which is a good thing to do.

How does the creative process work in the studio with U2?

I'm passive and calm but I'm also intense, and the intensity is the aspect of my personality that they appreciate and respond to.

We have the control room, the more intimate setting where Larry plays the Irish drum, a more acoustic setting, and you can quickly get results that way. The other room is the band room where everything is noisy.

I do know that if you manage to get the four of them in one room with instruments in their hands, you're going to get something, you're going to get results, and believe it or not that has a lot to do with my job -- just getting them in the building, getting them in the room and getting them playing. That's pretty much what happened yesterday when there was no song at the beginning of the day, so we were going to do a hybrid of "She's Holding On"/"Bare Back," but although we started with that, we took a break. When we came back, Bono picked up the guitar and started humming this thing, people joined in and, because the instruments were set there for the other song, we could quickly join in.

I think that preparation leads to a result, like the painter who stretches canvas, mixes paint, labours all day just to get the mechanics of the thing right and then, just before the sun goes down, does a beautiful three-minute painting. That's what you wait for in the studio, and it will come. Then you take those quick sketches that have a lot of mood and personality and you fill them out.

© Propaganda, 1991. All rights reserved.