Sometimes Daniel Lanois feels like he’s being held hostage by the ghosts in his head. The brittle hi-hat in Arthur Alexander’s Anna—a soul ballad that peaked at No. 68 on the pop charts in 1962, and is mostly remembered for the cover version the Beatles did the following year. The warbling acoustic guitar of Blind Willie Johnson, a Texas bluesman and street preacher who died in 1945, leaving behind 30 songs and just one photograph. The “multidimensional” quality of old John Lee Hooker cuts: parched vocals up front, the bright tremolo and reverb of the guitar soaring above, and way out to one side, shoe leather scuffing against the studio floor. Sonic building blocks from the past that rattle around the super-producer and musician’s brain, waiting to burst back out in new finery, stretched, tweaked, or sometimes distorted beyond all recognition.
It’s part and parcel of his relentless search for sounds that will elevate a recording from workaday to timeless. The seven-time Grammy winner has a lot of pet terms for the process—a mixture of sacking and sleuthing. Over the years, he’s called it “testimonial exorcism,” “spotting,” and “highly paid vandalism.” But the one that seems to fit the best is Soul Mining, the title of his forthcoming musical memoir. “If you’re trying to solve a riddle, or do something that hasn’t been done before, you’re going to be at it for awhile because it requires a lot of research,” the 59-year-old drawls down the line from Bella Vista, his hilltop villa overlooking L.A.’s Silver Lake reservoir. “You bump into things you don’t like, then you discard them. But oftentimes those by-products are more interesting than what you thought you were going after in the first place. It takes a lot of time.”
There are few, if any, limits. For the U2 classic Bullet in Blue Sky, he found the “tanky” sound he was after by pumping Larry Mullen’s drums through a PA system in an empty warehouse. He and Bob Dylan both plugged into the same old Vox amp on Love Sick, blending their guitars at source. And then there are the Jamaican dub-style riffs he has added to Neil Young’s soon-to-be-released Twisted Road—an album that was supposed to be acoustic and ended up electro. “I love all ideas, even absurd ones,” Lanois writes in Soul Mining.
It’s also the kind of commitment to artistic vision that can border on the scary. Dylan, more than a little quirky himself, devoted a whole chapter of his autobiography, Chronicles, Vol. 1, to his collaboration with Lanois on 1989’s Oh Mercy. Recorded mostly at night in the kitchen of a crumbling New Orleans mansion, the sessions devolved into a titanic battle of the wills between musical eccentrics. “Danny . . . had the confidence to try anything. He cared a lot. Sometimes I thought he cared too much. He would have done anything to make a song happen—empty the pans, wash dishes, sweep the floors,” Dylan writes. “One thing about Lanois that I liked is that he didn’t want to float on the surface. He didn’t even want to swim. He wanted to jump in and go deep. He wanted to marry a mermaid.”
Soul Mining begins with a description of a 1950s Quebec childhood that would warm Cornelius Krieghoff’s heart—all deep snow banks, maple syrup, and fiddle-playing by the fire. But just like the song Jolie Louise from Lanois’s first solo album Acadie, the sweetness hides a sour truth. “My dad was hitting not only the bottle, but also my mother,” Lanois writes. Unable to take it anymore, she finally packed up her four kids and drove to Hamilton, Ont., where her brother owned a bar and a rooming house. Daniel, the second eldest, was 10, and spoke no English. “Music was an outlet for me,” he says over the phone. “I felt a little isolated as a French-Canadian kid having to learn English at the age where it was difficult to fit in. Music became my secret world.” First the penny whistle, then the slide guitar. Before long, he could play almost anything. It was another way to communicate.
He left home for the first time at age 15, hitchhiking to Florida with a friend. Three years later, he and his older brother, Bob, bought Harleys and tried out the Easy Rider fantasy for a while. Lanois admits to a brief experiment with crime—dealing drugs and stealing cars—but soon decided that music was his calling. He played the bar circuit in northern Ontario, touring with a female impersonator, and Miss Montego, a top-heavy Jamaican stripper who would set her tassels alight and rotate them in different directions—a guaranteed show-stopper. His own bands came and went, as did the gigs backing up better-known musicians, although his steel guitar stint for Sylvia Tyson did get him on stage at Maple Leaf Gardens.
He and Bob had always been the kind of kids who liked to pull things apart and put them back together—toys, stereo components, the engine of their mom’s car. A tape recorder purchased at a flea market for their basement musical experiments gave way to a reel-to-reel, then a Revox console, then a four-track. By the mid-’70s, they were offering their producing services to local musicians. Funkster Rick James, then living in Buffalo, N.Y., came for a session (and never paid.) They helped Raffi record his first kids album, Singable Songs for the Very Young. The fee was $1,500, including Lanois’s mandolin playing. It’s still a bestseller, almost 35 years later.
The pair moved out of the basement and established a real studio on Grant Avenue in Hamilton. Hundreds of acts filtered through, including the one their sister Jocelyne played bass for, Martha and the Muffins. In 1980, Daniel recorded some demos for a Toronto band called Time Twins. Somehow, the tapes found their way into the hands of Brian Eno, in New York City. The former Roxy Music keyboard player liked what he heard and booked some studio time to work on his own experiments with “ambient” electronica. Eno was already a big name, known for his work with Robert Fripp, Genesis, and David Bowie. But Lanois, who had never heard of him, made him pay up front. They became buddies and collaborators.
Pages: 1 2