So last Saturday I, with 79 others, had the pleasure of an audience with Daniel Lanois. He’s a very nice person. This was not like your usual masterclass, where the master sits back and basks in the admiration. For the first round of Q+A, he went out into the audience with the mic and went around to everyone, carefully noting the order in which hands were raised. I thought that was generous. Simon Carmody, formerly of the Golden Horde, did a great job of presenting the whole thing. But I got the impression that Mr. Lanois’s energy made the whole thing come off very smoothly, even though it was clearly improvised.
First, we watched his film “Here is what is” which had one or two interesting insights into the creative process, and recording. As always, Brian Eno had the gems: “beauty comes from shit” was his analogy for how creativity comes from nothing, that it’s quite ordinary to begin with. Personally I felt the film’s subject matter was let down by overuse of film effects. At one point, Lanois is eulogising over the colour and texture of a fabric in Fez, Morocco, and Eno asks “Are you talking about your music, or that cloth?” but because of the effects we never got to appreciate the cloth. Although the point was clear, it’s the kind of over production issue that Lanois is famous for avoiding, so I felt the film was not true to its subject.
But it’s ironic that I should be arrogant enough to pass judgment on his film, because Lanois’ greatest quality is his lack of judgment. He just seems so supportive, and always can make a positive out of a negative, and let things take their natural course in a very gentle way. For example, the PA in the room was getting very noisy, to the point where we had difficulty hearing the people speaking. But Lanois used it as an example. He said that the engineer was a good guy, but he was over 100 feet away, behind a glass panel. So his lack of proximity meant that he was less able to understand the problem. This referred nicely back to an earlier story, where Lanois said that he couldn’t get a job in any studio in Toronto in the late sixties, so he decided to make his own. All those studios were very good, with a control room, a studio with a piano and an organ, and a cabinet of microphones, but they all sounded the same. So he built his to have a sound. And for proximity, he put all the gear in the same room, with everything connected all the time. This was the approach used for U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” and they’ve recorded successfully that way ever since.
Going back to Eno’s point about ordinariness, he described how he got his break. Eno was in NY and happened to hear some production that Lanois had done in 1982. Eno also had a girlfriend in Toronto, so he had two reason to go there!
So Lanois’s advice was primarily about people, not much about technicalities, which was fabulous. At one point, he produced a Moleskin notebook, to say one should never be without a way of recording ideas. Very validating for me, because I was writing his tips in my Moleskin notebook! Here are a few:
Spotting: Look out for the thing that’s special about the artist. For example, Larry Mullins. Lanois was interested in what he was able to do well, which was hi hat. So they put a timbale in the rack 1 position, and Larry moved his hi hat arm to that position. An ingenious way of creating new rhythms and validating the artist.
The chat: very important to hang out, and just say “How’s it going?”. It’s how one avoids possible conflict later on, because you’ve established common ground culturally.
On being male, and RAGE: The protector in us has been subdued. “It’s a colour of the rainbow that needs to come out”.
Trust: care about the work.
Warmth: the area of 200Hz to 900Hz is not mud it’s good! It helps the HFs to look after themselves. If you cut in that area, you end up having to add top and compression to retain clarity, giving a brittle sound, which is such a common issue in recordings now.
Lanois performed a few of his songs with Brian Blade, a stunning drummer. It was interesting to see that both men are christians, Brian more so, and in the film Eno could reconcile his atheism by saying that he’s “anti romantic”, because art doesn’t come from some external force or being, it comes from within, and everyone has that within. These guys seemed to have a great gentleness about them, which transcends cultural and political differences. Very human.
All in all, it was an inspiring experience. I shook his hand and thanked him for his music. His final song in particular, in French and English, where he sang about his parent’s splitting up from his father’s point of view, and the male rage, was very moving. I left him to have his banana and a beer (!) before the gig that evening.