It’s late morning on a Tuesday when I reach renowned producer Daniel Lanois on his cell phone in Los Angeles but he hasn’t done much with the day yet. “Just motorcycle driving and coffee drinking so far” he tells me. “It’s part of my culture — we ride bikes. We have a little gang here in the area and we all ride bikes.”
The Quebec-born production legend is known for the precise warm and ambient tones he’s achieved on both his solo records and through production for Bob Dylan Neil Young U2 and Peter Gabriel among many others. It’s hardly the sort of lifestyle one would associate with rip-roarin’ Harley Davidsons but Lanois is quick to draw a parallel.
“The open road is good for concentration for me because motorcyclists we don’t have a lot of gadgetry to preoccupy us” he explains. “You can think of it as the moment of strike… the moment of strike is that first step to a grand strategy. But the grand strategy cannot dominate your mind at the moment of strike. So it’s a continuation of this life lesson that applies to not only the motorcycle but to my line of work which happens to be capturing magic in music.”
Whether in the studio or on the stage Lanois uses intuition to drive his aural output. The live side of things will be explored on Sunday August 10 when Lanois and his band perform at The Banff Centre’s Shaw Amphitheatre.
Though they’ve got some music planned Lanois says that anything can go. “There’s completely room for improvisation and we cherish that part of what we do” he says. “If we hit on something special in the moment then we really carry it and that will segue into a more familiar song…. I think that’s what’s special about exchange and interplay with other artists onstage.”
When he’s not on tour Lanois splits most of his time between his home in Negril Jamaica — where he’s lived since the 1980s — and studios in both Toronto and Los Angeles. No matter where he is he’s always working on something. “Spontaneity is always with me because in between touring time I have these patches of freedom and in those patches of freedom I get to throw caution to the wind and do whatever I like” he says. “I’m currently very excited about my steel guitar so in a quiet way I’m making a steel guitar record.”
The first instrument he mastered Lanois says the steel guitar inspires him on a daily basis. “With technology the steel guitar is still a very mechanical piece of equipment that you have to stay with and practice and learn how to master the pitch of” he says. “So the steel guitar record really has that feeling of devotion in it. Because it doesn’t have a lot of razmatazz or technology so the harmonic interplay becomes the fascinating thing about it.”
Before he issues the yet-to-be-announced steel guitar record however Lanois will release Flesh and Machine the follow-up to his 2010 effort Black Dub via Epitaph imprint Anti- this fall.
While the steel guitar will also appear on Flesh and Machine Lanois says the album is much more technological. “It’s pretty much a studio laboratory record” he says. “Hand-played instruments of course but I sampled and dubbed from those sources and came up with a pretty interesting melange that I believe is some of my finest work.”
He also promises “symphonic sounds never heard before” as on a song called “Sioux Lookout” where he seamlessly blended the sounds of humans and animals. “’Sioux Lookout’ is a modern native cry that’s quite powerful to remind myself and hopefully some listeners about the balance that needs to be struck to be at one with nature” he says.
That an artist can create such new and fascinating sounds this far into their career is a testament to Lanois’ dedication and willingness to explore. “There’s a lot that’s already been done in our line of work and to discover a new form of expression or a new palette of colours is something that means a lot to me” says Lanois. “I’ve always made an effort to be innovative so here we are 50 years of rock ’n’ roll later I think I might’ve cracked it.”