Daniel Lanois’ Obsessions: Pedal Steels, Motorcycles, and Recording Tech

November 30th, 2016

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STEELS AND WHEELS AND REELS: The obsessions of producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois include pedal-steel guitars, motorcycles, and recording technology.

By Mac Randall | Photos by Travis Shinn

Long before he became one of contemporary music’s most respected producers—a three-time Grammy Award winner who’s been behind the board for career-defining albums by U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, and many others—Daniel Lanois was a slide guitarist. He started playing at age nine, thanks to the effective sales-pitch technique of a visitor to his family’s house in Ancaster, Ontario.

“One day,” Lanois remembers, “somebody knocked on my mom’s door and said, ‘Hi, I’m representing the local conservatory, and we want to know if you have any kids who like music.’ She pointed at me and said, ‘Yeah, that one over there, he likes music.’ So I passed the aptitude test and the guy said, ‘Okay, we teach accordion and slide guitar.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll take slide guitar.’ The instrument that the conservatory provided was just an acoustic six-string with high action, but that was the beginning of it.”

His choice of the slide proved to have some staying power. More than 50 years later, Lanois still pulls out a slide nearly every day, though now he generally applies it to one of his eight prized Sho-Bud pedal steels—four in his Toronto recording studio and four in his Los Angeles home. These are, of course, in addition to his collection of “normal” guitars, which includes a custom red early Sixties Gibson Firebird, a pair of butterscotch early Fifties Fender Telecasters, and a small family of Fifties gold-top Les Pauls.

“I admire the steel masters of the past, in country music and other styles,” he says, “but I don’t play like that. I slowed the thing down and found something else in the instrument. I like when it has a more gospel-type feel, like the way it’s used to accompany singers in church. You play all that fast shit in church and they’re gonna slap ya!”

On Lanois’ latest solo album, the vocal-free Goodbye to Language, the pedal steel takes center stage throughout, accompanied only by Rocco DeLuca’s lap steel (plus some occasional low tones from a Moog Taurus). “Rocco and I had been on the road in Europe for a while,” Lanois explains, “and when we got back to the shop, we decided to just play for fun. I was on my 10-string Sho-Bud Pro 1 in a custom E major tuning, and Rocco had his lap steel tuned down to D, so he was able to handle a lot of bottom for me. I called out chords and we’d improvise for five to 10 minutes. If there was enough magic in a given performance when we listened back to it, I’d give it a name.”

This being Lanois the studio maven, however, the recording of these duets was only the beginning of a long process of sonic tinkering that he calls “my dub work. Basically, I’d make samples of the steel guitars, take them out of the recording platform so they’d just float on their own, and start fucking around with them. I might change the octave, change the key, time-stretch, add some radical EQ, do 20 things until it sounds like it’s got something special. Then I run the track and stick the sample back in where I grabbed it from, so you hear the original steel going ding, ding, ding, and then you suddenly hear this awwwwww operatic voice sound, which is what that same steel became through my manipulation. Sometimes the samples are more interesting than what we played, so I’ll mute what we played for those six seconds because I’d rather the sample be celebrated instead of the average playing. That way we’re not just piling a bunch of shit on top of mediocrity.”

There were some basic ground rules underpinning Lanois’ method, the most important being an allegiance to the order of time: “I remain loyal to chronology. I don’t take the bit from the front and put it in the back. A given performance is sacred ground. Except for edits, but that’s just removing dead wood. Call it ‘interrupted chronology.’”

The final results, as can be heard on the 12 tracks that make up Goodbye to Language, are striking. Notes ring out for a time, then collide into each other; chords swell only to be abruptly cut off and replaced by others that sound like they were already in progress. Though the overall atmosphere is relaxed, the music’s dynamics keep shifting so suddenly that it’s impossible to remain comfortable for long. “I hear it as a mirror of what’s going on in our culture,” Lanois says. “We’re constantly bombarded not only by information but by our own thoughts. Things shift more quickly in our minds now. I’ve made plenty of tranquil ambient records that will take somebody on a safe journey, but I didn’t want to do that this time. I wanted to be pulling emotions out of people, and I didn’t mind sudden changes in scenery, because that’s the way life is.”

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