Mike Ragogna: You took a couple of different approaches on your new album, Flesh And Machine. When you first decided to do the project, was this what you had in mind or did it evolve into this?
Daniel Lanois: Oh, it evolved into this. I started with conventional songs and then the sidebars and byproducts became more interesting to me than the songs, so I abandoned the songs and went with the excitement of the sonics that I was discovering. It’s a very laboratory-driven record and I’m proud of it that way. For example, there’s a little track on there called “Two Bushas.” It sounds like a symphony but made of components and instruments that are unrecognizable. I’m glad I push the symphonic button with new sounds.
MR: Are you the type of creative person who tries to explore new sounds constantly regardless of having a project to apply them to?
DL: Absolutely. I go to my laboratory every day and hope to bump into something special. I keep an arsenal of these discoveries. I get very excited about the potential of sound for the future, so when I hit on something that I think is innovative I cherish it and treat it like a little burning ember that you can throw some gasoline on top of.
MR: The approach you take as a producer with acts like Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, so many others, seems to take them to levels they’re not conscious of, trajectories they would never go without working with you.
DL: That’s the nature of collaboration. People hope that you bring something to the table that’s unexpected.
MR: How do you seperate yourself as an artist from your being a producer?
DL: I have friends who have really good taste and I just sit them down and say, “Tell me what you think of this.” Without any doubt that’s what I am to people to I produce; I’m a good friend to them and I’m devoted to the project and I have people around me who do that for me. They don’t formalize their titles or anything, it’s just good to be in good company.
MR: But comparing how you express your creativity as a producer and as an artist, where does your own unique expression begin? How does the process work for you creatively?
DL: I usally start with a moment of inspiration. If I’m lucky enough to bump into a sonic approach that I think is unique and innovative then I just run with that. I accept it as a beautiful gift and try and expand upon it to the point of having something very fleshed out. We may go into it with a plan in the morning but the number of times the plan has been abandoned because some smaller byproduct has been more interesting–It keeps me humble, that’s for sure.
MR: Sweet. Well, Ambient 4/On Land and Apollo inspired the creative process on this album, right?
DL: On Land has an interesting musical sound, an animal sound. I decided to have that philosophy on a track on this record called “Sioux Lookout.” It’s a contemporary native cry to live a balanced life in harmony with our relatives. The human relatives, but also the water people and the four-legged people. When I started hitting on these sounds that I couldn’t quite pinpoint as human sounds, I decided–not unlike the coyote that we hear in Los Angeles–to try and invent a universal language for not only humans but animals as well.
MR: Do you feel a strong connection with our four-legged friends?
DL: I feel a connection with the native community that I grew up near in Canada, that’s for sure. We human beings eat too much. We could eat ten percent of what we eat and do very well with our health. I might spare a few animals. Certainly a few chickens. [laughs] I’m not going on a vegan rant here or anything like that, but just in terms of excess it would be nice to put the brakes on a little and have a look at what’s going on around us and maybe be a little less greedy.
MR: That’s beautiful. Getting back to what you said earier about the symphonic sound, “Two Bushas” is a perfect example. It sounds orchestrated, but aren’t these really layers of sound that you came up with, right?
DL: I came up with those sounds as an ornament to quite a conventional song structure that Rocco Deluca wrote. What you’re hearing on my record is the two tracks processing that I made for Rocco’s song. Through a deconstructive process, I eliminated the song and then just had the ornament be in the foreground. It’s quite beautiful. It’s so detached from the song, the spine, that all you hear is the symphonic toppings. They’re fascinating because you don’t know what sounds you’re hearing, the listener responds to the presentation is a symphonic way but without the familiarity of the usual cello or the woodwinds or whatever. I’m quite proud of that one for the future.
MR: “Removing the spine” is an interesting analogy. I think the composer to come closest to that might have been Debussey.
DL: I would agree that Debussey certainly pushed the limits of the form he was operating in.
MR: Are there any improvisational artists who inspire you?
DL: Well, I live and operate by drawing inspiration from my mates. I still really enjoy playing with Brian Blade. He was here the other night and we had a spontaneous combustion in my front room with an audience of forty people. I was very proud that we were able to gather such a crowd and have a bohemian night, a night to have a lot of optimism and creativity. If I want a current inspiration in improv, I just have to look over my left shoulder and Brian’s there.
MR: What is your statement as an artist? Do you see yourself as an artist delcaring a mission or philosophy, or is it about being in the moment, capturing creativity?
DL: I see that I have a acertain responsibility with my work. I like to raise the spirit and take people on a sonic journey. There’s a term that I like to use, it’s called “Emotional Phase Cancellation.” If you happen to be feeling sad and you listen to a sad song, it might take your sadness away. There’s a lot in this record that is emotional and profound and quite deep and I’m hoping that I can reach that and pull that out of my listeners.
MR: What does the finished album do for you as a listener?
DL: I’m a little close to it to know for sure but I understand that “Sioux Lookout” is a Brian Blade-run performance. I isolated his acoustic bass drum performance and sent that to a computer system that allowed me to pipe that isolated sound through my PA’s buzz-wah pedal to create a tone. Then I recorded that tone seven times at different pitches so that I would have access to a very innovative and nice set of colors that I could create a bassline from, but the bassline would be exactly synchronized to his bass drum. Little things like this get me really excited because it’s technology but it’s built to serve the great foot of Brian Blade and have a technological result based on an organic-played drum. That’s my idea of Flesh And Machine.
MR: In many science fiction stories, the moral of the story–especially when flesh meets machine–is usually to be careful not to lose the human element. With this album, were you aware of having to keep the human in it in addition to all the stuff you were supposed to keep track of?
DL: We can never really lose track of the fact that we are fundamentally seekers, whether we are seeking through technology or trying to have a glimpse at another dimension. That’s why people get out of their heads, be it by drugs or by meditation or by devotion. It’s just part of our intelligence as human beings, we want to know what is beyond, spiritually. To start with arriving at a soulful result is a pretty good beginning. I use technology to get to that place of soul, the place where I might raise the spirit and see more clearly what the next dimension might be.
MR: So it’s a union.
DL: I think, ultimately, we’re all trying to get to the same place, and that’s where the union lives.
MR: Daniel, what advice do you have for new artists?
DL: My advice to new artists is to do everything in your own power to find your own voice. I love it when I hear somebody embrace something in themselves that allows them to be unique. For me my steel guitar is my friend. It never changes, it’s not technological, there’s no options, I just have to devote myself to it and become a better player by playing it a lot. If there’s something inspide an artist and they think, “Oh, that’s really unique to me,” then I’d say that’s a component to chase after.
MR: You mentioned your steel guitar. Looking back to the days you began learning your instrument, isn’t it fascinating that you became an innovator in music and sound?
DL: Well, that’s a beautiful compliment, thanks very much. There were a lot of restrictions when I got started, my mom didn’t have any money, I was lucky to even get a music lesson. The music studio only taught accordion and slide guitar, so I was pushed into slide guitar whether I liked it or not. Perhaps that restriction allowed me to funnel all of my devotion and passion and love for music in the right direction. There are times when I feel bad for young folks coming up in these modern times because the options are endless. You can go to the guitar center and walk out with a zillion sounds. When I was a kid getting started, I was lucky to have one or two sounds. I think there’s no substitute for love, committment and passion. Whatever tools happen to fall in your hands are almost secondary to your committment. Committment is a driving force.
MR: Do you think having that many sounds ready from the start makes it confounding or confusing for a new artist?
DL: I think part of the intelligence now is to choose something that you’re very excited about and stick with it. Become a master at a few things rather than a dabbler of many. I’m pretty old school in that way. I like it when somebody has applied themselves to a specific corner of what they love, whether it’s music or otherwise. I appreciate that my friend does good leather hand stitching. It’s not haute couture, but it’s beautifully done and it’s a cottage industry. It has to begin as a seed, but that friend of mine will become an expert at that particular stitch and make beautiful things with that. That’s probably more important than considering all aspects of fashion.
MR: Are there concepts in your head or in your creative spirit that you are not yet to be able to express due to the limits of current technology?
DL: I’m not feeling a lot of mental limitation these days, technologically. I’m seeing a new window of opportunity, a new cultural explosion on the horizon. I’ve felt it a few times over the years from having been involved in the scene. We talked about making ambient records with Brian Eno; we didn’t think we had a scene on at the time, but we did knock out maybe eight albums with that approach. Without being so specific right now because I want to remain naïve, I feel that it’s coming upon me again. I think that bohemian nights, authenticity and exchange will be a very big part of music to come. I’m lucky enough that in New York Center on November tenth we’re having a night with Tinariwen at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn and that will be an amazing night. The Antlers will be there as well and what I’ve asked these people to do is to share the stage proper. No furniture moving, let’s everybody sidle up together and play together. That’s what I remember a little bit as a kid during the cultural revolution in the sixties. I think there’s something on the horizon right now that’s going to be very big.
MR: What you’re talking about is probably going to happen on a global level. Maybe it will take America by surprise.
DL: Well, it’s a global time for sure, with such fast communication systems. And it’s rgoing global, but it’s also going local. I think the rise of the cottage industry is a big part of what I’m talking about. There might have been more of a universal spirit, more of a “USA All Together” spirit back int he day, but I think there are little pockets of culture in America that will likely lead the way and I hope that Silver Lake is part of that.
MR: Beautiful. Daniel, I love talking to you. It’s not only fun but also inspiring.
DL: All right brother, you’re very sweet and kind. I appreciate you taking interest in one more wave of music from me. Let’s take the stage and try and touch people’s hearts. There’s no bigger compliment than someone leaving the arena from a performance of mine and for them to want to change something about their life.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne