Daniel Lanois Embraces Spooky Steel and Ambient Moods on 'Goodbye to Language'

December 8, 2016

Long the archetype of transformation, producer Daniel Lanois has morphed sonics and musical approaches for Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, U2, and many others. And yet, he’s also savvy enough about convention to make hits, win Grammys, have his songs covered by other artists, and add his guitar and pedal-steel talents to bands and sideman gigs. All of this comes to bear on Goodbye to Language [Anti-]—a haunting and beautiful album of atmospheric sensations, soaring pedal-and lap-steel melodies, manipulated samples, and undulating textures. The music somehow manages to be symphonic in scope, while also casting emotive spells that drone and hum—a construct made all the more miraculous as Lanois and co-conspirator Rocco Deluca crafted their parts randomly with Lanois calling out chords while the duo played live in the studio.

While Lanois certainly has lots of experience creating ambient music—as well as composing while recording—the spontaneous element of the writing and playing on Goodbye to Language serves as a brilliant lesson for GP readers looking to break out of musical comfort zones or expand their creative armory. It’s also impressive that while Lanois is a very heady, articulate, and experienced musician/composer, he also retains the joy and awe of creation, approaching projects as if everything is new and strange.

How did you tackle the compositions on the album?

The initial performances were two steel guitars—me on my 10-string Sho-Bud pedal-steel, and my buddy Rocco Deluca on his lap-steel. He was tuned down to D, and I was in standard E, so Rocco had a slightly lower-register sound. I was in charge of the melodies and higher parts. They’re largely improvised performances. I called out chords to Rocco, and we’d just follow them until we got off on something that sounded pretty good. Following that process, I went into editing the performances down to song length. I kept the chronology intact—I just removed sections that were redundant, or that were not as interesting as others. From there, I sampled parts from our two steel guitars. If I got lucky with a sample, I’d wind back the tape recorder to find a sweet spot where the sample resonated harmonically with the track. Then, I’d just drop it in and treat it like an overdub. Sometimes, I’d delete the steel-guitar tracks for a few bars and just celebrate the samples. So there were two tracks of these manipulated samples, and two tracks of our original steel-guitar performances. It’s a very laborious process. I wouldn’t recommend it [laughs].

Lanois overdubbing in his home studio.
For sure! In fact, I think some of our readers might think, “Wow, how do you maintain, let’s say, a ‘conventional’ compositional mindset when you’re doing all this manipulation?” So how do you look at song structure? Is it just a feel thing as you’re going through the track?

That’s the hard part of the process—to arrive at a composition that’s entertaining, and that keeps the listener interested. So you’re back to storytelling—whether that be by lyric, sound, or melody. Obviously, I looked for the standout sections—which I accepted as gifts—and I tried to make sure they got incorporated into the storytelling curvature. It’s definitely composition in the studio. I’ve done that all my life, so I’m used to it, but I don’t think this process would work if someone were just trying to write a song.

With ambient music, I’d be challenged to keep the musical spells moving so that they’re not boring, but still mesmerizing. How do you manage that creative process?

First of all, we all look for magic moments. If we’re lucky enough to have something that qualifies in a raw performance, then I just look for that. It might be a 30-second segment—“Oh, that’s really touching”—that conjures up an image for me, or makes me feel a certain way. I’ll trust that feeling, thank my lucky stars that I have it, and then I’ll try to find another segment—maybe a little later in the piece—that would complement it. I don’t just arbitrarily comp parts together. I put some thought into the fact that the edit might trigger a chordal shift or a mood change. So I treat the edit as an opportunity to have a harmonious transition. I might even varispeed the track down a semitone to get the desired chord I’m looking for. But all of this is in that world of treating the original performances as if I were panning for gold. If we come up with a nugget—there it is!

And finding those nuggets is even more miraculous, given that you and Rocco were improvising instantly over a bunch of random chords being called out.

Yes. It was random and spontaneous, but I took on the responsibility as the conductor. I mostly played roots, fifths, and major thirds, and I avoided sixths. Rocco played roots and fifths, and he stayed away from thirds, which meant I could decide on the voicing of the chords. Sometimes, I would go from a major to a minor while he held down the same root. This made for a lot of nice surprises with chordal transitions. Of course, some of the chords were pretty far out. You wouldn’t use them on a pop song, but some of them appeared to work symphonically in our pieces.

How long did it take to get all of the musical material performed, processed, and mixed?

The playing part was fast and fun. It was just Rocco and I huddling up and playing for an hour or two over five separate sessions. The hard part was listening to everything, editing, and going through the sampling process. But that’s always the case with records. The fun part is the playing, and then you obsess about getting all the details right. So let’s say the recording took up five percent of the album’s construction time, and the other 95 percent was me with a razor blade.

What kinds of things would you do to the samples?

If I found a sample that seemed to be fitting, I might try and hit some additional processing boxes with that sound—be it an echo, some kind of octave machine, or re-amping. As you know, a sound can take on a whole other personality when it’s miked back through an amp. I have good re-amping luck with these SVT bass amps, because you can really be cruel to those things. I just abuse the amp to get wild sounds that can be connected to what might have been a less startling sound to begin with, and the contradiction of those two flavors can be mixed together for the kind of art that I like.

Seymour Saves the Day — Seymour Duncan replicated Lanois’ “irreplaceable” pickup that was originally in the Sho-Bud Pro 1 his teacher acquired for him when he was a youngster.
Could you please tell us a bit more about the Sho-Bud pedal-steel you used for the album?

It was my original pedal-steel—a little baby-blonde Sho-Bud Pro 1 that my teacher got for me when I was a kid. Bob Lucier— the great Canadian steel-guitar player—put in a humbucker back then, and when the pickup finally packed it in, nobody knew what it was. It broke my heart. I sent it to Seymour Duncan, and he replicated it. He studied the magnet, the coils, and everything. He decided to pursue the tone, because he knew I loved that pickup so much. To put it in guitar terms, it’s a little more Telecaster-like in its personality. It’s not woof-y at all. Since then, Seymour has been building the pickups for all of my steels.

Did you audition a bunch of amps?

We did try different amps, but I settled on my Vox AC30 and a late-’50s tweed Fender Vibrolux. The best result we had with Rocco was plugging him into an old Peavey MAX from the ’70s that I had down in the basement. We ran the Peavey into an Ampeg 4x10 SVT cabinet. Those amps were all we used on the album.

Did any pedals or studio processor make the scene?

I used my Korg SDD-3000—the same one I’ve had since the ’80s. I have 12 of them, and they’re all broken [laughs]. The SDD-3000 has a lot of outputs, and that allowed me to go straight from the box to my recorder, and then run two more outputs to my amps. So I recorded two direct tracks and two amp tracks. For Rocco, we just recorded one mono track. I added some Taurus bass pedals in a couple of spots to complement the bottom, and get a cinematic subsonic effect happening.

You’ve had tons of experience as a performer, engineer, and producer, so I’m curious if anything about making this record was a surprise to you?

It’s worth a mention that this steel guitar has been my friend since I was a kid. It keeps being a friend to me, and I keep discovering new compositions, and new ways of playing the instrument. I still feel like a kid on Christmas morning with that thing, because I don’t feel like I know everything about this girl.

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