Daniel Lanois took the stage at Nashville’s City Winery and did what he does best—no, not play guitar or pedal-steel, though he does both beautifully. He stood before a mixing board and some processors and produced. It was a chance to watch the man who formed sounds for Peter Gabriel, U2, Bob Dylan, and a host of others, work his unique magic in front of an audience. He called up individual tracks and then molded them with various delays, or suddenly muted them. It was essentially an electronic music performance, albeit one where the recorded sounds were organically generated before being treated by digital processing and accompanied live by Brian Blade on drums, and Jim Wilson on bass and Moog Bass pedals.
Lanois’ new record, Flesh and Machine [Anti- Records], takes a similar approach, with guitars, pianos, and vocals often warped beyond recognition. It deals in pure sound as emotion, and is essential listening for anyone who has marveled at his sonic stamp on classic records. As compelling as the live mixing performance was, it was fortunate for us guitar geeks that the encore turned into a lengthy Les Paul showcase. As Lanois and company performed his earlier work, his lines went from a whisper to a scream with a turn of the volume knob, or with increased attack from the Canadian legend’s fingers. He also played pedal-steel, pulling unearthly beauty out of a classic but too often clichéd instrument.
Lanois took time out from his tour to delve into the details of machine manipulation and flesh on strings for Guitar Player.
How do you get that amp-being-driven-to-destruction tone on “The End”?
That is as simple as my Vox AC30 cranked up to ten. It is an early ’60s copper top—not a top boost, with the blue speakers. I use the Normal channel. I was using my ’56 gold-top Les Paul with P-90s. It was the same one I used on Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind record. I think it is my best sounding Les Paul, the darkest sounding one anyway. For the initial performance, I was using a DigiTech Whammy pedal for some of the octave dive bombs. I was also using a cheap DBX DJ box that gives you an octave below.
Is the configuration of the Les Paul you played at the Nashville show influenced by Neil Young’s “Old Black?”
Well spotted—it’s that Canadian sound [laughs]. Larry Cragg, who worked for Neil Young, built that for me. I bought two ’53s in New York back in the day—the first one for $800. I never used one because it had the trapeze tailpiece, and if you bump it with your hand the whole thing goes out of tune. I knew Larry was an expert at putting a Tune-o-matic on those guitars. It doesn’t always succeed because of the neck angle—we had to put the bridge right down on the body with no adjustment left. I wanted a humbucker because in some venues you get a magnetic field problem; if you try to play something delicate it can really screw up your sound. Larry said we could fit a Firebird pickup or a late-’60s mini-humbucker. I had a “donor” early-’60s Firebird, so I took the pickup out of that. And then he said, “You want a Bigsby?” So it’s pretty much like Neil’s, but I think his is a ’52 and is looser feeling. The feel of mine is much tighter, almost like an acoustic guitar tension, because I use a wound G for better intonation./p>
What gauge strings do you use on your electric guitar?
I go for the heaviest strings I can put on without screwing up the guitar—usually a .012 on top. I prefer a light acoustic guitar gauge.
That may explain why your style doesn’t involve extreme string bending.
I don’t bend strings much. Sometimes, on the lower frets, I will bend the high E string down to where it comes off the fret a little bit and you get this yodel effect. Your frets need to be rounded so the string doesn’t get caught. I am more of a fingerpicker—I studied classical and folk as a kid. As I got into my own style, I found those early studies gave me an advantage. I am a pretty good flatpicker, I just haven’t used one in years.
How do you get that metallic sound with the backwards rake of your thumb?
Because I don’t use a pick, if I want a sharper attack I use my thumbnail. It is not a strike down, it’s a pull up. It allows me to get quite aggressive, because my nail isn’t going to get caught in the string. If it’s a single- note melody, I mute all the other strings with my left hand, so I get a kind of scraping along with the note. It’s exciting, but you have to be good at muting to pull it off.
For you, is the sound as important as the notes?
Sound is everything. I use a kind of Jamaican bass player technique, where I crank up loud and then play lightly with the right hand so the sound favors the harmonics of the note. When you play a simple fingerpicked arpeggio you get all these overtones. That is why I need the humbucker: if you turn up with single-coils and play light you might hear all this buzzing. I use the same technique on my steel guitar. If I play too aggressively, when I listen back to recordings I sound like a mosquito. I need to constantly remind myself to play lightly and turn up. Then when you do hit it hard it becomes dynamic. If you play hard all the time, you just have that one level of expression. A lot of guitarists think they need more boosters, more pedals, but that is not going to give you the same thing we are talking about. I just use a Korg SDD 3000 delay. The dry side hits my Vox AC30 and the wet side goes into a late ’50s tweed Fender Deluxe. I mostly use a 500-millisecond delay, which gives me a triplet when we do “The Maker.”
You have often described your pedal-steel as a “church in a suitcase.” Do you find its sound more spiritual than regular guitar?
It’s an instrument you have to be really devoted to, because if you put it down for too long you lose your technique. It says to me, “Lanois, you have to chill out here, you have to practice, time has stood still for this instrument, nothing has changed—get me in tune.” It is not easy to tune a pedal-steel, because you have the open strings and then the pedal positions. You can’t be drunk, or stoned, or anything. [Laughs.]
Your steel style is unique, but did you start by playing standard country licks in country bands?
I was taught regular slide on a standard guitar with high action at the beginning. When I moved to the pedal-steel I studied with a great country player, Bob Lucier, and yes, I played more conventional country style. I was pretty good at it, but the best players were much better than me. I decided I would go in this more melodic direction. I was more interested in hymns than in flash picking, and it pushed me to find my own voice. I changed the tuning; it is based on the Nashville E9 tuning, but I lost the open string 9th and 7th. My fundamental setup is more root, 3rd, and 5th. It pushes me in a direction that is more Appalachian and Irish.
For Flesh and Machine, it seems you put your production techniques and sonic ideas center stage, unmitigated by preconceived songs or an artist.
I think you have hit on it there. I never took all these things I was doing in the studio to the stage because I thought that was just the record making process—now that we are on the stage, let’s pull out the guitars. But, I made a documentary a few years ago that had an instructional segment where I showed how I do echoes, etc. As I watched it, I realized that was part of my artistry. I thought it might be fun for me to take this stuff on stage. It is just eight tracks playing off an Apple laptop through an Orion converter. The Mackie mixer allows me to include an ingredient or not, and then I do these Jamaican triplet echoes with a Lexicon PCM 42 or Prime Time 2. I have them on sends, but sometimes you won’t hear the original signal. The delays are synched to the millisecond with the track; it is not just tap-tempo on the fly, because that may not give me perfection. I might sample Brian Blade’s drums live and put that back into the mix. There is a very spontaneous, exciting aspect to it. Sometimes I play pedal-steel along with the tracks, so it has a lovely combination of high-fidelity preparations and improvisation. I’m having fun with it and people are responding, but I’m not saying I am going to enter the DJ world where I press one button and have a smoke [laughs].
That brings up the question of how the live mixing performance compares with playing the guitar or steel on a physical visceral level?
I like a mixed bag, so I am trying to find my balance with all of this. When we hit the mixing thing right, I start getting shivers. I can relate to what Miles and Coltrane were feeling when they were going way out there with sounds. They were pushing the envelope, trying to find another dimension within their work. When we get the technology right, I get a little bit of that. Like we are heading to the future, and these are sounds people haven’t heard before. Part of me feels I have a responsibility to go there, because challenging form is something rock and roll has always done. The coming of the electric guitar challenged form and was a brand new thing. I will always be a guitar player, but I will always have an appetite for what the next dimension might hold.