EQ Web Extra Daniel Lanois

EQ Exclusive Web Interview: Daniel Lanois discusses producing Brandon Flowers on His Solo Debut, Flamingo: His songwriting philosophy, black dub technique, and recording live on the floor.

EQ Exclusive Web Interview:
Daniel Lanois on Producing Brandon Flowers

By Bill Murphy

The November 2010 issue of EQ features Brandon Flowers and his collaboration with producers Daniel Lanois, Stuart Price and Brendan O'Brien on his debut solo album, Flamingo. Here, in our exclusive Web interview, Daniel Lanois discusses his philosophical songwriting approach, his "black dub" technique, and the energy of recording live from the floor.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I was actually surprised I was able to get you, considering the motorcycle accident you had in June. How are you feeling?

It was pretty intense. It put me in intensive care for three weeks. I broke ten bones. I’ve never done that before. I’ve only just been walking for about 12 days, so I’ve been mixing the Neil Young record out of a wheelchair [laughs]. But it’s cool, man—listen, I’ve got no spinal injury, my head’s okay, we got rid of the internal bleeding, so I’m mending. It was not easy. It was very, very painful. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, and anyone out there on two wheels, be careful of urban crossroads [laughs].

Well, I wanted to start off asking you about whether you knew Brandon before you started work on this record.

I had not met him before. I got a pretty nice message from him while I was in Toronto, and he invited me to get involved with what he was doing in any way that I wanted, be it compositionally, recording or producing. I think he just wanted to have some new inspirations around him, and he felt that I might have something to bring to the table. So it started that way, and then we had a couple of conversations and I figured out pretty quick that he was very bright. He sent me what he had been working on to that point, and I thought his voice sounded fantastic and he had a lot of good songs, so I said, “Okay, harness me in!”
So I drove to Las Vegas from L.A. with a car full of instruments, and I met him at his studio in this little strip mall, and off we went. He’s a very concentrated fellow. He reminds me a little bit of Bob Dylan in his commitment. He might take a break and drink the odd slurpie [laughs], but aside from that, he’s very concentrated and focused.

Had you met Stuart Price before?

I had not met him before, and I was very impressed with his skills, man. He’s like a magician. I just let him do what he did. What I do is very different. He solves all problems with a mouse, which is to be very much admired. He’s just sitting there at the computer, and I mean, you just turn around and pour yourself a coffee and he’s got the track together.
In my presence, we knocked out a few tracks live off the floor. We recut some tracks, and Brandon had some new songs, so I encouraged him to huddle up the band and have them be—you know, just force us [to do it] from the floor. And I think it was a nice blend. With Stuart’s angle and with my more renegade behavior, I think we ended up with a few things that Brandon wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Can you elaborate on that a little bit? I know from having read past interviews with you that you like to come to sessions with the intention of doing something new, and not just commit to a version of a song as it’s been written. Did you do any jams in the studio?

Well, there were a few jams, but there were a few philosophical discussions, too. I think I’ve been included as a co-writer on a few songs [chuckles], and some of those were very spontaneous. I felt that Brandon at that point in the recording process appreciated some fresh enthusiasm, be it compositionally or otherwise, because what happens if you’ve been in the trenches for a while and you’re operating by one system, habits develop and the work will have only gotten to a certain place relative to that technique. When you get some new face coming into the room, then it might just wake up another technique or another way of looking at things. So I think at the point of my arrival, they actually already had a record, but I think Brandon was looking for maybe a couple of stray dogs to get into the picture.

When you first plugged in your guitar, were you overdubbing on tracks that already existed, or were you playing stuff live in the studio? How did that work?

We did two things on my first visit. There was a song called “On the Floor” that I helped him with. They had already cut a version, and we recut the track. I listened to what they had and I went through it with Brandon with a fine-toothed comb lyrically, and suggested some angles. His lyrics had not been fully formed prior to my arrival. They sounded formed, but on close inspection there was a bit of fudging. He’s a good con man—he’ll have you thinking he’s singing lyrics, when he’s not [laughs]. So we were able to get to the bottom of that song, and then we recut it. We just huddled up the little band that he had there at the time, and it was a lot of fun.
There was another one—one of the rockers, now, “Was It Something I Said”—that was built from the ground up. Let’s talk about that one. It’s a chord sequence that he had from an already existing song, and when we went out to bash it out in the jam room, it started taking on a whole other flavor and it became this new song. And I brought this little funny instrument that I have in my arsenal called a Suzuki Omnichord, and he was fascinated with this thing. It’s just a little toy that I had blaring through an amp, and it ended up sounding like some crazy combo organ player from the ’60s. I think he was happy to have some guy bashing it out in the corner as if it’s the last expression he’ll ever have [laughs]. I tend to be very physical in performance, and I think Brandon appreciated that, in the presence of so much technology, we could still be huddling up and rocking and rolling like a garage band.

That’s what struck me about this album—it’s more of a rootsy American rock record, with shades of Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, David Lynch, and so on. Was that the intention with a song like “Playing With Fire”?

“Playing With Fire” is a good one to talk about because it didn’t exist prior to my turning up. I was asking Brandon about his life—and this is part of the way that I work that nobody ever talks about, these philosophical exchanges and conversations that we have, and how that might make its way into the work. Brandon as a kid, he grew up in a small desert town, and I think when he was around 14 he decided to move to his aunt’s house in Vegas. She had a piano there, and that’s how he started developing his thing. And I said to him, “What was it like? What was the journey like? What was going on in your mind, and what were your aspirations?” I just asked him fifty questions about that time in his life, and I said, “This is a great story, the thing that brought you to the mecca. What pilgrimage were you on?” And I was able to fuel the story that was right in front of us, really, so it wasn’t anything that we had to invent. And I think he was touched by the fact that I was interested in what drove him as a young man, and that’s partly what the song is about.
Certainly, I encouraged him to paint a picture of the desert scapes, and we went into the studio and knocked it out as a live take. I think we chopped out some of the middle and kept all the good bits. Stuart played bass on that one—a great bass player by the way—and I think he might have been a little mystified by the lack of rhythmic discipline. We did not cut a fixed time. It’s an open performance, but you get something when you don’t have this beatbox going in your ear. You start listening to the players around you, and you start responding to the emotion of the writing and so on. I think it allowed Brandon a little bit of freedom away from his usual technique, and I think he appreciated the fact that there you are in the room, pants down with a musical story that’s running in tandem with your lyrical story.

That first take that you did, what were you playing on that?

I was playing pedal steel, so that sound that comes in with the chorus, I got it right in a couple of spots and it’s quite spine-chilling [laughs]. It wasn’t a very incredible setup—just a regular square room with a padded studio, and I put my steel through a Vox AC30. We used a bass amp in the corner and two drummers. In fact the Killers’ drummer is on that track—Ronnie, what a great guy. I think I’m gonna employ Ronnie to be with me all the time from here on [laughs], just because he’s such a positive spirit and a great force. There’s something nice about having a few mates around you when they’re giving it everything they’ve got.
What tends to happen in those settings is there are forces at play that you’re unaware of, and when you listen back you realize, “Oh, that musician was responding to something that another player presented,” and so on, so you get the ebb and flow, which stacking up [overdubs] doesn’t provide you with. I mean, it’s not a criticism of more computer-like building of tracks, but we are great improv artists as human beings, and it’s a lovely energy to tap into, in the way that you can’t predict how a conversation is gonna go at a table. Just out of that, you can get a fantastic exchange. That can happen in a great band room, and I think it happened on “Playing With Fire.”

You’re also credited with “dub sonics” on that song. What does that refer to?

[laughs] This is a technique I’ve been developing for 20 years. I call it the black dub sound. It’s kind of a continuation of the Lee Scratch Perry legacy. The Jamaicans were using repeat echoes a lot, and I’ve entered this new chapter of the dub style where I extract from the track—I’ll take an available ingredient, extract it, process it, do what I want with it, and then stick it back into the song surgically. So I hope he’s referring to that. I think I did some of that.

Can you tell me some of the technical aspects of how you do that?

I just use cheap sampling machines, whether it’s an SDD-3000 or an AMS Harmonizer, these boxes have a little button on them that you just flip and you sample a piece of what you put into it. It might just be a split second or half a second long, but once you’ve got that, then you can manipulate it—add an octave splitter to it, or maybe an echo, or put it through a distortion box into an amp. At that point, it’s almost like the organ donor has provided me with a lung. And I take my time. There’s no hurry here. I treat it like a bronze sculpture and make it as fascinating and beautiful as I can, and then I stick it back in the track. This is where you have to be musical, because you can’t just stick it in anywhere. It has to make harmonic sense. So I take the work that I’ve done on that particular sculpture and I put it back into the song. It’s not an added sound—it’s a sound that already existed within the track that I enhanced and put back in.
Normally I use a Canadian system called RADAR to do that. It’s very musical. I’m pretty old-school with my technique. I just run the track and press the button to insert it back in and record. I don’t move things around so much with Pro Tools or Logic. I try to stay virgin with all of my inclusions so that you don’t get copycat sections in a song coming around again. It’s like playing an instrument, and I make sure that component doesn’t get repeated elsewhere in the song in the same manner, which as you know is a very popular technique. You know, “Just play the riff once and go home, buddy, and I’ll stick it in the song from top to bottom.” That’s okay, but it might add up to conveyor belt work if you’re not careful.

Tell me about your production with Stuart on “Jilted Lovers.”

That’s one that they had already cut a version of it, and we decided that rather than add to Stuart’s work on the existing version, we would just try and play it again. I mean, Stuart is such a great musician, I was happy to be playing with him and get him away from that computer for a minute [laughs]. And I think he appreciates the fact that he’s an accomplished musician, and he’s got a great sense of humor, this guy.

I’ve had a chance to talk with him before. He clearly enjoys what he’s doing.

Yeah, he really does, and he’s very English. I’m used to it because I’ve made a lot of records there. There’s something out of England that I’ve always been suspicious of—the kind of cheesy sounds that were embraced there, especially in the ’80s. You know, those real nasty little string sounds—I never bought into them myself, but clearly Stuart has a sense of humor about it. Like the worst string sound you remember from 1986, Stuart will grin from ear to ear and say, “Hmmm—isn’t it great?” And I looked at him and said, “I’m gonna kill you man!” But anyhow it’s all in humor.

Are you and Stuart trading production licks in the mix on that track, or was it more along the lines of a philosophical discussion like you described with Brandon?

There wasn’t a lot of discussion. I played a guitar part that they liked, and that became a thematic response to Brandon’s vocal. We just used the best pieces out of what people played, and in an afternoon we had a new production. Everybody decided it should be a co-production, and I just said, “Okay.” I never notice it so much while I’m working. I just sit in a specific chair and perform my task, but hey man, we’re all musicians to start with, and isn’t it nice to be reminded of that.

Did you take notebooks to these sessions?

I’m a note-keeper, yes. My involvement was somewhat minimal in the sense that I was not there for months on end, so my journals are not thick, but I asked Brandon if we could have a little writing room set up separately from the main room. When Stuart was busy knocking things together, I’d go there and pull out a few lyrics and then drag Brandon in to get his opinion on a few ways of looking at a song. So I was afforded my own little laboratory there, which I appreciated.
Remember, I was there for two sessions, and the first one was just supposed to be a meeting, and we ended up knocking out two tracks. Then I came back later—it wasn’t that long. I might have been living in a hotel maybe for a couple of weeks. It was all quite surreal because I was suffering from insomnia at the time so I would get up at three in the morning and walk down to the casino and realize that things are just getting started [laughs]. All these blonde bombshells around me, and they’re pumping oxygen into the place, and I kind of liked it! I thought, “This is the way to live.” Three o’clock in the morning and a margharita right out of the elevator—but yeah, it was very quick and concentrated. I think it’s fair to say that Stuart put in a lot more time than I did, and God bless him for his patience.

Can you talk a little bit about the sound that you’ve developed over the years on pedal steel guitar?

Well, two thoughts. I think I’ve found my own voice on the instrument. I decided at a certain point that I was not going to be a traditional fast country-and-western player, so I slowed my playing down and found a way into my own voice through tone. It’s an amazing instrument and a life dedication. The harmonic interplay on it is forever fascinating to me. I mean, I’ll play the same piece dozens of times and still find new appreciation for how the instrument speaks back to me harmonically.
What tends to happen is if something beautiful is playing and it rings well through the amplifier, I tend to hang back and I don’t immediately add more notes. I let those notes have their moment, and then I come back in for the next expression. It’s a beauty—I love it. It’s my little church in a suitcase. I don’t know where I’d be without it. It allows me to go to that place where in isolation I can still make beautiful music and not feel that it needs to go public quite right away. I’m happy for it to be singular and isolated and lonesome and pure. I think that’s where the heart of the instrument lives for me.

You mentioned that you’re mixing Neil Young’s record. What’s next for you?

At the moment, because of my motorcycle accident, I had to cancel my summer tour with my own band Black Dub. That album is being released on Jive Records in November, and we’re gonna huddle up at that time and do some promotional touring. So I’m really looking forward to that—we’re just mastering it this week and putting out some vinyl. That lives in my heart.

I’m also composing some instrumental music for an event in Toronto called Nuit Blanche, happening on October 2nd I think. They’ve given me the entire town square in front of City Hall to do a 24-speaker installation. I’m very excited about this. Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of sending signal to different speakers. So we decided to bring the PA to the people. It’ll be a forest of speakers, and I’ll be at central command, so to speak, mixing and dubbing sounds into the night.

That sounds like an old-school John Cage experiment. That’s great.

[laughs] It kind of does. I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s kind of bold, but I like the idea of going to this new place, and I have a great console that I just bought last year. It’s a Midas 4000, and it has 24 effects sends, so I’m using that as my access to 24 speakers. I’ll be playing steel guitar that night too, but I’m also designing some electronic music for the event.

Daniel, thanks a lot for taking the time to speak with me. I’ve always followed your music and I’ve wanted to interview you for the longest time, so I’m glad that you could take a few moments today.

It’s my pleasure. Let me just add that Brandon Flowers is a very special dude. He’s a deep soul and a great spirit, and I fully trust where he comes from and where he’s going. It’s nice to be on board with him for this solo voyage, and I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg here. He’s a force soon to be reckoned with. He’s just entering his prime, so look out!