“I wanted to be Neil Young!”: Daniel Lanois on guitar recording and the lessons learned from the greats

The Canadian producer and guitarist tells us about his memories of working with U2 and Dylan, how his beloved ’53 Goldtop is like no other Les Paul, and why he’s embracing gospel on his new record even if he’s “not much of a church man”.

With a resume that includes Grammy-winning and era-defining albums like U2’s The Joshua Tree, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Peter Gabriel’s So, and Emmylou HarrisWrecking Ball, as well as various and sundry masterpieces for Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Willie Nelson, among others, Daniel Lanois doesn’t exactly have to cold call artists and managers looking for work.

“I sort of operate by invitation,” Lanois tells us. “A lot of times I’m very flattered and surprised when somebody wants to get together and try something. It’s like you go on a little journey to see if you can find a new sound or a different manner of expression.”

Lanois is between production projects right now, but that could change at any moment. “You never know when the stars might align,” he says. “I got a call from Beach House the other day, and they’re going to send me a few things to listen to. So we might do a little work together.”

Sometimes he hears tracks on the radio that intrigue him while driving around in his old Crown Victoria police car, but he laments that he never knows who he’s listening to. “It’s got a stock radio that doesn’t list what it’s playing,” he says. “I’ll be tuned to hip-hop station and the songs have some cool samples and really great bottom end. I’ll think, ‘My goodness, these people are really on to something,’ but unfortunately, I don’t know what they are. I really need to get a new sound system.”

If there is a ‘Daniel Lanois sound’, it exists more in aspiration and intent, although albums he touches do share similar characteristics. A longtime guitarist, he’s big on echo and reverb, oftentimes juxtaposing cavernous guitar sounds with traditional, naturalistic tones – and the results are both exploratory and accessible. “A lot of what I do is manipulating sounds,” he explains. “Sometimes you hear something and it’s perfect, and all you’ve got to do is get it recorded. Other times, you mess around with a sound and you take it somewhere new. There’s no formula for it.”

In addition to outside production work, Lanois has been prolific as both solo artist, touring guitarist for Emmylou Harris and occasional band member; his most recent collaborations have been with Black Dub (which includes drummer Brian Blade, bassist Daryl Johnson and singer/multi-instrumentalist Trixie Whitley) and a project with breakcore artist Aaron Funk (aka Venetian Snares) called, appropriately enough, Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois.

Back in 2009, he produced the album Mercy for LA-based singer and dobro master Rocco DeLuca; the two stayed in touch over the years, collaborating from time to time (they worked together on music for the Red Dead Redemption 2 soundtrack), and now they’ve reunited on new Lanois solo album, Heavy Sun, which also includes organist-vocalist Johnny Shepherd (whom Lanois met while moonlighting as guitarist for the Hallelujah Train Band in Lousiana) and bassist-vocalist Jim Wilson.

There are moments of gorgeous and ethereal guitar playing throughout Heavy Sun, but vocals (particularly those by DeLuca) and organ are the main stars here. The record is a curiously engaging mix of gospel and electronica, Latin-tinged grooves and unbridled soul power. “I grew up on a lot of gospel music that featured the organ,” says Lanois. “But then I also fell in love with Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and all the great soul singers. Johnny’s got that thing I remember from hearing those guys, so we put our little thing together. The minute I heard everybody together, I said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re on to something.’’

Daniel Lanois - Heavy Sun

To find out exactly what they were onto during the Heavy Sun sessions, we chat to Lanois and dig a little deeper…

Where did you record Heavy Sun?

“At both of my places. In Toronto, I have an old monk’s Buddhist temple I bought some time ago, and in California, I’ve got a beautiful 1920s villa in Silver Lake.”

You’re not really a standard studio kind of guy. Even back in the day, you never seemed to work at big studios like the Hit Factory and the Record Plant…

“I did, but not as much as other people. I worked at the Record Plant on a Peter Gabriel record, and I did some Robbie Robertson work at the Hit Factory. I like formal studios. I like the fact that somebody’s at the front desk – ‘Good morning, Mr. Lanois’. And I say, ‘Hold my calls’. I like that culture.”

It seems as if you like to create your own unique environment to make a record. You don’t inhabit somebody else’s world.

“Yes, because I came up that way. I always had my own place, and we liked recording in unusual locations. When I went to work with U2, we recorded in a castle. It’s exciting. The nice advantage to that is you set up the studio for a specific project. People feel that kind of commitment – ‘Whoa, we built the studio specifically for this record’. It feels very special, and you get to customise your environment.

“I did it for The Neville Brothers in New Orleans. I set up a studio around the corner from Valence Street, where they lived in an old apartment building. We hung moss from the walls and had a very swampy environment for them. They thought that was a lot of fun. I rented a house for Dylan when I recorded him in New Orleans. I had a little bit of stolen time in it. I said to him, ‘You’re going to get to a place nobody knows about’.”

Daniel Lanois
Much more recently, with his beloved 1953 Goldtop. Image: David Wolff-Patrick / Getty Images

Do you sometimes encounter problems mic’ing and tracking guitars in such places?

“It’s a beast we wrestle with. I recorded a guitar with Robbie Robertson in this tiny studio in Los Angeles. Robbie had a little room, and we did a bunch of guitar work and got a great guitar sound. Then when he went into the really big room, we lost the sound. How does that happen? It’s always a struggle. How many times have we sounded good in a kitchen, but we go into a studio and the vibe’s not there? You just never know with rooms.

“On Heavy Sun, I invited my co-singers to come to the console with me. We sang right to the speakers; we kept the speakers kind of quiet, and we shared microphones. So we were just kind of kitchen singing, really. We got to harmonise and blend acoustically according to what we were hearing musically coming out of the speakers.

“Plus, it makes things go faster. Nobody was behind glass, nobody wanted headphones, and we found that our pitch was better without headphones. We could nail the phrasing and work on a stanza and play it back, maybe make little corrections about which notes to sustain and emphasise and all that. Would we have done better with my beautiful tube U 47s behind glass, everybody wearing headphones? We might’ve had more isolation, but people don’t care about isolation in the end, do they?”

In many ways, you were ahead of the curve. Nowadays, people are recording anywhere they please. Home recording is huge. The days of the giant studio with the receptionist out front are coming to an end.

“Part of me is sad to see conventional studios go out of business. I never would wish that on anyone. But in regards to being ahead of the curve, I wasn’t the first one to do this, but I certainly made a lot of records with that technique, just setting up an old farmhouse. We made The Joshua Tree in an old farmhouse outside of Dublin, and that was fantastic. The big front room was great for drums because it had a wooden floor, and everything was beautiful and powerful sounding in there. You might go into a conventional studio and not get that kind of resonance from your drums, so you’d have to maybe create it artificially. I wish I could tell you there was some kind of formula to it all, but there isn’t.”

Daniel Lanois
Cradling a Fender Mustang in 1988. Image: Lynn Goldsmith / Corbis / VCG / Getty Images

You mix gospel and ambience on Heavy Sun. Was that the agenda?

“We had an agenda once we decided to make a record. We met Johnny Shepherd in Shreveport, Louisiana. I’m a visiting guitar player in the house band called Hallelujah Train. My good friend, Brian Blade, plays drums in the band when he’s home. That’s how it started. Johnny was the choir director, organist and singer. I thought, ‘Oh geez, maybe this is it. I can invite Johnny to be part of the vocal group I’ve been wanting all my life’.

“I’m not much of a church man but I appreciate the power of congregation and the spirit of music. The tonalities that exist in gospel music appeal to me”

“That became the agenda, a chance meeting and thinking, ‘We have a nice vibe. Let’s go and make a nice singing record’. We weren’t about to make a conventional gospel record. I’m not much of a church man, but I appreciate the power of congregation and the spirit of music. The tonalities that exist in gospel music appeal to me. And as usual, I say, ‘Okay, we respect tradition, but how do we take things to the future?’”

Rocco DeLuca is such a great guitar player, especially on a resonator. Was there a basic intention to downplay that element on this record?

“Rocco is a great fingerpicker. Whether he’s on an acoustic instrument or electric guitar, we’ve always played really well together. I’m a good fingerpicker myself. We get a nice groove going. I’ve heard him play slide… The house fell apart with very powerful volume, almost bordering on metal. I always appreciated that part of him, and I wanted to make sure that he was involved with this record. He also has the most beautiful voice; he’s got a timbre on the high notes that I’ve not heard from anybody else. It’s a tenderness that’s angelic. So while we didn’t go to the dobro, it should be known that Rocco has an incredible palette of guitar expression.”

Daniel Lanois
Lanois performing alongside Emmylou Harris in Los Angeles in 1996. Image: Jim Steinfeldt / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The guitar playing on tracks such as Power and Every Nation are very economical. It’s almost about how much you don’t play.

“Sometimes, yeah. Power has a long instrumental passage before the vocals come in. That was written on steel guitar. I overdubbed some Mellotron strings in unison with a guitar, so it’s hidden. There’s also some pretty nice fingerpicking going on in there, a little bit buried in the mix, but it’s there. I played those referencing the fingerpicking I was talking about a minute ago. I like the guitar playing that Rocco did. His performance from the camera shoot made its way onto the record.”

What’s your secret to that glassy, bell-like guitar sound you get on the song Way Down?

“That was done on my Guild. I have an all-mahogany Guild acoustic from the 70s. I put an LR Baggs passive pickup on it, which allows me then to go DI or into a little amp. I think I used a combination of DI and a little Fender tweed. It might’ve been a Champ. I have a nice selection of small tweeds. I’m fingerpicking the bassline – that’s what caused creating the bell sound. Plus, I used a little triplet echo, so it’s tripping over itself, and then I doubled it.”

You bought your famous 1953 Les Paul Goldtop back in the 80s. When you picked it up, did you just have a feeling about it, like it was meant to tell stories?

“That’s just it. I loved it the minute I saw it. I hadn’t even picked it up, and I loved it. It was in the window of We Buy Guitars. I looked at it and said, ‘Why does that Les Paul look different from the Les Pauls I’m familiar with?’ It had something to do with its contours. The price tag was $800. It had a trapeze tailpiece that wasn’t very popular at the time. You bang them and they go out of tune, but I didn’t care. I bought it anyhow, and I’ve been using it ever since.”

Daniel Lanois
Lanois creating atmospherics on pedal
steel in Berlin in 2015. Image: Frank Hoensch / Getty Images

Did you make any modifications to it?

“Larry Cragg, the great guitar builder and technician, modified it for me. He put on a tune-o-matic, and it was just perfect. We didn’t have to re-angle the neck. And he threw on a Bigsby because I wanted to be Neil Young. And then I went with a humbucker in place of the P-90 in the back position and my Gretsch knobs, and that’s me.”

How long did it take you to figure out the combination of the P-90 and the humbucker?

“I don’t. I never use a combination of the two. I mostly use the P-90 in the front and then I just whack the switch to the back pickup, and then it becomes this biting sound that’s so different. I’ve found that really useful live for a radical shift. The P-90 was always louder, so I’ve had to keep that in mind. So I’ve got to dig in a little bit on the humbucker, but I kind of got hooked on the extreme colour change that I had available to me.

What was your main guitar before the Goldtop?

“I used to play a butterscotch Tele. I have a couple of them. I have a new one and have gotten great results with it, but I just moved on to the Les Paul and didn’t look back. But every now and again, I think, ‘I’m going to go do a tour with that Telecaster’.

We read somewhere that you said that you wouldn’t sell the Goldtop for less than $50,000. Did you ever get any offers?

“No, I didn’t. I wouldn’t take $50,000. I wouldn’t sell it for anything now. It’s just priceless to me.

Daniel Lanois
Lanois with a weathered Jazzmaster in New Orleans in 1992. Image: David Redfern / Redferns

How about the ‘Dark Animal’ Vox AC30? Are you still using that?

“Yes. I have another one that I like just as much at Peter Gabriel’s studio. I’ve had it there since the 80s, and I never picked it up. A few years ago, I was touring in England and I was reunited with my old Vox. I had the folks at Vox do a little refurbishing, because the grille cloth was completely ripped. They did some nice cosmetic work on it, and it’s close to the Dark Animal. It’s got silver speakers, and the Dark Animal has blue ones. When I was working with Edge, his favourite Vox had one blue speaker and one silver. We would move the mic from one speaker to the other and whichever one sounded better, that’s the one we mic’d.”

You also mentioned that you used a Fender Champ on the album.

“Yes. A good thing about the Champ is you get a nice sound without being too loud in the room. So if I’m trying to blend in acoustically with my mates, sometimes I’ll go to a Champ because the amp’s not very loud in the room. I’ve had really nice results with smaller amps recording – they don’t drown out the vocals. So I’m almost treating it so you don’t drown out the vocal acoustically. I’ve got a few Champs, and I try and keep them in good shape. We don’t have to overdrive them. It depends on what you want to do, but it’s kind of a clean almost acoustic sound, but electric.”

How about pedal effects? Do you use a lot of them?

“No pedals. I just use a tuner, but I started using my rack Korg SDD-3000. They’re hard to keep in shape, though. With guitar, I’m usually straight up. I mean, historically, when working with Edge, we had a few toys we were excited about at a given time. But generally speaking, I start with a clear sound, a guitar straight into an amp, or I might have the Korg SDD-3000. But even at that, I try and record a dry side and a processed side. The advantage to the Korg is, it’s got a lot of outputs, so you have options.”

When you pick up the guitar – say you’re at home – what do you usually play? Do you do this thing we call ‘practicing’?

“No, no, not at all. I mean, obviously, I’ve got to get my fingers strong if I’m about to tour, but I don’t do scales or any of that kind of stuff. I did all that as a kid. I got this guitar here. It’s an SJ-200 Emmylou Harris. [Plays a beautiful fingerstyle passage] That’s what I do.

“You can tell I’m fingerpicking. I don’t use a flatpick. I like flesh on the string, using my index or my thumb to isolate individual notes. That’s just how I play. I go for tone first, so I might do something tranquil as I just played, and that gets in the right mood. I’ve never been a super-fast player. I admire fast players, but I was never very good at it. Years ago, I just decided to go up another street.”

Heavy Sun is out now on Maker Series.