Boston Herald NOVEMBER 15, 2008 - by Jed Gottlieb


Daniel Lanois was the Phil Spector of the '80s (minus the murder charge).

A rare producer with a distinctive, recognisable style, Lanois stamped Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and Neville Brothers records with his dreamy atmospherics and wall of white noise. With mentor Brian Eno, he's helmed six U2 albums, including The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. The latest Lanois/U2 collaboration will be released early next year.

Between making other people's masterpieces, he's recorded solo records and toured the world - he plays the Berklee Performance Center tomorrow to kick off his stint as a Berklee artist-in-residence.

Jed Gottlieb: As a producer, your longest association has been with U2. What's kept that relationship going for so long?

Lanois: I like those people for their appetite for innovation. They want things to be new and fresh, and they never get stuck on how the band should sound. They're very smart people. And Eno and I just have a lot of fun with them, especially for the first twenty or thirty percent of the record. During those first sessions, it's no-holds-barred, we take on anything that comes our way. I also think Bono's lyrics get better with every record.

What's U2's new stuff like?

The president of the company is singing better than ever and the tracks are wildly innovative. I would never have thought things would have gone this way. I believe, well, rock 'n' roll has been reinvented one more time. [Laughs]

You, Eno and U2 have worked together for twenty-five years. How do you avoid falling into old habits or old patterns?

Nobody wants repetition within this group of folks. We want to grow as artists and innovators and people. Life is not dull to us [Laughs]. So I can't imagine that we'd ever get stuck in our ways.

Have you ever encountered any kind of resistance with the people you've worked with? You've had to corral some legendary personalities from Bono to Dylan.

I've never encountered any resistance in the production arena because I use a very simple technique. I let ideas be brought to fruit. Once you've given a person an opportunity to do that there will never be any resentment. After a few days go by, egos fall by the wayside.

Where did this dreamy aesthetic come from?

I had a liking for melancholy pretty early on. I like it on David Bowie's "Heroes" and I like it when David Byrne sings "Take a look at these hands" (on the Eno-produced Born Under Punches). No matter how celebratory a song is I like a hint of melancholy in it.

You didn't begin a solo career until your thirties.

I didn't want to jump into anything without my own voice. That's what I noticed from the people I worked with. They had their own voice, and that's what allowed them to stand out. Even embracing their own limitations put them on a road to discover what was unique in their music. All my favourite artists that I've worked with can't do everything. Instead they do certain things very well and that's what we love them for. I decided to follow through with philosophy. I embraced my bilingualness and mixed my French-Canadian side into my songs and didn't try to copy anyone.

You also have a unique spin on New Orleans that touches your sound. Did that come from working with the Neville Brothers on Yellow Moon?

Growing up in French-speaking Canada, I was very much aware of the Acadia movement to Louisiana. The music that exists in rural Louisiana, the Cajun music, the zydeco music, a lot of that comes from up north when the Brits drove the French-speakers out of Canada. I wanted to trace that exodus and went to Louisiana looking for a reliable source of roots to draw upon. Then of course working with the Neville Brothers introduced me to a lot of rhythms that I had not been hip to. To be in an environment where music lives in the neighbourhoods was really great for me because that's how I remember it in Quebec as a kid. I don't look to schools to get my music, I look to neighbourhoods.

At first your pairing with the Neville Brothers seemed odd, but Yellow Moon may be their greatest achievement as a group. How did you approach working with them?

What got me through the Neville Brothers' door was wanting to build a masterpiece. One thing we Canadians are good at is observing. I spent a lot of time going through the Neville Brothers' archives try to understand where they came from and what they were about. I wasn't looking to presuppose anything on the Brothers, I was looking to enhance something they already had.

What do you consider your best work?

I've always liked (Dylan's) Time Out Of Mind. I always thought that record to have an emotional depth and a depth of field in terms of sonics. I think it's a tour de force. Especially for '90s records when technology had pushed things to a place where sounds were so similar. I believe Time Out Of Mind was the opposite of that. The characters and the placements of the ingredients create a picture you can keep looking at for a long time and still find interesting.

You don't work with a lot of people and you take your time between producing albums. Is that because you work slow or because you've spent a lot of time on your solo career?

I've made some fast records. I made a record with Willie Nelson in four days called Teatro and it's a beautiful record. I made a jazz record with Brian Blade in five days.

Your solo career must limit you from producing more often.

I am busy. I've got a Web site, Red Floor Records, that I just created for people to download my music. And I'm doing regular episodes on the site that pair music and images. I did a film last year called Here's What Is, essentially a music documentary, a secret window into the recording studio, and there are some great exchanges with Brian Eno. And it's not always easy to write. Sometimes I'm jealous of people like Bob Dylan or Ron Sexsmith. They're not connected to technology and don't necessarily know how to make records, but they pour all their creative energy into their song-writing and as a consequence are very prolific. There are times when I think it would be fascinating to see what I'd come up with if I didn't burn all those hours in the studio and instead burned them in the songwriter's chair.

How did you and Brian Eno become such good friends and working partners?

It started out in an innocent way. He booked some time in my studio and we hit it off. First we made some ambient records together in the early '80s and thought we were a great team. Brian is a great innovator and a great catalyst. He can have a full track pouring out of the studio speakers in thirty minutes. But there are some disciplines that I grew up with that help Brian demystify some of his arrangements. We found that we got quick results together.