Chicago Tribune MAY 7, 2015 - by Steve Knopper


Daniel Lanois has done it all, Eno to Dylan to U2

During a whooshing phone conversation with Daniel Lanois - in which the veteran producer and composer recalls first meeting Brian Eno, collaborating with U2 and performing his latest instrumental album Flesh And Machine with a sixty-five-piece Canadian orchestra - he finally pauses for more than two seconds. The silence is in response to a question about Bob Dylan, who once said Lanois "seemed like the kind of cat, who, when he works on something, he did it like the fate of the world hinged on its outcome."

"I guess he saw the real me," Lanois, sixty-three, finally says, in a phone interview from Toronto, where he has moved on from a National Arts Centre Orchestra performance in Ottawa, Ontario, last month and is downsizing to a three-man rock 'n' roll show. "I'm very passionate about things that I believe in that I'm working on, so I can definitely get wrapped up into it until I feel that it's perfect. Sometimes you do something one day, you think you have it, and the next day you think you might be able to beat it. I enjoy working like that."

Early on, Lanois didn't seem likely to become a powerful music-business producer who would create the greatest-sounding rock records of the last three decades: Dylan's Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind; U2's The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby; Peter Gabriel's So; Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball; and Willie Nelson's Teatro. In the early '70s, he and his brother Robert were amateur musicians who built a recording studio in their mother's laundry room and charged nearby bands sixty dollars. They evolved to a full-service studio, allowing musicians to cut their own vinyl and make their own covers.

Through working with a band called the Time Twins in the mid-'70s, Eno, the strange-looking Brit who contributed the crazier sounds to punk-rock hits by Roxy Music, heard a demo and visited Lanois' studio. They worked together on one of Eno's low-key solo albums with collaborator Harold Budd, Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror, and built a lifelong partnership that continues through Eno's smash albums with U2 to this day. "We pretty much clicked immediately," Lanois says of Eno. "He was kind of already past the Roxy Music thing... and was more focused on making something really true.

"We made a decision a long time ago to listen to each other's ideas before we make any moves on them," Lanois continues. "Even producing U2, we always said, 'Let's agree on things before we talk to the band, because we don't want them to think we're unsure, or not on the same page.'"

Eno and Lanois began work with U2 on 1984's The Unforgettable Fire; at first, everybody was on the same page, working for unusual guitar sounds and a big production, and the band "always had a respect for Brian," as Lanois recalls. By 2009's No Line On The Horizon, things had changed a bit. "You have ideas brewing in the back of your head, and they are such a big band, and it's all about getting hits and sometimes you take tracks out to be remixed by other people and that's when you feel like you wish you could stick to the original mix," Lanois says - but he adds that he and U2 are on fine terms, to the extent that he received a food basket from "the boys" recently.

"There's no strangeness," he says. "It's more me wanting to work on my own music right now."

Flesh And Machine, Lanois' 2014 album, is a collection of soothing and abrasive sounds that coalesce into something like a science-fiction movie soundtrack. It begins with the high-pitch squeaking noises of Rocco, accelerates into thumping electro jazz on Sioux Lookout, downshifts into a shuffle called My First Love and closes on a droning bit of Eno-style ambience titled Forest City. Much of the album was a collaboration between Lanois, drummer Brian Blade and bassist Jim Wilson, and the producer has spoken at length about the synthesizers, studio processing, Roland 808 drum machines, fuzz-wah pedals and particular kinds of drums he used to create the sounds.

Even more challenging, he worked with the NAC Orchestra's arranger, David Martin, to re-create all these sounds with strings and woodwinds for the recent concert.

"Many of the actual recordings that I sent to him had my crazy dub effects," Lanois says. "I've been really going Jamaican on a lot of these mixes... If I did a 'wrrrrmmm' - a crazy dub sound - he mashed it up with the orchestra. The hardest part was, we have to stick to the arrangements. The orchestra is reading music, so they can't improvise like we do."

The orchestra performance, which Lanois calls "very emotional and energetic," only encouraged the producer's recent pledge to avoid working with other people. "It just kind of nails you down to the chair, to the point of where, if I'm having some musical ideas, or somewhere that I'm trying to go, then obviously we have to stay there and finish the job," he says. "If you put your heart and soul into a mix, or something on your own, and then other people come in and it kind of gets watered down, that's when it gets frustrating.

"I've been enjoying playing guitar," he says, "and traveling with my mates."