Rolling Stone SEPTEMBER 19, 2016 - by Steve Ciabattoni


Atmospheric producer-composer talks making records with U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Brian Eno and more

PETER GABRIEL/KATE BUSH: DON'T GIVE UP (1986) - We talked about inviting Dolly Parton to do the female role, but of course in the end we called Kate Bush and it's a very sweet collaboration. I love that video.

That song started as a beatbox rhythm from Peter that had a little bass line built into it. I thought there was something very touching and warm about it, like we were in a living room. So I said "Let's keep this really intimate as if we're telling a story to a child." Peter had this idea of providing encouragement to someone that had some hard times, somebody who loses a job... He wanted to write a song about encouragement and believing in someone, offering moral support.

BRIAN ENO: DEEP BLUE DAY (1983) - This was from a soundtrack for a documentary about the Apollo space mission [For All Mankind] and Eno was invited to provide the music. We were watching all this government archival footage and it was so beautiful and uplifting and elevating and floating. For this track we started by using a Suziuki Omnichord that had this little beat like a tango and then we took that beat and slowed it waaaay down. The Omnichord also has an auto bass and so by slowing the tape down, it started to have this beautiful jukebox feeling. As we watched the films, we realized a lot of the astronauts were from Texas and that they'd listened to a lot country music. So I said to Brian, "I've got my steel guitar in the closet, you want me to fish it out to see if we can make a connection here?" And so that's why that track has a sort of celestial twang to it.

PETER GABRIEL: SLEDGEHAMMER (1986) - We were at this funky place in the country in a converted cattle barn. I said, "OK, this is a new regime, we gotta turn up for work and take it seriously." [laughs] And Peter had some yellow hard hats in the back of the shop and I said, "Everyone wears a hardhat and you gotta bring your lunch to work." So we wore these hard hats, there was Peter, [guitarist] David Rhodes and myself, and then beatboxes, and that's how we built the record. We'd show up for work and say, "Did you bring your lunch? OK, on with the hats, let's hit it with a sledgehammer!" [laughs] That was like the ringing of the bell to start the day and that got under Peter's skin and he decided to write a song about the sledgehammer.

U2: I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR (1987) - After we finished The Unforgettable Fire, I said to Edge, "I think we have something more to say, if you want to keep my name in the hat, call me up." U2 always leave a lot of room for experimentation, for jams and for discovering new songs that haven't unfolded yet. We had this track provisionally titled Weather Girls that had a great drum track with that skipping floor tom from Larry. So I was the curator of that drum beat and I suggested we try it on another song. Edge had this acoustic part and laid that down on top of the drums. It was actually Edge that came in with the line "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" and Bono fleshed out the song from there. And then we just used the house talent for backing vocals: Eno, myself, Edge. We just stacked up our vocals a bunch of times until we sounded like a choir.

ROBBIE ROBERTSON: SOMEWHERE DOWN THE CRAZY RIVER (1987) - It was a dream come true as a Canadian kid to work with Robbie. He was a trailblazer. I also realized that he was a great storyteller, so I asked him what it was like when he first went to Arkansas. At that point we were just working in his studio so the vocal mic was always on and so I made sure that I recorded all of his stories. You know he has that beautiful low voice and he's talking about the mystery of the nighttime and the crazy river and Nick's cafe and hanging out with Levon Helm and fishing with dynamite. It all seemed so far out and so mysterious and had this nighttime feel to it.

I still had that Suzuki Omnichord and I presented it to Robbie and said, Why don't you play with this? And he was fiddling around with it saying, "These are lovely chords," so after work, I superimposed his storytelling over those chords and we used that as a template to carry on with the composition. The steaminess of the story was complemented by that little toy instrument and everybody overdubbing on that.

NEVILLE BROTHERS: WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE (1989) - It's the opposite end of the spectrum from the funky stuff we did on that record, Yellow Moon. Bob came through New Orleans and stopped into the session and I played him that song and it really touched him. It's largely what cemented our arrangement to hook up a few months later to make Oh Mercy. Aaron [Neville] chose the song because he felt the song could say what it wanted to say in another time. In fact, he rewrote one of the verses and when Bob listened to it he said, "I really like Aaron's verse."

BOB DYLAN: LOVE SICK (1997) - We had quite a crew in there including Augie Meyers on organ from Texas. He's a specialist in that little back beat skank organ I call it. That little stab at the beginning came from Augie and the more celestial sound came from Jim Dickinson on a Wurlitzer and that provided all that mystery and cascading of sounds. And then we had two of the greatest drummers in the world, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner. As subtle as the drums may be on that record there's a lot of southern feeling on that record.

WILLIE NELSON: EVERYWHERE I GO (1998) - We met in Las Vegas and jumped on his bus and drove to Oxnard, California where I had my studio in an old Mexican theater called El Teatro. Along the way I asked him what it was like when he was starting out and he said, "We were essentially a dance band and we played weekends and we had to make sure people could really move and have a good time. You know, people were working hard, it's Saturday night and they wanted to dance." He talked about how the clubs had multiple tiers like a Cuban night club and how people really got dressed up. So I immediately got on the phone with my people and said, "Get some risers in there and make sure you turn it into a little Cuban night club."

There was a Mexican restaurant across the street and they were kind enough to give us the old booths, so when Willie walked in to the studio, it was beautifully laid out like a little night club and that provided a lovely freedom for him, the opposite of what recording studios are usually like. So it really felt like a show for Willie.

BRIAN BLADE FELLOWSHIP: RED RIVER REVEL (1998) - We also made that record at the El Teatro because I though it would suit Brian with that nightclub feel. We made the record in a week. We went through all the material and did recordings and then I said, "Why don't we have an audience come in on a Friday night and play it all for them?" And sure enough, I think a good eighty percent of the record is from that Friday night. These are master musicians and they really rise to the occasion in the live setting.

BOB DYLAN: MOST OF THE TIME (1989) - The track was cut to a Roland 808 and I pumped that through a monitor for Bob as I sat next to him. My job was to make sure that I gave full focus to the vocal, the song and the rhythm. I knew that if we got a really good performance from Bob based on that skeletal approach, I could then fill it out and make a much bigger production. The 808 allowed me to operate at a fixed tempo, which meant that my echoes would live on. I asked drummer Willie Green to play on it, and if you listen to it, it's got this almost hip hop beat and because of the fixed beat, I was able to find some really nice echoes. I played the bass part on it and then I overdubbed four Les Paul parts over it cranked up to ten. The idea was to create a string quartet effect with the overdriven Les Pauls, and the four parts are mixed in the distance, providing a sinking quartet in the distance with Bob's voice in the foreground.

U2: ONE (1991) - Bono called me and said "We'd like to make a European rock and roll record this time." So it was his idea to go to Berlin and use Hansa studios where Eno had worked with Bowie. It's a great studio with a beautifully ornate orchestra room. The only problem is the control room is down the hall so all communications happen by camera.

On that record, we were pretty dedicated to sonic experimentation... and we were trying to find some fresh sounds. We always made a point of having some signature sounds. We threw around a lot chord sequences and in the end I took Edge's side and we worked out a way to use all the chord sequences, which gave us the opportunity to have more of a dynamic swing to the song. I think Bono had gone through something emotional in his life, perhaps something with his father, and he wanted to write a song about surrender and finally addressing an issue with someone. At least that's how I read it.

We had the track done in Berlin and then back in Dublin at a moment of vocal overdub, it was just me and Bono in the studio and he said, "Dan why don't you play a little guitar part to try and juice me up," and so I overdubbed a part that made the finish line, this little hammer-on kind of part on his Green Gretsch and that provided Bono with some encouragement. I think the Edge is doing a very good job of copying my parts live now. [laughs]

DANIEL LANOIS/EMMYLOU HARRUS: SHENENDOAH (1996) I really liked Billy Bob [Thornton, Sling Blade director], we hit it off right away. He'd slip me a couple of scenes on video tape and I'd surprise him with something I was doing. I had done a non-lyric rendition of Shenandoah with Emmy in my house in Canada. There's a tenderness in her voice and she really went to the stratosphere with the harmonies and there's something very spine chilling about it. I went to Billy and said, "Should we try and find a scene for it," and he loved it. The emotion of it is undeniable.

NEIL YOUNG: PEACEFUL VALLEY BOULEVARD (2010) - Neil asked if I would record ten acoustic songs, but also film him, because he had enjoyed some of the films I made with my band Black Dub. I put a couple weeks of preparation into an acoustic guitar sound for him. I have this sweet little mahogany Guild and I built sounds on that acoustic with an amp down the hall and various tricks to expand the acoustic sound. When he walked in the door I handed him the acoustic, he strummed it a couple times and said, "Wow," and he never took his Martin out of the case. I think he appreciated that there was another flavor to be operating by.

TINARIWEN: ADOUNIA TI CHIDJRET (CADILLAC REMIX) (2014) - I have this 1972 Fleetwood Brougham, so I said to Andy at Anti, the record label, "Let me mix it in my Cadillac." I got all this battery equipment in the back seat and we filmed it as well with this great Canadian cinematographer Adam CK Vollick. He couldn't fit in the car so he strapped the camera on the ceiling and so we had that camera and a bunch of iPhone and that's how we made that film.

DANIEL LANOIS FEATURING ROCCO DELUCA: DECONSTRUCTION (2016) - It's just two steel guitars - Rocco plays a lap steel tuned down to D and I play a Sho-Bud pedal steel tuned to E. The pedal steel allows me to bend notes that you can't do on a lap steel - and here and there, rarely, we use a Moog to complement the bottom, but there are no other guitars. Similar to Two Bushas [from 2014's Flesh And Machine] it has a chord sequence that I use as a template for all the processing, but then in the end, the chord sequence is not there at all. I just used the treatments and brought them to the foreground. There's a few crescendos on there that I think are some of my best work. It's a non-stop source of surprises this technique. It's really brought out the alchemist in me. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, though. It's very slow work. It has nothing to do with performance it just has everything to do with my understanding of my capacity as sound specialist or "sonic sculptor." [laughs]