Examine any list of the past quarter-century’s best rock albums and you’ll find Daniel Lanois’s fingerprints. A native of Hull, Que., and an acclaimed musician in his own right, he’s also one of music’s most sought-after producers. He’s been behind the sound board for the likes of Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and worked on six albums for U2, including The Joshua Tree, one of the bestselling records ever and one of several Lanois-produced Grammy Award winners. From his home base in Jamaica, he crosses the globe to work with other musicians and to tour with his new band, Black Dub. He spoke with Canadian Business contributor Bryan Borzykowski.
You’ve worked with so many popular artists. Has dealing with egos ever been a problem?
I’ve never had a problem with ego, but I have worked with strong-minded folks. The best thing to do in those situations is to let their ideas be brought to a conclusion. If someone has an idea, never say no. You might try another idea or two beyond that, and then a few days later we listen back and choose the best one. I never tell people what to do. I may provide them with surprises sonically and give them a different way of looking at their work, but I would never say no to anybody.
How did you become a music producer? Did you take courses?
I never went to school for it. It started with my brother Bob, with a little tape recorder in my mom’s basement. I found I was good at helping people, and I was able to offer that help because I’m firstly a musician. After a few years in the basement, I got really good at it. I was better than everybody else — by the time I was 18, I was a master editor and I knew more about this than anyone in Toronto. My brother Bob pretty much taught me everything I know technically, and then Brian Eno was the turning point in the road.
Eno was already famous from his time in the band Roxy Music, and was living in New York. How did you end up meeting him?
He had a girlfriend in Toronto, and he heard some tapes I had worked on that he really liked, and asked how they were made and tracked me down. But I had never heard of him. I said to my brother, “Make sure to get cash from this guy, cause I don’t know who he is.” And then I ended up working exclusively with him for the next three years.
What’s been your best experience as a producer?
The best thing that can happen is when a record takes on an identity of its own, like with U2’s The Joshua Tree. Oftentimes, that’s out of one’s control. It’s a lovely feeling when it happens, especially when it’s an original direction. The Joshua Tree developed a personality in the first two weeks [of recording]. “With or Without You” was done in the first week, so I knew early on [that it was going to be good]. I’ve got a good sense of what’s good and what is not. That’s why I do what I do. It’s not mysterious: when the groove is good, the lyrics are good, and the vibe is good, it all starts communicating universally.
What’s been your most challenging experience?
Working on The Unforgettable Fire, the first U2 album I was part of. We did it in a castle by Ireland’s River Boyne, and we were operating on river power — one of those old-fashioned generators run by the river. Sometimes the voltage would drop and affect the sound; the amps weren’t getting enough power. We had to send guys into the river to paddle to beef up the current.
Did it work?
Yeah, but it was all relative to the rain. The more it rained, the more power we had.
Whether it’s sound, people or scheduling, you must deal with a lot of unforeseen events. How do manage those situations?
I operate with the philosophy of low baggage, high mileage. Maximize what you’ve already got. Fewer options often make for better work. It’s a terrible misconception that if you have all the bells and whistles then you’ll make great work.
Do you ever have to encourage an artist, maybe hold their hand?
Absolutely. I call it spotting. Through a day’s work, when someone does something special, I make a note of it. Whether it’s a riff or lyrical idea, I keep track of all those special moments that happen and then lay them out on a menu and bring it to people’s attention. I’m corralling the favourite moments of the day or week.
What sort of deadlines does one of the world’s most successful producers have to cope with when dealing with some of the world’s most successful acts?
It’s always the beginning of a tour. With very big artists there is a limitless amount of money that can be spent. That’s good, but it can also be bad. My best friend is the start of a tour. I have wrapped things up with a tour just on the horizon.
Can it get nerve-wracking?
Not really. It’s human nature that the creative process has a curve. We usually get a lot done at the beginning, a lot done at end, and the middle part is the labour. That means you might consider less material and maximize what you already started. We humans are good at dealing with resourcefulness. If we’re given a set of parameters, we can get something done.
You said that big bands can spend limitlessly, but isn’t there a budget?
Early on there was. I used to give labels a package price of $150,000 and I’d deliver a record. But I’d just go out and buy a bunch of equipment with the money, then make a record and keep the equipment. These days, it’s a little different. I never discuss budget with U2. And I’m often not negotiating with the label, because if someone’s established, they don’t need record-company funding. But we want to be reasonable and not be wasteful with people’s money.
You just send them a bill?
Usually, I negotiate an advance for myself relative to royalty income. Then the costs of recording are separate from that. I have pretty good business sense, and I have an attorney, but I’ve never audited anyone. I told a friend that and he said, “You’re crazy. You’re owed millions.” I just accept what I get sent and get on with my life.
Really? You’ve never checked to see if you’re owed more money?
I don’t want any enemies.