Daniel Lanois is always in motion. His mind operates at the same speed as his elaborate music production machines. He moves from one project to the next constantly, and perhaps he expects the same commitment of others in his orbit.
It’s our umpteenth conversation, with the subject being his newest album, a collaboration with musical partner Rocco DeLuca, Goodbye to Language. The question is “how are you?”
“Busy as hell, and I’m mad as hell,” Lanois winds up for the joke. “I’m trying to get work done, and I get interviews thrown at me. Aren’t you supposed to be writing a novel by this time, Roman? What the fuck are we doing, talking about night clubs and reviews?”
Good question. Should I be writing the Great American Novel by now? But I’m doing what I find interesting, and so is Lanois. Goodbye to Language is one of Lanois’ most experimental albums. Constructed completely by his pedal steel guitar and DeLuca’s lap steel, it’s layered with Lanois’ innovative effects boxes and processors.
Released last September, the album is composed of 12 songs that flow from one to the next, each unique enough from the others, yet an equal slice of an entire pie. The result is a complete soundscape. There’s no percussion, no synths, no traditionally used instruments whatsoever.
The effect is a feeling that traverses through space, time and consciousness. It’s pointless to talk about any song individually. How would one even describe it? As a producer, Lanois is among the most storied in popular music. He played inimitable roles in the creation of U2’s The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and others. Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, Brian Eno and more reached new heights with him at the helm.
As a musician, Lanois has pushed beyond commercial boundaries to find the new. Since 1989’s Acadie, to 1993’s For the Beauty of Wynona, to 2005’s Belladonna, he was never satisfied sitting in one sphere for too long. Lanois has released 10 works in this decade alone, under different guises and in differing genres.
In 2014, he began his current return to experimental ambient music, with which he had such previous success with Eno. That year’s Flesh and Machine had him working with reverberating pedal steel strings. Goodbye to Language is several steps forward.
The album is a personal one to Lanois because the steel guitar was his first instrument, one that he’s been playing since his youth. He calls it his first love.
“It requires a lot of practice, and you’ve got to get your skills up,” he says. “I like that there’s nothing technologically modern about it. It’s not some viral scheme.”
It was DeLuca’s first love as well. It’s why the two bonded years ago, and it meant a lot for Lanois to partner equally with his friend and achieve something they were both passionate about.
“As the record evolved, I realized it had harmonic complexity to it that appealed to me, and some of it reminded me of the more complex [like] Eastern European classical music that I’ve heard over the years,” he says. “It was nice for me to watch that unfold in front of my eyes because … we’re not Stravinsky; we’re pretty much blues musicians, rock musicians, folk musicians.”
To DeLuca, Goodbye to Language was an opportunity to reach spontaneous composition in the studio.
“I was looking for … a conversation between two steels,” DeLuca says. “We had achieved that frequency many times live over the years.
The progression, the “twists and turns” from traditional rock music chords, gave both hope that they have more to discover in the future.
“That appeals to me,” Lanois says. “That’s a window of opportunity to glimpse into the future of music. I’m not saying it’s at 1,000 percent yet, but it’s getting there, so that’s where my heart lives right now. I want to break into this other dimension that I’m aware of and I’m trying to do something about.”
Over the past decade, every time I went to see a Lanois performance, DeLuca was there, either opening for him or playing in his band.
The 41-year-old California lap steel guitarist and former bandleader, also known for his use of the Dobro resonator guitar, has toured with Taj Mahal and John Lee Hooker, and played with Johnny Cash.
Goodbye to Language is a first in that the album is equal partnership for the two musicians. On-stage, the partnership has existed for years.
The path that the two are on, which DeLuca describes as “call and response,” began when Lanois came to see him play one night years ago.
“Lanois is one of the most sensitive and powerful players when it comes to the steel,” DeLuca says. “I appreciate every moment playing with Dan. I feel, at times, he is the very best.”
DeLuca went from opening, to having Lanois playing with him and vice-versa. Lanois liked the arrangement, without any “furniture moving,” and it reminded him of how he preferred to see concerts growing up: One act flowed right into the next. The breaks were short.
“I want to continue that so my friend is not opening, he’s not closing, he’s not here or there,” Lanois says. “He’s everywhere. He’s with me all the time; he’s in my mind, he’s in my body, he’s in my soul. So this is the music that came to be because we were already very synchronized.”
The two had no commercial preconceptions about Goodbye to Language. They made it because the ideas were there, and they wanted to chase them. Lanois distinguishes between music and the music industry here. The industry is the entity chasing music, which is the creation and success.
“When the industry started getting bigger than its core, it collapsed,” Lanois says. “But we are still aware of the core.”
On the record, DeLuca played his lap steel in a lower register. He played root chords and fifth chords. This allowed Lanois to determine the tambour of the chords and play the thirds.
“It allowed me a lot of melodic freedom on top of a rock to stand on,” Lanois says. “You know, things have changed since then a little bit because we’re constantly evolving with our playing.”
At the Independent, concertgoers will notice a big difference between the album and the live version of the new material. Lanois’ trademark dubbing fingerprints are all over the album.
“When we play it, we don’t play it with any technology,” Lanois says. “The processing that I do is the studio part of what I do. That’s what you’re hearing on the record. It provides another dimension of sounds.”
It was a fortunate accident that the album’s 12 lyric-free tracks form a continuous body of work. Lanois says he’s always imagined he would make records just like this; with a singular approach and philosophy, rather than variety.
The song titles were the original working titles. Lanois picks out one that speaks to his busy, always-in-motion lifestyle: “Time On.”
The title stems from a conversation he had with a friend who works in advertising; she once told him how she could not wait until she had some time off. He replied that he is not familiar with such terminology.
“I can only imagine that, should time come to me, and invite me to do something, that would be ‘time on,’” he says. “I don’t need to shut off anything I’m already doing. I love what I’m doing. … If it’s the advertising business you’ve chosen to be in, then you’d better love it, honey.”
The Canadian native and Los Angeles resident has spent the past year up near his childhood home in Ontario, taking care of his elderly mother. His paperwork to work in the U.S. just cleared, allowing the tour to go on.
“DeLuca’s been chomping at the bit to hit the road,” he says. But he’s equally excited about the tour and what will come next.
“I’ll do everything in my power to play every note like it’s the last note that I’ll ever play,” he says.
The duo is working on a couple of new songs; one of which is called “Buddha’s Hand,” and he describes it as “a monster.”
He’s also been working with Winnipeg industrial and electronic musician Venetian Snares, who Lanois credits with being able to do something that he himself cannot. It turns out that this phone call is delaying a studio session. The work will be on an album that’s mostly done.
Lanois is like an explorer out to find a new color, or substance never before seen or guaranteed to exist.
“If we study the history of music, it has what’s rocked our souls along the way,” he says. “Church music hitting the charts and jazz musicians splintering from big band, and the coming of the combo: Miles Davis, Coltrane, people like that. Just imagine the time of that amazing cultural revolution when Muhammad Ali was the baddest man in the world; James Brown was the funkiest; Jimi Hendrix was the best guitar player; and the likes of Sam Cook and Aretha Franklin were on the charts. How amazing was that?
“So there was a responsibility at that time to make change and to make discoveries, and people were hitting the studio in a very experimental way. … Everybody’s criteria was to invent something new. I still operate that way now.”