In the wake of a best-selling album and a record-breaking world tour, Ireland’s U2 has grown accustomed to the limelight. The group’s bravado was obvious last week at New York’s Radio City Music Hall where, after the band won the Grammy Award for best rock group, guitarist The Edge (David Evans) lightly acknowledged their debt to everyone from Dr. Ruth Westheimer to Bat Man. Later that evening, when The Joshua Tree won the album-of-theyear award, singer Bono (Paul Hewson) mocked the band’s reputation as rock’s social conscience. But Bono turned serious when he spoke about two shy-looking men standing in the group’s shadow, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, “without whom we could never have made this record.” By winning an award for coproducing The Joshua Tree, Canadian Lanois had a chance to share the spotlight with rock’s reigning group. But within music circles, Lanois has already emerged from behind the scenes: with several recent hit recordings to his credit, the studio genius from Hamilton,
Ont., has established himself as
a globe-trotting world-class producer.
During the past four years Lanois, 34, has produced a succession of albums that are some of the decade’s most important rock recordings. After coproducing U2’s 1984 album, The Unforgettable Fire, with Eno, Lanois came to the attention of British rock star Peter Gabriel, who hired him to coproduce a sound track for the movie Birdy, Alan Parker’s whimsical antiwar film. That led Gabriel to hire Lanois to work on his best-selling 1986 album, So, and such
Top-10 hits as Sledgehammer. Then, Robbie Robertson, former leader of The Band, employed Lanois to produce his long-awaited solo debut album when Lanois was already committed to work again with U2. Lanois divided his time between the two projects and ended up with two more triumphs: while Robbie Robertson won critical praise, The Joshua Tree went on to sell more than 12 million copies worldwide.
Increasingly in rock music, record producers—the technicians responsible for orchestrating an album’s sound—play such a dominant role that the final product bears their stamp more than that of the musician. The soft-spoken yet assertive Lanois, however, has a reputation for a lighter touch and for bringing out the artist’s best. Said U2’s The Edge: “Dan has incredible flair. Whatever he touches becomes great.” An accomplished musician in his own right—he plays both guitar and drums—he is renowned for high musical standards combined with sensitivity to what the artist is trying to accomplish. “He can be very tough in I the studio, tough on your per| formance,” said U2 bassist s Adam Clayton. “But he always
takes care to check out how you’re doing, and nothing gets done unless you feel right.”
Sometimes Lanois even helps to flesh out the bare bones of a song. When he was working with U2 on The Joshua Tree in Dublin in 1986, Robertson arrived with two compositions that the former Band member described as “slim sketches.” With direction from Lanois and accompaniment from U2, those sketches became two of his album’s most powerful tracks, Testimony and Sweet Fire of Love. Said Lanois: “When I hear something new that would make a stronger record, I push for it. Good or bad, I pushed Robbie into writing a whole new batch of songs while we were working.”
Gabriel, Robertson and members of U2 also credit Lanois with a gift for spontaneity. Shunning the conventional studio environment, Lanois chooses more informal settings whenever possible. He recorded parts of Unforgettable Fire in a castle outside of Dublin and, for So, set up recording equipment in a dairy barn on Gabriel’s farm near Bath, England. In such cases, Gabriel said, Lanois is seeking “the magic of the moment.” To help spark a magical performance in those settings, Lanois will often pick up an instrument and join in. “I don’t spend much time in the control room,” he told Maclean ’s. “I try and get out there, listen to the songs and get to the bottom of the arrangements—and get involved.” He added, “If you’re standing right next to someone, a lift of an eyebrow will convey a message that would be lost behind a piece of glass.”
That intimate approach to musicmaking comes naturally to Lanois. Born in Hull, Que., he grew up in a musical French-Canadian family whose kitchen was as much a source of jig-dancing as of tourtières. His carpenter father, Guy, was a country fiddler, while his mother, Jill, played piano and sang. When their parents separated in 1963, Lanois, sister Jocelyne and brothers Ronald and Robert, moved with their mother to Hamilton. After high school he began playing guitar in country bands. While backing such acts as Sylvia Tyson, he built a small recording studio with Robert in their mother’s basement laundry room.
That operation grew into the Grant Avenue Studio, and Lanois became a popular producer for such Canadian acts as the now-defunct Martha and the Muffins (in which Jocelyne played bass), The Parachute Club and Luba. Then, in 1979, British recording artist Eno—famous for his work with the band Talking Heads—heard about a quiet little Hamilton studio and travelled there to record some experimental music. His collaborations with Lanois became an influential series that
Eno called “ambient sound recordings,” and led Lanois to work with U2.
Two years ago Lanois sold the studio so that he could concentrate on his career and travel to wherever his production jobs took him. According to industry analysts, rock producers of Lanois’s calibre command five per cent of a record’s sales for their services. But although he jets regularly between New York and London, England, where he owns an apartment, he keeps close ties to Hamilton. In fact, he recently bought a warehouse in Hamilton for family and friends to use for recording.
After spending the past 10 years helping other artists, Lanois is now focusing on his own music. “I’ve had the lid on it for a while,” he said. “Now I’ve got time on my side.” Said brother Robert: “Artists have needed him, and he’s needed them to bloom. Now he’s reached a time in his life when he can allow his own music to come out.” Despite production offers from such artists as Mick Jagger and David Bowie, Lanois—who is single—is spending the winter in New Orleans, where he is working on his own material in a portable studio. Already, he says, several record labels have expressed interest in his planned solo album. Lanois insists that he will eventually return to record production. But for the moment, the man who has guided some of rock’s biggest stars is charting his own musical course.
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