He started from the bottom. Daniel Lanois first set up a sonic laboratory in his mother’s basement 45 years ago, but he’s moved up in the world since, releasing a catalogue of his own explorative music and producing works by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, U2 and Peter Gabriel. Before making the trip to Ottawa to pick up a Governor General’s lifetime achievement award, he shot the breeze and a game of pool with a reporter at his sprawling studio space in Toronto’s west end.
To accept your Governor-General’s Award, you’re making a road trip of it by driving to Ottawa with your mother. It’s a bit of a homecoming for both of you, right?
I’m looking forward to it. It’s where I was born. We lived around there, in the Gatineau area, until I was nine or so, when we moved to Ancaster, Ont. It’s always appreciated when someone recognizes my work. To get it from our government, I suppose it’s significant and substantial. But we’ll just see what kind of a party the Guv throws.
You don’t sound overly excited.
I’m actually missing a pool tournament in El Paso to attend this event. But seriously, I’ve been having this conversation with my friends. In a way, it’s easy to recognize what’s happened. But it’s hard to see what’s coming around the corner, or what the future holds. Artists, and I’ll include myself in that club, are always looking to the future. We’re looking for some little glimmer of source material that we see potential in, with which we can make something beautiful, hopefully.
But you are to become a laureate of the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. That’s kind of a big deal, isn’t it?
I don’t know what to say about that. There’s something to be celebrated on every street and every town. The Shala-mar restaurant on Roncesvalles is right around the corner from here. I love the owner, Karl. He makes the best food. But his business is not all that great right now. I would be happy if somebody from the government came along and said, “Karl, how’s it going? Two plates, man. And we’ve got a new awning for you.”
As a gesture in support of the little guy, you mean?
To celebrate the constant heroes. The ones who have been in our neighbourhoods all along, fighting for us culturally. I left Canada in 1983. Listen, I’m glad that I’m getting this award. It’s very flamboyant, and it’s going to get in the papers. That’s all fine. But once the dust settles on the event, part of me wants to go around and see what some of the new faces are up to – the little Daniel Lanoises out there.
Let’s talk about the little Daniel Lanois himself. Most of us like music from an early age, but when did you realize you had a special talent or appreciation?
I knew early on that I loved music. Music is a language. Some of us have the gift of music and run with it. I was never good at kicking a ball or sinking a basket. And hockey wasn’t going to be the thing for me. So, I chose to follow my passion.
You and your brother Bob had a studio in your mother’s basement. Did she ever tell you guys to stop making so much noise down there?
She never did. My mother was a kid herself. She had my brother when she was 17 or 18. The studio was down in her basement when she was still in her 30s, and she was always a supporter of anything I was excited about. Also, as long as I was in the basement, I wasn’t on the street.
Eventually you bought your mother a house in Dundas, Ont. The only thing I know about Dundas is that Long John Baldry lived there for a bit. You had something to do with that, right?
Yes. We got him a house there. I engineered an album of his in 1980. It was fantastic. We got him this big old country house, which turned into a complete rock ’n’ roll place. Naked parties, and lots of drugs.
You moved from your mother’s basement in Ancaster to Grant Avenue Studio, in Hamilton. The last time we spoke, you mentioned that your work there with Brian Eno in 1983 opened up doors abroad. What was the first door?
It was Peter Gabriel. He opened up a door to the library at his place, where there were tapes up to the ceiling. He told me I could take any of them and mix them any way I wanted. He wanted me to provide him with a soundtrack to a film called Birdy. I was a kid in a candy store. All the experiments I had been working on in Hamilton with Eno, I was able to do something with that knowledge.
And then the connection with Eno led to your work with U2.
Yes. Actually, Bono just came to my place in L.A. a few weeks ago. He let me hear the new record that they’re doing with Danger Mouse. It sounded amazing. Very, very big and powerful-sounding. Some of it was adventurous. There were shades of Achtung Baby. A couple of songs I was familiar with, because we worked on them before but had not completed them. Now they’re back on the burner. Bono is very excited, and he’s singing beautifully. He makes me jealous. Those barrel-chested Irish tenors.
It’s part of the business, but how do you feel about Danger Mouse producing this album, and you not being involved this time around?
I’m actually glad that I’m not making this record with them. I don’t think I’d survive the experiment. It’s hard work. It’s two years, and it will be a character-building experience for Danger Mouse. You really have to be physically fit to make a U2 record. But, really, they’re all hard. All records are hard to make.