If the recording studio savant Bob Lanois needed a piece of equipment that did not exist, he took care of that. His inventiveness was epitomized by a homemade gizmo he dreamed up and built called the “Bob-o-Meter,” a namesake device of unspecified sonic capabilities used in the post-recording process.
“It looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie,” recalled musician Tom Wilson. “I fully expected lightning bolts were going to come out of it.”
The inelegant creation “enhanced and magnified sounds,” according to Mr. Wilson. Two dials that may have been wheels for a submarine hatch were used to adjust settings. Its casing was welded shut and its inner workings were a mystery.
If the makeup of the sound box was in question, its effectiveness was not. In that sense, the Bob-o-Meter was a metaphor for the inspired, curious man who built it.
“There was no challenge he could not find a solution to,” said musician-producer Colin Linden. “It was completely normal to have magic being made.”
Mr. Lanois, an inimitable and unflappable Hamilton musician, sound engineer, studio owner, photographer and visual artist, died on April 19, at age 73. He never fully recovered from a serious motorcycle accident in 2011, and had recently been receiving palliative care at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.
Mr. Lanois was an unfiltered man of mischievous ingenuity, artistic inquisitiveness and wild know-how. He was a Harley Davidson enthusiast who helped engineer Brian Eno’s landmark ambient music album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. A rough-cut autodidact, he investigated the hows and whys of things. Taking apart an old automobile piece by piece and putting it back together again by memory was just another weekend to him.
He directed two videos for the Tragically Hip – even starring in one (1994′s Greasy Jungle). His photography was used on albums by Emmylou Harris and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. As a harmonica player, his gentle all-instrumental folk album Snake Road scored a Juno Award nomination in 2008.
His reputation was forged in the shadows of his better-known younger brother, Daniel Lanois, whom Rolling Stone magazine anointed as “the most important record producer to emerge in the 1980s.” Before his associations with such superstar international acts as U2, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel, however, Daniel began his career in tandem with his older sibling in the early 1970s, initially recording music in a homemade studio in their mother’s basement in Ancaster. Ont.
“My brother Bob was always the scientist of the two of us,” Daniel wrote in his 2010 memoir Soul Mining. “Our parallel dedications to detail, musical for me, electronic for my brother, meant that we always rode in tandem, whether we were cruising on motorcycles or building records.”
In 1976, the brothers moved their growing operation out of the family basement and into Grant Avenue Studio, a facility they built in a modest, two-story Edwardian house in downtown Hamilton with co-owner Bob Doidge. Performers who made records there early on included everyone from children’s entertainer Raffi to new wave upstarts the Parachute Club to folk legend Sylvia Tyson to the esoteric Mr. Eno.
Although the Lanois brothers sold their interests in the studio to Mr. Doidge in 1986, Bob’s eccentric nature is literally built into the still-operating facility. It was his idea to fill the exterior wall spaces with sand to keep the sound in.
“The fascinating part of it all – that was before the Internet,” Mr. Lanois said in a recent interview. “When I go there today and I see some of the things that I did, I say, ‘How could I have figured out how to do that?”
More recently, Bob partnered in the Mule Spinner, a live entertainment venue and recording space created out of a diesel mechanical shop in a former textile factory in Hamilton.
“For a month and a half, we washed it with regular soap,” co-operator Glen Marshall told The Globe and Mail. “Bob was adamant that we not use any chemicals. He painted it and made it beautiful.”
Like his younger brother, Bob was a man of blunt manner, intense meticulousness and high-revving artistic impulse. “They threw down the skin of a lion for the people they worked with,” said Mr. Wilson, a well-established Canadian musician and long-time friend of the Lanois duo. “Bob expected the same commitment from you that he was putting in himself. Some people weren’t ready for that.”
That sentiment is echoed by Mr. Marshall, who once asked Bob to photograph his Hamilton studio Catherine North. What he expected to take a couple of hours turned into an all-day ordeal, with Bob ordering the studio gear to be repositioned piece by piece. After 10 hours of laborious preparation, Mr. Lanois changed into a black outfit, head to toe, for the one and only shot.
“He clicked open the camera shutter and began using flashlights and filters and colour gels and candles,” Mr. Marshall recalled. “Basically he was painting the room, and he was doing it all by memory, because the lights were turned off.”
Eventually, Bob clicked the camera shut, snapped on the lens cap and tossed the film to Mr. Marshall. “Take this to Black’s Camera,” he said. “It will be excellent.”
Operating in darkness and dressed in black, Mr. Lanois was in the resulting photograph but not visible. The metaphor would not have been lost on him.
Robert Jacques Lanois was born in Hull, Que., on April 4, 1948. He was the first of four children in a blue-collar French-Canadian family. His father, Guay (Guy) Lanois, was a carpenter with a talent for the fiddle. His mother Gilberte (Jill) Lanois (née Charrette), came from a family of singers of Quebec folk songs.
In 1961, the marriage broke up. “My mum just threw the kids in the car, drove to Hamilton and said, ‘I’m not coming back,’“ Daniel told Maclean’s magazine in 2003. “My dad was an alcoholic, a pretty old-school French-Canadian macho character, and there was probably some violence involved.”
By 1965, Ms. Lanois and her brood had settled in Ancaster, Ont., a historic town within the city of Hamilton. For a time, she ran a hair salon out of a small apartment. The three boys shared the bedroom; mother and daughter slept on a pull-out couch. The tight-knit family subsequently relocated to a house.
The family’s kitchen table was a place of creativity for Bob, who would take it over after dinner for paintings and sculptures. “I would sit by Bob’s side, as he talked about proportions and symmetry,” said former Martha and the Muffins musician Jocelyne Lanois, the youngest of the four siblings. “He would murmur these things, but I would learn so much from him.”
The scene was often surreal once Daniel and Bob took over the basement for their DIY recording studio Master Sound, with musicians and others coming and going. At one point, during a Jamaican reggae session, family and friends of the musicians relaxed on picnic blankets in the front lawn during the day and came in at night to watch television in the mother’s front room.
“It was not a regular house,” Daniel recalled in his memoir.
In 1974, the brothers recorded Hamilton’s avant-garde rockers Simply Saucer. Years later, Bob resurrected the studio recordings plus tapes from the band’s performance on the rooftop of a city mall in 1975. The resulting Cyborgs Revisited is now considered a classic Canadian album.
After selling their stakes in Grant Avenue Studio, the Lanois brothers took different career paths. Daniel was the guitar-playing sideman to the stars and an in-demand producer whose talent took him overseas or to his own studio in New Orleans. Bob, on the other hand, retreated to a rustic home and studio in rural Waterdown, outside Hamilton.
“He cashed out and headed to the woods, which is where he wanted to be,” said Mr. Wilson, a member of prominent Canadian bands Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and his own psychedelic folk project Lee Harvey Osmond. “He had guns and machetes, a 1969 GTO muscle car and two Harley Davidson motorcycles. He joked about opening up a day care centre.”
The residence in the woods held a recording studio, dubbed The Shack, where Mr. Wilson collaborated with Bob for the 2005 folk-rock album The Shack Recordings Vol. 1.
“He told me I didn’t use my voice the way that I should, and that nobody was recording my voice the way he wanted to hear it,” Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Wilson agreed to make the record, but only if Bob played harmonica on it. They later took the album on the road across Canada.
“I had this romantic idea of us touring this little folk record,” Mr. Wilson said. “But I think Bob considered it more of a Ben Hur movie. It was like he was in a chariot and he had his shield and he was going to take it on. He had an intensity that left you behind.”
When not working, Bob would drive his motorcycle up and down California, out to Canada’s East Coast and over to summer spots in Ontario, usually with a place to swim as the destination.
In the summer of 2011, Bob was involved in a serious motorcycle accident when he struck a deer on a country road. He was airlifted to Hamilton General Hospital, where he underwent surgeries on his face and jaw.
At the Edmonton Folk Festival, Mr. Wilson and Roger Eno (Brian’s brother) were notified of the accident. “Bob Lanois nailed me to a kitchen floor once and threatened to set my clothes on fire with a blowtorch!” Mr. Eno cried. Mr. Wilson then mentioned he’d be sending flowers. “Oh,” Mr. Eno said. “Put my name on the card, would you please?”
Bob’s accident took place one year after his brother Daniel was seriously hurt in a motorcycle mishap of his own in Los Angeles. While Daniel recovered fully, Bob struggled with the after-effects of his crash until the day he died.
“Every day was like Bob’s first day on Earth,” Mr. Wilson said. “There was a wonderment to him, and with that kind of mindset, you have the advantage over everybody else. He could be very direct, and some people got their feelings hurt along the way. But, inevitably, they were 100-per-cent inspired for life by that guy.”
Bob Lanois leaves his life partner, Margot Peters; brother Daniel Lanois; and sister, Jocelyne Lanois. He was predeceased by brother Ronald Lanois.