The Ottawa River is the dividing line between Ontario and Quebec, or between English- and French-speaking Canada. When I was a child, as far as the eye could see, the river was often covered by miles and miles of floating logs making their way to the paper mill. That heavy sulfur smell in the air was taken for granted. The riverside road was flanked by log mountains, long-nosed cranes pouring their mysterious solution—one step closer to paper pulp. My parents lived on the Quebec side of the river, the French side, in a government housing community by the name of Projet Dusseau. We were French Canadian. I spoke only French until the age of ten, and I remember having a wonderful upbringing in that community. I never thought much about the fact that we were poor. Kids don’t think that way.
The Quebec landscape was fascinating to me. Wooden bridges were covered up like birdhouses to keep the snow away. Wooden staircases with roofs were a common sight. If the snow piles up too high, and the weather goes mild, you might not be able to get out till springtime. Chains wrapped around tires for better traction. Cars commonly equipped with tow ropes and battery booster cables. This maple-sugar country is very aware of the power of seasons.
If you weren’t ready for the winter, you could freeze and die. In those parts, preparation for survival comes naturally, even to a young boy. Preparation for survival is always in the wings, constantly kicking at your shin—even the shin of a young boy. When the thaw comes, you can hear the waking maples creaking, drinking in the snow water that creeps up the branches of dormant trees—that’s how you get maple water. A spike in the tree interrupts the flow to the branches, and if your hillsides are clean, nature’s nectar makes for a nice drink. The varying densities in the journey from maple water to maple syrup to maple sugar are dependent on how long one keeps the water boiling. Much like the winemaking valleys of France or the Bourbon-making valleys of Kentucky, the maple-sugar-making valleys of Quebec produce their limited quantities and fine vintages, with taste relative to the quality of the local soil, the intensity of the sun, and the tender love and care of a specific maple-sugar farm.
I remember the springtime ritual—the pouring of boiling maple water into the white snowbanks. As the water crystallizes against the snow, children run up with sticks and twirl the toffee into a homemade confection—nature’s gift to the sweet tooth. Back in the day, my grandfather’s sled—horse-drawn, hot bricks laid down beneath the feet of the passengers to keep everybody warm—was the family vehicle.
Sunday church runs, people wrapped in furs—the house of God was the house of cooperation. The priest’s sermon could easily segue into village news: someone just had a baby, hand-me-down clothes needed, so-and-so’s well just dried out, announcement of the church bazaar, help needed to raise a barn. Yes, the house of God was a crossing point for relevant village information. The barter system was in use then. My eggs for your wood, my plowing for your corn, and so on.
Every house was a food-making house, and my grandmother Aurore’s house was no exception. She really knew how to work the maple sugar. Her sucre à la crème (maple sugar fudge), refined by generations of home recipes, was pretty much the best. At the savory end of the spectrum, my grandmother of course made tourtière (spicy meat pie). These old recipes were closely guarded. Boasting of a better crème or tourtière was not uncommon from one house to the next.
Kids walked to school in those days—I liked that about the project. We were on the edge of rural land and so my brother Bob and I wandered everywhere after school and did whatever we wanted. Many hours were spent by the railway tracks or at the river’s edge doing boy things: skipping stones, laying pennies on the rail lines, watching them get squashed by the train. We were fascinated by the writing on the sides of the railcars, like Canadian Pacific Railway, Canadian National Rail; others were more specific to provinces and towns. Exotic names like Saskatoon, Thunder Bay, Wa Wa, and Mississauga sure stirred the imagination. Rolls of steel coming from the west, cattle cars, empty flatbeds, boxcars with open doors—we made up stories about their sources and destinations.
A ceramic tile factory by the name of Primco was our second backyard. Bob and I collected various discarded tiles and would make up games with them. A few of the Primco workers were sympathetic to our curiosity, slipping us a few irregular tiles to expand our little homemade building set. I loved the smell of that factory. They had kilns burning all the time, and the nonstop action appealed to me. It must have been a kick to see the faces of two brothers sticking their heads inside the Primco windows, looking for tile handouts. Even at that tender age, Bob and I loved the feeling of productivity.
It was a happy childhood, and I was oblivious to the fact that my parents were having marital problems, until I started hearing arguments in the night. Bob, my younger brother, Ron, and I slept in one room, and my parents slept in the other. The arrival of my sister, Jocelyne, meant that we had outgrown the two-bedroom place. Four kids and work not going all that well strained my parents’ relationship, and then it all started. My dad was hitting not only the bottle, but also my mother. I later wrote a song about this called “Jolie Louise,” the rise and fall of hopes and dreams as seen from the perspective of my dad.
Ma jolie, how do you do?
Mon nom est Jean-Guy Thibault-Leroux
I come from east of Gatineau
My name is Jean-Guy, ma jolie
J’ai une maison à Lafontaine
where we can live, if you marry me
Une belle maison à Lafontaine
where we will live, you and me
Oh Louise, ma jolie Louise
Tous les matins au soleil
I will work ’til work is done
Tous les matins au soleil
I did work ’til work was done
And one day, the foreman said
“Jean-Guy, we must let you go”
Et pis mon nom, y est pas bon
at the mill anymore…
Oh Louise, I’m losing my head,
I’m losing my head
My kids are small, four and three
et la bouteille, she’s mon ami
I drink the rum ’til I can’t see
It hides the shame Louise does not see
Carousel turns in my head,
and I can’t hide, oh no, no, no, no
And the rage turned in my head
and Louise, I struck her down,
down on the ground
I’m losing my mind, I’m losing my mind
En Septembre ’63
kids are gone, and so is Louise.
Ontario, they did go
near la ville de Toronto
Now my tears, they roll down,
tous les jours
And I remember the days,
and the promises that we made
Oh Louise, ma jolie Louise, ma jolie Louise
After my mother had had enough domestic mistreatment, she put the four kids on a train and took us from Quebec to Hamilton, Ontario—about a five-hundred-mile journey—and never looked back. Her brother had found work in Hamilton (near Toronto) as a bartender, and had managed to purchase a rooming house that we lived in the back of until my mom got on her feet. My dad was not happy about all of this, and so a few months later he came to fetch his boys. We were walking to school and he pulled up; we were happy to see him so we jumped in the car and that was it—five hundred miles back to Quebec. He put us in a cabin by a lake in rural Quebec, and that’s where we lived for a good few months. My dad was doing carpentry work in town, and so during the week we lived by ourselves. He would come to visit on weekends—we had a blast. We were twelve, nine, and five.
My dad was a greaseball, as were his friends. They were the smart-dressing kind of greaseballs—no jeans. They were slick and dapper, and as this was the tail end of the fifties, there was a lot of excitement about cars. A two-tone 1957 Chevy and all, lots of looking under the hood. My dad was a good dancer. He was funny and looked sharp—very charming, and women like men who are charming. So much gets overlooked in the name of charm. It was a macho time and I liked it.
My dad and his friends were hunters. There was a lot of mythology about the ways of the woods. I remember my dad teaching me how to walk in the woods. He had learned from the Indians; it was all about being at one with the wilderness—one step and then a pause to listen. The results of the “listen” determine the next step, and then another “listen,” and another step. Humans are only ever guests in the woods. In the way that a sailor never underestimates the power of the sea, the hunter never forgets the ways of the woods. Animals have much hearing power; they know a clumsy human intruder from far away. The listening pause between every step puts a human closer to the instinct of the animal.
Wintertime adds another dimension to the ways of the woods. The snowbanks hold secrets. One careless footstep might disturb the peace. Only experience can teach what terrain lies underneath the mysterious white snow. Snow time is better for tracking, but the advantage of seeing tracks in the soft surface could easily be crushed by a hunter’s fall due to not understanding what lies underneath the beautiful white snow.
When the weather is hot, the flies can eat you alive. The sap running down from the pine trees could be your savior. Old Jocko Proux, one of the elders of the community, had survived the woods for an entire week by covering his whole body with pine sap as a barrier against the flies.
They say we walk in circles—we humans—in circles when we’re lost. A marking on a white birch, connected with the marking on yet another white birch two hundred feet away, connected with a marking on yet another white birch another two hundred feet away, keeps a circling human going straight. The birch-to-birch technique is common knowledge as remedy for anyone lost in the woods.
Preparation is a big part of survival in these isolated northern Quebec communities, many of which have no electricity. The seasons are the governors and dictators of all human behavior. If you want ice for your icebox in the summer, then you must cut your ice from the lake in the winter. Ice cutting is a collective effort: a group of men, bucksaws in hand, cutting through two feet of ice. The ice is lifted out of the water with massive pliers and placed on skids to be dragged back to shore. The gaping hole has a slippery edge. One mistake and somebody might drown. This dangerous task is the cold-climate version of Mennonite community barn building—everybody chips in to fill one family’s sawdust-filled cedar icehouse. Remarkably, the sawdust acts as an insulator and keeps the massive blocks of ice intact for the entire warm season. The family that does not fill their icehouse in the winter will not be able to keep their fish cold in the summer.
When my dad left us in the cabin, we pretty much did whatever we wanted. Bob and I shot rifles a lot, and Bob got really good—he could have been a sniper. I liked the smell of bullets exploding in my face. We three boys—we all loved shooting those rifles. We had a .303, a Winchester, and a .22. The .303 was a serious deer-hunting rifle, but even the .22 gave quite a kick because we shot .22 longs (these were the longer .22 shells for longer distance). There was a sandpit nearby where we shot arrows into the sky. We closed our eyes and waited for them to land, and sure enough they did, sometimes right next to us. It was a sort of “Quebec Roulette”—we could have gotten one in the head. What does all this mean? It just shows the madness of boys. Ron, the youngest, didn’t do the arrow thing. He was busy cooking, five years old, standing on a chair at a woodstove. Everybody survived, and as crazy as it may seem, I believe those were good learning times.
My mother eventually came to steal us back, and so five hundred miles back to Hamilton. That was the end of the volley. I know my dad loved his kids, but I believe my mom did the right thing. It was all a bit mad, but I appreciate that my parents made decisions for themselves without the involvement of courtrooms. I have always been fascinated with the fact that people do not take responsibility for their actions. Some judge somewhere will decide what now needs to happen regarding a situation that you happily waltzed into? A completely personal matter will now be dealt with by some stranger? It all avalanches from there, lawsuits and accusations. My parents never spoke again. My dad didn’t get pushed into any child-support scheme; it was a nice clear severance.
We resettled into Hamilton in my uncle’s back apartment. It was a one-bedroom place. We three boys slept in the bedroom and my mom slept on a foldout couch with my sister. The boys’ room had two bunk beds, and another bed in the corner. It was hard to adjust to the English language, but aside from that we had a good time. We walked to school, about a mile and a half. I loved walking, forever fascinated with the factories along the way. There was often a burning smell in the air, as Hamilton is a steelmaking town. We attended a French school, and our teachers were nuns. It was a big old place that had fallen into disarray and would soon be knocked down. Every kid brought a lunch bag from home, and when lunchtime rolled around, we ate at our desks. The school provided every kid with a little carton of milk. There was no refrigerator, and so the milk cartons were lined up on the windowsill to keep cool.
The school was closely associated with the church, and when the nuns concluded that I might be a candidate for the priest-hood, I was introduced to some of the decision makers at the church. I remember a mild-mannered, curious man in a black robe, speaking tenderly as he pointed out paragraphs for me to read from the literature that he had brought. I was made to feel special, and I liked the idea of belonging to this club. They gave me an outfit, a robe with ornamental ribbons that I wore as they began to teach me the way of the altar. I became an altar boy, and the church was my hangout. It was like being backstage. There was wine, a few things to eat, and I got to ring the bells. I loved it. The priest would give me a wink, and I would whack the bells. Perhaps it was the camaraderie that appealed to me, like being in a band. This went on for a few years, until girls started looking more interesting than priests. That was the end of my priest-hood.
Back in Quebec, music had been all around me. My dad was a violoneux, which means a violin player or fiddler, as was his dad, my grandfather. Grandfather Lanois was good on the violin, and though he was not a professional, he played at neighborhood events, weddings, and other ceremonies. On my mom’s side there were singers. My uncles and aunts sang old Quebec folk songs, and it all added up to a self-entertaining environment. Our gatherings were typical of the Quebec culture of the time. Big families, late-night card playing, lots of laughing, shouting, banging on tables, kids piled up in the bed while the adults went crazy in the other room. No babysitters—people didn’t use babysitters.
The music of Quebec has always stayed with me, especially the melodies, and although I didn’t play an instrument yet, I was already thinking about music. I wanted a clarinet, which somewhere along the way I had gotten it into my head that I should play. Probably something I saw on television.
My mother allowed me one dollar a week as personal spending money, and I spent it on Saturdays when I would walk downtown by myself and see a movie. This was the time of biblical movies, so I got to see films like David and Goliath and Samson. I loved them. I thought they were sexy—robes, skimpy outfits, and pretty girls. On one Saturday, walking to the cinema, I was distracted by a plastic pennywhistle in the front window of a music store. It was white plastic with red finger holes. It didn’t look quite like a clarinet, but it was close. The price tag on it said one dollar. On that Saturday, I didn’t make it to the movies—but I did walk through the door that led me to a new life.
My little plastic pennywhistle and me. My new companion that I played nonstop for the next two years. In order to remember melodies, I invented a notation system. It looked something like this:
The first dot on the left related to a specific fingering on my pennywhistle, and then, much like the reading of a sentence, I would read it left to right; my melody was now carved in stone. That seemed to work pretty well as a way of remembering. This little self-made system was my way of remembering what was important to me.
This next diagram is a two-page memo that I pulled out of a workbook of mine, circa 1984. The diagram includes song-structure reminders plus various ideas relating to further development of the song.
This diagram precedes the recording of the final version of U2’s song “Pride (in the Name of Love).” Note-keeping is a big part of what I do. There is nothing like being fully informed: knowledge equals ease of operation.
This sort of diagram dominates my workbooks. Sometimes they are enough to make me crazy, but I’ve never known a way around them. Keeping track of arrangements and ideas on paper has always been part of my work process. Remembering is just another word for choosing. The world turns the same way for everybody but different people choose to see different things. I decided to remember the little pieces that matter to me. This is the same way that I see God, as little pieces flying by, tiny molecular pieces of information constantly flying by. Some people see them, some people don’t. A godly moment may be sparkling in only a tiny way—too small to make a difference in its singular form—but stacked up with others the sparkle begins to build shapes. The shapes are the instigators of sound, soul, and dreams. Dreams allow you to then see more possibilities, and in my case, my dreams become realities. Not quickly, maybe only one piece at a time over, say, three years, before it all falls together.
I have discovered that many of my collaborators were also obsessed with documentation, even as children. The Edge, of U2, is such a man. His notes regarding composition and arrangements are forensic. Eno is a master of the pen. His books are incredible, complete with intricate diagrams to support his theories. I suppose this is the sort of process one learns in university, but why wait for university when you can figure it out as a teenager?
A man knocked on my mother’s door and asked if she had any kids that liked music. She said that she had one who liked to play the pennywhistle. Having passed the aptitude test, the man explained to my mother that his school taught only accordion and slide guitar. Accordion didn’t appeal to me, and so I became a slide guitar player. Now, once a week, I was walking to my music lesson carrying an acoustic guitar with very high action—the strings were about an inch off the neck—and I played it with a steel bar. I loved it.
My teacher was a curious man who experimented with hypnotism. At the beginning of every lesson, he would hypnotize me by placing a little object on the music stand as a focal point. He made me look at it until everything got blurry, as he repeated “you’re getting sleepy.” Once I was hypnotized, the lesson would start, and sure enough, it worked. I got really good on the slide, and my interest in music broadened by the week. I now lived in the most incredible world, up at 4:00 a.m. to deliver the morning paper, and then rushing home to open the cases of my pennywhistle and slide guitar. I loved the smell of them, and I played these instruments until my fingers bled and my mind got sharp.
My brother Bob and I are of similar mind. It’s the kind of mind that dismantles the engine of the family car and then reassembles it before my mother gets home. The mind that looks at the electrical transformer up on a pole and figures out high-voltage current reduction to 220 and then down to 110. The kind of mind that memorizes the complicated morning paper route. That memorizes each and every name of each customer. The mind that wants to know what goes on behind the doors of factory buildings, wants to know the sidelines of the steel business in Hamilton and how they make wire all stacked up in a yard on large industrial spools. The mind that wants to know the next newspaper customer. The customer range was wide. My factory and industrial clients were reliable, but my drunk customers living in the York Street Hotel were not. Much of my time was spent banging on doors in smelly hallways, trying to collect from transient customers. Rooms by the week, rusted-out Cadillacs, barflies drowning sorrows—this sketchy part of town sure was an education for an eleven-year-old.
Through my little grapevine, I had heard about the job opportunity. A kid in school who was a little older than me was moving away, and he made his newspaper route available to me. A hundred and twenty copies of The Globe and Mail every morning made for a big route, but I took it on anyhow. Every morning I woke up at 4:00 or 5:00, put on my warm clothes, and put my wire-cutting key in my pocket. I headed for the newspaper drop-off, my route in my head. I always worried that I might not remember the address of every customer, and the seasons dictated whether I could use my bicycle or not. If I couldn’t use the bike, I carried the papers in a sack—120 papers cutting into my shoulder. My morning route afforded me some isolated time away from adults, time for a child’s imagination to grow. There’s something powerful that happens when you rise before the rest of the world. The feeling of freedom or rebirth that I imagine the birds feel every morning also belongs to a newspaper delivery boy. The two voices or characters in my head would inevitably start talking. They would argue and discuss, the one trying to outwit the other, or win the argument, both characters played by myself. Is this a mental illness? Or a necessary preparation for the psychological journey one must embark on to be good in the recording studio? I still play the two characters today. Sometimes I get strange looks from people.
I was trying to find a place in the world, as were my brothers. My sister was just a baby then, raised by my grandmother while my mother worked. My grandmother was beautiful, with an oversized thumb, three times bigger than a normal one—I never knew why. She sang while doing the dishes. Everything pretty much happened in one room—one big kitchen with a porch to sit out on. The backyard was pretty, a yard that we shared with my grandmother because her apartment was right next door. My grandmother Aurore kept a bird; she loved that bird. I love birds too—my affection for them must come from Aurore. As the world trips over itself, chasing the latest gadget, the birds do what they’ve always done.
My brother Bob was always the scientist of us two. We were pretty much inseparable once we got our recording studio going. Bob and I would stay up late nights challenging every situation with bright ideas. I love all ideas, even absurd ones. After all, pushing the envelope is such a large part of innovation. Bob and I always had a tape recorder around the house. Our first one was an old flea-market machine, everything on board—microphone, speakers—really easy to use. It had a warbly, muted sound. My friends would come over, and we’d have a laugh recording our voices and listening back.
My next setup was in the basement. The machine was a Roberts, again with onboard speakers. Reel to reel, quarter-inch quarter-track, which meant you could flip the reel over and record more music using the same spool. My next rig was great, a Sony TC-630. Again fully contained, mics, speakers, the lot, except it had a “sound on sound” feature. I had now found my secret weapon. The Sony allowed me to record on channel 1, and then on listening back I could transfer that sound onto channel 2, along with some more singing or playing in the room. A miracle! I could now stack up tracks by bouncing from channel to channel. A technological deficiency became my friend. The more transferring I did, the more muted the early recordings became. This meant that the earlier parts became more faraway sounding, giving the last part added a more upfront, brighter, closer-sounding position. Voila! Auto-mixing and automatic “depth of field.” I began to plan my recordings in anticipation of this deficiency. I would stack up my performances but wait to record my up-front information as my last layer. This was also an excellent training for commitment to a blend. Mixing along the way became part of my technique then and is still with me today.
The “sound on sound” technique also persisted, even into the next chapter of my career. At this point, Bob and I had purchased two Revox quarter-inch recorders, excellent Swiss machines. We would record onto the first Revox, and if we liked the result, we would record more playing and singing on top as we transferred onto the second Revox. The quality was amazing—nice, big, punchy, full sound. At any stage of the transfer system, you could decide that that was enough, and that was it. The final Revox recording became the master tape. This was a big thrill, and the buzz was out—the Lanois brothers had built a sound. People came from all over the place to record in my mom’s basement. We took it a step further, and offered a package vinyl deal. Two days in the studio, artwork, and a thousand pieces of vinyl delivered to your door. Our little business started to boom.
The next setup was a four-track. Our homemade console was built by two local technicians and my brother Bob; it was originally created with a stereo output, but Bob later modified it to accommodate the four-track Teac. The Teac, of course, could only hold so much information, and so Bob and I invented the six-track system. Legato information, like strings or background vocals, would be mixed down to the Revox, freeing up tracks for more recording on the Teac. The strings and the background vocals would just sit on the Revox until the mix. Come mixing time, a single large button triggered the Teac and Revox to start at the same time, with the help of china marks on the tapes. If the markings were accurate, it would all be in sync, and the six tracks were then combined onto the other Revox. Magic! Production was now complete with strings and background vocals.
The four-track studio is where I recorded Rick James. Rick lived in Buffalo, New York, which is located on the Canada/United States border not far from the burbs of Hamilton, where our studio was located. A friend of mine, Eddie Roth, was playing organ with Rick and recommended my studio as a cool place to make demos.
The master musical mind of Rick James is still with me today. He was a monster arranger, full productions pouring out of the speakers within twenty minutes. I felt like I was in the presence of Bach or Beethoven. His understanding of the tapestry of funk in my experience remains unparalleled. Rick breezed in and out of my life but remains one of my great teachers. I didn’t even mind that Rick never paid me for the session.
The nonstop flow of people in and out of my mother’s house was incredible; the place became a hangout. My mother even cooked for clients. The kitchen table that had seen everything was about to see even more. I can’t imagine what the neighbors were thinking—what was Rick James doing in their neighborhood? The house had only one bathroom, and as I think about it now, the invasion of privacy was something that my mom could easily have been angry about, but she reversed the energy and embraced the entire situation. Some of the recording sessions, like the Jamaican reggae sessions, accommodated up to thirty people. Picnic blankets on the front lawn, immediate and extended families all welcome. When nighttime came, they’d end up watching TV in my mother’s front room. It was not a regular house.
The basement studio hosted the recordings of hundreds of albums, including a lot of gospel quartets. The quartets were a big part of my education. The four parts keep the brain sharp, the melody is being chased constantly by the three harmonies. Occasionally, the melody may even become subservient to the harmony. What an amazing world of invention! I believe my ability to come up with harmonies has a lot to do with these early lessons.
I should mention something here about Raffi. Raffi was a folk-singer from Toronto who decided to make a record for kids. His wife was a teacher, so he had a connection to the school system. In 1976, Raffi, Ken Whiteley, and I recorded an album called Singable Songs for the Very Young. If I remember right, we gave Raffi a package deal, all-inclusive—studio time and all the help I could give him, beginning to end, for $1,500. That’s the way it was done then, a nice clean deal everybody was happy with. The record went on to sell millions. We were rootin’ for Raffi. We made three other albums together. They all shot through the roof. Raffi’s kindness guided him to humanitarian work that he involves himself with to this day. He remains the king of kid’s music.
Our drum kit was surrounded by egg crates that I had purchased from the egg man; the crates were meant to deaden the spitting high frequencies. The microphone technique seems curious to me now. I think we could safely say that faith was the major ingredient in my drum sound of the time (see the cover of this book for an illustration). The studio also had an upright Japanese piano that I sweated over many long nights, trying to tune the thing for the morning session. I couldn’t afford a piano tuner, so I learned how to do it myself.
Old Man Baker, who lived two streets over, was a harpsichord builder who didn’t like wood; he liked metal. His heart had been broken too many times by wood, with its never-ending swelling and contracting relative to the level of humidity in the air. He was now building harpsichords out of metal. Old Man Baker broke the rule of the suburbs. Rather than the obligatory manicured front lawn, he opted for a jungle of spices, veggies, and fruits, including grapes. Constantly drunk on homemade wine, he ranted on about his metal-versus-wood theories. He was an outrageous character, and his house, like my mother’s, was often a home for wayward teenagers. Everybody thought he was a kook, but in retrospect he was the only guy in the neighborhood who made any sense.
Old Man Baker taught me the theory of equal temperament, which was designed to accommodate any key on the piano. It works like this: first you tune middle C to your tuning fork, and then you tune the next C an octave above it, also to the tuning fork, which means those two notes are now perfectly in tune, and not to be changed. The E note above middle C will now be tuned by ear, so that it sounds nice when played with middle C. The relationship between middle C and the E is described as a major third. Now that the E sounds nice against the C, we must make the G-sharp above the E also sound nice. In other words, the relationship between the E and the G-sharp needs to sound as pleasing as the relationship between the C and the E. Once we have that, the C above the G-sharp, which we already tuned to the tuning fork and which cannot be changed, must sound nice against the G-sharp. If the C does not sound nice against the G-sharp, then we must backtrack and alter the E a little bit, and then alter the G-sharp a little bit, until the relationship sounds equally good between all three intervals. This is called dividing up the octave.
The terrible part about all this is that each of these intervals will sound just a little sour to the ear. Long ago Western music decided to embrace a grand compromise in the name of flexibility. The result was that every major chord will be a little out of tune in itself: i.e., the third of any major triad will always be a little bit sharp. This is enough to make me crazy, as I am a pedal steel guitar player, and my ear constantly searches for perfect pitch. I don’t like compromise, but the flaw in equal temperament suggests that compromise must be lived with.
We eventually moved into a new studio on Grant Avenue. By that time Bob and I had moved up to a sixteen-track American recorder made by MCI. The console was also MCI. Bob built the new studio while I kept going in the basement. The renovations exceeded our budget, and we were pushed to accept a second mortgage at a rate of 17 percent, an insane amount that we paid for years.
The habit from my newspaper route of getting up very early was still with me, except now I was up at four in the morning to go to the studio and work on my sounds. I had early sampling gear that I was excited about. In fact, the term sample had not been invented yet—I called them traps. I would catch little fragments from vinyl records and then manipulate my sources to the point of nonrecognition. These experiments were made prior to my meeting Eno.
Brian Eno became aware of my work while he lived in New York City. I had recorded some inventive demos with a group from Toronto called the Time Twins. My friend Billy Bryans had in fact produced these demos, and they were full of sonic delights and the songs themselves were very unusual. The Twins took their wares to New York and somehow bumped into Eno. They played him the tapes, and he was curious about where they were made. The Twins told Eno that a kid from Canada named Danny Lanois made them in his studio. Coincidentally, Eno was planning a trip to Toronto, and he chance-booked a session with me. I had never heard of him, and so I advised Bob to insist that Eno bring cash. He turned out to be a reliable sort and initiated a major turning point in my life.
Eno came into my world as an incredible force of work ethic and dedication. Time stood still as I became a conduit for the most progressive thinking I had ever been exposed to. Before Eno, I had been in a sort of limbo, building my skills but not with any specific direction. Eno arrived with a suitcase full of bells, acquired on Canal Street in New York. The first thing he said to me was that he wanted to record the bells as he walked around the studio for forty-five minutes, the idea being that the bells would ring throughout the entire record. I set up six microphones and Eno proceeded to walk around as I recorded. There were a few creaks in the floor that I had never noticed before, because people don’t usually walk around studios. The bells were meant to be a companion to the 7½ IPS tapes that Eno had brought with him from New York. As I transferred them to my sixteen-track recorder, they revealed the most beautiful, delicate, melodic, and romantic piano playing, which sounded like a sort of contemporary version of the great French composer Eric Satie. The artist was Harold Budd.
Punk had just exploded and anger seemed to be a common ingredient in the music I had been recording in the few years preceding the Eno visit. The Eno/Budd work had no anger in it. It had stillness, acceptance, and premonition. It had patience, subtlety, and refinement. The anger was left outside in the busy hustling world. My heart rate slowed down and time stood still. The vibe got thicker by the day. I began to live for nothing else—I cared only about the work. I felt like a forensic expert or a scientist or a doctor, on the verge of solving some great, menacing riddle.
Eno’s early years had been very different from mine. He had gone to art school, and so had a broad knowledge of art and contemporary urban philosophies and trends. He had already recorded some very significant records—some of Talking Heads’ best work, Remain in Light, for example; My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with David Byrne; David Bowie classics like Low, Lodger, and Heroes, and Brian’s own records, of course, like Before and After Science, Another Green World, and Music for Airports, all regarded as groundbreaking. I was highly skilled but isolated and not aware of the revolution that Eno had been a part of.
Years of preparation and skill-building had now found a home. I loved working with Eno. He came in like a breath of fresh air, like some sort of redemption after many years of laboring through bill-paying projects. Brian’s work did not accommodate the expectations of pop music; it was something timeless. Finally I felt that my work had relevance. Eno was about to be my teacher—not of music, not of the recording process, but my teacher of dedication and belief. Choose your passion and enter the arena! One note of Harold Budd’s piano crushed the back of years of struggle and disappointment. I felt I was on my way.
Eno liked the fact that I was musical. Yes, I was a good technician—but more important, I was a musician. Perhaps this is the right time to talk about faith. Being faithful to skill-building without knowledge of practical future application has always been part of me. Running on excitement, I will pursue a skill or an idea, trusting that one day it will find a home.
My tools have always been dear to me, and I continue to embrace tools—technology and musical instruments—as they come my way. Back in the late sixties I purchased my first steel guitar from the great Canadian steel guitarist Bob Lucier. Bob was playing at the Edison, a country music club near the Brown Derby, where I was playing in a show band to make some cash. This was all happening on Yonge Street in Toronto, pretty much at the sunset of the great Toronto nightclub era. Levon Helm explains it beautifully in his book This Wheel’s on Fire.
Lucier was a god to me. His calmness and harmonious way of playing appealed to me. He was also a “Frenchy,” and so I was instantly comforted by his French Canadian accent. He spoke slowly like me, and had a machinist’s way of explaining the workings of the steel guitar. Bob agreed to teach me the ins and outs of the steel, and offered to supply me with my first Sho-Bud. He was kind and wise, and I felt a fatherly embrace in his guidance. When you don’t grow up with a father around, you notice these fatherly moments, even from strangers. Bob was a force and I looked forward to my weekly lesson with him.
The emptiness that I had reached with church during my school years had now been filled with joy by Bob Lucier. I played my little Sho-Bud bird’s-eye maple guitar and all kinds of pictures came into my mind about the future. I saw myself playing with Dolly Parton, with my name written across the front of my guitar, just as I’d seen on TV. Maybe I could be on the Porter Wagoner show. Maybe I could be on TV with Willie Nelson or with the “Sweetheart of America,” Emmylou Harris.
My early studies in finger picking sure helped me out. All of a sudden, years of classical guitar training made sense. I was able to skate around the steel like a magician. My right hand was advanced and took quickly to the steel. I could play in an original way because I did not come up in the conventional steel guitar manner.
My tone was full and deep—I wasn’t fast, but I had tone. The years of radio listening in my mother’s basement had taught me that it took very little to make a listener feel something. Fewer notes were often better; like Albert King or John Lee Hooker or Booker T. Heartfelt strokes would outlast speed. I had reached a crossroads in my musical life, another pivotal moment of clarity. The steel would be my “Church in a Suitcase” and a friend for the rest of my life.
The Eno sessions dominated my time, and I was glad that Bob was taking care of business. Eno, my brother, and I developed a friendship—we became the dedicated men of ambient music. Eno had been working on his ambient music theory for some time. Years before, he had been hit by a taxicab in London. While lying in the hospital bed he noticed that the classical music playing over the speaker in his room was audible only at the crescendos of the arrangements. In the quieter passages, there was seemingly silence, but as the orchestra ramped up its energy, a moment would rear its head—the loud passages were the only audible bits. The randomness of the risings appealed to Eno. He liked the fact that the music was not constant, like a gentle wind blowing a sweet scent your way, which then disappears and reappears. This was the beginning of Eno’s Ambient Music Theory.
By 1980, Eno and I were working together regularly. He came up from New York as often as he could and we continued with the ambient recordings. Eno had been invited to supply music for a documentary about the Apollo space missions, and as this was intriguing to him, he accepted. The ambient music makers were now about to create music for outer space.
There was a country-music tone to the space project because the astronauts were from Texas. The banter between the astronauts and ground control all had a bit of a twang to it. My steel guitar had found a new home. Eno encouraged me to overdub on a dreamy celestial track called “Deep Blue Day” to complement a piano track played by his brother, Roger, who also had been invited to Canada to join in on the project. “Deep Blue Day” became an ambient classic thirteen years later after it was used in the toilet bowl scene in the film Trainspotting. My steel guitar may have been memorialized by a toilet bowl, but “Deep Blue Day” is still one of my favorite instrumentals. The album ultimately was named Apollo, and is a memorable journey through space. Apollo also includes “An Ending Ascent,” one of my favorite creations by Eno. A good many ambient records were made during this chapter of innovation, and as always, dedicated work segues into a next chapter. We were now about to bring ambience to Dublin.
Eno received an invitation in 1983 to produce a record for a new band in Ireland called U2. He agreed to a meeting and asked if I could come along as we were on a creative roll: the “Ambient Junkies” were now in Dublin. We found ourselves crammed in a car with all the U2 guys and Eno and I in the backseat, cassettes being played at full volume, Bono shouting melodies and making up choruses. It was all a bit mad, but very exciting. Bono’s enthusiasm was contagious, and even though we didn’t hear finished songs, there seemed to be enough to go on. Eno had originally planned on introducing me to U2, and then thought he would walk away and leave me with the project. I suppose that all changed in the heat of the moment and he finally said yes. All crunched up in the back of the car, I nodded my head and somehow I was now on board with Eno and U2.
SOUL MINING Copyright © 2010 by Daniel Lanois