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Arts + CultureMusicDaniel Lanois: 'There's definitely something sacred coming out of...

Daniel Lanois: ‘There’s definitely something sacred coming out of the walls’

From the Vegas Sphere with U2 to Grace Cathedral, the legendary polymath talks about inspiration in unusual locations.

To fans of rock, country and ambient music, the name Daniel Lanois (Sat/11 at Grace Cathedral, SF) conjures certain association: a sound as spacious as the high desert, drenched in reverb, with a singer drifting through the atmosphere like a ghost in the fog. The Canadian co-produced much of U2’s acclaimed work alongside Brian Eno, helped Bob Dylan get his mojo back on Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind and helped Emmylou Harris create one of the great cosmic country records in Wrecking Ball.

Though the 72-year-old claims not to keep up with much of the ambient and experimental music emerging during this historically fertile time for the genre, his influence is all over the “ambient country” music of newer bands like North Americans and SUSS. You could even argue that his production for U2 on albums like The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree helped establish the sonic grammar for the next three decades of worship music. And that’s not even to mention his solo work, which ranges from ambient releases like Belladonna and Goodbye to Language to the soulful, spiritually charged songs on his 1989 roots-rock masterpiece Acadie.

The sound of specific spaces are key to Lanois’s music. He recorded Willie Nelson in a converted movie theater for 1998’s Teatro, and his recent solo album Heavy Sun was cut in a former Buddhist temple. It makes sense that he’d be tapped for Grace Cathedral’s Reflections series, which allows ambient legends to make use of the cathedral’s formidable space and fantastic speaker system. Bay Area synth legend Suzanne Ciani performed a quadraphonic set at Grace in February, and veteran ambient producer Steve Roach played there in April. Lanois will play on Saturday with support from local ambient-jazz ensemble Signal Quest.

Over the phone from his home in Toronto, Lanois chatted to 48 Hills about some of the spaces he’s played throughout his long career. 

48 HILLS You’ve recorded and performed in old movie theaters and former Buddhist temples. What do those spaces bring to your music, both spiritually and musically?

DANIEL LANOIS There’s definitely something sacred coming out of the walls, and that sets a certain kind of tone. There’s a tendency to be textural and respectful. You’re not going to be suddenly just blowing the house down with heavy metal or anything like that, so obviously these kinds of environments do insinuate an approach, and we like that. I’ve made records in all kinds of unusual locations, and I enjoy not only the vibe of a place but the vibe we’ve built in a place. If you do an installation, let’s call it, the sounds you create belong to that installation and that edifice. So there’s no doubt about the environment and its impact on the music. 

48H You guested with U2 at the Sphere in Vegas not too long ago. What’s it like to play on that stage?

DL I think it’s all it’s cracked up to be visually, there’s no doubt about it. I saw some things there that I’ve never seen before, and these folks should be thanked and applauded for rolling the dice on such an edifice. They’ve pinpointed sounds to the different sections in the bleachers—let’s call them bleachers for now, sections of the audience—and there’s 20,000 people in the place, so what would be a disaster would be if you just had a PA on the stage and tried to reach 20,000 sets of ears. I saw the show a couple weeks before I got onstage, and I was mesmerized by the camerawork. Obviously the band looks very small if you’re way up in the bleachers, but the panoramic cameras they were using were such that it was as if the band was suspended in air in front of you. It was really spectacular.

48H You’ll be performing both vocal and ambient music at Grace Cathedral Do you consider your vocal and instrumental music to be two different disciplines or two sides of the same coin?

DL You use the word discipline—there’s definitely discipline in all that, in regards to what I choose to say in song and in story. I think those are different hats. As soon as you introduce a lyric, the focus obviously shifts, and if the lyric is to be the front character, everything else has to be a complement to that character. 

48H What’s your setup going to be at Grace Cathedral?

DL I’ve got a whole instrumental rig coming up. I do this studio-to-the-stage thing, I have a little multitrack, so I’ll be blending and dubbing my existing material. I’ll be playing steel guitar, which is very beautiful in such a setting. It’s mostly me and Wayne Lorenz who does technology with me, and I’ll be singing with Jim Wilson and Jermaine Holmes. 

When I get there after soundcheck, that will allow me to direct the music in a certain fashion. I will be inventing a lot of the sounds right there on the spot. I have what I call a dub machine, it’s a little sampler that I chose a long time ago. I prepared some fabulous Brian Blade drums, a nice collage of some of his best freeform work, and it’s masterfully played. This isn’t just “press a button on a computer and relax.” I’ll be playing the visuals to the night, and hopefully we’ll get to a magic place. 

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield is a San Francisco native and arts journalist whose work has appeared in the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Magazine, Resident Advisor, and various music sites. He ran the SF Rebirth blog, documenting all-ages shows in the Bay Area, from 2010 to 2013. His work can be found at danielbromfield.com

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