Daniel Lanois Talks Harvest Picnic, Politics, Vinyl, and New Album “Flesh And Machine”

Daniel Lanois was hailed by Rolling Stone Magazine as “the most important record producer to emerge in the ‘80s”, but really, that’s just an accolade that should be extended into the 90s and 2000s and into this decade, too. Daniel is quite easily one of the most distinctive and celebrated producers of our time, and possibly the greatest producer since the days of Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Eno.

As a producer, Daniel Lanois has helmed the works of some of the world’s most gifted artists. His talents first gained notice through work with such groups as Martha & The Muffins, the Parachute Club, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Raffi and Brian Eno, who in the decades to follow would emerge as Daniel’s mentor and frequent collaborator. Together with Eno, Daniel produced projects from U2, including The Joshua Tree, The Unforgettable Fire, and Achtung Baby. He then went on to produce what many have called Bob Dylan’s ‘comeback’ album, 1989’s Oh Mercy, as well as 1997’s Time Out of Mind which would go on to win three Grammy awards, including “Album of the Year”.

And now, along with Jean-Paul Gauthier, he’s one of the organizers behind The Greenbelt Harvest Picnic, held in Dundas, Ontario happening August 23rd.

Eric: Tell me how the Greenbelt Harvest Picnic started and when did you begin to think of this?
Daniel: Yeah, we are the inventors of this festival it started a few years back when JP and I were taking a little cruise out in the country outside of Dundas. We said, we love the soul countryside. Wouldnt it be nice to have a festival that celebrates foods, locally and regionally grown foods? And music could run in tandem with it. That was the beginning of it. We both love tomatoes in August, so [laughs] – that was the inception.

Eric: You’re playing, along with Ray LaMontagne, Bruce Cockburn, Los Lobos, Sarah Harmer, Ron Sexsmith, The Sadies, too. And I’m sure music fans think, Dundas? Seriously? A lot of people don’t know where Dundas is, even though it’s a gorgeous small town.
Jean-Paul: Yeah, Dundas is a beautiful little town just left of Hamilton. Beautiful spaces. Christy Lake is a great lake. Great conservation area with hiking trails, a lot to offer outside of what people are used to going and experiencing at other venues. It’s not just a field with fencing around it. It’s pretty amazing place. Its that place, our goal and vision to help farmers and a celebration of our local music that just makes it a perfect fit.

Eric: You’re not just celebrating some great Canadian music, but even though it’s not strictly a political event per se, the festival does have political angles to it, but having information about conservation and local farmers’ initiatives. It’s not heavy handed, but it’s teaching people education about the environment and how to live a little better.
Daniel: That’s not too far off. For those folks who only ever live in the city centres, foods do come from the ground. Not just from the store. It’s nice to be reminded of the hard work that goes into the growing of foods and sometimes the smaller farms have the best offerings. We’re trying to remind ourselves and other people about what’s available to us here in Ontario. It’s fantastic.

Eric: Does it get easier for you putting on a festival like this? Seeing that you’ve done it before, is it easier to get the local community and government and artists involved?
Jean-Paul: People have definitely aligned with the vision. It is easier year after year but with that, also, you don’t want to become complacent and do the same thing. There’s new challenges and we’re always looking to do new and exciting things. But, certainly we’ve had a lot of support. A lot of people like the idea of a good old fashioned picnic and started getting back to our values and things that are important for us.

Eric: What’s new this year? What can people expect that maybe they haven’t seen?
Jean-Paul: This year we have the Oak Savannah installation. It’s put on by Chris Kruger from Plan B Organic Farms. An artist out of Brantford by the name of Dave Hind has something great this year. It’s an installation that illustrates what sustainable farming could be like, and the way it works harmoniously in nature. So, it’s a cool installation, they have some livestock there. We’re also going to have a farmers market pavillion where they’re going to be doing seminars throughout the day and talking about current issues in local farming and sustainable farming.

Eric: It’s amazing when you look at the artists on there. Bruce Coburn, Ron Sacksmith and Sarah Harmer. There seems to be something about Canada. I spoke to Bruce Cockburn last week and he was talking about the irony that he released almost 30 albums but his biggest single hits were his biggest politically motivated songs like “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” You go through some of this list and it’s amazing that some of Canada’s biggest artists aren’t afraid to use their voice to stand up for what they believe in. When you look at the other countries like America or the UK there’s always those smattering of artists releasing singles here and there or joining the benefit concerts. But Canadian artists have never really sacrificed their success over using their voice and taking a stand against something through long careers.
Jean-Paul: I think we’ve aligned with artists that who are prolific songwriters who have a cause and arent afraid to go there. I think that’s important. Whether it’s U2 or other major artists that I’ve grown with anyway, those are artists that have a cause or have been an inspiration in some way through either social injustice or war. Almost spiritual guides in a way. In Canada, we do have our fair share of those artists as well. We also tend to be kind of folky and maybe not as – maybe a little more internalized and maybe because Canada is such a great country, maybe that’s why we’re not as politically charged at times. I think we’re growing in that direction.

Eric: Daniel, you’re going to playing songs from your new album “Flesh and Machine” for the first time at Greenbelt Harvest Picnic?
Daniel: I am! I’m going electronic [laughs]. I’m taking the studio to the stage and I’m going to be introducing a more electronic angle of what I do. This new body of work of mine includes a lot of studio experimentation and so the Harvest Festival will be the unveiling of that in Canada and I’m excited about it because it’s – you might say it’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the storytelling part of myself. The story song is something that I’ve enjoyed doing over the years and it’s kind of a Canadian trait. We as Canadians, we’re good at telling a good tale. This time around, of course I’m going to play some of my familiar songs but there will be a part of my set that has gone electro and is going to be way out there, man. [laughs] I’m looking forward to it.
Eric: So are you expecting people to start shouting, “Judas!”?
Daniel: [laughs] Of course! No, I think people have an appetite for the unknown and it’s nice to keep that part of us alive, the seeker part of me wants to know what the future holds and so I’m always pushing the boundaries of sonics in the studio and so this year I’ve gone further out than ever. There’s an awful lot that goes on behind closed doors in my world of investigative sonics. The studio is a place people don’t really know what goes on, so this time around I’ve decided to bring it to the stage.
Eric: I find it hard to believe that Daniel Lanois is actually experimenting with sounds! How do you decide what you want to keep for yourself and what do you want to share with another band, like U2 or anyone else you’re working with at the time? Is there a decision in mind? Or is that a bit overthinking what happens when you create?
Daniel: The experimentations go on and whenever I’ve had an opportunity to work with people, whatever I’ve been most excited about at the time is the thing that I brought to the table. That’s served me pretty well. It’s honest, it’s truthful and it has kindness in its spine. I’ve always had a giving nature. So when I produce an artist, I lay out all my tricks and anything that might be up my sleeve. I’m not really producing anyone right now except for I mixed a Rocco DeLuca records, a great artist he was on the bill last year.
Eric: What attracted you to want to work with him?
Daniel: His authenticity. I believe he has a very pure heart. It’s a good foundation to build from when you get the sense that somebody is designing their music from life experience and not by the vibes of the floor of the major record label. It should start from the ground. That’s all I ever operated by, I’ve put in my time in the studio and whatever I’m excited about I bring to the table. And this time around I’m excited about my electronics, so it’s a lot of – not that it’s gone, it’s not store-bought electronics. I manipulate sounds that are vocal sounds and hand played instrumental sounds. But I modify them in such a way that they are inventive. In fact, I’m trying to blend the sounds of animals and humans this time around. I’ve got a track called SIOUX as in the tribe, “Sioux Lookout” that to my ear sounds like a contemporary native cry and it calls for balance in our beautiful country here and embrace what we have and keep it intact and use some of it, we have used it, but to be in harmony with our neighbors and relatives. Fundamental native philosophy. Its really just an extension of what J.P. and I have always talked about, the festival has that in its spine and I hope the electro part of my set carries the torch of that philosophy.

Eric: The use of computers in music today is treated much different than in the past. All the music now is created essentially on a grid. There’s not much you can play with but you want to make it part of the human experience. You want to take something that’s cold in a way and make it a little warmer. That may make people shy away from sometimes wanting to like music created mostly on computers, but you’re not fearful of it at all. You probably appreciate the challenge of trying to use electronics and make it a little more authentic.
Daniel: I think that’s well put. A medium is a medium and ultimately to reach a place of soul with whatever your toolbox might be. You want to raise the spirit, you want to touch hearts, you want to make people feel like they’re emotionally involved with something. This electro music of mine is metronomically driven but its really based on hand played, so it has a lot of authenticity going for it. I’m so excited about it. I cant wait for people to hear it. There will be at least a ten minute segment of mine, maybe 15 minutes of my show that will showcase this new direction.

Eric: J.P., what does the album represent to you in 2014? Is there a need for an album? There are certain artists that lend themselves to a listening experience, and Daniel is one of them. How do you try and get more listeners as you want to do album by album, in an era where the album isn’t really the top of the mind right now for a portion of music fans.
Jean-Paul: Whether it’s a 20 min song or a 45 minute album, it’s a musical journey that has common threads and waves its way through your soul and mind. To me, I don’t know it’s as important as an album so as long the artist has that ride. But I’m going to defer this to Dan.
Daniel: I’ve been questioning the album format myself lately, I’m sick of making albums [laughs].
Eric: The idea of a long-listening experience, or the concept of the album that it should be telling a story? Maybe you want to put out your best material, no matter what the format.
Daniel: I’ve seen mates of mine struggle to come up with another album so they can tour. Part of me has thought of not doing albums but to just provide the new material in a live situation and come out in the open and say this is what we’re doing. If you want to hear what we’re up to it will reveal itself one piece at a time live, as we come up with the songs. I think that’s as good an angle as any right now. Having said that, “Flesh and Machine” celebrates the idea of a record. I wanted to record something that was already taking place to begin with. My dictionary, that’s what a record is. Someone singing on a back porch, they sound terrific, you make a recording of it and you make it available to people. When we got into the 60s and 70s, people started experimenting in the studio and doing amazing things but inventing things in the studio. I’d be just as happy if we stopped making records for a while.
Eric: The album concept is roughly 60 years old. In the 30s, 40s, 50s, they were just releasing singles mostly just like they are now. During those times, you never got to record an album or at least release an album until 3-4 singles were hits. Then it was just a collection of songs with no storyline or concept – just a collection of singles. It took the experimentation of the 1960s to get us to where we love the album. And the time an artist has to create is pretty firm – they have about 25-30 minutes amount of music on each side, let’s fill it up with the singles, and then with some other tracks, or in the 60s, some music that could be strange, weird, deeper and more significant than those hits.
Daniel: It’s a good point you’re making. Making singles and putting things out quickly was part of the popular cultures in the 50s and early 60s. Perhaps that wave if you like of making singles and popular songs allowed for a chapter of experimentation to even come into existence. But then there are drugs to consider. People started taking drugs in the 60s and 70s and they wanted to go on a trip listening to a record. So that’s part of the magic carpet ride of that chapter. What’s happening now, the most popular artists are very single driven. So maybe we’re back to that now and when people get tired of that, there might be another wave of album listening. What’s nice about album listening, if you’re willing to take the time to say “I’m going to put an hour aside, I’m going to chill out and have a glass of wine or whatever you’re going to be doing and I’m really going to enjoy the journey that this artist has designed for me to go on.” There’s part of me that still subscribes to that philosophy. I’d be just as happy to take the studio to the stage and say, you want to hear what I’m up to? Come and see me live.

Eric: You’re the creative director and chief music curator now with Uprise.fm, the new service dedicated to rare, unique and live recordings owned by artists that aren’t available on other streaming sites. I love this idea because sometimes artists get into a little bit of a rut where you spend a year or two producing an album, and then tour for two years if it’s successful. Your fans may not want to wait two years for brand new material – most want a new track every week if they could – or an EP every month. There’s an audience for already who enjoy the bootlegs, or who love going on YouTube and watching fan-filmed or pro-shot concerts. This legitimizes it and allows the power – and the money – to go to the artists.
Daniel: I like the idea of releasing things fast. That’s the funny thing about these fast times, things have gotten slower. To release a record now, you’ve got to have a big ramp up campaigns where you sit around for 6 months and then you get tired of the material then you’re supposed to go out there and play it live. The good thing about Uprise.fm, we could do in this studio a little session here today and if some magic came of it, then I could put it on the site and make it available very quickly. That’s exciting for me. I’m doing a show in New York in November with some great African artists and I’m excited about that night and should we record and film that night, it could turn up on Uprise for example. Otherwise, that might may just dissipate and never be enjoyed by people who weren’t there. I’m excited just thinking about doing these little specials wherever I go. I bump into special things wherever I go. To cement them and to have them made available quickly appeals to me right now. It’s an extension to what I said a minute ago about being excited about the stage, things happen fast, you have an audience there. The communication is a very real one. It’s sort of the opposite of huddling up in a studio for two years and looking at your belly button.

Eric: Growing up and reading about rock and roll and music, there was just that aura of mystery of never getting to see Buddy Holly and Elvis, and only having the single or the album. I never got to see them live. No one ever talks about Elvis’ albums except for the his debut or the Comeback ’68 Special. I’m sad because I never got to see The Clash, for instance. But there’s always video that have some sort of romanticism attached to it to me. MTV, as great as it was, gave my generation the ability to see what our favourite artists looked like in a powerful way. We didn’t have to wait for a magazine with one photo. Here was video!
Daniel: I like what you’re saying, there’s a lot of mystery back in the day. You might not know what somebody looks like. I talked to Bob Dylan about this and he said, as he grew up he never got to see anyone. But I don’t like the expose of dirty laundry and every day things so much with artists being on video all day and night long. We’re getting a lot of that these days, reality TV and the descendants of. I talked to Mick Jagger about what it was like when he got started, he says – “We recorded a single on Friday and it was on the radio on Monday. We really enjoyed that because it was exciting and it kept the blood flowing and the very thing we were excited about we could then play the next week.” So, we’ve lost that position in the irony being that everything is happening so fast. But campaigns take longer, so I think it’s exciting that you would knock something out – and I’m talking quality. Not just any old thing that you bump into but put some time and preparation of the day and if the magic comes, then let it be heard on Uprise or otherwise.