DANIEL LANOIS: I COULD GET TO ANOTHER DIMENSION
photography by ward robinson
On July 17, 1974, after working at Buck Owens’ studio in Bakersfield, guitarist Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident.
He left no skid marks when he died on Highway 1 in Morro Bay. In the liner notes for the album, Country Pickin’: The Don Rich Anthology, Owens wrote, “Something I never said before—maybe I couldn’t—but I think my music life ended when he died. Oh, yeah—I carried on and I existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightning and thunder is gone forever.”
With that in mind, I respectfully decline a ride on the back of Daniel Lanois’ motorcycle.
Daniel Lanois—the Québécois producer that’s worked with everyone from Brian Eno and U2 to Bob Dylan and Rick James—is currently finishing up an album of ambient lap steel music. On the drive up the highway to Newcomb’s Ranch, the biker bar at which he’s working out both old songs and new, there’s a snarl in the traffic ahead.
Someone’s driven over the edge of the cliff at the side of the highway.
It isn’t Lanois, and anyway, looking at the accident is a passé and pointless pain in the neck, even if the hovering of the helicopter sent down to retrieve the fallen rider produces an impressive sound that’s massive enough to almost touch. It is not for nothing—here in the upper altitudes amid the beauty of Nature and the suggested peril that lies in wait around every hairpin curve—that one’s mind turns toward transcendence.
We’re all going up, one way or another.
The lap steel guitar is intrinsically a contemplative instrument—and it challenges the player to go beyond the temptations of mere navel-gazing to reach that place that is outside oneself. It holds within it the promise of operating like a sonic Ouija board, here in the mountains saddled with names like “The Devil’s Backbone”; one last shot at communion with earthly spirits as they head on up and out. From the plants crawling up the side of the stage to the chimney to the crawlspace in the ceiling, so much here today suggests the promise of the Beyond.
Newcomb’s Ranch carries with it a high-altitude clearness of focus despite the revved motors and rubber burnt repeatedly though the dusty mountain road. Lanois takes the stage, his lap steel guitar making the room seem vibrant lighter than air, piercing the veil without piercing the ears. Movements slow to a gentle crawl as the guitar tone clears the small-talk out of the room, replacing it with a warm and weirding otherness that’s easier to live inside than it is to describe. People applaud when he’s done tuning up—just like they did for Ravi Shankar at Woodstock—reveling in a level of sound that exists somewhere between a harmonium and a Tibetan singing bowl. Appealing peals sit high atop a throne of drones, forceful and then just as suddenly fading into the surrounding ambiance. Even the arcane hiss of the unused speaker seems to harbor some kind of eldritch potential, emanating slowly in an incessantly expanding circle. That’s the thing about the music of Daniel Lanois: when it’s over and the last note shimmers and fades, it’s remarkable even in its own absence.
Rocco DeLuca, the other half of Lanois’ duet, is lost somewhere on the road on the way to Newcomb’s, so Lanois goes solo, and if one’s eyes are shut so that the ears are the organs moving the journey—the listening experience—it’s very much like that ride up the winding highway to the bar; visions of new growth thriving the fires beneath the power pylons with their tentacles outstretched, marching endlessly through the morning mist. He runs through “Still Water” and “Jolie Louise,” off his debut solo album Acadie; “Rocky World,” from its follow-up For the Beauty of Wynona; and “Here Is What Is,” off the 2007 album of the same name, placing him squarely in the chansonnier tradition of the Québec of the ‘60s and ‘70s, singing about love and loss and all that that implies. Case in point: “The Memorial,” a piece commissioned for the fallen Belgian soldiers of World War I. It brims with sad sentimental wails and, through the sorcery of electronics, occasional faraway sounds of bullets and bombs, whistling past as if plucked from the aether.
DeLuca finally arrives, presently entering into a dynamic with Lanois that’s one of two like minds matched evenly in taste and passion. Outside, the notes and the tones sail along until they become part of the wind and the heat and the world that waits for them with open arms to welcome their haunting melodies into their rightful place in nature, as all sound does, expanding and undying even as the people who are here to hear it fade and become indistinct from themselves. DeLuca’s vaguely unearthly voice is an absolute highlight—lost but brave, essentially at peace and coming metaphysically correct.
Adjourning to Lanois’ home later in the week—an unassuming Silver Lake estate the street wall of which has been tagged with graffiti that pronounces him “Saint”—reveals a warm twilit cathedral of sound. The living room and first-floor quarters have been converted into a recording studio with sound-making machines of every vintage; he constantly adjusts sounds and levels in his quest for a quality of sound the essence of which only he understands. It’s a process that consumes the majority of his time now as he prepares the launch of this latest record. He curates an entire room of ambient electronic music in the penthouse of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion late this Friday night as part of the Sleepless: The Music Center After Hours celebration. This interview by David Cotner.