Never mind his landmark production work with Bob Dylan for right now. (Or with Brian Eno, U2, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, the Neville Brothers … look it up; the list goes on.) Forget about the Grammys, Junos, and all the awards he’s won. Even the couldn’t-escape-it-if-you-tried thunder of his trademark “sonics” as applied to Neil Young’s recent Le Noise – don’t worry about it right now.
Today’s subject is Daniel Lanois the bandleader; Daniel Lanois the guitarist/vocalist; Daniel Lanois focusing all his “studio rat” energies on the self-titled effort from his band Black Dub. Over the course of the album’s 11 tracks, Lanois and company (drummer Brian Blade, bassist Daryl Johnson, and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Trixie Whitley) manage to somehow blur the lines between reggae, soul, gospel, blues, funk, and rock. And they blur it well.
You might expect anyone who’s lived the life that Daniel Lanois has to have a bit of an ego, but during our recent conversation, he was nothing but friendly, warm, and – yes – humble. When I mention to Daniel that I’d enjoyed his new memoir Soul Mining: A Musical Life, he replies with a little chuckle: “Oh, man – thank you. I’m so nervous about that, you know?” I’d forgotten that it was being released the day we were talking; he apparently hadn’t – nor did he take a warm reception for granted.
Ask me to sum up Daniel Lanois in 50 words or less? I can do it in one: passion.
BR: You’ve had a pretty boring year so far – it’s probably nice for you to make human contact.
DL: (laughs) It is nice to finally be out of the studio!
BR: Before we talk about Black Dub – both band and the album – I’d like to take a minute to get rootsy.
DL: Sounds like fun. (laughs)
BR: How about talking a little about the influence of reggae music – and more importantly, the studio work of pioneers like Lee “Scratch” Perry – on your sound over the years … and the sound of Black Dub.
DL: Well, first of all, I’ve been hanging my hat in Jamaica for about 15 years now. I rented a cottage from Chris Blackwell for much of that time; then two years ago I bought my own place in Negril. This all started when I went there to work with Jimmy Cliff years ago – I fell in love with the culture.
The more I looked into the music of Jamaica, I realized that much of what I loved came out of the studios and not necessarily from the street. That beautiful sound that we all know and love – that reggae sound: those adventurous blends, repeat echoes and all that – came from people’s studios. They had very little equipment to use – Lee “Scratch” Perry would’ve been one of them – and I thought, “This is so encouraging for a studio rat like me!” (laughter)
It really has given me a lot of encouragement to take responsibility for a form; to carry on with my experiments in the studio and to make my own discoveries. I’ve invented this new dub system that I don’t think anyone else is doing, so I feel a little like Scratch myself. (laughs) Or on a good day, anyway. (laughter)
The dubs that I make are not so much “spin” dubs as they are extractions – samples that I pull out of the multi-track and fiddle around with. I’ll maybe add a little octave or maybe some other harmonics and then I spin those back into the relevant positions in the songs so that it makes sense with the chords and so on. It’s a lot of trial and error – 19 times out of 20 will be terrible, but that one time will be genius … and I’ll erase everything else that’s crap. (laughter)
So that’s kind of what it’s all about. I love Jamaica; we’ll make the next Black Dub record there.
BR: Sounds like a good time to talk about the line-up of the band. Let’s start with Brian Blade on drums.
DL: I met Brian in New Orleans years ago when he was studying with Mr. [Ellis] Marsalis there. I was taking a walk with Iggy Pop, who was making a record in the studio I had in New Orleans at the time. We were outside the doorway of a café when I heard this incredible drum sound. There was this kid in there just ripping it up on drums. I got his number and have kept in touch with him since.
Brian is simply one of the heavy-duty drummers of our time. He still tours with Wayne Shorter and he has his own jazz band. He’s a genius who can play any style.