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Melancholy Baby

Producer Daniel Lanois has worked with superstars — U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithfull and Emmylou Harris among them. But he says it was stints with more avant-garde artists earlier on — Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Jon Hassell and Michael Brook — that made him the commercially successful artist he is today. His new instrumental album, Belladonna (Anti), is an intensely moody, steel-guitar-drenched thing of rare beauty, which he’s performing live on tour with renowned “post-rock” masters Tortoise as his backing band/improv collaborators. We hung out recently at Chez Lanois to glean some wisdom on the new record, and hear a little loose talk about what it’s like working with your Really Big Stars. L.A. WEEKLY:These pieces are lovely and pastoral and all that, but most of them do have something duskier blowing through. DANIEL LANOIS: Well, there’s always been a melancholy in my work, probably because there’s a melancholy in my life, whether I like it or not... In the track called “Telco,” the melody is a beautiful piano, and you think, “Oh yeah, that’s a nice little tune.” And then the undercurrent gets crazier as it evolves: It becomes like ambulances, and foot soldiers tromping, and that’s my Les Paul put through this little box that allows you to stack on top of yourself. And the more I stack onto myself, the crazier it gets. I’m very proud of this, the purity of the melody and the resistance of it — it won’t fall down in the crater, even though the ground is cracking, and buildings are toppling and wars are going on. It’s almost like the quartet that played while the Titanic was going down. The pedal-steel guitar is sort of my private moment. I always say it’s my church in a suitcase — and I play it on Sunday. Much of the album was recorded in Mexico. Any particular reason? I’ve always been fascinated by the South. I went to New Orleans some time back just to figure out how they were doing things down there. And I found myself liking the sound of Mexican records on jukeboxes. So I went down there for about a year. It turned out to be a lovely introduction to another set of values, where people aren’t rushing as much, not trying to cram in as much. And I found a lot of beauty and happiness and laughter in the faces of people who probably didn’t have anything.The desert’s always had an effect on me, those isolated places where the loudest thing you hear is a fly coming by, and it just means that suddenly you have a respect for isolation and tranquillity, and you can actually complete a thought in your own head without the urban crunching on you. And those kind of feelings are timeless. That’s why I called the album Belladonna — it’s a plant that, if you eat the right part of it, it takes you on a journey. I thought, I’ve had enough of these feelings, really amazing isolated feelings and spiritual ones, that I’d like to try and put them back into the music, and if a listener can pick up on my feelings through my music, feelings that I’ve felt in the most faraway places, it just might put a little twist in their life. I know that’s kind of a reach, but that was sort of my goal. What did you learn working with Eno?At the time I thought it was all eccentric and completely out of step with anything commercial — and I still feel that way. [Laughs.] But funnily enough, they are the records that people will keep talking about. It’s what got me the gig with Peter Gabriel. It’s kind of interesting: When you do things without a commercial thought, but it just reaches somebody’s heart somewhere, that may ultimately lead to commerciality. Having that kind of naive intention, where you’re just trying to do the best thing you can with what you have — those kinds of pure forms speak of honesty, and people respond to honesty.And as obscure as those ambient records with Eno were, we were really dedicated to the thing, we were living it, and it was a great time of revelation, because at that moment I thought: I will never again do something that I don’t want to do. Any Dylan stories?We did a nice record called Oh Mercy, and it went real smoothly, but it was just kinda Bob and I sitting on two chairs, and we’d have musicians coming in, and it had this really dark, concentrated sound — you could hear the details of the playing. Did you discuss the concept much?He made me promise that nothing would be done in the daytime. He said everything had to be done at night. I finally got it out of him that he believes that the human temple is different at night than it is in the day, that we are satisfied in a different manner at nighttime; slightly slower, darker, profound things will be what we look for in the night. Daniel Lanois and Tortoise perform at Avalon, Saturday, October 22.


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