Daniel Lanois: The frontier spirit

Daniel Lanois's music has taken him to the Moon and back, via U2. Now he's taking pedal-steel guitar into a new realm. Alasdair Lees hears how

He is playing a piece from his new album, Belladonna, a dark collection of instrumentals that places the pedal steel centre-stage, backed by little more than drums, piano and acoustic guitar. Full of the kind of murky sonics that Lanois has brought to his Grammy-winning production work for Bob Dylan, U2 and others, it sees Lanois taking pedal-steel-playing into fresh territory.

"The playing I'm doing now is a continuation of the playing I did with Brian Eno, but maybe a little less western," he says, referring to their 1983 collaboration, Apollo. "I've found a more gospel style and my knowledge of the instrument is far superior. Traditionally the pedal-steel is played in a much more country way, but I've been evolving my chord sequences."

After three song-based solo albums, Lanois decided it was time to clean his palette. "I did it just to get myself off the song hook. I thought it was time to revisit that great chapter that I had with Eno in Canada," he says. "There was something about the dedication we had in finding sonics that had never been expressed before. It was a great laboratory, a fantastic place of experimentation and great results. We became masters of ambient music simply because we loved it and we were dedicated to it. I hope this album is a revisit of those values.

"I decided that I wanted to make an instrumental record because the mind and the imagination of a listener is freed in a certain kind of way in the absence of lyrics. I didn't want to dilute the effort of this instrumental music by putting lyrics on it. I wanted to make a really beautiful, timeless record - perhaps wear the shoes of Miles Davis - and make a record that would be transcending and elevating to the listener."

Lanois's father and grandfather were both noted French-Canadian fiddle-players in his home town of Hull, Quebec. "On the piano, you can hit a few notes and you'll be in tune because they're just keys," he explains. "On the pedal-steel, it's like a violin - you constantly have to be using your ear to pitch. The pedals are quite complex, too; everybody has their own tuning, as I have mine. It represents dedication: it's not an instrument you can dabble with." His cherished "piece of green maple with 10 strings" is the same one his mother, a singer, bought for him in Ontario when he was nine.

He recorded Belladonna on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. "I've always had a fascination with the South," he says. "As a Canadian kid, I went to New Orleans [where he set up his Kingsway studio in the Eighties, and recorded the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon and Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy] to further my education. The bass gets better the farther south you go," he laughs. "I grew up with a lot of beautiful melodies - it was a storytelling culture - but we never really understood the sexuality of bass. New Orleans was the beginning of that journey for me." It was the next logical step, therefore, to move over the border. "I really like the sound of Mexican records. I think south-of-the-border music is exotic and sexual.

"I like the idea of suggesting that, in these fast times, there is a place you can go to: a desert place; a place of isolation or the desert within oneself. When you go to a place where you might experience silence, you could find out something about yourself."

Belladonna was performed in New York in June, and Lanois is to tour the album with the Chicagoan post-rockers Tortoise in October. It should make for a powerful live experience. "This is a heavy record. It's not to be confused with a sweet, atmospheric record that you might do massage to. That's not the nature of the beast."

'Belladonna' is out now on Anti- Records

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