On their new collaborative album, Daniel Lanois and electronic composer Aaron Funk, better known as Venetian Snares, make for an unexpected “Canadian team.” As a producer and solo artist, Lanois’s work is dedicated to open, moody space; Funk, on the other hand, populates his soundworlds with near constant twitching and aggressive motion. But Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois makes sense of this contrast, blending Lanois’ slow motion, gospel-informed pedal steel with Funk’s dramatic breakcore.
Often, the record recalls the soundscapes of Lanois’ work with Brian Eno on 1983’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, if that record’s spacey ambiance had been punctuated by violent bursts of noise and rhythm. Employing a Miles Davis cut-up style, manipulating “yards” of live recordings, Lanois edited the album together. It’s a testament to his restless creative drive and a daring listen. We caught up with Lanois in LA to ask how the strange team-up came about.
Aquarium Drunkard: A few years ago, after recording an interview in your studio, you played us some of the music you were working with Venetian Snares on. I’ve been anxious to hear it since and it’s turned out to be a wild record.
Daniel Lanois: Oh yeah, well we finally gave birth. [Laughs] It feels pretty good. I’ve been devoted to this for a while now, and I’ll say to my friends, “By the time something comes out,” by the time you get a release date from the label and all this, in a way, the creative peak has already happened. So I’ve actually moved on to some other work now, but hey, listen man, we’re going on tour, Snares and I. I call [Aaron Funk] “Snares.”
It’s exciting. I feel like it’s my first band. The shows feel like, “Whoa, things are so psychedelic.” I’m pretty thrilled about it because we can really pull this thing off live. He’s really a master. We make a pretty good Canadian team.
AD: Are you improvising live?
Daniel Lanois: Some of it is built on preparation. If there’s a fixed melody that I need to replicate live, I learn that part. In the jazz world, they’ll play the “head” and then improvise and then come back to the head later to repeat the little theme to reassure the listeners that they’re not completely out of their brains. [Laughs] We do a similar thing. For a given title, Aaron will have, let’s say, 30 patterns that he can draw from, and those patterns are recognizable as the same ones on the record…these are all custom-made sounds that he builds.
I just follow his lead. I’ve got some themes that I need to be loyal to for a given title, but I also venture off into improv, and we use a little trick live where he takes my signal and he processes me. He’ll take a little snatch of what I’m doing and go really far out with it. I have no choice but to follow what he’s throwing at me, so he’ll come around the bend like “Boom! Bang! Waterfront!” all of a sudden, or “Oh, you’re in the jungle.” The surprises are just endless. I just respond and I just throw something back at him that’s even crazier than what he sent me. [Laughs]
AD: It sounds like there’s a lot of trust involved. How did you develop that?
Daniel Lanois: I met him after a show he did in Toronto. Ryan Worrall, he’s my music director, he said, “Hey, let’s go to this show. This guy’s pretty cool.” So I went to the show and it kind of blew my mind. We hung out after. We didn’t have a lot of conversation about music, we just talked about life and values that we operate on and so on.
When we started jamming in the studio, very little was said. He started and I just followed his lead rhythmically. Off we went. It reminded me a little bit of the relationship I have with Brian Eno — same kind of thing. There was not a lot of discussion about this and that and the other thing, we just started playing, and it fell into place. On the strength of this fruitful first jam session, we just tried to carry on.
I took those original jams and I chopped them down a little bit. We are metronomically driven, so it makes it easy to edit. It’s kind of how I heard Miles Davis records were done back in the day. They would play yards of material and performance, and then they just went in and cut it to all the best stuff. It’s kind of a revisit to what I imagine it was like playing jazz in the ’50s and the ’60s…those guys were pushing the envelope of sonics… imagining what the future might hold sonically. I’m thinking, at a moment of self-importance here, we might have invented a bit of a form, because how likely is it that a steel guitar player would be even interested in electronic music? [Laughs]
AD: One of the hallmarks of your work is your sense of space. Your songs and productions live in these really vast open spaces. With someone as aggressive, let’s say maximalist as Aaron, did you have to adjust your ideas about how to fill space and what space could mean in terms of your own compositions?
Daniel Lanois: It’s a good point. Clutter is the worst thing to deal with when you make records. If I stop playing for a little bit, and I let Aaron take the lead, then that pretty much dictates the direction that I should go. When we play live, I don’t mind giving him a little bit of rope to establish a certain tonality that I will then follow. So to be simply put, if I lay out a bit, then you get a nice open pasture and a palate cleanser for a while, and then come back in with another melody. I like records that are not too cluttered, even though this record’s got a lot of density in several places, I hope it has enough open pastures to make the kind of dynamics that you’re speaking of.
AD: When you first listened to the music of Venetian Snares, what struck you about it?
Daniel Lanois: I first heard his symphonic record, Rossz Csillag Alatt Szuletett. He had taken orchestral music and chopped it up into little pieces. I was just very touched that he had gotten to this highly musical place with technology. I got a sense of soul from it, which ultimately is what I gravitate to. I don’t mean specifically R&B “soul” music — just that music would have a reason to exist and might touch somebody’s heart or cause them to look at life a little differently. I felt that as electronic and as technological as his thing was, it had power and emotion and ultimately had soul, so I saw that crack of light under the door. Let’s call the thing that I do a little more “gospel” with the steel guitar. I thought that there was room for the gospel to come into his world.
AD: A lot of electronic records feel like they exist in a digital space, but this record feels very live and physical. Were you guys at your place in Toronto?
Daniel Lanois: Yeah, we did it in Toronto. I had done one mix in LA that sounded pretty good…so I gave Aaron the option and said, “You want to finish it in LA?” And he said, “No way, man. All Canadian-made.” [Laughs] So we did it in Toronto. We can’t change who we are. I’m interested in breaking new ground sonically and otherwise, but as I hear this record now, I can hear there are tonalities that I’ve drawn from the past in my past work.
I even hear some things in there that have got a little U2 tonality, got a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little Bob Dylan. I’m proud of my associations over the years because I’ve worked with some smart cookies. I don’t want to sound like them — I’m happy we made the records that we made — but isn’t that the way life goes? We carry a little something with us as we go along. That’s probably the basis of evolution.
AD: Now I’m imagining what a U2 record might sound like with you and Aaron playing on it.
Daniel Lanois: [Laughs] I saw Bono in Brazil, saw the guys in Brazil. I went down there to catch the last show of their Joshua Tree Tour. They were very sweet. They invited me to come up and sing a song with them. It was all very emotional. But I played Bono one of these Snares tracks and he said, “Wow, you should’ve done the soundtrack to the new Blade Runner.” [Laughs]
AD: You talked a little bit about injecting a little gospel into what Aaron does. Do you hear things that you didn’t expect to hear in the finished record?
Daniel Lanois: Well there’s a track called “Night,” which has quite a beautiful…let’s call it gospel journey, and it kind of had that right from the beginning. As I see it, much of what the record is about came from the raw performances. That was reassuring to me that it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors and studio trickery, ultimately, that a lot of what we’re hearing was guided by the original performances.
It was reassuring to me just before I went off into studio rat mode of editing and all that stuff, that the goods were pretty much there. The bones were nicely built from the performances. It’s pretty far-out music rhythmically because the time signatures are pretty far away from EDM. So I don’t know that we’re ever going to hit the mainstream of ecstasy-driven culture [laughs]. But I think those who are looking for rock ‘n’ roll and rebellion and what they listen to, I think this has a lot of rebel in it.
AD: I might be geared toward ecstasy in a more spiritual sense rather than a chemical one.
Daniel Lanois: [Laughs] There you go. If it could get to that place with the music without the chemicals, maybe that’s a compliment to the music.words/j woodbury
Further listening: Aquarium Drunkard Transmissions Podcast :: Daniel Lanois
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