U2’s No Line On The Horizon: Track-by-track with producer/co-writer Daniel Lanois

Published: March 10, 2009, National Post

Daniel Lanois and U2 have been working together for two decades. Along with Brian Eno, the Canadian-born Lanois has co-produced some of the band’s most lauded work, including Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. For their 12th studio album, No Line on The Horizon, U2 invited Lanois and Eno to contribute as co-writers on several of the tracks.

Brad Frenette spoke to Lanois from his home/studio in Los Angeles for a chat about how he came to be involved on the new album and track-by-track assessment of No Line on the Horizon.

[Lanois in his studio. Credit: Tyler Anderson/National Post]

Q: How did you get involved with No Line On The Horizon?
A: We got involved after a phone call from Bono who suggested he wanted to invite Eno and myself to get involved in what he was hoping would become a futuristic spirituals record with a lot of lifeforce in it. In fact, he was not inviting us to produce the record but to compose the album with them. Eno and I accepted the invite and we met – we had a writing stint prior to going to Morocco. And then we went to Morocco and things went so well. There were talks about who was going to produce the record and I said “well, it’s kind of producing itself, so lets just go with the people we have.”
We did what we always did – we huddled and had a nice time jamming and bringing ideas to the table. Eno came in with some very fascinating rhythmic beginnings that Larry Mullen jumped right on top of and that became, essentially, the spine of the record.

Q: Were you cautious taking on the project, as it had been in the works prior, including a documented session with Rick Rubin?
A: I don’t know exactly what happened with Rick. In fact they did some nice work with Rick on a Green Day project. And if I could read between the lines, and mind you I was not there, perhaps they were looking for fascinating spines to their work and they didn’t want to have it be straight up meat and potatoes. They wanted a place for their innovative hats to go to and you never know how you are going to get those interesting beginnings. So we just huddled up, got on with it, and sure enough came up with them.

Q: Ok, well let’s start with the album’s title track, No Line on the Horizon.
A: Larry Mullen was – without anyone else playing – he was just trying out a few beats on the drums. And Brian Eno sampled him. Brian Eno’s station was right next to Larry’s – we have little stations in the studio. – so at any point Brian could record what Larry was doing, and manipulate it and sample it and so on. He did that, and it started out as a little Bo Diddley sample beat. Kind of jazzy, but it had a vibe to it. As soon as Eno sampled that, we jumped right on top of it and started playing over it, including Larry. And we came up with what I think is space age rock and roll – space age rockabilly. Bono had this idea –  where the sea meets the sky and you can’t tell the difference between the two. And the vocal happened very early on, that whole – a-whoawhoawhoawhoa! – that little hook. The vocal delivery, the vibe was there right from day one. I was very proud of Bono.

Q: Is that something that might not usually happen with the band?
A: He’s great. There’ll always be something there. Usually he’ll fool you into thinking there is something there.

Q: Ok, let’s talk about Magnificent.
A: That was born in Fez. We wanted to have something euphoric and Bono came up with that little melody. And he loved that melody, and stuck with it. Almost like a fanfare. And then I was involved in the lyrical process on that, because we wanted to talk about sacrifice that one makes for one’s medium or one’s art. I thought it had for a setting New York in the 50s; looking out a small bedroom window. Maybe a Charlie Parker kind of figure. That’s what we started with. We placed ourselves in Charlie Parker’s body.

Q: Tell me about another of your co-compositions, Moment of Surrender.
A: That was an ensemble composition. It had that great Eno/Mullen thing from the get go. A kind of rolling hand drum. And the original sketch had me in charge of the chorus. Bono would point to me: “Ok, Lanois, you sing the chorus” (sings the chorus’ hook out loud). It’s very much a Canadian sound there, a tribute to The Band. We call it the “Simcoe sound”.

Q: How about Unknown Caller?
A: Similar to Moment of Surrender, early days. It had a great vibe to it. The guitar solo at the end was right from the backing track. There was no monkey business, it pretty much had its personality intact from day one. And a pretty great vocal from early, Unknown caller and Moment of surrender – they were there. Bono honed in on his lyrics but they did not go through any laborious process.

Q: The next track is I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.
A: That started out as an Eno contribution. It was called Diorama.

Q: That’s a very Eno-esque title.
A: Yeah. It always had a great vibe to it. In our absence, the U2 lads reworked the song and it became what you are hearing now.

Q: They took it away from Fez and redid it?
A: We have an open license to turn things upside down, keep one part from one, move it to another.

Q: Let’s move on to the first single, Get On Your Boots.
A: Edge came up with that at home. That riff. He had a pretty solid demo of that. Some things were born – that “Let me in the sound” – that section came quite late. It was a little chant thing we all loved. Bono was batting lyrics around on that. It always had that great energy. Everyone worked real hard on that. I did my bit with that  simple – it may seem simple – that little dub “love” – was compliments Danny Lanois.

Q: That “let me in the sound” bit – it reoccurs and that theme pops up a few times on the album. Was that idea meaningful to the sessions?
A: It was something Bono was toying with – that we are children of the sound. Having been at it for as long as he has, he realizes how special the gift is to be moved by music and that we live in the sound. That’s what we resonate with and what we are as artisans and artist. A gratefulness and a realization.

Q: Let’s talk about another rocker – Stand Up Comedy.
A: That song went through a lot of changes – that song was about six different songs.  It’s a study in itself – it would be a cool full length CD – just the the evolution of  (Dance?) Stand Up Comedy.

Q: So it started out differently?
A: It was another song all together. A great song. But in the end it felt crafted – more craft than soul. And we like to make soul music. So we moved off the earlier versions and settled on that one.

Q: Getting back to Fez, that’s the title of this next song: Fez – Being Born. It’s quite lovely.
A: The Edge had a kind of symphonic guitar little moment that was free time. And I always liked the sound of it so I took that and chopped it into a tempo and presented that back to the band. I used one of Eno’s beats and I kind of created an arrangement out of what was a free wheel but it always had a great sound. On the strength of that sonic I persisted with that piece. Bono thought that it had this feeling like it was almost something coming to life. Like a flower opening or coming into the world and then into the Being Born section.  That’s the high speed rhythmic part. We had a vibe very early on, so we married those two tracks together after the fact.

Q: As a producer did you hear a natural fit there, or were these two tracks written to be put together eventually?
A: No, I put them in the same key, anticipating that they might live together. I always look for outstanding transitions like that. They can’t be taken for granted – they have to be designed and thought of scientifically.  I love that triplet – it’s something I  created in my editing process, then the downbeat. Then the main song. I think it’s a fantastic transitional moment.

[U2 in studio recording No Line On The Horizon. Courtesy: Interscope Records]

Q: Tell me about another one of your co-compositions, White As Snow.
A: After my conversation with Bono about future hymns or future spirituals, I did a little studying. In fact, with a friend in Toronto, Lori Anna Reid – she’s a great singer from Toronto and she’s quite an expert on spirituals. I asked her to fish a few out for me and we had a listening session and that one stood out to me. It’s an old church hymn called O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Its not identical, but it’s inspired by that, an old public domain melody. I laid down a little piano version of that song, again, chopped it to a tempo. Then I came up with a vocal arrangement. Bono had this “white as snow” idea. It just slowly came together.

Q: Was it a challenge to take something old and familiar and give it a new context?
A: Yeah, we’ve not done much of this. The Edge wrote one called Van Diemen’s Land, which was based on an Irish Classic called The River is Wide. So I guess it could be thought of that way. We like the idea of referencing a church great and bringing it into the future, It was an experiment.

Q: Ok, next track is Breathe.
A: That’s another one that came from The Edge’s corner.  He had that pretty intact without our involvement. We worked on a version for a very long time which was great. But in the end they abandoned that and re-performed it. The Edge has got a little setup at home. We worked on everything collectively. Some things got a little more attention with Steve Lillywhite  and the band . Breathe was one of them,  as was Crazy.

Q: And the album concludes with Cedars of Lebanon.
A: Cedars of Lebanon is something that I took a special interest in. I built that arrangement through my editing process similar to Fez -Being Born. In the early ’80s Eno and I worked with a great artist named Harold Budd. We made an ambient record called The Pearl. I always loved this particular track on The Pearl, so I based the mood of Cedars on kind of an excerpt from The Pearl. And then Larry Mullen came in with a killer drum part on that, I was really proud of him. I love  the mood on that track; it’s really thick with ambience. Almost like a direct throwback to the early  80s, to what I was doing with Eno. I’m proud of it, it’s a nice revisit to that work. I didn’t think I would ever push the ambient  gas pedal any more, but there it is.

Q: What about the collaboration with Eno? Was it just a matter of stepping back into an old rhythm?
A: Part of who we are has never changed. We hook up, and  in a matter of minutes we’re playing, and somethings happening, and there’s a vibe and it’s great.  So the playfulness in our relationship has never died. Eno is a great catalyst and instigator, I have the patience to investigate the details and arrangements in Brian’s absence. He’s a great man for giving you an opportunity to look at your work in another manner. That’s really his gift to the workplace. He’ll come up with something really fascinating.

Q: Larry was on an electric kit for these session, wasn’t he?

A: For the beginning, yes. The  thing about an acoustic kit is
that really wears out the room because it’s so loud.  People get
fatigued by the shock of a non-stop Mullen earthquake. We though lets
use the electric kit and see what we come up with. It proved to be a
great thing. Some of the things he came up with on that kit; he
wouldn’t have come up with on an acoustic kit.  For example on No Line
on the Horizon – that’s an electric kit. As it is on Moment of
Surrender. I don’t know what he’s going to do live.

Q: You spoke earlier about the idea of making “future spirituals”. Was there a defined artistic thesis to prove on this album? And do you think you’ve achieved it?
A: We definitely wanted a fascinating and strange brew.  We wanted to revisit the values of Acthung Baby. We wanted to build something that had never been heard before. And I think we succeeded at a few turns in the record and I’m very [proud of the rhythmic complexities. I’ll use the foundation of Moment of Surrender as an example of something that is quite rare and unusual. In these fast times of reference, it’s nice to break some new sonic ground.

Brad Frenette, National Post

For more on Lanois, here’s a video I did with him at his Toronto studio last year:

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