Here is what is

Best known for his work as producer for Bob Dylan, U2, Robbie Robertson, Emmylou Harris and many others, Daniel Lanois is coming to St. John’s to perform his own music—from Here Is What Is, the soundtrack to his feature-length documentary of the same name­­—on October 16.

The Here Is What Is documentary, exploring a year and a half in Lanois’ life, was directed by Lanois, Adam Vollick and Adam Samuels and premiered to rave reviews at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival.

Elling Lien spoke with him about the documentary, about his last time in town, and why so many musicians want to work with him as a producer.

So you’re coming to town soon.
I am coming to town. I can’t wait. Hopefully I’ll have time to have a drink at The Ship.

Yes! I’ve heard a story about you at The Ship…
Whatever you heard, it’s not true. (laugh)

…when the Junos were here in 2002 and you were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, there was a crazy show at The Ship and you ripped your shirt off and bled all over [Dave Panting’s] guitar…
Oh yes! I borrowed his instrument. (laugh)

What happened?
I cut myself while I was playing, and at one point I looked down and realized “oh, man, I’m bleeding all over this guy’s guitar.” Afterwards I wiped it down the best I could and handed it to the next person singing when I was finished—because it was a bunch of people performing.

Then I was whisked out of there.

In the middle of the night I got a phonecall and it was him saying ‘You bled all over my guitar!” He was really upset; had no sense of humour about it at all…

But it was anointed with the blood of Daniel Lanois!
“The man who produced U2 bled on it in St. John’s the night he was given his lifetime achievement award at the Junos!” It’s a special guitar…

How did you even end up cutting yourself? Do you know?
I don’t use a pick so I think I cut my hand on the strings. I think I might have had a couple of whiskies in me too.

Ah, that would do it.
You don’t notice you cut yourself for a few minutes that way.

Was it bad? You didn’t need stitches or anything…?
It actually happens kind of often when I play. I lose control when I’m doing what I’m doing. But I have fond memories. Yeah, I think there was a lot of drink there that weekend.

I was asking a couple friends what I should I ask you and they said “Why did you take off your shirt that night?” and “Why did you bleed all over the guitar?”
I’ve always secretly wanted to be Iggy Pop. (laugh) It’s rock and roll, man!

It’s been about a year since Here is What Is came out. How are you feeling about the movie and soundtrack now?
I’m quite proud of it. I think it reveals how I work, and in the end I think it has the sort of spiritual tone I wanted. It talks about believing in one’s ideas… confidence-building…and how to serve a room.

We’re only human in the end.

Congregation. That’s what’s lovely about congregation. It’s a support system and a feeling that I like in a room and harmony is working. It’s nice to get someone’s hand on your shoulder at the right moment.

So is that where you think the spiritual quality of music comes from? People getting together and playing music together?
Yeah, I think fundamentally people getting together and playing music together has a spirit in it. That’s what we like about group singing. It’s selfless, in a way, because you have to harmonize and that sense of putting one’s ego on the coat rack while you blend with a group of people you want to blend with. I think that in itself is spiritual—without getting overly ecclesiastical about it. I think we humans, we like congregation, and we respect harmony.

It’s been said to me a hundred and fifty people on a small plot of land is a great balance for community… support, keeping an eye out for the weak ones… I think we are tribespeople or villagers at heart, and we enjoy living in harmony with a group of folks. I don’t know how cities got to be 10 million.

I’m thinking about 150 people and that’s The Ship at capacity…
(Laugh) All roads lead to The Ship. You can’t believe how much that place gets talked about… But I love it. You’ve got to love it. Because every neighbourhood has a Ship.

Exactly. That’s kind of my point. The venue is the community…
Yeah, you might laugh, you might cry in your beer, but nonetheless it’s an outlet for whatever you’re going through at the time… whether it’s rock and roll, a divorce…

…Which could happen at the same time…
Yes, they could. That could have happened if I had stripped completely naked in 2002—I’m sure my girlfriend would have left me. (laugh)

In the film you describe your pedal steel guitar as “a church in a suitcase.” …why your pedal steel specifically?
I’ve been playing the pedal steel guitar since I was kid. It reminds me about how certain things never change. It’s a constant, like an old friend… That instrument is essentially my conduit.

Why do so many musicians want you to work with them as a producer?
I have a lot of respect for finding one’s own voice. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s totally necessary as an artist. Yes, of course you have to study. And you know, as a painter you may go to art school and may hold Rothko in high regard, but ultimately you’re not going to paint like Rothko. You’re going to paint something from your own vision and your own life. It’s necessary to separate yourself from your teachers so you can become a master yourself.

I look for those ingredients of individuality and identity. I look for what’s special in someone. I don’t encourage them to find their inspiration from their past works. I try and get on the psychological roller coaster with them and try to understand what’s going on underneath.

So you concentrate on that musician at that moment rather than that musician and their body of work…

Yes, I look to the future in somebody’s work, which is hard because it’s the great unknown.

Especially if someone’s established. It’s kind of easy to do the last thing again, just because it went well. You might want to hang onto what inspired your last work, but you don’t want to do it again.

Daniel Lanois will perform at Club One on October 16. Doors open at 7pm. Tickets available at Big Ben’s, The Sundance, and all Ticketpro outlets including Holy Heart Theatre, by phone 1-800-311-9090 and at www.sonicconcerts.com