Neil Young And Daniel Lanois: Love And War

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

When you heard some of the effects he put on your voice and on your guitar, was it a look back to when music was so much more adventurous in the past? Or did you see it as a look to the future for you?

NY: Actually I think it’s a look back. Wouldn’t you say that? (To Daniel, who nods ‘Yes.’) What it is, it’s a look back but it’s done in a very futuristic way because he has a control over all of these things that would have been hard to manage earlier. But the pieces and old records that we used to listen to, man, some of the swapbacks on those early ones, that’s where it all came from. And that’s just because it was on a fader or maybe they just had it on a tape recorder and then they’re doing the take and the guy will just, okay, this word right here, jack it up and record, and then back, and you know, live, as it went down.

DL: I see it as a continuation of some of the adventurous work that was happening in Jamaica back in the day, like early Lee Scratch Perry. They had very little equipment but they really did a lot with it. Like some idiosyncratic detail on a piece of equipment would become like the backbone of an entire production.

I’d heard that you were planning to record this acoustically and Daniel, you convinced him not to. Is that accurate?

DL: Oh, no, there was no convincing. That was the invitation [from Neil]: “Let’s record some acoustic songs and make a film of the performances.” I said, “Okay, that sounds great.” We did that, and at the end of the first session Neil says, “I got more. Let’s try it on electric.” And he pulled out “The Hitchhiker.” At that point I said, “Wait a minute, I see there’s a doorway to another set of tones here we could operate by.”

NY: We found another sonic pillar.

DL: Yeah. It’s all coming back to me now. There was an early rant from me about sonic pillars. Once you have your sonic pillars in order then you can build a bridge.

Okay, do we need a glossary here?

DL: At a certain point we both felt that it would be good to investigate some new material electric, which was not part of the initial invitation. Neil kept coming in with them and they were great. When “Walk With Me” came in, that really opened a door because at that point he had brought in the Gretsch White Falcon, which has a split pickup allowing us to put the bass strings in one amp and the high strings in the other. And as soon as I had that freedom to treat the bottom separate from the top, it allowed me to go even further with this kind of dub technique.

Was there an organizing principle at work with all these songs?

NY: What ties “Hitchhiker” and “Walk With Me” together? Well, they just came to me one by one. When I realized that I was going to use the White Falcon and we were going to explore that area, I brought it in and we recorded a couple of songs on it. One of them had been one that we tried acoustically earlier and another one was a new song, “Walk With Me,” and then there was another song, “Sign Of Love,” that I had, and for that full moon segment.

But “Walk With Me” was a full-on song. It was twice as long as it is now, and Dan and I worked it together and trimmed it down. Dan took out part of it and said to me, “You’re probably going to wonder what happened to this part.” I said, “There’s only really two lines in that part that you took out that I miss, and I know where to put them, and we already recorded them. So we’re just going to take ’em and put ’em in over here, and it’s on the same version. You did this but let’s just save those two lines and put them in over something else, and that’ll work. There’s a place where I turned around and don’t face the amp, and we can put it right there and then no one will know what the hell’s going on, and it’d be like an afterthought.”

A lot of it was very creative, with both of us working together, communicating together about what we wanted. I wasn’t there when all the mixing and everything was done, when Dan did his thing with all of that. But I was texting with Dan all the time about details and talking about the songs. My job was to write the songs and to perform them so that he had a palate to work with, and then he was free to do whatever he wanted with them for the next three weeks until I got back.

I went somewhere – either to Hawaii or back to the ranch – to write and set up my electric guitar and do what it was that I wanted to do. I don’t think I wrote “Walk With Me” at the ranch because that was the electric stereo thing, and I was experimenting with that. So I started going, okay, this is cool. Now we got a big riff, a big sound, a big whole thing, so what can I put on top of it? I’ve always gone to these weird little tunings that I like and so I said, “Well, I’ve already used all these tunings. So I’ll use ’em again but if I want to, I’ll change them even more and make them even weirder than they were before.” So I did that a few times and did tunings that I’ve never used and that I’ve never heard. That made things different. But really the essence of the songs and where they’re coming from was just, it’s like it always is. It just happens.

DL: You know, there was kind of an automatic Canadian curating system at play here. I mean to be honest, we had an excess of material. Neil came in, it was a nice set of songs and we recorded them all. And then as new songs came in, they bullied some of the other songs and pushed them out.


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