Daniel Lanois. Courtesy of the Grant Avenue Studio archives.

Great Moments In Canadian Music (Track 10): Daniel Lanois Opens First Studio –– In His Mother’s Basement

Author’s Note: The interview for this story was recorded April 9, 2021, with the story written a few days later. Sadly, Bob Lanois, Daniel’s brother and co-founder of their recording studio, passed away April 19. Although never intended as a tribute to his brother, Daniel spoke about him throughout the interview with affection, respect and genuine awe for his technical knowledge and instincts.

As producer for Bob Dylan, U2, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel, and many more, his credits are exceptional. That includes a wide swath of classic Canadian hits by Martha And The Muffins, Parachute Club, Luba, and others. His own recording career is impressive as well, featuring albums with Brian Eno, his beloved Acadie from 1989, and his brand-new, already acclaimed set Heavy Sun. But way before that, back in the 1970s, Canadians were hearing Daniel Lanois on the radio. They just didn’t know it.

“‘Barry Gordon Ford…People helping people,'” Lanois sings, remembering a jingle he created almost 50 years ago. It was part of an advertising package sold by an agency out of Toronto to national clients. Your company could get a full campaign of media and print ads in the “People Helping People” package, including a personalized jingle. For that, the ad agency hired out the work to the Lanois Brothers, Daniel and Bob, in the recording studio they had built in their mother’s basement at 311 Robina Road, Ancaster, Ontario, now part of Hamilton.

The famous Lanois sound, beloved of rock royalty, was learned and perfected over hundreds of hours and sessions for unknown artists and countless commercial spots, well before Bono and The Edge came calling. Lanois can remember those advertisements just as well as the classic records he made. “I did that for years,” he says about the ads. “Nobody wants to hear about that, everybody wants to hear about Willie P. Bennett and Rick James, but listen, I come from poverty and we had to pay the bills, so I built this little ad company with my brother. He sang, ‘Get a little happy, get the best car…Bay King Motors got that car,’ with a megaphone, and I sang, ‘Fay Jackson’s can help you look like the woman you want to be. Come and see the wonderful world of fashion at Fay Jackson.’ Fay Jackson’s, Bay King Motors, these are Hamilton institutions. We did all the jingles for them. How about African Lion Safaris? We did that. The TV show Live It Up, we scored that and wrote that theme. But nobody wants to hear about that.”

Brian Eno, Bob Lanois, Harold Budd, and Daniel Lanois. Courtesy of the Grant Avenue Recordings archives.

There’s a reason Lanois wants to highlight the grunt work that went into his early studio and the less glamourous backstory to his career. He credits all his subsequent fame to those learning experiences, and the work ethic he developed. It’s not a question about being a studio wizard, since it’s not magic, his technique is to apply what he learned over many years of struggling in the basement studio before he and brother Bob moved to their famous Grant Avenue studio. 

It all started, Lanois says, when he bought his first piece of gear. “I got my first tape recorder when I was about 13. It was just a little all-in-one recorder, reel-to-reel, press record and you get to hear yourself back, with a little microphone built-in. That was it. It had speakers onboard so it was a whole recording studio in one little box. I just loved it. I fell in love with not only that machine but with the medium itself. And I got curious about all aspects of it. So I kept buying other types of recorders. My next one had a feature on it, sound-on-sound, that allowed me to record a group of musicians, then you press sound-on-sound, and you transfer that track over to its neighbour track along with its new overdub, and that became my technique. I could go sound-on-sound back and forth several times, and the original information just kept getting duller over time. So I designed my overdubs according to that deficiency. But it provided a depth of field, to use a photographic term, it meant that things were more muted, and sounded further back in the picture…the back of the room. That provided the idea of dimension in recording –– not everything should be on an equal plane, in front. If you want depth, muffle a few things and they will sound further away.” 

Lanois was so engrossed in all this that by 1968 he had scraped together enough gear and soundproofing to turn the basement into what eventually became known as Master Sound Recording, with his brother Bob and childhood friend Bob Doige. “I got a proper four-track, a half-inch Tascam, a very nice machine,” says Lanois. “And it’s on that machine that I recorded a lot of records, including many gospel records. My brother and I were associated with a christian organization that had a singing group called The Torchmen, out of St. Catherines. They were responsible for bringing talent in from all over the world to tour Canada. Gospel groups, often singing quartets. So I got to make a lot of those records for The Torchmen, and how lucky was I? A Canadian kid in the basement in Ancaster, hearing beautiful harmony singing from all corners of the world. So that was a very big part of my education.”

It did make for some interesting scenes in the suburbs, but his mother Jill and the rest of the family quickly accepted it. “My mom was young, she grew up with us, she was pregnant at 17. She liked that we were doing something special. And she was always very encouraging. Part of it was she couldn’t believe what was happening, people were coming in from all over to record in her house, including a lot of Jamaican music. Those folks always turned up with a big entourage and I remember there being picnic blankets on the front lawn of a very regular house in Ancaster. People having a nice time, and recording downstairs, sunshine on the front lawn.”

Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and U2’s Bono. Courtesy of the Grant Avenue Recordings archives.

The acts were not stars, there were no major label budgets, and the Lanois brothers were not charging big rates. Instead, they were hustling for any and all work. “We had a poster around town, it was funny, sixty dollars a day guarantees you a good demo.” It did not, however, guarantee the studio would succeed. They needed more work, and always more equipment. Lanois had to take advantage of his other talents.

“I hit the road as a guitar player in show bands across Canada. I wore the showband clothes at night, and in the daytime, I put on my regular suit and I went to the radio station to play examples of our work, our jingles. So I was hustling while I was on the road. I was making 150 bucks a week, eating out of an electric frying pan in a cheap motel. So is that record production? You get up in the morning and you put your boots on, and you get the job done. It’s not glamour. I’m in Brockville, and I’m going to the radio station to sell them our wares. That’s called having enough courage to believe in yourself, to lower yourself to the gutter, do that kind of thing to make enough money to buy that microphone to make Willie P. Bennett  sound that good.”

Really, the gutter? Well, close enough. “I was on the road with the Ricky Day Revue. Ever heard of him? Nobody has, he was a female impersonator. I’m the good-looking guitar player who’s involved in a strip-tease routine with Ms. Montego. The tassels on her tits are on fire, and I’m part of the act. And we’re in Sudbury. We have a week’s stint in a hotel where we’re performing to lumberjacks. That’s my past. How about the Brown Derby in Toronto? They only had showbands there. How were we billed? Direct from Las Vegas. I’d never been to Las Vegas. That’s the glamour of it all.”

When Daniel was on the road, Bob would handle any studio clients, and the studio was starting to get more musical acts in. “We started making records with some of the local singer-songwriters, a lot of folk singers, there was quite a scene at that time. Willie P., Joe Hall, Quarrington-Worthy, Ray Materick, I recorded (local blues great) Jackie Washington, a lot of regional folks.” Both Ian and Sylvia Tyson were at different sessions, and perhaps most widely heard, Raffi’s first children’s album was recorded at Master Sound, with Lanois recording, mixing, and even playing on it, as he did with many of the clients.

“That’s it, I was helpful to them. I didn’t imagine that I would be anything other than somebody who was helpful to get the best recording possible, applying my skills as a technician, and I was an accomplished guitar player, so I was able to make arrangement suggestions. That segued into doing good edits, so I was kind of a one-stop shop and I was a reliable music friend for the client. Maybe I could play a bassline or overdub a certain guitar part that no one else was there to play. I never knew what a record producer was, I wasn’t trying to be that. I was not very career-minded, I was just there to help people out.”

By 1976, the basement was too small for the work they were getting, and after a search, the brothers found a house in Hamilton with lots more room and lots of parking for gear trucks. Daniel and Bob, along with friend Bob Doidge, turned the house into the now-famous Grant Avenue Studio. “My brother, he built that studio with his bare hands, one soundproofing idea after another,” says Daniel. “He did beautiful work, he’s quite a brilliant mind that way. I was doing most of the dog work in the recording studio, sitting in the chair, and my brother is a lot more qualified, the scientist of the two, you know?”

By 1983, Daniel was working on ambient recordings with Brian Eno and left to pursue work in Europe. At that point, he decided he had to walk away from the studio, but the Lanois brothers had their longtime friend to keep it going. “My buddy Bob Doidge took an interest in owning it and picked it up. The Doidge, as we call him, is very responsible for all this. He was at Grant Avenue right through, involved in the jingle business too, has always been a great soulmate. He thought, we’ve got a pretty good thing going here, I should keep it going.”

Bob Doige (L) and Daniel Lanois (R). Courtesy of the Grant Avenue Recordings archives.

It’s still going strong. Under Doidge, stars such as Gordon Lightfoot and Cowboy Junkies have made records there, and it continues to provide support and encouragement to the Hamilton music community, helping nurture new and underground talent. As for Lanois, he says nothing has changed really, he is still working hard.  

“All I ever did was work, from the age of nine. I was a pinsetter in a bowling alley, I was a hamburger grinder in a butcher shop. I walked more 18s and 9s as a caddy than Tiger Woods. I worked in a garden centre, I delivered The Globe and Mail. The moral of the story is some kids just got the bug, and I still do. I gotta get back to my music, I’m making a piano record now.”

He thinks for a minute if he’s forgotten any of the story. “Don’t leave out Ms. Montego, and Delightful Delilah.”