The Background: Making No Line on the Horizon

Irish Times by Brian Boyd (2009-02-27)

Daniel Lanois: “On this one, myself and Eno get songwriting credits. It’s nice to be recognised”

Name: Daniel Lanois Job: Producer Favourite song on new album: “Moment of Surrender”

Canadian Daniel Lanois first worked with U2 on The Unforgettable Fire and is credited with helping broaden their sound. Renowned for his use of subtle atmospherics, he has gone on to work with Bob Dylan (notably on Oh Mercy) and Emmylou Harris on her sublime Wrecking Ball.

“In the mid 1980s I was working with Brian Eno on ambient records. He was down to do The Unforgettable Fire album and he asked me to co-produce it. I hadn’t heard a single note of their music at this stage. I remember hearing them when they sent some demo tapes over to Canada — I thought the singer had an interesting high register.

“I’m a great believer in change in the studio — change of all types. I’m very interested in the atmospherics of a record, all the various sounds. But I suppose my big thing is always trying to find that soulful moment. I’ve seen the term ‘the Lanois sound’ used, but I don’t think there is one.

“I’ve never really liked the feel of a padded studio. With U2 they can go to Berlin or, in this case, go to Morocco, which was Bono’s idea.

“On this one, myself and Eno get songwriting credits — the first time U2 have allowed that as far as I know. I suppose that’s what 20 years of seniority does. It’s nice to be recognised, whether it’s doing arrangements or contributing to the song itself. I’ve always been happy to make whatever contribution I could under the umbrella term ‘producer.’

“It’s finding that soulful moment when something has an unstoppable vibe to it. I remember the six of us sitting in the studio, and that happened with ‘Moment of Surrender.’ It just came out of the six of us.

“It can be difficult. There are so many ideas floating around. The trick is to allow everything to be brought to a conclusion to see how it sounds. Then you get a consensus or you don’t. Sometimes someone will really fight for a song or a part to be retained and they have to be given that chance.

“It surprises everyone that they still don’t take anything for granted, despite all they’ve done.”

Steve Lillywhite: “They do have this habit of working right up to the very last second”

Name: Steve Lillywhite Job: Producer Favourite song on the new album: “Moment of Surrender”

Steve Lillywhite was the in-house producer at Island Records when U2 were signed in 1980. He produced their first three albums and has made major contributions to the others.

“When I came in to produce their first album, I think they viewed me as a grown-up figure in the music industry. They had this feeling that whenever I arrived, they really had to get down to it.

“I thought after Boy that we’d both move on to different things. Then they asked me to work on October and then the War album. I really wasn’t sure at the time. My idea always was that as a producer I work with a lot of different artists and that artists should work with a lot of different producers. But we’ve become close over the years.

“There’s nothing really annoying about them, but they do have this habit of working right up to the very last second. On War, the very last song we did was ’40.’ The studio clock was ticking and the next band due in were waiting outside the door. It happened again on this album — it happens on every U2 album.

“There’s nothing different about them now. It’s as much now about the commitment to the music as it was on Boy.

“Some producers dread having to say to really famous rock stars that the song they’ve just played is absolute rubbish. There is a line there: you have to able to push the artist without rubbishing the work. It’s second nature now for me.

“I came in after Morocco, where Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois has already started the production work. There had been some sessions before with Rick Rubin — but they weren’t used for whatever reason.

“I worked on the London and Dublin sessions. What struck me most is how U2 seemed to view themselves as this brand new band, a band no one has ever heard of and for that reason they really must excel on this one.”

The graphics guys: “I was given just the four-word title”

Names: Steve Averill, Shaughn McGrath Job: Graphic artists

Dublin graphic artist and musician, Steve Averill has worked on all of U2’s album designs. His colleague at the design studio Four5One, Shaughn McGrath, was charged with coming up with the sleeve for No Line on the Horizon with Averill pitching in his own ideas as well.

“It started in the spring of 2008 when I was given just the four words of the title,” says McGrath. “Sometimes you have a title to work with, sometimes you don’t,” says Averill. “We had the title How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, but were wary of the fact that if there was a major bomb blast, that may have been dropped.”

McGrath and Averill have a “close dialogue” with the band members about ideas and direction, and an early starting point was a book of photos by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.

The designer settled on a hazy, shimmering 1993 Sugimoto photograph called Boden Sea.

When the album cover was revealed last month, a U.S. musician pointed out the similarities with an album he had released a few years ago. Both albums use the same Sugimoto photo.

McGrath also decided to put in the graphic artist’s equivalent of a “hidden track.” Somewhere in the liner notes, there is a reference to something famous in the fields of art and science. McGrath says that not even the band know it’s there, but he expects it to be uncovered by a sharp-eyed fan “just hours after the album goes on release.”

Timeline: It’s the longest ever gap between U2 albums. What’s been going on?

July 2006 sends e-mails confirming the band have begun work on a follow-up to 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. They have enlisted super-producer Rick Rubin.

November 2006
They release two songs from these sessions on the compilation U218 Singles and play them on the Vertigo Tour. U2 later decide to cease recording with Rubin and shelve the music from these sessions.

June 2007
The band, plus longtime collaborators Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno decamp to Fez, Morocco and set up a studio. Further sessions take place in New York, France, and London.

August 2008
A fan in the vicinity of Bonos beach house in Eze, France, makes a poor-quality recording of four songs playing on the singers stereo. The clips are subsequently uploaded to YouTube.

December 2008
No Line on the Horizon completed, with producer Steve Lillywhite also on board.

January 2009
The album artwork is released. A minor hullaballoo erupts when it is discovered that the cover photo has appeared on the cover of a previous album by another musician.

February 2009
The album is leaked on various file-sharing websites, and within hours clocks up 100,000 illegal downloads.

No Line on the Horizon is released in Ireland. It will be available on Monday in the U.K. and Tuesday in North America. The band play tonight on Jonathan Ross on BBC1.

© Irish Times, 2009

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