An Interview with Daniel Lanois: Finding ‘Red Dead Redemption’ Under a Heavy Sun

After many years of success in the recording industry, producing multi-platinum albums such as U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, Peter Gabriel’s So and Us, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, and Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, 11-time Grammy winner Daniel Lanois received an unusual call: Rockstar Games, well-known for their Grand Theft Auto franchise, asked him to compose the soundtrack for the next installment of their Western-themed Red Dead Redemption series.

In addition to producing records for other notable artists, Lanois has his own impressive discography as singer/songwriter, going back to 1989’s Acadie--which gave us his signature song, "The Maker" -- and a host of other wonderful albums, including For the Beauty of Wynona, Shine, Rockets, Bella Donna, Here Is What Is, and Flesh and Machine.

Some of Lanois’ notable side projects have included composing the score for Billy Bob Thornton’s seminal 1996 film, Sling Blade, 2010’s Black Dub collaboration with vocalist Trixie Whitley, and 2016’s Goodbye to Language, a sonic exploration of the pedal steel with frequent musical ally Rocco DeLuca.

The Music of Red Dead Redemption 2 would see Lanois in the studio alongside industry greats such as Willie Nelson, Rhiannon Giddens, Cyril Neville, and D’Angelo. Also joining him on the album is his current band, Heavy Sun, whose members include Jim Wilson (bass, vocals), Johnny Shepherd (Hammond B3, vocals), and Rocco DeLuca (guitar, lap steel and vocals).

While it may sound unusual for a musician of his pedigree to be involved in the video game industry, the world of Red Dead Redemption would prove a natural fit for Lanois, whose personal style often blends roots Americana with cutting-edge studio techniques. As a result, the score of Red Dead Redemption would match the gameplay, infused with a combination of traditional and modern sensibilities.

During Heavy Sun’s weekly residency at Zebulon in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to catch up with Lanois and chat with him about The Music of Red Dead Redemption 2, as well as his upcoming West Coast tour with Heavy Sun, which will conclude on May 14th at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles.




Daniel Corey: I was at your place last February; you had a party, and (Heavy Sun bassist) Jim had invited me. In your studio, when you played the Red Dead Redemption songs for us, you said that you had never played a video game before. I’m curious, what awareness did you have at all of the medium prior to getting the call for Red Dead Redemption?

Daniel Lanois: The invitation came out of the blue. One of the fellows at Rockstar Games was aware of my work, and he thought that this Western-themed game would be appropriate for me. And we just went into it, man, and it was fascinating.

It was really quite similar to the scoring of a film. But what I enjoyed about it is that they required various moods per theme, you might say. So, we were able to supply them with stems. For example, somebody playing the game might conduct the direction of a character to a certain locale; let's say, the entering of the saloon would provide the melody, but out in the desert, playing, you'd get more of the bottom end. And so, I enjoyed mixing portions of a given title in a different way.

I thought that was a nice way to work, and it opened up a whole new set of possibilities for me, because I put all my mixing effort into a given stem--a stem being, let's say, one would just be the rhythm, a drum track, the percussion. Another one would be the bass, and the symphonics, and so on. And I found that by putting all of my effort into a specific ingredient or two, it allowed me to treat that as a complete component, in itself. And then when I blended all the stems together, it provided a different result than I would get normally by mixing everything at once.




Daniel Corey: Did they show you footage of cutscenes while you were working? Or did they just describe everything to you, or give you a script?

Daniel Lanois: Oh, absolutely, we watched scenes. They had all finished scenes, and some of them were very specific in length--you know, the ones that were more song-driven, and so we designed them to fit the length of the scene. Other ones were more open-world, where there was an opportunity, then, to remain more atmospheric. And I enjoyed both directions. It was fun to work on the songs, but I also liked doing some themes that were more long-lasting and could apply to more of the journey aspect of the game.

Daniel Corey: You've done albums like Acadie, which consists of songs. But then also you have Flesh and Machine, which is more atmospheric. As far as both ends of your recording career are concerned, would you say that this took in everything?

Daniel Lanois: I'd say it did include a lot of what I do. Obviously, songs have lyrics, and so it was nice to be serving something else other than my own personal songwriting vision. I believe that it brings something different out in me if I'm serving something specific, like a storyline.

For example, the song "Cruel World," I wanted to represent the perspective of the central character. There had been a lot of hardship in his life, but at that crossing and at that point of the game, there was a surrender within that, where he didn't want to be fighting anymore, not fighting that same kind of fight. So, I enjoyed writing a song for a character whose direction had already been invented by the people who wrote the story. It was nice. I enjoyed getting off the songwriting hook, with regard to my own vision. Just serving somebody else was nice.

Daniel Corey: Are you a fan of the Western genre? Do you have any favorite Western films?

Daniel Lanois: Well, yes, I've enjoyed Westerns, some of the classics, the Clint Eastwood classics. You know, as a kid, I came up at a time when television didn't have so much programming, and every Sunday, we watched Bonanza, like everybody else. [laughter]

But I've enjoyed--the book, more than the film--Shane. I read Shane when I was a kid, and, you know, some moralistically driven stories. And then I'm interested in history, some of the famous battles we talk about, like Custer's Last Stand.

Daniel Corey: When you think about Western film scores, there's that Golden Age sound, like Elmer Bernstein and The Magnificent Seven. Then, there's the postmodern sound. You mentioned the Clint Eastwood classics, so there you have Ennio Morricone.

Daniel Lanois: Well, I'm a real fan of Bernstein, and Morricone did beautiful work, as well. With Morricone, there's always something quite dry and quite arid, more open sounds that I really like. The introduction of the ocarina, you know, [vocalizes theme from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly], that one. That was very resourceful, to choose that instrument and make it part of the central theme.

When we did Red Dead Redemption, we talked about all that, the more acoustic instruments. But then, a lot of what I do, the components are not so identifiable to a specific instrument, and that's where it gets interesting for me. Because my atmospheric sounds, I like to think that they serve a scene without stepping into the specifics of a banjo or a violin or a harmonica. That’s just part of my work process. I like to create sounds that are not so specific, but still create an emotion.

Daniel Corey: Speaking of evoking a mood in a song, "That's the Way it Is," it's a beautiful, haunting ballad. It has this elegiac quality that you would associate with the Western genre. You wrote that song with Rocco DeLuca. Were you guys thinking about the cowboy's lament for the changing landscape?

Daniel Lanois: The song was started before we worked on the game, so it's something we already had. They thought that it had something in it that resonated with the game. And I cut a demo of it to send to the folks at Rockstar Games, and they fell in love with it. They ended up using my demo, you know? [laughs]

And I think we just captured a nice feeling with that, and it was fresh material, so we were able to push the sonics of it in the direction of the game’s requirements.




Daniel Corey: How did you come to work with Rhiannon Giddens? I actually discovered her from listening to your album, and I recently went to see her at the Pico Union in downtown. It was wonderful. How did that come about?

Daniel Lanois: That came through Rockstar Games. They already had a work relationship with her. She had done some demos for them long before my involvement, and they asked if I would carry on with the next chapter of her involvement and get her in the studio with me, and I agreed. We had a nice time in Nashville. She's a very sweet person and a great part singer. Her memory and her capacity to hear something once and then deliver is really good. She's a very accomplished, studied musician.

Daniel Corey: Yeah, I got that when I saw her. She described her banjo, I believe it was based on a type of banjo from 1857, a very specific make. And I am a little curious, in the recording of that, does she have a pickup on the banjo, or did you have to mic it special?

Daniel Lanois: Well, it's a gut-string banjo. Was it fretless, even?

Daniel Corey: Yes.

Daniel Lanois: We played a very nice thing together. I played guitar; she played that banjo. I really enjoyed that. It's one of my favorite things that we did together. She has that beautiful tone. We used a microphone and a pickup on the banjo. Same with my guitar. We had a pickup in it, and a mic. We ran my guitar into a little Fender Tweed amp, one of those vintage ones. So, we both had a mic and a pickup, and it was a lovely combination. She's a good player.

Daniel Corey: Did you have a favorite moment working on the project? Was there a moment of discovery in the music, in the studio, that you can recall?

Daniel Lanois: Yes, absolutely. "May I stand unshaken, amidst the crash of worlds." Rocco DeLuca had started that already in L.A. He was living in my house at the time. I invited him to come to New Orleans to work with me out there, to finish up a little bit more on the game. He played me Unshaken, just that one little phrase, and I said, "Well, let's take it to the studio tomorrow and work with the guys." We had some great singers working with us in New Orleans, including Cyril Neville, of the Neville Brothers. And we just did a really haunting vocal version of that.

Then, I took that to New York and made that the chorus to the song I wrote with D'Angelo. You know, we did a lyric version of that, which became Unshaken, with D'Angelo.

It's a Hindu proverb, really. For that Hindu proverb to make its way to New Orleans, then to New York with D'Angelo, then for it to be brought to conclusion as a finished song, I was quite proud of the journey that it took us on.

D'Angelo sang it so beautifully, and he’s a monster Fender Rhodes player. So, we cut the track with me on acoustic guitar, him on Fender Rhodes.

Daniel Corey: Have you attempted to play the game?

Daniel Lanois: Well, I have had a bit of fun, but I'm too busy to be playing video games. I appreciate the format. D'Angelo plays it well. [laughter]

But I like the form and everything, and I think it's obviously a format that a lot of folks are excited about. I think it has huge potential outside of even beyond what we're familiar with. I think it could be a big part of the future of not only entertainment, but education. Imagine finding yourself, as a gamer, on the Amazon, and seeing animals coming your way. So, it could really be educational and informative. Imagine if I could put myself next to Alexander the Great and go into battle. I'd like that. [laughter]

But I'm glad that I've brushed into that world. It's obviously something that I was unfamiliar with. I knew it existed, but I hadn't been involved personally. So, it was nice to get that invitation, because we like to stay broadminded.

Daniel Corey: Excellent, and I'm glad you did. That was my most-listened-to album of last year. It's quite a great work, so thank you for it.

Daniel Lanois: I appreciate that, my brother.

Daniel Corey: Is there anything that you'd like to say about Heavy Sun’s upcoming tour and the Theatre at Ace Hotel?

Daniel Lanois: The Ace is the last show of a West Coast run. We're excited about it, doing the West Coast. Come summer, we'll be in Europe, and then this fall, we hope to be in New York and do the East Coast.

Daniel Corey: I have tickets for the Ace, so I will definitely be there.

Daniel Lanois: I appreciate your support, and thank you for your interest in my work.

Daniel Corey: Absolutely.





Daniel Corey is a writer and comic book creator based in Los Angeles, CA. His graphic novels have been distributed worldwide, and he has been recognized as a noted influencer in VR and new media. Daniel is also a singer/songwriter, has worked in broadcast news, serves on the Creative Writing Program Advisory Committee at Full Sail University, and speaks at pop culture conventions around the country.

Learn more about Daniel’s work and contact him through his homepage, DangerKatt.com.

*Photos by Daniel Corey




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