Last night I had the supreme pleasure of attending an evening billed as “In Coversation With Daniel Lanois” the the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Any time I get a chance to hear a great artist, an icon, talk about their work, I jump at the opportunity. My interest in Lanois stems from a few different factors: his aesthetic approach (which pulls from a lot of experimental minimalist techniques to create something that is often paradoxically maximal), his influence on contemporary record production in general (via his work with mega-stars like U2 and Dylan), and the fact that he produced one of the most unique, important, and interesting records that Neil Young has made in his long, interesting career (in addition to being one of the few outside producers that Neil has ever worked with).
To me, Lanois has always seemed like an artist who has been able to straddle the avant-garde and the mainstream, which is a fascinating point of intersection for any artistic tradition. On his own, he makes beautifully weird and individualist music, but he also pays the bills by helping to create massive hits like “The Joshua Tree”– things that are as mainstream as you can possibly get. This seems like an inherent contradiction, but he’s not alone: indeed, people like his mentor/collaborator Brian Eno, Dylan and even Neil Young himself seem to be able to inhabit this same space, using their quirky and fractured visions to create a widescreen product that is aimed at the biggest possible audience.
In this specific case, there is also another version of Lanois to consider: the historical figure within Canadian music lore, the guy who made hugely influential records with angular bands like Simply Saucer (now regarded as ground-breaking artists in their own right), who helped to create what we call “ambient” music out of a basement in Hamilton, who helped re-defined what the role of the producer is, and who became a rock star himself via his famous sounds.
The event began with a short chat with Lanois, wherein he spoke about his previous film scoring for things like “Sling Blade” and the film he made about his own creativity, “Here Is What Is”. Throughout, Lanois was thoughtful and charming, and a bit soft-spoken as befitting a man who works behind the scenes. I was taken with how intuitive his process seems to be. He spoke about total immersion being a necessary part of his method, how he subsumes into the work until he can feel the emotional resonance of it. This kind of thinking is light years away from big-time, major record label “hit-making”, and in comparison it sounds almost painterly and mystical. There’s a delicacy to his creative process, a supreme sensitivity the belies itself through his sometimes dense, chaotic arrangements.
The second part of the event was dedicated to Lanois’ new album, a masterful piece of instrumental fusion called “Flesh and Machine”. I’ve heard most of the record at this point and it’s wonderful; a truly free-associative and purely creative response to a multi-layered reality. It’s beautiful and ambient and sad and joyful and dense and sparse at all once. Lanois introduced a series of short films he commissioned for the album tracks, and talked in detail about the palette and techniques he used to create each song. This part was obviously the most fascinating, as he dissected the various sound manipulations that he used to create something otherworldly out of his musicians. Like a Cubist, he deconstructs his sounds and stretches them, phases them, dices them up, distorts them, and eventually reassembles them into something new and exciting. For me, hearing him talk about the ways in which he uses the instrumental performances as the starting point for developing the palette of the arrangement was revelatory. And his explanations were beautifully visual, which underscored the filmic theme of the venue and the new album: he would speak about cymbals feeling like “raindrops on your face”, or like “falling into an abyss”.
Then, of course, there were the amusing stories from his long career: creating the theme song for the talk-show “Live It Up” from a random walk-in to his studio, convincing Neil Young to do a solo electric album, trying to figure out how to mix a Tinariwen track in from the back seat of his vintage convertible, living in a derelict theatre while making the “Sling Blade” soundtrack and a Willie Nelson record. With the amount of people he was worked with, the guy is bound to have some great stories.
Capping the night off was the real treat: a “live scoring” of an abstract short film, with Lanois improvising live in the room on his beloved pedal steel. His connection to that instrument is spiritual and immediately palpable to an audience. Watching a true master wield his favorite tool is a rare and beautiful thing.
Lanois has revealed himself to be one of the true giants of modern music. A intuitive, emotional producer who is not afraid to embrace technology, he is perhaps our best template of what future sonic art holds in store.