By Allan TongDaniel Lanois, producer for Bob Dylan, U2, Robbie Robertson, Emmylou Harris and many others, turns to film with the premiere of Here Is What Is, a meditation on creating music. Stylish yet personal, the film captures Garth Hudson, Sinead O’Connor, U2 and long-time mentor Brian Eno waxing about the art of music. Lanois co-directed and bankrolled the film, which is not a "clip job” collection of music videos and concert numbers. A few weeks before the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Exclaim! spoke with Lanois in his lavish Toronto studio loft where he showed scenes from the latest edit surrounded by mixing consoles, drum kits and his Grammy Awards.
Instead of asking Lanois run-of-the-mill questions about the challenges of record producing, I simply asked him to comment on names and places that have informed his life.
New Orleans 1989 Daniel Lanois: When you're French Canadian you understand the power of the neighbourhood. There seems to be a longer family connection, and music seems to come from that connection. My dad was a fiddler so we had that music in the house all the time. Music was not something you decided to study at 16 and went to school for. It already existed in the community, and that's what I found in New Orleans. It's the heat. The hotter it gets the better the grooves get. I’m interested in the groove so I went to New Orleans. It was part of the education of Daniel Lanois — an understanding of bass lines, in knowing where the funk and blues come from. You can't learn that in school, but if you want to know what you have to be in it.
Martha and the Muffins’ 1981 album This Is The Ice Age [produced by Lanois] That was an innovative time for Martha and the Muffins. My sister Jocelyn was the bass player in that band. These folks were curious about the future of sonics. That record still holds up. There are all sorts of curious sounds. It's very much a Toronto perspective. The best works resonate truth, and that record has truth in it.
Hamilton, Ontario in the 1960s I was playing in some of my first bands. There was a building that had been taken over by a bunch of hippies, the old YWCA building that was discontinued. We got to use that building for two years and every floor had a band on it. It was the ultimate Bohemian high-rise and we were at the forefront of the psychedelic explosion. There would be like runaways living in the place, drugs, exactly what was happening in the ’60s — it was madness, but it was incredible. It was like what was happening at Rochdale College in Toronto, but the Hamilton scene happened a little bit before that. I have fond memories of Hamilton being a music town at that time.
Jimi Hendrix The first time I heard Hendrix, I was in school and it made me want to quit school. I remember the very day [I heard] "Foxy Lady” [sings] ”I’m coming to get you!” and the trembling of the guitar. "Oh, my God, the sexuality in this is really overt.” Can you believe that stuff was part of pop radio at the time? Radio was my whole life. I had a radio in my mom's basement. That's where I heard the best stuff. We used to get radio from Buffalo, Detroit — there was a lot of soul music. I certainly remember FM coming out of Toronto, because there were some wild beat poets doing late-night radio shows. They were probably completely stoned out of their brains and they took their listeners on a trip. It was a great time for radio.
"Quebecois” I spoke only French till I was ten, so I saw the world through a French Canadian kid’s eyes. My dad was a carpenter and a drinker. We lived in a government housing district. I remember we lived on the edge of the woods, so my brother and I would play by the river skipping stones, and put pennies on the railway tracks. We were out there for hours at a time and that might have been the beginning of the imagination building. I think melodically there is a strong French Canadian imprints in my work. I've written songs based on some of the melodies that I remember from back than.
"Somewhere Down The Crazy River” [A song on Robbie Robertson’s self-titled 1987 album, produced by Lanois.] That's a line that Robbie Robertson came up with when he was describing what it was like to hang out in Arkansas with Levon Helm in his old neighbourhood. He was telling me about the hot nights and fishing with dynamite, and was asking for someone for directions for someplace "somewhere down the crazy river.” It was some line he came up with in his storytelling, but I was curious about his stories because I wanted them to be on that record. I had presented him with this toy instrument that Eno introduced me to called the Suzuki Omnichord, like an electric autoharp. He found a little chord sequence with it that was sweet and wonderful. As he was developing his chord sequence I recorded him and superimposed his storytelling, which I was secretly recording, on top. That was the birth of "Somewhere Down The Crazy River.” It's kind of like a guy with a deep voice telling you about steaming nights in Arkansas. So I presented it to him and he went, "Whoa, how did this happen?”