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Music makes the man

For producer-guitarist Daniel Lanois, it's about attitude and feel, as a new film shows.

March 29, 2008|John Payne | Special to The Times

Artful and highly informative views of a life behind and inside the music, Daniel Lanois' new film "Here Is What Is" and self-released album of the same title had their Los Angeles premieres with a screening and live performance at the Vista Theatre on Thursday.

A roving travelogue of the producer-engineer-guitarist's experiences recording in five locations, the film encapsulates the musical philosophies and detailed particulars of Lanois' approach to a new sound for contemporary music, as told by himself and his cast of high-profile collaborators, including U2, Brian Eno and Sinead O'Connor.

The Quebec-born Lanois, 56, got his initial career boost through collaborations with Eno on several albums in the early '70s that emphasized simplicity, subtle aural resonance and a nonintellectualized attention paid to process. The pair's work as producers for U2 led to Lanois' subsequent production jobs for artists such as Bob Dylan, O'Connor, Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson; the hallmark of Lanois' sound was a gift for heightened atmosphere via emphasis on feel over technical perfection, as well as his respect for analog recording equipment and vintage instruments.

The new record was culled from material Lanois had in the can and reimagined for the CD and film; both are available through his Red Floor Records,

"It's about half and half," he said this week in the sunny breakfast nook of his home in Silver Lake. "Some of the compositions on there are brand-new and some are a little further back. There's a repeat of a steel guitar instrumental called 'JJ Leaves L.A.,' which we put in there because it's in the film.

"There's a very nice performance of 'JJ' in the film; we shot it here in the mezzanine. At night it blackens pretty good, and if you shine a spotlight on the floor, you get a red circle. And so we put the steel guitar there, and in the film you get the sensation almost like I'm on a moving saucer. We shot from above with a slow zoom, and then the editor gave it a little spin in the computer, so it's almost like this twirling disc; when it stops twirling, we come to a close shot of my hands on a steel guitar. It's very beautiful."

In his glowing report of how the filmmaker created that shot, Lanois betrayed his typically folksy, genuine excitement about the creative process. That partly explains the characteristically warm, inviting sound of his music and production work for others.

At the Vista, Lanois was joined for a few selections from the album by longtime drummer Brian Blade, backup singers-keyboardists Daryl Johnson and Aaron Embry, and in one piece by Blade's father, a preacher in Shreveport, La., who provided the gospel on a fiery "This May Be My Last Time," as he does in a scene from the film. Lanois' rough-hewn, intuitive guitar work loped gracefully through the brief set, which also included a bracing soliloquy by Billy Bob Thornton from his "Sling Blade" film, which Lanois scored in 1996.

Lanois is now off to Ireland to finish production on the new U2 album, which he promises is going to be something special. ("We're quite excited about it. Bono's singing like a bird.") In addition, he's working on new material with O'Connor and building a new studio and performance space in Toronto, a home base for recording and performing before a live audience.

He's a busy guy, which his laid-back, friendly vibe would seem to belie. He says that's due in part to his trusty lap-steel guitar, his source of solace and wonder.

"It's such a reliable friend," he said, smiling. "As the world keeps on turning in a mad way, I can go to that friend and say, 'OK, let's just slow things down here and enjoy the fundamentals of our relationship' -- which happens to be my paying attention to all of the details of varied mechanical musical instruments. But no matter how high-speed everything gets, that part of it doesn't speed up at all.

"There's no rushing with this instrument, with this friend. It'll always be there the same way it's always been, and it'll never be anything different than what it is.

"There's music that lives outside of confinements, and that's where harmonic interplay lives. And you have to take the time to hear it. So I like to go there, and that's what my steel guitar has to offer. I call it my church in a suitcase."

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