An interview with Canadian composer and musician YVES LAFERRIERE, known for his progressive rock music and around 25 scores for film and TV, including Denys Arcand's award-winning "Jesus Of Montreal" from 1989.
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By JON AANENSEN (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WHEN WERE YOU BORN? TELL US ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH, AND HOW YOU GOT INTO MUSIC.
I was born in Montreal in 1943 in a blue-collar neighbourhood. I went to a public school, then I went to a private school, college and university where I was going to be a teacher. But it was just to please my parents, because I wanted to be a musician. After a year at the teacher's college I told them that was it - I was a musician! So I went to the Quebec Conservatory Of Music for a year. But I felt it didn't go fast enough for me to learn music, so I went for two years to take private lessons with two musicians from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, in bass guitar which is my first instrument, and musical theory.
By then I was 22 years old, and when I first started in music I was in college, and with a couple of friends of mine I started a folk band. That was the early 60s, and it was the beginning of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, and we made band and started giving shows in colleges and stuff like that. That went so well that we recorded three albums with Colombia Records, so that was my beginning in music. And since I had been playing for a couple of years I didn't stay at the conservatory. I thought it would go faster if I took private lessons, which I did, and by the time I was 22 I got married and I was a young musician without a job. But all through my career I had a lucky star, and in this case, in 1967, I got a job at the Youth Pavillion at Expo 67 in Montreal. A friend hired me as a producer for all jazz and rock music for the anglo-speaking community, because I speak English and French, so I was asked to go to Chicago, New York, Boston and San Fransisco to scout possible musicians for the exhibition which started in May 1967. So I spent a whole year working for Expo and producing shows. It was a fabulous experience because I met some of the most interesting musicians in the world, like the Modern Jazz Quartet for instance, plus Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane - all kinds of people coming to Montreal. When that was over I was 24 and my wife was pregnant and again I didn't have a job. Again my lucky star shone on me and I met the man who was going to be my mentor, Franck Dervieux. He was a French musician from Paris who came to Quebec to accompany one of Quebec's most famous folk singers, and we met somehow, I have forgotten how, but he sort of took me under his wing, and I was soon lucky enough to accompany some of the best artists in Quebec. He taught me a lot and I owe a lot to him. He was a fabulous pianist and he came to Quebec and never went back to France. He stayed his whole life here and died when he was quite young, 43 years old.
He died of cancer and it was a great loss for me and for a lot of people, but I really enjoyed the years that I worked with him. He was a very courageous man, and before he died he decided to record his own music because he had been accompanying people all his life. He said he wanted to do his own thing, so we did what is probably the first concept album of progressive music in Canada, or at least in Quebec. That was also on Colombia Records. About a year and a half after this record had been produced, on which I played bass, he died. I lost my mentor but he lit a fire in me, and I sort of continued where he had left off and founded Contraction. He even played on a couple of tracks on the first album although he was very sick.
What I can say about those years with Contraction was that that they were some of the best years of my life, because we were playing the music we liked, we were totally free and we had a record contract with Colombia. We did the first album with them, but it was not a huge commercial success because it was progressive music and they sort of let us go. We did our second album, "La Bourse Ou La Vie", which means "you have to choose between money and life", so it was a statement. We chose living in freedom and that was what the music was about anyway. So we did these two albums, and the singer on these albums was my partner at the time, and it's always tricky to form a band where there is a love interest, so when the love was over, the band was over. We broke up in 1976, so the band was on from 72 to 76.
There is a very funny story about the live album which came out 35 years after it was recorded, in 1974. This was originally a radio broadcast. It was the height of rock/progressive music from England, and every week they had a band playing live on the radio, and this particular night they decided to create an event. They had two bands playing, Gentle Giant and Contraction. There were some technical problems, Gentle Giant were supposed to play at nine o'clock, but they ended up playing at eleven. Meanwhile we were in the green room, smoking away and having a few beers, and we ended up playing at 2 in the morning, in a quite advanced stage of fatigue. We did the show, and I kind of forgot about it. I was sure it couldn't be really good, we were so tired, it must have been terrible. 35 years later I get an e-mail from a sound engineer, and he said he got the tape in the mail yesterday from the wife of the owner of the studio who died, and she went through his tapes. She found this tape, this Contraction live recording, and the sound engineer asked if I would like to have it. I said yes, and he sent it to me. I listened to it and I was flabbergasted. I thought it was really good for a live album with no backups. Our lead singer was all by herself, no backup singers, and I thought, everything considered, it was pretty good. It had original songs that hadn't been recorded on the previous albums, and there was a label in Montreal that decided to re-issue the vinyl albums that had been recorded in the 70s, because they were all going to fall into oblivion because the tapes had been lost and everything had been recorded on tape and printed on vinyl records and it was getting lost. So all three Contraction albums were re-issued.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR 1978 SOLO ALBUM.
It started out as a Contraction album, but since the band had broken up I decided to work with other musicians, some from the jazz field, and just do a solo album. I included some film music from the film "La Cuisine Rouge" and another film that I had worked on, so that's the story behind this album.
YOU SCORED SEVERAL FEATURES THE COMING YEARS, LIKE "LUCIEN BROUILLARD", "RIEN QU'UN JU", "LA FEMME DE L'HOTEL" AND "SONIA".
Yes, "Lucien Brouillard" was a social critique of Quebec society which was pretty good. "Rien Qu'Un Ju" wasn't very good, while "La Femme De L'Hotel" was a very good movie which I won a Genie award for, for best original song. It was an interesting film. In 1986 I wrote the music for "Sonia", and we re-recorded a track from the score for my 1999 album "Metis". It's not the original track from the film because you have to realize that in the late 70s and into the 80s it was just the beginning of stereo mixing, meaning that most stuff was in mono, including "Sonia". So we wrote a new arrangement. I really like that theme, that's why we put in on that album.
THEN, 1989 SAW THE RELEASE OF THE BRILLIANT "JESUS OF MONTREAL", WHICH YOU GOT A GENIE AWARD FOR. HOW DID YOU WORK WITH DENYS ARCAND ON THIS SCORE? WAS ARCAND FAMILIAR WITH YOUR EARLIER WORK WITH CONTRACTION? WHOSE DECISION WAS IT TO GIVE THE SCORE AN ALMOST JOE SATRIANI-LIKE ELECTRIC GUITAR-QUALITY, PERFORMED BY THE GREAT ROBERT STANLEY?
Denys Arand and I had known each other for about 35 years both in work and play. We played a lot of sports together, both of us being jocks. Eventually we started working together. I had worked on a previous film for him, a made-for-TV film, where I had done some sound effects. He's the one who wanted urban spacy rock music for "Jesus Of Montreal", featuring waling guitars. We had played hockey together one day, and he came up with this idea. So that was what I did with my friend Robert Stanley who was also the guitar player for my band Contraction. It was a good solution because it illustrated both worlds of the film and it was the beginning of a great collaboration with Arcand for the next couple of years.
THANKFULLY, A SOUNDTRACK ALBUM WAS ISSUED ON CD. IS THIS YOUR ONLY SOUNDTRACK-ALBUM RELEASE?
Yes, there is not a big market for soundtrack albums in Canada. The album was actually released by the film company, Max Films. I have always received good feedback on this music.
YOU WORKED WITH SOME OF THE GUYS FROM CONTRACTION ON THE SCORE. HOW WAS THAT?
That was nice, I had kept in touch with my friends from the 70s. I loved working with them. I'm very faithful, both in my friendships and work relations.
IN THE EARLY 90S YOU SCORED FILMS LIKE "BABYLONE", "MOODY BEACH" AND "SOLO". WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT THESE PRODUCTIONS?
"Babylone" was a co-production with Belgium. "Moody Beach" was a Quebec production and "Solo" was a made-for-TV film. So no scores were released. "Moody Beach" was in the tradition of my tendency to use rock music in film, but there was also atmospheric music in there. It was a thriller so I had to refer to Bernard Herrmann to create some tension. "Babylone" was a mixture of all kinds of stuff with people being moved around like gypsies, a love story, adolescence and teenage problems, so it was a bit of everything, a bit of rock, some romantic music. It was nothing unusual, the film didn't really inspire anything else.
1993 SAW YOU BEING NOMINATED FOR ANOTHER GENIE AWARD FOR "LE SEXE DES ETOILES". WHAT KIND OF SCORE DID YOU WRITE?
This film had a script from a novel by a well-known Quebec writer. The story was about a young woman whose father goes trans-gender. He becomes a woman through the film, and it is her story, her reaction to this and her discovery of love and everything. It was very interesting. I did some orchestral work on this using horns, it wasn't really rock music this time. And I created a song which also got a Genie award.
YOU HOOKED UP WITH DENYS ARCAND AGAIN ON "JOYEUX CALVAIRE" IN 1996. ONE EXCITING INSTRUMENTAL TRACK IS FEATURED ON YOUR ALBUM "METIS". WAS THER EVER ANY TALK OF A FULL SOUNDTRACK RELEASE?
Not really. It was a made-for-tv movie about two homeless guys roaming the streets of Montreal like urban cowboys. It dealt with the problems these people face and it was a dramatic film featuring a suicide. I enjoyed working on that and I kind of experimented with both rock instruments and the traditional australian instrument didgeridoo which was sort of the voice of the film. The didgeridoo-player also played on the extended version on "Metis."
ON "THE SECRET LAUGTHER OF WOMEN" YOU DELVED INTO PERCUSSIVE, AFRICAN-BASED MUSIC. HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN THIS FILM? WHAT CAN YOU TELL ABOUT THE SCORING PROCESS?
I got a phone call one day from this female producer based in London. She had heard my "Jesus Of Monrteal" score and enjoyed it. She was a black woman, and the story was a mixed racial love story featuring Colin Firth in the lead role. It was a strange proposition. It was a co-production with Canada so Toronto was involved and there were problems between the british and canadian producers and I was sort of caught between a rock and a hard place. It was kind of a tedious experience. But I did have a lot of fun making the music because I was completely free to do whatever I wanted, and I worked with a very good Montreal-based musician who was a percussionist. We let ourselves go into african-based world music, for lack of a better word.
IN 1999 THE AFOREMENTIONED ALBUM "METIS" GOT RELEASED ON THE METIS MUSIQUE LABEL. WHAT WAS YOUR THOUGHT BEHIND THIS ALBUM?
I had been writing lots of film scores, and I was a bit fed up with those short cues for specific scenes. You are caught in formats, you can hardly write a full piece, unless it's a song that overlaps the images, or the end credits where the composer can let himself go. So I decided to revisit some of the pieces I had written for film and give them the full length format that I wanted for them.
"METIS" FEATURES A TERRIFIC ETHNIC-BASED INSTRUMENTAL CALLED "CIEL DE METAL" (IRON SKY) FROM A 1996-FILM CALLED "WEST OF EDEN". I HAVEN'T SUCCEEDED IN FINDING INFO ABOUT THIS FILM. WHAT CAN YOU TELL ABOUT IT?
This was an experimental film with a company called Soft Image. The creator was a pioneer in computer generated images, CGI. "West Of Eden" lasted only 8 minutes but it took us 7 years to make. The software grew with the film and by the end it was pretty well developed. The owner have since sold the company to Microsoft and he became a multi-millionaire. It was an interesting proposition because I was behind the project to begin with. I had written the script. We start with an eco-system and we go through thousands of years with evolution ending up in our modern society, in the future where the planet is really suffering from its human inhabitants. So we go back to the eco-system to start again. There were only music and picture in the film, no words.
HAVE THE METIS-TRACKS "COOL TANGO" AND "AU CLAIR DE LA LUNE" BEEN USED IN ANY MOVIE?
No, but they get quite a lot of airplay on CBC Radio here in Canada.
IN 2004 YOU WORKED ON AN AMERICAN-CANADIAN CO-PRODUCTION ABOUT THE AMISH COMMUNITY, CALLED "PLAIN TRUTH" , DIRECTED BY PAUL SHAPIRO. HOW WAS THIS EXPERIENCE?
It was a completely virtual proposition in that I talked to the director only once on the phone, he was in Toronto. I also talked to the producer who was in Los Angeles, on the phone. They gave me the rundown on the film. They had hired another composer from Toronto, and they weren't happy with his score. So I had three weeks to write the music for that. I had just gotten a heart surgery the year before and I wasn't completely in perfect shape. But it kind of helped me go through the convalescence writing this music. I didn't meet anyone during the production, it was all virtual communication, so it was very strange. But I worked with a good musician who played several instruments, including the violin.
ACCORDING TO IMDB.COM YOU HAVEN'T SCORED A PROJECT SINCE THE 2007 DOCUMENTARY "LE DOIGT DANS L'OEIL". HAVE YOU RETIRED FROM FURTHER MUSIC-MAKING? WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING SINCE THEN? WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR YOU?
I did a few documentaries trying to get back in shape, because it was a major operation I had. "Le Doigt Dans L'Oeil" was a social documentary shot by a very young director so it was good working with the new generation. I also wrote music for 6 years on a TV program on health and social affairs in Quebec. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of my career as a musician so I thought it was time for me to take it easy! I'm in pretty good shape at the moment though. I just do what I please, I work with the people I like, I write music every day, it's a passion that will never die. I also love playing golf, and I have my daughters that I look after. Life is good! You must also remember that things have changed. In the 1980s there were 10 people writing film scores in Canada, now there are 1000, all of them having Hans Zimmer's samples to their disposal!
HAVE YOU EVER WORKED WITH AN ORCHESTRA OR HAVE ALL YOUR SCORES BEEN WITH A ROCK ENSEMBLE? ARE THERE ANY FILM COMPOSERS YOU ADMIRE FROM THE PAST OR PRESENT?
I worked with some horn sections, not orchestra per se. Basically it was always a rock formation, the traditional keyboard, guitar, bass and drums, which are "my" instruments. I come from rock/jazz, there are small musical budgets, and I'm not a big fan of going to Europe to work with "cheap" orchestras anyway. For favorite composers I have to mention Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, Maurice Jarre, Georges Delerue, Mark Isham, Michael Nyman, Rachel Portman, Gabriel Yared, Eleni Karaindrou, Alberto Iglesias (especially for Pedro Almodovar's "Hable Con Ella") and Alexandre Desplat.
LOOKING BACK, WHAT WOULD YOU CONSIDER HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR CAREER?
In 1989 the cast and crew of "Jesus Of Montreal" were invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Walking up the steps to the red carpet was a great experience. Subsequently the film was nominated for an Oscar, which was also a highlight. It brought me a considerable amount of work in the years following. And of course my years in Contraction were good times too.
THANKS TO MR. LAFERRIERE FOR TAKING THE TIME TO ANSWER MY QUESTIONS.