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Q&A: ‘Echo in the Canyon’ Director Andrew Slater on Bringing the Laurel Canyon Scene to the Big Screen

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The “Canyon” referred to in the title of Andrew Slater’s Echo in the Canyon is Laurel Canyon. The co-writer/director’s 82-minute nonfiction film explores the music scene that emerged out of this mountainous enclave in Los Angeles and the impact “California Sound” had on a subsequent generation of musicians.

For a brief moment in music history, Laurel Canyon was the epicenter of the folk-rock sensibility. Despite being located inside one of America’s largest cities, the Canyon boasts exquisite surroundings captured onscreen with splendid cinematography, picturesque environs that appealed to countercultural residents with their return-to-nature vibe. As record producer Lou Adler relates: “To be that close to the Sunset Strip and yet you had a feeling of being in the country. It was beautiful.”

Echo in the Canyon features performances (glimpsed in glorious, vintage footage) by and interviews with different generations of musicians.

Among the original artists of the Laurel Canyon phenomenon appearing onscreen are: Michelle Phillips and the Mamas and the Papas; Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys; Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and The Byrds; Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield. Graham Nash, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Jackson Browne, as well as the 85-ish Adler, sharing their recollections of the place and era in what seem to be interviews conducted specifically for this documentary.

Some of the musicians’ memories have a tell-all nature, with back stories revealing what inspired various songs. For instance, Michelle Phillips’ infidelity to her then husband John Phillips led to his composing the Mamas and the Papas’ hit “Go Where You Wanna Go”. In a similar vein, it’s disclosed that Crosby’s 1967 song “Triad”, written for the Byrds, is about a ménage à trois,

The “Echo” of the film’s title references how the initial generation influenced succeeding waves of musical talents. The originators’ sound is reinterpreted in concert and studio recording sessions (apparently shot for Echo in the Canyon) by more contemporary musicians, including Norah Jones, Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Power and Regina Spektor.

The late Tom Petty appears in his last film interview – Echo in the Canyon is dedicated to the memory of the Heartbreakers’ late lead singer. Quite cleverly, Jakob Dylan — son of an immortal member of the sixties’ musical vanguard and a talent in his own right — stars in Echo, performing onstage, appearing at interviews, et al, in this documentary which Jakob also executive produced.

Andrew Slater has long been associated with the younger Dylan, having produced the Wallflowers’ debut single in 1992 and their 2000 album, Breach. The 62-year-old Slater worked in music management for artists such as Beastie Boys, Don Henley, Lenny Kravitz and Jane’s Addiction and then as a record producer for Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jerry Garcia, Fiona Apple, Macy Gray, etc.

From 2001 to 2007, Slater was the President and CEO of Capitol Records. Previously, Slater was a music journalist for outlets such as Rolling Stone, and he brought his music industry background to bear in creating his highly enjoyable, impressive first film. Slater discusses all this and more in the following candid conversation.

Rock Cellar: Where and when were you born and raised? Which college did you attend?  

Andrew Slater:  I was born and raised in New York. Spent a lot of time listening to WABC and WMCA [laughs], where I heard most of these records in the sixties. I left New York in 1975 to go to Emory University [in Atlanta]. I was there for four years, then became a not-so-good journalist.

Rock Cellar: How did early rock docs impact you?

Andrew Slater: My first experience with this music and the music that I loved was not in a concert hall. My parents wouldn’t let me go to see The Who or to the Fillmore or even go with my cousins to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium. My first experience with this was in a movie theater. So when I saw [D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967] Don’t Look Back, Help, A Hard Day’s Night, Woodstock, Gimme Shelter and Monterey Pop, that’s the moment my DNA changed forever. And I knew I wanted to pursue absorbing as much of this as I could.

Rock Cellar: When did you become aware of the role Laurel Canyon was playing in the rock scene?

Andrew Slater: Probably like most people, when I found the path to discovering the third period — as I want to call it — of Laurel Canyon, which is the search for the individual and the singer/ songwriter era.

When reading about what was happening with Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash, that was the first time I heard about Laurel Canyon. But what I later learned was that in the beginning, all of these bands that came here did so pursuing the dream they saw in A Hard Day’s Night.

Which was to be in a band like the Beatles — it looked like fun, they were all playing music. So these collections of musicians, of multiple singers and songwriters, saw that the Byrds had a hit and they all came here chasing that dream.

For me, I wanted to explore the age of innocence of that period where they all come here. In the film, what we learn is that it didn’t last, for one reason or another. Michelle [Phillips] tells you her lifestyle and relationship with John [Phillips] fractured that band [the Mamas and the Papas].  And David Crosby tells you his behavior fractured that band [Buffalo Springfield]. And Stephen Stills tells you the multiple singers and songwriters created divergent directions. So ultimately it all kind of ends, and it’s on to the era of the individual. Which is why it’s called Buffalo Springfield and then a version of it is later called Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Rock Cellar: What is so unique about Laurel Canyon as an actual place and why did it attract so many musicians?  

Andrew Slater: California represents a kind of a sense of freedom. It’s the ultimate horizontal city, so to speak.

I’m not so sure that the electrification of folk music would have happened so prominently in New York because of the rigidity of the folk scene. Life in Laurel Canyon at that time — because, as Michelle says in the film, it was always a place for bohemians and actors — the idea that the houses were close together in the way they’re set in that Canyon, the proximity to each other and the proximity of it to Sunset Blvd. [where important recording studios and clubs were located]created this energy that allowed people to trade ideas and create this music that has lasted more than 50 years.

Rock Cellar: Echo in the Canyon is your directorial debut. How did your work as a music journalist, record producer and label executive prepare you to make this documentary?

Andrew Slater: I think if I had tried to make this documentary at any other point in time, having not done each of those jobs it would have been much more difficult. It was difficult anyway, but as a journalist I knew how to interview people and I had dissected those interviews and taken sections and quotes and pieced them together to make a story. Also, I knew how to write a synopsis and treatment for something I wanted to make.

As a record producer I learned how to make records and I had all of the necessary information of how to duplicate sounds or create new sounds out of old sounds, and so in the course of doing this film I wanted to reinterpret the music with a new generation of artists and record that and then also film that. And capture the beauty of the studios I’d worked in as a record producer, because maybe they won’t be there in 10 years because they’re single-story buildings where these original recordings were made and they’re on Sunset and the development of any city gives way to high rises and new buildings.

As an executive I knew the value of people’s copyrights and how to go about licensing music for a film. All of this made it somewhat familiar in accomplishing each of those tasks.   

Rock Cellar: What is Echo in the Canyon? Is it a tribute or a chronicle?

Andrew Slater: I didn’t want to make a historical document. Those exist already. It’s as much about the idea of a simpler time and the sense of community and friendship shared by these musicians at that time, and it pays homage to them plus the idea that all of this music has influenced this generation in the film.

It’s in Beck’s work, Jakob Dylan’s work, Cat Power’s work — whether it’s the architecture of sound of Brian Wilson or that electrification of folk music and harmony the Byrds have. Or obviously the Beatles, what we began to love about modern rock recording. It’s all there.

I hope it shines a light on things that we love about those artists and that time and place where they lived.

Greenwich Entertainment

Greenwich Entertainment

Rock Cellar: In terms of time and geography, what are the parameters of Echo in the Canyon?

Andrew Slater: It really covers a period from ’65, I would loosely say, to ’67. Because in ’67 after the “Summer of Love,” you have the onset of psychedelia and after that you have the singer/ songwriter period. So our film focuses mainly on the beginning of that period that we could define as the beginning of the “California Sound.”

Rock Cellar: Can you define: What is the “California Sound”?

Andrew Slater: Well, it just depends on which era you’re looking at. Because it’s defined by something very different, depending on who’s making it. The “California Sound” might be defined in the late ’70s and early ’80s by X and the L.A. punk bands of that time. In the classic sense, it’s defined by the harmonies of the artists in the film, the songwriting that is — maybe the genesis of it is the Beatles. And the people who lived here, trying to put their own spin on that. In turn, it influences the Beatles, the change.

In the film, when Roger McGuinn and the Byrds electrify folk music after seeing A Hard Day’s Night and after seeing the Rickenbacker guitar, George Harrison writes “If I Needed Someone”, which goes on Rubber Soul, which influences that record, and Brian Wilson hears Rubber Soul and he records Pet Sounds, and the Beatles hear that and they record Sgt. Pepper. And somewhere in the middle of all of that the “California Sound” emerges.

Rock Cellar : Tell us about your connection to Jakob Dylan and his roles in Echo in the Canyon

Andrew Slater: I met Jakob in 1987. I was producing Warren Zevon, a record called Sentimental Hygiene, and Jakob was visiting the studio, where we were doing some tracking with R.E.M. and Warren. Then I later ran into him somewhere else in the neighborhood a few months later and he had some songs and they were great. I started to work on some of that stuff with him.

His role is invaluable because I wanted to capture the conversation between two artists and the ability to eavesdrop on a very personal encounter between Jakob and Eric Clapton or David Crosby or Michelle Phillips or Roger McGuinn is part of the charm of this film.

Greenwich Entertainment

Greenwich Entertainment

Rock Cellar: Jakob Dylan, who is the film’s onscreen presence throughout as a performer and as kind of a host, mentions his father only once in passing onscreen. Why isn’t Bob Dylan included in Echo in the Canyon?

Andrew Slater: First part of your question you’d have to ask him. The film is about being in a band. The film is about why people came here — maybe not why they came here, but the film is about the idea and the dream of being in a band. Multiple singers, multiple songwriters and the innocence of that idea.

It’s framed by expecting to fly. Which, in and of itself, is in the title, it just suggests that period with the idea that no matter how outlandish people’s dreams were they’d come true. Of course, we know that kind of balanced optimism never lasts, as it doesn’t last in this film for the bands we focus on. It focuses on the collective energy of people, and not the individual in any sense.

Rock Cellar: Did Bob Dylan himself spend any significant amount of time in Laurel Canyon during this period?  

Andrew Slater: I have no idea.

Rock Cellar: How did the Laurel Canyon artists of that era impact today’s musicians?

Andrew Slater: In the work of the artists in the film you can see the California artists, such as the Byrds, Beach Boys, Mamas and the Papas, in the work of [today’s] artists in the film in various different ways. In harmony, structure, the architecture of sound and maybe some of the songwriting structure. I don’t know if you can draw direct lines between Father John Misty or Lana Del Rey and the specific songs of those artists, but clearly we can hear traces of influence in the very contemporary and excellent recordings of all of the artists here.

Rock Cellar: It’s commented on more than once in Echo that the Beach Boys in particular were resonant with Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

Andrew Slater: That’s Felix Pappalardi, the great producer and arranger, and John Sebastian’s take on it. And Brian [Wilson] acknowledges that.

Rock Cellar: What is John Sebastian doing nowadays?

Andrew Slater: I don’t know, but I’d imagine performing, playing music.

Rock Cellar: What are some of the musicians’ stories behind the songs that are most memorable? 

Andrew Slater: I just never knew the subject matter of “Go Where You Wanna Go”. I didn’t know the exact story behind “Triad” and the Byrds’ using “Goin’ Back” as a single. I didn’t know that “Questions”, a song I love on a Buffalo Springfield record, was inspired by a Judy Collins song called “Since You Asked.” And I also didn’t know the song “Questions” inspired [Clapton’s] “Let It Rain”, which was his first song.

Rock Cellar: Crosby discusses what he calls the “good poetry” of the lyrics. Do you know anything about David Crosby’s father?

Andrew Slater: You mean the cinematographer?

Rock Cellar: Yes! Floyd Crosby won the first Academy Award for camerawork [for the 1931 movie Tabu, shot on location in Bora Bora].  

Rock Cellar: Is there anything we’ve missed you want our readers to know about?

Andrew Slater: No. You’ve been pretty incisive, buddy. [Laughs.] I think you’ve covered it.

Rock Cellar: What’s next for you?

Andrew Slater: Well, I tend to make things when I have an idea. Whether it’s a record or something I’ve written, and in this case a film. I was lucky enough to have somebody agree to finance this. While I have other ideas for other projects, I hope I’ll be lucky enough to find someone who wants to do that, as well. I guess in this case I’d rather be lucky than smart.

Rock Cellar: I have to ask: Do you live in Laurel Canyon?  

Andrew Slater: [Laughs; pauses.] No comment.

Echo in the Canyon opens May 24 in Los Angeles at the Cinerama Dome at ArcLight Hollywood and The Landmark in West L.A. and May 31 in New York, with a national rollout to follow. For more info see: https://www.echointhecanyon.com/.

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist and film historian/critic. A repeat contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine, Rampell is co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. (See:  https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.)   

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