Los Angeles musician Jon Brion likes to joke that he’s built a career crafting “unpopular pop.” It’s a paradoxical but apt description: Though he’s produced the likes of Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple, and Aimee Mann, and scored films like Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, the general public would likely be hard-pressed to identify him. Brion’s live show is just as prolific and unique: As a one-man band, he bounces from guitar to drums to more esoteric instruments (marimbas, Chamberlins) and builds original compositions and medleys, often by spontaneous and simultaneous audience requests. Before Brion came to Chicago to ring in the new year, The A.V. Club spoke to him about his relationship with his instruments and how sometimes you just want some oatmeal.
The A.V. Club: Your music is tough to articulate, but easy to recognize.
Jon Brion: If you come offstage and people go, “Dude, you rock!,” it’s wonderful, and nice, and cool. But there are certain things you hope for if you make stuff. I hope it’s not identifiable in an it-all-sounds-the-same way, because I really desperately try to have some breadth—not that any of us actually succeed when we try to do that. [Laughs.] But I do try, and at least it was prefaced with “hard to articulate.” That’s actually true with a lot of stuff. I’ve had that with my live show. People ask what the hell it is I do. Well, I improvise a lot. “Oh, so it’s like a jam band?” And I’m like, “Well, no.” And then I go, “I use a Looper.” “Like so and so?” “Well, no.” [Laughs.] I’d like to think most of what I do is self-evident if you’re listening to it or seeing it. But I don’t mind the fact that it’s hard to describe.
The A.V. Club: Well, particular instruments like Chamberlins or Mellotrons come to mind. Are you passionate about them?
JB: Oh God, yeah. Although, I also avoided them for many years until very recently, because there was some identification with me with them. So it’s like, “Okay, those are on the backburner.” Four or five years ago I literally just wouldn’t pull the things out.
AVC: It was a conscious decision?
JB: Yeah, and then [the film I Heart] Huckabees was the first time I pulled them out again, and I went “Aww! You’re cute! I’m sorry; what was I thinking?” [Laughs.] So we’ve made up and it’s nice. But it’s funny; one of my favorite producers was Chris Thomas, who nobody ever talks about. I liked him because he was the opposite of those people who had a sound. Chris Thomas worked with The Beatles on the White Album, he did For Your Pleasure with Roxy Music, helped mix Dark Side Of The Moon, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, the first two Pretenders records. You look at that and go, “Okay, that’s very cool.” That the artist just sounds really good, and in fact, when you listen to the artist’s other records you’re usually like “I like the ones over there; they sound more like them.” That was my thing with the Chamberlins; just the fact people could even mention there was something specifically associated with me. I think I had a knee-jerk [reaction.] I kicked them to a closet and threw a tarp over them. [Laughs.] “Stay away from me kid, you’re bugging me!”
AVC: What made you dig them back out? Had it just been long enough?
JB: It had been long enough, and also I think the Huckabees thing—through the experience of it, I started doing the soundtrack and realized that everything that was right for it was stuff of mine. They were already songs, but nobody knew about them, or songs that I never made a specific record version of, and it happened with this strange blindfold test with [director/producer] David O. Russell. We were trying to find the right emotional sound for certain things, and I would watch a scene and I would suddenly remember that, “My God, I have a song about this subject.” I would play the music but not the words, and he would go, “That’s perfect.” And this kept happening. The reason I tell that story is that I realized suddenly that, “Oh, what this actually needs is me.” You know? [Laughs.] So I think as a byproduct of that, some instruments started getting pulled out again. But when they came back, I realized I got into all of these instruments because nobody else was using them. And it made me feel like I was operating to help fill a void, like, “Oh I play this in a certain way and it makes it have a different sound than what other people are doing.”So since then, it’s been very much by my side. We’re inseparable again.
AVC: You play a variety of roles in your musical life. How can you tell when you’re playing one too long?
JB: You just know. I think if I did any one thing it wouldn’t really be enough for me. It’s pretty much the same with songwriting and everything else. I don’t want to be locked into any one of those archetypes. You can’t constantly be in control. You can’t constantly be subservient. So you sort of need to bounce around. It’s kind of a natural process. It’s sort of like food cravings. If you go one place too much, a cheeseburger joint, “I just really want to go to some high-end place.” And then you have rich food for X amount of time, and it’s like, “Damn it, I think I need oatmeal.” [Laughs.]
I think my life is a version of my show played out over a very long time. There are periods of structured things; there are periods of improvisation. There are periods that go better than expected and there are periods where you fall on your face, and you get back up if you really love what you’re doing, and you do it regardless; and I have that freedom by not having a setlist.