Jon Brion doesn't possess much star power, but as a record producer, film composer, and Los Angeles music scenester, he's made his work recognizable to anyone with even a casual interest in the charts and margins. His highly collaborative production work has propped up albums by Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Macy Gray, Evan Dando, Elliott Smith, Robyn Hitchcock, Rufus Wainwright, Rhett Miller, and many others. As a film composer, he's played an integral role in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia and especially Punch-Drunk Love, which drew a lot of its searing tension from Brion's alternately clanging and swooning score. Brion's métier is pop-rock, but his style burbles with quirks and ideas that are anything but straightforward—from the moody rhythmic slink of Apple's When The Pawn Hits The Conflicts… to the old-world futurism of Punch-Drunk Love to the smartly romanticized misanthropy of his own 2001 album, Meaningless. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Brion about the psychology of production work, working on Punch-Drunk Love (which was recently released on home video and DVD), and that aging standby known as the "pop song."
The Onion: How did you first get involved with P.T. Anderson?
Jon Brion: When we met, it was simply that Michael Penn and I were trying to find something to collaborate on. We had talked about it for years, and Paul initially approached Michael about scoring his first film, Hard Eight. Michael at that time didn't want to score a film by himself, so he called me and essentially said, "I don't want to do this unless you're involved." Paul didn't know who I was, so he got a tape—ironically enough, Aimee Mann's version of "One" that I had produced—as an example of what I could do, and fell in love with that. He basically said, "Whatever you want to do, you're fine with me." But I told Paul when I met him, "You know, frankly, I'm not interested in becoming a film composer." The only thing that's really interesting to me about it is that it's the only place where there's a subsidy to write and record orchestra music. The NEA doesn't exist anymore, and they never liked to give grants to people who were perceived to do rock music anyway, because we're not serious enough. If I had worn turtlenecks a little more and if it was the late '70s, I probably could have gotten a grant with the right approach. But that doesn't really exist for our generation. I told Paul, "If you're ever going to do an orchestra score, I'm right there." So when Magnolia came up, he knew that's what he wanted. That's when we forged a stronger union in terms of our opinions and how we work together.
O: What did you guys share in your thoughts on music?
JB: I think our relationship is different than the average composer-director relationship. The way most of them work is the director gives the composer a videotape with time code, and the composer goes away on his lonesome, does a bunch of work, and comes back, and the director makes comments about what he likes and doesn't like. The composer goes away and primes it, makes those changes, and records it. Whereas I sort of watch Paul watching the screen, and I play keyboards as if I was accompanying a silent film. I watch his body reactions and look into his comments, and I sort of work as a compositional tool of his reactions as much as I'm making music. I kind of become an extension of his nervous system. It's a very interesting process, but it's not what I go through with too many other people. I can do it with Paul because I know he has a vision of where he wants to go, and I know that the buck stops there. The place where we really intersect is, the way I produce records and the way he directs movies are very similar in terms of overriding philosophies, where we leave things open to chance. I'm very happy to be subservient to his reactions and his vision when we're working on a movie. With Paul, it's very direct. I'm composing for him, composing for his satisfaction, and when he's satisfied, I know it's going to be something interesting.
O: Is he able to articulate to you what sort of musical language he's looking for?
JB: No, he's surprisingly inept in terms of musical terminology. But he is incredibly articulate artistically and emotionally. I'm less interested in somebody saying, "Hmm, I don't know if we should have a 7th chord there." Creatively, that's not much fun. Something Paul would often say is, "I need this to be a thread that's going to pull us to here, because this part of the movie might be tough for people to sit through. But I need them to do that, because this thing's going to happen later that's very important, and we have to get to that." Here's another thing Paul might say: "It needs to be more stomach-achy here." Musically, it's not accurate, but when I watch him watching his film, I'll have my hands on the keyboard and notice when I play a certain type of chord in a certain way, maybe his shoulders hunch up, and if that's happy and expectant, I'm on the right track.
O: The music in Punch-Drunk Love plays such a pivotal role in the film. What sort of language did you guys imagine it in before it even moved to the set?
JB: Paul knew he wanted to have a harmonium in the movie. And we knew fairly early on that we wanted a musical nod to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, in terms of there being a melody that develops in the movie that has a reference to the plot, however oblique. We also knew that we wanted some sort of romantic theme, the feeling of an old Hollywood musical without people ever breaking out into song. That's one of the many ways Paul and I fit together: We like to look around and see what things people have been neglecting or have given up on. The other thing is how outrageously corny some of the orchestra stuff is. Like when they're kissing and the strings swell, I was laughing hysterically, and he was going, "No, bigger, bigger, bigger." It still cracks me up whenever I see the movie. But there's something beautiful about that at this point, because people have gotten so far away from that that it was fresh again. It was so funny to be on sessions and conducting the orchestra and looking at the screen—it was like 1938 all over again.
O: The music is mixed incredibly high in the film. Did you play a role in that?
JB: That's all Paul. I mix most of the music in terms of the basic mixes, but Paul is absolutely in charge of everything that goes on in his movies. There are moments when the music is just so loud, and I'm like, "Oh, man, turn it down!" But he says, "No, I want people to have to struggle to hear the dialogue at that point," or "I just need this to be sensationalistic here for these few minutes because I need to set up this moment of quiet that's following," or "I want people's adrenaline to change at this point." We're so used to everything being properly manicured, like you can hear every footstep in a movie, you can hear every bit of dialogue, and everything is in its place. Most people pride themselves on doing that well, but it's one of those things he's trying to break up. I don't want to speak for him, but I do believe that in a way he feels like that's not necessarily a lifelike thing. Not that he's trying to make lifelike movies. Both he and I agree that all art is pretty much folly to begin with. But in life, you don't hear everything perfectly mixed.
O: As a producer, how do you cater your role to people on different rungs of the ladder in terms of budget, style, and popularity? You've left a pretty distinct stamp on most of the records you've produced.
JB: Yeah, I do and I don't. Is my presence felt? Yes, in that I do have to, for budget reasons, play a lot of instruments on records. That stamp is there. Though I think if you actually listen to all the records I've done, what I don't have is a particular sound. There are a lot of producers who basically have their sound, and if the artist works with them, you almost know what the record's going to sound like before it comes out. Like I think if you listen to the first Aimee Mann record I did next to the second one—same producer, same artist—they're pretty different from each other. For me, I'm interested in artists because they have some sort of individualism, so it's not like, "How am I going to make this person interesting?" Usually, what record producers have to do is work with people who are trying to make music like everybody else, so they can get attention or be successful, or they think it's a more fun job than being a CPA—you know, all the usual reasons people want to be famous or be in bands. Most of the people I'm attracted to are individuals by nature and, as writers, have some sort of means of articulating their viewpoint. I never know when we start a record what it's going to be like. We just sort of go, and we take advantage of the happenstance, and I just try to make a window for the world to see what I think is wonderful about that given artist. I try to give the world every reason to love them as much as I do. That's the big-picture part of the job for me. And, even though my reputation is that of an arranger-engineer-multi-instrumentalist guy, the real day-to-day part of my job is much more psychological. It's kind of hard to describe, and it'd be even more long-winded than my first couple of answers.
O: That's okay.
JB: Well, all humans are pretty good at getting in their own way. Some people are more fluid than others at just being themselves, and recognizing what's good about themselves. It's really tough for most artists: With recording, it's strange, because you kind of have this microscope on your psyche and on your voice. It's very weird, and it's taken me a long time to learn some of the psychological aspects of the job. It's the hardest part, but it's the most rewarding when you get it right, when you figure out what a person is trying to convey and how they're keeping themselves from fully conveying that. And get that onto a piece of tape, so that two paper cones attached to magnets vibrate and make airwaves move and hit a listener and have the listener get that idea. I think it's unbelievably beautiful. When I was younger, I looked at getting older as this process of getting less interested in things and becoming colder, and of finding less joy in the mystery of things. And I've found the exact opposite to be true. I find that I'm getting warmer, and that I'm more mystified by human interactions. I'm more mystified by how creative things work and how they affect us. I have a great deal of fun doing it, and enough people enjoy doing it with me that I can call it a career.
O: What artists have you taken an especially hands-on or hands-off approach toward?
JB: It varies within each project. The best producers I've ever seen operate so the artist doesn't even see them doing anything, and often thinks they're lazy. But all the people who get the best results are able to do that. They're able to see a few moves ahead. Sometimes I need to say absolutely nothing. Sometimes I need to leave the room for a second. Sometimes I need to pick up an instrument and play something. Sometimes I need to pick up 10 instruments and play 10 tracks of things. Whether you're supposed to be encouraging someone or distracting them, you don't know. It changes constantly. As for specific examples, God, I wouldn't know where to start, because every day, I do all of those things. That goes along with the psychological point of the job. I hate that there's an impression these days that producers are multi-instrumentalist-producer-engineer-co-writer people. It's nice to have those skills, but they just become tools. Writing for orchestra is just another tool that I can potentially bring to producing a record, but it's not the actual producing. My favorite producer of all time is John Hammond, who was the A&R guy who signed Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and Count Basie, and produced a lot of their early records. Producing Billie Holiday was simply booking the studio, helping her pick the songs, and getting the people from Count Basie's band, who at that point was only known in Kansas City. So he handpicked the members of that band that he knew would be appropriate to play with her, and pretty much let them go. He didn't have to do anything. Then, once everything was done, he picked the best takes and decided how these things could be grouped together and released. Without question, he is one of the greatest record producers who has ever lived, and the guy couldn't read a note of music. He did not play an instrument. But he embodied the job. He is what I aspire to. I'm more likely to be compared to someone like George Martin; besides the fact that I've worked with a lot of artists that have had that direct influence, I'm seen as a person who does every imaginable musical job that comes up. If the artist asks for a distorted rumba, I'll do it. But to me, George Martin was good because he had some of that John Hammond DNA. He was able to sit back when The Beatles were doing great and say, "Hey, you don't need anything else. You don't need another instrument on that song. You don't need another take. You already got it. It's fantastic." And I really admire him, because when he did assert himself, as a player or as an arranger, it was always with such fantastic results that heightened the songs to a new place. I just want to have the artist sounding at their best, whether people notice when I'm playing or not.
O: For whom do you feel you've done that best?
JB: I can't really say, but I was very happy with how happy Fiona was with her last record. She didn't feel like her first record represented her, so I was delighted that she felt she was in her best light on her last record. I'm so happy with so many of the people I've gotten to work with, because I love them so much to begin with. Robyn Hitchcock is one of the reasons I was able to survive the '80s. There weren't many things to love in the '80s. [Laughs.] I have a very close kinship with the stuff Aimee Mann and I have done together. We were kind of on a combined mission at that time in our lives.
O: Which recording project gave you the most surprising end result?
JB: Every single one of them. None of them are what I pictured in the beginning, and all of them are in some ways better and worse than what I pictured. I know that when I finished Fiona's last record, I finally felt like I was starting to understand the job well enough that I could do a complete good job. I felt I had the right amount of tools inside me to make something that was a complete experience from beginning to end.
O: She gets characterized as a very difficult personality. How did that process work with her?
JB: She was incredibly easy to deal with, making that record. She had spent long days in the studio on her first record, and she didn't want to do that again. She would come in and work really hard for the three to four hours she was there, and then she'd fuck off and I'd do some work and try some ideas on the songs. She was very articulate emotionally, and it was my first chance to have the things I felt I needed. It kind of felt like it was the first time I was really handed the keys, and she respected where I was going, so I knew I had freedom to experiment.
O: How do you feel about the fact that the kind of "pop-rock" you work on now exists as a genre in and of itself, where singer-songwriters are often treated as small-scale genre artists?
JB: Well, I think most of the people who are called songwriters aren't necessarily very good at it, and it gives the singer-songwriter a bad name. Every person with an acoustic guitar who's sensitive and here to tell the world what a poet they are… There are a lot of people who are pretty bad at it. There are just as many bad rock bands as there are bad pop performers. It's funny that the people I work with often get lumped in with what's referred to as "pop songs." What people mean by that is actually well-written, melodic songs that have some emotional context. Pop is no longer the word for it, because it's not a popular form of music. Pop music right now is Christina Aguilera and whatever melodic faux-punk band that's super over-produced and playing on KROQ and has a singalong chorus. Aimee Mann only became pop music for a moment in people's minds thanks to Paul Anderson. She's not been able to get arrested since the first 'Til Tuesday single, but since her first solo record, she's at least developed a strong cult following with people who understand that she's literate, articulate, funny, emotional, and all of those things. I love the idea of what's called the "pop song." I just wish there was a better term for it, because it's a misnomer. But this notion of a three-minute art form where you have to condense a thought… If you're actually concerned with it being emotional or having a new idea or being a different angle on an old subject, to really make that happen is rare and beautiful. And the people who can do it on a regular basis are very rare and beautiful.
O: How do you manage to keep some sort of faith in the form, and also try to push it forward so that it's more than a museum piece?
JB: I'd like to think there's something in it that is new each time, but people might not be quick to recognize it. What makes Aimee's music specifically different from other people's is that she has a very clear manifesto of what she's trying to achieve, and lyrically, she's on her game in a way that other people aren't. For every Radiohead, there's 10,000 supposedly modern rock bands who aren't a tenth that creative, or a tenth that emotional. For every Elliott Smith, there are 10,000 people who think they're sensitive poets. For every 10,000 people who have a drum machine and run things through a filter box, there's an Aphex Twin. Most people who think they're being modern aren't. This is a big beef of mine. To me, there's a huge difference between modern and being current. Huge. When something's current, it's already not modern. There was tons of intentional electronic-music influence on Fiona's last record in the way we approached drums: the repetition, how things are filtered, how things move from section to section. There's electronic music in it, but it's a completely organic record. But to come back to this pop-song thing: All the people I respect are trying to make three-minute condensed little works that have an idea that will bring you some sort of emotion, or give you some piece of information that might be useful to you. That doesn't mean it has to be heavy-handed. It could be the most lightweight piece of fluff that makes you happy for three minutes, and its usefulness is that you can put it on and it makes you tap your feet and forget your troubles. I love that. I also love when someone writes a lyric that's so insightful that you'll be quoting it for the rest of your life, and it will actually influence your relationships in the future. The people I like are trying to do that. They're not anachronistically trying to make the perfect old-fashioned pop song. In my own writing, on the surface it can seem like this old form of pop music, but I think if people dig in, they realize, "Wow! This never would have been the sort of lyrics that would have been on those sorts of songs in the first place." With most of the people I like, there is that sense of juxtaposition in their work. And there are tons of interesting combinations of influences. I love the form of the pop song, which I know is maligned and looked at as anachronistic, but the people I look to are constantly trying to find newness in it, to recognize what's slightly different about this one from another one. And that's where the beauty is, in recognizing that. I don't know. It's a funny subject, but at the end of the day, there are only so many people who I think are really good at it—very, very, very few.