Los Angeles musician Jon Brion likes to joke that he's built a career crafting "unpopular pop." The description is paradoxical but apt: Though Brion has 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 more likely to turn heads: 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 or something, 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 that 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.
AVC: It certainly brings to mind instruments like Chamberlins or Mellotrons. Are you passionate about them?
JB: Oh God, yeah. Although I also avoided them for many years, until very recently, just because there was some identification with me with them. So it's like, "Okay, those are on the back burner." 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, whom 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 suddenly remember, "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, "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: Another element of your music is juxtaposition. The most obvious example would be your covers or medleys, like blending Bob Dylan with Nirvana in the same song. How do you stumble upon these juxtapositions?
JB: None of the cover stuff is premeditated. The whole thing about my live gig is that it's an extension of what we were just talking about: When I put certain instruments away, it's because I knew I would come up with something else. In other words, I put myself in a position where I have to come up with a creative answer. I've always admired Brian Eno for that. Brian Eno developed systems to keep himself on edge, and to keep himself in a position where he's generating ideas.
It's really easy to do. In my live gigs, that's part of the reason I'll take multiple requests at the same time. It's more dangerous than just taking a [single] request. It's like, "How can I get all these things somehow together?" And at that point, you're already at the place where—okay, it's just my opinion, but our brains are actually designed to be problem-solvers, for safety reasons. It's an evolutionary thing. If we're given a number of circumstances to deal with, the brain goes into this mode of trying to find a solution, and it's amazing how good we are at it. If you just look through human history, when people are put in these situations where suddenly there's a bunch of stuff to figure out in a short period of time, it's like you go into this shock mode and do it. And the problem for all of us is that we like comfort. In one sense, we basically hate change, because change represents work of one kind or another.
So you've got to put yourself in these positions, at least as a person who likes making stuff, where you force the situation to include parameters that are going to take you outside of yourself. So I've sort of designed my shows so there's a guaranteed period of time in every night where the rug is going to be pulled out from under me. And you're going to let in outside influences, and it basically works if you're unafraid. I think most people won't do it within their gigs, because people have an incredible fear of looking bad in public. I just don't mind if I fall on my face on the first three attempts. It's not like, "Oh my God." I guess in everybody's mind, it's like those nightmares they have of being in front of the class with no clothes or something. It's like the psychological equivalent of that. And then you just go, "Ah, fuck it." I just think of all my favorite moments of watching other people, and it's usually the moment where I can see everything coming together, as opposed to the moment they rehearsed to present to me. And obviously, within my shows there's an amount of prepared material. There's an amount of my songs that I'm presenting in a very straightforward way. It's not like it's all a subconscious science lab. But then again, I think that's probably self-evident for anybody who's sitting there.
AVC: You mentioned fear. What are other common pitfalls of improvising music?
JB: People's association with improvisation means one person playing an endless stream of notes over something, and it doesn't have to be. For me, the big breakthrough is that improvisation could mean, in the middle of a stuffy little singer-songwriter gig, it could go to an avant-garde noise place. [Laughs.] The improvisation could extend to the arc of the evening. The improvisation could extend to what extent you let the people in the room influence what's happening. Improvisation could be playing one of my own songs and just suddenly midway through going, "You know what? Fuck it. There should be a bossa nova." And so for me, I realized at one point what defines good and bad soloing for me. And I finally realized, if I thought people were just playing patterns, they'd taunt their hands. My mind was completely shut off. But if I was listening to a musician who I heard was listening to the music, and what they were playing was what they were thinking at that second, I was completely engrossed. It's like somebody's talking, and you hear their gears going, and you can just go along with it.
AVC: It's more immediate and honest than rehearsed and trying to seem honest.
JB: Yeah. The only thing you really have to practice, then, is your ability. And this is something I do all the time. I try to teach my hand to do what I'm hearing in my head at any given second. I don't sit around and practice scales. I sit around and just try to make sure my hands are following what's coming to me. And that way, in the midst of a performance, I don't sit there trying to think about it. [Laughs.] If somebody says, "I wanna hear Def Leppard!" And somebody goes, "Klezmer!" [Laughs.] Suddenly the brain is, again, in shock mode. "Fuck!" [Laughs.] "Fuck! Well, what's that?" [Hums.] "It's like, shit. Which song is gonna actually work as a klezmer song?" And then suddenly I've got this 30 seconds of panic of, "Christ, what Def Leppard song has enough melody that it's going to be interesting to sustain an instrumental?"
AVC: You've said demos for songs should not exist. Why?
JB: I think they're the worst things in the world. They set people up: Usually every artist at some point makes a bunch of demos at the moment they write the song, which absolutely contains the feel. Then they re-record them for the sake of higher fidelity, or reaching more people, or whatever the fuck they're doing, and they chase the demo. Because of it, they're blinded and they can't see the value of what they're currently doing. I think everyone should record at the moment they write the song, whenever possible. It's almost inevitably the best version. Not always, but 95 percent of the time.
I always tell people I'm working with, "Don't make demos, but always be recording." If you're recording the song on your four-track in your kitchen, when you finished writing the song, you're recording, and it's cool, and honor that. And maybe that's the version that should be released. And if you're recording the song again, it shouldn't be because there's a version you love that you're chasing. It should be because "You know what? I made a recording, but I don't love it emotionally." So, okay, then record again. And be in it and take advantage of the buzz and energy of "I'm getting to record right now!" It's such a beautiful and cool privilege. At any time you're in front of a mic, think, "Hey, this could be it!" I mean, why not? I don't mean to go into some crazy showboat mode, but part of the reason demos are often so good is because people don't think they're "recording." If that's what it takes for someone psychologically to get the good thing, fine, but then don't re-record for the sake of fidelity.
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 like food cravings. If you go to 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. You get back up if you really love what you're doing, and you do it regardless. I have that freedom by not having a set list.
AVC: You did a pilot for VH1 in 1999, though it never saw the light of day. What happened?
JB: It was a very difficult thing, getting what I hoped to capture and get it on TV. You do one day of shooting, and suddenly at the end of it, you learn all the things you should have done differently. Also, I think dealing with a major corporation [like] Viacom, I think to actually do what would have been necessary to put across what I wanted to, wasn't really ever going to happen. The pacing would never be right.
I think there was a desperate attempt to try and edit the thing to make it look more fast-moving. Whereas part of the reason I like performing live is that we're not pretending everything happens in three-and-a-half-minute chunks of fast-paced editing. And I actually quite hate that sort of—well, what MTV inspired, in terms of editing. You can't watch music videos unless there's a cut every two seconds. When I watch old footage—like, you see that old, great Bob Dylan footage, and he's just killing! The best moments of Don't Look Back are where it's one camera from 50 feet away, with one spotlight on a guy standing there, and he's killing. You just want to watch that; it's completely interesting.
I don't think TV at that time would have been willing to go there, and I don't think they'd have been willing to do, "Yeah, you know what? Some weeks, we're not going to have any big, big stars on it." As soon as I was doing it, it was like, "Hey, there are some very successful people who want to do this, and there are some people who are just plain really good, who a lot of people know of and actually would be really impressed to see on your channel." But they would just start recommending every single person who was currently popular. I'm like, "Yeah, you don't understand. That person couldn't stand on a stage and improvise. Or, you know what? Those people don't have songs that are good enough that if they just stood there with an acoustic guitar, and I was playing marimba along with them, that it would be very interesting. I could guarantee you that I could pick people who would make good music." But what the archetype of what TV was at that moment, I just don't think it would add up.
The other problem is that, what I do is a hard thing to put across on TV, because if you're sitting in the audience, and your friend next to you makes a request, and somebody three rows away recommends a style, and you see somebody do it, you know that it's happening at that moment. But at least in terms of my performing, it's a little bit like watching someone doing magic on TV. It's like, "Well, they could have stopped the camera. That could have been planned." So, there's none of the immediacy. Speaking of this moment, culturally, of computers and things, I think people are going to want to get together collectively and see things that they can believe. We're at the point where we know anything's possible with CGI; the only way to be impressed is to actually see somebody do something.
That OK Go video [for "Here It Goes Again"] is a great example of what has to happen. It's like we have to see people doing something to believe it. I mean, we can't even believe in the fucking news anymore. There's a real sense that people need to be somewhere where they're having a tactile experience where, with their critical faculties, they can see that something's really happening. And at the moment, we're slightly robbed of that. And eventually, TV will follow suit, because TV's a populous medium. They still just want to sell advertising. And if we as a culture say we're really interested in things that go at a different pace, and we're really interested in things that aren't necessarily hammering us over the head at every minute, TV will jump all over that. So, down the road maybe. But at that particular juncture? I don't think so. [Laughs.]
AVC: Would you want to try again?
JB: Yeah. I learned a lot from it. I actually shot another version of something with a friend later on that was one step closer. I think it has to be really tiny to be interesting. It's something I give thought to now and then. The problem is that I can't tell you I have interest in being a TV personality. That's stressful, and it's not as fun as getting in the car and going to a studio, or stepping up on a podium and conducting a bunch of musicians, or writing three lines of lyrics that I actually just like. Those things will take such severe precedence over being a talking head. [Laughs.]
AVC: There's irony in the fact that Atlantic shuffled your album Meaningless around and eventually released you for not being commercial enough, though at they same time they've called on you to produce their artists. Is it hard to not get bitter at that?
JB: As far as not getting bitter, I'm the luckiest son of a bitch in the world. [Laughs.] There's not really any room for that.
I'm fairly grateful about [my work]. It's like when I take a cab ride occasionally, the cab driver goes, "What do you do?" And I'm like, "Well, I'm a musician." "What type of stuff?" And I'll say, "Well, it's kind of hard to answer." [Laughs.] Inevitably, the next question is really funny, because in truth, how really are you supposed to answer this: "Are you any good?" "Well, I don't know." And eventually I realized, every time I'm asked this by a cabdriver, I eventually went, "You know what? I've survived my adult life just being a musician, which I think is kind of incredible." Inevitably that sort of gets the point across to them that, "Oh, okay. You're serious." I guess that answers their question, but for me, it's a way of answering it that is honest and real. It's like, "My God, I get to be a musician with my life, so it doesn't even matter if I'm good. It means at the very least, I'm pulling the wool over everyone's eyes consistently enough. [Laughs.] And I put food on the table, and have work to do.
What I tell the cabbies, I was happy about that answer, because it's the truth. I really get to indulge my whims to a degree that most humans don't get to, and I get paid for it. So everything is great in that sense. The thing for me has been time as a constant throughout my life. Long before I started working on anything anybody knew anything about, I've consistently been considered too commercial for the underground, and too idiosyncratic for the overground. It's never not been the case. I've come to accept that that's my lot, and there are times where I can even predict certain things that are going to happen early on in a project. I already know. But the interesting thing is, here I am. In other words, I'm still doing this. I'm still getting to do this full-time, and life remains interesting. Though I don't really have a home in terms of a scene or anything like that. I don't have either comfort zone.
AVC: It gives you the freedom to do whatever you want.
JB: Yeah, and the fact of the matter is, I like stuff from both camps and I hate stuff from both camps. I think the underground is as full of attention-seeking sheep as the overground. They're wearing this week's street clothing, but who gives a shit? It's the same motivational thing. It's just a different batch of people; they want to affirm that they're cool. [They're] looking at a different sect of people, but they're doing the same thing. But then you get the people who just are really honestly making stuff, and it happens to fall into what could be called the category of underground music, and it's lovely and loveable, because they're individual. You get the same thing in overground music. You get the occasional people who are successful, who are individuals. What I think people forget is that so much of what's looked at as the great soulful, artistic music of the last century; these people were desperately trying to have success. [Laughs.]
[George] Gershwin was trying to write hits. Hank Williams, Mr. Soulful of all time, wrote a book called How To Write Folk And Western Music To Sell. People don't talk about that, because it's uncool. It doesn't meet up with the image of the alcoholic who died young and was regarded as a rebel with his constant broken heart, smashing every barrier of the materialistic world with his undying spirit. Well, both things are true. And he was great because he was great. He wasn't great because he was associated with one thing or another. The fact of the matter is, he was just a better songwriter than most humans who've ever strode the earth. And as a performer, utterly engaging. I can't stop loving and ingesting that music. It just never stops being a fountain of great feeling for me.
So from my perspective, it's sort of like you can't even consider whether something's populist. For me, it just doesn't come as a prerequisite. It's not like I sit around going, "I need to find something cool to do!" [Laughs.] At some moment, somebody asked me to do something, and it was one of those junctures of life where it was like, "Oh, that would be different." And then you say yes, and then you're in it, and you do it and you throw yourself at it.
AVC: Two instances like that, where the results wound up being shelved, were albums with Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith. How hard is it to dissociate yourself or not compare a project after it doesn't work, and then it's resurrected in a different form? JB: You automatically do that. With Elliott, we never made much of a complete record. Elliott and I always spent time together when we could, and worked together when we could. There's a lot of stuff that I recorded and betted with. He was in fairly rough shape those last few years. He was just marching around with tapes, erasing things and adding things and God knows what. With that, it was a different thing. By the time we were supposedly making a bit of a record, I was essentially watching a friend fade from the world. So really, that's my memory there. Other than that, I hold onto all the lovely memories of how fantastic he was when he was present; as fascinating and lovely a human being as you could ever imagine.
As far as the Fiona thing, I remember having to answer a lot of the questions when that was a bit of a news story, trying to explain to people—it's like, they don't realize as outsiders how many things get made and don't get released. There's so many committee decisions made in terms of the record business that you'd be amazed. The amount of individual songs I've done with people that haven't come out over the years, or you do two songs and one of them comes out, the amount of things on records where I've recorded with people and we've recorded two records' worth of stuff, and the other stuff maybe eventually filters out, or the artist re-records portions… The amount of artists who are not of somebody like Fiona's stature, who the record company holds over a barrel because they don't have singles? There was a band out here who was signed to a label, and made three records. No joke. Three records for their "debut record." I think in the end it didn't come out.
If you're the kind of person who's going to let other people's opinions of what you do stop you, you'll get stopped pretty fucking quick. [Laughs.] "Oh, some record didn't get put out?" If I just stopped then, I wouldn't have done all the things I've done since then. It's funny, because I used to have to explain to people, "This has already happened. This has happened many times to me and everyone else who does this." The fact of the matter is, you can't let it be a big deal. You just keep making stuff, and some things are going to come out, some things aren't. Some things are going to be well-received, some things aren't. Some things are going to actually be a little popular, some things really aren't. I can't tell you that I never know which way it's going to go. All I know is that when I'm walking in and doing it, I'm committed to that process. I keep getting asked to take part in that process with other people, and I keep saying yes. [Laughs.]