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In the studio, Brion is often called upon to be an instigator and a multi-instrumentalist, as opposed to someone who’s got a particular brand of sound. His productions for other artists have often featured his own instrumental handiwork, usually owing to budgetary restrictions, or perhaps somebody wrote a song late at night and it had to be captured quickly.
“That’s certainly the case with a lot of the Aimee Mann stuff,” he says. “She’d come into the studio and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a new one, can we put it down?’ And I always knew within a few hours we’d have a finished track: Put down a vocal with the guitar, play some drums to it, some keyboards, play some bass, put the finishing touches on it. ‘Frankenstein’ on her second record and ‘You Could Make a Killing’ on the second record; ‘Amateur’ was a track I had laying around that she got a vocal for, and one night I just finished off the overdubs.”
To further illustrate this scenario, Brion uses the analogy of the Twilight Zone episode about the old man with a tray of stuff who walks into a diner, and a guy says, “Do you have cigarettes?” “No, I don’t have cigarettes, but I have spot remover.” “I don’t need spot remover.” The old man walks out, and then the guy spills coffee on his tie.
“The essence of a great producer,” says Brion, “is seeing a couple of moves ahead; there’s a lot of psychology, and there’s that old man with the tray of stuff, and you’re putting objects in front of people that maybe they don’t yet know they need.”
Similarly, at some point in his career, Brion himself discovered the artful habit of breaking his own habits. This revelation entirely altered his methodology in the recording studio.
“It’s the old Chinese thing of balance, because you also need to have tricks up your sleeve that work no matter what,” he says. “Nature is analogous: There’s a combination of randomness and structure, and it’s this combination that makes up the entire known universe, and the more we discover and the more we look at it, the more we find equal parts of randomness and beautiful structure. Music is the art form that can represent this in real time, and it takes the form of most of the dimensions of the known universe.”
Hence, in the studio, Brion often starts his recording sessions open to randomness and lets it ride, and only applies structure when the randomness falls outside of the lines of what’s necessary.
“God does play dice with the universe, but they’re loaded,” he says. “You can have somebody play any note they want in a certain mode, and if I’ve handed them an instrument that doesn’t have a lot of percussive attack, magically everything they play is going to fit this particular song. I know that everything will happen within a fixed area, because I’ve set the boundaries of their playing field. But to them it’s total freedom.”
For all his considerable achievements, Jon Brion’s speech is littered with self-deprecating stuff that seems too strangely humble. He should make a bigger show of going around proclaiming his greatness so that his own star might shine more brightly than all the others, is what I say.
His answer is surprising. “I’m desperately fumbling to make something that I don’t think sucks,” he confesses. “And I rarely hit the mark to the point where I don’t want to throw up when I hear my own crap.”
Whatever, he does listen to his own stuff several times before he decides it’s ready to go out and survive on its own in the world.
“You want to know that there’s something in there. What I’m conscious of, as I’m overdubbing and as I’m stripping things away, is my memory of what it was to be in love with a record, and to listen to it over and over again and still discover new things in it. Eno and the Beatle records do that for me, still.”
I remember hearing Roxy Music for the first time and feeling validated, and privileged to be hearing it. In my world, it was thrilling to find out that people were allowed to make music like that.
“The most entertaining experiences are the ones that also have sustenance in them, even if you can’t define it,” he says. “And the value of something like Roxy Music is, it’s absolute proof that this world is not a neoconservative, dreadful, entirely crappy place to spend your existence. And if there’s a guy in a feather boa playing a synthesizer with his knuckles and some crazy guy doing weird motions with his hands, singing in a wobbly falsetto . . .” [Laughs.]
Roxy’s campy elements made its more serious musical points substantially more palatable. It’s an approach that Brion has learned a lot from.