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“People have to remember that art includes the Beatles and The Simpsons,” he declares. “Art doesn’t have to be a dirty word. But people are afraid of using it because it’s become that qualitative term, like if you meet somebody and say, ‘What do you do?’ and they say, ‘Well, I’m a poet,’ you want to slap them, because you don’t think of a poet as just being a regular job. To say you’re an artist is not to make a qualitative judgment about yourself. It’s what I am; it doesn’t mean I’m a good one, and it doesn’t mean I’m one anybody’s gonna love or be entertained by. I’m a guy who makes stuff, and I happen to be involved with sound, and whatever the weird form is of marrying musical ideas with emotional and intellectual ideas, and making these little compressed bits of that information, I love doing that.”
Perhaps similar to the way Brian Wilson began to compose circa Pet Sounds, Brion has described his songwriting and film-scoring approach as modular, building pieces with a scrap here and a sod there.
“All of this stuff is floating around, and it’s all available,” he says. “Sometimes a movie score ended up being a lot of songs that were either unreleased, or not all the lyrics were finished, but all the music was done, and what the lyrics were about related to the scenes in the movie. If I have some unfinished song, there’s no reason that some piece of it won’t be great compost for some other project down the line.”
Brion’s film scores in particular have a way of resonating powerfully with the visuals they accompany, seemingly molding something beyond the music and the imagery themselves. The gasping, heaving harmoniums and skittish percussive effects that etched P.T. Anderson’s painful romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love balanced the friction and accord within the goofily lovelorn protagonist’s catastrophic mind. Punctuated with Brion’s own gorgeous Beatles–Brian Wilson meltdown “Here We Go” and lush orchestral interludes that caricature cinematic soundtrack grandeur, the score propels the story toward a pleasingly ambiguous and uncertain finale.
That result is not easy to achieve, and it entails proceedings that Brion will now endure only for a handful of idiosyncratic filmmakers.
“It’s an absolute collaborative process,” he says. “So you’ll go, ‘I’d like to stay out of the way of this scene,’ and people go, ‘No, we’ve gotta have music there, and you’ve gotta write something.’ The political aspects, collaborative aspects, and your hopes and dreams — you’re taking this thing that already exists and elevating it or making it more evocative, without diminishing anything that’s already great. You just hope that the thing has some sense of life force, some of the complexity of life — which is not always apparent complexity. And nothing is simple, here in this place we live.”
In that sense, Brion’s music seems extraordinarily well matched for the films he’s scored, because it has a self-aware introspection that perfectly meshes with stories about characters experiencing self-doubt or displaced perspectives. Listening to the mysteriously kool vibraphone shuffles and waltzes of the Huckabees soundtrack as I drive around Hollywood, I feel like Jason Schwartzman’s character in the film, an observer of the incessant, insipid sameness of his everyday world. As he looks closer, however, he begins to notice tiny things moving, in the corner of his eye . . . then the city begins to lookdifferent, literally.
“The nature of this place can’t be explained by any human doctrine,” Brion says, “and you’ve gotta figure out a way to be okay despite the fact that you don’t get the answer. So each one of us plays our own little game with how intellectual we allow ourselves to be, how emotional we allow ourselves to be, how often we allow ourselves to look at things and how often we have our blinders on. Our brains love to make patterns out of randomness, but we search for the patterns. If you stare at the little dots on this table, eventually you’ll start to form things out of it, just like people look at the stars in the sky and see shapes.”
Brion sees all this in close relation to artistic endeavor, how it relates to society, and how people move in society. “The very thing which gave you heart — ‘My god, this thing called Roxy Music exists, and my life is better’ — it’s out of the pattern of what rock bands looked like, sounded like. It was totally punk rock.”
Plus, they had oboes, and random synth solos . . .
I’m hanging with Jon Brion a few weeks later in an upstairs conference room at the renowned Ocean Way Studios on Sunset Boulevard. He's filling his coffee cup again, and we’re savoring the magical ambiance of the old recording studios like this one, where Count Basie and Frank Sinatra, among countless others, tracked some of their most beloved songs. Brion’s eyes sparkle when he thinks about it.