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Jon Brion's Amazing Musicquarium

With only his 10 digits and this tiny piano, Jon Brion will attempt to stay submerged for at least a month?.?.?.?or until the coffee runs out. (Photos by Garik Gyurjyan)

Because he can, ladies and gentlemen, and because life is short but not entirely meaningless, Jon Brion will now attempt to do it all. And he will do it all, or most of it, anyway. Consider that he’s a Grammy-nominated producer of hit records for rock and jazz biggies like Kanye West, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Macy Gray, David Byrne, Marianne Faithfull, Polyphonic Spree and Brad Mehldau; and he’s a twice-Grammy-nominated composer of film scores for high-profile films (Magnolia, I ? Huckabees, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch-Drunk Love). He is a studio session multi-instrumentalist/sound guru who, with his battery of vintage/obscure musical instruments, has enlivened the recordings of a massive list of acts, from Elliott Smith, The Crystal Method and Jellyfish to Peter Gabriel, Perry Ferrell, Melissa Etheridge and countless others. Oh, and he’s been a member of a melodically spectacular pop-rock band called The Grays, as well as the crafter of a cruelly unrecognized solo album, a whimsical pearl called . . . Meaningless.

Sure, that’s a lot. And your inclination, as many people’s inclinations are, might be to think it’s too much. But understand that this is a trip into the heart and mind of a successful survivor in the famously skanky biz of music. So it’s a story about music itself — where it comes from, what it’s for, the people who make it and why, and how it intersects with, gets charred by and rises, phoenixlike, from the ashes of its gnarly co-dependency with the film industry. It seems that for Jon Brion, music is not just a skill or a commodity; it’s a way of life — a metaphor, as you might say.

Somewhere along the way, the black-mopped, boyish Jon Brion learned not only to do it all, but to know it all — albeit in a nice way.

Brion comes from a musical family — Dad was a band director at Yale, Mom liked singing old standards around the house — and never was he discouraged from pursuing a life in music. He began writing songs as soon as he knew how to play an instrument, which by the age of 8 meant drums, guitar and piano. By the time he was 10 years old, he’d begun to try his hand at jazz, and at 13 had a fortuitous meeting with pianist–French hornist Willie Ruff, who’d formed a jazz band of high school and college-age kids in New Haven. Brion joined the ensemble on vibraphone and drums, and got to perform with Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Sam Stewart and other giants.

Carter was an imaginatively versatile musician whose career spanned six decades’ worth of musical styles. He was a pivotal influence on Brion.

“The archetype of the rock musician,” Brion, an admitted fiend, tells me over multiple cups of joe at the Coffee Bean on Sunset on a blustery day, “is that you’re only allowed to make one or two interesting records, and then spiral into boredom or obscurity, or making terrible music for more people, and keep chasing until it starts dropping off, and then drop off the face of the planet. We have this whole notion that your career is this thing that’s rising on the graph. You work, and you get more power, and more money, and you go and go and go, and at some point it stops and that’s where you retire. In truth, for the creative person it’s just up and down, wildly, sometimes suddenly, in one direction or another. And I prefer that as an archetype.

“I don’t have some model in my head that now I must be doing things of a certain stature. No, I’ve gotta be interested in it to be involved. I’ve already spent years living on ramen noodles, determined to play music, and it’s not a problem to go back there.”

It’s just not bloody likely that he’ll have to, it should be noted, especially since the recent big boost in his rep for his work on Kanye West’s triple-Grammy-winning Late Registration. As Brion’s not exactly known for being a hip-hop aficionado, at first glance his and West’s association seemed bloody unlikely, too, come to think of it. But it was Brion whom West wanted, and it was Brion who happily accepted the job and delights in the wealth of knowledge he gained from the experience.

“He called,” says Brion. “It was that simple. And as soon as we got together, it just felt natural. He just walked into the room and played me some things, and then the next thing you know there was an instrument in my hand and we were working, and after a few hours he was headed out the door, and he just turned around and said, ‘What time tomorrow?’ ”

West, an avid music fan who shares with Brion a fascination for the subject of record making, had been familiar with Brion’s film scores, and liked what he heard. Of course, the famously opinionated West had his own strongly held beliefs about how the record ought to sound, but he wanted his assumptions challenged, if only to have those assumptions strengthened and refined.

 

“What I really liked about him,” says Brion, “is he is open to everyone’s ideas, but then he is a very good person for having a point of view, and at the end of the day he makes all his own decisions. The main thing I got from him was this commitment to the subject of his own music.”

Brion had a similar feeling about Fiona Apple, whose When the Pawn . . . album he produced in 1999 and whose recent Extraordinary Machine he produced, too, though his rendition of it was shelved by the record company. Producer Mike Elizondo subsequently redid the album, though a couple of Brion’s versions remain on it.

“I’m thrilled she’s happy with it and the record company was happy enough with it to put it out,” he says, politely. “I’m particularly happy that people are gonna get to go into rooms where she is playing and singing, because there aren’t enough of her to go around in this world.”

No bad blood, then?

“People make soap operas of things they don’t necessarily understand, and the world at large doesn’t understand how many records don’t come out that get made. Every record I made for Aimee Mann got shelved for a year and a half before it came out. I think Fiona was in a place where she was unsure what she wanted, and that’s an artist’s prerogative. And that’s not the sort of thing you end friendships over.”

Still, it must be frustrating to have something you slaved over and believed in rejected. Could Brion’s dustily eccentric version of the Apple album really have been so uncommercial?

“Well, it wasn’t an obvious, easy sell,” he says, “but neither was it senseless — in some ways that is the story of my life. It’s just that the climate we’re in right now, well, we’re very skittish.

“The major changeover in the past 15 to 20 years is that, if you’re working for a record company and you want to sign an artist, you have to go to the marketing department and go, ‘Uh, can you guys sell this?’ and the marketing department then sends down their edict on whether something makes sense or not.”

Which is just plain odd, given the creative ambiance that Brion’s adopted hometown offers in abundance. Los Angeles can be thought of as an isolationist paradise where one might make music and art without undue influence or the pressures of archetype, a curious fact that Brion feels has allowed him to thrive here.

“There’s not a focused scene in certain focused areas,” he observes. “It’s not like ‘Hey, here’s our manifesto, and anything outside of it is bullshit!’ Of course, everyone goes, ‘Oh, L.A., you can’t have a good conversation to save your life.’ But in truth, I’ve met the greatest people I’ve ever known since I’ve moved here; the most intelligent and the most forward-thinking and the most challenging, and people being able to survive as individuals outside of any scene whatsoever. And that’s inspiring. On planet Earth, at this time, if you’re interested in all of the creative arts, Los Angeles is the only city in the world.”

L.A.’s music- and film-industry kingmakers have welcomed the idiosyncratic Jon Brion with open arms, but then they usually do for people loaded with new ideas — only to suck ’em dry and toss ’em on the bone pile.

But Brion fights the industry with a most unusual weapon: a big-picture sensitivity that not only helps him circumvent traditional Hollywood career pressures, but gives him a grounded yet unfettered persona that sparks fearless originality in the variety of artists with whom he’s called upon to work. He’s especially fond of engaging with musicians and film directors wise enough to leave him to his devices yet sufficiently firm in their own visions to forge a truly collaborative spirit. Such was the case with Huckabees’ David O. Russell, for whom Brion will also score the upcoming There Will Be Blood.

Brion had admired Russell’s handling of Huckabees’ quietly audacious subject matter — involving a detective team that investigates questions of existence.

“Nobody wants to get caught being on the soapbox,” he says, “and everybody’s so drearily afraid of being called pretentious, but they never put themselves on the line. Fear of being seen as pretentious is the great pretension of our time. It stifles people left, right and center, and I’m sick to death of it, because everybody’s pretentious.

 

“Not all grandiose ideas are bad,” Brion continues, clearly warming to the subject, “but it’s equally stupid and equally pretentious to go, ‘I’ve got to be sure to be primitive.’ If there is a way to keep yourself on an edge where you don’t know what’s gonna happen, that’s where the primitivism is. Soulful is determined by somebody’s reaction to what someone else is doing, and things are good because they’re good or not, not because ‘anything that’s true artistically is refined and simple.’ Hank Williams is one kind of good. But if you say that . . . then George Gershwin isn’t good? I don’t buy it.”

Gershwin the maximalist . . .

“Yeah! And it rocked, and he was every bit as direct and great and as talented and as gifted as Hank Williams. And Brian Eno and Howlin’ Wolf are equally great, and look like strange bedfellows, but they’re not. I just see a human being in each case who’s going for it, and entertaining me in the process.”

Of course, the mainstay of traditional rock-music writing has been its dubious apples-and-oranges mode of argument. Such as, say, pitting the Ramones against the Moody Blues, who did indeed perform terrible punk rock.

“When Lester Bangs was writing about music that way, it was dangerous, and people hadn’t written that way before,” says Brion. “In truth, he was not any kind of party-line guy, ’cause the party line didn’t exist then — he was one of the people who drew it. And for anybody to be disputing whether something’s real in rock & roll? Well, rock & roll is another ancient American art form, like jazz or anything else; at this point they’ve been around for a while, and the rules are written. It’s part of an old tradition that’s just one of the jobs in society, no more or less than being a garbage man or anything else.”

The traditions of which this walking 20th-century music-history book speaks are something he knows a lot about, a hugely advantageous thing that informs the substance and sound of his music with a well-honed and evolving philosophy about music’s possibilities and limitations. But the song itself, he says, will always be far more important than its sonic seasoning.

“I would not call what a lot of people do songs; there are a lot of things I would call performance pieces — it’s this guitar part with this drum part equals this performance piece. Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs; those are performance pieces, the lyrics and melody are almost secondary. You don’t wanna hear anybody else do it; you want to hear those particular people playing that arrangement, and you want to hear that recording of it, you don’t even want to hear the live version.

“Whereas with Hank Williams or Gershwin, play the melody over the chord change and you’ve got, ‘Oh well, that’s such and such’ within a few notes. The real art form of song is the marriage of lyrics to something musical that has that much encoded in its DNA. When that marriage is natural, that sound is an endless fascination.”

Brion draws a line between that and arranging. “This weird form, music, is as mathematical as architecture, and it’s as abstract as monkeys throwing paint at the wall,” he says. “While the sound of the record is less important than the chords and melody, I’m completely obsessed with giving a song a sonic quality where it feels like the odd piece of living sculpture that is an outgrowth from that song’s DNA.”

That’s a liberating concept you’d think would be especially appealing to contemporary musicians, yet Brion views the aesthetic choices of rockers as generally conservative.

“I find the attitude of rock musicians over the past 20 years kind of funny,” he says, “the whole I’m-a-rebel stance. The truth of the matter is, most rock bands are classical musicians and they don’t know it. Because it’s ‘This song starts with this drumbeat, at this time; halfway through, the guitar comes in, playing this part, with all down strokes on the fifth, with a clean sound; at this point you turn on your distortion and you play the barre chord, and then it’s muted at this point . . .’ And every time they play the song, it’s the same thing. That’s classical music!”

As a composer and especially as a producer, the mainly self-taught Brion is not a classical musician. He uses a vast and growing array of nonstandard musical instruments to achieve the deeply personal and oddly moving textures and melodies he makes, like his trusty Chamberlin (an early Mellotron-type keyboard that uses prerecorded analog tapes as its sound source), celestes, ethnic percussion instruments, harmoniums, pump organs, ukuleles and xylophones. It’s a distinctively burnished and even weathered sound whose prevailing avoidance of shiny, sharp synths or digital effects often makes his productions sound like a baby-boomer amalgamation of all the pop music we all grew up with and revered or despised.

 

A deviant instrumental treatment of a strong composition will give the music staying power, Brion believes, and he backs that up with some interesting science.

“Music is a physical property, it’s accepted by the physics of this universe. And as much as you can have that weird exponential chance expressed by playing four tracks of old instruments — and maybe the tuning’s a little weird on them — all the notes will add up differently throughout the whole piece, and 80 listens down the line, you start hearing those differences.

“It’s similar to getting to know a person,” he says. “You meet somebody, you like them, you want to keep them because of an early impression. But it’s all the little nuances you get to know about people as time goes by that makes you want to continue a relationship. My grandiose, great hope is, I just want things that people can integrate with their lives.”

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.

“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 look different, 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.

“The guy who designed these rooms, Bill Putnam, was a total audio genius from Chicago, which was an amazing hub for all the jazz musicians in the ’50s,” he says. “This guy designed Universal Recording Studio in Chicago, and everybody wanted to record there. In fact, when Chess Records made their own studio, they bought a lot of his equipment and then hired his protégés to build the room.

“So even the sound of the Chess records is in Bill’s personal style. Duke Ellington in particular loved his recordings, and it was Sinatra who eventually convinced him to move out here and build a studio, because Sinatra was getting tired of working at Capitol, up the street. So his grand plan was, I’ll get this genius to build some rooms here. Sinatra wanted to form his own record company, which was on this floor, so he kept offices up here, and the studios were downstairs.”

Brion exults when he talks about how the legendary studios’ famous tone was often the product of sheer accident, or was destroyed when they attempted to address trouble with the acoustics.

“They can spend millions of dollars to make a piece of crap that can never be fixed,” he says. “Some of my favorite recordings of all time are the Buddy Holly records, which are stunning sonically. All the old rooms used to have that white square acoustic tile with the little holes in it, and you can hear the room. And here they are however many years on, and the scent of intimacy is just amazing.”

One of the best things Brion does at his weekly Café Largo live sets is his tribute to the godfather of the modern recording studio, Les Paul, ripping out an unbelievably authentic (and athletic) Paul-style, slap-back guitar to some odd request from the audience, say “Whole Lotta Love” or “Iron Man.” It shows off Brion’s impressive instrumental technique in a tribute to a relatively unsung giant of modern music who’s credited with being the inventor of multitrack recording, among a billion other things.

“Yeah, and right up the street from here, on Curson, behind the Guitar Center,” he says. “That’s what was going on here in ’46, ’47. Come down the street and Nat King Cole would be recording. Some of his stuff was done at the Capitol Tower, and there was a studio right across from Lucy’s El Adobe where the truly great Capitol and Nat King Cole and Sinatra records were done. It’s a TV station now. There’s a second-story auditorium in it, and it had a stage, and that’s where ‘Unforgettable’ was done, and all the mid-’50s Sinatra records, like ‘Whenever She Smiles,’ all that stuff.

“Man, I was lucky enough to hear a work tape of a Sinatra session, because he was remarkable. The guy knew everything that was going on, every aspect of every job of every person in the room. He just had incredible ears, and that seriousness about sound balance, the whole notion of ‘Hey, we’re an organism, we gotta make this great thing, c’mon, dammit!’ And that’s different than the person who comes to prominence on mere vocal prowess. It’s always amazing when you meet people who have that sense.”

Sinatra had a way of bringing out the best in the players he bossed around — and indeed in the reporters he called two-bit hookers in crowded restaurants — but they had to have the best in them to start with. Same is true with Brion — and when he hears the best, he’s a fan just like everyone else. This happened again when he came across the music of jazz-piano modernist Brad Mehldau, whose Largo album Brion went on to produce in 2002.

 

“The guts, that’s where the real glory is,” he says, “and that’s what somebody like Brad Mehldau has gotten through. He’s the one guy playing straight jazz who I’ll go to and I get epiphanies. You know he’s got technique and all that, but the technique is at the service of ideas, and you can see that he’s got all this concentrating at the same time, a beautiful relationship between the conscious and unconscious.”

“A beautiful relationship between the conscious and unconscious”: Brion’s description of great art, high and low, resounds in my head at Café Largo on a Friday night, where the lights are low, the buzz is way loud, and framed shots of glittering greats from Hollywood’s heyday loom benignly large. We glimpse, up on the stage, two vintage hollow-body guitars, a rickety upright piano, a creaky old celeste, a set of drums and scattered electronic stomp-boxes. Cue a gentle waltz from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and one-man band Jon Brion hits the boards. Brion impromptus his way through a versatile list of sentimental faves, re-harmonized and reordered and wiped clean and fresh, so one can see the details: a buncha Sinatra; Johnny Cash doing “It Ain’t Me, Babe”; “Well-Respected Man”; Roxy Music’s “Siren”; and old big-band/jazz/R&B/pop marvels.

Now in his 10th year of the Largo gig, the multilimbed Brion tonight also gives a minilecture on the majesty of Duke Ellington, bangs the inside of the piano and loops it to make rhythms, then waterfalls an opulent Ferrante & Teicher–ish instrumental piece over it, segues into a bottleneck-slide-aided “You’re the Love of My Life (So Far),” to a sweet voice and piano ditty called “Trial and Error,” to the Velvets’ “Femme Fatale” squawked out via Vocoder, full-circle back into a highly swangin’ capper of Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” Two more tunes from his recent film scores, then it’s his tribute to Les Paul, on multitracked echoplexed guitar and bass.

He could probably chew gum at the same time. He should run for president of the United States.


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