Pop guru: Jon Brion steps in and out of the studio

By Mark Guarino

Jon Brion wears multiple hats — producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, engineer, film composer — but the one that connects them all is the most simple: Music geek.

In a business that prefers reliable franchises to risk-taking and one-note stars over adventuresome mavericks, Brion is an anomaly. He earned his reputation as a producer who helped massage career-making albums out of artists like Fiona Apple, Kanye West and Aimee Mann among many others. Brion, 44, does not arrived armed with a trademark sound; instead, like old school producers ranging from George Martin to Jim Dickinson, Brion earns his paycheck by becoming an advocate for the song, introducing a full spectrum of sonic possibilities from his encyclopedic music background, and seeing how they fly in the studio. An obsessive instrument collector and enthusiast, he is also capable of making what someone hears in their head come alive by just sitting down and playing.

He is also a one-man band, which will be in full display at the two sets he will perform New Year’s Eve at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. Brion, who first started playing music in Boston and records his own music sporadically, first faced Chicago audiences at the Intonation Music Festival two summers back. Looping each instrument one-by-one, he succeeded in creating, with just his two hands, the dense and melodic kick of a full rock band. It’s a method of performing that made his long-time weekly residency at Largo, the Los Angeles club, legendary.

Last week, Brion talked, from his studio in L.A., about his obsessions. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: Two summers ago at Intonation, Chicago audiences had what was really one of the only times to see you perform.

A: The fact I never leave L.A. has certainly an impact on that! (laughs)

Q: Was that one of the first times transferring what you do at a small club to a larger audience?

A: Yeah but, you know, it’s funny: What I do at Largo is a by-product of a friend owning a place I like the atmosphere of and where people are paying attention to music. And years ago them going, “hey, you should do this every week.” I was at a point I didn’t want to tour. I didn’t and still don’t like the most of the trappings of promotion. I think most people who join rock bands, their desire is to be rock star more than actually the joy of performing. Performing is something you can do because you get attention from it and it garners all this other stuff. I like the act in itself. And what Largo has provided for me I play about 50 shows a year and I don’t have to go on tour. It’s kind of amazing. I play as many shows as a lot of friends of mine who tour and am probably more well known. But I just found this place I like and I do it and people show up and they’re always there and I’m always there. It’s not as if it’s designed as a small thing. In fact, it’s even kind of funny. I’m the only thing that plays at Largo that, at any given moment, is as loud and abrasive as a My Bloody Valentine show! (laughs) Kevin shields and I have more in common that is comfortable.

Q: So Chicago gave you an opportunity to take the large show and put it, finally, in a large setting.

A: And that sounded like a good thing. The other thing that happened: I absolutely fell in love with Chicago. I have this crazy love affair with your town. And I’m beginning to feel like it might be the last city in America that actually has its own atmosphere. That has its own tonality. That has its own special thing. There used to be more cities that felt more special in and of itself. But as we go into the Home Depot era of every block has the same store … You know, I love Los Angeles as much as many people think it’s a sprawling piece of (expletive), I think it’s a sprawling piece of potential. But architecturally, they knocked down all good (expletive) and put up rectangles. Chicago hasn’t done that. It has beautiful, modern things competitive with any city on the planet and they’re intermingled them with beautiful older things. I wish New York still had its sense of city but Manhattan, it’s not even a shell of itself. All it has is tall buildings. But when you’re walking around on the street there’s nothing else.

Q: People in Chicago still go out to see music. That’s not the case in many cities.

A: Yeah, it seems like that to me. It seems like people (in Chicago) remember it’s something you can do, that it’s entertaining to hear one human being make sound and put themselves on the line. I’ve noticed this for years. Even when I played with other people: if you play in a bunch of towns and you’re out for a few weeks, if you get to Chicago there are twice as many people showing up at those gigs and they’re twice as attentive. It just seems like that hasn’t changed. Seattle had that for while. Chicago seems to have always had it and never lost it. And you guys had it in the in jazz era. Your (expletive) town is just as important as New York. People who came out of there are unbelievable. And I get it because people were showing up when somebody good was playing. You seem to be keeping up the legacy. Which I have to admit is pretty attractive to me.

Q: You perform as a one-man band, looping all the instruments live. It’s fascinating to watch you build the sound. Is playing strictly solo still something you want to continue to do?

A: I want to do more of that at this point. Elvis Costello used to do this thing when he bothered to descend on New York back in his heyday. Where he parked at a theater, it was the time of (his 1986 album) “Blood and Chocolate,” and he was doing the spinning songbook. Someone like me relates to that immensely. But the other thing he was doing was every night was, he had a different band. Like, one night it would be Jim Keltner and Mitchell Froom, the next night the Attractions, the next night it would be completely solo. You didn’t even know. You bought the ticket because you wanted to see him. And every single gig was its own unique thing. I heard that he also used to do a thing where he’d pull into town and go to (the country music club) Lonestar and do George Jones covers and stuff from (his 1981 album of country covers) “Almost Blue” and then he’d play the Ritz with the Attractions and then show up at the Blue Note and sing some standards with a jazz musician. To me that’s the right idea: Maximize what the place is about. Chicago’s a place that has all these interesting assets. There’s so many talented people there, which makes it fascinating to me.

I’m a total fan of instruments. And a lot of instrument manufacturers, the great ones in America, were in Chicago. A couple of trips ago I actually went out to the building where the Deagan factory was. They used to make vibraphones. Vibraphones were a huge part of my life. I went to talk to this guy who repairs them and he was incredibly sweet. I got this beautiful history lesson. And I learned a ton. I learned about old man Deagan, all this amazing (expletive) … To me, to be able to do that instead of going in a van — you ask if I’m interested in playing to a bunch of people? — the answer is “yeah.” Here’s the problem: I’m not interested in getting in the van and going to Chicago and then to the next town I’m supposed to play because I need to build up an audience. And why do you want to build up an audience? To make more money, sell more product, play as many places as you can in a short period of time until you have nervous exhaustion. And then you need to recover, but at that point you’re on that treadmill. I’d rather just go to Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco or New York and spend my off days doing things that will feed my brain rather than be that person who just, for the sake of success, is going to play as many gigs as possible but all I saw on the day of my gig was the van.

Any of these nights I played in Chicago, I had two of the best meals of my life. I walked around and saw a city that still had personality and I soaked it in and maybe went on an instrument hunt. And I’m all excited because not only did I get some nice food, not only was I inspired, not only did I feel a sense of place, maybe I might have a new instrument that night that I never used before. And I’m going to use that in front of people, which is going to cause me to do things I hadn’t done previously. I mean, that’s so much better than getting out of van and the roadie sets up things the exactly same way from the night before and you’re totally tired because you didn’t sleep enough or you had to wake up early to travel to the next town.

The only reason to do that is the belief that that’s the only way you have a career. Which, so far, as far I’m concerned, I’ve proved isn’t remotely necessarily. So why change now?

In terms of my desire to playing for people? I love that part. That part is absolutely pure and great. But I also want people to get a chance to see something different. So I don’t want to put myself in a position where you’re doing things by rote.

Q: Was producing a way to get you off the road?

A: To be quite honest it was never intentional. I’ve been playing instruments as far back as I have memories. And also I was playing with tape recorders as far as I have memories. Anything that made sound was a beautiful, playful thing … It still being exciting for me, Nothing I had done was an intentional move to get to where some people see as some other area working in music. It’s all one area.

Q: As someone who works with major label stars, is it becoming more difficult considering that the business side of things seems to be fractured more than ever?

A: The record business has always been troubling to me. This is not a new thing. The thing that is new is that the public has a consciousness that that plays a part. The musicians have been complaining for years. Now everybody is realizing, “wait a minute, what the (expletive) is this?” Consumers realize it because they are hearing more homogenous music and going, “why does that have to be?” The truth is, artists play a big part of that. Artists so want the prize, that it’s not just record companies (saying) it needs to be slick, I see artist doing things left and right making sure it works. Because they’re so afraid they’re not going to be able to make their next record, they stock this record with things that they think people will like. It’s all going to collapse under its own weight as it’s obviously already started to. And that’s a good thing.

Q: What do you predict will happen?

A: You know what? It’s going to be fine. And the fact of the matter is, it’s going to be good for music because eventually more and more people aren’t going to wait for subsidies from a record company to make to make a record. And we’re going to have this horrible amount of unforgivable shit that’s going to be on the Internet. Because of every person who thinks they should be making sound in front of people are going to put their thing up. There’s going to be glut of crap to go through. But the occasional thing that is just great and humans respond to, is going to get through. And those records will get made. The other thing is, the music business will never be gone. It’s going to change, it’s going to get a lot smaller, maybe they won’t be able to police the money off the internet which will upset them to no end. But artists don’t like dealing with business. So at some point somebody is going to say, “I’m going to take 20 percent of what you make but I’m going to do all business stuff.” And the artists are going to say yes. There’s always going to be a Col. Tom Parker.

Q: Do make choices based on the artist’s integrity as you see it?

A: Everything plays a part. It’s dangerous to use words like “integrity” because it’s all subjective. For some reason something comes up at a particular time and I feel it could be something real or it’s something I’m interested in. And that can be anything. It can be: I’m interested in person’s spirit. It can be: “(expletive), I think these songs are so good I don’t want to somebody to make a chumped-up record of them.” It can be somebody who I actually know people are currently overlooking, it’s somebody people have an impression of and it’s like, “you know what? This person is much richer and more diverse than people’s impressions of them. And I want to get that across.” The only thing in common is, I guess, that I said yes in each case. In truth, why that really is, maybe I don’t even know … Something makes me see that there’s value in the fact that having me doing it is going to be more worthwhile to them than if they went to somebody else. And that feeling engenders in me that it’s something real. Regardless of perception. If I operated on perception, I wouldn’t have done probably most of the things I do. Like, “oh, I can’t do that because it’s not underground or cool enough.” So that’s the standard thing I do. People don’t always realize that disregarding popular things is just another form of prejudice.

Q: Does having a household name a producer prevent you from working with artists who aren’t as well known?

A: I’d work with anybody I’d say yes to. As confusing as that sounds. It’s all about the person, the work at hand, the circumstance, what I’ve done thus far in my life, where I’m at, at that moment. I constantly get people who come to me because they heard something I’d done that they want to co-opt. What they don’t realize is, that’s the combination of another artist and myself. If I see that or I smell that, the “yes” goes away really fast. If somebody calls and says, “oh, I like this album” and they go on and on about it. Yeah that’s fine, but that’s that artist, that’s not me. Don’t think I did everything. I think that’s a bit of a misinformed thing that I don’t blame people for. Because on a lot of records, I do a lot of different jobs. So people assume I am somebody who’s imposing a sound. And it’s like no, that’s a different person with a different batch of songs at a different time. And they came in and that’s what we made together.

Q: Which I assume is how it worked with Kanye West.

A: Yeah, I’d been waiting for years to do some sort of thing within hip-hop. There were certain things I’d been doing for years that I really felt were loop-influenced. I didn’t really like when people were using machines to ape a certain sound. A drum program is interesting but now I want to hear two drummers doing that live. And I’ll record it in a way that’s not a standard machine sound. There’s a lot of influence on the second Fiona Apple record, drum and bass, but I wanted it to be organic and seamless with the songs. And she listened to lot of hip-hop but she didn’t want to sound like she was aping anything. So the Kanye thing, he was the first person who called … But he wasn’t calling me because he said, “hey, I heard your stuff and I can tell you have your ears on.” He heard the movie stuff I did. And he wanted to get something cinematic. And he was looking around at hip-hop and — here’s where he’s great — and said, well (expletive), I can already provide everything that’s necessary for hip-hop as it stands. I know how to program I know how to sample, I know how to produce, I know how to write. He went looking for somebody who was doing other things. He came to me because of orchestration and then discovered that I was obsessed with audio and mics and that I could play a bunch of instruments and then that became the connection. And again, it’s not like I did a bunch of hip-hop tracks that came to the attraction of somebody who did hip-hop. I found another likeminded person who wanted to make hybrid music who knew about an aspect of me that they wanted to co-opt. And for my perspective, I could say yes because it was like, “oh good, I can finally work with someone who is working in a completely different arena, that is not a singer-songwriter and is somebody who is passionate about the work.” That’s an easy yes.

Q: You’ve worked on so many great albums, is there one that’s a benchmark for you personally?

A: I can’t say because for me, it’s dangerous to talk about because I think people need to listen and choose what resonates with them in a real way. For me, if you were to ask about projects: on every record I’ve ever done there’s something on it that I’m incredibly proud of that went better than I could ever imagined. On every record I’ve ever done, there’s something on it that if it was playing and we were both in the room, you would see me cringing and apologizing … Every record. And on every record there is some segment of music that I think is beautiful and conceptionally touches like twenty different points at once. And it’s emotional and it has thought in it. And half the time I look at people when that moment is going on and they’re like, “eh, that was cool.” To be honest with you, that’s like my whole career.

Q: You’re closer to the source so you’re the only one hearing it.

A: There is stuff I find beautiful in each of them. Genuinely. It might just be the bridge of the song … There’s so many different variations. For the most part the writing isn’t an issue because most of the people I work with I believe in as writers. Everyone I worked with is a real writer. Often it’s been other people who didn’t know that. And that was my aim with as a project: “Hey, you should know this person’s serious.” But in retrospect? If we sat there, I might go, “Hey I think those eight bars is good as anything I’ve ever heard.” Especially if you’re asking about my contribution. Occasionally I get eight bars that are really, really good. Most of the time I’ll tell you what’s wrong. (laughs)

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