Interview (Part One): Multi-Instrumentalist/Producer Jon Brion Talks About His Early Experiences With Music

Jon Brion: One Man Band
Jon Brion: One Man Band / Photo by Mike Witcher

Describing the breadth of Jon Brion's career can be a trying task. He's a man who wears many hats—among them multi-instrumentalist, producer (Aimee Mann, Kanye West, Dido), film scorer (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch-Drunk Love) and singer/songwriter (Meaningless). But to Brion, it's all one body of work, and he's most happy when he's making music.

Brion is also one of the reasons why LA residents can call themselves geographically fortunate, thanks to his weekly gigs at Largo. Each Friday night show is its own animal—a chemistry of sound that includes everything from one-man-band live looping to special guests. It's a rare opportunity to hear new takes on old classics, as well as to witness the creation of new music on the spot. Earlier this month, LAist sat down with Brion a couple hours before he took the stage at Largo. As the venue began to come to life for the night, he opened up about his early experiences with music, his first night at Largo and his love of improvisation.

LAist: What led you to choose drums as your first instrument?

Jon Brion: I guess, like anything, it just looked fun. It's the same reason why people who saw the Sex Pistols wanted to form bands. In fact, I probably got the same feeling the first time I heard the Sex Pistols as I did when I first discovered drums.

The best compliment I've ever received was one I heard years ago, before Largo was even up and running. I played a gig at the Alligator, and some guy who was apparently a very successful comedian in Australia came to the show. He saw a friend of [Largo owner Mark] Flanagan's and mine the next day and told him, "I just went out and bought a guitar," to which our friend said, "But you don't play!" Then he said, "Yeah, but I was watching that guy last night, and he seemed to be having so much fun that I figured I'd give it a go!"

Were there one or two situations in your early music years that made you realize that this is what you were meant to do?

As far back as I can remember, I've been doing this. Memories really start around four, and I had already gotten a little crappy drum set by that age, because I had been banging on things for so long. I also remember hitting the piano when the keys were still fairly high up—not that I was playing well, but that it was interesting to me.

Then for some reason, when I was eight or nine, I said to myself, "It's really good that I'm going to spend the rest of my life making music, because it will always be above me. There will always be something else to learn." It's such a funny thought to have had at that age. I just said to myself, "Yeah, this will work," and haven't questioned it since then.

As you grew older and explored everything from punk to jazz, what was the biggest obstacle you encountered as you were training your brain to play your musical thoughts as you're thinking them?

It was a slow process. It only happened because I was trying to figure stuff out—questions like, "Why does this one guitar solo bore the hell out of me while this other one doesn't?" I wanted to know what made the difference. For me, the Rosetta Stone moment was when I realized that people who were boring me to death were the ones just playing and reconfiguring patterns that they had taught their hands. It seemed that many 70s rock guitarists had learned these five licks that Eric Clapton played, and they were just reconfiguring them over no chord changes.

Then I looked at a soloist I liked, such as Benny Carter, and he was composing more possible melodies over the top of the chord changes. With him, it was never about, "Here's the fastest barrage of notes I can play" or whatever, and it was really lovely to me, really lyrical. Listening to him, I realized, "He's doing the same thing I'm doing when I'm listening. I can hear the chord changes and there's stuff being generated in my head—and he's just playing that." It was also obvious he had spent whatever private time it took to teach his hands to follow what was in his head at that moment. So I just set about teaching myself to do that.

Did it involve much formal training?

I guess people who are well-studied classical musicians have to take these ear-training courses, but just like piano or drum lessons as a kid, I had no patience for that. So I started playing along with the TV while I was watching it. Years ago, I realized something—and the first time I said it, the person I was talking to probably thought I was just being flippant—but I'm the world's laziest workaholic. (laughs) I am both doing nothing and everything at the same time and it's been that way for so long now that I've just acquiesced to it.

So TV commercials would come up and I'd try to play along with them as they were happening and I'd get to this point of, "Oh, I missed that by three notes!" But within a few weeks, I was playing along with these dumb jingles, because we all know them. We all have this repository of stuff that's been crammed down our throats, be it successful pop songs that, even if it's an artist we don't like, we hear as we're shopping. So we actually do know all the words, melodies and chord changes. It's a shared piece of information.

And it seems you often integrate that kind of stuff into your shows as well, to great effect.

All of this nicely dovetailed into what I've ended up doing. Besides being able to play what's in my head in terms of what's spontaneously coming from the subconscious or wherever, I can turn to that as well. It's certainly fueled this gig I've done all these years. Instead of the collective unconscious being these primeval images and circles and crap, the truth of the matter is, our collective unconscious is filled with Bon Jovi!

It's comprised of both the good and the bad; the stuff that's crammed in there is not sorted in terms of quality. When something hits you and you're able to play it instantly—because you've taught your hands to play it like a jazz musician would—maybe the result isn't going to be jazz or improvisation. It may just be something we all have in our heads that we don't even care for. The point is that it's shared, even if it's just something that makes us laugh.

So having taught the hands to do these things then becomes an agent of having a collective experience. And perhaps in that sense, it does become something much more old-fashioned. At some point or another, the tribe likes to sit around listening to storytelling, even if it's an old story.

Jon Brion
Jon Brion
When people shout out 20 different requests, how do you catalog them in your head and choose the one—or 10—to play at that moment?

I go through eras of setting certain challenges for myself. At one point, I decided to honor the first thing I heard. If I didn't actually know the thing they asked for, I just took the title and wrote a song with that name. That was the challenge, and after a certain period doing that, I moved on to another one.

I guess there's a bit of a parlor trick nature to it—once I've proven I can do something, I can't pretend it's a challenge anymore. But I still keep it up my sleeve and it's something that could potentially lead to an interesting avenue. For instance, taking a request that's not what I feel like playing might lead to a certain experience that causes the next thing to happen, which three songs down the line causes something else to happen. So I still love taking requests, but what I find myself doing now involves slightly more selective randomness. I just try to find something interesting, and it's always nice to take on the challenge of something I've never played before.

With your permission, I'd like to try something fun. I'm going to name a few random songs or artists, sort of like an inkblot test, and I'd love it if you could say the first thing that pops into your mind—whether it's what you think of the song or artist, what you would do with it if you were playing it right now, if you've played it before, whatever.

OK, shoot.

Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin -— "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus"
I've done it at least twice, and I must admit I'm a little partial to the Bardot version. I remember playing it once on chamberlain while speaking fake French-sounding stuff on top of it. The other time, I think I just played it on piano because it's such a lovely melody.

Any song from the movie Ishtar
I've done medleys more than once, because I'm a big proponent of that movie, and not in a kitschy way. The first 25 minutes of that film is some of the funniest shit I've ever seen. It's Spinal Tap for songwriters, and on multiple viewings, even the later chunks of the movie get better and better.

Left Banke — "Pretty Ballerina"
I've done that one a number of times. Elliott Smith always used to like that stuff, so I remember we'd do any number of those when he was around. There was that common pull of Zombies, Kinks, Left Banke...

Anything by John Phillip Sousa
I've certainly done that. It comes up now and then because my dad's an aficionado. I'll find that stuff quoted randomly in the middle of solos—some melody will pop into my head and I'll suddenly realize, "Oh, that's the 'Liberty Bell March.'"

Zombies — "Remember You"
I've never done that. What I would probably do in that case is play one of the songs of theirs I know more thoroughly. I suppose I could play a quarter of that song, but that kind of thing can get a little tired.

Occasionally, I've taken something like that as a challenge. I did one gig where I'd play however much of a song it took for people to figure out what it was, then as soon as I felt that the audience had recognized it—boom!—I'd go to the next thing in my head. I did that for the entire back third of the gig and we probably got through 70 songs.

Thanks for playing along—that was fun! Now, speaking of your gigs, what was your first show at Largo like? How did it happen?

I'd played a piano in a restaurant when I was growing up. They would give me $20 and let me order anything off the menu, and that was how I survived at one point in Connecticut. So I had done things like that and sometimes it involved singing, but it was never my own stuff.

I think Flanagan and I actually moved to LA within weeks of each other. A mutual friend from Boston kept trying to get us to meet and told me, "My friend's opening a club. You should play there."

And at that point I said, "I'm not really looking to do any gigs.” I came out here mainly to do studio work; that was the objective. I had just recorded a bunch of my stuff in Boston, but doing gigs was not really on the menu. Plus, when I did do gigs, I usually put some sort of band together.

But Flanny invited me to come down during one of the first nights the original Largo was open, and I said yes.

Were you nervous?

Terrified. The place had just opened and there were literally 10 people in the audience. I went in with a guitar from the session I was coming from, and Flanny invited me to get up and play. At that point, I think I was actually shaking. In that moment, it dawned on me that I had never stood on stage by myself playing my own material in front of people.

What was your first song?

Oddly enough, I actually know what it was—not because I remember it, but because Flanny does. It was "I'll Take You Any Day."

The second time I played at Largo, I brought a little harmonium to play, and I think there may have been all of 15 people there. It was the same sort of feeling—I was opening for someone and I remember leaving and thinking to myself, "Maybe I shouldn't do this." Music is generally fun for me and playing with other people is great. I've just never had the personal drive of "people must hear me and my songs." For whatever reason, it hasn't truly been part of the equation even though, obviously, I love performing. It took a little while to break through the barrier of "how the hell do I do solo gigs?"

In the end, it worked out fine because after doing a number of shows and playing with other people, I eventually realized that part of the reason I was nervous was because I was afraid that people would get bored. We've all seen boring performers—the classic person getting on the stool with an acoustic guitar. Some people are utterly compelling doing that for long periods of time, but most aren't.

How did you come to find your own solo style?

The big breakthrough for me happened when I realized that improvising doesn't have to be one thing that happens when you're soloing. Improvising is something that can happen in total. My best moments seemed to happen during gigs where things basically went wrong—some band member didn't show up or we didn't get the instruments we needed at the last minute. Suddenly, it was like, "OK, well, put a mic on that chair. That's the drum kit." And then the show would start with improvised songs about our missing band member or drum. It just felt right.

The same thing applied to other people's shows—the thing I'd remember most about someone else's set was, say, when the PA broke and the artist invited everyone to sit at the foot of the stage while they performed their final three songs without a mic.

Eventually I just started realizing, "That's actually the thing. Why can't I have that all the time?" Once I realized that, the door started opening and I thought, "This is a complete world that nobody is messing with. It may happen for a few minutes in other shows—an artist may be mindful enough to remember to have some moments where they do off-the-cuff things—but it's not the gig."

Yeah, come to think of it, I don't think I've ever seen anyone else do an entire show using the format you have at Largo.

Even after doing this for so long, I've seen people co-opt portions of what I do, but never that. It's kind of nice because you feel like you're filling a void. It remains an interesting world to me, and because I've set it up the way I have, if I'm bored, it's my fault.

When I took on that responsibility, I realized that I have to throw myself off some kind of cliff if I feel it's getting boring. So I've figured out ways of pulling the rug out from under myself even while I'm performing. If I come into my conscious mind while I'm playing it's like, "Uh oh, I'm not supposed to be here! Let's do this instead..."

Getting into your solo stuff and film work a bit, I really enjoy your unreleased demos—such as the song you just mentioned, "I'll Take You Any Day." You've occasionally used variations of these in your soundtrack work. Any chance you'll ever do anything with "Citgo Sign" or the jungle version of "Pray for Rain"?

You never know. My personal drive is directed towards many things, but [solo work] promotion isn't one of them, because promotion requires repetition. The way effective promotion works is that people see the same thing over and over again until the word filters out. But it's just not very fun.

I'm actually kind of interested in this era where records suddenly don't matter. It makes me interested in releasing some. Honestly, it's the first thing that's made me think, "Maybe I'll start releasing my own records again," because nobody's buying them. It seems like people are disinterested and think the era of it has passed. I can work with that.

That would be awesome! And actually, I just interviewed a record store owner who said that 2008 was the highest-selling year for vinyl records since SoundScan started tracking sales in 1991. So vinyl isn't dead!

Really! Well, if that's the case, then I take it all back. (laughs)

Please don't take it back. I can't carry the weight of that guilt on my shoulders!

Sorry, it's done. (laughs)

In terms of the soundtrack thing—well, that's always dangerous to talk about publicly. I don't want to be held to anything. But what I can tell you is that for me, everything I'm working on between now and when I'm shoved in the ground is one body of work. Whether or not something's released has nothing to do with the personal challenge of doing it.

So I always have stuff that's finished, stuff that's unfinished, stuff that's released, and stuff that's not. If I'm working on a movie, I may say, "I've got a song about that." For instance, I'll be watching a scene and will hear one of those songs in my head. After that, I'll scramble and look for the tape or the hard drive, then put it up and watch it with the scene. If it feels like it works, I'll watch it a bunch more times, then show it to the director. If they agree that it works, it stays.

There are a lot of stages between the thought entering my head and it actually happening. You never know when it's actually going to come to fruition or be right. And you never know what might happen—something like that may lead to another idea that fails miserably, but has one interesting component that then becomes the thread of the whole score.

You've said that Neil Young's "Philadelphia" was the greatest use of a song in any movie. What do you think is the greatest movie score?

The Third Man, by far.


"I Believe She's Lying" (from the Largo film)

I recently read a quote somewhere that was talking about screenwriting. It said something along the lines of, "Love scenes should be written as fight scenes and fight scenes should be written as love scenes." With that in mind, how should one approach writing love songs?

Very carefully. With great trepidation. And an open heart. Pretty much like you should approach love itself.

In my research, I found that many ballet and modern dance artists have used your music in their performances. Then I heard a rumor that you're a tap dancer yourself. Is that true?

It is correct in that I own tap shoes—more than one pair, actually. But I do not tap dance. Very early on when I started doing Friday nights, and was trying to find different things to do, I had this funny realization as I was driving around on Third Street. Tap shoes came into my head as I was thinking about different things that made interesting sounds, and I had always had this funny thought that tap had never had its punk phase.

Even if you get a Savion Glover or someone new, it's still this thing where you are watching someone who is incredibly accomplished and you realize, "Man, it takes years of work to become that agile, to make it look that effortless." Almost everything associated with dance is like that. Just like classical music, it requires this incredible amount of private time—and gift.

Dance had its abstraction phase, but tap dance never had its punk phase and I was trying to think, "What would that be?" Then I realized, "I guess if you think of what Johnny Ramone's take would be on that, it would probably just be one leg pounding up and down endlessly like a piston."

I actually did that one night. So, as far as I know, I've invented punk tap—it's only had one performance, but it doesn't need more. The job's been done. The glass ceiling's been broken. (laughs)

What did that involve?

I did a gig at the old Largo where I kept tap shoes on underneath the piano, so I could keep rhythm as I was playing, and that was a neat sound. But then every time I walked to the microphone it was this "ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk" sound. It was funny for one show, but it would definitely wear on you pretty fast.

So tap dancing I cannot do, but as I was driving down Third Street, I was thinking about the fact that I loved watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly when I was a kid. I could see this dance store ahead of me and thought to myself, "I should go in there someday and get some tap shoes." Then it hit me, "Wait a minute, I'm an adult. I have money in my pocket. I can just go in and buy tap shoes!" It was almost literally this screeching of wheels as I turned around and drove into the parking lot of this dance studio. I just walked in and said, "I want to buy tap shoes!"

I still have the shoes somewhere and I'm sure they could come out and perform some function, but any rumors of me being able to tap dance are as exaggerated as the original rumors of Mark Twain's death. Although the later rumors of Mark Twain's death were accurate, so maybe later rumors of me tap dancing will be accurate as well!

Click here for part two of Jon Brion's interview with LAist, in which he discusses some of his favorite musicians, how he discovers new music and why he loves Los Angeles.

Brion will be playing this Friday at Largo at the Coronet. Tickets may be purchased by calling (310) 855-0350.

Special thanks to Julie Wolfson, Mike Witcher and everyone at Largo.