Interview (Part Two): Multi-Instrumentalist/Producer Jon Brion Talks About Dylan, Davies, Largo and Los Angeles

Jon Brion
Jon Brions / Photo by Mike Witcher

It's always fun to spot the first-timers at one of Jon Brion's Friday night shows. They're usually the ones with their jaws hanging open as they try to figure out how he's looping instruments into a 10-layered live performance, or how he's using the piano as percussion. Perhaps the greatest moments of awe occur as they realize he's improvising something that's never been heard before, and will probably never be heard again. It's no wonder some people have seen his show hundreds of times and keep coming back for more!

LAist's two-part interview with Brion followed the same pattern as his live show—which often starts with a solo set, then incorporates other musicians during the second half. In part one of the interview, Brion discussed his early experiences with music and improvisation. In this second part, he talks about some of his favorite musicians—from the 60s to the modern day. In addition, LAist asked him about his sock collection, how he discovers new music and why he loves Los Angeles.

I've seen you loaded down with CDs in Amoeba. When you shop there, is it a spur-of-the-moment thing or do you know what you want before you go into the store?

I don't go in with a list. A friend of mine once said, "The only way to go to Amoeba is to have a preconceived notion or you're doomed!" (laughs) There's so much stuff I don't know and every time I'm in there, I just let the eyes wander. I'll pick up something I've always been curious about, or an album I heard a friend mention. By the time I'm done, it's usually two armloads.

Other than all the demos people try to slip you each week, how you discover new music?

I find new stuff the same way anybody does, by having curiosity. If somebody I respect says, "You should check out such-and-such," I'll do it. Dave Rawlings and I have been playing each other stuff and it's really fun, because he's the greatest encyclopedia of songs I've ever met, especially in terms of lyrics. He played me the Stanley Brothers recently and I found them to be otherworldly—the harmonies are unlike anything I've ever heard.

Dave didn't know the 30s Billie Holiday stuff, so I played him the great moments of that. It was kind of fun to drop the plutonium on each other. Each of us had the same response of, "I really like this and I can also tell I'm only scratching the surface." So I'm going to be living with the Stanley Brothers for a while before I can even have the right to talk to Dave about them.

I always enjoy it when you talk about other musicians, and the Kinks have often come up as one of your favorites. What is it about the DNA of their music that made them so special?

If you get right down to it, it's Ray Davies' writing. His sense of song in the mid-60s was as good as you can get. There are periods in artists' work where you know they're really plugged into something central. I think from 1965-1967, Ray was unbelievably consistent in terms of lyrics and focusing on one aspect of something as thoroughly possible within a song. I actually think that era of Ray's writing has still yet to get its proper due, because it's an absolute treasure trove.

What do you see as Davies' perspective?

It's all about a human being looking at the world through his lens. He incorporates both emotion and intellect at the same time, and never one at the expense of the other. He has so much love and so much distaste for his fellow man—in such equal measure.

I know "Waterloo Sunset" is a favorite at your shows...

I still think that's one of the best things ever written.

Melodically, I think Ray Davies and Bob Dylan are the most underrated songwriters of all time. If I were to go on a crusade—just to spend my time championing other people—even though both of the people we're talking about are well known, this might be it!

People get such a misplaced idea of Dylan because of the nature of his singing. If you actually sit down and play the melodies and chord changes from 1963-1967 Dylan songs, you are never going to mistake it with any other song. It's not possible.

Dylan's melodies and chord changes are singular, but the blinding nature of his verbiage, as well as his presence as a performer, is gigantic. I'm not surprised that the raw quality of the music is obscured. He has a great deal of intelligence, so when he built himself to be larger-than-life, he did a very thorough job. People talk about the lyrics, as well they should because he's as good as you can get in that department, but people rarely talk about this whole other aspect of his music.

Jon Brion
Jon Brion
Speaking of larger-than-life performers, you recently remixed songs from Of Montreal's latest album...

I love Of Montreal.

...and I was wondering, is the rumor true that you're working with Blikk Fang, the band formed as a side project by members of MGMT and Of Montreal?

That's a fantastic rumor. I love that idea and I hope they call. I had heard that such a thing was going on, and Kevin Barnes and I met briefly after an Of Montreal show in LA. We've talked about collaborating on some stuff—such as doing some writing together—which I'm very interested in, because he's one of the only people I unequivocally think is throwing his psyche on the line.

I feel like his records are the recorded equivalent of my live show in terms of someone acquiescing to their subconscious completely. When he's making records by himself, I feel like he's emptying out his subconscious and it's some of the most honest and direct writing I've heard. When you see somebody being themselves, and getting away with it, it has a powerful effect, because we all inherently feel we're only going to be understood a little bit.

He's in the midst of some great work. I wish my friends who are more inclined toward Hank Williams were listening to Kevin, because I feel like he has the same directness.

Are you familiar with MGMT's work?

Yeah, I really enjoy their stuff. I did a cover of "Kids" during a show at Largo and found it was really great on tack piano and harmonica. That record's really good. Dave Fridmann did it, and he's one of the best producers out there today—he did all those Flaming Lips records.

We're talking about a gene pool of very good people here. I'm very curious to see what the MGMT guys do in the future and I'm super-curious regarding whatever they're doing with Kevin. These are all people to keep an eye on. They're all creatively minded and are going to be doing different things from project to project.

This next question is a bit silly, but your socks seem to have almost a cult following. Where do you buy your socks?

Anywhere I see them. It used to be really tough, because I've found that men's clothes are generally really boring. For women, things like colors and patterns are allowed. When it comes to men, the assumption is that we don't want it or we're not comfortable enough in our own sexuality to wear a floral print. As you can see (points to shirt), I am pro-floral print. (laughs) So when it comes to my socks, if I see a bunch of boring socks and then one interesting pair, I'll get eight pairs of the one interesting thing.

When I was working in London, I found that they were a little better when it came to interesting men's socks. I'd buy giant bags full of them, and the people in the store would laugh at me. I'd get back to the studio and everyone would have a really good chuckle, but then I'd have socks for the next year.

So you're always on the lookout?

Yeah, maybe I'll be in an airport and find a pair with separate knit balls of the planets on them, and I'll snatch up as many pairs as they have. It's pretty much the same way I collect instruments. I'll see something in the corner of a music store and think, "I've never seen that before," and maybe it's looked at as a joke or it's unwanted.

Often when I've bought things—in clothing stores or in music stores—the response I've gotten at the sales counter is, "Oh, you're buying that." They'll even shout something like, "Hey Harvey, we finally got somebody to buy that crazy jacket we've had for five years!"

Do you have any favorite sock stores?

Let's see, if I'm going to have to make a pitch for somebody, the good sock place of late has been the Paul Smith store. He just started going very pro-sock. In fact, Andrew Bird brought that up recently and we were joking to each other, "Considering how much we spend there just on socks, I think maybe we should get some sort of tie-in." So Paul Smith, if you're listening, you should take care of Andrew and me. (laughs)

"The Bird and Brion Sock Line." I like it!

Now, switching gears a bit, you've said in the past that you've thought about playing some gigs using only miniature instruments. Any chance you might try that out in Largo's Little Room?

I have a miniature piano and that's something I thought would be fun at some point—to play a show with small instruments. But yeah, the Little Room thing is a great idea!

What's one aspect of Largo that you feel makes it so special?

There's stuff that happens at Largo that doesn't happen anywhere else. The fact of the matter is, I don't think some people fully understand what Largo is. There are those who just think it's singer/songwriter stuff, but there's also this crazy cross-pollination between comedians and musicians and you never know what to expect.

Thinking about the last week or two, what's been one of your favorite Largo moments that you experienced as an audience member?

Just the other night someone told me, "Jenny Scheinman is playing a gig in the Little Room with Bill Frisell and Nels Cline on guitar." I walked in and both of them were playing electric guitar quietly—clean notes, no distortion—and you could hear what everybody was doing. I thought to myself, "You've got to be kidding me. On what planet do you get to hear two of the greatest living exponents of modern guitar playing next to each other on such a small stage?"

The only way we could've had more overload would've been if someone like Ry Cooder had stopped by, because most of the rest of my favorite guitarists are dead! Jean Reinhardt and Jimi Hendrix can't drop in. But in lieu of that, I think Nels and Frisell are two out of three of my favorite modernists. Fred Frith is the other.

And when it comes to acoustic guitar, Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch are unbelievable. So I've just mentioned four of my favorite guitarists alive and I've seen all of them at Largo in the last five days!

Is there anything else—perhaps something upcoming—you'd like to promote?

Hmm. I guess I've already tried to promote the mid-60s work of Ray Davies. And again, I'd encourage people to actually sit down and play Dylan songs on the piano without singing them or thinking about the lyrics. If you're a songwriter, I highly recommend doing it because there's a whole different level of mind-blowing to be had.

I can highly promote any gig that Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings are doing. I'm probably much more inclined to promote other people, so I don't have any specific thing of mine to mention. I'm just going to make what I'm going to make, and do what I'm going to do, and for those people who discover it, I hope they enjoy it.

As this interview draws to a close, I was wondering, what is it about Los Angeles that has kept you here for so long?

Diversity. On the surface, Los Angeles can sometimes look really plain and boring. It may seem like a bunch of strip malls, plastically enhanced people, actor-waiters and all the clichés that are associated with this place. But then there's everything else, and everything else is why I don't leave.

Just to give you an example, there are a couple studios in London I really love working in—I love the orchestral players there and I have friends there, and that's reason enough to go there. And yet it doesn't even come close to LA. For me, with my interests, I can write a song with somebody one day, play on a session the next day in a completely different style of music, be producing something after that, and then come here and play my own gig. That same week, I may sit in with someone else on their Largo gig, playing old-time songs one minute and wacky covers the next, and have some goofy moment followed by some euphoric moment.

Plus there's the film industry. The same week I'm playing at Largo, maybe I'm getting to work with a favorite director—watching how they make artistic decisions, which ends up influencing how I do my own work.

The cross-pollination here is unlike anything else in the world. If you are interested in playing with other musicians and sharing ideas, nothing on God's green earth compares to what happens here. So I can't leave because, despite the fact that the place is mostly brown shrubs and overcast skies, I think it's the most culturally fertile area on the planet.

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Jon!

Jon 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.

Click here to read Part One of LAist's interview with Jon Brion.