Greg Kot – “Who Is Jon Brion? (And Is There Anything He Can’t Do?)” (2003)

March 27, 2010 at 6:07 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A Feb. 12, 2003 Chicago Tribune article on singer/songwriter/composer/multi-instrumentalist/producer extraordinaire Jon Brion, who has put out some of the most fascinating and brilliant soundtrack albums in the past 15 years. I fell in love with his work while watching Punch-Drunk Love (the music created for the film is very evocative and unusual). I highly recommend checking out his work…


Just who is Jon Brion and why have people been lining up outside a West Hollywood club each of the last 300 weekends to see him indulge his every musical whim on a stage packed with exotic instruments?

Brion is one of the most in-demand, behind-the-scenes musical talents in Los Angeles. He’s not People-magazine famous despite his production work with more renowned artists such as Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright and Macy Gray, and his soundtracks for the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Magnolia, Punch- Drunk Love). But in a city in which celebrity and profit often overshadow talent and vision, Brion is a self-contained success story, a quintuple-threat songwriter, arranger, producer, multi- instrumentalist and singer.

Celebrated jazz pianist Brad Mehldau calls Brion his favorite pianist. Master session drummer Jim Keltner says he can’t get enough of Brion’s drumming. Mann says, “Jon’s secret is out. . . . Everyone knows how good he is.” He not only produces albums for the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Grant Lee Buffalo, he plays virtually all the instruments on them too. When Tom Petty needed someone to do string arrangements on his latest album, The Last DJ, and conduct an orchestra at a handful of concerts, he sought out Brion.

“The Paul Thomas Anderson movies got me to check him out, because those are my favorite contemporary movie scores,” Petty says. “We met a few years ago, and I thought he’d be good for achieving the kind of cinematic feel I wanted for this record, and he was.”

But Brion’s true calling is as a singer, writer and arranger of pungent pop songs, the kind of sophisticated three-minute emotional journeys that take their cues from Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset,” Squeeze’s “Tempted” or David Bowie’s “Heroes,” all of which the singer performs in stunning interpretations at his Largo residency.

He has produced one self-released album after a stint with the critically acclaimed cult group the Grays, and he’s so busy with his production work that he doesn’t have time to play out-of-town concerts, much less tour. Which is why his weekly gigs at Largo, a 120-capacity club on Fairfax Avenue just a few blocks south of the Sunset Strip, have become a must-see for out-of-town fans and touring musicians alike.

Every Friday night for the last six years, Brion has been turning the tiny stage of the nightclub into his private playground stocked with stringed instruments, thrift-shop keyboards, a drum kit, children’s music boxes, even a turntable on which he’ll play the odd mood- setting Vincent Price album. One could imagine everyone from Prince to Harpo Marx being right at home here.

Prince and Harpo haven’t come to Largo to hang out with Brion, but friends such as Mann, Apple, Hitchcock, Neil Finn, Ben Folds and the members of Paul McCartney’s touring band have. “We’re all song sluts here,” Brion says. “That’s what brings people to Largo.”

Layered Compositions

The club is home to his pop-song chemistry experiments, where he builds elaborately layered compositions from the ground up: He’ll start with a groove on drums, then shift to keyboards, then bass and guitar, all the while taping and looping each segment until a complete song appears before the audience’s eyes and ears. He’s audacious, turning even dreck like Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” into a lush, layered Les Paul-like guitar instrumental.

“Word got around, and it went from being a fun, casual thing to becoming an event,” says Largo owner Mark Flanagan, a burly Belfast native sipping coffee near the bar as his club begins to fill up for a Brion performance. “First people started turning up to see who would get up on stage with Jon, but after awhile it turned out that they didn’t care who would or wouldn’t get up; they were just into him. Instead of getting tired, the weird thing is that it [Brion’s residency] just keeps building, and I’m wondering, how long can this go on?”

Upstairs in a dressing room lit up with year-round Christmas lights, Brion is wearing a polka-dot tie and warming up his fingers with a mandolin on a beat-up brown leather couch. His ocean-blue eyes, baby face and jet-black tousle of hair make him appear a decade younger than his 39 years.

“Most of my famous friends are pretty jealous that I get to play 50 gigs a year and don’t have to tour,” he says. “And the rest of the time I can produce records, play on other people’s songs, write my own songs, do collaborative projects and live. I actually think it’s miraculous.”

But with opportunity comes responsibility. “There are a lot of audience members who’ve literally seen more than 100 shows,” he says. “To me, that’s cool because I can’t repeat myself. They have to have a few moments every night where I completely jump off a cliff and find something new, even if it’s hideous.”

One of those moments occurs later that night. He closes his set with an original piano ballad so fresh he hasn’t settled on a title for it yet, but it’s jaw-dropping in its carefully calibrated intensity. It chronicles a painful breakup through a one-way conversation with God. “You made the world, you made the sun, you made the girl,” Brion sings. “Could you admit that just this once you made a mistake?”

Normally when Brion plays the song, he builds up a huge layer of insulation by looping numerous instruments to swirl around him while he rips open a vein. But on this night, he does it alone at the piano. “That was a first,” he says backstage, still flush from the performance. “I’m a year out of this relationship and now a fairly happy guy again. But I wasn’t for a good six months. So I play the song now and look at the words, and it’s kind of painful: I feel really bad for the guy who wrote that song. I thought, `God, I’ve come a long way.’ People have been watching me perform for the past year, and now I wonder what the hell have they been seeing? I can only imagine.”

Critical of Own Work

Another intense relationship with a long-ago girlfriend, Mann, was in part forged around their “militant” ideas of what constituted a good song. The pair met in Boston during the ’80s, became lovers, broke up and then came to Los Angeles separately in the early ’90s looking for a fresh start. “We both became, in truth, harsh critics of our own work and others’ work, but we really heightened and informed each other’s sense of why we liked songs,” he says.

He ended up producing and playing on Mann’s acclaimed solo albums Whatever (1993) and I’m With Stupid (1995), as well as parts of Bachelor No. 2 (2000). These albums set in motion a remarkable transformation, in which Mann went from being the spike- haired pop chanteuse in ‘Til Tuesday to the revered songwriter she is today.

Brion’s phone started ringing soon after with pitches from artists and managers seeking his services. The Mann albums stood out amid a glut of digitally overproduced California pop albums, Brion framing her songs in eerie, evocative soundscapes, thanks in part to an armada of supposedly outdated instruments he started stockpiling at garage sales and flea markets more than a decade ago: Optigans, Marxophones, Chamberlains.

“Everybody was selling everything they owned because they all bought samplers and sequencers,” he says. “I’d buy their old Wurlitzers for $50, knowing that it not only has the complete range of expression a sampler has, but infinitely more because it’s a real mechanical instrument so you can play with the mechanisms and alter all the tones as much and as often as you like. People like me, Mitchell Froom and Tom Waits who were using this stuff on our records got laughed at a lot. But about five years ago, enough of these records became well enough known that suddenly vintage keyboards were the thing. I couldn’t afford to buy my vintage keyboards now.”

As a result, Brion has his fingerprints all over a bunch of albums that don’t leave any fingerprints — that is, it’s almost impossible to detect the source for many of the odd but alluring sounds he has conjured. “Sometimes I keep broken stuff just because it makes this one great weird sound,” he says. “And I’m not going to get rid of it till I can find a place where that one weird sound is going to have a happy home.”

The key is finding the right home. Otherwise Brion would just be the “weird-instruments guy,” a sound-effects man. His art is in bringing out the atmosphere and intent of the song rather than merely packing it with sonic details. “Most of the stuff I do is a coloring job, and it’s easy,” he says. “The hard part is finding human beings who know what they want to convey in a song. If you’re not into the songs as a producer, it isn’t worth doing the job. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many people who have a real individualistic stance.”

Self-Taught Musician

Brion’s sense of individualism was forged at an early age. His first session gig was as a 17-year-old high school dropout in New Haven, Conn. By then he’d taught himself to play several instruments and studied the rudiments of orchestration. “I was 7 or 8 years when the thought occurred to me: `What if I couldn’t spend my life making music?'” Brion says. “And I remember rationally thinking, with no drama whatever, that I’d just have to commit suicide if it didn’t happen. I’ve never not known what I was going to do from that moment on.”

Brion has become part of a Los Angeles-based gaggle of artists — Mann; her husband, Michael Penn; Apple and her boyfriend, Anderson; Grant Lee Buffalo; Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers; Mitchell Froom; Beck — who are doing their part to restore the sagging currency of the song in the pop-culture lexicon.

“Why do I love songs? It’s three minutes of condensed storytelling, of trying to collect your thoughts lyrically, musically and emotionally, and when it works there’s nothing on earth like it,” Brion says. “Think about it: Airwaves of sound move the little hairs and bones in your body, enter your brain and make your neurons fire off skyrockets. No matter how much you look at the math of it, it is beautiful, it is mystical beyond words. I only have to think about a song like `Waterloo Sunset,’ and my physiology changes. What’s not to love about that?”

On the Beatles, Other Peeves

Brion on why he hates the Beatles: “The Beatles and Bob Dylan, two of my idols, severely screwed up music for our generation. They set the precedent that we are cool only if we write our own songs. In the past, we didn’t expect Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole to write songs. We expected emotional experience from them, and they delivered it. They delivered songs written by guys who sat in rooms drinking coffee. Now because of the precedent set by Dylan and the Beatles, people who write songs feel the need to perform them. Now we have tons of bands with great singers doing horrible material, and there’s no need. There are enough humans in the world who could probably provide them with the fodder for any emotional experience, but it’s not going to happen. So, the Beatles and Dylan, my idols, I hate their guts.

Brion on why Led Zeppelin’s deficient: “I don’t listen to Led Zeppelin for songs. I listen to them for performance and arrangement, the authority of the drum sounds, the crazy room sounds, and the colors in the guitar, the groove. I listen to them for the same reason I listen to James Brown: The groove is phenomenal. I ask no more of the music than to groove hard as it does and then, on top of it, they give me this nice color change. Pretty cool. But any Led Zeppelin fan who has heard me say, `I don’t think they have songs,’ will cry, `They have 10 albums of them! What kind of freak are you?’ And I’ll answer, `They have 10 albums of great music, not great songs.'”

Brion on his favorite productions: “Fiona Apple’s last record [When the Pawn … in 1999], no question. I felt like I’d finally learned how to make records sound like I wanted them to sound, both aggressive and soft and to have full bandwidth and not lack character, to have arrangement and also to have space. . . . The other record I have real emotional affinity for is Aimee Mann’s first record [Whatever in 1993], though it has many faults, most of which are my inexperience. The one thing that is right about that record is that the sense of song is absolutely there. . . . Before then, people weren’t seeing the fearsome qualities in Aimee’s music, so I was on a mission, and I believe if someone finds that record 60 years from now, they’ll hear some really good songs.”

A Hit on Disc and Screen:

Jon Brion, Meaningless (2000/

Brion’s self-released solo album is a bit too precious in spots, but
its high point (“Ruin My Day,” a revelatory reworking of Cheap
Trick’s “Voices”) builds anticipation for the follow-up.

Soundtrack for Punch-Drunk Love (2002/Nonesuch):

Brion’s percussive effects expertly mirror the tortured inner
workings of Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan character in the twisted
romantic comedy by director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Fiona Apple, When the Pawn . . . (1999/Clean Slate/Epic):

Brion brings structure to a prodigious talent by building
arrangements around her voice and piano.

Brad Mehldau, Largo (2002/Warner):

The jazz pianist edges smartly toward avant-pop, reminiscent at times
of the Sea and Cake or Radiohead (whose “Paranoid Android” is
covered), aided by Brion’s daring production.

Macy Gray, On How Life Is (1999/Epic):

Gray’s debut album stands out from standard R&B fare because Brion
puts the emphasis as much on the melodies as the groove.

Greg Kot

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