Speaking | Jon Brion
an emily blunt interview
Heart Huckabees (Jon Brion) Soundtrack Review
Sunshine (Jon Brion & Others) Soundtrack Review
speaking? Since childhood I've been a composer geek. For Show & Tell I'd
bring in my Victrola and play Bartok,
converting some and, inevitably, sparring off a few uncreatives amongst us - careful
their blows didn't connect with my 78 rpm treasure. "Hit the face and spare
the vinyl," I always said.
alas, I cannot play a note - was just given "the ear." Perhaps that's
why when I hear orchestrations whipped up from that extraordinary mixture of pure
talent and glorious individualism, as with musician extraordinaire Jon Brion,
I've been known to weep.
a writer, producer, and parlayer of "Unpopular Pop" (see interview for
explanation). Brion also dabbles in film scoring - which has given him a Grammy-nod
(Magnolia) and great acclaim outside of an already loyal following that
trade his Largo
tavern cd bootlegs, with the enthusiasm of exquisite wine connoisseurs.
latest scoring work is attached to David O. Russell's
I Heart Huckabees. It's unfair to say, "It's
his best work," 'cause it's all his best. In fact he shared, the main theme,
'Monday,' was actually hibernating in the 'Brion Songbook of Musical Glee,' for
three years. It just fit. So his latest work includes his older work which is
now new, again.
When offered to actually speak with the man who has created
so many pieces I adore, our modern day Debussy
if you will, I broke into a sweat. The fact that on top of being a remarkable
lyric spinner, multi-instrumentalist, and melodic maestro, he's also absolutely
ah-dorable and that had me in a slight state-o-panic. Where do we start? And what
if I swoon like some deranged fan that's found her way backstage at studio
First let me thank you for your political efforts. I understand you just attended
a fundraiser for Kerry?
Yeah, I was up there in Seattle being a loudmouth. [laughter]
Bravo. I'd like to start with how you conjure up these notes for film. I mean,
I see you alone in an Edward Scissorhandsy castle studio - eighty instruments
There's a little bit of that goin' on - yeah. I think most film composers work
in isolation. I tend to work with the director as much as possible. It's more
the two of us watching the movie together trying to come to common ground.
How do you key - so to speak - into a character so keenly? Especially with Jason
Schwartzman's character in Huckabees - the music fit the "persona"
Yeah, well then you'll be very amused to know that piece of music ['Monday'] -
the recording of it - had been lying around for three years! [laughter]
That's amazing! It was instant character description via music.
When David [O. Russell] kept talking about the feeling he wanted, and I saw -
watched - the music he related to, I knew there were some things that might give
him that response. And he walked in the studio one day and I said, "I have
a present for you. You might like it." And he was dancing around like "Oh-my-God!"
He ended up using that piece of music a few places in the movie. Mind you that's
after we'd been hanging out for weeks - watching the movie together, talking,
having dinner talking about everything - talking about the universe! [laughter]
He loves to do that and so do I. So we got on like a house on fire!
Well the movie shines for it. I understand you have no formal training - and how
many instruments do you play?
Ohhh. It's not that many. People have this crazy idea that I play everything
under sun. Everything I play is based on piano, guitar or drums. If it's a marimba
or say xylophone? The keys are laid out like a piano - but you play them with
drumsticks. I can play piano and I can play drums so yeah and of those types of
instruments are easy for me to play. And almost shouldn't be counted. And I'm
Amazing! You're such a sought after musical producer-with your own sound - yet
you let other talents' abilities ring - how do you chose whom you'd produce?
The same way I chose directors. If I think they're good. If I think they have
something to offer - if I think they're individuals. I am not really interested
in somebody who isn't. The people I'm attracted to are already smart and trying
to figure out how to communicate with people. They wanna make something different.
It's the same in "Film Soundtrack World." The kinda people who wanna
use me don't want the standard soundtrack to begin with. We chose each other carefully.
I'm a very grateful for those associations. And they are not all accidental I
could have chosen to work with really crappy people! [laughter]
Yeah but you haven't. In fact, more so than any other I can find, your scoring
list is for the who's who of intelligent individual filmmakers.
Emily: David O. Russell said you're the greatest musical collaborator
he's met and Michel Gondry said you are a wizard at reading a director's thoughts
for a scene. How do you work with directors - giving them what they want yet keeping
Well, I'm making all the music regardless - I'm generating all the ideas - and
this is what I developed working with Paul Anderson [the director of Magnolia
etc.] - I am watching the director watching their movie. Music has a physiological
effect you can feel it. You know. You can put on a Marvin Gaye record and people
start tapping their foot. And it's not accidental he made the music to do that.
A lot of people are afraid to talk about this kind of stuff because they think
it demystifies it - but I violently disagree with that. The really great stuff?
No matter how much you talk about it, or how much you pick it apart, it's still
part of the great mystery - so for me
I just watch them watching their movie.
And by the time I'm working with them they'd been working with the movie for two
years. In fact maybe past the point of always having an emotional response.
You have a clever phrase that seems to be associated with you that you invented
- can you tell me about "Unpopular pop?"
It's just because when people say pop music now they're often talking about just
melodic songwriters, especially some with some angle on the lyrics. It's not actually
"popular" music. Popular music is Brittany Spears. You know people would
refer to Aimee Mann stuff as pop but I've never really heard a song of hers on
the radio. Ya, I've heard a song of hers on the radio maybe three times the entire
time we've known each other [since 1980's-ish]. She doesn't sell Brittany sized
units and I don't think it is "Pop Music." I think that's a dangerous
term to use
unfair for her and the Elliott Smiths of the world. Its not meant
to be a denigrating term - it's for lack of being able to call it anything else.
I thought it was funny because people have
forgotten where the term came from and the whole notion of Pop Art. People were
like, "Okay how do we use these commercial things and use that as our fodder
for making creative stuff?" [here we go kids: Music History 101 with Jon
Brion - how cool is this ->] Pop music is a term that came up for popular
music that came up after the twenties. It was used for Gershwin, and Porter and
Irving Berlin. That was an interesting moment where the people who were really
good intelligent songwriters were also the most successful. You had to be thoughtful.
And you had to have great memorable melodies to be a success at that time. It
just hasn't been the case in recent history. Melody is not a requirement. Thoughtfulness
isn't a requirement. Lyrics making sense or being original? Absolutely
is not part of the requirement! The most interesting ground breaking music has
usually been in hip-hop. It hasn't been in rock and it hasn't been in top 40.
I think there's inventiveness in the Elliott Smiths, Tom Yorks, Bjorks, Aimee
Manns and Fiona Apples.
So who are your influences? I hear a lot of Beatlesque-y stuff in your music?
Oh yeah. And that's the primary obvious one. And I'm embarrassed by how
inescapable it is for me.
No-no it's all right. In fact I think a lot of people in bands are trying to figure
out how to get those sort of sounds, and do those sort of things and they're very
conscientiously trying to be retro. They're only thinking, "That's cool."
And I'm actually not trying to do that. I am actively trying to do that
- I'm usually leaving elements out 'cause I'm like, "Oh, that's too many
" I try to always have some thing in there - in the
song element - that maybe wouldn't have been there had it been them. But I've
kind just acquiesced to the fact that, that, is part of my mode of expression.
I at times try really hard to avoid it but it's part of a natural language to
[could he be cuter? I'm pleadin' with him to be cuter
] What's the
oddest instrument you've found and play?
I dunno. I think many people would think many of them are odd. But I don't know
if I think that any of them are odd. Everything I heard made some sound that was
unique and hence that's what made it beautiful. My friends all have the same "oddball"
instruments and we all know the same ones - there's this single gene pool of of
toys and thing that use to be state or the art and are not anymore [laughter].
A friend of mine instead of putting a shaker on a track one time, he picked up
a bottle of rubbing alcohol and we used that as part of the rhythm track! He was
shaking it made a yuswooshgghagagaswiach sound. Something like that is more unique
to me than say, just some weird instrument I picked up in a music store.
I saw you at Largo
and watched in amazement as you played all the instruments and accompanied yourself
via a sampler on 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'
Argh - the fucking Beatles again! [laughter] I can't escape it.
[laughter] Yes, sorry but it was friggin' nirvana. I then took friends
back, to tune them in, and you did this mad 'America the Beautiful' version with
the string quartet, The
Section - starting with standard and pomp then twirling into a hip-hop dub
session of musical mayhem including clever Bush excerpts pumped in [I guess] from
the sound man. I was positively blown away. [*sigh*]
Thanks! That's what it's about. There's no set list. As long as humans
keep showing up and paying attention I will keep doing it. I've chosen to do something
where both my work and and my life are integrated and both are happening simultaneous
every hour I'm awake.
Have you achieved what you want in life?
There's more to do than I could possibly do before I die. There's no such
thing as achieving everything I want - and I have felt like a "success"
for a really long time.
Right on. Any more solo albums in the works now that you finished Huckabees?
Yeah actually! I am not taking on anything so I can do some solo stuff. That's
the plan - we'll see. [laughter]
should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic"
- Oscar Wilde
And discovering Jon
Brion's music is a good start.