For a person who is equally obsessed with movies and music, those few instances when the two combine perfectly can be life-affirming. Over the past five years, Jon Brion has been at the helm of many of those moments. After scoring Paul Thomas Anderson's all-encompassing Magnolia with a passionate orchestral score, Brion followed it up with the alternately blissful and nerve-racking Punch-Drunk Love score. He then branched out to other auteur directors: Michel Gondry for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of the best movies of the year, and now I Heart Huckabees with the supremely talented David O. Russel. With his most recent work, Brion has incorporated his own songs into an instrumental exploration of the movie's characters and themes. The music's success is in its inseparable ties to the film and its intentions. Not all of this is due to the obvious success in collaboration between the two talents. Somewhat coincidentally (although the characters in the film would say differently), Brion had been addressing the issues Huckabees raises in his own work, most notably his underrated solo album, Meaningless. The Huckabees soundtrack, then, becomes much like the film, a flawed but entertaining journey bursting with ideas and enthusiasm about life. But if only Brion were a mere film composer, we could all sleep soundly knowing he was just a normal person like the rest of us. But he's also one of the top producers in music today, working with such artists as Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Beck, and E of the Eels. Tack on to that his success as a singer/songwriter, as well as his weekly sold-out residency at Los Angeles's Largo, a mostly improvisational and interactive experience, and you get some kind of renaissance pop hero, towering over mere mortals. After catching up to him during his Huckabees media blitz, we spoke about his different career choices, the shelved Fiona Apple record, and that badass David O. Russel.
Prefix Magazine: The people you choose to work with are consistently good artists. Do you have a particular method for choosing them?
Jon Brion: The long answer is that at the time I heard it, based on what was in the world and what was going on, I thought this was something people should know about. There are enough records out there, and if you are putting one out, try to make a contribution to this pile. [Laughs.] When I hear in these artists something that I think is good, there's something about its heart that's good and there is something about its intellect that's good. Often when I've taken a record, it's because I love the stuff so much and I'm afraid if someone else does it they're going to change the aspects of the person that I'm attracted to. I'll hear an artist and think, "Oh God, that's amazing but, you know, someone else is going to make them edit their songs so they're shorter," or "Oh, they're going to try to put this year's drum sound on this person and that would be terrible." And so often it is kind of like this protectionist thing. PM: That's interesting because the stuff that you've done with Fiona Apple, I feel like you homed in on her strengths so well.
Jon Brion: Well, thank you. I mean she's such a remarkable artist. PM: I don't want to dwell too much on her new album, The Extraordinary Machine, which Sony has shelved because they can't find a single --
Jon Brion: Hopefully people will eventually get to hear the music and hopefully in the form that -- PM: I've heard "Extraordinary Machine," and I think it's great.
Jon Brion: Yeah, I've heard that one's floating around and in a way I'm glad it is, so people can understand the times. For a monolith like Sony, that's too scary, and for me, that's just a great song. I don't think anything about it is inaccessible. It is just not made to sound like every other single that's around, and she doesn't write that way. That's a very complex song with complex lyrics and complex rhythms, and it's her singing in front of an orchestra. I just think it's cool. I just think she's fucking cool. And she's a great person. It's just a very typical story. PM: Would you take on someone who was already established commercially who hadn't displayed a talent you saw?
Jon Brion: That would be great. I'd love for every record I've ever done to be the greatest record in the world; that would be fantastic. And I'm not in any way anti-success for myself or the people I'm associated with. But I'm not going to make musical decisions based on what's going to make people more commercially successful. I see this every day in the studio and it's just a drag to be around. From the moment they're getting the drum sound they're trying to make sure it's the most current, chart-like thing in every decision: "No we can't have that; that's a little too weird." It's like, well, fuck off then if you want to make a homogenous record. If there was some artist who was very commercial who wanted to work with me, great, although I'm sure the record company would be like, "Jesus, you're going to do one of those artsy records." Which is in truth -- what I think I do is melodic and inclusive. I'm trying to make stuff that people listen to repeatedly. The thing that stays in my head is records that I've loved throughout my life; you get a record you love and it's the record you play for a whole era of your life. You know there will be a four-, five-month era of your life where you listen to it almost every day. I've had so many records like that, and that's the thing I try to remember when I'm making records. I want to make something that feels like a complete world, so you can live in it. PM: With the film score stuff, had you ever thought about doing a film score before you talked to Paul Thomas Anderson?
Jon Brion: No. I mean, I had thought about it. The only thing that was interesting to me was working with an orchestra. I had no interest in it before; it's something I fell into and it's something I still avoid most of the time. PM: And you met him through Michael Penn [Aimee Mann's husband, who composed the score for Boogie Nights]?
Jon Brion: Yeah. PM: What was the impetus for you to score Magnolia?
Jon Brion: Well, that was from doing the first film [Hard Eight], and he said, "Man, you should be doing this for the rest of your life." I sort of laughed and said, "No, I want to make records and have my own life and perform." But I said there is one thing I'm interested in and why I would do movies -- I want to write for an orchestra. And no one else is going to give me the job to do that, especially some studio damaged rock guy. And when Magnolia came up he was like, "Hey, I want a big orchestra score, can you do it?" I said, "Okay, I'm in." PM: I heard that you watched the film with Anderson and he used his hands to communicate the level of emotion he wanted in each scene.
Jon Brion: Well, no. It was everything. I mean, I just started getting in the habit of watching the picture in real time and I played keyboards almost as if it was a silent movie and the way we sort of got it done is I watched his whole physiology. I'd start seeing his shoulders scrunch up and I'd go, "Hmm, maybe what I'm playing isn't quite right." And then I'd change it and suddenly he'd be leaning forward in his chair, and I'd think, "Okay, I went a little more minor, so minor is good here." And maybe his hands would start raising and he'd start making some motion like, "Oh, more of that." Basically the process would go until he was satisfied. And once he was satisfied, it didn't change very much. He who has a feeling about what he wants, and once he sees it, he is extraordinarily protectionist about it. He is very unique and very gifted in terms of having his own vision of how music and picture integrate, and it's interesting to be part of. So I operate more like a music machine for him, and I will generate options until he hears the one he likes, and he is not going to come back three weeks later and go, "Maybe ... ." He knows it. Actually, that's a real talent, because a lot of people don't stick to it. But when something is right for him, there is no question about it and no one's opinion can change his mind. His most respected elder could walk in and say, "God, I fucking hate that scene and most of all I hate the music." And he'll turn around and go, "Isn't it great?" And it's amazing; that's a special kind of talent that I really admire in him. PM: I have always thought with film directors, the best talent they can have is recognizing other people's talent and getting it to come to the forefront.
Jon Brion: Oh, God yes. And that's another thing that Paul has very strong -- writing for particular people to bring out aspects of them that no one sees. And that's also a talent that David O. Russel has. David is a badass and an incredible talent. I loved working with him so much, his writing and the casting of Huckabees and how that is done and the writing. He was writing knowing he wanted Mark Wahlberg to play that part, and the stuff in there because of it is so heartbreaking and natural. PM: Was working with him just a simple matter of him getting in contact with you and saying he wanted to work with you?