Jon Brion, studio guru, master pop craftsman, and current golden boy of the L.A. music scene, might be the late-’90s answer to the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. So it makes sense that he’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt when we first encounter him. Brion’s in Maui, taking a well-deserved vacation that began hours after he wrapped work on the orchestral score for director Paul Thomas Anderson’s soon-to-be-released epic, Magnolia. Brion’s enjoying his break, but there are signs that he just wasn’t made for these climes; after two weeks, he’s still pale as the tropical day is long. ”I’m not much for the sun,” he says, explaining the pallor that’s known in the trade as a studio tan.
It’s been a while since Brion saw the out-of-doors. The three months he spent scoring Magnolia overlapped with the final weeks of producing When the Pawn…, the just-released, critically hailed sophomore album by Anderson’s girlfriend, Fiona Apple. Before those projects, there was the matter of recording his own solo album; the constant calls to work as a session musician, with a resume that ranges from Melissa Etheridge to NIN; and the taping of a VH1 pilot. The cable series would riff on the format of Brion’s musical residency at the L.A. nightspot Largo, where he has performed and hosted jam sessions nearly every Friday for the past three years. At any given 1 a.m., you might find Brion trading cover songs with the likes of Michael Stipe, Rickie Lee Jones, or some mariachi musician literally yanked off the street.
For these and a hundred other reasons, Brion might be the hippest guy that music biz insiders know and no one else has heard of. An enviable career, renown or no? ”To quote Spinal Tap, I’m jealous of me,” he agrees, looking like he can’t wait to get back to the mainland and strap on a bass.
”I think it’s best to play a lot of roles within the course of your life,” says Brion, who with his baby face, dark hair, and blond streaks looks like Duran Duran’s John Taylor with a moptop. ”I don’t think it’s good to always be subordinate, or always be in charge. Going from artist, in which you get to be a self-centered adolescent, to producer, where you have to be film director and babysitter, to session musician, where your job is to make other people as happy as possible, to film composer, where you’re creative but there are intense strictures…all these things are healthy, and I think I’d be really miserable as a human being doing [just] one of them.”
Brion enjoys a rep as the quintessential muso who can, and will, play any instrument; his production jobs for Apple, Rufus Wainwright, and Aimee Mann have brought a Beatlesque spirit back to pop with sonically enchanting shifts between distorted guitars, music-hall horns, gentle piano, and trumpet blasts. But it was his penchant for collecting half-busted synthesizers that got him known in early-’90s L.A. as ”the weird keyboard guy.” That urge dates back to growing up in New Haven, Conn., the son of a part-time singer mother and orchestra-conducter father with avant-garde, Moog-playing friends. The morning after a living-room demo, Brion’s parents found their 7-year-old asleep in his pj’s, headphones on, draped over a modular synth.
At 36, the boyish wonder is excited about his newest instrument: the orchestra. He’d cowritten the score for Anderson’s first movie, Hard Eight, but that was all synths. Chuckles the director: “I’m proud to say Magnolia taxed Mr. Musical Genius Boy to his ultimate brainpower.” For Brion, hearing his score played by an 80-piece orchestra was “deeply enthralling, but also depressing, because it’s so wildly cost-prohibitive.”
So far, the only CD release for his magnificently brooding Magnolia score is a promo sent to Academy members for Oscar consideration. It may become an instant collector’s item–just like the few advance copies that slipped out of Meaningless, the solo album Brion recorded this year for Atlantic Records. The label took out trade ads trumpeting its arrival, before quietly scuttling its release in September, believing the record’s Squeeze-like power pop was too great a stretch for the marketplace. Lava/Atlantic Records president Jason Flom calls the album an “artistic triumph,” but adds, quizzically, that “ultimately we felt neither Jon nor the songs…would be served by a major label release.”
Brion seems thrilled to have been given his album back. He figures the last straw was when he informed Atlantic that he was reluctant to support the record with a standard tour. He’d been down that soul-sapping path with the Grays, a band that released one Epic album in ’94 before flaming out. Why spend a year flogging the same set each night when new creative opportunities pop up every week at home? “The irony is, I love to play live, but I guess my ultimate would be a sort of rock Branson, where people could come see me in my natural habitat,” he laughs.
Of course, it’s not like they completely improvise their shows in Branson, Mo. It’s the first Friday in December, and Brion, who returned from vacation the night before and is nursing a cold, is already back at his Largo gig. “Aloha. I’ll be performing an all Jimmy Buffett tribute set tonight,” he warns the crowd, referring to the lei around his neck.
The set includes just about everything but “Margaritaville.” There are tunes from Brion’s album (which he plans to sell to another company or distribute himself next year). There are experiments with tape loops. There’s bona fide ragtime! When country crooner Gillian Welch and Grant Lee Phillips sit in, a Buddy Holly medley results. But when Brion is alone on stage, it’s like watching a mad professor at work through a large observation window.
“To some it might come off as self-indulgent,” Brion said in Maui, explaining the improv urge that may keep him from ever going through the promotional mechanics that would raise his public profile. “But I am so f—ing tired of people thinking it’s not self-indulgent to have your carefully rehearsed 45-minute set. How dare you not put any of yourself on the line for me! I consider it a considerate thing to try and perform on the spot and take the knocks for it.”
Back at the club, someone hollers out for “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Brion plays it as an effective jazz-piano instrumental, but after a couple minutes you sense him getting bored. Then he’s struck by an idea. The jazz rhythms turn into pounding chords, he starts singing in falsetto, and the lyrics become interspersed with grand, Brian Wilson-like “Ooh-ooh-oooohs.” In an offhand, probably never-to-be-repeated moment, Brion has transformed the Gershwin standard into a great lost Pet Sounds outtake. Screw Hawaii, and the music-biz fast track: This is paradise.
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