CRAZED ECLECTIC CO-CONSPIRATOR (AND PRODUCER)These days, it seems like producers come in more varieties than Pokemons. Former engineers, musicians, managers, roadies and girlfriends (not mentioning any names here) have all moved to the seat behind a recording console and called the proverbial recording shots. By adding those ingredients (and subtracting the girlfriend bit) to the titles acoustician, human jukebox and musical historian, you get the 21st century producer Jon Brion. From his early dates as a Jellyfish sideman, to his more recent producer assignment on Fiona Apple's latest, to his composer credit for the hit film Magnolia, Brion has seemingly handled all facets of the recording process.
In the final analysis, though, some of his best work has been working as a record producer. In addition to Apple's When The Pawn... release, he's put his stamp on Robyn Hitchcock's latest, Rufus Wainwright's self-titled debut, eels' Beautiful Freak and a number of Aimee Mann albums.
Though it's clear he knows what it takes to live up to the title, he points out that defining a producer's responsibility these days is difficult, at best. "We live in an age of serious misconception, in my opinion, of the job of the producer," he suggests. "Since the time of Phil Spector and the sort of crazed autocrat as one type of producer, to the image of producer as multi-instrumentalist and arranger in the late '70s, then it was multi-instrumentalist/arranger/engineer, and then in the late '90s it was multi-instrumentalist/arranger/engineer/co-owner of record label. Personally, the job requires different things all the time."
The first part of the job, he explains, is to help the artists uncover what they'd like to represent on an album. And truth be known, he'd love to be in the position John Hammond found himself in when Bob Dylan joined him in the studio to record the seminal LP, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, but he knows he gets called for a very specific reason: "I get hired to be the guy with a giant truck-full of instruments and because I've made other records they've heard that don't sound like the bulk of other records out there. So, I get hired to be the crazed, eclectic co-conspirator. That's true on every record I've ever produced; there is not an exception."
There have been those times, though, when he's had a chance to sit back and enjoy the show. "It's been really fun for me on certain records when I've had the budget to hire a band and not have to play," he recalls, "to just be around and enjoy the experience and spend time with the engineer and making sure the room feels cool. That's just a gas. I've had a few great experiences with that."
One of the most recent examples of just that is his work on the Magnolia original motion picture score. After composing the 90-minute score (it's a three-hour film), he had a chance to sit in the Todd A/O control room and just listen to the orchestra - he opted not to conduct so he could watch the film at the same time and check his work.
After a year of producing pop albums and recording his solo debut, Meaningless, Brion saw no reason not to do a soundtrack. "I do them for the same reason I do anything, because it was interesting to me," he says. "I've always wanted to work with a whole orchestra, and it was the first opportunity where somebody was laying that opportunity in front of me. I couldn't help myself."
In fact, the soundtrack work wasn't much different from the pop work. "I found that it's all the same stuff you're normally dealing with - melody, harmony, counterpoint," he explains. "As a producer, I think in orchestral terms anyway, so what I learned from this is something I already knew, which is that I wish I could use orchestras on records all the time, but it's simply too expensive. It is amazing all the stuff you spend time on when you're making the record to give it depth. You place things in different parts of the room acoustically and use multiple performers to interact with each other and get a layered effect, but the voice is still the most important thing. Of course, with the orchestra it's right there and it's coming out of them like that all the time."
Call the Magnolia soundtrack a sidelight because Brion has already jumped back in the studio where it's just him and the artist talking about the songs they'll record. In Brion's world, there is no pre-production, and he'll only play the songs one time with the artist before they roll tape. That casual attitude continues each day that they work together. "I ask,`Which one do you feel like playing? Is there anything you'd like me to know ahead of time?' Then I start throwing different things on," he explains. There are one to three passes at that type of experimentation, and then Brion will turn to a handful of tried and true studio techniques to find the right sound.
And though he has purchased a Pro Tools setup - mostly to record the songs for Meaningless (which is only offered at Artist Direct's Web site), he still prefers to use real instruments and complete takes. "In a perfect world, I'd like every performance to be uninterrupted so you get all of the subconscious information that comes out, which is an undeniable thing. But you don't always have the option," he concedes.
His love for authentic instruments started when he used to buy 78 rpm records to play drums with as a youngster. He moved from drums to piano to guitar, and now he adds such instruments as vibraphones, harmoniums and Chamberlains as often as he can to an album. "They are such strong colors and when people hear a real vibraphone for the first time, as opposed to a DX-7 vibraphone patch or whatever's on their Roland at home, the first time you actually hear the molecules dance around your head..." he pauses. "When you're in close proximity to one of these things, it's really exciting."
That excitement, he adds, is the reason he collects such instruments. "If somebody has never heard a vibraphone and you play a four-mallet chord behind them when they're singing a song, they just about jump out of their skin," he says with a laugh. Along with the vibraphone, Brion has been enamored with an 8-string ukulele he purchased last year. "It's a very unique sound," he reports. "It sounds like a nylon string, 12-string guitar with a capo on the fifth fret. That's sort of the effect and it's like nothing I've ever heard. It's instantly unique. That's also part of what attracted me to play keyboards a decade ago, although now vintage keyboards are everywhere. My friends and I used to joke in the '80s that come the '90s, the DX-7 is going to be the keyboard everybody wants," he says with a smile. "It really was the wah-wah pedal of the '80s, just as loops are the wah-wah pedals of the '90s."
In addition to the eclectic truckload of instruments, Brion will generally arrive at the chosen studio (these days it's usually either Ocean Way or NRG in Hollywood) with some mic-pre's, a couple of his own high-end microphones, a couple of what he calls "character microphones," as well as some old outboard effects. "Oh, I also try to arrive free of expectations," he adds with a laugh.
Which, given the assortment of artists on his credit sheet, is almost as important as the studio or technology he chooses for a session. "The artists I'm attracted to tend to be more diverse. They tend to be people who, from song to song, are trying to do expressive things and as a whole are little more iconoclastic, are a little more individualistic, a little less ruled by genre rules," he explains.
And that's just fine, he says, because he doesn't make his living solely as a producer. "The best part about not being a full-time producer is that I don't have to fill my calendar the rest of the time," he says. "I hear one record every two years that I think would be fun to do, so I don't have to take five other projects in the meantime. If I was just a producer, I would have had to do the 10 or 20 things I have turned down in the past five years. I think that would have been bad. I don't think it would have been good for the artist, even if they're fans of mine. I would have been doing a job."
But working with artists he appreciates makes it fun to go to work each day. "It makes the tough moments livable and it makes the successes really gratifying. So, I'm pleased with the people I've worked with and I'm pleased that I haven't had to work with people who are interested in me because they heard one other record and they heard some sounds that they want to co-opt for their music."
What drives Brion is the feeling that the best is still out there. "I've never been satisfied with any of the records I've ever done," he says. "There are points and moments on them that I think are interesting because they are not like other things that are out there in certain spots. Yet, when you're that intimately aware of every facet of the thing, it's hard to see the whole."
So that's why he mixes his resume up with titles like sideman, producer, composer, solo artist and performer (he has a very popular weekly show at Largo in Los Angeles). "I think it's really important that people play a lot of different roles in life," he says. "I think if you're just the ringleader all the time, that's unhealthy. I think if you're just a follower all the time, that's unhealthy.
"I think you should mix it up. I like being ringleader in the studio for somebody else's thing. I like going into the studio and just playing guitar and having no responsibility except playing guitar well and appropriately for the song. I like that I go out on a Friday night and suddenly, I get to be the center of activity and do whatever I want in whatever way I feel like doing it. I like that in the course of a week, I can hear lots of different types of music and play a lot of different roles in it. That's much more fun for me than being known as a producer or a guitarist or even just an artist."