Jon Brion, the prolific musician, composer, and producer — Kanye West, Elliott Smith, and lot of people (and film scores) in between — sat down to talk at Greenblatt’s deli in Los Angeles over a late-night breakfast of coffee and pastrami.
Q: I feel like technology is my friend and my enemy. You?
A: Yeah, I’m extraordinarily selective about it. People’s love of having options killed the quality of any given individual thing. And purpose-built things are harder to find. So I very cautiously have tried to select technology for things that we couldn’t do before, not necessarily things that are just easier or faster to do with technology. Emotionally I probably look like a bit of a Luddite, but I’m not. I’d still like to think in whatever I’m my own version of a modernist.
Q: I think you straddle the two pretty well.
A: Let me put it this way. I own lots of computers. I don’t use any of them.
Q: But that’s a version of choice too. Right?
A: I mean, I know there are things sonically that are better about digital. Nobody talks about this. But there are. But the problem is if you go completely that way, it does lack something. So it’s the combo.
Q: So the trick is to know your options and to know your vision well enough, where you want to end up and how to get there. And be master of your toolkit.
A: Right. Yeah, very much so. You know it’s funny, I was writing down something in one of my journals last year about what I thought about creativity, trying to think of a couple of good models in terms of creative stuff. Like, what are some really good examples of work. And I thought, you know, one good thing is a hammer. That is a really good example for what we’re lacking at the moment, which is something that does one job incredibly well. It hasn’t changed at all. It hasn’t needed to. For the job of driving a nail, it’s absolutely great. So on the other end you’ve got a camera which in truth is the thing that’s sadly lacking at the moment. Everybody feels they’re a great modernist just because they’re using a computer. But then they’ll make a lot of mindless choices that tend to homogenize things. I thought the other good model for work is the same one that’s been driving poets crazy for years, which is a tree. I never understood when I was a kid all these artists I liked going on about their greatest inspiration. Nature. It’s like, God I’m going to throw up. These fucking awful, boring fucks. I don’t understand it.
Q: And now?
A: At some point it was like, yeah, I can’t think of anything lovelier than the trees.
Q: When did that happen?
A: I don’t know. 10-15 years ago. I can look at something like a tree and it’s got everything I like in work. It’s got both commonality and uniqueness that are absolutely built in. There’s some sort of inherent DNA to each particular one and you’ve got this replication within it. Still there’s individualism. I mean it straddles both sides beautifully. And then you have different environments moving around in the thing which causes it to be different depending on temperature, seasons, wind, light, all of it.
Q: Sounds like a metaphor.
A: Well, yeah, all creative work is.
Q: So, I’m thinking about creativity over one’s lifespan and how –
A: Oh you mentioned the old fart thing. I love that.
Q: Don’t say the old farts.
A: Actually I don’t feel that way, that’s why I can joke about it.
Q: Some people do feel that way. I’d like to know what changed in you to make you receptive to an idea like a tree.
A: I got to it through my own work. I think the people I know who I’m crazy impressed with, when I would try and dissect what it was I liked about the thing, it was that they had the gift of poetic analogy. And every lyricist I like, all the musicians I liked, were playing something other than the immediate notes and you knew it when you were hearing them. Even if you couldn’t place exactly what it was. I like to investigate things, and when I started doing more and more work and seeing which things I liked and didn’t in my own work and which things I was curious to learn more about, I started seeing all these correlations to certain things I didn’t know about in nature or rudimentary cosmology. And that became the connection. And then I started having fun representing some of that. And then eventually it got a little closer to home. It’s like once I started thinking about that eventually it was like, “Oh yeah, how would I just represent boredom moving along?” The closer you look the more variation there is. As opposed to most of the stuff which I hated growing up and much of what’s been popular. The more you look at many of the popular things, the less interesting they become. Unfortunately we kind of missed the 60s, where the popular thing was also the great inspiring modern thing.
Q: I think about that.
A: Yeah. You know, we had our nice little brief moment with the really genius people who came out of the liberation of the punk movement. And you have whatever individuals managed to peek their heads through the cracks for the last batch of decades. But I love that thing of the further in you go the more interesting it becomes. And of course when you start looking out amongst the physical world and universe, the same thing absolutely can happen. It’s always a bit beyond your reckoning. The more you throw yourself at it, the more there is to learn from it. Eventually then you have to turn that analogy in on itself about your work.