Jon Brion is well known as a session musician, record producer, solo artist and now, with the work he did for Magnolia, a scorer of films. In his world, all of this is equally important and interrelated. He's worked with artists such as Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Robyn Hitchcock, Grant Lee Phillips, Elliott Smith and more. He's done a lot for someone in their mid-30s, and from his perception of what constitutes a great recording to how he's found himself doing the work that he does, you can tell that he's put a lot of thought and all of his energy into being where he is today.

How do you get the session jobs and production work that you do?

The only reason that people get work and are working on records is because somebody has heard a record that you've done something on and they want to pull off a little of that. If you show up and you're a jerk, they'll never call you again. That's it, that's all there is. There's no other secret that is being withheld, for you or for anyone else that does it. People are going to hear some tracks that you've done and go, "I think that's cool, I want to work with that guy."

And it seems like you've got to do 20 tracks for every one track that somebody hears.

And it's not always the thing that you think. It's not the thing you're doing that you think the world is going to go, "A-ha! Mr. Crane is up to good work." It's going to be something that somebody's playing and the person they're going out with hears and happens to go out drinking that night and says, "God, I heard this amazing thing today." It's going to be the b-side of something or something that was never released — it's just a cassette. That's the reality of it.

The secret that the old engineers don't tell you is that your best work is never going to be heard. [laughter] Something that you put a lot of energy into might just be totally buried or never released.

I remember reading some things with session musicians over the years — they would grumble about how it doesn't matter what you do because it's going to be mixed too quietly or the mix of the whole record is going to not have a groove whatsoever. You work on something that was really cool when you were there and by the time it comes out it's messed up. And lo and behold, it actually turns out to be true. As a session musician, I played on so many things where I just came home out of my head so happy about it [the session] and by the time it gets released it's completely watered down. They killed it.

Did you start out as a session musician or as a musician?

As a musician, I've always loved recording. As a kid, I was fascinated with tape recorders, I love everything about them — microphones, amplifiers, all of this was magical stuff. By the time I was 13, my dad had a friend who happened to have a recording studio attached to his house. There was this local hard-rock band recording — it was a 16-track recording studio. I went nuts. I was just sitting in the control room watching them overdub. I was 13 years old and realizing the significance of an overdub.

How it's piecing the song together..?

Yeah, and the whole notion of it. I totally got what it was and the potential of it and just looking at the machine and this big piece of 2" tape going by. It was the most massive piece of tape I had ever seen. It was the most monstrous, fantastic thing. I pretty much knew that I was going to spend my life being a musician by the time I was 7 or 8. By the time I was 13, I knew that I wanted to be recording. I had a stereo cassette deck and my dad had an old stereo reel-to-reel and I just used to do massive overdubbing, jumping between them. Ever since I was 13 I've had headphones on. I didn't have an amp so I used to overdrive the tape machine by plugging my guitar into the mic input. It was beautiful. A couple of years ago, somebody turned me on to the Lindsey Buckingham stuff on Tusk [Fleetwood Mac]. It was a very similar guitar sound.

There's that strange kind of dry, edgy guitar sound on there.

Yeah, and the other funny thing at the time was that I discovered if I detuned down to low D, I could play power chords with the fuzz with just one finger. I had this really strange proto-grunge sounding guitar stuff on these horrifically bad songs with some squeaky 13-year old singing on them.

What did your parents think of all that when you were messing around with those kinds of things?

I was very lucky. My dad was a music teacher and my mom loved singing and they had really good tastes in songs. They just sort of felt that there was no question in what I was going to be and it was useless to even fight it. So, any interest on my part, was a good thing. Most of my friends didn't have that good fortune. As a parent, it seems like a rather bleak situation. "Oh my god, my kid will starve and be a drug addict." [laughter] The fact that my dad was the breadwinner of the family at the time — they couldn't exactly say, " This is an irresponsible thing for you to be doing."

'Cause he's teaching music.

Something funny that did happen was that my mom, at some point, when I was 8 or 9 years old said that I might want to think about some other things or some other options just in case. It was a really serious heart-to-heart and I remember it very clearly. At the time, I was pretty much obsessed with drums. Around this time I had started playing my brother's guitar, that he got for Christmas and didn't play, so I started playing Beatles' songs on it. I took my mother's advice and basically learned to do tons of other musical things. I didn't think about becoming good at math or getting other interests. I did take her advice, I learned to play a bunch of instruments and I started writing songs. As an adult looking back, I had a good laugh about that. Funny enough, her advice probably helped keep me in good stead, because from very early on I liked doing everything.

As a kid, did you ever get a 4-track cassette unit or anything?

Those didn't exist when I was a kid. I'm 36 so...

I'm the same age as you and they weren't around were they?

No. I eventually got a used 4-track Teac reel-to-reel by the time I was 18 or 19. Around that time, the PortaStudios [Tascam] were out, but that was a new and expensive item. I got the used reel-to-reel with a Teac mixer for precious little money and I had one mic and that was it. I had the same pair of headphones that I had when I was 13. The PortaStudio seemed like an unbelievable extravagance that I looked forward to. I didn't even mess with one of those until well into my 20s.

When you first started going out into "real" studios, what were those like for you?

Did you start recording yourself at that point?

That was never really my interest then. It was always song first and if I was just making a track to make a track, it was it's own experimental thing. After that, I ended up moving to Boston and I got involved with the people at Q Division — right when their studio opened. That's really where I sort of found myself. I did some solo recording out there before I moved to Los Angeles, which kind of cemented a lot of opinions that I have about recording and even certain styles of working.

What would you say those styles or opinions are?

The sense of intimacy with recording, which can happen even with recording tons of tracks and instruments on it. The sense of intimacy does not necessarily denote small or large. It's strictly the feeling of presence, emotionally or sonically. I'm quite obsessed with that. I also started working with Aimee Mann at that time and she was very obsessed with very loud vocals. Eventually, she totally won me over into that world and now anything I do has a vocal as loud as it can possibly be without sounding like it's a separate record.

Or without making the music incredibly puny...

Yeah, but I'm also figuring out ways of making it so that the music doesn't sound puny but the vocals are still large. These are the constant challenges that you never really get good enough at doing. I actually like to go in without a lot of structure. I like to do things... like throw paint at the wall and really not worry about them, whether it's in the basic tracking stage or the overdub stage. I'm also fearless about being able to throw things away. Rather than labor on one thing a long, long time, I'd rather do a bunch of options and look at the different combinations that come up.

When you first started working at Q Division, did you start as an intern?

When the studio had off-time there was a group of musicians — we ended up being a band for a few months. There was just always recording going on, everybody wanted to be making music and everybody wanted to be improving in their respective craft. I was writing a ton of songs, Mike Denneen, who's the chief engineer and producer there, he wanted to be engineering all the time. Everybody wanted to be recording and moving different mics around and seeing what it meant. The real moment of glory was they traded their board for a couple of Pultecs, two 67s, two 47s, two 44s, two 77s, a 49 and other things I forgot. They got this amazing deal. This was about 11 years ago and basically there was just a phone call going, "Okay, you have to come down here." I was like, "Is that stuff as good as people say?"... "Come down here!" That was it — that was the light going off. I was like, "Oh, this is why the records that I like sound the way they do."

Do you buy much gear? Do you have a home studio at this point?

I do have a home studio. I have a bunch of really nice things. I've got an Ampex 1200 24-track and I also have a Stevens [deck]. I have an Oram console — John Oram is the guy who originally designed the Trident EQ. He has his own company now. They have good stuff and they have a good concept. Right now, the only things that are available to people are a Mackie or a $300,000 new console or$300,000 vintage console. There are few mid-priced good sounding things. So, they've made some good sounding consoles. I have a great deal of outboard stuff designed by David Bock, who designs gear for Soundelux [and Mercury]. I've actually got a number of prototypes of his. Things that they couldn't make on a mass production level because the parts would be too expensive.

I don't think people realize what a consideration that is.

It's horrible. This guy has wonderful ears — he makes great stuff. I'm just thrilled to know him and I like him as a person and he's up to great things. He's made a bunch of Pultec style EQs. I've got four of those and I have a stereo tube mic pre that he made for me. I don't know that he's even made another one, but its beautiful sounding. I'm obsessed about mic pres. Mark Sampson, who use to make Matchless amps, literally just dropped off to me a pair of mic pres that he just designed that are some of the finest things I've ever heard. Obviously, whatever studio I'm at I get to know the sound of their console and whatever their freestanding mic pres are. It is really possible to get onto tape, just going from the mic to the mic pre to the tape — compression if necessary. The other thing people don't do is that they don't listen to all the different compressors available. That's yet another EQ curve. It's not like I'm anti-EQ; I'm just anti having anything between the microphone and the tape that doesn't have to be there. If you get to know these other pieces of equipment, you're physically closer to the thing that's happening. It's coming out of the speaker and the waves have gone through fewer things, they have less coloration from other things. As close as you can get to the original airwaves is cool. I don't believe that there is any form of recording that replicates what it's like to stand in a room — or even close. I think that people who claim that are idiots.

I've never put a record on and felt like it's the same thing by any means.

Physically, we don't have a playback system as full dimensional as being somewhere that has even close to the resolution. The thing you can try and do is make a thing that is a nice experience to be around. When the airwaves come out of the speakers, you're happy to be near them. As close as you can get to airwaves coming from humans compiled in a nice way, the better off you are. Other than that, it's pure experimentation, since I don't feel we can have an accurate representation and we're making records, which are their own art form. The other end of the scale is to just go completely ballistic and try to fuck things up at every turn.

I thought, originally, that you were more of a musician and a session player. But, you've obviously done a lot of production work too. How did one lead to the other or the other way around?

You pick up a lot. When you feel that a session is going really well and the music is coming out great, you see how everybody reacts and what's going on.

Also, having been a session player is really good for me as a producer. I guess the equivalent would be actors who direct. I don't know if that's an accurate one or not. I know which producers I've played best for and I know why. I know where they left me space and where they pulled in the reigns — I knew how it felt. So,it allows me to do a better job as a producer at this point... much better job. I feel like I do know how to get good things out of people.

What kind of things, do you think, help do that?

What stuff have you been working on lately, production wise?

Grant Phillips and I are making a collaborative record. He was from the band Grant Lee Buffalo. We're writing together and we've been doing it at my studio. I'm getting together with David Byrne [Talking Heads] in about a week to do some recording. It's just, sort of, your classic trial run and if we have fun maybe we'll do more.

Is that in a production capacity?

Yeah. I'm also finishing off various records of my own. There were things that were just about completed and everyone in the universe turned them down and then they've laid dormant. I'm basically going through and finishing all of those off.

I know you have a solo album coming out.

Yeah, it should be out within the next few weeks. It'll be through Artist Direct, there will probably be no place, physically, where you can see it. It sort of exists in the ether online. I have a virtual record I guess.

Somebody sent me a promo of that and it sounded good. My friend said that it reminded him of Emitt Rhodes.

I'm a big fan of the first Emitt Rhodes solo record...

That's home recording on a 4-track for you... one of the first ones.

It's great. There are particular things that he pretty much likes on every song. Every one has a rhythm guitar and a lead guitar. He has maracas, he has the drums, and there's usually a piano and a pump organ. There are usually two part backing vocals and a lead vocal. Obviously, he had just nailed his system down of what order to do those things in. I really like the sonics of that album a lot. Once again, there's a real intimacy on any of the tracks that are on there. Neil Young records were always good on the intimacy scale, sonically. Just the feeling of... "There's a guy playing the guitar and I can really tell that's what it is." The drums are beautifully dry, those are good in the same kind of way where sonically it has nothing to do even with bandwidth. It has to do with presence.

How do you get those kinds of qualities?

The best way to get presence is to do as little as possible.

Keeping the signal chain short?

Keep it real short. With things like drums, if people play quieter you can get better mics closer. Then you've got total intimacy. If you ride the compression right, there's a place where you don't necessarily hear it, but it does allow to get you a little more intimacy. Keeping it simple. For the most part, one of things I'm really big on is mic'ing from player perspective. Everybody that learns to play an instrument, like drums, has learned the balance from where their head is. I think overheads are generally too high and I really don't go for stereo all that often.

Put a mic behind the drummer's head?

Yeah, pretty much. I'm usually in a "close-to-player" perspective without being in the way of the players or putting the mic in harms way. I use to listen to records and go, "Why are all these '50s jazz records perfect?" We figured out some way to record musicians in a room in an appealing fashion. It's not truly realistic, but give us a sense of what it was like to be there. It's like looking at a good photograph. I started thinking about why records started sounding like shit in '63 or '64, and they did. All the early British rock records sound like dog shit. They have no bandwidth. Eventually I realized that when musicians started playing louder, the old mics couldn't handle the level. So, they invented dynamic mics, which you could put right up on guitar amps and drums. Then, things sounded shitty again, they could take the level, but they didn't have the bandwidth. Then people figured out ways of doing the hyper-real sound, which became popular in the '70s. You've got dynamic mics right up everything's ass and then you've got EQ and different things to get the sound together and thus began the era of hitting a snare drum for a day. You can make a snare drum sound incredible in zero time. Take a [Neumann U-] 67 and run it through any good mic pre. Let's just run into a Neve, no compression, near the drum, but a little further than you would normally put a [Shure SM] 57 or something. Don't worry too much about the bleed and have the drummer play a little quieter. You can't do this with someone who insists on having to play harder, thinking it's the only way to come off as rocking. Then the drummer becomes an important part of your chain. [laughter] At the point when somebody is playing quieter, you've got a 67, which has beautiful vocal qualities to it and great high-end presence. All of the sudden you've got all the top-end you could possibly want, all the bottom-end you want, the mid-range is appealing. Mix it dry and it'll be incredible. The thing you can't do is slam on it. If you're going to do that then you have to use a dynamic mic and you have to, in truth, have a fucked with sound. However, if you want somebody who is slamming the drums really hard and it has a fairly natural sound then you can back off on a good condenser and get really good mono sound or a stereo sound if necessary. I'm generally recording with 3 mics, I have one in player position which is almost all of the sound — a [AKG] D30 on the kick drum and some good tube condenser on the snare. If I want, I'll put up two room mics and track them and usually I'll do fucked up things with them. I won't try to get a normal good stereo image. I'll point one into one corner and one in an oblong fashion somewhere else and put two different compressors on them. When you put them together they do different phase things because of the different time relationship. That tends to be how I'm operating this month.

You notice with that sort of thing, it always changes. Have you done many projects with full bands?

No, actually.

It seems like you've mostly done singers and songwriters.

I have to admit I keep gravitating towards that. There are bands, in the course of rock history, I would have been very happy to just sit around and engineer and produce in the old Glyn Johns school of production — just egging people on. There aren't that many of them that I can think of right now. I can't think of too many bands that are famous for just being bands that I'd want to record. Most of the ones that I thought have been great in the past 10 years are either not doing their best work now or they've got dead members. [laughter]

You recently did a score for [the movie] Magnolia too. I was wondering how you went about doing that — writing the arrangements.

It was a blast, it was really hard work. In terms of my arranging, I've always worked, sort of, from an orchestral perspective in terms of how I think. Even as I play keyboards, I tend to play in open voicings. I play a C chord that has a C, E, G in it, but instead of C, E, G, you play C, skip the E, play the G and then play the E above the next C. That's how string quartet writing has its sound. That's something that I've realized, even most people that play on sessions don't do that. Especially, with the keyboards that I play, like the Chamberlains [Mellotron-style keyboard] and the pump organs, they tended to give it this beautiful spacious sound. Over the years, I've just loved layering stuff, I love acoustic instruments — it's all of those things at once, I really couldn't resist. I just sat and watched the monitor with Paul Thomas Anderson, the director. Usually, the composer just gets tapes dumped on his doorstep and has to do something. Then he goes to the session and if they don't like it they fire him and hire someone else. Paul and I basically sat and watched the movie together and it was really challenging and fun. Once again, Paul is a great director. All you have to do is watch his movies to see the caliber of performance he elicits from people. We had long talks about a lot of that sort of stuff — we actually see our jobs as very, very similar, a catalyst for people to be at their best, hopefully. Just like the good T-Bone instructions, Paul's instructions were never musical, his were all emotional. We would watch the screen and I would learn what sort of things I could do that would represent certain things he was looking for. Once he learned he could make any emotional suggestion and I could at least try to represent it... I think it became fun for him. He had this sort of human music machine sitting there, ready to generate ideas. For me, once I started learning what represented an emotion to him, then I was freed up musically to experiment however I wanted. I'd know what would constitute tension for him. So, I would start working in that realm, but then I had all the freedom. All of the horror stories that I've heard from other composers is some director sitting there going, "Is it flute? Is that the instrument? I think it needs more flute." That would drive me crazy, that's like any of the bad session tales I could tell you. So, this is really great, I'd walk into a room with an 80-piece orchestra, that is stunning to do and it was also cripplingly sad because I heard it and realized, "My god, this is what I'm always trying to get on record. We've got 80 people acting as one organism, but you've got all these subconscious' freed up to spill into the room." It's an incredible sound and there are layers, constant color change and it also comes off as one thing, constantly. That's a hard thing, in terms of production, to get color change, to keep the listeners interest up, that doesn't feel like constant gear shifting. With an orchestra, it's very easy to get that. I thought, "This is it, that's the fucking sound." I just wanted to hear a vocal on top of it and I wanted modern records that totally rock, not post Beatle quasi-baroque string section on top of a half-ass rock track. I just hate that shit, I love it on the Beatle records and I love some isolated versions on other records, but I hate that that is the only use for this instrument that is way better than the synthesizer in creating entirely new sound combinations. Here's the problem: Any record that you get to have a string section, it means that you have to have a budget. On Fiona [Apple]'s record, I got to have 22 or 23 string players for 3 hours and I had to do 3 tracks in that 3 hours. When the first hour was almost up it was like, "This isn't quite right, but we've got to move on to the next one." This is a small string section and it's the only thing we used. It's just heartbreaking to realize that the price and the way the whole thing works makes it prohibitive for us to make records in a humane way and use this fantastic thing which took a few hundred years of work to get these instruments perfected. It's just going to be a lost art and it's heartbreaking.

I got to watch the sessions for the XO [Elliott Smith] record. I think they had a pretty long day and that must have cost a bit. It all went pretty well, they had done a good arrangement job on it and they based it on Elliott's keyboard parts. Is that how you did the Magnolia stuff?

That's how it started. Then I would work hard on the harmony and counterpoints.

I had a guy named Thomas Positiere acting as a, sort of, orchestrator who, once I had things together, he would come and make a proper full score. He's incredibly talented; he basically works for half the major film composers in town. The more I learned about it, most of the guys can write a thumbnail sketch and they have a roomful of orchestrators that they hand stuff off to. To tell the truth, a lot of these film scores have to be written fast — you don't have time to do it yourself. Essentially what you do is you write the melody the rhythm and the harmony. They write, maybe, a 6 line score. This guy is marvelously fast and he was also great to be around. As the project went along, I had developed more of what the tonality of the movie was going to be. Thomas, as an orchestrator, had gotten to know my tastes better. Initially, I was taking time writing out every little tidbit, coming up with every little part and making sure it was right, then we would make a score off of that on the computer and make corrections. After awhile, when the tonality was together, it got to the point where we had had such a wonderful rapport where I could go, "Okay, here's the ostinato that's going to be continuing on the bottom, it'll modulate here at this bar, I want woodwinds to play this chord." But I wouldn't bother at that point anymore to say how they were going to be voiced in terms of which instrument in the 8-piece woodwind section, because we had already come up with certain tonalities and colors that worked. As the project went on I was able to trust him more and more and I actually get what I wanted. It was enthralling — that's a very unique skill on his part and it's a hugely hard job. He did a wonderful job conducting.

That must've been fun to hear stuff that you had written being played like that.

It was thrilling and depressing. It's like, "My god, the only time I'm ever going to do this again is if I do another movie."

You can't see being able to do another pop record that way...

No, it would cost so much money. You could go out and make a bunch of records for people for the cost of just making one of those.