Jon Brion on the Music of Punch-Drunk Love

Photo: Columbia Pictures

If round numbers aren’t your thing and you’ve been looking for a way to commemorate this year’s 14th anniversary of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 romantic-dramedy Punch-Drunk Love, you’re in luck: On Saturday night, March 19, the film’s composer, multi-instrumentalist producer Jon Brion comes to BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House for a screening of the movie, during which he’ll sit in with the Wordless Music Orchestra for a live performance of his score. (Buy tickets here). Vulture spoke with him about working with Anderson and his future musical plans.

You just performed the score in L.A. the other week. Before that, though, how long had it been since you’d watched Punch-Drunk Love?
It had been a few years. I’m not one for sitting around and watching or listening to things I’ve done. Usually what happens is I get home from the studio late, and I’m channel surfing, and I stumble across something in the middle and watch a little bit. But it was very enjoyable to get immersed in it again. It’s such a good piece of work on Paul’s part.

Your process on this movie was slightly atypical. You didn’t compose while watching a rough cut of the finished product; you were on the set and writing music as the film was shooting.
We were actually talking about the music a year before he shot. Paul asked if I could make some pieces of music that were just rhythm for him to shoot to. I had him sing into a little handheld Dictaphone, just making little percussion noises, and then I looped those and played along. In the middle of shooting, he realized there was another type of rhythm he needed, so we went into his studio together and made an extra percussion piece. Then, once he was editing, we started working on the more melodious aspects, and that was done during the editing, not after he’d made a rough cut and handed it to me. We were doing unorthodox things, like we’d do an orchestra session and edit it into the film, and then we’d make decisions about changes we wanted to make, and we’d do a separate session again later. Normally there’s just one orchestra session at the end and that’s it.

The score is really assertive in this movie. It’s high up in the mix, occasionally drowning out dialogue. Is that a film composer’s dream, or, when you watch it, is that nerve-wracking?
That’s Paul’s taste. He likes to mix music loud. Once, I was on a mix with him, and the music was very loud, and I said, “Man, there are some moments where people are really going to be stretching to hear dialogue.” And his exact words were, “Yes, I want that. I want them leaning forward in their seats at this point in the movie.” He is a proper auteur, as more people should be.

How musical is Paul?
Oh, very. He has sensational ears. He’s not a musician as such, but it’s his job to notice everything. You can have a keen eye and hear well, but that doesn’t mean one has to carry a tune. You just have to be able to perceive the relationships between things and the feelings they’re generating, and he has all those skills 20 times over.

As Paul edited, and you composed, you sat and played a keyboard and watched him react to things. What kinds of things did he respond to? What did he not like?
That stuff is hard to specifically remember. I would see either displeasure or excitement, and in between those, you’d see a look like, Oh, I think I’m about to get excited about this, or I think this is about to go wrong. He might come up with a word or a hand motion that meant good or bad, and I would have to translate that into a literal musical term. The process was very direct. It was not about writing a score and playing a MIDI mockup to a committee of people who would sit down and decide, Is this the right feel for the film? I had a room a couple of offices over [from his editing suite], and I had a little Casio keyboard on a coffee table in front of me, and he’d sit next to me and we’d both stare at the screen. 

Do you remember what kind of music you were listening to for inspiration?
Not really. There’s usually some temporary music in any given film — even with Paul — that a director puts in and gets a bit married to. And then your job becomes figuring out how to extrapolate from it. But the inspiration for Punch-Drunk Love was to have this combination of things that were modern and different and stark, and other things that were really old-fashioned. Paul was looking at a lot of old MGM stuff, and investigating whether it was possible to do Technicolor — it turned out it wasn’t. So, we tried to find the closest things available when we were tracking the score. In the studio, they had all the typical [modern] mics set up. But we were in an old scoring stage, so I asked if they had any of the fifties-era mics around, and there was a little metal filing cabinet with some old RCA ones, and they became a big part of that orchestra sound. I tend to not like the stupidly popular movie sound of the last 30 years of just putting excessive amounts of reverb on the orchestra; the people who do these gigs can’t live without it. But once we put up the older mics and had the 55-piece orchestra, it gave us the right feeling. 

Whose idea was it to include Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me” from the Popeye soundtrack?
Oh, that was Paul. That’s classic Paul. He’ll take a song that was used in another movie, like, “Oh, I’ve got a different use for that.” With that song, we almost tripled it in length. It plays all the way through, and we had to get the original tapes so we could take off the vocal and put an orchestra playing the melody on, so it could sustain. It plays for a ten-minute part of the movie, but as a viewer, you don’t notice. It’s a brilliant thing on Paul’s part.

Will you and Paul ever collaborate again? Last year, he was reportedly in talks to direct a live-action Pinocchio, and I started to get my hopes up.
I have no idea. We just sort of do things when they come up. We did a live comedy thing out here with Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph a couple of years ago. I used to go play piano to silent movies at one of the places he used to live in, like that was just a normal thing. So you never know. 

What are you working on now?
It’s a variety of things. I’ve stopped talking about stuff out loud because we’ve reached this era where you never know what things are actually coming out. It literally changes by press time. It’s a product of everyone in the pop-record world having a multitrack machine on their computer, and any given song you hear was probably sent to ten different people just to mix. So there’s a bunch of different stuff going on right now, movie- and record-wise, and we’ll see which things surface.

What kind of music have you been listening to lately?
I haven’t been swept off my feet by anything this year. I feel like I’ve seen more people with the right idea, more people who understand that music should be an enjoyable thing. Records are sounding less tacky, at least among bands and singer-songwriters, which makes me very happy. However, I’m not seeing anybody who, with lyrics, melody, and chord changes, is sending me. It’s just a period where people are recalibrating, but I think it’s absolutely heading in the right direction. I’m just waiting to hear a song that makes time and space stop for me while I’m listening to it. I can list thousands of songs that do that for me, so it will happen again.

There’s a line in your Wikipedia page without a citation, and I wondered if we could clear it up. It says Jon Brion “is rumored to be working on his second full-length solo album at Abbey Road Studios.” Is any part of that sentence true?
Yeah, parts of that are true. I mean, I’m never officially working on anything of that ilk, but I’ll go over to a studio that I like, if I get a day free, and put some things down. But I’ve spent no concerted effort putting all other projects aside to work on a record, not even close. I don’t even write on a regular basis, just when the time comes up that I can do it, I do. I enjoy writing immensely, though it can be very hard.

Also, it’s not exactly like we’re living in a world where there’s a premium on releasing records, and I don’t just mean in a monetary sense. It’s a world in which records disappear really fast. And quite honestly, most of the time when I’m making music for myself, that is the complete circuit. And if I’m playing live and I have a few new songs I like, that’s also a complete circuit.

A couple of years ago, a studio version of a great song by you, “We Died,” leaked. When did you record it? Is there any more where it came from?
I had no idea. I don’t go on any social media. I think it’s a really great way for people to give themselves a fantastic headache. So I don’t know what’s out there, and what’s leaked and what hasn’t, and I’ve basically decided to not care. That would be a song from the early 2000s. If it’s a studio version, it was probably from a visit to Seattle.

Do you think you’ll play another solo show in New York soon?
Actually, I’m planning on one. I think it’s May 6, someplace in Williamsburg — Warsaw.

That’s a good room.
Well then perhaps I will see you at Warsaw … That had a very strange tone to it.

Jon Brion Remembers Punch-Drunk Love