Photo: Terrorbird Media

Mercury in Retrograde: An Interview with Former Brian Jonestown Massacre Jester Joel Gion

He is best known as the comical, tambourine-banging jester for the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Now, after a few quiet all-by-himself albums, Joel Gion gets a band together to launch the next big chapter of his career.

Joel Gion
Joel Gion
Beyond Beyond is Beyond

Picture Joel Gion for a second.

The image you have is probably the hip, perma-cool, sharp-dressed tambourinista, front and center with the ever-changing, ever-volatile Brian Jones Massacre. Well, scratch that and replace it with that of a camera-wielding tourist with a corn dog in one hand and a bag of cotton candy in the other, sporting a Dolly Parton T-Shirt while he waits to jump on the “Smoky Mountain River Rampage” ride. “I’m going to Dollywood!” says Gion excitedly, at the start of our conversation. “I’m feeling a fine mixture of excitement and dread. It’s all about the gift shop. I’m gonna get me a big ol’ T-Shirt …”

When he’s not visiting country music related theme parks or playing with the BJM, Gion is a recording artist in his own right, with a new, self-titled record full-length. His previous releases (2011’s Extended Play and Apple Bonkers from 2014) were kind of what you’d expect: reverb drenched, psych-drone rock. The new one goes slightly off-piste. “The first song was actually started about a year and a half ago,” says Gion, taking time out from a family get together in Gatlinburg, Tennessee to talk to PopMatters. “It kind of began as side three of the previous record, sonically and I didn’t want to go there, so I stopped and rebooted where I wanted to go with it.”

Gion seems keen to stretch his wings on this new record. “I wanted to incorporate other genres that I’m into. The BJM has been on that Psych scene for 25 years and on a side note, the amount of time that I’ve spent at venues, watching psychedelic bands — well, people do shorter terms for double murder than I’ve clocked up watching those bands do their Vox guitar stuff! I’m just into the 1960s in general: film, artwork, photography, fashion and everything, so I just wanted to tap into different things from the era that I’m into.

“so I’ve got some bossa nova in there, I’ve got some soul-tinged things,” he adds, “just trying to add it into the mix and have different types of music co-existing in the same piece. Mix a guitar with some Gary Numan synths or something. So, I started about a year and a half ago and it was a slow process with me because — well you don’t get rich playing the tambourine! I can’t just book a studio and block it for a month and just bang it out.”

“Gary Numan synths…?” Jaded by prolonged exposure to slightly lacklustre psychedelia? What’s going on, Joel? You’re supposed to spend all your leisure time in a dimly lit, velvet lined bedroom listening to Moby Grape Bootlegs — and what the hell is this about bossa nova, already?

“I really love the girl singers from the bossa nova and tropicalia genres like Nara Leao, Elis Regina — they’re fantastic. My favourite little pinpoint zone is 1965-66. where bossa nova is going away and tropicalia is coming in and they start to cross over. I love that music. Being a percussionist, I was naturally drawn to it, starting with Astrud Gilberto and Jobim and the whole lounge-y cocktail culture. That period was where everything was being done right. Now it’s the slums! C’est la vie.”

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It’s hard to imagine BJM leader Anton Newcombe in a dressing gown, getting down to “The Girl from Ipanema”. Do you ever pitch any of your own material to the band?

We’re kind of talking about that now. Anton is starting a new album at the moment. I might end up with something on there this time. It took so long to get my own thing going. Anton is just so prolific and with such a high-quality level, so it was really intimidating. I didn’t even want to go there. I did my last record and that was me doing what I should have done in my 20s and I really wanted to get that out of the way. This one is more me: I’m in it. I’m in what I want to be.

Your first release, Extended Play, was pretty much all you, with just a couple of contributions from other musicians. You didn’t go into a studio, you just recorded everything onto your Mac, starting with a tambourine track as a metronome.

Yeah, that was like an experiment I did where I was going to write and record the stuff at home and I wasn’t going to show anyone — I was just going to press it and put it out and that was going to be that. Maybe some of the vocals could have been more in tune if I’d shown it to at least one person, but it was something for me to do at the time and it was a first step. Each thing has been another step up for me which is what I wanted to do, rather than just throw myself in the middle of these really accomplished songsmiths, like Anton and Matt Hollywood. I did my own thing in my own baby steps and got myself to this new record which I’m really pleased with.

So, you’ve gone from playing almost everything on a record to assembling a group of musicians to perform your music. Do you give them much leeway?

I do. I kind of explain what I’m after and what I was hearing and then they can approximate what I was talking about or they can do something that’s way better than I was even thinking and its fun. I love collaboration. Why be a single-headed monster when you can have five? I’ve got Pete Holstrom from the Dandy Warhols to play guitar on a song. William Slater from The Grails plays piano. It was recorded partially at Revolver Studio in Portland where Collin Hegna from the BJM works and the Committee to Keep Music Evil, which is Robert Campanella’s studio in Los Angeles.

I would kinda bounce back and forth between those two places. I’ll go to Portland and it’s like the Portland Wrecking Crew just gravitating around the studio — you never know who might walk in. You might get Paul Dillon who was in Mercury Rev. The same in Los Angeles: you might see Miranda Lee Richards. It’s great. It’s a bit of a process, but it’s fun and I like prolonging it because my favourite part of the whole thing is creating. You walk in one day and there’s nothing and you walk out and there’s this thing that you did.

The new record is self-titled. Is that because you got sick of having to tell people where the title of your last one, Apple Bonkers came from?

The whole thing about the Apple Bonkers is that they’re characters from the Yellow Submarine film. They’d come and bonk people on the head and run them out of town, which is what’s happening in Silicon Valley, with the influx of tech people coming in. I’ve got nothing against them, but landlords are tripling and quadrupling the rents, which means that artists and musicians can’t afford to live there anymore. It was one of those things that I thought was clever in my own head, but I don’t think a lot of people got it! To me, it sounded great. but I should have had an explanation on the sleeve. This one is self-titled as I feel I’m in my natural element: it’s the kind of music I wanna make now.

You’ve designed the album sleeve, too.

Yeah, I’m really into film and I wanted to have the idea of a film reel effect, so I started playing with this ink and water technique: eye droppers of different colours in a water tank. Do it slow and things just crawl out and kind of develop in slow motion. I was banging my head against the wall trying to think of an image to put on there or finding someone to do it and finally I thought, “Why don’t I just do it myself — what a great idea!”

The visual presentation is a huge part of it. I’ve always been into vinyl: I was never into CDs much, unless there are exclusive tracks on them. With the resurgence in vinyl, people obviously want to have a physical relationship with the music that they love, which is very important. God bless them; it’s the way it should be.

You’ve played live with your own band previously. Will you be touring with this record, too?

We’ll see. BJM is planning the next year. I’ll have to wait and see what’s going on with The Boss. I don’t wanna miss that party.

Does “The Boss” approve of your solo stuff?

He said he’s proud of me and that means a lot. He was really supportive back in the day. He said: “Write a song.” I wasn’t sure I could. I thought it was something that hit you like lightning out of the sky. You pick up the guitar and within 30 seconds you’d have some fabulous thing in the works. Sometimes you gotta chisel away at it, I mean, I’m not Leonard Cohen but I had an epiphany when I heard he’d said, “It took me three years to write ‘Hallelujah.'” I thought, Christ, I can write a song in three years! Luckily it didn’t take that long – you just gotta go for it and not give up. It’s like a muscle.

You’re most strongly associated with the San Francisco psychedelic scene, which seems to have gone quiet at the moment. Is there anything happening there?

Not at the moment, no. We had a really good surge a while ago and a few bands went up a couple of levels fame-wise and then just split town, you know — whether they wanted to pay cheaper rents, I don’t know. I mean – I’m still there. It’s not so hot right now. There’s a few bands that nobody has ever heard of. The same five bands play together every two months and it’s been going on like that for a little too long. We’re waiting for something to happen. There’s always things that I’m not aware of and people get annoyed with me for saying this, but I always have to compare it with things that I’ve seen in the past. It’s kind of at a low point at the moment. It’s a hard city to live in right now. The wave will start to happen again and I have good expectations for people.

Your solo recordings seem to have a “paisley underground”, early-mid 1980s feel, would you agree?

Oh yeah, for sure. Bands like Opal — all that stuff. That was kind of our version of what was going on in England at the time, with The Bunnymen and the Smiths. Those cats were like our Byrds.

How do you feel about this current upsurge of shoegaze bands?

We were really with those shoegaze bands in the beginning, so hopefully it’ll play out again that way. With Slowdive doing the kind of work they’re doing, it can and will happen. They’ve just made a fantastic album — and the Ride one too. They’re so relevant now and just doing it, it’s wonderful. They’re not scratching their heads wondering how they’re going to pull it off. In the 1990s in San Francisco, there were about 30 bands like that and they all had interchanging lineups and played the same venues: some were more garage, some were more pop. It was the groove; the scene. We had a great little microcosm of the 1960s there and we were very informed by what was happening in England. A great time. We’re the only ones who came out of all that.

Looking at what’s happening now, who’s making music in 2017 that you’re grooving to?

Erm – Slowdive! Not much, unfortunately. I probably sound old now, but in your 20s, it seems that there’s all these young guns coming out that have this hot thing going, but right now, I can’t think of a lot of late teens/early 20s bands that are just smokin’. That’s what I’m looking for. That’s what you want. You want to find where the new energy is and what’s keeping the thing moving, but I don’t know man, things are kind of dull to me right now. The other guys in the band would disagree, but personally, I gotta say … not a whole lot. Grumble grumble…

Between trips to theme parks and touring with The Brian Jonestown Massacre, I hear you’re writing a book?

Yeah: it’s a memoir focussing on the few years before the documentary film. It starts when I move to San Francisco in 1989 and it goes all the way to Dig!. You’ll put down the book and put on the movie and see this crazy character that plays the tambourine. It’s about San Francisco and getting into the scene and getting into all kinds of wild and illegal stuff and then I join the band. It’s a rock bio, but there’s a lot of personal stuff, you know, coming of age/how do I fit into all this…?

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Picture Joel Gion for a second. You’re seeing him as the Court Jester to Anton Newcombe’s Dark Prince. With the release of Joel Gion that may change. I don’t think Gion is searching for credibility or gravitas, but he just might get both of them with his new record. Let’s just hope he doesn’t get theme park ketchup on his suede boots…