With one of the most recognizable set of chops in all of the psych scene, Joel Gion has also been a integral part of the Brian Jonestown Massacre since the ’90s. One could say he even brought the tambourine back into the spotlight. Over the last few years he’s branched out into a solo career, releasing his first EP in 2011. Now he’s got a new band, Joel Gion & The Primary Colours, who are preparing to release a mind-blowing new record later this year. We caught up with him before his set at Austin Psych Fest and talked about both bands, the state of music today, Star Trek, and much more. This shouldn’t even be called an interview, just “rappin”, but hopefully it reveals a small glimpse of the man behind the chops.
I caught you and the BJM on stage with The Dandy Warhols last night on the main stage. It was great to see you guys all together again.
That was fun! We’re sorry that they’re not in town tonight, they’re touring.
Too bad, I figured you might get have them play alongside the BJM like the old days.
Yea it was funny, Anton turned his back to the crowd the whole time. It was pretty sloppy but we had fun. He was trying to show Fathead the song. They haven’t heard that song in forever and we sprung it on them. “Hey Pete, we’re gonna play with you tonight!” He’s like, “Oh really… what?”, I said “Oh Lord”, “Oh.. what are the chords?”. It’s the old 60’s adage, “if you remember it then you weren’t really there man”.
Who are you excited to see the rest of the weekend?
I love the new Temples album, and Bombino. Last night, The Zombies were amazing, they were the Kaleidoscope of this year, no doubt. The Black Angels are great. I’m just bummed I missed Elephant Stone, I was DJ’ing at Red 7.
Let’s talk about your solo music. You recently formed a new band, Joel Gion & The Primary Colours, but before that you had put out a solo album called Extended Play back in 2011. What was making that record like?
Yea, I recorded it in my bedroom. I just kind of wanted to experiment and record some songs without asking anyone what they thought of them or anything, just to do it. The only person to ever really hear those recordings was the guy that mastered it. So some of it turned out good, some it’s out of tune and weird and wonky but hopefully if people still give a shit in 10 years it’ll be an oddity of some sort.
This new one I recorded at the Committee to Keep Music Evil headquarters in LA with Rob Campanella, Dan Allair, Colin Hegna from Jonestown and that was a very, very fun experience. Because ya know, Anton is in Berlin so we don’t do a lot of recording like we used to. In the ’90s, it was much more of a band. In time, it’s turned into this Anton thing. Which is great of course, obviously, the new album is one of the best ones in years and the last one wasn’t shabby at all.
People have this misconception that we’re all just a bunch of guys that hang out and he lets us play with him. In the ’90s, when Take It From The Man and things like that came out he was the main songwriter along with Matt Hollywood and it was much more a unit. It’s a little sad that that gets lost in the history.
Someone next to me during the Dandy Warhols set kept asking if that was Anton at the microphone and saying he looked so different but it was Matt Hollywood singing. It seems a lot of people still only know of The Brian Jonestown Massacre from the movie DIG! and may not have delved into your history. Is it hard to escape the impact of that film?
I don’t mind escaping it. I mean, it’s a goofy movie in a lot of ways. Documentaries are kind of goofy because there’s a film maker there and they want to make the money that they’ve spent on this movie and they want to make another movie, so they’re going to do whatever they can to make it into something that is going to sell tickets. There was a bit of that involved in the movie but at the end of the day they didn’t fake anything, I mean we did those things. It’s on film, just the way they put it together…
Editing can be a powerful tool.
Yea but so many people found out about the band through that movie though so obviously we’re grateful for that. Anton is as well, as much as he is annoyed by it, and he should be. They really did him wrong in that movie. He’s the funniest, most interesting, witty, just, groovy cat.
I also got my introduction to the BJM through that movie but I loved the music so much that I had to delve into your catalog and obsess over each album. Then of course I ended up following Anton on Twitter and having a few exchanges with him over social media and he always came off as a nice guy. It goes to show that just like most documentaries, you really have to take DIG! with a grain of salt.
You do, they put us all into these boxes. This is Matt’s thing, he’s grouchy, and I’m the clown, and Anton is the asshole. We’re actually all of those things at different times, as is everyone.
With the members of the BJM spread across the world, when did the idea of starting The Primary Colours come about?
That all came about because I recorded this album with Brian Jonestown Massacre folks, and got some of the Asteroid #4 guys on there and Miranda Lee Richards, Jeff Davies. I got a lot of different people to just come in and lay something down on a track and it was really great. All of these people live in L.A. or Portland and I’m one of the last ‘Frisco guys, ya know we’re from San Fransisco, but I’m the last hold out still living there.
Are you still working at Amoeba Records in San Fran?
No, no, they fired me because I was touring so much. But that’s fine because, ya know, indie record stores, man. They kind of came into town and put everyone out of business and they slowly became a little more corporate and a little less cool. They got a bit of a facade going there but anyway…
I needed a local band to play with, and rather than be the “Joel Gion Band” I wanted them to have an identity and to feel like a unit, so we came up with a name for them. It’s a little bit confusing though because the record was supposed to be out before the band got together so now people are like “is it Joel Gion, is Primary Colours?”.
So your new single “Overthrow” is out on The Committee To Keep Music Evil’s record label?
It’s a co-release between the Comittee and the Reverberation Appreciation Society, same thing with the new album.
When did you get to know Derek See and the rest of the folks that would become The Primary Colours?
I’ve known Derek for a bit. We kind of knew of each other on the internet but it wasn’t until I started doing some DJ’ing in San Fransisco, because I wasn’t working at Amoeba anymore and you certaintly can’t make a living doing this fucking shit anymore so…
Playing psych fest’s don’t really pay the bills anymore.
Yea, so I stared DJ’ing around town and that’s basically how I met my whole band. I started doing all sorts of DJ gigs, all sorts of ’60s freak beat nights and people would come out and I’d talk to them, “Oh you play?! I’m doing this record and I need a band…” and we started partying and getting to know each other. It’s just a great unit, there’s no drama, everyone is really up for it. I’m really lucky.
What’s the San Francisco music scene like these days? It seems like there’s been a huge resurgence of psychedelic music there, or maybe it never went away?
In the last couple of years definitely, a lot of it has to do with this festival. Thee Oh Sees brought a lot to that; I like those guys. They’re kind of a lot more “dirty gym socks” than “beatle boots” but they write some good tunes and jam out. The scene is not what it used to be in San Francisco. Silicon Valley and all of that stuff has really done a number on things. I don’t blame people that work at those places, they’re just trying to make a living. It’s more of the higher ups that are wrecking everything.
As a kid I grew up loving the show Star Trek, the style, the lights, there’s no recognition of race all of these really equal concepts and I can just see these techy nerd guys growing up on Star Trek. In Star Trek, San Francisco is where the federation is based and I almost think Gene Roddenberry screwed us in a way. I mean look at Steve Jobs… Is it just me or am I the only one that when I turn on my computer, it’s the chord from “A Day in the Life” that plays and he stole the logo… I mean fuck that.
And then MP3’s the quality is so shitty and you try to look up a Scott Walker record on your iPod and it’s like some picture of a country dude from the ’80s, they just do not give a shit about music.
My album is called “Apple Bonkers”, which are the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine who walk around with the big apples. There are all of these groovy music-loving people that are at peace and these guys come in and throw giant green apples on them. It’s kind of the metaphor of what technology is doing to music. I love the internet as much as the next guy but it seems a little too coincidental to me that the internet seems to exclusively attack the arts. You can’t sell books, you can’t be selling photography, it’s all free – music, it’s all free. But businesses and all of that other junk are just raking it in.
When’s the last time you hung out with Anton besides this weekend at Austin Psych Fest?
We did an Australian tour at the end of last year. That was amazing, Anton is in such a good spot right now. Some of the stuff on the upcoming record Revelation is some of the best stuff since the quote unquote mid ’90s era.
I love the folkier ’60s sounding stuff…
Me too, that’s why I joined the band. Between me and you and your recording device some of these “dancier” albums are kind of… ya know “I love you, but I don’t listen to that kind of music”. The new album has got some of the best songs he’s ever written, it’s amazing stuff.
He’s got a whole studio in Berlin he’s been working out of the last few years right?
He does all his stuff there, him and his family.
So the rest of the band has become more or less a touring band these days?
Yea, it’s kind of Beach Boys-y now. It wasn’t always like that, which I lament. Anton is one of those guys where the pizza man shows up and he says, “Hey – can you play this keyboard part?” That’s how the band is now, which is fine. As long as I like to music, which I do, so it’s fun to play live. But that’s why I had to get my own thing going, something creative I can do instead of just going stale.
Have you and The Primary Colours been writing these new songs together or is it all material you’ve had for a while now?
These are all songs that I wrote. The new psych movement, I’m so grateful for it in many ways. The one thing I’m a little miffed about now is that every band has a tambourine player now. There were no tambourine players when we started out. People just literally did not know why the fuck I was on stage; it made zero sense to people. And now ya know, I’m in my 40’s I can’t still be just the tambourine guy. So I finally got off one of the laziest asses in the history of man, that is mine, and started writing these songs. I came up with a bunch of demos and I’d bring them up to Rob Campanella’s studio and flesh them out with some of the BJM guys. We’d usually do rhythm guitar, drums, bass live and then I’d lay the vocal down and then I’d let those guys just lay candy on top of it.
It’s so easy to just get drunk and shake a tambourine and say fuck it. I get to go have fun. But finally, I had to do something. I had to express myself.
And that’s easy enough to do, in theory. I mean, you pick up a guitar and you go for it. Bob Dylan used to say all you need is “two chords and the truth”.
Yea, I think people are going to be really surprised by this album. I don’t want to toot my own horn but I’ve written some pretty good lyrics and I feel like people are going to be really surprised.
Extended Play was many, many fucking experiments and that EP was the build up to this, it was when I first started trying. I don’t regret it, but I question releasing it on vinyl. It seems like too big of a release for some just trying to write songs for the first time. Some of it worked, some of it not so much but I don’t care.
There have been much worse things put to wax though.
Yea man, fuck… I mean some of those Led Zeppelin albums came out and they sucked, I say all of them do. Some people like ’em though.
I’m still extremely glad vinyl is around and has made such a comeback in the last decade or so. It’s great to hear new music in such a pure form.
Well ya know, convenience is a very attractive distraction but at the end of the day people have souls.
I have this young friend, not even 20 yet, that just loves CDs. He calls me an old man for listening to records still but the funny thing is he’s more of an old man for still listening to CDs. Records are hip these days for a reason, who gives a shit about CDs anymore?
You’re not hip baby, at all. You kind of gotta thank all of those all dudes that sold their amazing records to buy CD copies because now we can get them all, ya know?
With of this being said, I assume the new record is coming out on vinyl?
Yea, I don’t even know if I’ll do a CD of it.
We’ll have more on the new Joel Gion & The Primary Colours record as the details become available. Until then, check out Joel’s solo work and of course dive right into the extensive Brian Jonestown Massacre back catalog if you haven’t already.