Interview with Joel Gion

Photo: Gabriel Wheeler

How are you today, Joel?

I’m doing great, Julian. It’s a nice day in San Francisco. I’m especially excited because I dropped off a bunch of my LPs to the distributor today, so that it can get out and into stores by the 8th.

Cool. What’s the record called?

It’s called ‘Extended Play,’ which is basically what it is. It’s an EP, technically an “Extended Play,” so I just decided to call it that.

But, it’s about 8 songs or so?

It is, but it’s 45 RPM. The whole thing is under 20 minutes. Originally I was going to do a 7″ and then when I found out that it would cost basically the same to do a 12″, I bumped up, so I could put some more material on it.

I’ve been doing the whole thing myself. I wrote all the songs, played everything, recorded everything at home, designed the cover, made the website, had it pressed myself — it’s a totally DIY project for me. It’s been fun.

So you recorded at home — was that analog or digital?

Digital. I used the recording program on my Mac, and I basically just used a USB condenser mic, plugged that into it, and used that as a recording console. Then I did all my guitars and percussion and everything else live, right into that.

Cool. Keep it simple!

Well, yeah! I haven’t been writing songs for that long, and I’ve always been a really big fan of simple music that just has a good vibe. I think that as long as you have a good vibe, it doesn’t have to be complicated or super-fancy. It’s pretty great how, with technology being the way it is, anyone who buys a computer basically gets a program to have a studio on it, and anybody can make music, which is pretty rad. I was pretty excited to be able to film a video on my wife’s iPod — in hi-def — bring it home, put it on my computer and just edit it, and have a video a day later. It’s really fun.

It’s kind of awesome!

It’s pretty rad. You don’t really need anybody’s help. That was part of my vision on this, to not ask anyone for anything, and just absolutely do everything myself. A lot of it’s not perfect, but I’ve always been a fan of music where they just leave a non-perfect take in on purpose.

So it comes out March 8. It’s vinyl only?

It’s vinyl only, but it’s got a download card in it.

For all the songs?

Everything, yeah. So you can buy the record and have a cool, nice big jacket, and then you can just download it.

That makes sense.

I tried to make the cover cool for people who can actually play the record.

Who really wants CDs anymore anyway?

Nobody does. It’s a dying medium. Why even waste the time? They’re just plastic.

And so it’s self-released as well. I mean, you mentioned that you are working with a distributor, but it’s not on a label.

Yeah, I am distributing it through Revolver, but there’s no label. It’s just all myself.

That’s pretty cool.

I’m having fun!

How many copies are you pressing to start out with?

Starting out with 500. [We’ll] see what it does.

So you’ll be selling them through your official website?

Yeah, you can get it mail-order from And it will also be in finer vinyl selling shops.

To switch gears for a minute, what happened with your last band, The Dilettantes?

Well, initially the idea was that me and some of my friends got together, just to write some songs, do some shows and have fun. We had this garage/psych thing going, and it was a lot of fun. It was kind of weird, though. Because I’m the only person that was in the band that anyone has ever really heard of, it kind of [was seen as] “my band,” but in actuality, it was four guys all contributing. I would write a verse and a chorus on guitar, and I would write the lyrics, and then I would bring that in the studio, and those guys would do everything else with it. I would just bring in a skeleton and they would dress it up. And that was really fun.

It was a really good experience for me, as far as starting to learn how to write music. And also starting to learn how to try and sing. I had never done that. In The Brian Jonestown Massacre, I didn’t have any tracks where I sang, so there was a bit of a learning [curve] in the recording studio, which made for some positive results. Unfortunately, I’m not excited about all the results; there are some songs on there that I’m really affectionate about, and other ones that I don’t think quite came off. So that was a learning experience.

There was nothing wrong with the guys, or drama, or anything — I just kind of got to a point where, once I started to really enjoy writing music, I kind of hated to give it away to other people to do their things with. It was too late to change the dynamics between the people in the band — to fully take control — so I just opted to do this. I can do my own thing in my own time.

You have total creative control.

This record is a complete singular vision of me. There’s no one else involved, and I like that idea. If someone likes it, that’s awesome. I’m enjoying seeing some of the positive response that I’m already getting from people watching the video. And if other people don’t like it, that’s fine too. But it’s kind of cool for me. It’s kind of similar to getting dressed in the morning, deciding what you’re going to wear that day, and you’re walking down the street, and some construction worker goes, “Hey, what’s up with those shoes — those look like girl’s shoes!” But I know that they’re totally rad Beatle boots, which are the coolest shoes that anybody could ever have. So I don’t care if they don’t get it — they’re not supposed to get it! Fuck ’em! It’s just totally my ideal, and it feels good.

That’s great! You mentioned that you played everything on the album — which instruments did you play?

I mean, there are two tracks where I had someone lay something down for me. That was another cool thing about this medium of recording [I used]. I could pack up my computer, jump on my scooter, drive to whoever’s pad or studio, and get a track. I did that twice. On one song, I had a friend of mine lay down a drum track, and on another song, I had a friend of mine lay down this little guitar thing. So there are two things on it that I didn’t physically do myself. But that’s like 2% of the album.

That’s cool, but what I meant was, what instruments will we hear when we listen to the record?

Well, let me describe [the process] to you. Basically, I start with getting my tambourine beat down, which I use like a metronome.

Photo: Sarah Gion

Is that a big part of your songwriting process, using the tambourine?

It’s the genesis for everything I do. That’s always first. I lay that down, just to get my metronome. Then I start with the guitar and then just layer on. It’s kind of cool. I put down my tambourine, guitar, and rhythm tracks, and then it just turns into this puzzle, where I need to make the pieces myself and then fit them together to make something I like. You know when it’s done, but you kind of have to solve it for yourself.

It’s cool about the tambourine thing. I don’t know if people would expect it to go that way — one might expect that you might not want to be always associated with the tambourine, after having been “the tambourine guy from Jonestown” for so many years. But you’ve ran with it instead!

When I first started doing this with Anton back in 1994, there weren’t any tambourine players. There was me, and there was Zia [McCabe] from the Dandy [Warhol]s. But she played bass on the keyboard at the same time, so I was even more useless [laughs]. But now everybody’s got a tambourine player, so I can’t really get away with that anymore.

But for me as a musician — that’s kind of what I became a virtuoso in [laughs]. I’m better at that than any of the other instruments I play. I can play a decent rhythm guitar, but I’m gonna flub notes; I’m gonna have to do some takes. With tambourine, it’s the first one every time. It’s just what I do, baby.

That’s fucking cool. You already addressed why you stopped doing The Dilettantes, and I’m sure this has nothing to do with it, but I found two other Dilettantes on YouTube, when I was looking for your videos.

Yeah, we almost had to have a rumble session with these English kids [laughs]. It’s funny, you try to find a name, and every word in the dictionary is used. And then you think you have one that’s all right, but of course there’s somebody on the other side of the world, or some wedding band, or someone that has it.

Yep. But there’s only one Joel Gion!

Only one Joel Gion, baby!

After having been in Brian Jonestown Massacre during the “heyday” of the 90s, and then being on and off in the band for a while, and now being consistently back in the band for the last 6 or 7 years — how’s that been?

In a lot of ways, it’s the best it’s ever been. We’re doing now what we always wanted to do back then, as far as getting to travel and play for lots of people. I will say that there’s something about it when you’re young and just going for it. When you’re really hungry for it, that’s pretty cool. And you have the wherewithal to stay up for three days in a row. There’s definitely something to be said for that. But, it’s really great [now]. We’ve got a tightknit bunch of guys. Those guys in that band are literally my best friends in the world. I love it when we get together and do this. Back in the “heyday,” there was lots of arguing, and lots of fights, and lots of “I hate you — I love you — I hate you!” These days, we’ve kind of matured to where we can just get on with it.

Yeah, it seems like it must be much more stable. Just having so many of the original members, and not changing the lineup every couple months, and everything — it just seems a lot better in a lot of ways.

It is.

I think the direction of the recent Jonestown records has been really interesting — very different from what one sees at a live show. What do you think about the new stuff?

Well, I think the stuff that I’m hearing that he’s doing right now, is some of my favorite stuff since the stuff from the “heyday.” With him being in Berlin, Germany, and everyone being so far away from each other — me in San Francisco, a couple of guys in LA, a couple of guys in Portland, Ricky’s all over the world — it’s impossible for us to [get together]. When Anton’s recording, he’s just roaring down the road doing it. He’s not going to stop and hold on to a song and wait a week for someone to fly over there. He just gets the work done with whoever’s around. So if you’re not around, you’re not on the record. Those [songs] are kind of like his babies. We can’t really do that stuff live. He’s been experimenting a lot with dance music and things like that on the last couple of records, and you can’t really throw on a dance beat and have half the band just dancing around because there’s no guitars on it — it would look kind of silly. I’m excited for the new record, because not only does the stuff sound really good, but it’s stuff that we can play as a band.

I heard something that sounded wicked. Some kind of blend of this crazy Primal Scream-type bass with these medieval melodies on top of it.

Photo: Katy Lane

I know what you’re talking about! Totally cool.

I’m excited for that.

I am, too! I guess he’s mixing it now. I don’t know when that stuff is supposed to come out, but touring usually follows and all that good stuff.

I’m sure people will hear about that as it draws closer. So, what about you? Are you or will you be playing the ‘Extended Play’ songs live?

No, I don’t have a band yet, but I’m getting ready to put one together. I was kind of interested to see what the response was to the record. I want to put together a band of fresh faces and see what happens. It’s kind of a cool situation for me because four months out of the year, I can tour with BJM, and then the other time I can make music at home, which I really like.

How is San Francisco these days?

It’s great. It’s not like the old days, when we were hanging out here. It never came back from the dot-com [bubble].

Yeah, it really killed it, huh?

It killed it dead! But, through the concrete, some weeds have grown, and there are some cool acts coming out of here again, which is nice. And the city is just as beautiful as it always was. You can walk around and just get wrapped up in the architecture and the history. But going out three nights a week and seeing different, decent bands, and everyone knows each other — that’s not really happening anymore.

You get a lot of inspiration from the architecture and beauty of the city?

I most certainly do. That’s why I made the video the way I did. I really do love this city. I’ve gone to so many shows and done so much that I can live without that for a couple years. Plus, when I go on tour I live in clubs every night, so I’m fine with just having more of a low-key deal and just digging on the city. I love it.

What about Hep Alien, do you remember that band?

Oh man, you’re really going all the way around. Damn you, Julian! [laughs]

I didn’t actually know about it until I read about it on your Wikipedia page.

I didn’t write that page.

Of course you didn’t. But it’s a real thing that happened, isn’t it?

It’s a real thing that happened — I was on Gilmore Girls. I really wanted it to be one of those big, what-the-fuck kind of moments. When I did the show, I really acted in this “I know this is ridiculous” kind of mode. I don’t know if anyone got it, but I was really trying. I had to hang out on a stage next to Sebastian Bach all day long, for 13 hours.

He was in the fictitious band as well?

Yeah, he was a permanent member of this band. We were the two rock guys. We [supposedly] could relate, we came from the same world. It was pretty brutal. He’s a super-nice guy, though. Positive vibes. But, yeah, they wanted to reenact the Viper Room fight scene from Dig!.

Oh no!

So they did this mock version of it. I was like the singer’s buddy, and he was going, “Hey, I brought my buddy to play some tambourine, man!” And they wanted me to have this “Whaaa?” kind of vibe. Since I look kind of weird, I had to be the kind of stoned, not-quite-with-it dude [laughs]. But, Sonic Youth were on that show the week after me, so I’m all right. They legitimized it.

[laughs] Joel, good talking with you!

Okay, my brother! Take it easy, man.

Pick up Joel Gion’s EP, Extended Play.

  • Boston DOOD

    Rock on Joel!

  • Bez

    >He’s been experimenting a lot with dance music and things like that on the last couple of records, and you can’t really throw on a dance beat and have half the band just dancing around because there’s no guitars on it — it would look kind of silly.
    But isn’t that what Joel has done for 10 years.

  • Karengrigson

    Just gorgeous!!! I will try and track it down in Australia.  Super cool man.

  • Amanda T.

    Joel is awesome! I met him at amoeba on my 21st birthday! he’s just like how you expected him to be.

  • Intellectual#9

    Albums sick! goo buy it at Amoeba!

  • Danieldietrick

    Way to go Joel!