POW: Hey Joel! Thanks for agreeing to meet – even if only remotely. The communique through POW Magazine mentioned that you would be in a remote location and only accessible via email during the Thanksgiving holiday. I assume your remote location is a response to the most recent COVID surge – a holiday from the holidays. Are the Gions A-OK and safely cocooned in the, uhh, [Apple] Bunker? What has been your experience with the global pandemic?
JOEL GION: Well, the wife and I were in the month’s long full-on San Francisco virus lock-down, which was becoming more and more like a sci-fi dystopian movie but with Old Navy as the costume department, then the California wildfires hit, which were earlier and bigger than in any other time in history. The skies turned bright Fanta orange and then the streets began filling up with moving trucks. Then the Free Masons or the lizard alien people that run Hollywood or whatever it is decided to do us a huge solid and we got an offer out of nowhere to take over a little lake-side house in New England until next summer. Beyond being able to escape for a while, it’s also the mythic remote cabin in the woods writer’s retreat scenario. Then if all goes well, I can segue from here right into BJM touring. We were booking shows all over until the whole virus thing started going down.
POW: Thank you for the years of music and performance. As a lifelong, insatiable consumer of music, the Brian Jonestown Massacre remains the band I have seen more than any other. Thank you, brother! Now 30 years from its inception, the volume of the BJM cannon rivals — if not exceeds — the output of the great rock deities from the first wave of rock psychedelia. What are your thoughts on the BJM being significant contributors to the tapestry of modern rock ‘n’ roll?
Joel Gion, December 2020
Anton’s songwriting, longevity-wise, is starting to (gulp) become the Rolling Stones of indie psych rock or something. The big difference is, at this point in the Stones career, they were turding out Voodoo Lounge, where as Anton is right now today at a creative spike.
JOEL GION: It’s completely crazy to me in a way that BJM have been going successfully for now thirty years, but it’s truly a testament to Anton’s songwriting, longevity-wise, is starting to (gulp) become the Rolling Stones of indie psych rock or something. The big difference is, at this point in the Stones career, they were turding out Voodoo Lounge, where as Anton is right now today at a creative spike. for the last couple months he’s been writing and recording a new high-quality fully formed song almost every day and posting it on youtube.
POW: I am also a bit of an academic, and, most recently, I am a rock music critic. I write psych rock record reviews and interviews. Rock critics fixate on categories, lists, and definitions. While I try to offer context for my readers, providing a concise definition for psychedelic rock has been a challenge. How do you define psych rock?
JOEL GION: I’ve been asked this over the years and in the past have tried to conceptualize it a few different ways, but I have more recently come to the realization through an intense regiment of testing, that if you are not on acid, a music’s psych-ness is just a temporary illusion.
POW: I remember casually meeting you at the bar of the old Grog Shop in Cleveland in 1997. In the years that followed, especially after the popularity of the documentary, your club appearances seemed to be met with a constant throng of fans. Can you describe that experience? What do people say to you?
JOEL GION: Over the years it’s slowly whittled down to ‘Can I get a selfie?” Which of course they can.
POW: In the late 1990’s, the Brian Jonestown Massacre positioned itself as the new archetype of independent rock artist. The BJM — free from the business of record label entanglements – controlled its sound, image, and distribution. The BJM seemed to lift the veil between artist and art, performer and performance. Is that a difficult needle to thread? Is there a difference between Joel Gion person and performer?
JOEL GION: Anyone doing music on a stage is also performing on some level, beyond playing the music. When a guitar player makes an impassioned face during a solo, he or she is performing the note. It’s not because they are in pain or just remembered they forgot to turn the stove off or something, I don’t know what it is half the time, because I can play some guitar and my fingers never ask my face to relay these kinds of signals to the crowd.
Shoegaze was an interesting movement in regards to this because those musicians stopped doing all that kind of “feeling it” stuff. This is ironic and what’s more, I would say more honestly rendered. They just looked down and watched what they were doing mostly without trying to bring some fake “look at me” posturing, yet they were chastised at the time for supposedly hiding behind their effects pedals. At the end of the day, it’s song quality rules.
What I do is like a dramatic stage actor doing music, but not. When I joined I quickly realized I needed to discover my comfort zone in this at-the-time long disregarded role as a “60s” hand percussion player. I looked for what I could add to The BJM’s particular music and that group of people and what I came up with is still what you see. That’s what I do. It’s not to feign some hopefully contagious excitement, I’m more like a middleman to the audience. It’s like performance art but not. What I do each night on stage is to bring a sense of honest self in a way that’s under the radar. People watching won’t be able to articulate what it is but they will know that it’s there because I am honest in my purpose. Each night may look similar, but it’s also unique to mood, venue, crowd and backstage booze type. I don’t have a “default” mode. When I see the other people who’ve more recently picked up the instrument, they are almost always standing on the front line at the end looking slightly uncertain and stoic while just fulfilling the requirements of the 4/4. They are not bringing an honest expression to it and in fact, are mostly up there just because I made it OK again when they saw Dig!
POW: Kool Whip check: I recall that you worked at Reckless Records and Amoeba Music for a few years. I assume that you are an avid record collector and music consumer. What are some of your most prized records? What music, new and old, is in heavy rotation in the bunker, Casa Gion?
JOEL GION: A few would be an original pressing of Rodriguez’s “Coming From Reality”, Curtis Mayfield “Roots” with the calendar intact, all the early Caetano Veloso records on original Brazillian vinyl, an autographed Jacques DuTronc “Le Cactus” 7″ that Anton gave me, my Beatles collection. Over the years on tour, I’ve been able to find early if not first pressings of all the albums with the neat flip-back covers. I’ve also got about two crates worth of 60s/70s Ennio Morricone records I’m pretty partial to. Working at record stores was my “day job” for many years. I have a bunch of records.
I love it when you can find good records regionally and from the place and time they are known for, like scoring Delphonics albums in Philly. Around here I’m finding loads of great folk albums from the Newport folk Festival back-in-the-day scenes here. Early Phil Ochs, Odetta, Judy Collins and Buffy Saint Marie were my scores from yesterday.
POW: I really enjoy your writing. Today you are a prolific, skilled writer detailing your experience as a member of the BJM through the online literary platform, Patreon. Now, Joel Gion, music artist is a first-person narrator and literary character. The barstool bard has transitioned well to the written word. Is this a new development in your life? Have you always been a writer? Describe your path as a writer.
JOEL GION: Thank you. Because I’m not some hugely famous person that can get away with just “rattling off the details” like ninety percent of musician’s books, which also almost always have ghostwriters involved. I love writing and connecting the dots between the crazy shit that has happened to me and the bigger human experience picture. I enjoy it when I can be funny, as we all do, so It’s all a bit from a humorist’s angle.
The whole idea of writing actually came from a friend who manages Echo & The Bunnymen and Peter Hook from Joy Division. He was visiting and I was showing him my favorite North Beach bars in San Francisco, and he mentioned they had another one of Peter Hooks’s books coming out and that Ian McCulloch is occasionally picking away at one, then he planted the seed that I give it a try.
A few days later I was walking through Chinatown and was just suddenly hit by a lightning bolt right on the corner of Stockton and Pacific and I stood there thumb busting a whole fully formed scene of about four or five pages on my notes app. It all came out seamlessly and about ninety percent finished. I knew then and there that I could do this, and more importantly, that I really wanted to do it. It was an exhilarating moment and the start of what has become an indispensable part of my life. It’s weird to me now because writing had always been my strongest point in school, but then I just got obsessed with wanting to be in music and I kinda forgot about it.
The most important thing for me is that I’ve found my “voice” in the writing and have developed it into my own style through the course of my Patreon installments. I’d originally planned on only doing the weekly posts for a year, but then the virus and tour cancellations kind of forced me to continue and go into some era’s I originally had no desire to return to, but funnily enough have become some of the most enjoyable to write. The craziest part has been having a weekly deadline of a few thousand words polished and ready every week for a year and a half now.
Anton says he doesn’t read it which kinda bummed me out at first but then I realized it’s smart, and is now something I super appreciate as it stops an ever-changing parade of elephants from entering what would be an elephant convention room by this point. I am in no way dishing the dirt out in my writing, but I’m sure you can appreciate this would be a slippery trail to traverse. Anyway, he’s not all that into revisiting the past anyway so I get it. The guy is officially deep into “nothing like this has ever been done” territory with all the new songs. If there is anyone on earth who legitimately does not have the time it’s him!
POW: The best readers make great writers… and I need a new book. What do you recommend from your book collection?
JOEL GION: I just finished Chico Buarque’s “Spilt Milk”, which is so good. I have a bunch of his records from the 60s and early 70s, “Construção” being my favorite. I didn’t know he wrote books until recently and this one is from a few years ago, which also rightly won some literary awards. I’m also reading “Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties” by Steven Watson, which focuses on all the characters that populated the factory scene. I love reading about 60s speed freaks! Velvet Underground, The Beatles, The Small Faces, all of my favorite bands started out that way!
POW: I am imagining seeing your bound memoir on the shelves of hip-cat bookstores everywhere. Can we expect that your voluminous writings will be bound and published in traditional book form? What’s the plan?
JOEL GION: My immediate plan is to keep going on Patreon for now, then hopefully get back to BJM touring for a while, people seem to think that bands touring will be a thing again around this time next year. Then take a look at it all, which so far is about seven hundred book pages and counting. I’ve also got a new writing project I’m kicking around. My main focus right now though is to get back to living life as grand adventure again while my roots are already dug up and especially after this last year!
Joel Gion joins the staff of POW as a guest contributor in his debut feature, “Dog Day at the Salvation Army”. Dig it at:
You can check out Joel Gion’s Patreon page here: www.patreon.com/joelgion