Mo Troper Talks Troper Sings Brion, His New Album Covering Unreleased Jon Brion Gems

Hannah Clark

Mo Troper Talks Troper Sings Brion, His New Album Covering Unreleased Jon Brion Gems

Hannah Clark

Most music fans who know Jon Brion’s name recognize him as one of the greats. It’s likely you’ve heard the composer, producer, and pop singer-songwriter’s work with Kanye West, Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith, and many others. Perhaps you’re aware he scored prestige art-film classics like Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and Lady Bird. Maybe you’re even acquainted with his lone official solo album, 2001’s Meaningless (reissued last year), or his short-lived band the Grays with Jason Falkner. But real heads know there’s a goldmine of unreleased Brion music floating around that’s as good or better than what actually came out through official channels.

Mo Troper is one such superfan. Troper, the Portland musician who has lately emerged as one of the best power-pop artists in the underground, has been way into Brion’s music for years. He’s been rocking Meaningless since high school. More than once he’s traveled to LA’s mythic Café Largo — home base for Brion, Aimee Mann, and other veteran Hollywood singer-songwriter types — to attend one of Brion’s monthly performances there. And he loves Brion’s unreleased material with an evangelical fervor, a passion that has evolved from sharing mixes among friends to now recording those songs himself.

Troper Sings Brion, out today, includes Troper’s recordings of 11 unreleased Brion songs. Most of these Brion songs previously existed as demos on a double-disc collection that’s been circulating for decades. A couple were merely live bootlegs. Now, thanks to Troper’s labor of love, they’re gathered into a proper record, one that speaks to both Brion’s gifts as a songwriter and Troper’s own talents as a producer and performer. Fans of either artist — or of well-crafted vintage pop music in general — need to check this out.

I spoke with Troper about the project last weekend when he was fresh off a run of shows with Beach Fossils and Turnover. Below, stream Troper Sings Brion and read our conversation.

Before we talk about the new album, I need backstory. Where did you grow up?

MO TROPER: I was born in LA but grew up in Portland. Basically I’ve only lived here, for all intents and purposes, since I was like nine.

When did you start playing in bands?

TROPER: I started playing in bands when I was like 14 or 15. I had a band called Your Rival. It was like my high school band into my early twenties band. I played in some other people’s bands in the DIY scene in high school onward. I think it’s pretty cool, and maybe one of the benefits of growing up in a smaller city, is that a lot of the people who are in my band are people I’ve been playing with. Like Sonia [Weber], who plays drums and is in that band Alien Boy, we’ve been playing music for like 12 years or something. A lot of the people I played with when I was literally a teenager I’m still playing with in my thirties.

You also produce for a bunch of cool artists like Diners and Bory. I’m starting to see “produced by Mo Troper” as a selling point. How much of your creative life is dedicated to producing vs. working on your own music? Is producing a side hustle, a day job, or what?

TROPER: Starting this year, it became sort of a full-time thing. In addition to producing, I’ve also taken on mixing projects where I’m not sort of overseeing in a producerly way. I started using GarageBand when I was in high school and always kind of did my own stuff. There would be an opportunity to produce a friend’s band once or twice a year. But I started working at a couple studios in Portland starting in the summer of 2022. Since then I’ve really kind of committed to it full-time. I was also teaching music lessons and then was just like, “I’m just going to go all-in.” I felt pretty shaky as a mixing engineer just because that was part of the process that I came into very late and never really considered myself a competent mixing engineer. But I was like, “I’m gonna learn it. I’m gonna do this the right way,” and offer that as an additional service. I worked on scoring a short film over the summer. I wrote a couple original songs for that. So I’m just taking on a lot of those types of projects. And it’s been awesome. It is a racket, yeah.

You’ve honed in on short power-pop songs as your main format in recent years. Where did that come from?

TROPER: It has never felt that contrived. I mean, I love Guided By Voices and a lot of the Elephant 6 stuff and generally really shorter songs. I think the reason my songs have become shorter is just I feel more confident in the meat of the song, kind of. Or maybe it’s just the bones of the song? I think there’s this self-consciousness — like I remember being in bands and being like, “This song needs to be longer,” which is not at all something I would entertain now. Like, if anything, I’m like, “This song needs to be 30 seconds shorter.” [laughs] The first Joyce Manor record coming out was really inspiring because I was like, “Damn. They put out a record that’s like 18 minutes. That’s awesome.” I think that — Tony Molina too, obviously — that just changed my perception. Like, I love these artists, and they don’t care about length, so why should I? I think it really is a hook or a verse and a chorus, that’s what really excites me about songs, whether it’s my song or somebody else’s song. Yeah, I’m just really into the fully formed nugget, and it’s very rare that I come back to something and, like, write a bridge or something like that. I would say that being influenced by my peers and predecessors, I guess, and then just feeling more confident in my own shit.

You did a full-album cover of the Beatles’ Revolver at one point. Any other covers albums I should know about?

TROPER: For the Lame-O Records fan club I did a cassette-only covers comp that was like eight or nine songs. Some of that stuff I’ve thrown on Bandcamp, but a lot of it was exclusive to that release. And aside from that, just various covers that I’ve thrown up on Bandcamp just ’cause I think it’s really fun. That is one of my favorite things to do is not to learn how to play a song, necessarily, but to record a song is very exciting to me.

What about recording it versus learning to play it excites you?

TROPER: I think that learning to play something feels like an exercise. They both feel like an exercise, but I guess I feel a bigger sense of accomplishment recording something. Before I even started writing songs I tried to cover stuff, and they were really bad, but it was what I cut my teeth doing. And I think with Beatles and Beach Boys stuff in particular, it’s trying to figure out the extremely complicated harmonies and stuff. And then it enhances my appreciation for the real thing too, ‘cause I’m like, “Damn, that’s crazy that they were doing that. I had no idea.” I guess that is kind of learning it, but it goes beyond learning “Enter Sandman” or whatever. Learning all the subtleties of something, to me, is really exciting, if it’s something I love a lot.

How did you decide to do a Jon Brion covers album?

TROPER: I love Jon Brion. I love his solo record Meaningless and have seen him twice at the Largo. There’s a demos collection, which is sort of the basis for this covers record. It’s been floating around for a long time. I saw him twice at the Largo, and both were completely different performances. One was like a song-centric performance, and then there was another time I saw him where he seemed kind of mad and was doing a lot of piano instrumental stuff. You really do feel like a fly on the wall. It’s like the flow, or whatever people call it — just somebody who is not self-conscious at all and doesn’t even really care that there are people watching. He’s just, like, working.

So I did some shows with Slaughter Beach, Dog in the beginning of the year. They were solo shows; Jake [Ewald] from Slaughter Beach, Dog was playing solo, and I played solo. And Eric [Osman] from Lame-O, the head of Lame-O, came along for a couple of those shows. Dustin [Hayes] from that band Walter Etc. was there too. And there was one night where we were talking about music or the coolest shows we’d been to or something, and then I mentioned that stuff.

Then I basically started this dialogue, I guess. I made a playlist for Dustin and Eric that was these Jon Brion songs that are songs, not instrumental pieces, that are strewn across a bunch of different projects. Like the songs he had on the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack and some stuff he did in the Grays, stuff like that. Some of the Aimee Mann collaborations and stuff like that. I think a lot of people really think the only stuff he’s released — I mean, not a lot of people, ‘cause I don’t think a lot of people really know anything about his output — but I remember when Meaningless was reissued last year, it was kind of treated like the only thing he’s ever released. There’s a fairly large body of work of his that has seen official release. On top of that there’s all these demos — like two CDs’ worth. That was what the bootleg was originally, two CDs’ worth of demos.

So I think I was so enthusiastic about it and got Eric really into it. He was talking to one of the people in that band U.S. Highball about doing a reissue imprint that was a part of Lame-O called Reclaim-O. And I was like, “You should do these Jon Brion demos.” And I think that he didn’t really think that much about it. And then, I don’t know, I love covers and covers albums. And I think I was just listening to those demos, and it occurred to me that this would be a really cool project. I get ideas like that all the time, and it’s really hard — I sort of rely on other people to match my enthusiasm, and if I don’t get that, I’m like, “Oh, it was just another bad idea.” It was one that I ran by Eric and he was like, “Whoa, that’s a crazy idea.” And he was really excited about it. So I think that was really inspiring.

There was a moment when I was like two songs in and I was like, “This is fucked up. I don’t want to do this.” [laughs] And he was just like, “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be cool if you did?” And I think that his support, without that, I wouldn’t… Like with the Revolver thing it was really self-motivated. I was bored as hell coming back from school, and it was during lockdown. This time it was like there were so many more worthwhile things I could be doing, probably. ‘Cause I was working on this film, and it was after those sessions, I still had time in the studio. And I was exhausted, but I was like, “I have to finish it.” Like, it was really obsessive and intense.

But yeah, that was kind of the germ of the idea was those conversations. I remember talking to them about it and tearing up, just talking about those shows. ‘Cause they’re just super — like, I’ve loved his music for a long time. I think I got Meaningless off CDBaby when I was like 16. And then was super into Jellyfish, so I knew that he’d played guitar on Spilt Milk. And the Elliott Smith connection too. I was really zeroed in on him when I was younger and was just like, this person is on the level and seems sort of freaky and also is like a guitar wizard. Yeah, I just became pretty obsessed. And I think maybe even more so than Revolver, it always seemed like something that was really difficult to me, or unattainable. And the time finally felt right for me to tackle it, I guess. I don’t know if that sounds arrogant. I just was like, “Damn. I love covers, but I’ve never really learned any of these Jon Brion songs or tried to record them.”

And I think it just made sense. Like, there’s this treasure trove of Jon Brion songs that are not actually recorded. Really, I mean there are some that literally he’s only played live that are on this record. A lot of the stuff, they’re like 4-track demos and stuff.

Is that part of the appeal of this project in particular, kind of helping to preserve these songs that he hasn’t released officially?

TROPER: Yes. Big time. Because they are really great songs. Some of the songs on that demos comp are as good if not better than anything on Meaningless. And it just seems like he can’t — at this point it seems like he’s not going to release a follow-up to Meaningless. I remember in 2006 reading about how he was working on that. So yeah, it is kind of like a development hell. I’ve been waiting for this for so long — it’s like my Chinese Democracy, personally. Like, I’ve just been waiting for him to do a version of “Citgo Sign” that is real and fleshed-out. He will play that stuff when you see him at the Largo, so I don’t really understand where the disconnect is, where he still feels attached to these songs that he wrote when he was in his early twenties, but he doesn’t want to record them and release them. So it is pretty preservationist.

Do you feel like he might have reached a point with them where it’s like, the statute of limitations is over, the moment has passed, so these songs will just never be recorded?

TROPER: That’s a really good question. I think that there is probably something about that. He played “Citgo Sign” when I saw him the first time. I remember somebody yelled out something — because a huge part of those sets is that interactive element, where he’ll be like, “What do you want to hear?” And he’s like the human jukebox. But somebody yelled “Citgo Sign,” and he was like, “You really want to hear a song I wrote when I was 24?” He did seem either like actually apprehensive or he was kind of teasing the crowd, or maybe both. I get the feeling that he is the sort of person who doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do. He does still seem attached to those songs, but I think that you’re probably right. It probably is like — damn, I can’t imagine going back like 20 years and starting from the ground up, assuming he doesn’t have unfinished recordings in the vault or whatever. I guess everybody hates that.

I’m not much of a Jon Brion scholar. Does he have newer material that he might record? Like when you go see him now, is there recent material being trotted out?

TROPER: I don’t know, honestly. I think it probably is so different each time. They have a strict no recording policy, so that’s a big part of it, and I’m not super — like, I don’t know the Lady Bird soundtrack by heart, some of that newer instrumental stuff he’s done. Some of the instrumental stuff in particular, I couldn’t tell you if it’s a movie soundtrack or something he’s coming up with on the spot. It does seem like there are times where he’ll start playing a chord progression and he’ll be like, “Ooh,” and it does seem like he’ll be writing something or fucking around with something new. But no, it’s not like what you’d expect. Either time I saw him I don’t remember him being like, “Here’s a new one.” There’s not a whole lot of talking and him introducing material in that way. It’s a lot of, like, “Oh shit, he’s doing that thing!” And you’ll catch it for a second, and then he’ll move on to something else. It’s kind of the manic energy at those shows. But he just started doing them again in September, I think. I don’t know if he’s doing them monthly again, but maybe he is working on new songs. I have no idea.

Do you have any idea if he is aware of your project?

TROPER: [laughs] I don’t know for sure, but we had to get his manager, who is the owner of the Largo — Flanny [Mark Flanagan] is his name — to sign off on it, for publishing reasons. So we did get that, and I know Eric from Lame-O talked to him on the phone. So I don’t know. I just don’t know. But when I did hear that I was still working on it, and I was like, “Oh my god!” [laughs] “Do I need to go back and re-record something?” ‘Cause I was so anxious about the possibility. And also really excited about the possibility! It’s so exciting. The fact that he could ever — it’s like so surreal. It’s very exciting and scary to think about in equal measure.

You haven’t played these Brion songs live. Do you think you’ll do a Troper Sings Brion show at some point?

TROPER: I think if there is interest in it, I think that I would. When we were talking about release plans, Eric mentioned doing something at the Largo, and I was like, “I don’t even want…” That’s, like, too Halloween. That’s too much cosplay for me. And I say that as somebody who loves to dress up as the Beatles every day of my life. It was just a bridge too far. And then they were like, “Well, what would you want to do?” And I was like, “Well, the dream is to do something with him at Largo.” Like a Make-A-Wish Foundation-type scenario. [laughs] That’s so dorky, but I would love to do something like that. But in terms of an actual “I’m gonna play this whole record” or whatever — I would like to do some solo shows and incorporate some of them into a solo set, but unless there’s demand for some kind of show, I don’t think that I’m going to do one.

You should do one in Portland or in Philly with Lame-O people.

TROPER: It would probably be something like that.

You mentioned the process of dissecting the songs, understanding how the recordings were pieced together. In this case there weren’t proper recordings to work off of. Were there any moments that felt especially difficult, or big breakthroughs — any turning points in the recording process?

TROPER: The whole thing was like a big breakthrough. Learning chords that I had never known existed. Or some of the more straightforward songs like “Any Other Way” — which is a weird song because that is a melody he recycled for an instrumental piece on the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack. There are so many Easter eggs where a diehard Jon Brion fan could see, “Oh, that hook made it into a Sky Ferreira song,” or just weird stuff like that, that you can identify. Even some of the more straightforward pop songs, stuff like that, I was committed to getting the right inversion. I was like, “What the fuck is he doing? Is he using an open tuning or something?” Just ‘cause it’s like that kind of Big Star thing where I know that’s not a normal chord. Like something about it is so weird and moody. So stuff like that, trying to figure it out to the best of my ability really tested the shit out of my ear.

And then, like you mentioned, a few of the songs are not on that demos comp. They’re only songs he has played at Largo. It’s the song “Into The Atlantic” and “Love Of My Life (So Far).” Like “Into The Atlantic” I’ve only heard solo piano versions of that. And then “Love Of My Life,” I’ve only heard solo acoustic guitar versions of that live. So some of it was guessing. That’s actually one of the things I re-recorded ‘cause when I found out about the possibility of him knowing about it or hearing it, I was like, “Fuck. I don’t think I got that lyric right.” ‘Cause it’s like, you’re listening to the worst quality recording, like a bootleg from Largo in ‘97. So there were a couple songs where I had to dream up arrangements, and that was hard for another reason. But ultimately a little easier than trying to figure out — like, there’s a song “Through With You,” where I tried to figure out the piano chords by ear, and it’s a really sloppy but I think mostly correct version. Yeah, it’s just so complicated. And even that stuff that I didn’t nail completely, I think it made me a much better player and made my ear better.

Troper Sings Brion is out now via Lame-O. Purchase it here.

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from New Music