Drugs, violence and just plain rock & roll madness were major themes covered in the 2004 rockumentary Dig! as viewers watched San Francisco psychedelic rock band the Brian Jonestown Massacre fall apart at the seams. Yet, it was their goofy, flamboyant and not-nearly-as-volatile tambourine player Joel Gion who became a favorite with a lot of fans.
In fact, BJM leader Anton Newcombe asked Gion to rejoin the band a year after the movie was released—he quit during the filming—because so many people were coming up to him at shows, asking him where the “tambourine guy” was.
Although Gion did rejoin BJM, he wanted more than to just be known as the wacky tambourine player. Just recently he wrote and recorded his first solo album. Until a few years ago he never even wrote a single song. He’s even assembled an actual band called the Primary Colours for live shows and future recordings. Their first show is this Friday at Café Stritch.
“I felt like I had pushed myself to my limits of laziness, and had to get real and start creating,” Gion says. “I thought, ‘well, how long are you going to be a tambourine player?’ Now everybody else has one, and they’re far younger and far cuter now. You can’t just be a tambourine player your whole life. You can—but I just thought I could do better.”
Before rejoining BJM, Gion divided his time between working at independent record stores and DJing retro psychedelia, soul and alt-rock at clubs in San Francisco. His return to live performing—when he rejoined BJM in 2005—started him thinking about writing his own material, a project he’d take up in earnest a few years later.
“It’s great because since I’ve only really started in the last couple of years, my creative tapping is that of a 24- [or] 25-year-old, but it’s me now. If you were the Kinks you did it when you were 19. I didn’t do it till my 40s. I’m tapping the wells for the first time so all the good stuff is still on the top,” Gion says.
There’s no release date yet for Gion’s record, and he is talking to different labels. The material isn’t a huge stretch from the tripped-out, textured psychedelic rock sounds for which the Brian Jonestown Massacre is known, but Gion also incorporates many other rock & roll sub-genres from ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, as in the post-punk inspired “Smile,” country-folk-esque “Hairy Flower” and shoegaze jam “Dart.” Spacey production that drenches the songs in reverb unifies such diverse influences, giving the album a late ’60s acid-trip feel without sounding like a time capsule from the era.
About half of the album was recorded in L.A. with Brian Jonestown Massacre guitarist Rob Campanella, and the other half was recorded in Portland with BJM bassist Collin Hegna. Various members of BJM and other musician friends contributed to Gion’s album. As a new songwriter, Gion was surprised so many seasoned musicians were willing to contribute their time to his project.
After recording the album, Gion put together the Primary Colours, which consists of different players, mostly friends in San Francisco, though the first person he asked to join his band was Derek See from San Jose’s soul revue, the Bang.
“I was a fan of the Bang. After meeting him a few times I just asked him, ‘Hey dude, I have this band. Do you want to play with me?’ He rolled his eyes and was like, ‘You fucker, I already have two bands. I have no schedule.’ But he said yes. I’ll always love him for that,” Gion says.
Other than one show in Melbourne, Australia, this upcoming Café Stritch show will be the first time Gion performs any of these songs onstage for an audience. He doesn’t seem all that worried about being a front man. He already considers himself the “passive aggressive” front man of the Brian Jonestown Massacre.
“Anton brought me in to stand in the middle where the front guy is supposed to be to draw attention away from him. So I’m really accustomed to being that guy, but I never have to say anything. It’s more like a Harpo Marx thing,” Gion says. “It’s the same thing. I just have to open my mouth and sing.”
Joel Gion and the Primary Colours
Café Stritch, San Jose
Fri, 8pm, Free