Brian Jonestown Massacre

Exploding the Boundaries of Convention: The Full Interview

Sep 04, 2012 Web Exclusive
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Anton Newcombe has always been a polarizing character and never been afraid to make headlines. With an initial salvo in 1993, his Brian Jonestown Massacre hit the ground running and released its next four albums in the span of two years, including two 1996 classics, the Rolling Stones-referencing Take It from the Man! and the more Dylan-esque Thank God for Mental Illness. For a while in the mid- to late-'90s, Newcombe and company received a great deal of press, more so however for the band's revolving door of members and outrageous behavior than for anything music-related. A fleeting stint with TVT Records for 1998's Strung Out in Heaven and a well-publicized feud with The Dandy Warhols' Courtney Taylor-Taylor were followed by a slow and steady return to relative indie-obscurity.

Interviewing Newcombe can be a complicated task. The songwriter, while kind and refreshingly candid, has a tendency toward philosophizing, stream-of-consciousness rants, which makes the Q&A a perfect vehicle for Newcombe to present himself in full force and glory. He spoke with Under the Radar from a Best Western on a tour stop in middle-of-nowhere Oregon.

Brian Jonestown Massacre has undergone a bit of a resurgence of late. After a brief hiatus following 2003's And This Is Our Music, the band returned five years later with the noisy and dissonant My Bloody Underground, followed by the more traditional Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? This year's excellent, Eastern-influenced Aufheben features original BJM guitarist Matt Hollywood, along with Will Carruthers (Spacemen 3, Spiritualized), Constantine Karlis (Dimmer), and guest vocals from Thibault Pesenti and Eliza Karmasalo.

[A much-shortened version of this interview appeared in the digital/iPad version of Under the Radar's Spring 2012 issue. This is the full transcript of the interview.]

Frank Valish (Under the Radar): How are you? It's Frank from Under the Radar.

Anton Newcombe: I'm okay. I was just thinking. I was outside having a cigarette, thinking about what would be said on this phone call and the other [interviews] I have to do today.

Is this your first of the day?

First of today.

Well you're in Oregon today, correct?

I'm exactly out by maybe, I think a horse track. I'm literally on the outskirts of nowhere-land. I'm not in the center of town.

Enjoying a little bit of time off between gigs I hope?

Well, it's important, the air in the Southwest and South is really humid or really dry. We just did the desert, and I was finding it a little bit difficult being in top form as far as my full vocal range. Because we play over two hours. It's just a difficult thing to do for any singer, but some people my age. It wasn't bad, but I'm looking forward to being back here in the nice, moist Pacific Northwest.

I just wanted to start out with a very general question. I was hoping you could tell me a bit about the where and when and how of this album's conception.

Okay, let me think about how to start. I'm an artist and I make records. I do that periodically. I own my own label. A real one. It's distributed worldwide. I like to put out other groups, but the way that I'm able to do that is because my records continue to sell, so they continuously want more stuff. I knew 2012 was coming, so I wanted to make a weird record, because culturally, I'm really interested in eschatology, which is the study of the end of the world in different cultures. Whether it's the end of the world or not, I don't really care, but I wanted to play around with that a little bit, for fun. I recorded it in Berlin. I have my own studio that I started at a place called Studio East. It was the media center for the former German Democratic Republic, this sprawling complex, an insane place, but then midway through that, the person from whom we were renting the studio, blocking it for two months, was like, "You guys got to get out of the studio. We're going to record this band." He didn't say, "I'm recording for three days. Come back." So I thought, "Screw this, I'm going to build my own studio."

I was going to ask how long you've had a studio in Berlin. So it's recent?

It's been about a year. I think I started just in 2011. It takes time to do that. I secured a lease to a two-story auto repair shop. The bottom is all the recording instruments and all that stuff and the top has accommodations where I can put a band, and there's a kitchen, bath, and living room-type relaxing areas, so it's really cool. Like an open plan, and it allows me to invite other groups to come there. It's not a commercial studio.

Do you spend a lot of time in Berlin these days?

That's where I live. I have since basically 2007.

Okay, I didn't know that.

I was spending several months at a time in Iceland, working on stuff, but their economy got weird and it became a strange situation, not having to worry about money. They have limits for their own citizens about how much they can withdraw. So it's a strange situation of like all of your friends and peers having monetary concerns because of that, and you not, so it gets really weird. If you can imagine. I'd like to help everybody, but it really cut into everybody's leisure ability. The kind of 'Fuck it' attitude, like, "Sure let's go out drinking, let's go to a show, let's do this, let's go out to eat." That's not most people's reality.

The new album seems, certainly in places, like it has more Eastern influence than some of your more recent Brian Jonestown Massacre albums. Is this something you feel you've gotten more into in the interim between Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? and now, or is it more of a return to an earlier muse for you? Because it's always been there to a certain degree.

There's nothing really conscious about what I end up with. When I go to the studio, I go in with no ideas, absolutely nothing, and I want to come out with something that sort of is a full spectrum of my emotions or moods at the time. Then I have like a toolbox of techniques and influences that all jumble together. So if you can think of Legos come in a space set or there's a pirate set, or you know, there's all these different sets of Legos. I've just torn up all the directions [to the different sets]. I have sets of wheels and I have rocket thrusters. I can build my own thing out of them.

Just depending on your particular headspace at the time.

Yeah. A lot of times when I'm writing or singing, I really like the shaman-, prophet-, holy spirit-infused kind of perspective. I'm really interested in writing from that perspective, so what I do is I go in and I'll make up anything. It could be just me writing. I could go in and base it on drumbeats. I could put on a YouTube of something, a really interesting groove, say like "Gone" by The Factory, from the '60s. It's just this slamming beat. So I might play that beat for a minute on the drums and loop it and write some music to it. Or I could have friends that are just around and say, "Let's play spy music or something. Let's make some really weird surf-y thing. Let's do something really angular, like The B-52's' first record." And then once I get inspired, it tends to take on a life of its own that's not derivative of any specific thing. So I'll end up with like 40 compositions. When I put the demos on YouTube, those are very much taken as a rough mix from what I've just accomplished a couple hours before that. So I'll just mumble or sing anything, just to put it in the spacing, to get a look at like a sketch of the song. And then it becomes pretty clear to me about the direction of an album. And then I'll go on to compose something additionally, maybe to fill in a spot, like, "Oh, it needs an acoustic thing or an instrumental interlude, or whatever it may be." But I never go in and go, "Okay, fuck, I've really been listening to this Can record, Tago Mago. I think I'm gonna knock that off," or something, like bands often do.

It's more free for you.

Yeah, I'm mostly interested that over the course of it that it touches on certain aspects of my own moods or personality, whether I'm feeling aggressive or surly or something, or if I'm at peace or longing for some sort of love, acknowledgement. I'll juxtapose a spiritual relationship with God and use metaphors about drugs, or vice versa, scrambling those things. If I'm singing about love, sometimes it isn't actually even about a real girl or something. It doesn't matter. To me, it's conceptual art. Once I discover an idea and it's tangible to me, since day one in the group, I've left it there and moved on, and left that up to people to decide. Everything is essentially a demo. And then I look at it like there's a possibility live to bring that to life, in a way that's much greater. It's really like a jazz philosophy almost. The record, there can be moments where it could be a brilliant jazz record or something, but it's basically more about us playing live and people can see that.

And the record's more of a framework.

The record's more of a document. Yeah, exactly. It's like some conceptual art that's waiting to be realized or interpreted or find its context.

It almost seems to me that your last couple of records have seemed more so in that fashion than some of your earlier stuff.

There was a conscious something that occurred to me. A couple times I've written songs that are to me as relevant and valid as anything that has ever happened within the medium, even if I was referencing folk on, say Thank God for Mental Illness or something else. I'll never get any acknowledgement about that from Mojo [magazine]. But they'll go on and on about Paul McCartney and Wings or some other bullshit, where it has very little to do with anything. And pop music in general. I don't take it so hard that I'm not respected or acknowledged, when they're putting Nicki Minaj on the Grammys for 20 minutes. Do you know what I'm talking about? And Clear Channel rules the airways. And everything is just crap. And how meaningless is a remix? And how temporary and disposable is all hip-hop? And just everything. What is MTV? I don't take it personally that people talk about Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and not my group or my music or my ideas, because I don't even want to be associated with any of that shit.

I wanted to ask about your reputation. You've been releasing Brian Jonestown Massacre records for almost 20 years, and certainly a lot of the press, at least at one time, surrounded some of the more unsavory aspects of the band. You got a lot of press at one point for some stuff that was apart from the music...

That's fine. You think about rock 'n' roll, and that's completely fine. At the end of the day, I didn't blow my brains out, like Kurt Cobain. Or worse, I didn't stab my girlfriend, like Sid Vicious. Or even look at what Johnny Rotten has become, a butter salesman, in 20 years since PiL was maybe relevant. It's really funny. At one time, you've got Iggy [Pop], with this dangerous lifestyle, and then he's marketing car insurance. Or you've got rock and roll selling automobiles, when the qualities that I want in an automobile, which have to do with safety, reliability, and all that shit, are the antithesis of rock and roll values, or things that you uphold. So to a certain extent, everything is really upside down. I purposefully wanted the project to have this thorny outside that was not commercial, because I really cared about what I was doing. Now the business, all my peers get eaten up and shit out. And it's like, even when they're pseudo-edgy, like Primal Scream or something, they can't get arrested in America. And the other thing is, if I would have signed, say like The Flaming Lips, whatever magic deal they have with Warner Bros.- I don't understand how that band that doesn't sell gets to be on the label and every single other group that does sell gets dropped and their label is defunct. Maybe they're blowing somebody or they're related to somebody they're blowing. But what I want to say about it is that I've outlasted everybody who ran those labels or even the labels or imprints themselves. So people can talk about my unreliability or this or that or the other. It gets really weird. People say, "Oh, he's been through 40 people or more" and all this stuff. Well, you know what, some of those people, like Peter Hayes, after I taught him to play guitar, the deal was that I was helping him get his sea legs to prepare for the project that he wanted to do with Robert [Turner, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club]. It wasn't that he would be my forever collaborator at all.

But isn't it kind of irrelevant anyway?

No it isn't. I just think it's weird that people write about my instability, while I've shown everybody is that I'm actually more stable and more productive. But the value judgment, I'm not saying that I'm better than somebody else. When I met those guys [one supposes he's talking about The Flaming Lips], I was like, those kids have a really good attitude and they're embracing the machine. I was like, "That's cool for them." But for me, I know I would be nowhere. Look at all the #1 artists that have been on major labels since the '60s and how many of them can you even find their music these days. The music industry isn't perfect. In fact it's dead. It's dying. So it's nothing to seek after for some kind of shelter. I don't know. Why don't you refocus me?

I wondered whether you wished that perhaps the press hadn't focused on some of those things and made them the centerpiece of your band in public perception so that now when you're doing an interview, somebody asks you about your reputation, which is really irrelevant to the current record or even the last five or six records you've made?

I don't know. I don't place that much merit in music journalism in general. I followed NME magazine since I was 10 years old, and I'm 44. And looking at everything they praised and thought was noteworthy, none of it even exists anymore. All of it failed. All of it was perfectly well-adjusted and did everything it could to win favor. So if you look back at their records, everything they said was great, it turned out to be not so great. So we live in some kind of a reverse world. I don't know what to say.

It sounds like you're happy with the niche you've carved out for yourself.

It's just a mixed bag of tricks. I would rather be honest and get tarred and feathered for it, but I'm not going to shut up about my criticisms of society or my government, or other governments, or this that or the other. I'm not going to stop talking shit about stuff. To me, it looks like the West is headed into this new kind of corporate fascism, and it sucks. I don't look up to Mark Zuckerberg, and I'm not fooled by any of that shit. Society is crap, basically. Or it needs to be looked at, at least. So whatever. At the end of the day, I'm not killing people or anything.

Do you read your own reviews?

Yeah, I like to check things out and share them with other people, like reTweet them or whatever, you know what I mean?

Getting back to the new record, and I just have a couple more questions, I wondered if you could tell me two guest vocalists you have on this album, Eliza and Thibault.

Okay. Friederike [Bienert, who plays flute on Aufheben] is in a band called The Rockcandys in France, and I traded them a recording trip to my studio if they'd help me do something in French. I wanted to make a statement. There's a lot of French bands that decided they really liked to be American indie. There's a part of French culture that really identifies with outsider and outsider arts and outsider intellectualism, versus conformity. You know, the Serge Gainsbourgs and everything, they really love that. But at the same time, these French groups, they try to sing in English. They love The Stone Roses and they want England to accept them on that level, and that's never going to happen. They don't understand that England is a business and has no use for anybody that's not from England. They're promoting English art and music. They don't give a shit if you're Elliott Smith. I was amazed, because I asked Elliott, "What was it like when you did a Peel session?" And he's like, "I've never done a John Peel session. It was like a party I was never invited to." And it occurred to me at that time, when that happened, because it was like, "Yeah the English media is not going to talk about us because they just discovered us after having six albums out that are better than all the bands they are doing." We can't be offended by that stuff. So I wanted to encourage [the French bands] to do something for their culture. To that end, it wasn't a marketing thing, because we were really big in France. We played very big shows, like as big as Nirvana ever got there while they were alive. We played very big things, and a lot of them. But I wanted to go like, "There's no rules." I can use Google translate and use social networking and all these different things and just make up stuff in different languages, and just express myself. So when I record in Russian or something, I'm the first person in over a thousand years of Russian culture to ever approach a song like that, stylistically. Because there's no Velvet Underground in Russia. Or there is no whatever I was doing on Who Killed Sgt. Pepper?. So 'Rike and Thibault helped me do the French parts. Now for the Finnish stuff, as I record and am writing these songs, I keep trying to do versions in other languages, and it's slightly a different thing. I don't keep the subject matter. I'm not transliterating or translating. I'm just trying to make something that's interesting in those things and put it out. So I asked my friend Eliza, because I knew that she was half-Finnish and I've never been to Finlandwe do great in Scandinavia and that part of Europe, but I kind of wanted to go check out Helsinki"Will you try to record this idea with me?" And she was like, "You want me to sing in my baby tongue." And I'm like, "Yeah." "About what?" I'm like, "Let's make it weird." So we worked on that, and then I put it out on YouTube right after the session, the first take. And in two days there was 2,500 Finnishyou can use Google analyticsviews from that country. And then it was in blogs and the newspapers. And then they were like, "We want to send a photographer to your studio. Why did you do this?" And I said, "Because it occurred to me that I can do whatever I want. So I'm making songs in Norwegian and all different languages, and I just happened to do this in Finnish." And the next thing, they invited us to go. Within a few days, there was like 12,000 people from Finland listening to it and sharing it. I want to set an example for other people to try different things and something slightly different. When Bowie did his "Helden" version of "Heroes," that isn't a sly marketing gimmick in the way that The Beatles did "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" recorded in other languages. That song is great for that culture for all time, and I very much want to follow in those footsteps if I can.

I have two last questions for you. First, I wondered if you can tell me a bit about where you head was at with the My Bloody Underground album. You had not released an album in four years and came back with an album that was quite noisy and dissonant...

Unlistenable.

At times a bit difficult, yeah.

Well, I feel like no matter what I do, it's never going to be viewed objectively, so I very much wanted to cleanse my own mental palette and tap into something that was improv over a few days. I used to have the same management as Echo & the Bunnymen and was at that studio in London when I started the record, and my intention was to record there. It was really weird because, in front of both my English managersyou know, this is the place where Oasis recorded Definitely Maybe and all that stuffand I'm sitting there and all these people, from Bunnymen and everybody, is sitting in the studio, and I go, "Watch me. I'm going to record this song right now" and I made up "Bring Me the Head of Paul McCartney" right in front of them. And their jaws dropped. I was like, "Okay, I'm going to write lyrics." We all walked outside. I'm telling Will Sergeant and Pete Wylie and all these guys, "Now this is how you make up lyrics. Watch this. Follow me. Start walking at a brisk pace." I'm talking to myself and then in one second, I go, "Everybody back in the studio!" And we ran back down the street, up the stairs, and I start singing that, just as it was. And it scared the shit out of them. They ended my relationship with them. Immediately. Like I was on the next flight out of that hotel and studio. They were just terrified. Like, "Oh my god, this guy's fucking out of his head." So then I was like, "Fuck it." I had to go someplace. So I was like, "I'm going to go to Iceland." It's kind of weird, even with people in a room, to think that somebody could just go, "Okay, start playing the drums." Wham. This is what I just came up with, out of my head right here. No talking whatsoever. No nothing. Just do this for one second. Bam. Press record and look at what things are. And I sort of just wanted to cleanse my palette that way. And then the record after that was partially about, I was interested in the function of rhythm. Like if I took a Michael Jackson track that was a 40 million selling song and had the best drummer in Icelandhe's had #1 hits before, from the '80sI just put it on the YouTube and said, "I want you just to play this whole song from the beginning to the end, no punch-ins," of like "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" or something. "Just play it, exactly like it." And then I went in the other room while he's doing that, just playing acoustic guitar, recording totally different music. I'm not listening to Michael Jackson. He is. So creating a song completely different on top of that. I wanted to see what would happen. So the one with the heavy metal, the engineer is like, "Anton, there's this song that I really love. It's 'Ooh La La' by Goldfrapp. What would you do with this beat right here?" The minute I heard it, I'm like, "Make a heavy metal song, because I never made one before." I would make some kind of new hybrid of that Icelandic screaming craziness. So that's what that was about.

Okay. Well thank you.

I'm sorry if this has been awkward.

No. I hope it's not been awkward for you.

It has been. Because I notice flows of how people interact. And I think I'm kind of subpar in my lucidity today, for some reason.

I think it's fine.

Okay cool.

I just wonder whether you feel that there are any misconceptions out there of your band, still, and if you even care.

I really don't think it matters. I just don't believe it matters. Western civilization is being very much in the mode of Brave New World these days, with a splattering of 1984 just to terrorize the population into submission. Any way you want to crack that nut, I think, that stuff is more important to me. Because you see we're only going to be fascist for a while to get through this period and then we're going to go to greater democracy or we're going to care more about the safety net or the social contract. It never happens that way. As they let these things in, it goes either one of two ways. Either it collapses of its own will, of mistakes and hubris, or people throw some sort of revolution or another army kicks the shit out of you. But to me, anything that anybody ever says about me pales in comparison to our loss of civil liberties and loss of respect for people and how America's social contract with people is to build bigger prisons. That's their safety net, to incarcerate people. And it just goes on and on. Like reading every single email in the U.K.? Reading everybody's website visits and texts? Strip searches for any time you're taken into a police station now in America. I mean, your mom? If her insurance just lapses, they can look in her hoo-hoo? Cavity search for your mom, just because she made a mistake? All this stuff is unacceptable to me. That's what I care about. I could give a shit what people think about me, because I'm going to continue to be an artist. I want to do soundtracks. I'm going to help other bands out. We've done several other bands' albums recently. So I'm going to carry on. And I'm really interested in also setting an example for people who just want to be mature artists and play some live concerts and make records. Because the fixations with teeny-boppers and youth and all this other crap in the media, I just think it's irrelevant if your mindset is more of a folk artist person, or even if you're playing rock. But for some reason, other people have problems with that. Or everybody gives up, or something. It becomes kind of absurd if half of the U.S. population is over 50 but the only thing that's being marketed on TV and the radio is Justin Bieber, who is 18 but hanging out exclusively with 12 year olds, which qualifies him as being a suspect of being a pedophile. It's really all screwed up now. I think there's a few people, like Neil Young, he's going to come out probably with another record one of these days and his integrity is going to be intact and it's going to fit perfectly in the body of work. We need more people like that, and I would like to be one of those people, rather than, "Hi, I'm Kurt Cobain. I can do whatever I want. Now I'm dead. That's what I want." "I'm your hero. Your hero is dead." Or some bullshit.

www.brianjonestownmassacre.com



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Kim Jones
September 10th 2012
4:19pm

What a douchebag

Käännöstoimisto
October 16th 2012
4:45am

Great that Andy still has something to say, music has only gobe downhill since the nineties. Its all pop now, at least some still want to keep music real.

Darren
March 17th 2013
1:18am

Anton is a musical genius, period.  He has held the torch for talented music for the last 25 years.  No one has come close to his mastery.  The album Take it From The Man is simply one of the best albums of all time.  It ranks up there with Exile On Main street, Astral Weeks, or any other ground breaking masterpiece.  Yes it is influence of the stones and the Beatles, But he makes it all his own with pure brilliance.  It doesn’t get much better than this!

jake
March 23rd 2013
4:50am

Totally subsidized boring bastard that has been beating the same one-trick pony for years, and has duped shitheads into believing he’s some sort of genius. Mastery my fucking ass.

Guy has charisma, I’ll give him that—-it’s taken him a really, really long way.

Nice try on capping on the Flaming Lips. But then, they’re genre busting actual artists, and the BLM is, well, just fucking sad.

jon
April 12th 2013
1:18pm

once a junkie, always a junkie. the mentality never changes.