The Brian Jonestown Massacre: An Anton Newcombe Interview

When your own PR has to reassure people that you've stopped drinking and won't be acting the twat during interviews, it says something. Julian Marszalek meets a dry Anton Newcombe and likes the guy

Anton Newcombe, the creator, leader and front man of the Brian Jonestown Massacre has just dissed Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s A Sin’ and yours truly isn’t having it. To these ears, at least, ‘It’s A Sin’ is a superbly subversive slice of pop music that rocketed into the mainstream charts to question sexual identity and unnecessary religious guilt while managing to sound anything but. Anton doesn’t think so.

“Nah,” smiles Anton. “Bronski Beat did it so much better with ‘Smalltown Boy’.”

It’s an exchange like this that flies in the face of the public perception of this highly misunderstood musician. Since having his profile raised thanks to Ondi Timoner’s controversial yet highly entertaining 2004 documentary Dig!, Anton Newcombe has come to be viewed as something of a figure of fun prone to wanton acts of self-destruction fuelled by ferocious drug and alcohol abuse that has led to him create a Midas touch in reverse. Forget gold, says the general perception, watch him turn everything to shit.

Yet this is to do Newcombe an outrageous disservice and it’s easy to forget that he makes fucking great music. Granted, not all of his prodigious output works and the help of an outside producer would doubtless be of benefit. But when firing on all cylinders, Newcombe – and whichever line-up of the ever-shifting Brian Jonestown Massacre he has in tow – creates a new language for psychedelia that wears its influences on its sleeve while also creating a vernacular that’s uniquely his own. “I think it’s drugs music,” he laughs later but their new album, Who Killed Sgt Pepper?, is Brian Jonestown Massacre’s best since 1998’s Strung Out In Heaven.

What makes Who Killed Sgt Pepper? such a joy is that BJM have taken a stylistic detour into the world of loops, dance beats and propulsive rhythms that, whilst recognisably them, finds the band moving into newer territories. Witness the colossal groove of ‘This Is The First Of Your Last Warning’ wherein Anton isn’t even present as vocalist, his voice replaced by soaring female vocals or the dirty rhythmic rutting of ‘Tempo 116.7 (Reaching for Dangerous Levels of Sobriety)’. Not all of it is as successful: ‘Dekta! Dekta! Dekta!’ is the idiot half-brother of Super Furry Animals’ ‘Inaugural Trans’ but the gripes are small and puny when compared to the monstrous hypno-monotony of ‘Tunger Hnifer’ or the truly out-there cosmic trance of ‘Felt-Tipped Pictures of UFOs’ that finds the sacred cow that is John Lennon considered for slaughter. Oh, and we kid you not, football chants. Great big, dubby football chants.

In short it is exactly the kind of album that Brian Jonestown Massacre should be making at this point in their career.

“Really?” asks Anton. “Thank you! You know, what’s confusing too with ‘career’ and my relationship with the business? I do make money from it and I do own a record company and all the nuts and bolts of that but I don’t think of it as a career but I do think of it as art. Someone once asked, ‘Is Anton a great artist like Frank Zappa? No, I don’t think so!’ That’s what he said. That’s so weird, like Frank Zappa an artist!”

And here’s another reason to like Anton Newcombe. His out-and –out hatred of Frank Zappa. To this writer, Zappa has always been a charlatan and someone to be viewed with suspicion.

“Me too,” says Anton. “He was always anti anti-war and anti-hippy and his dad was like the biggest defence industry wonk going. His farting around with the avant–garde and that stuff with his connectivity and all the wild parties that he would provide came down to his dad being a huge war profiteer on the biggest level.”

I always found his music to be one gigantic sneer.

“Well, I have a lot of that in my music too," counters Anton, “but I was just thinking back about how much I despise joke rock, y’know, like Red Hot Chili Peppers or something where everything’s a big joke, right? Here’s a perfect example: Dave Grohl is always dressed like a girl in the Foo Fighters videos because if you laugh at him his vulnerabilities or his sensitivities aren’t exposed and he’s making a joke of it whereas my music is dark sarcasm.”

Maybe so, but the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s explorations of dance rhythm are certainly sincere. So is Newcombe making the link between dance beats and psychdelia?

“The vast majority of people cannot differentiate between real music and piss-poor music,” states Anton, warming to the theme.

“Look at house music collections: That’s What I Call House Music Vol 15: total crap! So how do you know what’s a good house track if they all have the same beat? I was curious as to what part rhythm had in the success of some of these 40 million selling records like ‘Ring My Bell’ and what made it a hit apart from the hook on top of it. So I wanted to see what I would do creating on top of those beats and not be grounded by what is popular at the moment.”

So much so that Newcombe hired the services of a pick-up drummer and instructed him to play the beat of Michael Jackson’s ‘Rock With You’ to see what he could come up with himself. Job done, Anton enlisted the services of former Spacemen 3 bassist Will Carruthers to make a contribution towards the bottom end.

“I’ve been friends with Will since like, forever,” explains Anton. As a former business associate of Bomp! Records Greg Shaw, the pair where the first people to bring Spacemen 3 to the USA.

“We just asked Will because we needed someone to fill in for a bit,” he continues. “He kicked back with me and helped me find some sounds and we went through some ideas. He’s singing on ‘Let’s Go Fucking Mental’.”

brian jonestown massacre “lego fucking mental” from anton newcombe on Vimeo.

Ah yes: ‘Let’s Go Fucking Mental’. A popular terrace chant that originated in the early 90s, it inspired otherwise bored football fans to liven up their environment when the 22 players on the pitch might as well have been playing in callipers. What Newcombe’s done here is take the chant as a template, stick some stomping beats underneath it and mix it up with some dub reggae techniques. Has he been attending football matches for inspiration?

“No,” states Newcombe. “People from the North like Scotland or Manchester started singing that at our shows like at T In the Park. When people start to get fucking bouncy and like, crazy, and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ I love all these singalongs, they’re just ridiculous and I heard that one everywhere!”

But how much of a laugh is he having with the Augustus Pablo melodica on it?

“You know what the weirdest thing is?” he asks rhetorically. “I had left my melodica at the studio during a previous session and forgotten about it. I saw it sitting on studio windowsill and I thought, Y’know, I’ll use it on this track.

“I recorded it and it was perfect. And the guy who recorded it said, ‘Ja, zat’s gut!’ and then I started to feeling guilty because I was worried that I might be stealing someone else’s sound and he’s like, ‘That’s your melodica’. I’d left it there. I was so fucked up at another session that I didn’t even realise that I’d brought the thing!

“But I love Augustus Pablo, that’s just great, that stuff. And then this Albanian woman was singing this God-awful Rage Against the Machine thing in a studio a few doors down and she was on a coffee break so I said, “Hey, can you do me a favour and sing on this track?” and so I have this Albanian woman screaming, ‘Let’s go fucking mental!’” he laughs.

detka! detka! detka! from anton newcombe on Vimeo.

Yet despite his proud boasts of making drug music and getting fucked up at recording sessions, Anton Newcombe has climbed on the wagon and remained there. Indeed, during our time together, he gladly sips from glasses of Coke and occasionally excuses himself for a nicotine break. What brought this on?

“I took an anti-biotic and it just blew out my liver,” he explains, wincing at the memory. “I couldn’t walk all of a sudden. In 1999 or 2000 when I quit dope, when I got out of that, I kinda segued into drinking vodka. Sorta like a mellow drunk to get me through that physical pain and I just carried on with it drinking like a litre of vodka a day. Just non-stop with grapefruit juice. A litre a day, easily; kicking back, getting on airplanes… a litre of vodka, no problem.

“But after that anti-biotic, I couldn’t walk. I was taking a plane flight from Berlin and I lived on the fourth floor of this apartment block and I couldn’t carry my guitars across the room. I just had to put them down because I couldn’t even walk. I said, ‘That’s it!’”

So, has sobriety impacted on Anton’s art in any way?

“No, I made Who Killed Sgt Pepper? sober,” he confirms. “If you believe that psychedelics can change your consciousness – for better, for worse – then I think that this has changed my perspective but I’m always thinking of ideas or whatnot. The thing it affected was my ability to mix and editing with Pro Tools because I just lost the patience because you zone out when you’re buzzed and you’re making this really weird thing happen; it’s really complex.”

So is everything off the menu for Anton? Are you completely clean?

He smiles and says: “I haven’t any taboos but you know, I was never really the kind of person who was into uppers – even socially. I think they do really amazing things when you’re on psychedelic drugs and when you do speed [with them] – woah! – it’s great. Well, it’s not great but it’s a whole different animal; it’s more intense. But I was never really like a speedhead or something. And I was never really a pot smoker but I really enjoyed LSD but I didn’t do it all the time but I have done a fair amount.”

LSD is pretty much impossible to find these days.

Anton laughs and waves his hand in a mock dismissive gesture before saying: “Oh hey, we’ve had our fun! But I think they can turn that on when they want to zap people’s consciousness and society and they caught all the chemists!”

His face gives way to a frown before continuing: “But I hear that people are doing all the K-based stuff and I have a suspicion that that might open your penile gland and zap it for good and not releasing something good. Look at the fucking product and the music that goes with it and the vibe that goes with it – all that dark, electronic stuff. All the things that are associated with that – y’know, mephadrone and all that stuff – seems, like, really soul numbing.”

this is the first of your last warnings – brian jonestown massacre from anton newcombe on Vimeo.

It seems that drugs, along with the times, are changing and not necessarily for the better. Now resident in Berlin, Newcombe’s reason for self-imposed exile go way beyond a simple loathing of George W. Bush. [Er… Ed] To Newcombe’s mind, the real problem with modern day America are the shadowy figures pulling the economic and political strings that are trampling on the notion of the American Dream.

“It seems to me if Bush was the kind of guy living over the fence, you’d wanna shoot the shit with them or wash your car when he came out. Do you know what I mean?” he asks.

“He’d tell some stupid little joke and you’d have a laugh and drink a beer or something so you’d have to take issue with the people behind that. ‘Cause when you look at his family’s life, it’s like his dad is like…he’s in the House of Representatives, then he’s senator, then he’s the head of the CIA, then he’s the Vice-President then he’s the President of the United States.

“But with Junior, he’s governor and then he’s President of the United States. And his brother is a governor of another state. Boy! Those are the guys you wanna go gambling with in Vegas with ‘cause something’s going on!”

But isn’t Obama offering an alternative? Anton isn’t so sure.

“Barack Obama really got amplified for me,” he says. “Here’s a guy who worked in constitutional law, teaches a bit on the side and goes into the state legislature and doesn’t even finish his job – not one term – and then he’s a senator and then he’s the first black President.

“But what do you think is really going on? That’s pretty lucky, don’t you think? He never even finished his job!

“So he can read a teleprompter and he can say that he’s gonna end this war but the only thing that happened is that there used to be an administration made up of people from different walks of life. You know, you’d get someone from the unions, or some people from banking or people from different sets to make up your government but his lot come from just one thing – they all just switch jobs and they’re like Goldman Sachs people. This isn’t a conspiracy but they’ve all got the same political science background.”

He shakes his head dismissively: "You know, it’s such a game."

He continues: “And I was talking to some people about all this stuff. You look at Reagan meeting Gorbachev. You think all this tyranny just went away when they tore down the Wall? Of course not! It’s way more now. It’s just crazy.”

It could be argued that this is the true price of glaobalisation.

“But what the fuck is up with this?” asks Anton “It’s all abstract, isn’t it? It’s really, really fishy. The UK has pledged something like £24 million for Haiti and America pledges $100 million, right? Mayor Bloomberg changed the constitution of New York and spent $134 million of his own money for a job that pays $1million a year. What’s going on there? Let’s put this into a global perspective: why is he paying more on campaigning then the federal government pays for relief?

“And if you hear, like, Madonna say that she’s donated $250,000 to the Haitian relief fund and you should give too it then becomes a perfect set-up for Lindsay Lohan to go on Twitter and say, ‘I just donated a million dollars. So why has Madonna who has more power, more prestige, more resources, more everything with a bigger voice and iconic status and she only gave a quarter of what I did?’”

And so we arrive at celebrity culture. What with reality TV, talent shows that suck the soul out of music to the degree where it becomes a meaningless background noise, surely we’re now finding ourselves in some kind of nightmarish version of the 1950s.

“It’s worse than that,” states Anton. “For example, you look at any natural sized woman who isn’t a supermodel and she’s being bombarded with those kind of images and all of that stuff has nothing to do with anything.”

Given this tide of mediocrity, how much of a struggle is it to keep music evil? For once, Newcombe seems to be at a loss for words before admitting, “It’s overwhelming.”

Yet given such odds, Brian Jonestown Massacre still strives to produce music on their own terms. With a line-up that’s been subject to more personnel churn than most, the band has spawned an impressive number of offspring including Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Warlocks and The Silver Rockets amongst others. Does Anton view these bands with a sense of paternal pride?

“All my bastard children!” he says with a deep sighs as he shakes his head. “I don’t think about it too much but they’re kinda… sad.”

It’s almost as if there’s a sense of frustration in his voice, as if none of these bands has learned anything from him. And yet it’s not difficult to get a sense of frustration eminating from Anton whenever the Brian Jonestown Massacre take the stage and it’s a rare gig when things don’t kick-off on stage. I mention to Anton that I’ve seen him throw band members off the stage because their tuning isn’t just so.

“It isn’t that, you know?” he counters. “We had an incident at the Astoria where there were some heavy hitters floating around that night and one of the band tossed a mic stand into the crowd. This is a packed, packed thing and it’s unacceptable. Sometimes I wonder, you know? You go around the world and get paid to do these shows and you can’t get it together for 45 minutes? That just bums me out.”

Anton defends any notion that the band let themselves down by playing a three-hour set in which 90 minutes are spent fighting and the rest of time is spent on the music by pointing out that at least the remaining hour-an-a-half is played by real musicians making real music.

“It was kinda depressing to play on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and watch those other bands,” he counters.

“Most bands play to tapes. Do you think that Lady GaGa is actually singing? You’re wrong! We play all these festivals like Roskilde where there’s 90,000 people or something and I’m watching all these bands play to tapes. Lady GaGa’s a great performer but this stuff is so produced out.”

brian jonestown massacre – feel it from anton newcombe on Vimeo.

So is Anton Newcombe swimming against the tide and is he right to do so?

“Somebody told me that I’m too old to die young as if they were trying to invalidate me,” he replies. “That’s fucking ridiculous and I get a lot of it.”

It’s not hard to empathise with Newcombe and his sincerity and self-belief is palpable. His rage at certain targets is easy to understand – of the previous interviews conducted today, Anton claims that no one prior to The Quietus has listened to the new album.

“So why the fuck are they talking to me?” he asks.

He’s certainly viewed as an eccentric but it’s precisely this singularity of vision and his almost ruthless pursuit of realising it that makes Anton Newcombe one of the few genuinely interesting characters in rock’n’roll. For all his perceived faults, the one thing that you could never accuse him of is being boring and this, one suspects, is a situation that will never – thankfully – change.

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