Escaping the mainstream sewer with Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre
“I think Henry Kissinger is a fucking asshole.”
Why Anton Newcombe, (see photo, fourth from left) leader of the psychedelic rock band the Brian Jonestown Massacre, chose to share this particular statement with me I still do not know. Then again, over the course of a lengthy e-mail interview conducted in late July, the notoriously unpredictable singer and songwriter touched on a variety of topics that I wasn’t expecting.
Humanity, Facebook, global warming – no subject was off limits. Well, okay, maybe one was.
For those unfamiliar with Newcombe’s body of work or that of his band the BJM, the easiest reference point is probably the 2004 music documentaryDig!, which chronicles the competition (both real and imagined) between the Brian Jonestown Massacre and fellow psychedelic revivalists the Dandy Warhols during each group’s fight to secure the all-important record deal and make a career in the music industry during the mid-to-late-‘90s.
The film follows the struggles of each band as individual members fight (sometimes literally), make music, and play shows. However the movie also paints an unflattering portrait of Newcombe, who at times comes off in its collection of scenes as a lunatic, a genius, or some combination of the two. Dig! also portrays Newcombe’s apparent appetite for drugs and alcohol, both of which he currently claims to have given up.
“I no longer drink alcohol and that changes the way a person hears sound, among other things,” he said during his e-mail check-in from Germany. “I am lucky that I work with an engineer full-time in Berlin and he helps me avoid second guessing myself while we record and mix music.”
In the past, Newcombe has ended interviews quickly and angrily whenever the topic of Dig! was brought up. He has also gone on the record to say that he feels his portrayal in the movie was unfair, and that he would rather not talk about the difficult experiences he was going through during the years the film was being made.
Yet, not all of Newcombe’s memories from the ‘90s appear to be negative. His current band touring lineup even includes several musicians who made up the core of the BJM’s infamous revolving-door roster in the past, most notably former guitarist and songwriter Matt Hollywood, who left the band in 1999 but returned to the fold 10 years later, as well as tambourine player and crowd favorite Joel Gion.
When asked to say a few words about the current incarnation of his group, Newcombe described this newest version of the Brian Jonestown Massacre as being split into two distinct halves.
He said, “Half of the group I’ve played with for 10 years the other half more than 20. I think each of us respects and annoys each other in equal measure. That’s honest and fair.”
More importantly for fans, the current BJM also released its latest album Aufheben in May. Featuring lengthy instrumental passages, vocals sung in Finnish and an overall eastern mysticism meets ‘80s dance vibe, it’s as if the record was conceived during a fantasy trip where during their stay in India the Beatles went out clubbing at night with the members of New Order.
At an August 24 show in Boston, Mass. Anton and the rest of the Brian Jonestown Massacre performed several tracks from the new record along with a variety of cuts from the group’s extensive back catalogue. Set-opener “Stairway to the Best Party in the Universe” from Aufheben established the mood for the evening’s selection of hazy, psychedelic jams. But it was the raw fury on display in rave-ups like “Oh Lord,” which even ended abruptly with Newcombe briefly storming off stage, and the extended finale “Straight Up and Down” that really showed the two distinct sides to the BJM coin.
The title of Aufheben reflects this ongoing band duality by translating as both “to abolish” and “to preserve.” Explained in the press materials that accompany it as, “a German word with several contradictory meanings,” Aufheben also can, according to Newcombe, be used to address worldwide concerns.
“I was reading an article that mentioned the word [aufheben] and decided to learn more about the concept and meaning,” Newcombe said. “I can see clearly that it is very topical in many ways to many problems facing humanity and mankind, but more importantly western civilization and governments. Take for instance global warming. To address that issue we will need to abolish, lift up, preserve many things, most things in our cultures in order to survive and thrive.”
One way to accomplish this cultural preservation, Newcombe suggested, is to look at the models utilized by countries such as Germany and Iceland. Having recorded music in both locations, the former California resident sees the nations as havens for artists and other like-minded individuals.
“Iceland and Berlin are both very forward thinking cultures and places. That’s what I need in my life, in my art and the world would do well to investigate both of these societies and emulate many aspects,” he said.
Another suggestion Newcombe has for the betterment of others is the utilization of the Internet as a serious learning tool. For example, in his spare time, the songwriter broadcasts his views on the video website USTREAM via his channel DEADTV, which in the past has featured live streams of Newcombe recording new music as well as enjoying such non-musical pursuits as cooking stew.
Watch Anton Newcombe cook some stew and make music via DEADTV here:
“I would like to encourage everyone to spend 15 minutes online a day learning something new. Trust me it will enrich your life. Any subject. Search for the stimulation you did not know you needed. The mainstream is a sewer,” he noted. “However, I hope that I can inspire others to attempt creating media they themselves would enjoy instead of being so passive and cynical about the lack of quality media that speaks to them. It’s a powerful tool that can be as eclectic as your own imagination. As an artist I am very interested in the actual ‘folk’ media - things created by people for people that bring people together in spite of financial considerations. Get the fuck off of Facebook. Stop reading about other people's lives and start living again.”
Speaking of living again, Newcombe was quick to point out that despite the fact that his band is not a “singles/ song-based project,” he has been very happy with the reception the group’s new material has been getting during its recent tours. Even without significant radio airplay or widespread promotion, the response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” and the singer is thankful for that fact, no doubt because it means he can continue doing what he loves to do: make music.
Indeed, a career can be difficult for a band that has never really risen above the status of cult-favorite. Though the publicity from the release of Dig! pushed the Brain Jonestown Massacre and Dandy Warhols briefly back into the spotlight, the ensuing infamy also caused the emergence of concert-goers whose only purpose in going to BJM shows was seemingly to attempt to rile up the band when it was on stage. Still, as the years have gone on the number of these individuals has appeared to have dipped and Newcombe once again can focus on playing his shows as ends unto themselves.
He said, “Our concerts are performance art, meaning that in the live context I am more or less a part of a team. To me it’s about the entire context of a concert. I enjoy presenting a full spectrum of sounds and emotions and do not play favorites, as I don’t limit my own interests so narrowly. I create environments.”
Apart from music, one medium where the ability to create environments full of sound and emotion is valued is the world of film. And interestingly, if Newcombe has his way, that’s where he’s headed next.
“I very much want to continue exploring song composition, production with other groups with a primary focus on soundtracks for cinema,” he said. “I want to do an epic soundtrack for Lars von Trier or even [Quentin] Tarantino. In someway, I would like to make a great movie even better with audio, sounds song craft and score.”