There are few iconoclasts in contemporary music. Yet Anton Newcombe, frontman of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, could be the last punk – even if his musical output is typically classified as shoegaze or psychedelic rock, deviating into Krautrock.
Newcombe, then in San Francisco, launched BJM – named partly after The Rolling Stones’ ill-fated original leader – in the early ’90s. Most accounts of the band focus on drama, dysfunction and drugs. BJM’s peculiar rivalry with the more commercial The Dandy Warhols was depicted in Ondi Timoner’s 2004 doco, DIG!, which, despite winning a prize at Sundance, proved contentious for sensationally representing Newcombe as a destructive egotist.
Even The Warhols’ frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor claimed it skewed reality. BJM have experienced personnel changes – key member Matt Hollywood, the bassist, left in the late ’90s. But, for all that, Newcombe has overseen 14 albums – impressive compared to, say, My Bloody Valentine’s meagre discography.
This year BJM aired Musique de film imaginé, Newcombe’s sublime homage to French film. He likewise issued an album, I Declare Nothing, with Tess Parks, a Canadian psy-rocker championed by Creation Records’ Alan McGee. Newcombe has now lined up the curio Mini Album Thingy Wingy, its song Pish again featuring Parks. In the interim, BJM’s 1996 Straight Up And Down was resurrected as the theme for HBO’s cred prohibition drama Boardwalk Empire. BJM foreshadowed hipster groups from UNKLE to Tame Impala to Drenge.
Today living in Berlin with a young family, Newcombe is a sober, self-aware and astute interviewee. He deplores what passes as pop – and the cult of celebrity (he actually cites Aussie Lara Bingle!). But, ultimately, Newcombe is perturbed by corporate machinations. “Basically, one of the reasons I live here is because I’m immune from the culture,” Newcombe says. And, lest the Lou Reed-endorsed Kanye West has notions of an avant collab, Newcombe challenges his status as punk du jour. Newcombe seeks authenticity. “I’m really interested in anything that’s true: true to form.” BJM are hitting Australia for a “silver jubilee” tour, entailing an epic Melbourne Music Week show.
Watch: BJM – Straight Up And Down (Boardwalk Empire)
Music Feeds: It must be early in Berlin!
Anton Newcombe: Yeah, it’s okay. I dropped [son] Wolfgang off at his kita – that’s his little school – and took a train up to my studio, so I’m okay.
MF: Is it a strange situation to have fans who weren’t born when BJM formed?
AN: Well, if you think about it, from my own perspective, I was born in 1967 [but] completely nuts about psychedelic garage music and the music from, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles, from Rubber Soul or Revolver, and [Bob] Dylan when he went electric – and all these different things… I loved that song Liar, Liar by The Castaways – I wasn’t born when that song came out [in 1965].
It had no relevance for the fact that the first time I heard it I was a little kid. Even as a two-year-old I loved that surfy kind of crazy Californian music… It just depends on how you are as a person, I think.
MF: You are based in Berlin. Have you ever immersed yourself in the techno subculture there?
AN: The thing is I find most DJ music to be very boring without powerful drugs. It’s not that exciting compared to other things on serious drugs. I mean, if you take away the meat market aspect of it, there’s plenty of ways to get lost in the trance. I find most of it to be really boring. Plus I’ve had my years of clubbing – whether it was in the ’80s or whatever. Whatever people are into, right?
A lot of people like that stuff – and EDM. But I think if you look at the EDM charts, it’s really boring. I think the subculture is a little bit more exciting – and there’s interesting things. But I think people that are considered to be these amazing folks in the genre are actually quite boring. I’ve found myself trapped at festivals with Squarepusher and stuff just going, this is horrible. It’s like hell – I’m stuck in my tour bus and this music is so loud I can’t even rest. But some people love it. So what can you say, right?”
MF: The narratives surrounding BJM always focus on drama, but you’re remarkably prolific. What ideas would you still like to explore?
AN: I would still like to just continue being creative. One idea that I’d like to explore is fidelity. See, I’m a conceptual artist, so I basically press ‘record’ in the studio and, when I become fascinated with an idea, I sort of leave it there. I might fine-tune it a little bit, but I don’t go for perfecting something to such a degree, where other people do.
If you listen to a Radiohead record, it’s immaculate and the production’s immaculate, the performances are immaculate, and all that – ‘t’s are crossed and ‘i’s are dotted – where I leave some of that lovely jumbly stuff and whatever in there, a lot of it, because I’m interested in the suspension of disbelief and the thing that attracts you.
But I also wanna be able to break away from it – in the sense that a group like [The] Stone Roses made this epic record [1989’s eponymous debut] that people really responded to internationally and in the UK and could never repeat it – they could never make a second record that people cared about, so it became this giant albatross.
Watch: Musique de film imaginé
MF: Iconoclasm is what has defined BJM. How do you ward off routine – just going into a studio and doing something for the sake of it?
AN: I’m interested in music. I enjoy it – almost as in Gestalt meditation, you know? I like the magic machine in the arts where I can take one kind of feeling, a mood, and capture that thing that I can identity in it. But then the listener, or the person that views the object, can interpret it completely differently and find their own meaning in it.
I think that’s what’s magical about the arts, in a way – not the dumbed-down arts where the people are playing your buttons, like it’s obviously sad, there’s a sad sound. But I like the magic machine where you could take a tragic event and people find joy in it somehow or vice versa – that it means something to them.”
MF: This upcoming run of Australia has been described as a “Silver Jubilee” tour. Did that come from you or the promoter? Because any suggestion of ‘retro’ seems to be against what you represent. You seem beyond temporality.
AN: Absolutely – I agree with you! They just kind of slopped that on there. I don’t really think about time in a way that other people do. There’s so much that I wanna accomplish in it. In the early days, when people referred to us as ‘retro’, I always said that we were ‘retroactive’ (laughs) – just completely different.
I think that I just wanna stay relevant to myself – and, if people can enjoy that, then that’s good. I was asked this, people in these interviews… ‘Did you see yourself playing for this long?’ For me sleeping is like taking a nap. Whole seasons become like a day to me, almost. And then one day I wake up and it’s snowing and it’s like a new day and then I deal with that weather.
But I very much get in a mood that lasts in a very slow swing. So I’m all about ‘keep going’ – which I basically can’t any more. I just wanna be more productive, I guess, is what I wanna say.
MF: What exactly is Matt’s involvement now? It sounds like he’s off doing his own solo thing? Is he part of these shows? Is he even part of the band any more?
AN: Okay – well, I brought him back in 2008, asked him to come back. I said, ‘Let’s not wait ’til you’re 50 to do this – let’s just have you come back now.’ But he hasn’t contributed musically for 20 years. He sort of danced around like, “Hi, it’s 1995, I’m in a movie, now you all know who I am – I saw your profile on Facebook, why don’t come back to the tour bus with me?” Kind of just BS.
It’s not what I want to be about. So he’s doing his own project. That was the other thing – it’s just like, Cool, you’re not contributing anything [to BJM], but you have no problem with writing a song with these other people, so why don’t you just do that instead kinda thing, which is fine. He views it as, like, ‘Oh, well, as always you’re just dominating everything.’
Whatever. I just thought it was weird to drag somebody around the world for three songs or whatever it was that we were playing. So he’s not on this trip. But that’s fine. I wish him well.
Watch: The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Pish
MF: There has been talk of a book on BJM – I’m not sure if it’s authorised or not…
AN: I heard that there’s more than one book. First, some guy talked to me… He’s like, “I need to do something with my life – I’ve a journalistic background for my education, I think I’d like to write a book about your group.” I was like, “Go ahead, I don’t care – good luck. I’m not gonna help you, but good luck. Figure it out.” In a positive way.
So he started to do that. Now Courtney Taylor told me somebody else is writing something. I don’t know. Courtney always asks me, “Should we help these people or should we wait ’til we do our own books?” I’m like, “I’m not gonna help any of these people, basically.”
I’ve nothing to hide but… I’m the only person who knows what happened. The last time I got involved with people and it [meant] giving people access and editing that stuff it became really not okay.
MF: Would you write your autobiography? Or do you just prefer to keep looking to the future?
AN: Yeah, I’m not done with the story. It’d be really interesting – if it was like a death bed confession of my whole life maybe, if I had a long drawn-out illness. I wouldn’t wanna upset my wife, either (laughs). I just don’t know what I would do, right? But it might be interesting.
MF: The pop world is devoid of rebels, but someone who is trying to be out-there, and polarises people, is Kanye West…
AN: You really think that he’s out there doing that?
MF: Well, I think he does things that are outlandish culturally – even working with Paul McCartney…
AN: No – but that’s Paul’s ego, see? That’s Paul trying to be relevant.
MF: It could be, but it’s also Kanye validating himself, to an extent. But, then, it’s not an obvious thing for him to have done.
AN: But we know that sales volume dollar doesn’t mean crap – it really doesn’t mean crap! If it means something, then cocaine is the greatest thing ever, right? Because it outdoes everything else…
So that’s the thing that you have to realise when you put people like Kanye on this pedestal. Because it doesn’t matter that it’s everywhere – because the media are bankrupt, in a way. Because, first of all, they’re not asking the kids what they want – they’re telling them. This access is forced by the power of the biggest machine – by Universal and these companies. It’s not by the demand of the public.
It’s just [that] it’s everywhere. Most people will dance to everything – and that’s why it goes back to the Top 10 of EDM – not the so-called ‘great Berlin techno underground’ where it’s revolutionary, where people are continuously innovating. It’s this Calvin Harris crap or something. It’s just that that’s the business connections – it doesn’t mean that it’s the best.
But I’m not knocking anybody for liking it. It’s just like [Kanye] pulling stunts and saying, ‘Oh, Beck you don’t deserve this award [the Grammy ‘Album of the Year’ for Morning Phase], Beyoncé deserves it’ – when Beck wrote and recorded and played all the instruments and produced it himself and Beyoncé plays nothing, didn’t write anything and has Autotune and 25 producers [Beyoncé did have executive production and writing credits on her album].
He’s just an asshole. Basically, telling you what I know about history, he’s not gonna be relevant in five years – there’s no way in hell. If Chuck D can’t get arrested right now, there’s no way in hell that guy’s gonna be making history. There’s no way! And he’s not as notorious as NWA.
MF: But if you had an opportunity to do a subversive collaboration with someone in pop, would you do it?
AN: Well, I just write and record stuff. We don’t know what ‘pop’ is. It’s like this other animal – it has nothing to do with music, really. It’s like this culture thing… I had the theme tune for Boardwalk Empire – I won the ‘TV Song of the Year’ globally by ASCAP, so I got this little crappy plaque award. It doesn’t even mean anything.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre will be in the country next week for a string of shows. Grab all the dates and deets below.
Watch: The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Goodbye (Butterfly) live
Brian Jonestown Massacre Australian Tour Dates
Tickets on sale now
Thursday, 12th November – NEW SHOW
The Northern Hotel, Byron Bay
Friday 13th November
The Triffid, Brisbane
Saturday 14th November
Odeon Theatre, Hobart
Wednesday, 18th November – NEW SHOW
Factory Theatre, Sydney
Tickets: Factory Theatre
Thursday 19th Novemeber
Metro Theatre, Sydney
Tickets: Metro Theatre