Interview with Brian Jonestown Massacre

Anton Newcombe talks about life and love

Interview by Alexander Laurence | Photos by Angel Ceballos

I did an interview with Anton Newcombe of Brian Jonestown Massacre in 2000. At that point the band was in transition. The initial lineup had broken up, and a new one had taken its place. Anton had introduced me to a lot of new music and bands over the years. By 2003, a new lineup, very much like the one we know today, had come together finally. In a period of a year, many things had happened to Brian Jonestown Massacre, to take them from this small obscure indie band, to the internationally known band they are today.

First: they had played several strong tours in Europe and the UK, and music fans had embraced them there. Patti Smith invited the BJM to play a high profile gig at Meltdown Festival, and they were soon taken seriously by important journalists. A greatest hits collection came out in 2004 and they became known to other musicians: namely Iggy Pop and Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols. Lastly there was the controversial film, DIG: The Movie, that highlights possibly the worst aspects of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols. This is a film that Anton Newcombe still rejects to this day.

In the last decade, BJM has played many tours and festivals, and they have become an awesome and vital touring band. Also added to the mix: their song is the theme song to TV show Boardwalk Empire. Even in the past two years, there are many people who have just discovered this band. So it’s good news for all concerned that there is a new record, AUFHEBEN, which comes out on May 1st. There is a new tour 2012, that takes the BJM to Austin’s Psych Fest, the United States, Europe, and even Australia. More than fifty shows worldwide this summer, which proves that AntonNewcombe and Brian Jonestown Massacre are bigger than ever. I got to speak to him over the phone this week, right before the tour begins.

INTERVIEW – PART ONE

AL: This new album, Aufheben, sounds more cohesive as an album. How did it come about?
Anton: I have my studio in Berlin. I have been working with Fabien Leseure. He is an engineer that works here in my studio. He works with other bands as well. I made him a partner without having him buy the shit. I like to record and experiment myself. But there is freedom in having someone push buttons because that is their main function. You can float around and record tracks very quickly. I am into conceptual art as a form of communication. I don’t want to define things or make things perfect. I want the listener to acknowledge that there is an idea. I want them to interact with it in some way. I don’t care if they “get it.” It doesn’t need to be finished. Music should capture your attention and break free of it. There are people who are fanatical about the Stone Roses and their achievements. People like Peter Hook attached themselves to that band, and have drug them out of the realm of having those songs recorded, to being produced records. That made them more part of a guild than a craftsmanship thing. They could never duplicate that, so it’s like an albatross around their neck. People always look at the Stones Roses on the strength of their first album. I am more interested in documenting something and never finishing it, because I don’t have that agenda and I love international music. There are bands in France who insist on singing songs in English. I tell them that we already have American artists, like Katy Perry and Beck, who have these nonsense lyrics that don’t mean anything. They could probably do something better in French, than half-assed in English. Nicki Minaj is not producing very profound lyrics, so why is your average Swedish band trying to sing in English?

AL: I have interviewed many Swedish bands and I asked them that question, and they always say that they listen to American and UK bands, and not Swedish bands.
Anton: The Hives are fun. Good times. I am not getting on their case. I was thinking more about people like Beck. Beck doesn’t really say anything about life or anything. You have no insight into the world of human beings.

AL: You don’t really know anything about Beck from listening to his records.
Anton: You don’t know anything about that guy and his perspective. All you know is he is very imaginative, and he does what he does, and he is likable. It’s crazy how great his ability is to have built that wall. In this world with TMZ and everything? Nobody knows one interesting thing about Beck. I met him so I know a little more. Beck is great. But that is a neat trick to do what he has done. Beck has done all these albums and he never talks about himself in an interview.

AL: So how do you do your albums today? Do you write all the songs beforehand and book time in a studio? Or do you live in a studio, and create as you go along?
Anton: I have done albums every which way. We own a studio here in Berlin. It’s a two-story auto body shop. The top floor looks like an internet start up company. There is a massive kitchen and four bunk beds. If you want to lay out. There is a shower and a bath. There is a living room where I do my TV show. There is a downstairs where there is all the electric goodies. I come here every day. But I go home at night and go to sleep. But I can accommodate guests. If you wanted to come out here and visit me and David Strauss, I would say “Here’s the keys to my place. You are right here.” At this point I could record an album anywhere. I could go to Iceland and record in Bjork’s studio, or go to London and record with Nigel Godrich. You get into a mentality where you are surrounded by Vox guitars and you don’t feel like doing anything. Now you can hit the road because almost everyone has their little studio somewhere.

AL: When I first heard your new album it reminded me of the band Minimal Compact. They were a band from Israel, and the only one who tour outside of Israel, and they sound like a band where there’s a war going on all the time. So here we are in 2012, and Aufheben also sounds like a correspondent from a war.
Anton: Exactly. I am glad you are picking up on that. Absolutely. There is the whole Brave New World / 1984 aspect of our whole society. I knew that 2012 was coming. I love esoteric information. I have been a sucker for Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of” series. I love things that bump in the night. I don’t believe in ghosts but I love a ghost story. I wanted to make a 2012 album.

AL: What was it like working with Matt Hollywood again? You turn on the tape and Matt is in the room again. What was that like?
Anton: Very difficult. When I am cooking and I am in a manic fit, it is really difficult to keep up with me. I will keep going. I have energy that others’ don’t have. I will work on something for twelve hours. I can be around someone and make fun of them. I will write one of my best songs ever that is making fun of them. It’s like I am on one of those low budget kid shows from the 1970s. It’s good to do something goofy and keep people laughing. I am different from most of the bands who started around the same time as me. I am the opposite.

AL: How are you different?
Anton: I know how they work. A band like Metallica will just make up a hundred different parts and edit them together. Nirvana did this too. Then they will learn how to play the recording. I taught Peter Hayes how to play the guitar. He has improved over the years. He used to play like I did on Haight Street. It was tuned to one thing strumming like a hippie. It was like Syd Barrett just got out of a mental hospital. It was like Peter Hayes’ great contribution was telling a record company “Hey we got this band calledBRMC and we are going to buy leather jackets and sunglasses and sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain.” And the record company eats it up. Another friend will go: “We are going to rip off RokyErickson.” Another goes “We are going to record with Dave Fridmann…” Cool, that’s your plan.

I will be like Daniel Day-Lewis. I will be this person so I can enter the world of songs. Except I am more like a modern shaman, or Ezekiel, and I here to throw the wrench into the devil’s plan. I am speaking from this voice which is like an undefined higher power.

AL: How about you?
Anton: My plan is I want my own studio.and I want full control. I sit there like I am in a boat. I am a sailor. I am not my 20-year old self when I first moved to San Francisco and I wanted to learn how to record. I know how to record. I just sit there in that boat and wait for the wind. If it doesn’t come that day I don’t sweat it. I apologize to the people around me. I’ll play around with some mini-moogs. I’ll do some cover song in some weird way, until I get some spark of creation. I am not thinking at all. I am mumbling words and taking dictation until I get something on tape and it’s done. I have no goals, but sometimes I come out of the studio with two or three songs. I want to get to a whole range of human emotions. I am into shamanism. I have to put myself into character. I will be like Daniel Day-Lewis. I will be this person so I can enter the world of songs. Except I am more like a modern shaman, or Ezekiel, and I here to throw the wrench into the devil’s plan. I am speaking from this voice which is like an undefined higher power.

AL: You are like this modern day Ezekiel, while most bands are just these “cool looking” hipster bands with the one hit. They disappear after a few years.
Anton: They just want fame. There are all these talent contests now. People today will smack some bum in the face with a brick just to be famous. It seemed like people like Courtney Taylor wanted to get in the mix with Ione Skye and everyone. More so than being free and being that other person that has something that I don’t have. That was his ticket to go his whole life. It was a different style than me.

AL: What does that mean?
Anton: If Courtney could have slapped down ten thousand dollars as an investment, and flipped that for one hundred million, out of the whole rock business. If he could have got the model girlfriend, and a property, and been able to talk about movies, and hang out with Ione Skye, he didn’t need the music. I always got that impression from that guy. He wanted to get to that dinner party where Shepard Faireyshows up, and knows who you are.

At one of our earliest shows in San Francisco at Peacock Lounge, we were talking to Warner Bros and they offered me a big deal. They told me: “You guys are the next Nirvana. What do you want?”

AL: There will always be those bands that have the one hit, and they think they are important, and as big as the Beatles, and in two years, they have broke up.
Anton: Exactly. I have an ace up my sleeve. I had an original plan where I was going to write a bunch of great songs first. I wanted to release everything in reverse. My oldest songs would actually be the songs I released before I quit. At one of our earliest shows in San Francisco at Peacock Lounge, we were talking to Warner Bros and they offered me a big deal. They told me: “You guys are the next Nirvana. What do you want?” I was talking to Travis Threlkel and Ricky Maymi backstage. I told my band: “Let’s just take a bunch of money and go to Brazil and never come back.” Just to fuck with the record company.

AL: Warner Bros had a chance to sign a bunch of bands. They passed on The White Stripes too.
Anton: You want to know about the White Stripes? Let me break it down to you. Greg Shaw (of BompRecords) gave money to Long Gone John at Sympathy For The Devil. He signed bands that Greg Shaw didn’t want to put out. Bingo! The White Stripes was a Greg Shaw production. That was all Greg Shaw’s network and distribution.

AL: Warner Bros and Capitol passed on a lot of bands that were great in the 1990s and still vital today.
Anton: I could have signed with all these labels. I could have been on Elektra Records multiple times. I got a call from a publisher a few days ago. They want to sign me. I asked them: “What the fuck are you going to bring to the table?” My music is on TV every day. I get paid. I know all these musicians like Evan Dando and Tim Burgess. They don’t make that much money because they took your publishing deal. I make more money than they do.

AL: Since you mentioned Greg Shaw: what was that thing you did with him, the Tangible Box? Was that a representation of San Francisco bands, or was that just you, and these invented bands?
Anton: That was the first thing that I did with Greg Shaw. I was in some of those bands. But I was thesvengali of the whole thing. All these bands from San Francisco pushed me out of the way. Bill Graham would give them deals. The Rosemarys and all these people. Even a band like Red House Painters got signed at one of my shows. Ivo Watts-Russell came in and looked at us and said: “These guys can’t even tune their guitars.” The Dandy Warhols got signed after opening up for me at Great American Music Hall. Perry Watts-Russell from Capitol Records was there at my show and decided to sign them. Because you can’t work with me.

AL: What about Greg Shaw?
Anton: I told Greg that I wasn’t going to sign his 50% no money contract. It’s great that he put out Spacemen 3. While we were talking about a contract, I told him that I wanted to put out some singles of San Francisco bands. I opened this whole relationship that sold. He wanted more of me, but I had no contract. I signed a no contract deal.

AL: All the Tangible Box bands were real bands?
Anton: Some were and some were just me. Acid is me. I used to make up band names and make a whole record and send it to Warner Bros. Hey, check this out. I would send demos to Ben Is Dead. I would call myself anything. It’s such a crapshoot. These people don’t know what they want. They are businesses. Names are the killer. I can’t tell you how many bad band names there are. Take a band name like the Cure. Whatever the problem is, they’re the solution. The name of the band got them signed to a label in 1975. It took them many years to sell any records. But that was a brilliant name for a band. Then you take a name like Ride: that doesn’t mean anything. They were stupid enough to put a shark on it. You have this great song by this epic band who were really talented, and they have the stupidest name in the universe. It’s dead in the water.

AL: The music business is big business. And the big money is put behind the lamest acts.
Anton: I saw this recent abomination against God. It all started with Madonna bringing Nicki Minaj on the Super Bowl show. They inflicted this noise on everyone and flipping people off so they would talk about it. Then they pumped it to the next level and put her on the Grammys. It’s supposed to be a celebration of music excellence and merit. And Nicki Minaj did that Roman thing. It was garbage: there’s no merit, no hiphop skills, there’s NOTHING. This is like some sick perverted joke. Then this past week they had her in Times Square performing on all the jumbotrons. It had never been done. They bought a number one single in the UK. And Paul Weller was number one because he sold only 45 thousand.

AL: Well, Paul Weller probably did sell 45,000 because he’s like an English institution. People in England probably do buy those CDs.
Anton: Madonna bought the number one spot. To be successful now you have to have the president of the label personally concerned about having a number one record. You have to have the luck of the draw. There are probably four or five guys in the world who can do this. Their ego and job is on the line and they need to have a hit record. You are lucky enough to be hand picked by the head of the label or you work for some publishing firm and become part of some stable. Today they can buy the number one spot. When Madonna comes out with a record, she is going to spend two million to market it and make sure it’s a number one record. She could go to iTUNES with a crew and buy as many singles it will take to make it number one. Madonna’s record has been out two weeks and no one is buying it, because she bought them all herself in the first week. It’s amazing. That is brilliant.

AL: How did the theme song to Boardwalk Empire happen, and how come you are not on the soundtrack album?
Anton: It doesn’t matter. They have some period music and I have the theme song. The theme song alone was like getting a record deal. Any band you have ever known: getting that theme song was like the equivalent of two of their record deals.

AL: How did that happen?
Anton: You would think that Mark Wahlberg is so shallow from the roles that he plays. His production crew, and his interests, besides what he does and his role in popular culture, is solid. They pick a musical supervisor and Scorcese is part of that team too. All these TV shows that have a mainstream culture and authoritarian government, and also a more interesting dark sick underbelly current as well. A show like Boardwalk Empire hints at revolution in a way, at least in your consciousness. They identify me in that same place. We are like in the same boat. And the world is the way it is. The people who own everything will prevent people like me from making cool stuff. All the people who were in the music business are getting in the medical business.

AL: The new album, Aufheben will be out on May 1st. Will you be playing any of these new songs on the upcoming tour?
Anton: Yes. We will be playing all kinds of stuff. We will do the best we can.

AL: You have some interesting opening bands for this tour: Magic Castles, Blue Angel Lounge, and Cate Le Bon. How did you find these people?
Anton: Dead Skeletons, and The Third Sound. I am a music fan. Cate Le Bon is everywhere. You can look her up on YouTube. She is a kindred spirit. She has imagination. She has her own style. She is very confident about that. I found out about Blue Angel Lounge because someone gave Will Carruthers a CD. Blue Angel Lounge were some young kids from Germany. Their favorite band was the Chameleons UK. Their dad was into the same music we were into. It’s crazy. I heard the Magic Castles in a bar in Berlin. I think Matt Hollywood might have met them. They weren’t on my radar. I found out that they had a few albums out.

AL: You have a song on the new album called “I Wanna Hold Your Other Hand.” People laugh when they hear that title.
Anton: It’s clever. In theory, if John Lennon is petitioning to hold that one hand, then I am assuming that there is one hand that is free for me.

Paul McCartney would impress me more if he said in one interview, something like: “It was interesting being in the Beatles, but it was more interesting how we inspired other people to start bands.

AL: You have a song about Paul McCartney on a previous album.
Anton: Paul McCartney would impress me more if he said in one interview, something like: “It was interesting being in the Beatles, but it was more interesting how we inspired other people to start bands. Like how the Velvet Underground, Galaxie 500, or Sonic Youth influenced people to start bands.” It was more important to be a folk phenomenon too. But he has his head up his ass. He’s a dickhead. I am being myself and I am iconoclastic. I find it disgusting that people idolize certain people that it clouds their reality.

AL: There is this Laserium event on April 21st 2012 in Downtown LA. It is a Brian Jonestown Massacre listening party for the new album. Is that for real?
Anton: Yes. At the Devil’s Drive In. I was joking around. I said to Rob Campenella: “Hey, Rob, we should rent out the Laserium.” I meant the Planetarium where my babysitters used to get stoned and listen to Pink Floyd. Let’s give the album the Laserium treatment and have a party. I put the Laseriumlink on his website. He thought that was a great idea. Rob is a California stoner drive around in a van kind of guy. It’s a dream come true. He gets to be Pink Floyd for a night. He called and hooked it up.Aufheben is a trippy record. I don’t want people to jump off buildings because they think they can fly.

AL: Is there going to be a DIG part two or a BJM live film in the future?
Anton: People ask me that all the time. The whole point of DIG was I was showing people how I could go against Mo Ostin and the record industry. They were calling me a punk and an asshole. It was me against the record business with spy cameras. All that contrasted to The Dandy Warhols taking the hook, and following them. All this footage exists. If Ondi Timoner had any integrity she would release the footage. She said that she was going to make an archive and show some of the other footage. If she had the vision, she could tell the real story. The Red Hot Chili Peppers management brought me into this project. I didn’t want to be in a movie with these ten horrible bands that have already broken up. I don’t want to watch some band going to Guitar Center. I pitched them the idea of my band and the Dandy Warhols. This band was going for it and it’s an interesting story. I spoke to Capitol Records. Perry Watts-Russell tried to do a backroom deal. He said: “Let’s cut the Brian Jonestown Massacre out of the film, and make it a Dandys films.” That was absurd. Perry thought that the Dandys were his little baby, or his next Radiohead. Perry doesn’t understand what America likes. Americans like something fun, but they want to be into something that is like their background in Ohio.

AL: People don’t like these cool industry acts.
Anton: Any idiot can see themselves as being me, and starting a band like Brian Jonestown Massacre. Guess what? Thousands have done this. That is what it’s all about. That is how I got into the game.

AL: Everyone who sees DIG thinks: I like Anton and Brian Jonestown Massacre. They think the DandyWarhols are this middle of the road band. They are lame.
Anton: They got ripped off. They look like a bunch of wannabees. Why would you hire the guy from Duran Duran to produce your record? He has never produced a record in his life. Duran Duran’s whole concept was: Let’s be like Japan with better songs. Duran Duran’s biggest achievement was that they got Princess Diana’s hairdresser, and they fooled a bunch of models into thinking they were talented.

If your plan is to join Myspace and Bandcamp and pester Johnny Marr, then you don’t have a plan. Any label will laugh in your face. Bands should just make music and stop looking for validation.

AL: What do you think of Bandcamp?
Anton: I hate it. It’s like every idiot in the world puts their demo on Bandcamp and they thinks it’s an album. It’s insane. I would never go to camp. I don’t like concentration camp either. Bandcamp is like going to Guitar Center and listening to a bunch of guys wank off. Only a deaf person could sort through all the bullshit on Bandcamp. If your plan is to join Myspace and Bandcamp and pester Johnny Marr, then you don’t have a plan. Any label will laugh in your face. Bands should just make music and stop looking for validation.

AL: I get a lot of emails about new bands and unknown bands all the time. You must get ten times as much pestering emails from unknowns as I do? How do you deal with all that noise?
Anton: I get thousands a day. I do.

AL: Do bands send you messages and what are they like?
Anton: Yeah. Let me play with you. Who is opening up for you? Check out my record. I really like your band. People from France saying “Hey. Why won’t you put out this record?” Putting out all these records costs a lot of money. I have been wearing the same shoes for three years. I could lose a lot of money on a band that no one has heard of. I can’t be bothered if bands have waited a long time. I waited for years to get my own records out and worked my ass off and was turned down by a lot of labels and nobody gave me a chance. I could stumble upon the next Arcade Fire. I could make some calls and get them a lawyer or a label to look at them.

AL: You have your own band and you have to do these long tours? If you suddenly find a great band, you might have to fill a bunch of orders because people are demanding the CD worldwide?
Anton: There are a bunch of labels that has happened to, like Flying Nun. The Verlaines were hot shit when they made that first record. But when your label is only pressing a thousand CD at a time, you can’t even give out any press CDs. That band went nowhere. That guy in the Verlaines is the most talented guy on the planet. He is so good. But he had no career because Flying Nun wouldn’t let the reigns go. It happens to labels like Merge Records. Some bands can’t sign to a major label because they were already secretly on a major label, like Light In The Attic. Major labels and people like SimonCowell who pay for their success are the worst. If an asteroid hits the earth this year, I am not going to miss it.

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Author | Alexander Laurence

Alexander Laurence has published his first book of short stories, called FIVE FINGERS MAKE A FIST (Pollinator Press/REsearch 2008), and has finished writing a new novel that will be published soon. His writing has also been featured in recent issues of Zoo Magazine. He's done interviews with Billy Idol, Ray Liotta, Saoirse Ronan, and Anna Friel in the past two years. Please visit his site The Portable-Infinite for more.

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5 Comments

  1. Dude’s still obsessed with Courtney Taylor. Even put out a song last year, titled rather creatively, “Courtney Taylor.” Man crush? Looking forward to the BJM tour and show in PDX, though it could be a train-wreck. Kinda hope so. Morbid fascination.

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  2. I like the part about how digital music is supposed to be a waste of time, because anyone can do it, but on the other hand great bands get screwed because there aren’t enough copies of their records ?

    One could argue that having an INFINITE number of copies available of said album could be considered an advantage by a band trying to gain a greater following. No ?

    Anton Newcomb : brilliant musician, highly inflated ego.

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    • this guy seems really awesome. Its people like this who make me remember what it means to be young and alive and passionate.

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  3. My favorite part about almost every Anton interview is taking note about the bands and musicians he mentions. Discovering the BJM has refined my musical palate and Anton is responsible for the countless hours I have since spent on my knees rifling through boxes at record stores. Keep Music Evil.

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  4. The Boardwalk Empire theme song is a complete rip-off of Wild Thing.

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