Brian Jonestown Massacre interview 2012
Anton Newcombe talks about life and love
By Alexander Laurence
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 (2012) 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 Anton Newcombe and Brian Jonestown Massacre are bigger than ever. I got to speak to him over the phone this week, right before the tour begins.
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 toured 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 called BRMC 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 Roky Erickson.” Another goes “We are going to record with Dave Fridmann…” Cool, that’s your plan.
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 Fairey shows up, and knows who you are.
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.
(PART TWO: Click here)
Photos: Angel Ceballos