Anton Newcombe: “I just did what I wanted to, hopefully that would be inspiring”

The Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman on seeing Tchaikovsky for one dollar, the importance of mature musicians and Dig!

After returning from the US to promote The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s new album, Don’t Get Lost, frontman Anton Newcombe is just happy to be back home in Berlin. “We were headlining a festival in New Mexico and I got a chest infection and one of my guitarists had to go and try salvage his marriage. It was a rough time.” Having moved to Berlin over a decade ago, Newcombe’s studio has been put to good use in that time.

I don’t really need an excuse to be outraged

The Californian-born musician has released two albums in the space of six months and has another on the way with Canadian songwriter Tess Parks. Releasing music at this rate is not uncommon for Newcombe. In 1996 alone, the Brian Jonestown Massacre released Their Satanic Majesties Second Request, Thank God For Mental Illness and Take It From The Man. Over their near-30 year existence, the group have put out a total of 20 full-length albums.

In 1990, Newcombe founded the Brian Jonestown Massacre in San Francisco. For years, the band have had a cult following and despite attempts at signing major record deals throughout the 90s, the volatile behaviour of the group led by Newcombe tarnished early chances of major commercial opportunity. The 2004 music documentary Dig! gave fans an insight into the love-hate relationship between the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols over a seven year period. The award-winning film follows the contrasting development and success of the two bands and highlights the method in the madness when it comes to Newcombe’s musicality.

The constantly changing sound of the Brian Jonestown Massacre has long been a product of Newcombe’s influences, be it world music, psychedelic or jazz. Though it generally doesn’t deviate from psychedelic rock, Newcombe’s ability to play instruments like the sitar and tanpura among dozens of others allows The Brian Jonestown Massacre to toy with more experimental and foreign sounds.

We sat down for a chat in Newcombe’s Berlin studio, where he showed us his instrument collection and told us about the new album.

--

What was the idea behind Don’t Get Lost?

I try and be honest, even when I don’t have ideas. I don’t force stuff. I don’t really need an excuse to be outraged. I’m civic-minded so there’s nothing in particular that needs me to kick it up another level. It’s all pretty outrageous to me, the Trump stuff and everything. I just try to keep it natural.

Are you back in the studio now?

Yeah, I was able to knock out a whole record with this Canadian chick Tess Parks. We have a new album coming out and it’s pretty good. I had to call her over to help me with lyrics. She’s really cool. She lets me rip her stuff to shreds.

Without bragging, I’ve had this project for 27 years and I’ve been in a studio for over 20 years non-stop. It’s kind of like a masterclass. I can approach anything in a different way and it doesn’t always reveal itself like in The Brian Jonestown Massacre work.

Have things changed since you’ve started making music?

Well, I used to sit around when I started the group and think, oh my God, when people hear this song they’re going to flip out. I never wanted to be bigger than The Beatles. I was never like that. I fucking hate rock stars.

The flip side of that is when I go out and play for 5000 people, I’ll play a song from 1990 and then play a song from last week and it’ll be seamless. I was never into this teeny bopper thing that goes along with music. Like the Monkees. It was this whole machine that was geared towards 12-year-olds. It was never really a case of trying to capitalise on the young crowd.

I’ve always been interested in just carrying on and not having a beat about age, especially as I get older. I love that Howlin’ Wolf didn’t release his first album until his late 40s. You listen to songs like ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and they’re amazing.

Do you think age plays a role in a musician's success?

I don’t think there are any rules specifically. I would like to see more women playing music in their 30s. I think it’s more interesting than, say, a 19-year-old. For several reasons. For starters, the 19-year-old has the whole new girl thing and the attraction to that. But a mature woman has something else.

Some people have things that are out of control at certain ages, especially if you look at it from a European perspective. Jacques Brel. He was something like 49 when he died and he was just dropping bombs. That wouldn’t have had the same effect coming from a 19-year-old, I think. He had this crazy perspective on love, life and death.

You could probably put Serge Gainsbourg into the same category.

Exactly, there’s another guy. He was constantly pressing buttons. Plus he had a deep genius that went beyond his persona. Even when it comes to interacting. There are a couple of things that people haven’t picked up on. One of them is I want to record in every different language. It’s never bothered Japanese people to listen to The Smiths and not understand a fucking word that Morrissey's saying.

Are you planning to tour again any time soon?

Maybe Australia later in the year. Our last show was really big down there, but the promoter was like, oh you should play with the Dandy Warhols for one show and trip everybody out.

What’s the relationship like with those guys at the moment?

Well, we’ve always been friends. It was only just a quick blip that they believed their own bullshit.

The story of the Dandys and the release of their record was over and the promo cycle was gone. I was just trying to create some hype, so I sent them some bullets. I showed up at the CMJ show we were headlining and they got us thrown off the bill because they’re like, oh my God, he’s threatening murder. So I press all these 12-inch singles and I paid their merch people to sell my records while they’re playing. We’ve been friends since then though.

I’ve seen the footage from that night in Dig! How did the documentary come to fruition?

The William Morris Agency. They called me and they said there are some people making a documentary in LA about 10 bands, navigating the major label bidding wars and we want you to be in it with your group.

When I met them, I said I’m going to take over your movie. When they laughed at me, I told them that all those bands are going to break up, but I know a new young band that won’t and will do everything the record company says. My band will never break up and I’ll do nothing that the record company says. So there’s your new movie idea.

Do you think there are enough innovative musicians around?

People will always find a way. Go back to the beginning of the blues days and who would have thought that 14 people would have been enough for 150 million Americans.

We don’t need that much. If you get somebody making up a song like The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’. You know, watching that on television made people want to be in bands. There’s a certain amount of energy in that. Then there’s the weirdo stuff like Velvet Underground.

Watching them execute it in such an honest way was really inspirational to me. Here’s my song and here’s my fucking guitar. There’s no tricks. There’s a beauty about that. I was always vocal about being this guy who just did his thing, I just did what I wanted to do and hopefully that would be inspiring.

I do love Hendrix, but there’s nothing that this guy ever did that could show you that you can do that. It was just so far out of reach. The only purpose it serves is to infuriate Eric Clapton because he can’t do it. I really like the thing in music that makes you want to emulate it.

There’s a fine line between taking inspiration and imitation.

It’s the business that fucks everything up though. Condé Nast owns them now but people don’t understand that Pitchfork came out of a desire to avoid paying for ad copy in other magazines.

And there are so many of these examples. The thing is that when all these people pushed this contemporary urban dialogue and narrative it mirrors a kind of capitalism that, supposedly, isn’t elitist. Saying, buy this and everyone will know that you’re living fucking large. I just don’t think that speaks to everybody, because everybody's experience isn’t true.

*It’s easy to get worked up when you realise what’s going on. Do you try and channel that frustration elsewhere? *

Yeah it is. Well, I was in Sydney, sitting under the monorail and it was 11am when a bar opened.

I had a schooner and a half pint glass of whiskey. I was in a suit, looking nice and this old guy comes up to me and says ‘Why are you so mad? What’s the problem? You’re drinking like this at 11am?’ I said ‘What do you mean? Look around you, everything’s fucked.’

He told me ‘When I feel crazy and worked up, I go and listen to Tchaikovsky in the Opera House. I’ll tell you what to do. You go up to the door and say there’s a ticket for you for one dollar.’

So he’s given me some masonic entry into a showing for fucking Tchaikovsky. I went inside it and it was amazing.

What made you want to leave the US?

Well I was going to live in Iceland but the economy crashed. The weird thing was that I was living in Manhattan and it occurred to me that I can live anywhere in the world. I was drunk and listening to that song, ‘New York, New York’ in a bar, where he says if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.

I was like, fuck it, I’ll just live in Germany. I can’t vote, but a lot of my political aspirations are spoken for. There’s progressive things in their society. I don’t really care what the security level is here, so I’m like a canary in a coal mine. I’m happy being here.