May 6th, 2014 | Interviews

spencer hartling

A lot of wild and famous bands are playing Austin Psych Fest this year, but none are more notorious than the Brian Jonestown Massacre, whose front man Anton Newcombe has spent the better part of two decades taunting the press and public into paying attention to the saga of his band, warts and all. Much of their drug-fueled rise and fall and rise again was captured in the acclaimed documentary DIG! which came out in 2004 and compared the near-disintegration of the BJM at that time with the concurrent rise to fame of the Dandy Warhols, whose singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s creative friendship with Newcombe was often indistinguishable from hatred or even ridicule.

But that was a decade ago. Today I’m meeting with the now-reportedly-sober Newcombe in a trailer behind the main stage at a festival that, technically, is a tribute to the experience of drugs. I’ve just watched him on stage the night before, sitting in on the Dandy Warhols’ Friday night set; tonight the BJM will have their chance for yet another musical rebuttal. But apparently Newcombe wants to make sure he gets the chance for choice words in print as well, or at least, his management or his PR people or someone does. And so up from the dust and the heat and the lights that are oddly trailing everywhere, they plucked the closest journalist they could find willing to pit himself against Anton’s famously cruel wit, and plopped the two together. This interview is by me, D. M. Collins! And believe it or not, Mr. Newcombe was an absolute sweetie… at least, to me.

So 12 years ago or so you were at a party that I was at, and I had a bottle of Jameson, and you wanted some, and so you kissed me on the lips! Do you remember? Was I a good kisser?
Anton Newcombe: I don’t know… I think probably the last drop of Jameson was on your lips!
The title of the new album is Revelation. What are you ‘revealing’ in this album that you didn’t get out in the first 13 albums? Anton Newcombe: Well, it’s a personal revelation.
Do you want to share it with us? Or do we need to listen to the album to get it? Or will we ever get it?
Anton Newcombe: Well, revelation has many definitions or connotations depending on how you look at it. … It can mean direct spiritual guidance on the level of Saint John on the island being stricken down and seeing visions of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelations. Or it can be revelations meaning you’re being guided by a spirit or unseen hand to awarenesses or conclusions, like in an Indian sense, which I more lean towards. And revelation could be where you have an epiphany or you see things in a new light and accept them. It’s like an order. It’s like if you’ve taken acid or something, and you’re like ‘wow, it all makes sense, man.’
We’re at Austin Psych Fest, and ‘psychedelic’ in one way seems to mean a style and culture tied to a very specific time, the mid-late 60s. But there was also a seeking in those days, which still happens now, for a broader sort of ‘mysticism,’ be it Eastern or Western. When you go to festivals like this, what do you think about the vibe of bands who play quote-unquote ‘psychedelic music?’
Anton Newcombe: Well, ‘psychedelic’ means ‘mind expanding.’ Alex Maas [of the Black Angels – ed.] in his interviews tried to say, ‘Well, the term psychedelic is so loosely all-encompassing that anything can fit under the blanket.’ But I like to describe it, to me, as mind expanding. A point of reference would be when Brian Jones would whip out fuzz guitar—he was a blues enthusiast, he’d play slide guitar first and best, he’d play harmonica, then he’d play marimbas, cello—anything made sense, to synthesizers, everything. It was all psychedelic. And the Beatles example is, on Sergeant Pepper, which is arguably their psychedelic moment, they played tea-party jazz, sitar music, they got some rock songs, some orchestra—all of it is like, oh yeah, all of this is possible, and it isn’t just paisley shirts and fuzz guitar. Psychedelic was also like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s grooooovy, baby, barrrr marrrr marrr, which was the cliché that killed all of it. Because then people were like ‘fuck all that shit.’
There’s something to be said for purity. I was talking to a girl last night who plays sitar, and she was complaining about people who hold the sitar wrong in these rock bands…
Anton Newcombe: Well, tell me, was she Caucasian?
Well … half Caucasian.
Anton Newcombe: Then maybe she gets half a pass. Here’s the thing: the person that invented sitar did not go to Ali Akbar School of Music. So on a certain level… see what I’m saying?
I don’t see what you’re saying.
Anton Newcombe: Even the cult that sitar making has become… like when you go to India, outside of Calcutta, there’s this one field of these fields of gourds. So the priests walk through this field and they find the gourds that sitars are made of, and they only cut the gourds that they intend to craft into the sitars, and the rest of the field goes fallow and just, like, grows up again, like magic gourds. And there’s a definite spiritual element to all of it. But at the same time, it’s like, dude, there’s like a million people starving in your country and you’ve got a space program. Don’t tell me how to do my thing.
Do you think there’s a spiritual—
Anton Newcombe: —You know what I mean? They’re landing probes on the moon and they’ve got a million people starving in the streets. Don’t tell me how to play sitar, you bitch! Ha, just kidding.
You could make the same argument about this festival, right? We’re all spending hundreds of dollars to come out to Austin and see this festival. We could be growing food or helping kids.
Anton Newcombe: I could turn this back around on you. In this hopeless, bleeding world, where you’re confronted with the Kardashians and the aftermath of—it’s not just those scum-sucking creeps, it’s everybody who’s influenced and clogs up everything. It’s the chick who’s texting on her phone, going ‘I love the ‘Happy Song!’’ directly into a truck and dies immediately. I read that in the paper, like literally right there on her Facebook. There’s that clogging of the arteries of consciousness. You’re bombarded by these things. So it’s okay for you to allocate some portion of your resources to have something for you that you enjoy in your life. Because life is hard, and you’ve got to remember that. So if this is some sort of mental retreat for you, if this is your spa, if you like the social aspect of seeing people and getting to check out five, ten, fifteen, twenty bands that you are curious about or you love all at once, I don’t think that’s waste, compared to like the reality that, like, there’s millions of people in Mexico that live off thirty bucks a month, or whatever it is, and some of the richest people in the world live in that country. I don’t think any of us sitting in this trailer right now talking are necessarily the problem, that this is necessarily bourgeoisie—although some people would argue. But fuck them and their commune! It’s my life.
Maybe like the concept of ‘tithing,’ you know, that we should spend ten percent of our life helping others and then 90 percent…
Anton Newcombe: … But we might say that we’re decent people living our life the way we want to do it. And that alone, by setting an example and not getting in the way of other people, we’re already tithing! Because we’re not getting in other people’s space. I’m not Tamara Ecclestone with some 125 room mansion because her dad’s a Formula 1 boss, and five baby buggies, or whatever.
On a musical level, it certainly seems that recently you’ve been helping other bands to do stuff—
Anton Newcombe: I’ve always done that.
But I’ve heard a rumor that you’re putting out four bands’ albums at the same time.
Anton Newcombe: I’ve got seven coming out in this month of May. I’ve got KVB from London, Les Big Byrd from Sweden, Blue Angel Lounge from Germany … and just putting some other releases out.
How did you discover these bands? Did they come to you?
Anton Newcombe: Different ways. I can’t deal with a mountain of Soundclouds and all these files, people with their demands. But sometimes I’ll be having a conversation with a person like you, like, ‘You’ve got to check out these guys in the tent!’ In fact, I just saw this band called Mirror Travel play today, and there wasn’t anybody watching. It was two girls and a guy bass player. And one of their songs was so kick ass. I want to say it was a cross between Nirvana and Lush but with a girl singer, a three piece. It was really inspiring. And the minute they got off, I was like, I want to make a 10’ vinyl of this. And they were like, ‘Well, we already put that song out,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t care, this is just for collectors from Europe. I want people to hear this.’ I guess they’re a local band from Austin. And so I just hit them up. And that’s how it happens too.
In that situation, would you want to be re-recording them? Would they fly to you in Germany?
Anton Newcombe: Whatever it takes. For someone as small as that, I don’t want to fly somebody to Europe to record. If somebody’s already in Europe and it works out, I have my own studio. Any which way to get it done.
What’s life like for you in Germany right now?
Anton Newcombe: I’ve got my family, my wife and my child. I wake up and cook breakfast, and then go to my work, which is my studio, make up ideas, and then I come home and cook dinner, play with my baby.
Sounds pretty good.
Anton Newcombe: Yeah, it is really normal and good.
When I first heard about your band, it was back in the day over a decade ago, when Bomp! Records was putting out all these cool bands, many of whom are now playing this festival: you, the Black Lips, the Warlocks…
Anton Newcombe: Greg Shaw would have loved all this! You know, Black Lips got their record deal because Greg asked me ‘What do you think of this?’ and I was like ‘Sign them up! Put this shit out!’
There was something magical about those days. Did Greg have a vision?
Anton Newcombe: He understood about certain things but he was also half-assed about things too. He had lost his ass enough times with people like Devo and everybody else that he didn’t want to put anything into anything. He didn’t want to mortgage his house for a group. So he had no problem being the first guy to discover something because every single band that he would put out their record, they would just jump ship to another label anyways. In his relationship with me, we got invited to play Reading Festival in England like five years in a row, and he never even told me because he was very interested in me just being crazy and making all my records. He just figured I would die first, and he would be like, ‘Look at this! Here’s a modern Pebbles guy. Look at all these songs!’ That was his trip.
But he died first.
Anton Newcombe: Yeah. Exactly, motherfucker! Ha ha, in your FAAAACE! See you in HELL!
What’s your favorite recording of your Bomp! albums?
Anton Newcombe: I don’t have a favorite, but I like how Satanic Majesties rolls a little bit. I don’t even take stock very often. It’s not even every year that I listen to my old music.
But it does seem like in the last few years, things have come full circle as far as a lot of the original members being back in the band and playing. One unexpected twist though is with Joel Gion. In the documentary Dig! and on stage, he’d always come off as sort of being like Bez from Happy Mondays, just a guy who stands up front with sunglasses on and shakes the maracas. But now he actually fronts his own band, and they seem to be doing pretty good, even playing Psych Fest. Did you know from the start that he was talented? Or were you surprised?
Anton Newcombe: A long, long time ago I’d tried to work with him and help him record some songs and stuff, but it’s really hard to work with me, because—here’s that word ‘epiphany’ again—when I see something I’m interested in in music, I hear all the parts, like a symphony. So it’s really hard for another person who’s trying to use the process to learn, to find out who they are and what they’re trying to express, like ‘Let me make up my own part, dude.’ It’s really weird to sit down next to somebody who’s like ‘I see it just like this. No, you’re doing this wrong,’ and you’re like ‘Dude, this is my fucking idea!’ So I’m really proud of him to be able express something. Because it’s also in people, when they have a dream, you have the resistance of reality. You have doubt, you have the monetary thing, you have the communication thing of getting people to work with you. You have to overcome all that shit to make your dream come true. So that’s good for your spirit. So as one person to another, I’m proud of him.
But what do you think of the idea that ‘cream rises to the top,’ that the most talented people, your Rod Stewarts or Joni Mitchells, will inevitably achieve success because they’re so fucking good? Your own story is more scattered than that. Do you feel there’s some untapped fame and fortune that you didn’t make that you deserve?
Anton Newcombe: No, I don’t think there’s anything to be said for… Look, we listened to the Zombies last night talk about how they were unheralded. I’m headlining over this fucking festival, and they made two singles that sold over two million copies a piece, and that doesn’t pay their rent. They were bigger than the Beatles at the same time, and they were suppressed and banned from America. And so it’s like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. They were on every single TV show in the world! They’re flying to the Philippines, and the army’s holding them back. They’re playing stadiums to 100,000 people. It’s like … that didn’t do jack diddly squat, see what I’m saying? None of that stuff means anything. Every single band from MTV, every single band in creation, the whole 80s except, you know, Oasis, who got kicked off their label, right, or those guys just jumped ship. ‘You sold ten million? We’ll buy your label and sell it to Sony.’ It’s like every single person in every single magazine. It’s like … where the fuck are the Strokes at? All that stuff doesn’t mean anything. I can do anything I want. I live in a foreign country. I’ve got my family. I’ve got no cares in the world. I’ve got my studio. It’s like, I don’t know what kind of success?
Do you think you saw this coming—the dissolution of the record industry?
Anton Newcombe: Always. And that’s the whole thing, my beef with the [Dig!] movie, is because we had spy cameras, and I gave them the access and brought the Dandy Warhols in. Because the Dandy Warhols got the record deal through opening up for me. It was the access that I wanted to film. I took over somebody else’s film. Like, ‘No, you’ve got to watch this process of somebody being in the bidding war, and listening to this bullshit, and just going through it. And this will be great, because I know I’m not going to sell out. So I’ll get these guys I know are going to go for it.’ And the evidence is, go to Google and type in Dandy Warhols, and you’re going to get like 5,000 photos. Type in the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and you’re going to get like five band photos of my group. I’ve got all these records, and we play all over the place. Trust me. And you’re going to find 5,000 of them! But it doesn’t mean anything. You spent all that time arranging all that shit. ‘It’s the most important thing!’ It’s like, it doesn’t mean anything. And that access is all paid for to the magazine. From the outside, for two years, for two records, you’re like, ‘These guys are everywhere! There’s a feature in every magazine! They’re playing every festival! Look, in the video, there’s like 60,000 people out there!’ So what, man? It’s like, Mariah Carey was playing right after them, and they didn’t want to lose their spot! That’s what I wanted to show in Dig! was that, I was just playing with these guys, but I wasn’t going to give up. It’s the Johnny Appleseed of music, in a way, in a modern time.
One thing I thought was very nice of Courtney Taylor-Taylor and the Dandy Warhols is that he did, in that movie, seem to take the stance almost that yours was the better band.
Anton Newcombe: But somebody else wrote his dialogue! They sat down together and they made a point for him, and he just narrated it. I don’t think he put as much thought into the implication of it because he was blinded by his own egotism.
But you seem to be getting along okay. You performed with the Dandy Warhols last night.
Anton Newcombe: Yeah, but we have been for a long time. We did the same thing at Lollapalooza when we both played. So…
A mystique has definitely grown up around your band. I used to play in a band with Lenny Pops, who had played guitar with you for like a minute in 1999. And tons of people in, say, Tulsa, Oklahoma, would come out and see us play a gig just because it said ‘ex-BJM’ on our flyers. What is it about you that resonates with people?
Anton Newcombe: I think it’s a folk thing, maybe.
I don’t know. Your lifestyle maybe is something a lot of people would not be able to relate to, right? You’re a very individual person.
Anton Newcombe: Yeah, but that’s okay, you know? I mean, I relate to John Wayne, not by his thing, but because when I was growing up in Newport Beach, there was a lot of Okies, a lot of salt of the earth, foreign people, Europeans, and a fishing community, and cowboys. Even my dad spent time doing that kind of work. We’d go to Wyoming just for the fuck of it, because it appealed to his sensibility. ‘Aw, this sounds romantic, I’ll just go work on ranches.’ As much as Jim Morrison or something. See, I never wanted to be a rock star to fuck girls or some shit. I wanted to play music with my friends. I don’t even know what I visualized when I started. I wanted to be like able to do something like the Minutemen, be in a van, tour any single fucking place, pay my rent, and be known. I didn’t want to be Robert Plant! I hate that guy.
But what it also seems like you don’t want to do is bear your heart and soul and have people say ‘Yeah, me too, I had the same kind of breakup’ Or is that something you want?
Anton Newcombe: I don’t make music for an imaginary demographic that I’m supposed to identify with. ‘Oh yeaaaaaah, the people who listen to KROQ in Los Angeles are really gonna relate to this song!’
But without doing any of that, a song can be ‘revelatory,’ literally, like revealing something about yourself. Or it can aim instead for transcendence.
Anton Newcombe: But I like foreign music! So the first song is a Swedish song, so it doesn’t even matter. It’s like, if I identify the tones that strike my heart chakra or whatever—it might be anger, the crown liberating chakra or whatever it might be—that’s fine too. See, I listen to Chinese music. If I relate to it, I relate to it. To me, it almost doesn’t even matter what’s going on lyrically. There’s another level of what music is communicating, even if there’s words being said. It’s the tones. It’s the sacred geometry involved.
Do you think music can tap into something ‘beyond this world?’
Anton Newcombe: Obviously it works on many different levels, because infants and toddlers enjoy it. They’re tapping into shit they don’t even understand. They know nothing about marshmallow pies, or whatever John Lennon’s singing about. And the cool thing is, neither do we know. What is he talking about?
Edgar Allen Poe said that the reason people cry during beautiful music is because they’re sad, because it hints at something celestial that they’ll never be able to truly see.
Anton Newcombe: Yeah, but he’s dead.
But we’ll all be dead at some point.
Anton Newcombe: That’s the fascinating thing. My wife is just like, ‘Oh my God, when Wolfgang, our son, is 80, everybody alive right now will be dead!’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’
What legacy do you think you’ll leave behind when you’re dead?
Anton Newcombe: I don’t know. I hope that I enter the popular lexicon on some different level, that through mixed media it will have tentacles attached to different things that will allow discovery in a digital era. Meaning, there’ll be various connections, that people will find it, whether through the movie, or through mixed media. It won’t be just buried like everything else. Like, if you go on iTunes, 99% of things have never been listened to. I won’t be one of those persons.
For these shows that are coming up in the L.A. area, what is some new tentacle you’ll be bringing that we haven’t seen before?
Anton Newcombe: I’m gonna play a couple songs that I’ve never played before in front of people. So that’s a surprise.
Not anymore! I think we just spilled the beans.
Anton Newcombe: Well, that’s okay, because I’ve never played them before, and the music’s quite good, and by the time we get to the Wiltern, it should be excellent.