Brian Jonestown Massacre: In The Court Of King Anton
Over the course of what he would be loathe to refer to as his ‘career’, Anton Newcombe has been called a great many things, and managed to live up to most of them. Even to his own fans, the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s outspoken frontman is a notoriously polarizing figure, who drove one enraged blogger to declare in 2007 that, “Dying would be about the only truly selfless act Anton is capable of at this point,” before ceding a couple of sentences later that his music “Speaks for itself, and will never age or diminish.”
He’s been a genius, a junkie, a visionary and a madman, and when we ring him at his home in Berlin on a Wednesday afternoon, we half-expect the Devil himself to pick up. he doesn’t. Instead, like the rest of the world, Anton Newcombe is looking on in dumbfoundment as tragic events unfold in Haiti.
“I know there’s trouble brewing,” he says cryptically between pulls on his cigarette. “That’s all I can tell. I mean it’s terrifying, right?”
We’re all doomed, aren’t we?
“Oh, no! No! I would like to think that our destiny is rooted in the stars someplace, to do something really freaky, to trip people out. I’m not afraid of the future. I mean, things have always been kind of grim, but there’s no need to panic. right where I live here in Berlin, that’s a great example. I mean, how many different systems can you have going in the space of a hundred years?”
Newcombe has past form when it comes to predictions. In a lot of ways, he really was ahead of his time. he recognized early on the possibilities of the internet and what it meant for the music industry, making all of his band’s albums available as free downloads and happily existing outside the confines of major labels.
“God bless us!” he laughs. “Part of it was wanting to be part of the whole do-it-yourself thing, but the other part was forward-thinking. see, I knew all this. I’ve always known what the score was: that nobody really gets through this rock n’ roll thing unscathed. the thing that I find pathetic now is when you hear people talk bad about their experiences with labels and how they got fucked over. Everybody gets fucked over! It’s what you make of it that matters. if something can really kick your ass, you should be in awe of it. who wants to hear some sour old story about how you were beaten by life? I certainly don’t.”
The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s new album Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? picks up where their last one, 2008’s My Bloody Underground, left off. an abrasive, experimental collection that takes in foreign-language oompah-folk (the wilfully odd Detka! Detka! Detka!), neo-psychedelic sound collages (Felt Tipped Pictures Of UFO’s), caustic slabs of noise-rock (Let’s go Fucking Mental) and industrial, otherworldly drone-pop (Super Fucked). You’ll love it or you’ll hate it, but that’s always been kind of the point with the BJM.
“I’m curious to see what people think of the recordings,” admits Anton. “I like to think of myself as an artist, but I can see where people come from when they say, ‘Oh, you’re a fucking joke and you do everything half-assed.’ I can see that. But I really do look at it as art, so I’m really interested to see what other people think. to me, it’s intense, but it also doesn’t necessarily fit with everybody else’s agenda.”
Of the album’s title, he says, “For some reason I just think the mythology of Sgt. Pepper being such a great or important record is suffocating. That old tree needs chopping down. I think John Lennon would laugh at all this stuff, too. I thought it was kind of funny to take a few pot shots at the Beatles. I also feel immature for trying to amuse myself with stuff like that. I’ve got a bad sense of humour. maybe I should try and take myself more seriously.”
That would be a shame, because Newcombe’s complete lack of self-censorship is what makes him such a fascinating figure. Nothing and nobdy is safe from his acidic tongue. Witness his take on the whole Rage against the Machine/ X-Factor battle for Christmas number one: “Those guys are so clever. the whole thing seemed like a scam. There was definitely some hoodwinkery going on there. You could call Simon Cowell and his cabal a lot of things, but they’re definitely clever in the way they market stuff, so I wouldn’t put it past them. It’s such an odd song. There are so many other songs you’d associate with Christmas – that you’d associate with rebellion – a lot more than that one. And now that’s gonna be everybody’s big idea for next Christmas, right? ‘Let’s get this song to number one instead of X-Factor!’ the bottom line is that the Rage against the Machine track is total crap, too. the whole thing was like a massive snowball fight with shit.”
Get him talking about his artistic process, meanwhile, and he says that, “You have to understand, I know how people come up with their ideas because I know how to deconstruct them. I remember when Rivers from Weezer went through that phase where he wasn’t playing music for a while, and Bobby Hecksher from the Warlocks and myself invited him over to jam with us. he was like, ‘Great, I’ll come by and bring my songs.’ And he turned up with a notebook he’d filled with all of Oasis’ lyrics. He’d been deconstructing all of Oasis’ songs and brought them over to jam! People actually approach music like that! just fucking insane…”
Far from the doomed, destructive character of Ondi Timoner’s infamous 2004 documentary DiG! (which he never once mentions during our conversation), the Anton Newcombe we encounter today sounds positively hopeful and happy. He’s recently reunited with his old bandmate, guitarist Matt Hollywood, and is looking forward to recording a series of planned foreign language albums. he talks enthusiastically about wanting to soundtrack movies. He’s even stopped drinking.
“I think that since drugs are evil and very bad, they’ve probably changed my brain forever,” he muses. “They’ll always be a part of my process, but since I’ve gotten sober I’ve been feeling pretty mellow.”
He sounds, dare we say it, at peace. are there any lingering regrets about the past? just one.
“I signed a Chinese record deal back in the 90s with Rock Records, who are based out of Shanghai. it was a really smart move on my part. When China is eventually allowed to intellectually check out whatever they want, that’s gonna be an instant, massive market. Unfortunately I never got the chance to play there. We were invited to do a gig in Hong Kong, but I lost my passport, if you can believe that. it was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made…”
He lets out a long, throaty cackle.
“Aside from all the other ones I always make!”
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