Photos by Mehdi Benkler
There has always been an alluring darkness central to the enduring saga of The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
It’s in the band’s name—an amalgamation of a dead Stone and a suicide cult. It’s in album titles like Thank God For Mental Illness. It’s in the name of their former record label, The Committee to Keep Music Evil. And it’s definitely in the enduring takeaway from the controversial, sensationalised documentary Dig!, which ultimately shows the band as a bunch of junkies, and Anton Newcombe as their unhinged, unpredictable leader.
Twice now, in two decades, I’ve had the rare opportunity to interview the temperamental Mr. Newcombe, and both times he has successfully brushed off questions about this intriguing sense of evil, emphatically insisting that I focus on what’s important—the music. And he’s right. To his point, the band’s music has never ceased or faltered. In 32 years, they have released 21 studio albums of swirling psychedelic mastery, shoegaze and sinister pop. Add to this the bands that Anton has recorded, released records by, the musicians he collaborates with, and his recent soundtracking, and you can’t help but recognise a fearless creator with a tireless work ethic at the top of his game.
In what may be one of the most prolific years of their career, The Brian Jonestown Massacre spent more than 50 days on the road, touring Europe and the US despite Covid complications and stolen gear, to support the two records that they released in the span of a few months. The word is there’s already another one slated for early 2023. We had the opportunity to interview Anton via Zoom as he graciously showed us around his studio in Berlin, and even let us virtually try on his red sunglasses to see the world through his eyes. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Anton Newcombe…
So, let’s talk about making this new record. You hit a fit of inspiration and recorded a song a day for 70 days?
Yeah, as I showed you, I have the space and the equipment. I have a little bit of history in that people have pinned me to be a bit erratic. What I’m interested in is music. I have all of these tools, so what I do is I come in and work. And yeah, we got on a roll. This wasn’t really a Covid record, specifically because I have what I call ‘purple patches,’ which can be described as manic rolls or whatever. I tend to write on the fly and just press record. I pick up the guitar and I can strum the guitar once and go ‘Oh, this could be a song.’ And from then on, it’s a race for me to get it out of my head.
This time around, I was playing my old 12-string. It took about a month of trying things that I didn’t care for; not because I’m trying to imagine the imaginary demographic of radio or what teenagers like. I had nobody to impress, but it’s something that I really think is good. Pushing my own self forward. I’m going to be 55 in August. A young 55, but still. I mean, we don’t even live in music times. It’s basically about the tribal identification of pop music. You know, the dancing, the TikTok videos—it’s beat-heavy. There’s no music—or it’s the same music as something else—or bleeps and blops or whatever.
But I’m into music, you know. I mean, people like Howling Wolf are valid, and he started at 60. I’m really interested in what that means and how that’s different than Mick Jagger, for whatever reason, doing it at 76. I can’t even figure out a reason why he’s doing it, not one reason in the world. It ain’t money. He’s probably going for last man standing. He probably has Colombian hitmen trying to take Paul McCartney out. It would be cool to write a cartoon like that, right? Where they’re both soldiering on. Wouldn’t that be great? Behind the scenes it’s like Better Call Saul. I can’t even think of a stadium name because everything is named after a corporation, but Paul’s like, ‘Wembley Stadium’ and Gustavo’s like, ‘Yes I understand.’
There’s a line on the new record, ‘Fight the beast until it dies/Raise your sword into the sky.’ Do you see this as a metaphor that applies to your life and career?
Well, you think about St. George and the dragon, and all northern people really. Chinese people seem to like dragons, but most cultures have a fear or deep respect of great serpents, whether it’s aboriginal, indigenous, Australia or Japan, it doesn’t matter. But since you asked, I feel that deep down, I am honestly here to destroy all of that shit because I don’t give a good goddamn. If you think about people who get off on whatever it may be, let’s say Vince Neil, ‘Shouting at the Devil,’ with the spinning pentagram and the spinning drum kit and all that shit. Fuck all those guys. And their lipstick. And their hairspray. And their fake hair. I mean, I don’t care if I go bald. I’ll fuck them all up. I really don’t care. You see what I am saying? I really don’t give a fuck about any of it.
I think there are a lot of things metaphorically that you can relate this to. Obviously, this iconography has existed for a long time, depending on where you are from. Like St. Patrick and the serpents, or St. George and the dragon, and it gets heavier than that. In Iceland, for more than a thousand years, they’ve been dropping people in the lake for this dragon. There are still pagans there, undefeated for a long fucking time. That’s a long time to nonstop be feeding a dragon—Sparky, or whatever his name is. In the past few years, we’ve gone from existential crisis to existential crisis, right? So, in my life, whether it’s walking up to good-looking girls or whatever I’m afraid to do… applying for a job… rarely, but it’s happened before. Everything that elicits those butterflies, I’ve always just jumped into the fire.
I know that people fantasize about how great it would be in their little Dungeons & Dragons scenario with their mates when the 20-sided dice in their chaos-neutral-whatever clubs the guy in the shadows, but for me, I’m here to destroy it because I’m a little kid and I just wanna chill. No offense to all of my satanic brethren. I’m like, ‘My god created the devil and my god will destroy it. Now deal with it.’ I don’t need some fat ass, BBQ-eating, bullshit motherfucker leading the charge. That’s the last person I’d pick for my team. I want the quiet guy who doesn’t fart a lot. God knows what we’ll encounter, but you are the last dude.
You had your gear stolen on tour and after grassroots support on social media to get the word out, the Portland, Oregon police recovered it 10 days later. All of this has happened before. Does this negatively affect your faith in humanity or does it reinforce it?
You know, it happens to construction workers all the fucking time. People break into their gear and they still have to pay rent and their ex-wives and every goddamn thing. It will really fuck you up. Some of those tools are labour-saving devices. In construction, you can go at it the easy way with a nail gun, or you can sit there and slam nails all day long with a hammer and break your thumb while you’re holding the drywall or the ceiling or whatever. I mean, it happens to all kinds of people these days and it’s a fact of life everywhere.
Some of my business partners were like, ‘We got these hotel bills for the Covid and the gear. You gotta pull the plug on this tour.’ And I was like, ‘Fuck you.’ I hung up the phone and I looked at the bus driver and I said, ‘You see the bank cards that fill up this bus, and the name that rented this bus? Those are all in my name. You ignore any phone calls you get from a guy with an English accent. Get in that bus and let’s drive.’ For all these other bands, it’s game over. It goes like dominoes, and they don’t fall in a neat little pile. It’s a tough time for public entertainers.
Even before the movie Dig!, your shows were notorious for outlandish occurrences. After Dig!, it seemed people started coming to shows expecting something to happen. Is that something you acknowledge? How do you view your relationship with your audience?
Look, it started way before that. Look back at the Stones and the Yardbirds playing. If you are playing 30 watts and get high energy going, young people will flip tables. And not because they are mad at anything. They will walk up to a wall and smash their head into a wall. It’s a spontaneous reaction to this energy that they connect to. There were riots from the very beginning. People don’t realise how stupid they are. That shit happens a lot and that’s the responsibility of society. Societies everywhere created a lot of fucking idiots, especially in America. Here’s the problem with people, especially with people of a culture of egomaniacs: if you listen and you pay attention, then you understand that there are all sorts of things going on around you. Your ultimate desire should be to learn, right?
The magic in the world exists from what you don’t know, not from what you do know—whether it’s science or math or anything. Well, I know something that you don’t know, and I’m here to play you this new music. Now shut up and listen to it. I ain’t going to play this other thing, I ain’t gonna play what you want. I ain’t gonna go to Dunkin’ Donuts and tell you and your mom what to do at work, so fuck off. But then I’m thinking that I’ve done a bazillion hits of acid and I’ve met a million people tougher. I fought Mexican gangs growing up, by myself. They don’t think about any of that shit. They’re just thinking about their own stupid, pussy television fucking fantasies.
There was this guy on tour, he stands up and he’s all pumped up like Sylvester Stallone and he says, ‘Fuck you, Anton, you don’t deserve this band.’ And Joel walks up to the microphone and says, ‘On behalf of this band, fuck you.’ And he’s all cocked up like Conan with his sword. I walked up to the mic and I said, ‘You know what?!’ And he yells, ‘What!?’ And I said, ‘Chicken butt.’ It was silent. He had to do this crab walk sideways out of the entire place. We’re really here to try and play as good as we can. There’s this thing that we have, that no one else can do.
And there’s a second record following this year as well?
It’s really good, even better than this one. I’m quite proud of both of these pieces, they’re both from the collection of songs from that spree. I was thinking about how the Beatles’ ‘Rain’ sounded, but what would happen if Jim Morrison was singing it. It’s that juxtapositioning, the kind of mood you get in your head.
What makes a good album to you? Do you think of your records in the same way as when you released them?
You have to go into it with the spirit that you’re going to take on the world. Hopefully you learned something, because there are certain limitations. A lot of things are neither here nor there. The thing is, I can play all the songs from our first practice. Six songs, and they’d fit right into our set, the songs are timeless. Everybody in the music business, short of a handful of people, sold their rights and never made any money—even fucking David Crosby has to put his face on a bag of weed to save his house because he makes nothing, and all he does is bitch. I can do anything I want and make music every single day because I own all my rights. I knew saying ‘no’ would be more profitable or more equitable than saying ‘yes.’ You’re betting against the fucking house. I’m here to destroy this business; to slay the dragon and I’m going to teach you how to do it. Stuff like that makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Any parting words?
I personally would like to be known as somebody who encouraged people to be themselves and not emulate any other person. Just stick to your guns and find some sort of cooperative with other people, especially in difficult times. It’s time well spent. A lot of people search for validation by trying to impress record companies so they can give them money to pay their rent and make it easier to do this or that. To put my face everywhere so I can meet more girls. But the same thing can be achieved by working together and sharing. That’s how I do it. You just have to find creative ways around this stuff, even if the world seems to have changed. Whether it’s people liking rock music or people loving Korean bands with 26 members dancing, there are ways to do it. You have to become the party. That’s the way to do it: be the party! And on that bombshell, I have to go.