The Brian Jonestown Massacre: An Interview with Anton Newcombe
The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Photo: Bradley Garner
Psych legends The Brian Jonestown Massacre have undoubtedly created a legacy for themselves. To give some indication, their latest, Don’t Get Lost, is the band’s 17th studio album. Their history has been one for the ages, and the acclaimed documentary Dig! followed the band alongside the Dandy Warhols. And although there have been claims that the film depicts various people incorrectly, there’s no denying that the band was, and still is, a must-see act. Prior to their show at White Oak Music Hall on Tuesday, Free Press Houston spoke to vocalist and guitarist Anton Newcombe in an extensive interview about the recent release, foreign and domestic policy, and the importance of social media and the impact that Newcombe has created with it.
Free Press Houston: Congratulations on your release of Don’t Get Lost. With such an extensive discography, have you began any release-date celebrations?
Anton Newcombe: Oh, no. I’m not really sentimental for any of that stuff. It all goes really quick. I’m not a person that believes in resting on your laurels. When I make something up, and if I am excited about it, the excitement goes away really quick, and then I’m on to the next thing. Even if I share something from a record that’s not out yet, the excitement still goes away quick.
FPH: Since you have your own studio, I imagine you have an extensive collection of gear. On this album, I noticed some very heavy electronic bass sounds; are you into collecting that stuff, such as Moogs and others like it?
Newcombe: Yeah, exactly. I have a lot of different kinds of instruments. But I’ve always loved that sound, you know, ultra-low end and obscure bass.
FPH: On the album, one of the track that, to me, presents a prevalent ultra-low end is “Melody’s Actual Echo Chamber.” Where did you get the idea for those sounds on this particular release?
Newcombe: Well, I’ve been fucking around with Korgs and Moogs since early 1980. I’ve been doing that for a long time now. I’ve been playing the ultra-low end before I played guitar. This was in my friend’s groups and in my own bands when I was a teenager. I was into that kind of stuff.
FPH: What does the cover of the album represent? Is the circuit board of anything specific?
Newcombe: It was just the first one that I came upon. It was a schematic that was printed in such a way, that looked so random, you know? When I was looking at different images of them on Google or whatever I thought, “This one looks cool. I know what I can do with it. I’ll just use this image.” It doesn’t really represent anything. It’s not like, “Oh, this is something inside a TV, or an Atari.”
FPH: How quick did you get in the studio after Third World Pyramid to record this new one? I recall that record coming out so recently. In fact, it was practically four months to the day.
Newcombe: Well, what happened was I recorded all of these songs and all of those songs at the same time, and then went on tour. See, I wrote these songs the same days I wrote the last ones. I’ll write a song like “The Sun Ship” and then write something completely different, on the same day. It doesn’t matter. When I’m writing — especially when I’m writing 40 songs in two weeks — I’ll just write as quickly as possible because I can visualize a song. I can then completely move onto the next thing. It doesn’t matter. For instance, I’ll tell the person next door — the drummer — “just play this beat for a second.” I’ll pick up my acoustic guitar and play Spanish music. See, I have another song right there. It doesn’t matter to me, do you see what I’m saying? I can tell a person to play like Neu! or to play a beat really fast with me. The next thing will come in and we’ll be like “we’re not playing that thing. On to the next.” We can then play, like, Neil Young and Crazy Horse. It goes on like that.
FPH: With that being the case, does this release actually feel like your 17th album?
Newcombe: Well, I can visualize it when I’m writing, very quickly. It became apparent that it was a new album. What happened was, we were about to go on tour, and a promoter said “I’ll book you guys, because you sell out everywhere you play. However, you’re not releasing a record right now, and that would help.” I got offended. I was like, “Well, you mean the two records, the two EPs, and the four singles we’ve released since the last time we played Paris? Like that, you mean?” It’s really an abstract concept when you’re in a band that has been around for so many years. Once you have 15 albums and you’re consistently releasing new music, it really doesn’t matter if you have a new record out that fucking second or not. I just read an article in French, and [the authors] were like, “He’s probably going to come to Paris and play the same songs he played five or ten years ago.” I wasn’t even paying attention. The last time I played Paris I played two new songs that weren’t even out, so to say that, in a three-hour concert, we’re only going to play the same songs — there’s no way you can ever make everyone happy. For a band like us, with that many records, how are we going to go out and make everyone happy?
Even if I was to go on tour and say, “I’m only going to play the first album I ever did,” I am not going to make everyone happy. It would make some people happy, though. So I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to record a song in French and release it as a single.” It wasn’t to piss them off, but doing it was effortlessly. I don’t even speak French. Musically, a lot of modern French music is hit-or-miss, in terms of how they sound. This manner that they have with words — they sacrifice any musicality. They’re not singing in some really cool way. Some were able to do it, obviously.
Anyway, once I recorded that I did not stop. I started to hammer through. It got to the point of “I need one more song.” Then, it was “I think I have an album.” I could visualize that it was a totally different style of music. This is a totally different style, and that kind of style is every style. On the other hand, I can vaguely see how people will say this is run-of-the-mill Brian Jonestown Massacre and vaguely ’60s. I was hoping that I could put Don’t Get Lost back in December, so it would be Third World Pyramid in October and another one following in a couple of months. What I was hoping to happen was people to look at Third World Pyramid and be underwhelmed, except I’d put Sun Ship on it and be like, “Well, look. I’m 49 years old and this is one of the best songs I’ve ever written, so fuck you. If you think I’m stuck in the ’60s or something, fuck you again. Here’s a whole album that’s not stuck anywhere, it’s all over the place.” That was my goal, but it really didn’t happen that way.
FPH: I was rewatching Dig! a few nights ago to prepare for this. I know that both groups have said that the documentary did not reflect 100 percent truthfully, but one of my favorite quotes of yours was “Thank God For Mental Illness cost $17 to produce.” How true is that, and what was entailed in the $17?
Newcombe: It was the cost of the tapes. It was the cost of the materials. Basically, I set up two microphones and pressed record. I asked a friend if I could record on his machine. It was like, “Just let me press fucking record.”
FPH: I also recently learned that you enjoy reading a lot about historical and cultural books. What are you reading now? Also, if you could read a book about our current global cultures, would you?
Newcombe: Well, I have a book right now. It’s called Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany. It’s all about how Nazi’s were on drugs. I have another I’m taking on tour called Jumpin’ Jack Flash, which is about a guy who is a gangster in performance. He was hanging out with the Rolling Stones in London. At this moment, those were the ones given to me, but I switch them up.
Well, I don’t find it that interesting. I don’t know if people will study this new form of authoritarianism. All I know is there is no reverse gear in this kind of authoritarianism. What is happening in the United States, if that’s what you’re talking about, has no reverse gear. I know that it’s labeled as a populist movement — all these people that were disenfranchised under Obama rose up, and they were so tired of Washington. As if! The people that are entrenched are there! The swap is all of those fucking Republicans that have been doing nothing except vetoing and taking bacon off of everybody. It’s not just Clinton’s mafia connections or whatever. This is all a scam. Talking about the deep government, they’re letting [Trump] come out in the open. It’s already come out, do you see what I’m saying? The first WikiLeaks thing — they knocked down the whole Middle East at once and people were on Facebook going “Democracy is coming!” People don’t vote democratically in Arab countries, they vote tribal. What’s happened now is you have guys like Rex Tillerson. So, traditionally, it was the oil guys that influence politicians. Now, these guys are up in front. Now, they are the face of the government. Now, they don’t have to deal with some puppet in front of them, playing a role.
FPH: Three of the four shows are in Texas. It’s very cool that you’re doing that, but what was the decision behind that instead of, say, the typical NYC show?
Newcombe: I don’t know what that is. I think we got just got together in Los Angeles and decided to do some shows in Texas a few times, because what happened with the last Levitation Festival with the weather and safety, which is a shame. I mean, even in the early ’90s Texas was our biggest market. We used to sell 60-70 records a week at Bill’s Records in Dallas alone. It was a crazy amount of records for an underground band. There’s been a lot of support, and I love Texas.
I understand that normal, simple people are cool. There’s a loony tune element of what you’re talking about in Texas, which I’m fine with. Sometimes I wonder if your average Texan really falls for Trump’s bullshit. I don’t have a problem with there being a conservative in office, if they share your values. That’s not what I’m talking about. I could live with that, because I’m living in Berlin, so why should I care? I’m talking about all this bullshit — this guy is not what he seems to the people that are so happy. It really has brought out a strange time in American politics. You’ve got to understand that there is a large part of his support base that are preparing for the apocalypse, because they believe they are going to be raptured up. They want the end of the world, because it means Jesus is coming 10 minutes before it. They want the craziest guy!
There are groups of these Baptists who go, every year on holiday, and pack ammunition and gas masks for the Israelis at war, and they do it on their own money. There are a lot of people rooting for the end, so you need to understand that demographic: people are like, “It’s your turn to suffer for eight years, because we suffered for eight years under Obama.” How does America even think that? So that kind of stuff drives me nuts and I’m hoping that I don’t run into too many [of those people].
FPH: Social media is crucial to practically every industry, but you take it a step forward: you are very responsive with your fans, sometimes getting a bit serious with others. Has tweeting ever been a conscious decision, or is it a spur of the moment thing? For example, can you talk about your recent confrontation with Piers Morgan?
Newcombe: I have no problem being open. The thing is, I never understood why people remove themselves, like they’re so important. And the “fake celebrities” have me laughing with their elitism and fake realities. It’s such a joke. Like, “I’m on the Power Rangers, but you wouldn’t know me, because I wear a mask, but I only hang out in the A-list clubs, and I don’t have to stand outside with the velvet rope.”
[With the Piers Morgan blocking] you have no idea what kind of guy he is! He was caught up in this spying scandal for the papers [in England]. They got into everyone’s shit for his trashy magazine. One of the papers had to go out of business due to the Daily Mail. There was thing going on — you see, the law is really strange. The law and corporations are taking turns doing things, when they can’t necessarily do anything with technology — it’s like the corporations do things that the government can’t, legally, and vise versa. There’s this real thin line with technology. It’s like the NSA doesn’t spy on people anymore, the corporations do it. The head of the NSA, a couple of years back, said, “We’re no longer in the spying business like you think we are.” The corporations record every single fucking thing we do.
He’s just a real shit, that’s what he is. He’s like a fascist lapdog. He’s this really strange guy. A lot of crap that guy does doesn’t sit well with Trump, or does it? When he has nothing else to talk about, he whips up stuff in America, like, “You need to ban all guns.” How does that fit with Trump and his voter base? That’s the opposite! I mean, you can possibly get shot at a fucking Trump voter rally, or something. It’s more likely [there] than anywhere else.
FPH: Thanks for taking the time for this, Anton. Another thing that you’re very social about on Twitter is Oxfam, which is a charity that means a lot to you. So for the people in the US who may not be familiar, can you describe a bit about it and how they can donate? I saw you occasionally post about contests with a donation?
Newcombe: Oxfam and MSF — an organization of doctors who donate their time internationally to help people in war zones around the world — help people. Oxfam was founded in the UK and they try to figure out the solutions to problems, really. They’ll bring goats to families in these villages, because you can make all of your milk and cheese with it. They do all kinds of stuff to help people. You can look at both of those and I think they use 5 percent of their donations on the logistics, meaning the staffing and housing, which is amazing. I figured out a way to do these raffles where no money touches my hands. Basically, send proof that you donated on your end and you’ll be entered in a contest. I once give away 50 vinyl records at once. I’ve probably raised 70,000 quid, which is around $80,000 doing that, and I’ve never had to touch one dollar.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre will perform at White Oak Music Hall on March 7 alongside Flower Graves. Doors are at 7 pm and tickets are $25.