Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe
Ever since his misbehavior became the stuff of rock legend—as chronicled in the documentary Dig!—Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe is frequently described as one of music’s reigning bad boys. Coverage for his band’s music? Not so much, but it’s not because he’s undeserving. His act’s latest, Aufheben, continues Jonestown’s tradition of mind-bending psychedelic oeuvres, despite the fact that the famously hard-living songwriter has been clean for a few years. Before his show Friday, Aug. 17 at Turner Hall, The A.V. Club had a magical mystery tour of a chat with the mercurial vocalist-guitarist.
The A.V. Club: Aufheben has a straightforward psychedelic feel. Was it a deliberate shift away from the rhythm- and groove-based songs on your Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? album?
Anton Newcombe: I personally needed to reset the clock artistically for me, in a way [on Sgt. Pepper]. I haven’t been fairly treated by the lazy journalism in the history of the project, like people saying, “He just likes The Rolling Stones, he fancies himself in the ’60s.” You know what I mean? It’s never been just that. I consider it psychedelic, but it’s in the broadest sense of the term. It’s not wearing psychedelic clothes, or something like that. It has to do with anything can be a part of it, mind-expanding crap. In the way The Rolling Stones, or bands of that era, could play cello music or tea party jazz or some Indian sitar music or a ’50s-sounding song—it’s like, “Oh, he’s on marimba. He’s playing a sitar. He’s playing rhythm and blues.” That’s the part of psychedelic things that I like.
I felt like it was important for me to reset the clock, basically blast out something really random and get fucked up, then not get fucked up anymore, just to be really, truly free.
AVC: Do you think that approach on Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? changed the way people look at Brian Jonestown Massacre?
AN: At some point it occurred to me, today people go on a talent show and they’re waiting for validation. It’s like permission to be famous or something. Nobody ever gave me permission in my life. A lot of people walk around with those little accolades, and they feel like they have permission to have attitude and everything that comes with it, right? At some point, I was like, “I’m so fucking legit. I own a LTD, which is a corporation. I have 14 employees. I go all over the world. I have my studio in my apartment.” At some point I just said, “This is who I am.”
AVC: That seems like a punk-rock attitude toward the world.
AN: I grew up in the punk rock [scene] in California, which is totally different than the New York Dolls or the English thing. The people in the West definitely have a more freer attitude, more pioneering-leftover kind of thing. The people in New York, it’s the immigrant thing about making it in the evils of the city. In California, it was like, “Fuck you, we’re going to do what we want. We don’t want your Ronald Regan bullshit,” or whatever. The reality of the yuppie world that we live in, it was a reaction against that, with the freedom and youth culture. That’s in me as much as anything else.
AVC: You mentioned that people always call Brian Jonestown Massacre a ’60s-based band. While there are those elements in it, you never seem to have tried to be a revivalist act.
AN: We were very, very lucky that way, because I used that as a point of reference, and also used montage and post-modern techniques; I used reference points to the ’60s. I used ’60s instrumentation. I’m influenced by the music of the ’60s. It’s a mishmash of everything. To me, psychedelic can be all the way to a DJ. House music can be very psychedelic. Flying Lotus is very psychedelic. Even though it’s urban and technological, it’s also mind-expanding, anything-can-go mishmash.
AVC: These days, you live in Berlin. Why did you choose to become an expat?
AN: I am a bohemian person. I don’t speak German, and I live in a foreign country where all the signs are in German. I did that deliberately. I’m like a ghost.
AVC: You’re deliberately out of place living in Berlin?
AN: Look at how much media and advertising you’re subjected to, this mindless chatter of advertising—and even people talking around you. I just block it out so effortlessly because it’s all a foreign language to me. It’s really a good thing for my head, living in Berlin.
AVC: That’s an interesting way to go about avoiding advertising in the public sphere. Banksy’s criticism of public advertising is that you have no choice but to be subjected to it.
AN: You’re a victim of it. I love him. He likes me, too. We’re kindred spirits in a lot of ways.
AVC: Have you ever met him?
AN: Well, who would know, right? Yeah, he just changed the oil on my car last week. [Laughs.] He touched base with me on MySpace, back in the day. I used to do this stuff called Billboard Liberation Front with these people, these characters in San Francisco. We used to jack billboards all the time, all the ads. We’d just climb up and change them. These guys, like John Law, would literally do the neon on the Camel sign, just change the words completely, with real neon tubes. He did that as a day gig. He’d just fuck up these things. You can find the evidence of it in the Survival Research [Laboratories] publications. It’s so amazing.
I’ve always been a fan of that kind of destruction of corporate property occasionally. Even graffiti. A funny example is one time I was in a riot in San Francisco, on the edge of it. Some anarchist guy with a bandanna on runs by with a spray can and sprays “Fuck shit up” on the wall. A policeman was standing right next to me; I literally walked up to it, pulled [out] my Sharpie pen, and just changed it with little lines to “Buick shut up.” The policeman just laughed. It was so cool, because the spray paint said “Fuck shit up,” and I was like, “Okay, I will!”
AVC: Speaking of unrest, the word “aufheben” has several meanings that don’t translate directly from German, and many are used in the context of protest movements. Which definition applies to the album?
AN: If you’re an environmentalist, global warming, you’re going to learn about this word, “aufheben.” It means to abolish or destroy, or to pick up and preserve. Basically, the concept of tearing something apart to save it. If you apply it to German culture of the last century—not only the DDR with the Stasi and all that stuff, and the Communism—Germany and the culture, they had to completely destroy the culture to elevate it and to preserve it.
Hegel was using the word even before National Socialism, even a modern expression in what we saw, not just with the Holocaust, but with culture and race, across the board, whether it’s Gypsies or Russians or whatever. They completely had to destroy that. Everybody’s house? Puff.
If you look at [Aufheben’s] cover, it’s the Carl Sagan diagram from the Voyager program. They sent that plaque on the two spaceships out of our solar system with the concept of reaching out to send a signal looking for intelligent life. It says, “We’re humanity. We’re humanoids. This is binary information. Inside this ship is a record player, and this is how you work a record player.” I thought it would be funny if a German scientist put the actual word aufheben on the plaque. Yes, this is who we are and what we are. It needs to be destroyed to be preserved.
AVC: Was that what you were trying to do with this record? Start fresh?
AN: No. I’ve been a fan of esoteric information, ghost stories, since Leonard Nimoy and beyond; whether I believe in them or not, I enjoy them. I knew that 2012 was coming and people are freaking out about the Mayans. I’ve been thinking about making a 2012 record for a long time, sort of the soundtrack for that time period. I wanted to be ready. I wanted to make sure I had a band.
AVC: Like a soundtrack to the paranoia leading up to the end of the world, or the apocalypse itself?
AN: The apocalypse. I’m really interested in eschatology. You can look that up on Wikipedia. It’s the study of end times. Whether you’re Jewish or Islam, they all have this rapture or tribulation type [of story]. If you’re from India, they believe that Kali is going to come, and there’s going to be a great battle. It doesn’t matter what culture. I’ve always been into that stuff.
You think of Daniel Day-Lewis getting into a role; he’ll become this character and just fucking live it, even when he’s off camera, until he’s onto the next thing. I like to do that, too. I think it’s really fun to sing from the perspective of a shamanistic, Ezekiel-type character. You’re getting the Holy Spirit, or a spirit in you, and you’re going to confront the thingy-wingy, the all-seeing thing. I like to get that in my head and write from that perspective. So when I write songs about love, I use a literary device where I might be singing about God, even if I’m talking about drugs.
AVC: You’re sober these days. Does that affect how you approach music?
AN: I want to emphasize something. It’s not sober as in AA-sober. For whatever reason, I had broken my arm, and I became addicted to opiates. This is years ago. I had to stop doing that. Then I started drinking. I liked being buzzed all the time, like a mellow drunk, ’50s style. Like maybe Frank Sinatra, you know what I mean? It’s in your blood, and it takes a month to get there, but then you’re rolling for the rest of your life. Not getting in fights or slurring your words, but obviously being lit and having that lifestyle.
For me, drinking a liter of vodka every day, my intention was never to commit suicide by drinking and drugging or misadventure. It became time for me to stop. The only way you can quit drugs or booze is truly to quit. It isn’t like the sobriety thing; if you’re buzzed or stoned or on Prozac all the time, it becomes the way that you see things. It becomes a filter. The bottom line is, I would really like to work on soundtracks, and drinking and drugging isn’t going to help that in any way. A three-martini lunch isn’t going to get me a gig doing a soundtrack for a movie. It’s not necessary for what my real goals are.
AVC: Does that change the way you go about making music? Everyone still talks about Jonestown being a totally drugged-out band.
AN: Yeah. It becomes intimidating. One thing: Alcohol changes your hearing. I quit before last tour, and I was like, “Everything sounds so fucking weird the way you guys are playing.” [Alcohol] thins your blood, so your hearing isn’t the same. My whole relationship with music, with recording, had been based on the way I had been hearing sounds with a light buzz on for my adult life. That changes, and now I have to work with somebody until I develop another method of operation of understanding what other people will be listening [to].
AVC: Does being sober help with your reputation? You’ve been known as a firebrand since the days of Dig!
AN: I was doing an interview with the J Post [The Jerusalem Post] because I was doing in a show in Tel Aviv. They were like, “You have a bad reputation.” I’m listening to this journalist, and I’m thinking, “Do you know anything about Israel and your own reputation? It’s a mixed bag of tricks, too.” I didn’t bring it up because I’m not trying to wind someone up, because they are very defensive about that. The analogy that I used with him was—I’m not bagging on him—I just said, “You could say that the Hell’s Angels have a bad reputation, then you talk to a biker, and he’s trying to join it. It just depends upon who you’re talking to about reputation.”
AVC: Once it’s established that you have a bad reputation, it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, with everyone approaching you differently.
AN: People try to provoke stuff. Most journalists just get into a holding pattern, and they wait until someone throws something out that’s just ridiculous, and they run with that. They really don’t have any knowledge of the recordings or any interest in it. They’re just going through the motions of their journalistic function. I’ve done interviews with Entertainment Weekly and everybody that you can think of, and I understand how people approach the stuff. Some people are familiar with it, and some people aren’t. It’s obvious to me, [from] how people approach questions, whether they’re thinking.