Interview: The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Anton Newcombe - Photo courtesy of Anton Newcombe

Anton Newcombe – Photo courtesy of Anton Newcombe

As Anton Newcombe approaches two and a half decades of musical creation, the difference between him, his predecessors, and his contemporaries couldn’t be clearer – he is a juggernaut of the music world. There are very few musicians in the halls of time who can boast a discography as extensive or as absolute as The Brian Jonestown Massacre — even fewer still living, and perhaps none at all who remain just as dynamic, principled in their music, and honest with their freshest breath.

With Newcombe at the helm, BJM has hitherto released 14 albums and a whole bag of EPs, and tirelessly played concerts all over the world, though most notably all this has been accomplished outside of the mainstream record label paradigm. Here is a band that has put out so many records that it is as challenging to enumerate them all as it is to list the names of the 40-odd band members who have at one time played alongside Newcombe. Originally forming BJM in California in 1988, Newcombe is now drawing nearer to bringing the 15th album to fruition while operating out of Berlin.

The thing that makes BJM so beguiling is how all of the group’s records are so beautifully freewheeling, separate entities in and of themselves. They stand the test of time and give generous insight into musical inspiration and human nature, making guileless statements about existence. The forthcoming album seems to be no exception. In keeping with Newcombe’s music-sharing ethos, a demo playlist for the release, “Revelation,” has already been made available online through various media.

And it was while busy mixing these demos with sound engineer Fab Leseure that Newcombe took time out to speak about his music. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to see how he finds the time for life’s other purposes aside from creating music, though he asserts this is an inaccurate observation.

“That’s the illusion, though, because this has been very hard. After [my label partners] told me that I had to make the record, I was only making a song a month it seemed. For me, that’s bullshit, because I usually write a song a day,” he said. “I was so not in that headspace of sitting down with the guitar or writing a song that five other people with guitars can play. It can be very difficult because I like to write whatever I’m thinking. Right now I’m worried about living up to someone’s expectations for that. I’d rather just create endlessly, day by day.”

It seems burdensome for an artist who is so organic in his spirit of creation to have to write music under pressure, though help has been at hand from BJM guitarist Ricky Maymi, Ryan Carlson of the Dead Skeletons (who apparently helped add weirdness), “Dino” (from Ladytron), and a Swedish friend called Yokam. Aside from these contributors, the album has been a largely solo undertaking, partially since Newcombe moved to Berlin in 2007, leaving his fellow band members across the pond in the USA.

“When I don’t have ideas, this place is like an albatross. You have all this shit, you have a studio, and you don’t have any ideas. It’s a really bad feeling. It’s stressful to think of doing lyrics for eight songs at once. That’s why you shouldn’t leave that many lose ends, because it becomes overwhelming,” he shared. “But that’s just the way it is right now, so I have to deal with what I have and how it came to be. I’ve heard people yell, ‘quit fucking around with all of your ideas and just finish one idea at a time,’ but that’s not really the way I work. I mean, I just take it all as it comes, trying not to get too worked up about it. I’m hoping I can just segue into it and create music.”

So without further ado, Newcombe launched into some of the demos, adding his own insight into what inspired them. Yokam, he shared, is who can be heard singing on new track, “Vad Hande Med Dem,” a Swedish version of the demo once entitled “Whatever Happened to Them.” A pumped-up, heart-racing track, the lyrics weren’t wholly intelligible in the original English version, yet the passion and drive were clearly communicated, and the essence has transferred effortlessly into Swedish. Of course, there is the question of why a version with Swedish lyrics was even necessary.

“There are no rules,” Newcombe said. “I think if you’re trying to make music for all times, then it lends itself to that purpose. It being Swedish doesn’t stop me from enjoying it as music. I think it’s still equally strong. So I will make it in English too, but in the big picture it doesn’t matter. The funny thing about [it] is that the chord progression is reminiscent of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game,’ in terms of the notes. Ryan’s father actually recorded that song. It’s so weird that we came up with this thing.”

Next on the demo playlist came “What You Isn’t,” a groovy bass-thumping composition accompanied by slogging drums and BJM’s signature tambourine. This is one such track even the least apt imagination can visualize performed live in BJM’s uniquely authentic performance style.

“In my head there are certain looping melodic structures I look for. This falls into that category. I like the sax sounds too; it’s almost like a Roxy Music loop,” Newcombe noted. “The track also has this late Beatles thing in my mind going on — that primal, plodding rock and roll thing. Maybe also there’s a hint of Fats Domino 10 times removed.”

Demo 23” is a wonderfully mellow and wool-gathering song which causes the imagination to wander in whichever direction the listener’s temperament takes it in. Significantly, the number 23 refers to the superstitious belief that most incidents and events are directly connected to that number. William Burroughs, author of “Naked Lunch,” is the first cited exponent of this theory, and anyone who follows Newcombe’s industrious online file and link-sharing activity will have observed his own fixation with the enigma. “Demo 23” is an allusion to the phenomenon and is not without friends on the demo playlist alongside “A23 Loop.”

“[Demo 23] happened to be the 23rd demo in the line ideas I had recorded, but I laughed to myself about it, as quite a few people I know of are interested in the 23 enigma,” Newcombe said. “People should do further research online!”

On to the next track, “A23 Loop.”  When this first appeared online on Soundcloud, it had the tag “music for a film imagined,” like much of Newcombe’s work around this time. Its softer, more majestic sound creates a break from some of the higher BJM tracks. Furthermore, its presence on the demo playlist could be suggestive of a coming career tack — to movie soundtracks.

“It’s so weird how I put [A23 Loop] in the mix. I wanted something acoustic to be on the record. I made it for Asia Argento. She’s an Italian actress and she’s working on her own film. I guess they don’t have a budget and I technically can’t give away my music. As you see, we have to pay rent here, to keep the wolves from the door as they say. I don’t handle the business, business people do that,” Newcombe detailed. “I’d very much like to start working with film music. It’s just kind of bizarre because some people want me to work but then they don’t want to pay. We’ll see in the future, you know the film industry is such utter bullshit. It’s like I almost have more respect for the UK than Hollywood at this point. Irvine Welsh just made ‘Filth,’ but they’re not making jack squat in LA —  they just don’t make good films anymore. It seems like that’s one of the reasons I’m happy living in Europe, because with my aspirations to work in soundtrack, it would only happen with European film.”

Instrumental track “Auswichen und Deckung,” meaning “Duck and Cover” in English, creates an eerie atmosphere of brusque guitar twangs, while the distortion and high frequency synthesizer sound are remindful of a primal Kraftwerk. Intrigued by the apparent collaboration with psychedelic band Temples on this track, it was interesting to discover what the group added to the song, plus whether the title could be an omen for BJM songs with German lyrics on the horizon.

“I just made [the Temples collaboration] up for a joke,” Newcombe confided. “There was nobody; it was just me, just me losing my mind playing some weird stuff, you know like Can or something. I get into these weird moods. I ask people all the time [about German vocals] and they tell me German sucks for singing. That’s the French people who helped me too, they’re like ‘French sucks,’ but I say you have to fucking look at this like Mozart did, you have to look at the syllables and you have to cut it.”

As with every BJM album, “Revelation” is working toward a distinctive sound and vision. Newcombe admitted the narrative for this one hasn’t been forthcoming, and at this early stage that doesn’t seem to be too far from the truth. One track, “I Know,” features spoken word put to a raga drum beat; it seems to stand alone vis-à-vis the rest of the playlist.

“I was listening to BBC4 and heard this Caribbean woman on Women’s Hour; they were talking a little about her situation. I was sitting here like, ‘oh they’re gonna make this person show what she can do in a second for sure.’ So I grabbed the laptop and went downstairs to press record with a microphone right next to the laptop. She read one of her poems live on the air and I was just like, ‘oh this is great, watch this.’ I took this riff from this phone app I have, a raga, dirge-type riff, and just cut her words to the actual rhythm. I knew immediately I could do that, I could tell from the way she was talking, the cadence. I didn’t catch her name, then somebody found it at BBC for me and said she’s been homeless but she’s a social activist in Brixton — kind of like the mom of the area! I created it all at once,” he said. [“I Know”] is an interesting juxtaposition too, because there’s drone music, and then there’s the India thing — it’s all mixed up. It’s an audio sculpture, and in that way it’s not different from most of what I do. The last thing that my group is about is John, Paul, George, and Ringo, this personality of four people or something. It’s more about audio sculpture on the conceptual side. And then there’s the performance aspect of us playing together in garage medium instead of a rock star thing.”

With that, Newcombe projected that “Revelation” will be a late spring release. In the meantime, up until the May 5 arrival of the album, he plans to release a string of related singles that haven’t made it onto the album. After, expect a European tour that will arrive in Berlin on June 8.


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