Published on February 9th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron


Interview: Anton Newcombe

Pick up any Brian Jonestown Massacre record and you’ll immediately notice the diversity of styles and influences bleeding through the music, from the quietly epic soundscapes of Spacemen 3 or Spectrum to ‘60s folk- and acid-rock to the exotic flavors of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Although the band’s early and mid-career catalogue is probably best-known and loved—with uplifting hymns to teenage dislocation like That Girl Suicide to the impossibly cool swagger of When Jokers Attack from their monumental album …And This Is Our Music—it’s been in the last few years the band has really taken their melodic, jangley drone in exciting new directions.

When the BJM is considered within a 50-year arc of psychedelic, experimental, and avante garde music, their contribution and legacy is difficult to overstate. Their records consistently rank in the media’s year-end best-of lists, they pull huge crowds at festivals year in and year out, and they seem to mine the perfect seam of listenability and adventurousness. Not just slacker music for potheads and junkies, the band has managed to maintain broad appeal without losing credibility or their “cool”.

This is unquestionably due to the band’s main creative force, Anton Newcombe. A passionate and volatile personality, Newcombe is as much known for his songwriting genius and obsession with art as for his unpredictability and sometimes outspoken views. From the outside, he seems at once full of world-weary cynicism and optimism; oozing confidence yet humble and self-effacing at the same time.

A contradictory and interesting character whom I was lucky enough to talk to recently about his new film soundtrack project, Russell Brand and world revolution, and the best records to reach for at the end of a heavy day.

BNU: What was the first experience you had as a kid that made you realise that you might also be able to express yourself as a musician?

It’s hard for me to put my finger on the one thing that made me absolutely want to play, but I always remember being very moved by certain music—later, by zoning out at the piano and dealing with pre-teen depression. Then later it was seeing punk and post-punk groups. At that point I knew it was for me… and I don’t mean Boomtown Rats or someone trying to be a rockstar, I mean people going for it.

My kids responded to Michael Jackson, the Beatles, and the Stones from an early age. Who did yours get obsessed with?

My son likes music when he is in the mood—my older son lives with his mother and she’s a very private person. Because I work and love music so much, I’ve decided to only play music around him in a natural setting—if I’m cooking or sometimes in the morning—I don’t bombard him with it just yet.

Every single person over 16 must vote or be sentenced to four weeks hard labor, unless a doctor has signed off, even convicts. Everyone votes.

What’s it like living in Berlin? Do you get homesick? How have you changed by living in a different country from where you were raised?

I have mixed feelings. I really liked things about California that are long gone—so I’m homesick for something that doesn’t exist anymore. I like being a ghost here, waiting to see when the next war kicks off while I do my art.

Has listening to music from a particular culture changed your perception of that culture?

My relationship with music is personal, and the stuff I like I gather from listening. It just strikes a chord in me that I relate to, like a key that fits a certain lock. I find the culture behind this mysterious harmony of the spheres or golden ratio is the same, really.

Do you feel like you’ve “made it”? Your music has had an influence on a lot of bands, and you seem to be able to continue to make music without having to work at a gas station or something to make ends meet. It’s pretty much the dream of about a billion bands. But on a personal level, do you feel like you’ve done what you set out to do and you’re satisfied?

My goal was to create folk music. And I really did that. And I wanted to enter the lexicon, and I’ve done that and I can do whatever I want to do and it pays for itself, so that is a wonderful by-product of having a dream and not selling it. I mean I kept control and ownership—that’s what makes everything possible.

I can’t force people to listen, but listen: don’t sell the rights to your music for anything, ever, for any amount.

Just was listening to “That Girl Suicide”. You made that over twenty years ago. What does it feel like when you listen to it again now? Do you feel like it was a different person?

I dunno. I feel like a time traveler, always. I know I am aging, but that’s okay.

Music for Film Imagined. Can you explain a bit about what it is and what it’s about and why you are doing it?

It’s about my own desire to work on soundtracks to interesting films and listening to these fuckwit actors and producers go, “no we can’t make movies for €20 million—it’s not worth it”. [Laughs] As if it’s not worth making a great movie for €800 and making a billion off it—anyway, I am signed on to do a soundtrack for a Scottish film. It was to start filming last year but they pushed it back, so I was in the mood and created an imaginary soundtrack to a French film—like a ’60s or ’70s film.

Was it difficult to write music for the film without having vision to work with, or did you just work from the concept?

Well I just imagined I was doing a soundtrack. One of the songs is a cover song, so I wrote around that, trying to keep a mood flowing in a complimentary way.

Can you tell me a bit about your label A Records and the bands that are on your roster, and why you chose to put out their records?

I try to help people and give them the best deal and distribution. Simple. Otherwise there really is no style or agenda. I’m just using my own pull to make records.

I was interested in the Chinese indie music you posted on Twitter the other day. How did that compilation come about? Is there any other artist(s) on your roster that you are really excited by?

[Brian Jonestown Massace guitarist] Ricky put out the compilation record, he’s mad about Chinese music.

Your collection of vinyl is reputedly massive. I am just wondering what you reach for regularly when you’ve had one of those days. What is your musical comfort food?

Well, I only have a few bags of albums here in Europe, a few cases in NYC and a shitload on the west coast. I’m feeling a lot of acid-folk and strange mellow records from the late sixties and seventies as it fits my mood, but I always listen to the same stuff—it keeps me locked in my mindset.

Is there any acid-folk artist in particular you really cherish?

It’s not even acid-folk, but my set includes: Jackson C. Frank, Susan Christie, Bonnie Dobson, Bob Dylan, Linda Perhacs, Oriental Sunshine, and a load of moody records that I just put on and let my mind wander to.

If you had the power to change one law in the U.S., what would it be?

Every single person over 16 must vote or be sentenced to four weeks hard labor, unless a doctor has signed off, even convicts. Everyone votes.

So what’s you’re opinion of Russell Brand, then? Do you think his call for revolution and suggestion to not vote is nonsense or do you get where he is coming from?

I have a lot of ideas about revolution—stuff I’ve heard or read—they say if you are not for it by 18, you have no soul, and over it by 30, you have no brains. The other thing is that the truest things are done in silence. If you go on these shows and debate… you rip these people apart quietly. You don’t make a fuss or fall into traps. You should know how to defeat debating tricks. The ways people change to a subject with no answer, or one that’s been solved in Plato’s time—then you are to shut up and be thankful.

brian-jonestownYou think revolution is inevitable?

Noam Chomsky knows what’s up. He picks apart the meaninglessness of the rhetoric— that’s the way to go. Also, you have to understand, so many things that drive the modern world. I think collapse is more likely. I think people think they have it all worked out. Life has an answer to those kinds of plans and so does death. You and I may live to see the day when three-quarters of the world dies. It could be some mad fucking ’flu.

So you think raising these issues in such I guess polarizing way, like Brand, is meaningless? Doesn’t raise profile of issues?

I think you need to know how to raise them. Like if he wanted to write a book on revolution, of consciousness and action, he should have went searching and had talks with people. Fidel Castro, I dunno, people who are against it… everyone. Make it interesting, engaging, and funny. They close with his own desire to see real change and insure he learned about how this would be possible. However any revolutionary activity in a time of war (now—the endless war) is treason.

Life has an answer to those kinds of plans and so does death.

So it’s a bit arrogant to come at the issue just based on your own opinions. Pointing out problems, offering no solutions?

You have to point out that even the collections of governments are arrogant. I have mixed feelings, because I love Germany so much. I feel like it’s trapped with the West because of history, but the society tries to advance and is good in so many ways. I love the UK, but the police state future of the USA and the Commonwealth bug me because I aspire to see wonderful things.

bjm-31Were you always this politically engaged? Did drugs and booze in the past kind of make the helplessness bearable?

I was always involved in politics and policy, but more importantly, learning. Even when I was higher than shit on smack, I was reading. Masonic books and lectures! [Laughs]

It’s scary, man. Really, really scary.

It’s so scary you have to hope for the worst and be delighted it doesn’t happen.

Your kid is grown up and in a band, and he asks his old man how he can do this for a job and not have to work in an office or something. What do you say?

I tell people to try everything. It depends on the instrument. Can you be more specific?

I guess I was wondering what advice you might have for independent bands, what they should do in order to be able to make a career out of music. It must be very difficult to do that, to be successful enough to support yourself.

Let’s face it, connections make many things happen. I would tell them to try everything and express themselves in many ways. Make videos, work social media, play solo, create projects, leave a beautiful mess. Start events upstairs at pubs and clubs on off nights. Help other people. Climb the wall, swim the moat dressed as a lady—whatever.

Just get in the castle.


About the Author

Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.

2 Responses to Interview: Anton Newcombe

  1. Joseph Kyle says:

    Great read, Anton!

  2. Nina says:

    Brilliant interview. Mr. Newcombe speaks the truth, and I wish there were more musicians like him

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