Music & clubs

Anton Newcombe: On the other side of the world

INTERVIEW. Shamblingly psychedelic Brian Jonestown Massacre has spent two decades as the dark shadow that the indie world just can’t shake.The touring BJM, featuring some old hands, will be digging its own hole on Sun, Jun 8 at Postbahnhof.

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Photo by Veronica Jonsson

Born out of the early 1990s’ immersion into the late 1960s, Anton Newcombe’s shamblingly psychedelic Brian Jonestown Massacre has spent two decades as the dark shadow that the indie world just can’t shake.

Newcombe, based in Berlin for the last few years, has long managed a balancing act between self-destruction and a caustic rejection of avaricious modernity, resulting in a degree of independence that belies the reach of his following. The much-misunderstood 2004 documentary Dig! – which reconfigured his friendships as conflicts – didn’t hurt. The touring BJM, featuring some old hands, will be digging its own hole on Sunday, June 8 at Postbahnhof.

How does it feel to be clean and sane?

Well, it feels good because it was never my intention to drink myself to death. I segued from opiate addiction at the turn of the century, with the aid of alcohol, you know? And then that turned into this Frank Sinatra sort of abusive, constant drunk. I was drinking more than a litre of vodka a day. For a decade.

And that’s why you moved to Germany, where that’s normal.

[Laughs] It wasn’t normal. So it became time to quit because I was going to die. It became obvious to me. I was going to go to Iceland to do some more recording, and I went to pick up my guitars and walk out my door, but I couldn’t carry them out of my room and I crawled back into bed. I was like, “I can’t even carry my fucking guitars down the stairs.”

You must have had a running dialogue going through your head: “Why am I doing this to myself?”

Well, yes and no, because I really liked the cowboy lifestyle. You know, if I could have lived a thousand years, then I would have stretched that one out 100 more years, maybe. I also quit just like that, not with AA or anything; I dropped it like a hammer. And I think that’s easy for some people to do if they’re not missing any party. And being around drunk people – it’s difficult to DJ now [laughs]. It gets very boring being around drunk people.

You have to learn how to entertain yourself.

But just being in clubs can be a hassle. It makes playing live very different. Because alcohol affects your hearing in such a way, the thinness of the blood. It’s radically different.

Cocaine is even worse. Think of all the compression on recordings from the 1980s.

Or Roxy Music – it makes the whole thing make sense, right? But I’m glad that I’ve moved on from all that stuff, really It gets a little bit weird. Like, I was at this [Austin] Psych Fest – we headlined that thing – just hanging out and waiting for people to get the trucks moving, with all these people swarming around getting progressively more drunk. After the festival’s over, it was just, like, “God, this is hell.”

The rock ’n’ roll lifestyle can be really boring if you’re not chemically altered.

Well, I’m really interested in that, too, because the exception that somebody could be a mature adult and make anything of meaning to anyone – people like Neil Young. He just has this ability where he can just turn around and drop something and still make sense.

Randy Newman described Young as being like a fourth grader but with the intelligence to make his songs work.

I always thought it was the opposite. I was convinced that he just had this biological intelligence. I thought he had no idea why his music worked.

He was raised around writers and journalists.

He’s not a dummy. See, I was under this impression that he was dumb as dirt, that he just had this physical genius in a way that an athlete doesn’t have to be intelligent. But I heard him speak in some documentary, and I was like, “Oh, he knows what he’s talking about.” You have to remember that those guys got their deals and they also had their management, getting cheques to write and all that stuff: the gravy train, so to speak. And there were people sitting there whispering in their ear and talking at them. And they were clawing as much power as they could but they were constantly writing for an imaginary demographic.

I don’t know. I think that guys like Young or Pete Townshend just recorded whatever they wanted. 

That wouldn’t explain how bad some of their records have been.

The music industry seems designed specifically to drain creative, successful people of their inspiration.

That is true. But I think the same thing looking at my son, who’s just 17 months: it’s like, how is this kid going to run the gauntlet? There’s just an infinite amount of potentially [sighs] mind-numbing banalities. It’s just like these crazy, crazy pitfalls everywhere. Just the desire not to become my mom and dad drove me far away from the lemon tree, you know? As far as I could possibly be – I’m on the other side of the world. And it wasn’t just them; it was every single person I knew. We played not far from where I’m from in Orange County [California] about a week ago, and somebody says [raises pitch of voice], “So-and-so is out there waiting for you. He wants to say, ‘hi.’” And I was like, “Oh, man. It’s this guy.” We used to drink beers in his dad’s garage. He built his room in a garage when we were real young, that kind of thing, right? And we did mushrooms for the first time, all that coming of age stuff. And he’s, like [rasps], “You’ll never guess what’s going on! My dad’s trying to evict me from the garage!” [Laughs] He’s, like, 47.

Perhaps he had waited 30 years to tell you.

It’s so bad – there’s just this giant fence around the property, it’s on the corner of this pretty fair-sized street and I remember his dad had opened the door one day and fired a shotgun over people’s heads. Just crazy people, right? And he’s thick as a brick, he’s just, “RRRRRGGGH.” And when we were kids, you know, we learned trades for money. We got jobs hanging wallpaper, up on ladders in millionaires’ houses and stuff, making insane money.

He should have had better investment advice.

I hate to blow people off, but I was just like, “Oh my God.” He was just completely destroyed by the sun. That’s all I needed to make me wanna hurry back here and do a good job so I don’t end up in his dad’s garage when the vacancy comes.

Speaking of parental issues, I noted that Frances Bean Cobain attended your Austin Psych Fest show.

She loves our band. And she was very nice. You know, the first minute, it was really weird to talk to her and then – she’s got her head screwed on.

Our generation will be worrying about her for the rest of our lives.

People say fucked-up things to her on social media and stuff, just trying to get her goat. But really it’s weird for her – she can open up the paper and it’ll be autopsy photos of her dad… Plus her mom and everything. I just said, “Courtney is a freak.” You hit the nail on the head: It provoked a parenting instinct in me because you can’t choose your parents. My parents are fucked. So I brought that.  

Brian Jonestown Massacre W/ LES BIG BYRD Sun, June 8, 20:00 | Postbahnhof

Originally published in issue #128, June 2014.