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To date, San Francisco's Brian Jonestown Massacre has received more press for the mock scuffle its members initiated with Portland's Dandy Warhols than for their swirling, sprawling and sizable discography. And while the band claims to have backed off from its anti-Dandy campaign in order to shift the focus to Strung Out in Heaven, an album due out this month on TVT Records, the residents of Jonestown--vocalist/percussionist Anton Newcombe, percussionist Joel Gion, guitarist/bassist Matt Hollywood, guitarists Jeff Davies and Dean Taylor, drummer A.J. Morris and vocalist Miranda Richards--have hardly declared an armistice. Late last year the bandmates sent their arch-enemies four personally monogrammed shotgun shells. They also made sure that "Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth," a worthy response to the Warhols' singular hit "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth," was prominently featured on 1997's Give It Back!
Newcombe explains provocations like these by noting that his secondary vocation has an official title: "I think it's called 'shit stirrer,'" he says. He's been engaging in this side job since helping to form the Brian Jonestown Massacre nearly eight years ago, and for much of that period, he was better at causing trouble than at making a living as a musician. Things got so bad during 1993, Gion reveals, that "Anton and I used to sleep in cars and wherever we could." After taking on the Warhols, however, the band's profile rose above total obscurity. Better yet, the players are finally receiving well-deserved credit for their music rather than their hijinks, in part because of the success of a European tour this spring.
"We were all kind of poor boys, so nobody's ever been to Europe before, separate or otherwise," Gion enthuses about the trip. "We get so much culture from there--music and film and fashion and what have you--that it was great to finally be able to go there. And we really kicked it over. Now I'm juggling conversations between MTV Europe and NME and this constant influx of fans who dug us."
"It was really exciting," Newcombe agrees. "People were amazingly receptive. You really don't have any idea until you go over there, but people are really into it. In two days' time, you can become a phenomenon. Football and music: People are just out of control. They get on the horn and wave their little flag."
That the Massacre slayed Britain should come as no surprise: Newcombe's slender-hipped rock-star swagger and the faint whiff of Mancusian diction evident in his singing makes him seem at times like a Brit-pop poster boy. Besides, U.K. fans favor a certain volatility in their icons (think Oasis) that is viewed as slightly offensive by industry types on this side of the pond. "We're very much an American band, but we're stuck with the morals of being in America, where if you do something really rock and roll, everyone goes, 'Oh, my God, you just destroyed your career,'" Gion says. "We couldn't get signed for years. Every label was like, 'God, we'd love to have your band, and you guys are absolutely amazing, but business-wise, you're just suicide. You're never gonna make it.' And it's just from the antics that happen to go down when you do what you do."
In truth, Massacre members actively contributed to this impression: On one occasion, Davies offered to give an Elektra rep a ride to a show, only to arrive at the designated meeting place on a bicycle. TVT has been victimized by comic roguery, too. After the band signed with the company, Newcombe rakishly ran up a $1,000 liquor bill on TVT's account. Fortunately, representatives from the firm proved forgiving. According to Gion, "It all turned out good. But they've got an iron fist on us now anytime we stay anywhere for them." Nonetheless, he goes on, "they're actually fans of the music, so we get special treatment. They don't have any legitimizing bands, so it makes for a nice situation as opposed to being just another fucking band on some big label where dick doesn't happen."
Of the industry types the performers were prone to harassing, Newcombe declares, "Those were the same people in high school who were like, 'Oh, he's not wearing Top-Siders and Polo shirts'...They're very much a clique, and we very much have a do-it-yourself aesthetic. The reason we went to L.A. and all these places and stuck it in their faces was because they think they're responsible for everything, but we've seen people with that mentality go down in flames. If you talk to people who are way up in companies now, they're scared because they can't get what clicks with thirteen-year-old kids. Their business has boiled down to that: demographics. And there's such a large population that goes, 'Fuck this! I don't want to be a part of your market survey.'"
Paradoxically, the performers now seem somewhat less negative toward the industry--or at least the one headquartered a continent away. Their primary goal in crossing the Atlantic, for example, was to woo European labels and promoters who put together summer festivals--and Newcombe was pleased to discover a clean slate awaiting him. "If you go to Europe and people have never seen you, they don't know what to expect," he says. "What are they there for? To check out a band. Do you have a vitality, an energy? Are you providing something different? Is it entertaining?" In his view, "They don't give a shit about what people think about us in America."