Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe on Beck, living in Germany and Bright Channel
Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre
The Brian Jonestown Massacre (due tonight at the Bluebird Theater) has been through a lot of ups and downs since 1990. But singer and primary songwriter Anton Newcombe has steered the band through the release of more great albums per decade than most bands have across their entire career. For the uninitiated, the earlier albums of the BJM incorporate the psychedelic sounds of the 1960s, but with more modern aesthetics, so that they don't seem to be locked into any particular decade. Some would broad-brush the music as "postmodern," but there's nothing ironic or detached about the honest emotional expressions in the songwriting.
We recently had a lengthy chat with the charming and witty Newcombe about a variety of subjects, but mostly about the importance of maintaining artistic integrity in a cultural climate that tries to erode and undermine our collective ability to live authentically and compassionately.
Westword: Your new album, Aufheben -- was it something you largely recorded yourself, or was it more of a band effort?
Anton Newcombe: I have a recording studio in Berlin, our own studio, and our group, my bass player, has a professional studio. He did one of the Super Bowl ads in Portland, the one with Clint Eastwood that everybody hated -- "Halftime in America." He did that. We have a recording studio with harpsichords and mellotrons in L.A. with mature, productive people.
Is your bass player still Will Carruthers?
Well, see, it's not that interesting a story, but I chose not to call my group Beck. See, Beck plays with all kinds of people and makes a record. He retains his aesthetics, and it doesn't matter, right? He just makes records. Then a band shows up and plays live. I tend to play with people over a long period of time regardless of what that mythology is. It's been twenty years. But I'll record with anyone, and Will is a friend, and I do play music with him. He has toured with us, and he's a great person.
On the new record, you have a song called "Viholliseni Maalla." Is that Finnish for "Enemy of My Country"?
No, it's "Land of My Enemy." Very close, and it is Finnish. The problem with the Scandinavian languages is that you have to place words in the context of a sentence, so they become really vague, so if you just use two words, it could be "land of strangers" -- it could be anything.
In the context of your song, what was the significance of the title?
Don't you think it's kind of absurd -- like, you're in Colorado -- in Utah, it's against the law for you to catch the rain that comes off your roof and put it in a barrel of water. Utah owns the water rights. How can you own the fucking water? Now they own the land and the geological rights and every single thing about it. Nice trick. Do you know what I mean? If you own it all, me as a spiritual entity, I am in the land of my enemy. Philosophically, but maybe I'm reading too much into my own thoughts.
In a recent interview you did with The Quietus, you referred to your music as "dark sarcasm" instead of the kind of joke music that some people have made. Why do you feel that to be the case?
Well, because everybody does that. Beck is the perfect example of it; it never gets too deep or too serious about anything, particularly. It doesn't stop you from enjoying the song, taking no chances, never says anything offensive. You don't even know what that guy thinks. Neat trick for a public figure. You have no fucking idea what Beck's perspective is or what he thinks -- besides that you've heard he's a Scientologist or something.
That's a real interesting trick for a man that all he does is sing songs. He's not singing about anything that means anything. And you have no clue as to what his personality is other than he's sort of fun, and he's really good at what he does. He's got an imagination, maybe. That's a parlor trick. That's like when your mom wears dark sunglasses at night -- that kind of distance. But you can't blame him, because the world is really weird. Like TMZ: They can't wait to get into everybody's dirty stuff.
A guy named Jeff Suthers was in a band called Bright Channel. You championed him a bit, and you've done that for other artists over the years. What about a band inspires you to champion them?
What a great group. Great guy. I love him. Well, I know what it feels like to me, and I know that my taste isn't everybody's taste. But I also use an ecosystem mentality. There will never be an Anton Newcombe record store. There will never a club in Italy that waits every two years for me to make my way to Torino for me to play in staying open. It's a whole environment that needs to take place.
So it's in my own best interest to help create a musical environment through awareness of the things that I need to feel stimulated in any way that I can help. It takes very little effort, and it is its own reward. Art, music, and the business, and the radio, and Clear Channel -- all of it. The magazine Fader is a Levi's company. They didn't want to buy ads in Rolling Stone every month, so they made their own magazine. Everything is a part of this thing.
It's almost like it's the luck of the draw that the most powerful guy isn't going to get canned from his job in four years attaches on to you with his ego. Then he throws millions of dollars at it, making people, you know, say how great it is at the expense of everyone else. Because they do it like Coke does it. When you walk into a liquor store and you look at the shelf of pop and the Coke, two-liter bottles go halfway down the aisle and it starts to be Pepsi.
Then you get down way on the end, and they might have Vitamin Water or something, which is also Coke. Then they have something else. But they don't need to have one thousand two-liter bottles of Coke at the store on hand. That is specifically to deprive you, the consumer, of more choices and dollars that could be filtered in another direction.
That's how it works with the media. The Beatles are the most guilty of that. And I hate that, but I'm not some Charlie Manson guy who is going to wage some crazy, idealistic, psychotic battle against the machine, because it's the way that it is. But it's wrecked itself -- not file sharers, not hackers. Why bring a band to your club, say, if you're the Larimer Lounge, when you could just have a DJ?
Well, I'll tell you why you bring a band: Because they love music at the Larimer Lounge in Denver. So you're lucky, because those places aren't everywhere. They could tell you DJ AM is a great guy, man. We'll never know a guy that's better than that, and we're hoping that someone in the future learns how to press "play" on their iTunes, so we can feel the experience again that we all shared.
The titles of some of your songs reference pop culture in a way that subverts the original meaning and puts the words in a new context. What about that transformation of ideas appeals to you?
Let's get specific with one. Are you talking about "Blue Order New Monday"? I'll address that one and "I Want to Hold Your Other Hand." "I Want to Hold Your Other Hand," in theory, if you imagine a person, boy or girl who has two hands, and John Lennon has expressed his desire to hold one of them, there should, in theory, be one for me. So "I Want to Hold Your Other Hand."
Now "Blue Order New Monday" -- Bernard Sumner had a band for a hot second called Bad Lieutenant, and they lifted a full riff from "When Jokers Attack" on twelve-string. It's not a guitar lead like Jimi Hendrix. It was a melodic motif, and they stole it all the way and played it on twelve-string with the same tonality. Didn't mention anything. Total dishonesty when you're coming from that kind of money. We know he doesn't have any ideas worth merit anymore, so that's okay.
So you know what? I decided to get him back. I know how algorithms work on the supercomputers. I'm in a legitimate band, and I make real records. Now, for all time, you can't Google "blue order," right? You can't Google "New Order Blue Monday" without coming up with "Blue Order New Monday," too. You can't look for it on YouTube without having my option. And you can't do it on iTunes or Spotify or Last FM.
So he's fucked. This is worldwide. I do Le Monde, Der Spiegel. I play Tokyo or everywhere. Just because I'm not on David Letterman or something like that doesn't mean I'm not legit. I do quite well. It just means that they think I'll speak my mind. That's not the business they're in. I was told by NPR they can't play my music because it's been suggested that it triggers mental illness in children around the age of nine or ten. Isn't that great?
They actually told you that? That's crazy!
Yeah, they did. It's so funny. It's okay, I love that. It's not an insult. I don't know if you saw the Super Bowl or saw the Grammys. I'm in the music business, too, right? But that Roman thing with Nicki Minaj? For them to laud that in front of everybody at the Grammys, this thing about excellence in music and achievement? It's blasphemy. It goes beyond the scandal of giving six Grammys to Milli Vanilli for not even being involved with the record.
This is even worse. This woman is involved, and that's what she's selling. So I don't take offense that there's not a sweet patch for me to live and grow on this earth, because to me it's like a cesspit, just about. Hence the title of the record. "Aufheben" means "to abolish or destroy" but also "to pick up or preserve." So if you put it in the context of German history of the last century with National Socialism and the DDR, they literally had to destroy their culture twice to lift it up and destroy it.
I view Western civilization in much the same light. And I'm not an extremist. If you look at global warming, guess what? The status quo, Western civilization as you know it, has to change. I'm not saying I buy into all the methodology or the timetable or any of it. I'm just saying that's the reality. So I put in the album Carl Sagan's picture that was a communication to intelligent life when they sent the Voyager satellite to the edge of the solar system.
The plaque said, "This is humanity. This is our biometric information. This is our culture. This is our position in the solar system. And here is this gold disk that has a selection of greetings in every language that matters and a phonetic key. Here's some high points, Bach and Beatles, and all this other stuff."
I thought it would be funny if a German actually put a word on it, "Aufheben," and if they read it: "This must be destroyed to be preserved." And then they think, "Got it, we know your location and we'll be here in a minute."
I also think it's really funny that if intelligent life does find that, right, and then they get here and maybe we're already gone and they do some archaeology and they find my record, and they're like, "Oh, this is the guy." Or they pick up the Internet waves. They beam interwebs up to the space station. Those signals are going everywhere, so it'd be funny if they said, "That's the guy from the space ship."
On "Panic in Babylon," it sounds like there's a sample of some kind of primate.
That's a kookaburra from Australia. It's kind of a woodpecker and very loud. If you're in Australia, even in the cities, you hear that. The thing I brought to the table with that is that I'm possibly the first person in history that ever ran one of those though digital delay, so they're echoing. So it's some kind of quasi-Dreamtime thing.
Did you use two different delays with differing time settings?
Yes, exactly. So it's echoing in this weird way. Not just grabbing stuff off of YouTube randomly. Originally I called the song "Crazy Farm." Like Animal Farm, but everyone's insane. Just a totalitarian government with this crazy ambition like in Animal Farm, but it's more like they're just fucking out of their head with hubris kind of thing.
Maybe this title isn't supposed to be funny, but it's at least interesting: "Stairway to the Best Party in the Universe"?
"Stairway to Heaven" -- that's funny for a Crowley-worshipping-full-on-Illuminist-Satanist, right? Bought Crowley's house and everything. Wrote this song called "Stairway to Heaven." I'm like, "[Life is more like] 'Stairway to Prison.'" Because even me articulating my belief system, what I really think, is dangerous these days. I don't live in America for several reasons. When every single police force has a tank and everybody is dressed up like stormtroopers and Darth Vader for anything, and this isn't for Afghanis that are gonna sneak on a donkey across the border. This is for something else, and I don't like its style.
I can't vote here in Germany, but every perspective that I want is represented in spades, and people really stand up for it. So all my political aspirations are fulfilled by politically active people. Even down to when that Fukushima stuff happened, they shut down all their atomic plants. There's nothing like that on a state or national level that exists in the United States. The interests of the people aren't represented. It's the interests of finance and the military industrial complex that's represented there.
And I know that. And I know where it went wrong, too. They should never have allowed the former head of the CIA to become the president of the United States. It blurs the illusion that you're telling the truth. The CIA, I'm not bitching at them, but check this out: The CIA's concept of democracy -- look at Chilean history -- it's taking you up in a helicopter at 1,000 feet and kicking your ass out for being a dissenting voice. That's a fact.
So with three hundred million people, having some guy that was in the Navy -- I don't know if there's evidence for it, but I hear he was a hero in the war -- became a congressman, and then the ambassador to China, and then he became the head of the CIA, then the vice president and then the president. Then his two sons were governors, and one of them became president. Boy, I want to go Vegas with that family; they are so lucky.
Berlin seems like an interesting place to explore. What have you found culturally and artistically that maybe has inspired you and that you find interesting?
At this point in my life, as an artist, I don't speak German fluently, so I'm oblivious to the advertising. All of it. Or even idle, if there were some, on the subway. People are pretty quiet. As a culture, they won't intrude into you. If you're at a party in America, some guy is going to say, "Hey, my name is Jim. I work for Bright Channel. How do you know Sue?" All this crap. Everybody's telling each other their lives all the time, and all that stuff.
These cultures over here, you can be around people at a party, and they're not going to offer up all that information, and neither are you. It's possible to develop a relationship at its own speed instead of this verbal calling card, selling yourself, just talking because you're nervous, breaking the ice -- whatever you call it. I like Berlin because it leaves me alone. It has everything, and it works.
Women and children are safe here, and that's more than I can say for any city in America. I mean really safe. These people get the job done. They invented that whole spying thing, and, of course, technology has brought it to a whole new level, but it just isn't in your face. You get the feeling they're going to take care of business and do what they've got to do, but they're not going to threaten you on TV, saying they're going to look up your butt every time you get pulled over, which is outrageous!
Every person on Facebook should say, "No, isn't appropriate to strip everyone who doesn't maybe even have their insurance in their car naked and look up their butt just because some fuckin' judge says it." So it's disgusting and shame on all of you. I can't believe anyone would be talking anything else, because that's mom and it's human dignity, and that's why we fought these guys that treated people like North Koreans and deny your freedom.
I'm not even Alex Jones or some saying some crazy stuff, but come on. It's one thing to be searched before going on an airplane, but it's another thing [to have that happen in everyday situations]. We've seen what the police are capable of sometimes. I'm not mad at you when I say, "Shame on you"; I'm saying "Shame on myself." I've done nothing but fight the good fight, you know.
You've learned to play numerous musical instruments over the years. Did you bring anything on board for the new record?
I try and push myself, and sometimes it's technically something that hasn't occurred to me. On this one, the reason I included the more disco-y beat on the last track, I'm playing the mellotron, and I'm bending those sounds. I've been listening to the mellotron since 1967, when I was born. "I Am the Walrus" was bitchin' -- The Moody Blues had it going on for a while. All those people. But I'd never heard anybody use the instrument that way in the whole world, and I have thousands of records. It's not something you can copy, because it's not something that comes out of a can. I created it that way. There's that.
But what I'm really interested in is this soundtrack thing. Ideally, in America, all I could think of was someone along the lines of Quentin Tarantino. Except his stuff, I dig quite often, is lifting a song from another movie. I think that's a real shame, considering how many musicians of merit there are on the planet, let alone in your country, let alone in your city. I think that's a poverty of the imagination. That doesn't help anything.
That's big business now. They think there's enough stuff to distract people a la Brave New World.
There's enough goodies to pass around to make sure no one gets paid. It's all on Spotify. The only people getting paid are the advertisers and the people doing the analytics, which is bullshit. So I want to do soundtracks and hit up people I respect in the world. I'll figure that out when the time comes, and that could be genre-spanning and mix that all together. That would be so cool. Make a storyboard and a script. Loop in everybody. Not just tracks. I have no problem when Martin Scorsese and those fellas from Boardwalk Empire called and said, "How do you feel about us using this song?" I was like, "Thank you, because you guys are great."
I taught Pete [Hayes] from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club how to play guitar. He's got the Twilight people and their publishers going, "Hey we want you in this movie, Twilight!" "Great, here's a song called 'Black Twilight.'" "Cool." You know, they just collect this stuff, and it's all part of the 360 deal. That shit can blow me, except it has a dirty mouth, you know what I'm saying? That's just a "zinger," as they say. That's just what I was doing.
The way Ennio Morricone had that trust set in on some stuff -- I'm not talking about spaghetti Westerns specifically. I'm talking about something where I could bring in the likes of Flying Lotus from the West Coast. Somebody with some mad skills. I also look at a generation. I was born in '67, and maybe coming of age in the '80s or whatever and making my name as an artist in the '90s and my legacy into the thousands or whatever. I'm thinking about in your awareness in an art movement with this technology, this interaction that we have internationally with what can be done.
With surround sound and all this fidelity, I've yet to see this ass-kicking music. I have yet to see a movie where you're like, "What the hell was that?" And you can't get it out of your head. I want to be a part of that. And I want to blow anything out of the water, like if you could imagine Dark Side of the Moon being a movie not in a movie. Or something. I want to take it to the next level somehow and be a part of that. Unfortunately, Hollywood is not in the movie business. It's in the Billion-Dollars-of-Anything business. If it's in the millions-of-dollars business, it's a failure.
You can't blame them, because you've got fake CIA agents going, "Hey, I just made a hundred billion. I'm Fuckface Facefuck." For your job, that's not that great. You've got to jack it up so you feel important. "Boy, it's great being an investment profile mutual fund manager." Because those guys are doing that, it's not good enough -- like after World War II and everybody owned a house in Detroit, where I make twenty times the salary of the labor on the line. I've got to make one thousand, two hundred and twenty times of that guy.
And we've got to compete with the Chinese. We just opened a new factory in a prison. The whole "fuck you all" kind of thing. That's why I'm an artist. And that's why I don't sell the rights to my stuff, because it's obvious to me that when somebody's laying off ten thousand people and I'm hiring people, they destroyed the music business. They wrecked it.
The governments now, when they tell us about this stuff, their hubris has gotten in the way. They're not good at governing. They're not good at planning society or any of those things -- the infrastructure and paying their bills. What they are good at is the police state. Let's run with that. It's so weird. I know the big picture, so this isn't about Arabs; this is about China.
We're only as strong as the weak among us. When you care about someone that you don't know and don't have to, that's one of the most beautiful things that humans can do that animals don't. I was promised a lot of really wild-ass daydreams being a little kid growing up. And I feel like I was fucking ripped off, so I'm going to do my best to live up to some of that promise. From H.R. Puff'n'stuff -- they looked like they were having a good time.
On your last tour through Denver, you played almost entirely from your releases prior to Who Killed Sgt. Pepper. For this tour, will you play material from your new record?
I'm going to try and do a combination, and that will change regionally. Like when I'm in France, I'll play some of the French stuff, and I probably won't play any of the French stuff in America. There's no right way to do it. Unless it says "J. Mascis is coming down to the Bluebird Theater playing his classic album from 1989 and other things. Cookies will also be served" -- then people expect that. Otherwise, it's not up to them. Your job as an entertainer is to be entertaining.
When you have hundreds of songs, it's a really difficult decision. The first order of business is to get the band to feel really good and have good communication. Hopefully the best ever right now, because at our age, there's no reason to be there unless they're having a good time. The next part of it is, I'm gonna challenge everybody and interact with some of the ideas I've personally created to different ends.
Right now I'm going to propose to Matt to sing the Finnish song in English, and I'll make it part of the single so he can get paid for his efforts through iTunes and I can play music with the sales of it. And I can play music because I don't care if I'm the front person, necessarily.
I'm more interested in the whole big thing. I want to be part of something worth seeing, hopefully. Hopefully we're in a decent mood and that everybody has a good time and feel like, "That doesn't happen every week." Or something. No break dancing moves this time. I threw my back out. Bob Pollard and Iggy Pop have to run into the speaker every show.
James Brown did his crazy dancing up to his final shows.
What a guy. Until he just, for no apparent reason, did the "Living in America" on stage. That PCP-induced, driving across South Carolina with no tires? That was pretty badass. That movie wasn't his high point.
Rocky IV. No. After he did that driving stunt on PCP, he did those PSAs that college DJs used to play. His mea culpa to society or whatever.
Yeah, but he did the whole "Stay in school" and so many PSAs this whole time because of his poor background -- no shoes. He was always about empowering the community. So that wasn't about "The man stepped on me so hard." He was doing that shit anyway, even though it would be hypocritical in light of his arrest. I don't think that broke him; I think the money did. Because I don't think he needed any of the money -- which is the weirdest thing. That sample, "Funky Drummer" and all that shit? Think about. That was everywhere. He was so rich at that point.
Did you do that "Verve" cover with just synthesizer?
The only covers I've done, I did this Crying Shame song, called "Sailor Ship," and called it "Sailor" and credit those two guys and changed a bit. Nobody knew about this record. And those guys have never been mad at me for that. I just covered this Bobby Jameson song. Frank Zappa stole his wife.
This is the guy that worked for Phil Spector and Jack Nietzsche, who was flown, when the Stones wanted to hire Phil Spector, he said, "Okay, I'll send my sound over." He sent Nietzsche and Bobby Jameson. He was the guy from Mondo Hollywood. He recorded this demo, because that's all he did. They had him doing protest songs under the name Chris Lucey.
He did this one in '65 called "There's a War Going On." And I swear to god, it kicks the shit out of any Dylan, any Joan Baez, any Pete Seeger, even any Phil Ochs -- wow, that song just bags it. It was so hard-core they couldn't even use it. I heard it. One of my friends, Joe Foster from Creation, posted it on Facebook. So I just hit up Bobby Jameson. I found him because he blogs. He's still so pissed off at the industry getting ripped off over everything. He's the one that brought the Vox fuzz from L.A. to Brian [Jones], and it's used in "Satisfaction."
This guy is deep, Bobby Jameson, and I said, "I'm gonna nail this thing and do it as a group." And I just blew it out with the bass full blast and distorted. I'm remixing it and putting it out as a single with his original demo on the other side. That song is so good, I just changed one word to make it look like there is a war in the Middle East instead of Vietnam. It's probably going to come out in August. You crank that up and you feel like your head is on fire. It's like the "House of the Rising Sun"-style progression.
So why did you do Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" as "Bittersweet Irony"?.
Oh, yeah! I did that because of Allen Klein. He's a fucker. What happened is that when Keith Richards and Mick [Jagger] found out that Brian was getting twenty percent off the top because it was his band and then they were splitting it equal ways, they tore into him. They lied and stole all the rights to all the music. Not only did they take the credit for their fame when they signed that deal with Allen Klein, they didn't even write all those songs.
So Andrew Loog Oldham had paraphrased a riff in the song that you can't even copyright and put it out as the soundtrack to "Charlie Is My Darling," which is a 1966 Australian tour movie. He has a cello quartet doing the hooks of their songs. But the audio recording on the books was Rolling Stones money. They signed it over, they didn't own it, but they just gave it to Allen Klein.
For some reason, the idiots in the Verve tried to clear the sample afterward and it broke the label. The penalty for that was they made no money for the whole album. It was 1/13th or three points on the album or whatever anybody gets. An artist gets 13 percent after expenses. The Doors now get 26 percent for the $10,000 investment. But every year they have to renegotiate it. Michael Jackson's highest royalty rate was 25 percent at its zenith.
So check this out, I was like, "Fuck you, Allen Klein" -- before he died, you know -- "I'm going to cover this with real instruments and you can't sue me, it's not a sample. See ya." That song took me less than an hour and a half to track out with somebody. And then it was there, and that's all they had to do. Instead they broke up their band because they were like, "This business sucks." Which I think was really pussy.
I know for a fact Brian Jones wrote "Satisfaction" because Keith doesn't even play lead guitar. How is he going to make up leads that aren't a Chuck Berry song? He said he woke up in the morning and it was on the tape deck. On Brian's tape deck. Next to his head. He can't even remember writing it. But when you read his book, you know he's a guilty guy. He tries to rationalize it.
Now, the police acknowledge it was murder. He was the best swimmer of Cheltenham County. He was the best youth swimmer, and he drowned in a pool you can stand up in. You know what he was going to do with the Rolling Stones money, which he owned one fifth of? Chas Taylor came to him and said, "I want to put out this guy Jimi Hendrix." He went to the office and Mick and Keith were like, "There's no fucking way you're putting out someone better than the Rolling Stones as our first release on Rolling Stones Records!" So he was like, "I'm out of here. I'm buying a really expensive house with my money."
You still have your own record label, of course.
A Recordings Ltd. It's cool. People will find out very soon. I would love to talk Jeff Suthers into putting out that Bright Channel record. Make a vinyl or something. You know how I met them? I was deejaying for some other band's party, and they were playing, and not to be mean, but they captured me. Like, "This is the shit right here." It was so bad, coming out to DJ and support somebody, make it a good party of whatever. It was at Larimer Lounge.
It was absolutely real. It transcended his influences. Him chasing Albini or whatever and being into Sonic Youth and all these different things. It was fucking real and haunted. Shannon Stein is just like such a fucking imposing bass player. She reminds me of the girl from Serena Maneesh. They're like two peas in a pod. You want them in the Viking boat with you, because it's gonna get rough. Without saying a word, she's way more badass than Courtney Love could ever be. It was inspiring, and the drummer was excellent.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.