It's a Massacre
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."
Of course, most Americans never got a chance to form an opinion about the act. Although the Massacre's glam/mod/drone long-players sport a sound that's capable of satisfying shoe-gazers and Stones freaks alike, they appeared on Asphodel, Bomp and Candy-Floss--tiny imprints with equally tiny distribution. The notorious frequency with which the band's membership changed didn't help matters, either. "There's probably been a hundred people--literally--through this band at different times throughout the years in 'Frisco," Gion confirms. "Whoever's up for it, whoever has something to offer, and whoever can fucking handle it. Everyone's got a different level of how much of this they can take. Anton's a fairly intense individual. I mean, he's an artist. And the rest of us are very much individuals and true to ourselves, too, so when the shit goes down, it really goes down."
"The reality of doing stuff in an urban mecca is very difficult," Newcombe ventures. "Plus, a lot of times people don't understand that if you have a vision, you're going to be able to see it through. Most people feel powerless in their life, and it disturbs them when they run into a Thomas Edison type. People don't readily say, 'I have no clue how to do what I want to do. Save me.' If you have direction, it alienates some individuals."
The departure of such musicians hasn't always brought the friction to an end. At times, current bandmembers have stopped shooting spitballs at the industry and fellow acts long enough to start sparring with each other. "We've gotten into a couple of fistfights on stage before," Gion admits. "But we get it back together, because it's a family vibe. We've got to live with each other...It's 24 hours a day, and it's been this way for years. That's just the way I always thought a band should be. 'All or nothing' is definitely a good phrase."
Now, fortunately, the Massacre's lineup is more stable than it's ever been. As a result, the increased attention being received by the band is well-timed. In retrospect, Newcombe is glad that early fame eluded him: "I don't really think that's the best thing that can happen to you," he says. "You get too distracted by what's going on around you." He adds, "It's a strange business. That isn't why I make music in the first place, or do art, or get up in the morning. I'm really used to operating on entertaining myself."
The next fruit of this philosophy is scheduled to be a Massacre documentary two years in the making that contrasts the group with--surprise!--the Dandy Warhols. Newcombe claims that the combos' histories are portrayed neutrally in the project, but he concedes, "It's obvious, the different approaches we've had to our respective phenomena. It's definitely polarized. Early on in their career, people said to them, 'Oh, you're going to be the greatest thing.' And a lot of people said to us, 'You lack all these indicators that we believe would make you successful.' But we continue to do what's important, because what it's about is music. If you keep making records, then there's something to talk about, and it becomes your individual taste. And we just sort of stuck in there."
The Warhols, previously profiled in these pages ("Velvety Goodness," December 13, 1995), may have the last laugh; after all, they're signed to Capitol Records and are widely thought to be on the cusp of greater stardom. But Newcombe can't resist implying that the ladder up which the Warhols are climbing is more than a bit shaky. "Their company just threw a bunch of money at them to see them through, and I don't think it has paid off 100 percent across the board," he says. "People say they're one-hit wonders, but that's not even what the industry considers a one-hit wonder."
If that's true and the Warhols' end is near, why are Newcombe and company still pounding away at them? "The God's honest truth of the matter is that Capitol paid us $1 million to try our hardest to whip up some shit so people could get the cue that they're supposed to give a damn," Newcombe jests. "But time's up on the Dandys' meter. We're onto something else. We've heard that Vanilla Ice is staging a comeback, so his label is kicking us down some dough to start a fight with him."
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, with Swoon 23. 8 p.m. Thursday, April 30, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $5, 333-7749.
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