Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre: The Lost Please Kill Me Interview

In mid-March, I interviewed Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre via Zoom for crucially cool website Please Kill Me. Before the story went live, Please Kill Me ceased publishing new stories, and I feared our great chat might be lost for good. Happily, Please Kill Me’s Gillian McCain gave me the okay to get the piece out there, and with the Brian Jonestown Massacre returning to San Francisco this week for a pair of dates at the Fillmore I decided to throw this up on Medium to give the interview a home. Much love and thanks to Gillian, as well as SiouxZ at Magnum PR for arranging the interview in the first place. And much love and gratitude to Anton Newcombe, for being so generous with his time and memories, and for years of beautiful music.

If you enjoy the interview, please go buy some Brian Jonestown Massacre music, merch, tickets, whatever…As you may have heard, some of the band’s vintage guitars and other equipment was stolen in Portland a couple of days ago, and they’re out some serious bread.

And also: Please buy my books, particularly the latest, the Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area. It was co-written by my longtime co-conspirator Mike Katz, and it not only features a chapter about the BJM, it’s also got a fantastic foreword penned by none other than Joel Gion. Get it wherever books are sold at maximum volume.

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Anton Newcombe, founder and longtime leader of the loose collective of lysergic wayfarers the Brian Jonestown Massacre, is a collector.

Newcombe collects instruments of all shapes, sizes and sounds, as seen in a quick virtual tour of Cobra Studio, his Berlin nerve center. He collects ideas and influences from seemingly everywhere. He collects collaborators and bandmates, as an extensive but perhaps incomplete Wikipedia list of past and present bandmates demonstrates.

And he also collects Zoom backgrounds, as he explains during an interview with Please Kill Me where he didn’t actually use one.

“I have some pretty funny ones,” Newcombe says. “I have one for America where it’s all guns, it’s like a gun wall. And one, one that’s all whips and chains. And I have the sophisticated library one, with the Tiffany shade and all the books.”

Anton Newcombe keeps busy, not because he has to, but because it’s who he is. He’s in his studio six days a week, but it’s less dedicated routine than inner drive.

“I’m an artist and I just work every day,” he says. “It’s what I enjoy.”

In late September 2020, Newcombe began posting new Brian Jonestown Massacre songs to his YouTube account, often, it seemed, every single day, dozens upon dozens of them. It was a perpetual psychedelic gift in the middle of a plague.

“During lockdown in Germany, they could only strongly suggest that you stayed at home,” Newcombe says. “ Because of the nature of national socialism, the Stasi and all that stuff, the laws were kind of this ambiguous thing. It’s like, it’s your duty. But me and my mates still went to the studio every day and recorded.”

The Brian Jonestown Massacre, collectively, but under Newcombe’s unstoppable steam, have been consistent since forever. Founded in San Francisco, they’ve retained their version of the Lower Haight revolutionary ethos even as Newcombe has remained a resident of Berlin.

The BJM’s 2019 self-titled album, released on Newcombe’s A Recordings, is the 18th since 1995. Add to that various singles and EPs, world tours, and Newcombe’s collaborations with artists like Tess Parks, and as a member of L’Epée alongside Emmanuelle Seigner and Lionel & Marie Liminana of the Liminanas, plus a future project with singer Dot Allison, and a pattern clearly emerges.

“I just work,” Newcombe says. “I just really enjoy being creative.”

That work, that creative work during a global pandemic, resulted in two albums set for release in 2022: Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees, due June 22; and The Future is Your Past, out in October.

“Once I got over this little bit of writer’s block that I had after I had my first bout of COVID early on, it was sort of like where you get traction, you know what I mean?” Newcombe says. “And all of a sudden you’re like, where did that come from? And the next day, and the next day, and the next day, you know, and I, and I just kept going and wrote like 70 songs.”

Using a basic album quality principle devised by Brian Jonestown Massacre percussionist and raconteur Joel Gion, Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees and The Future is Your Past have 10 songs apiece.

“Ultimately it’s like a skeleton,” Newcombe says. “A long time ago, I met Joel in a record store where he was a buyer along with being a personality. And people in San Francisco who had these insane record collections were selling records. And I said, ‘Joel, how many songs do you need on a record before you toss it, and you’ll go in and sell it because you need some cash, oh, but I can’t sell that one, man, it’s great.’ And he said generally three songs is a very good record. It doesn’t matter about the rest of them.” And now I only limit things to 20 minutes per side, 40 minutes max for vinyl purposes. That’s not a lot of songs in the modern context.”

Newcombe’s studio is ready for action at all times, but today, in mid-March, it’s especially so, awaiting the arrival of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, reconvening in Berlin ahead of a nearly two-month North American jaunt that began in late March and continues through mid-May. Newcombe takes Please Kill Me on a quick virtual tour, guitars and other instruments hung along its red walls, every inch of the studio crackling with promise. He briefly steps out into a quiet courtyard embraced by apartment buildings, then back inside again to the space where he makes the most of his waking hours.

“I have an extensive toolkit, it’s pretty bananas,” Newcombe says. “And I can do anything. This is more stuff than the Beatles or the Rolling Stones used in the ’60s to record, you see what I’m saying? Like more than Sgt. Pepper, any of that stuff.”

Newcombe’s studio also has all the comforts of home, as seen in an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. But it isn’t home.

“I don’t live here,” he says. “I think it’s important to go to work, but it’s set up like a house. So I also come in and just lay down and go to sleep, you know?”

To many, Anton Newcombe remains the mercurial character seen in Dig!, the 2004 Ondi Timoner documentary that luridly focuses on the sometimes tumultuous ’90s relationship between the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Portland’s the Dandy Warhols. The film received widespread praise, winning the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. But it was also dismissed as a work of fiction by members of both bands, who claim the narrative crafted by filmmakers was salacious and one-dimensional, taking particular umbrage with the portrayal of Newcombe as an angry, addled, self-destructive bully.

There is much to recommend in Dig!: The grotesque bloat of major record labels just before their power was significantly dimmed by file-sharing. The squalor and despair — and occasional rapture — of life on the road for bands just scraping by on literal and figurative fumes. The ebullient and perpetual jive of Gion. And a side of Newcombe rarely discussed in connection with the film, the side that makes him and his band so consistently compelling so many years later: His unwavering drive and unflappable devotion to deliver the music he hears in his head to the people.

“I’m interested in songs sort of reflecting a full spectrum of human emotions and moods in the way that your life goes through cycles,” Newcombe says. “I don’t necessarily need to have some dramatic crap going on or be in love to write about either of them, because obviously I’ve reached a certain age and remember all those things. So I don’t have to like crash my car drunk or whatever…If you have some kind of spirit, you go, I remember sleeping in a car. Or, I remember doing a medical test to get my first guitar. Do you see what I’m saying? I remember all that kind of stuff. And I know desperately wanting to be able to record and all that kind of stuff and all the sacrifices and hardships I went through to be able to work towards my vision of my dreams.”

Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees sounds like the Brian Jonestown Massacre in the sense that everything released under the name sounds like the Brian Jonestown Massacre, which is largely down to Anton Newcombe. Even within the context of collaboration, or on past occasional tracks written by former BJM members (particularly Matt Hollywood), or during a deeper experimental period around 15 years ago, Newcombe’s sonic and spiritual imprint runs through the music like a central nervous system.

Anton Newcombe is talking about the power of saying no, something he tapped into early on. It’s been the secret to his success, success on his own terms.

“I knew that I could end up being as popular as anybody ever in the long run if I just said no,” he says. “Because nobody says no. Nobody that you’ve ever heard of has ever said no. There might be some guy in Mississippi who said, ‘No, thanks,’ and he’s just still sitting on his porch ninety-nine years old or something. But I knew that immediately, once I already had like a thousand people going to my show, I knew that I couldn’t be stopped. Only I could stop me.”

The ’90s were perhaps the final decade of major record label gluttony, and the tendrils tickled at the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s front door.

“It was Nirvana that fucked everybody’s mind,” Newcombe says. “‘Oh my God, 10 million records, let’s throw $250 grand at every single band that moves!’ And people were coming at me trying to throw that kind of money at me the whole time going, ‘We’re gonna make you the next Kurt Cobain!’ And I said, he’s dead. You make me the next Kurt Cobain, I’ll stab you. You know what I mean? That’s literally what I said to these people. ‘You try it and I’ll kill you. That guy’s dead. He literally has no face.’”

In Dig!, Newcombe is portrayed as being almost incapable of taking care of himself in the real world, but it was around that time that he sussed out what’s enabled him to keep doing what he’s been doing ever since.

“I don’t ever have to do a thing again forever,” Newcombe says. “I own all my music.”

Born in Newport Beach, a coastal Orange County city south of Los Angeles, Newcombe grew up wanting to be a musician. And even then, he was looking at it from different angles.

“I come from garage culture in Southern California,” he says. “The Beatles and whatever, if I was watching them on TV, there’s nothing they ever showed you that you could be them. Because you can’t be Paul McCartney, right? But this garage music stuff, it’s like, look at these idiots in this punk band, I can do this. And it looks fun.”

The teenage Newcombe was further fueled by tales of the DIY We Jam Econo ethos of Minutemen and the Meat Puppets.

“Three guys in a van playing these clubs for 500 people pulling $90 grand a year by looping the United States,” he says. And I was like, if I could loop the United States and get 500 people to show up and pull $90 grand a year, that to me is big.”

Flash forward to 2022, and Anton Newcombe isn’t a kid anymore. But he still feels there’s a place for his voice and his music, and he’s right.

“I have a big chip on my shoulder,” he says. “I’m 54. I was born in 1967, and it would be really a dumb idea to discredit me and think that I got something less to offer than some dipshit on TikTok. Because it would be like saying like, you know, nobody who’s over 23 is relevant. Look at Howlin’ Wolf. What a crime against humanity with that would be if some dipshit on TikTok said, ‘Well, a sixty year old doesn’t have anything important to say, doesn’t speak to me.’ I mean, that’s just like flying a banner that says, I’m a fucking idiot, you know? Because that music is amazing for the spirit.”

Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees is music that’s amazing for the spirit, and even with song titles like “Ineffable Mindfuck” and “You Think I’m Joking?”, Anton Newcombe isn’t joking. And in the midst of near-constant worldwide calamity, he’d like you to maybe feel okay.

“The pandemic is an existential crisis, and we’re going from one existential crisis to another,” Newcombe says. “And if you listen to everything that I’m saying, I’m basically empowering people.”

“The Real” broke Newcombe’s writer’s block, a thundering anthem that opened his creative floodgates and fittingly opens Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees, with affirmative appeals like “Fight the beast until it dies/Raise your sword up to the sky” emerging from an ever-cresting wave. Elsewhere there are echoes of everything from Newcombe’s own astounding back catalogue to Liverpudlian post-punk heroes Echo & the Bunnymen, the latter by way of a vocal that evokes Ian McCulloch in a song that wouldn’t be out of place on Thank God for Mental Illness, the third BJM album of a particularly fertile 1996.

“Those guys changed my life,” Newcombe says. “I was so into psychedelic music and I thought the punks were such boneheads, even though I loved them. But the Bunnymen were really important to me.”

Newcombe’s emergence from his brief bout of writer’s block led to 70 songs in 70 days, each starting from nothing.

“I press record and then write,” Newcombe says. “It’s hard for people to imagine that, having nothing and just pressing record. Not jamming. And then it comes together like that. There’s no rehearsal, there’s no demo.”

Working with guitarist Hákon Aðalsteinsson and drummer Uri Rennert, he gets to work. It’s both a linear and nonlinear process that results in the same thing: A completed song by the end of the day.

“We plug in and I say, Okay, what are we gonna do? No idea. Hold on, take my capo, slap it someplace that was different than the day before. Go like this on my 12-string. Okay, it sounds better two steps down, and then start playing for like one minute. And then we all start playing together…I figure out really quickly what the tempo is and stick to it, for the feel. That way I can do the drums last, it doesn’t matter. Or I start with the drums, because I switch instruments. So I can start on a recorder, you know, like on anything. I just showed you the room; I just literally sit down at anything, and I pick out something.”

“It’s all conceptual art to me.”

The songs are embellished, generally, by loud acoustics.

“That’s the secret for a three guitar electric band, is that mainly the rhythm guitar is actually acoustic guitar,” Newcombe says. “Like the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. Because if you, if you don’t, then you’re just like Oasis with this wall of the same sounding thing coming at you. It’s not my thing. It’s great for AC/DC, but it’s not what I’m into. And the acoustic guitar adds a percussive value as well.”

Newcombe’s Berlin-based bandmates take a short break in the Cobra Studio living room while he records vocals. Then the song is reviewed and uploaded to Newcombe’s YouTube page as a work-in-progress. Every effort from these sessions is available there, including those earmarked for Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees and The Future is Your Past. And he doesn’t give a shit what people think of them.

“People say rude things,” Newcombe says. “God, the Internet’s great for that. ‘All your music sounds the same!’ Thank God. Whatever. I don’t care what you think, you know? I mean, nobody cares. You think somebody’s gonna collect all your YouTube comments and put them in a big book? Write them on emerald tablets and bury them under a pyramid or some shit?Nobody cares.”

At the time I’m writing these words, rehearsals for the Brian Jonestown Massacre tour are underway at Cobra Studio; by the time this story is published, the tour will be in full swing.

“All of that’s conceptual art to me when I go play live,” Newcombe says. “It lives or it dies with everyone. Like bullfighting. And I like that.”

The Brian Jonestown Massacre haven’t played in the United States since a monthlong excursion in the spring of 2018.

“I don’t even know what to think about coming back to the States,” he says. “Think what you will about me being uncouth or something, but I’m real salt of the earth. And never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that it would turn into such a cesspit of divisive fucking idiots. Unless it was by design, I just can’t see it. I mean, I knew a lot of idiots growing up. I come from Orange County, California, where Jackass is from. I knew a lot of really stupid people. But I’d never seen anything like that in my life. It’s crazy. The best is Trump, ‘COVID is a plot by the Democratic Party to wreck my administration.’ What the hell is going on? Absolute madness.”

Newcombe also has little patience for people behaving as though the pandemic is in the past.

“Hope that we have zero hassles, health-wise,” he says. “People think that all the COVID stuff’s over, but man, more people are catching it this side of the world…I just caught it in December again, but once you’re triple-vaxxed you’re just sleepy. It’s much like the vaccine in general…I just don’t understand the pushback.”

Q: The Brian Jonestown Massacre and (tour opener) Mercury Rev come from a similar place philosophically, sometimes musically…

Newcombe: “Drugs. Drug music.”

Among the highlights of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s “drug music” tour with Mercury Rev are two mid-April days at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Memories of the city, the venerable concert hall, surface, and it’s not all nostalgia.

“You look at like Cream playing at the Fillmore in 1967 and they got paid $7,000 to play, and then you look at us playing there a couple years ago, and we got $7,000 to play, except the ticket price was only $3 then. And you could rent an apartment in Manhattan in the Lower East Side for $75 or $80 or $100. Or for $7,000 you could buy a Mustang and maybe a used motorcycle, or a downtown payment on a railroad flat in Costa Mesa, California. But now you can’t do anything with $7,000. I’ve spent $200,000 in an afternoon.”

The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s history at the Fillmore has not been smooth. Joel Gion wrote the foreword to my latest book, Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area (co-author Mike Katz, Globe Pequot Press, May 2021), as well as sharing memories for a chapter about the BJM, and he recalled the group’s long overdue first gig at the Fillmore in 2009, alongside Primal Scream.

“Everything is going great, it’s sold out,” said Gion. “But the monitor guy is pissed, because he was the only guy who wasn’t able to go see Roger Waters at AT&T Park, because he had to work. So he was totally fucking with us, totally on purpose. Anton put down his guitar and went into this whole rant. He said, ‘We’re from the Lower Haight…and I didn’t come through it all to finally headline this place just to get shit from you because you didn’t get to see Roger Waters!’ He started going into it, and the more he’s going, I’m like, ‘He’s absolutely fucking right!’ And by the end of it I’m like, ‘Yes! Testify, brother!’ But in the end it got us thrown out again, because you just can’t display that kind of decorum towards the staff, whether Roger Waters is playing or not.”

They’ve since returned to the Fillmore, and Newcombe says it also didn’t go well.

“They completely cranked up all the monitors, you know, like making noise and stuff,” he says. “But hopefully it goes cool. I mean, I don’t have any beef with them. I think they need to get over it. But whatever. I’m just looking forward to a good show.”

I enjoyed my conversation with Anton Newcombe, which bounced around from topic to topic like a game of pinball. He riffed on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ’60s Ampeg amplifiers, Bob Dylan, Masonic lodges, the shooter of homeless men in New York City and Washington, TED Talks (this in a self-deprecating joke about his verbosity), and how much he’s looking forward to grabbing a bite to eat when the Brian Jonestown Massacre plays San Francisco.

“When you’re at the Fillmore, you’re pretty close to California Street,” he says. “If you turn and you’re trying to go towards the Sunset (District) and all that stuff, that’s where some really good Chinese places are and you can get bao. Pork buns who would’ve thought? But they’re really, really good. Like big ones, the big, the big ones. Not like the little dumping ones. And since I’m there two days, I plain on hitting a Mexican place, Pancho Villa, El Farolito, or someplace.”

And with that, Newcombe is off.

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