The Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe: "The Worst Thing Is You Don't Exist Anymore"
Anton Newcombe is ready to do his interview, but he's not truly ready to do his interview until he reaches back to grab his red aviator sunglasses. Once he's suited up, then we're set, and this Newport Beach native who can trace his family's local history back to the days before farms turned into parking lots and shopping malls--and who shouts out Burger Records--is ready to talk.
It's the day before Brian Jonestown Massacre leaves on a tour to promote their latest Aufheben (out now on Newcombe's A Records), with a stop scheduled for the Wiltern this weekend, and singer/songwriter/multiinstrumentalist Newcombe--subject of a fascinating 2006 cover story in the Weekly, and subject of the ... less-than-salutary documentary Dig!--is in what you might call a very good place.
"The Brian Jonestown Massacre is out there but has never had any real, measurable radio play. It's never had a film soundtrack or a car commercial," said the L.A. Times in 2004. "On the day of the interview, Newcombe evidently had a studio and a place to stay, but no phone."
But here we are in 2012 and Brian Jonestown's "Straight Up And Down" is the theme song for the much-acclaimed Boardwalk Empire, a deal Newcombe describes as worth "two or three or four or five '90s record deals, or for indie bands ... that's like twenty Ariel Pink deals at once." And back in his various European home bases, Newcombe runs his own Ustream channel called Dead TV, where he cooks and chats and takes calls all through his Skype connection.
In the long aftermath of Dig!, Jonestown and Newcombe have soldiered on as they always have, releasing some of their best albums and filing the documentary experience away alongside all the unorthodox other methods they've used to put their music into the minds of ... well, not quite the masses, but a lot more people than just the usual rock 'n' roll mutants. Like back when the Internet was something you had to access by getting to the campus lab and having a servermancer chant solemnly over a zip disk with your files on it--that's when Newcombe was already seeding Brian Jonestown MP3s to the world via a server at CalTech. It's all just a method of connection.
"I realized there would never be this record store that carried Bomp! records or this English label I'm on or my own label or even TVT in some little town in Norway," he says. "My stuff was gonna be unavailable except by mailorder. So I'm just allowing 5,000 people in Oslo to check out my stuff.
"I instigated the Dig! thing," he continues. "I brought the Dandys in and eliminated the other groups. It was like eleven L.A. bands hashing it out and they brought me in because it wasn't that interesting. You know how guys at Guitar Center are--these guys just wanted to be famous. It'd be like if you were doing a documentary on kids standing in line for American Idol. You know what they're all about. Rebecca Black can break down what that motivation is! They don't have anything to offer the world, but they just want a shot. And I had this whole other thing."
It's definitely a whole other thing. But in the happily plasticized world of 2012, it's a welcome thing, too. And after decades of not just playing music--all the way back to a Costa Mesa garage--but releasing records, booking shows and general total immersion, Newcombe is as savvy as they get, with a pirate's sense of music-industry protocol (Want to know how and why to turn a business deal into an opportunity for a homicide? Or at least where all the previous bodies are buried?) and a sense for how spectacle intersects business, identity and society that Andy Warhol and Malcolm McLaren would recognize instantly.
There are lots of layers here--you get the sense that the entire convoluted Brian Jonestown experience has all been part of Newcombe's plan, and that there has never been a plan at all, and of course that the plan has been to make it seem like there was never a plan in the first place. That confuses people even now: "I read a review of the new album today," says Newcombe, "and they're like, 'There's nothing new here.' Writing songs in French and Finnish isn't anything different to you? Why even take the time to expose the fact you don't know what you're talking about?"
See, once there was another band whose music was the sound of confusion, and it was good. And Jonestown's newest Aufheben is only confusing if that means its overwhelming--we start somewhere between the 1966 Velvet Underground acetate and Rolling Stones songs like "Citadel" or "The Lantern," but there's so much more.
You'll hear terminal Neu!-style repetition, is-that-synth-or-wind? melodies that seem lifted from the soundtrack of the original Wicker Man, electrified drums and futuristic touches that point more toward techno and electronica than vintage underground psychedelia--and the multi-lingual wordplay Newcombe mentions extends even to the album's title, a particularly German word (a la schadenfreude) that means something like ... to destroy something in order to rebuild it. This is their 2012 album, he explains, with everything that's meant to imply: "I love esotericism and eschatology--the study of the end of the world," he says. "Kali or the Bible or the Aztecs--any of it. And the worst thing that can happen is you have a decent record to listen to!"
Really--that's the worst thing?
"Well," says Newcombe. "The WORST thing is you don't exist anymore!"
The Brian Jonestown Massacre play the Wiltern on Saturday.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.