Sometime in 1994, in the hippy heights of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, Anton Newcombe formed the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Since then his band has produced ten albums (three in 1996) and recently they’ve released their EP, We Are the Radio. As they finalize their UK tour Newcombe talks about music, acid and Dig!
By Rachael Clegg
It’s 11:30pm and the Brian Jonestown Massacre are backstage at the Leeds Cockpit in Northern England. Its dingy walls host sunken couches supporting smoke-drenched, drunken characters, hangers-on, Swedish musicians, the entire cast of a British soap opera (Emmerdale Farm) and of course, the band.
I am introduced to Anton Newcombe, the famously temperamental bandleader and front man of the Brian Jonestown Massacre (note: must be pronounced in full, Jonestown, not Jones town, as Anton sharply points out). With an inebriated glaze he shakes my hand, “Hello, I’m Anton Newcombe and you’re?”
It is an hour before we finally start the interview and already Anton is fucked out of his mind.
Formed during the mid nineties in Haight Ashbury, the Brian Jonestown Massacre embrace all the hedonism and headiness associated with their birthplace. Newcombe was a child of the 1967 Summer of Love himself and asked as to whether the musical/historical significance of Haight Ashbury influenced the Brian Jonestown Massacre Newcombe replies: “They used to do a lot of acid – and I’m talking about in our time – in [the nineties].”
What is important however, is the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s musical homage to the Summer of Love; when Seattle was the epicentre of alternative music and grunge became the dominant aesthetic in the mid-nineties the Brian Jonestown Massacre looked to psychedelia for inspiration. Asked as to what it is that makes this period of musical history so attractive Newcombe responds: “I just like the way [in the sixties] they approached bringing ideas into music.”
The rock heritage that shaped countless nineties grunge and Indie bands, it seems, never appealed to Newcombe: “When I was growing up I didn’t listen to rock music. It’s fun when you go out and people are playing AC/DC and people are dancing away. Whatever. But I don’t like that kind of music. The same kind of pattern kick[s] my fucking head in. I never even listened to Led Zeppelin. I always liked psychedelic music.”
When asked as to what psychedelic bands have inspired him Newcombe simply states, “Let’s just assume that I know more bands than you do.”
It is Newcombe’s chosen musical (psychedelic) direction that steers the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Ideas are entirely Newcombe’s territory. The Brian Jonestown Massacre is his project and since its conception in the mid-nineties Newcombe has gone through sixty band members. The band’s famous documentary film, Dig!, effectively – and controversially (Newcombe has stated that he is not happy with the way in which he is represented in the film)- marks the ‘rock n roll’ attitude that has come to be associated with him– an attitude that, according to the film, perhaps preceded the band’s signing to a record label.
Nonetheless, the thinking behind the Brian Jonestown Massacre is intriguing. Newcombe’s musical output is remarkable; by 1995 he was writing up to four songs a day. In 2004 the band’s prolific recording career (to that date) was compiled on Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A Retrospective. With a recent EP release; We Are the Radio, it is clear that Newcombe’s flow of ideas is far from drying up. Asked as to what ideas are currently circulating in his head, he responds: “Basically I just enjoy being creative. I just want to stay true to myself. I talk in sound. I can make some kind of heavy statement but…”
He continues. “OK, I want to create an audio and visual environment that will bring them back to their genesis, the moment of conception.”###