“I just want to be relevant”: in conversation with Anton Newcombe

The Brian Jonestown Massacre are an act that are so firmly rooted in the musical canon that if you were to erase them, the last two decades might fall away like the rubble at the edge of a cliff. Born in 1990 with founding member Anton Newcombe at the helm, the group has undergone many reiterations in its time. With members swirling through a revolving door of conflict and turmoil, there has been much speculation about the temperamental front man, and his unorthodox leadership methods. If you believed everything from the 2004 documentary Dig! following the band’s relationship with contemporaries The Dandy Warhols, you might be surprised that they still exist today, and are about to embark on their 25th anniversary tour.

I caught up with Anton on the eve of the tour to talk about his ambitions for his art, his life, and what it’s like to be inside his head some days. Admittedly, I was nervous. Would I ask him the kinds of questions to unleash his unconventional opinions on Babylonian Space Gods (which as it so happens, he tells me the phone call before mine was largely centred on), or would I bore him into a moody submission that would see him unresponsive, and tarnish my long-standing admiration forever? It was like flipping a coin with one of my favourite acts as the bounty, and fortunately it was neither heads nor tails.

As we kick off the call I am instantly at ease with Anton’s laid-back Californian drawl. I start by thanking him for his latest broadcast of Dead TV, a surreal mix of clips and tracks ranging from Australian psych group Rainbow Generator to Donavan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, melded together in a fascinating mixed media tapestry and promoted via Twitter as the creation streams live. I ask what inspires him to put together the underground production, and whether it’s a more meaningful way to connect with his fans in a space that is largely social media driven.

“I just think it’s, pardon my French, a fucking disgrace,” he says in a softly spoken voice. “There are so many tools at hand; cinematic tools, broadcasting tools, all these different things, yet so few people use them. There are infinite options, but we see less media happening. We see less movies being made than in the sixties.”

Film is something that the now forty-eight-year-old performer is very driven by. He has been vocal about his desire to score cinema, recently working on the soundtrack to Philip John’s Moon Dogs, and this year even went to the extent of releasing his own soundtrack to an imaginary film, Musique De Film Imagine, inspired by the French New Wave.

“I just wanted to do something,” he tells me, “I was trying to inspire film makers to let me have my way, it’s like my CV.”

The fourteen-track release encourages listeners to create their own story, and when I listen to it I am reminded of a line from Godard’s Breathless. The character Parvulesco is asked what his greatest ambition in life is, and replies, “to become immortal, then die.” It’s the kind of existential wisdom that wouldn’t be out of place in a BJM lyric, and I ask Anton, given how much he has already achieved, what he would consider is his greatest ambition now.

“I want to pretend like I don’t have any time left and I want to get as much done as possible,” he says, “I want to cram as much in there in that way with my art. And just continue to grow. So it’s like this real simply stuff. Just grow as a person, and artistically, and just make stuff happen. The opposite of this Hollywood plastic surgery thing. I just want to be relevant. Not just in the way of youth culture that people are so concerned, which I have never been concerned with. I just want to be natural, and have that not be an issue, as I get older.”

It’s a genuine answer from an artist whose only concern seems, as the old adage goes, to burn bright before he burns out. Now a father, I ask him what he hopes to be able to impart on his two-year-old son Wolfgang as he grows up, and the answer is similarly touching.

“I want to have that discussion about when you really know that there is a person sitting in the room that will help you do anything in the world. And you really know that. Like in the way that you have an idea now that with Google there is a possibility you can find the answer to any question. If you’re sitting in the room with me and somehow I can make you understand that if there’s something you want to do, then I am going to try and figure out how to do that. Anything,” he says.

“For instance, in my head when he encounters some fighting at school, some school bully bullshit, that’s the day I am going to take him to the airport and go: “Ok, first of all, we’re not going to talk about martial arts and all this other stuff or how I can teach you how to kick people’s asses. We’re going to get on a plane and go to Switzerland for lunch and I’m going to tell you that plane ride was very small and we can go anywhere, so fuck them, let’s have lunch in Switzerland.”

We both laugh at the humorously sage advice and I picture the scene playing out with a smile; an ageing Newcombe seated at a bay window overlooking the Alps with his son staring on wide eyed. Now living in Berlin, these windows into other cultures and experiences are that much more accessible, and we talk about what else it is about the place that attracted Anton to calling it home.

“I’m just happy to be on earth. I am not tied into this whole “it has to be in English” thing,” he tells me, “I am not a victim of this corporate guerilla that is a Hollywood Babylonisation of the planet earth with the media overload. The footballers wives and what their up to. I feel like I can block everything out in the whole universe in this beautiful way, that I may as well be in the middle of the forest.”

As a place that a lot of artists go to disappear, I wonder what makes the vast city synonymous with that, especially to someone who has frequently commented that he enjoys the feeling of being a ghost there.

“A lot of people find it can be very lonely here,” he says.

“Do you find it lonely?” I ask.

“No,” he says matter factly, “I have my family, and besides that I don’t need anybody…” Then on pausing recoils a little, “I mean, a little bit. I try to explain that I sleep with BBC 4 on, because I need some contact. Or I’ll go to the bar to drink mineral water just to be there. But, I don’t need to hang out. I’ve already had a lifetime of that. I’m just about my work.”

Looking back over the quarter of a century of BJM, I ask if after all the highs and lows, the artist ever thought he would be about to embark on this silver jubilee tour. Time is a reoccurring topic in our conversation, and I try to delve into just what it means to him.

“No, I didn’t, because time is always irrelevant to me. Basically what I wanted to do was be able to just play my music and not have to worry about bullshit,” he says of the achievement, “Going to sleep at night is like taking a nap for me, and the days are really stretched out like seasons. One day it’s just snowing and I’m like “oh… it’s a new day.” Mood tends to gravitate in those broads strokes over months. One day I wake up and I feel something is out of balance and I’ve got to get back and find something different. I might feel some darker mood or something that’s a little crazy. But I have a lot of joyous times too. I make very neutral, natural movements in my life. And it swings like a pendulum very slowly until I realise I am not where I want to be, and then I snap out of that and swing in the other direction. In that sense, my whole life is a meditation.”

I think to myself that this level of calm calculation is not what I expected from a guy who self-professed once got in a fight involving a hammer and a knife with his guitarist (Matt Hollywood), not to mention a long list of other crazed rockstar antics. We get to talking about the upcoming tour, the composition of the live band these days, and what exactly fans can expect, given that there has been promises of never before played deep cuts.

“Well, Matt (Hollywood) is not coming. He is working on his own group again. Good for him,” Anton starts, “And Frankie (Emerson) is not coming because he has retired from music and drinking and drugging. I mean, I don’t drink and drug either but yeah…we have Ryan from Dead Skeletons playing with us now. We are back to a three-guitar set up, which is really good. The others are there, Colin (Hegna), Rob (Campanella), and Joel (Gion). It’s going to be better than ever. And I mean that. I never wanted to have the four-guitar thing. It was too sloppy. This is much cleaner and defined. It was just poor leadership on my part.”

And he serves a confident reminder of just how unique and important the band is.

“People need to remember that for as many people who have been influenced by us, or we were influenced by, there’s not a band that is like us in their town or their state or anywhere,” he continues, “Where we left off in Liverpool, our last concert together, it was so amazing. I added a couple of songs we had never played live from around 2000 and it was crazy, with me and Joel singing. And that was a great feeling so we left that on a high high note.”

The latest release Mini Album Thingy Wingy, which will no doubt feature heavily in the shows, should not be dismissed based on it’s odd titling. It is an extremely solid seven track release that might just be the group’s most accessible effort in years. There are not overly dense moody layers or meta ideas to dig through and the sound throws back to an earlier, more concise BJM production.

“The new stuff is so solid live, I’ve got to tell you,” Anton says excitedly, “it’s just going to be amazing. I think, it will be memorable because I am in a great headspace and I am trying my hardest, and that’s a beautiful thing I think.”

And it is a beautiful thing. I finish my call with Anton with a newfound appreciation for him. This is not a caricature of a zany artist, or a megalomaniacal monster, or any of the common portrayals we have seen. This is a guy who just wants to create until he can’t, play until no one wants to watch, and grow until time catches up. Where others of his era have fallen victim to lives of excess, or have cut cookies of their first moments in the spotlight for decades, he has come out the other side with a renewed sense of self that shines through.

I look forward to stepping into his time bubble when the band hit our shores and he condenses the last twenty-five years into a meditative pendulum of an evening, swinging back and forth between then, now and everything in between.

Thursday, 12th November

The Northern Hotel, Byron Bay
Tickets: Moshtix

Friday 13th November
The Triffid, Brisbane
Tickets: Oztix

Saturday 14th November

Odeon Theatre, Hobart
Tickets: MONA

Sunday, 15th November

Town Hall, Melbourne
Tickets: Ticketmaster / City of Melbourne

Wednesday, 18th November 

Factory Theatre, Sydney
Tickets: Factory Theatre

Thursday 19th Novemeber

Metro Theatre, Sydney
Tickets: Metro Theatre