Thursday, May 10, 2012

An interview with Anton Newcombe
published on 9th May, 2012
Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre is a fast talking, extremely smart, extremely passionate dude. His boundless energy and quick mind are immediately impressive.
But a great thing happens sometimes when you’re talking to an artist of Anton’s statue. They vacillate between displays of the otherworldly talent that has taken them to such great heights – and can cow most of us ‘normal’ folks – and an endearing wide eyed naivety or slacker reticence that makes them just like all your funny layabout friends.
Anton is bringing his musical project Brian Jonestown Massacre to Australia over the next few weeks. The notorious malcontent talked to me from L.A. where they’re rehearsing, about their new album Aufheben, how his provocative nature was actually self-defense, and why you should never buy a car because of rock and roll.
Wilfred Brandt: The album artwork – is that the image that was sent into outer space?
Anton Newcombe: Yep.
WB: Have you heard the story about the artist from MIT named Joe Davis?
AN: No.
WB: There’s a really great documentary about him. In 1986 when that image was sent into outer space, he was so offended by the fact that the woman’s genitalia was erased, he sent a transmission into outer space – from MIT where he’s a research associate – of vaginal contractions from ballet dancers, to show aliens that women do have genitals and this is what they sound like.
AN: That’s great, absolutely great. What I did was, I added the German word Aufheben. I thought it would be funny, if you understand the concept of the word – it means to abolish or destroy in order to lift up and preserve. German culture, twice, they literally had to destroy their culture to preserve it.
I thought it would be funny if a German scientist had put on that schematic, ‘here we are, here’s a disc representing our phonetics of our language and greetings’ and put this word ‘Aufheben’ which means ‘all this must be destroyed to be preserved’.
One of my friends was doing the data entry for the SETI Project – they beamed 25,000 gigabytes of information in every single direction from the radio telescopes, files, movies, just like, data packets right? And we slipped in two Brian Jonestown Massacre songs.
WB: That’s awesome. Jonestown was obviously a religious cult, and a lot of the music you make, the aesthetic has ties to spirituality and religion. I wondered if you have any spiritual views that you live by?
AN: Yes. Absolutely. It’s more akin to a sufi type approach than some orthodoxy, and [it’s] based on spiritual understanding that I have of my own. I’m really into esoteric information. The cult thing – I just noticed early on that there was a similarity between cult figures and the cult of personality with athletes and musicians and actors.
The whole abrasive nature, my juvenile sense of humour, and provoking people or song titles, all that was just like this protectionery device that I thought about. ‘Cuz I knew that the industry is BS. Even if you were somebody that had so much integrity, like The Zombies, if you gave control away and it was not offensive, at some point you would be selling tampons too, whether you like it or not. It’s ridiculous, like rock and roll used to sell cars – I was thinking about this the other day. What qualities do you want in a car? You want safety, dependability, reliability (laughs) And rock and roll is like danger, not long lived, all my heroes are destructive (laughs). It’s exactly the opposite of all the qualities I look for in a car. I think it’s really odd that they choose to sell Cadillacs with out of control drugged and crazy Satanic bands or something.
Even how they market dangerous people that are actually safe. You see all these hip hop guys, and they’ve got all these guns, but all their lawyers are Jewish, they’re renting these Ferraris to do the videos and the film crew has two million dollars worth of gear, so how dangerous and thuggish are these guys really? (laughs) All that stuff really bugs the shit out of me.
WB: It’s definitely the image of something that’s dangerous rather than something that’s literally dangerous.
AN: I don’t know, there’s a lot of pitfalls in modern living. Sometimes I think about that, there’s so many potential ways to get caught up in stuff – your grandma could buy you a Playstation and boom, you’re lost forever, you’re a computer nerd. Or you could date this girl and she asks you to go to some fucking Kabbalah cult in L.A. and then boom we’ve lost you to David Lynch’s Foundation. There’s an infinite amount of these weird little modes that you can get into and I guess mine is being a Bohemian.
But I identify with different records at different points in my life, whether you’re travelling and there’s some music playing or whether you’re depressed in your room and you’re identifying with The Smiths. And that reaching out, that connection, I think is really cool. And a lot of times bands represent one mood, and I’ve always been trying to make it like a full spectrum somehow to input that so you can connect on different levels at different times in your life.
WB: The last couple albums seem less song-oriented and more groove-oriented. Was there a specific reason for that?
AN: I’m very interested in segueing at this point in my life, at least partially, towards doing soundtracks. Now that doesn’t mean placing my music in exchange for money on a soundtrack. I’m interested in something between an Ennio Morricone approach and a music director, where I could ask people that I wanna collaborate with to be a part of it.
There’s also a tribal aspect to music. I’m interested in sitar music. I’ve never been a big fan of bridges, so I get trolls literally lashing out at me, ‘this isn’t even fucking a song, this is an idea that, what, there’s no bridge?!?’ There’s a whole cosmology of expression where that isn’t even an issue. I really don’t think there’s any rules, when I go into the studio, I don’t have a preconceived notion. What I wanna end up with is the full spectrum of my moods or what I’m trying to say, rather than going, ‘hey, I’m really into Psychocandy, and I anticipate that there’s going to be social unrest in the summer, so let’s make an angry distorted record and I’ll buy a fucking leather jacket’. That’s not how I work.
WB: I feel like the last couple albums sounded more angry or more violent. And this one sounds nicely optimistic. It’s a cool change, I like it.
AN: Cool. I was trying to marry a concept because it’s 2012 and I know there’s a certain amount of social anxiety, and also, sarcasm about it – the Mayan prophecy and the end of the world, blah blah blah. I’m really into astrology and studying what other people think about their end time scenario, whether it’s Christians or Hindus. I’ve never cared about creating ‘singles’ per se, ‘cuz I don’t [understand] radio play the way other people do. It’s more about just trying to challenge myself with weird tricks, deceptively simple minimalism. I’ll challenge myself with some weird puzzle, and then we have to remember [how to play] this stuff. It’s nuts.
WB: I know you’ve been living in Berlin since 2007. How has that changed your perspective on American culture or American life?
AN: Good question right? Well in a lot of the western cultures there’s not only been a gravitation towards seemingly right wing governments, there’s a security thing. And that balance between, it isn’t just civil liberty and safety, it’s human dignity at a certain point. It’s getting pretty extreme in some of these countries. I don’t see that in Germany. Germany, because of the history, there’s a real sensitivity against things that look like or act like the Stasi, or worse, National Socialism. So there’s cultural safeguards in place, whereas the dialogue in the UK right now is like, ‘we’re going to record every web page visit, every text, every phone call, every communication, every email, period, that comes through England, because we can’. Now they can’t do that in Germany.
The other thing is I can’t participate in the politics there. But I feel like my voice is represented one hundred percent, my interests, internationally, globally, and locally. In America there’s a political dysfunction between the right and the left to the extent that it’s a laughing stock, they can’t balance the budget. I think national democracy, that’s an antiquated notion these days. In America, the main interest is not so much the general public, it’s the interests of finance and the military industrial complex.
WB: I’m originally from the U.S. and when I go back there, the bipartisan thing is so extreme where it’s not even about what’s good for the country it’s just about having your side win.
AN: It’s so weird, it makes you really want a Teddy Roosevelt type person – but someone more democratic – somebody that’s gonna stand up and say, ‘shut up everybody, we’re not having this dialogue’. Even as I support people’s life choices and orientation, the public dialogue shouldn’t be about whether marines can fuck each other, as males. Somebody should really say, ‘well this is an interesting conversation but supposedly we’re in the middle of a war’.
The other reason I’m enjoying living in Berlin is this other aspect to German culture – people do not intrude on other people’s lives. When you walk out the door in New York, life happens to you, you need a defense mechanism. You’re like, ‘oh I always keep to myself on the subway’ and you’re on guard. Germany’s not set up that way – it’s so great. I don’t speak the language fluently so I’m immune to the media and advertising onslaught that most of us in the Western world and elsewhere are victims of – you can’t avoid it. But to me, even the chatter on the street, all of it, it’s meaningless to me, so I can really focus on my life, and I really enjoy that right now.
WB: I’ve noticed on the last few albums you’ve had several songs sung in different languages; Icelandic, French, Russian, Finnish, some German. Can you explain why you chose to feature singing in all these different languages?
AN: There’s a lot of different reasons. With social media and peer to peer it occurred to me that I could reach out and make friends, connect with people who might be interested, in the Ukraine for instance, in my project, and go, ‘will you help me do a Ukrainian version of this song?’ It lets me focus even more on what I really like to do which is create the whole thing – I’m more interested in conceptual art than I am in being a singer, and I always have been. That’s why I’m interested in the recording process. I’m not really interested in craftsmanship to a level of like a guild master like some people really are.
To me, conceptual art, it’s about from nothing, creating an idea that somebody else sees something in. So first I’m making up something that I identify, ‘oh that’s interesting’, and then I share that. As long as that works on that level I’m satisfied, and then I look for it to be defined in a live context to make it mean something more. I thought it would be interesting to reach out using peer to peer, ‘OK I’m just gonna make up a song in Finnish, ask this person to help me do it’ and then boom, it’s out on YouTube. Then the next day it’s in blogs in Finland and then magazines are asking me, ‘why did you record a song in Finnish?’, and I’m like, ‘because I can, what’s your excuse?’ And then they’re asking us to tour there.
The Russian example, this guy was really into my music so I said, ‘I’ll fly you to Berlin from St. Petersburg, let’s work on something’. It occurred to me that I was the first person in the history of the Russian culture and language to make a song that sounds like that. Whereas me being from indie, experimental [culture], I’m just one of many people that expresses themselves in some weird psychedelic mode. I’m also interested in confronting people’s myopic perspective.
WB: It’s a nice change of pace if I listen to Serge Gainsbourg and I don’t know what he’s saying. It’s like, ‘well this is what the rest of the world deals with all the time’. Or I love it when I’m here in Australia and people go, ‘where’s Florida?’ I’m like, ‘oh good, I’m glad you don’t know where every fucking state is’. Because Americans wouldn’t know where every state in Australia is – a lot of ‘em wouldn’t know where Australia is.
I wanted to ask you about the influence of punk and hardcore.
AN: Absolutely. For me, the whole modus operandi of [my] project is more akin to a folk thing – folk meaning, ‘of the people’. I loved Jimi Hendrix since I was a little kid. And I never thought I could be  a rock star because that was something more than just playing music in a folk context, y’know? But when I saw punk bands play – there was a garage thing happening in Southern California when I was like ten or eleven – witnessing that up close it became apparent to me that these people were idiots and this was within the realm of possibility. But if you’re looking on TV and it’s Jimmy Page or whoever, even John Denver, and it’s all set up for a TV show, there’s a disconnect of how you get there, y’know?
I think  the whole punk thing, destroying that [need for] validation, the whole process of having someone discover you and develop your talent and promote you and everything, tearing that whole wall down was incredibly inspiring to me. But when I started getting into punk music and stuff, you could get beat up. If you were walking down the street with your friends a car would just slam on the breaks and then these guys would get out and chase you and beat you up. So very quickly I learned that the outward trappings of the punk thing wasn’t really what was essential to carry with you.
WB: So you dressed like a punk, had the whole punk look?
AN: For a little while when I was young, of course.  But where I’m from, Newport Beach, the police would arrest you, literally, for not having an ID or being out at ten o’clock at night. Literally take you to jail just because of the way you look. So I learned really early on that I had no necessity for a look or a style, I should just be myself because it has nothing to do with who you are as a person, on the inside.
WB: How do you feel about rock mythology – the bands that you grew up admiring and also the mythology that’s evolved around The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Is that something that you are into or is that something that you wanna tear down?
AN: I definitely lean towards iconoclasm. I’m definitely into tearing apart a lot of that stuff. As much as I like The Beatles singing ‘Girl’, I hate the Beatles Machine. I hate that people will post ‘Imagine’ every year on John Lennon’s birthday on Facebook or something and don’t give a shit if we’re blowing apart a new country in Africa – they won’t say one peep about our next misadventure militarily, y’know? It’s just missing the point absolutely. But yeah, mythology – people love to do that y’know? It’s like in our nature.
WB: It’s part and parcel of romanticizing and loving an art form, but it can also be quite damaging. That’s why I’m interested in it.
AN: Sure I’m a victim of it… it all becomes really ridiculous. Hopefully it’s not going to stop me, my reputation. I’ve been doing these interviews ‘cuz we’re going to play in Israel for the first time. And somebody from JPost asked me about my reputation, and I was tempted to say, ‘look, reputation is like a vehicle depending on who’s driving or talking about it – like your own country has a mixed reputation depending on who you talk to!’ (laughs) Absolutely. So for this person from that country to ask that thing about my reputation is ridiculous, kind of.
WB: Thank you so much for your time.
AN: Thank you, I appreciate it.
WB: I look forward to seeing you guys when you’re out here.
AN: I’m really looking forward to that too. Cheers mate.

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