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IN CONVERSATION : The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe – “And I just said….’chicken butt’”

It’s a Friday afternoon in May. Anton Newcombe is newly returned home to Berlin after a seven-week Brian Jonestown Massacre tour of the US. The best example of DIY independence I can think of is on excellent form today, despite a lingering case of COVID-related pneumonia caught on the road.  We link up over zoom, he’s chatty and happy to talk freely, and upbeat. The tour went to plan but also it didn’t –  50k dollars worth of BJM’s guitars and gear nicked, subsequently returned via the work of Portland police. Sweet irony indeed; at points in history Newcombe was more likely to have his collar felt by the same rather than issuing praise for recovering the tools of his trade.

There’s clear fresh water between then and now – when visiting Liverpool in recent years he happily posed with local officers jokingly pretending to issue him with a caution for just being Anton Newcombe. A lot of things have changed since the old days, we’re in 2022 now and the new BJM album Fire Doesn’t Grown on Trees is one of positivity and energy. ‘It’s all coming true/ and good things come to you/ Love is on its way’, he sings on ‘What’s In A  Name‘, summing up his mood and mindset.

How we need such in these increasingly bizarre times. On the record Newcombe focusses on what drives us, not the negative side of the human condition so easily pounced on and despaired over, but the good stuff. What feeds our creativity, for one. And our ‘internal code’, as he thinks of it. The instinct to do the right thing for oneself, as much as anything else.
‘You know how people always say money doesn’t grow on trees? The same thing could apply to internal fire, the passion or will that you have inside yourself. It’s a fire inside you that drives you to do something. And I think that has to be cultivated. That’s what I’m hinting at, maybe,’ he explains.

Which begs the questions, what drives him personally?
‘I love being creative,’ comes the reply.

I put to him there must be more to it than that. He insists not. But this is BJM’s 19th studio record, and  he collaborates with other artists – Dot Allison, Emmanuelle Seigner, Tess Parks – and Anton Newcombe the singer, guitarist, frontman, songwriter, composer, studio owner, multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer, radio presenter is also a keen chef of long slow recipes. Busy, busy.
‘It’s the way I’ve always been. I’m fascinated by making things and keeping myself occupied. Having long term goals and accomplishing them. Figuring out how something works and how to get to it. And self-validation.’

Fire Doesn’t Grown in Trees came after a period of writer’s block, and though created during the pandemic he is adamant to shun the lockdown album label.  He shudders at the very idea, but with good humour. ‘I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about musicians saying “I had a lot of time on my hands and desperately need cash”. Because that wasn’t my motivation. But I did feel a lot of things for quite a while have been existential crises so I think that motivated me in a lot of ways to create affirmation for myself. To empower myself.’

There was a spontaneity around the making of the record but that is his working methodology anyway he details,, playing music all day most days, working on projects simultaneously. There’s another album already recorded.

‘I enjoy it,’ he says of making and playing music. It may seem an obvious thing to state, but he explains further. ‘I get on a roll writing toward something. I get inspired. I get in a mindset. But normally when I’m writing I just complete the idea of whatever it is just for the learning process and satisfaction. So that just means if I come up with a country song I have no intention of being in a country band. In my mind I know how the things I like about country music or folk, it could be disco, I’ll just follow through the motions and try to entertain myself.’

 

After 30 plus years most artists have run out of things to say. There’s no sense of retreading a weary path here, though. Fire Doesn’t Grow On Trees is classic BJM and importantly, a rallying cry and call to action. The songs on it came quickly after that dry patch – he describes himself as a ‘one-take Jake‘ in its recording. ‘The Real‘ was particularly instinctive, conjoured up after picking up his 12-string. ‘Ineffable Mindfuck’ is danceable Echo & the Bunnymen-flavoured splendour. Still, it’s worth asking how he keeps things fresh.

‘You know, for some people music is an end to accomplish other things. To try to stay young and sexy, or relevant. I think that’s all secondary. I’m not looking for anybody’s validation because I’m not going to get it. Most artists from the 60s aren’t gonna go “you’re fucking incredible, I’m so glad you held into the torch being you were born in ‘67”. Because I’m not necessarily playing retro music. I think the art of form of open-minded music of what I loosely categorise as psychedelic music, I don’t think it was exhausted. What was exhausted was the Madison Avenue part of it where all of a sudden the way to go was everyone wearing their mom’s paisley shirt and a perm, or playing blues riffs for just one album. I think all that was just a cliché. The way people approach certain things is limitless. When you think about Jimi Hendrix or even how specific the sound of the Doors are even though they are very blues-based, it was more than just the blues and that’s why nobody else sounds like them. I guess Mazzy Star does a couple of times.’

Lead single ‘The Real‘ on ‘Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees’ is both defiant and optimistic, a bold rallying cry to refuse to let fear stop us. Does he feel fearless, is he a fearless man day-to-day?
‘I don’t know if it’s fear. In my life I’ve always jumped into the fire. Take it to a fighting metaphor there’s been time when someone’s whipped out a knife I’m like “oh dear” for a second and then you just jump ‘em!’ he laughs. ‘Because there’s nothing else to do. And most people aren’t prepared for that sort of reaction anyway. It’s a scary moment. It seems the best thing to do, just get ‘em.’ He chuckles again. ‘Not to dwell on violence but my natural reaction to anything I’ve been afraid of, even asking people on dates the only way to go about doing it is jump right in.’

Newcombe knows his audience who for the most part, get him. Age and experience mean he’s not inclined to seek approval from gatekeepers – from Rolling Stone, say – and he does not, he repeats, create for an imaginary demographic. He’s very adamant about that. ‘It’s About Being Free’ from the new record carries on that vibe.

‘Because I used to think that way. When I was when I was much younger. Every song that I write, I was like, woah, people are gonna really go bonkers over this. But it never really happened that way. What happened instead is all the songs from the first day of practice are still exactly as relevant as before, if people love them,. Like lots of people love those songs. And they, they’re timeless in that sense’.

There’s an interesting theory about our relationship to music, how it gives a sense of security and living in the now. You’re in the middle of a song listening to it, and you know one beat has just gone, and for sure another beat will come next. So there is a sense of music keeping you in the present. Dependable, a feeling of not being alone, common ground shared.

‘Sure. I started honing in on music at two years old. But later on, when I was six, there was stuff that started happening to me, and one of them was I realised nobody around is really happy. And why is that? And then it was like, okay, they’re really they’re not really doing what they want to do. That’s the answer. Like things aren’t the way they want and they can’t occupy that space. So they’re not happy, because they’re not doing what they want to do. Which is be happy. So I set my mind not to do that. To not turn into that, you know, in my life in any way. I would refuse to do what I didn’t want to do.’

He nods at the memory.

And I was hell bent on not becoming anybody or anything that that I knew. Like, I didn’t want to be like my parents. I didn’t want to be like my friends. And not to the point of being posed or dressing up like somebody else because I dress really the same as I did when I was a little kid, pretty conservative. I felt like I was different than everybody else. And when you’re a teenager sometimes that alienation and the way people are, you’re trying to figure out the world, it masks itself. This almost feels like depression, but it isn’t. It’s alienation, by its loneliness. Through the arts, writers, I found out that I wasn’t alone, lots of people interacted with that feeling and just went about their business. So, I wasn’t alone in that sense.’

Brian Jonestown Massacre Olya Dyer US Tour

The notion of creating your own culture because it wouldn’t be there otherwise is interesting. But by saying that, are you making it sound simpler than it is?

‘If you go to Hebden Bridge, where if you’re walking down those little streets, you’re gonna find certain things that are pillars of that community. Besides just the environment or it being a quaint mill town. Nature, loveliness, right? Enlightening. In all these places, you see something there that makes it different than just a strip of wasteland. In the megalopolises, many times you don’t really see that, you know what I mean? Like it’s so destructive. I think that the ultra-wealthy have a real kind of poverty of ambition, they’re not out there really providing culture. There’s suspicious reasons that ultra-rich people are patrons of the arts. They’re generally fuckers.’

He cites the Sackler family’s shameless distribution of legal yet deadly opioid Oxycontin in the US whilst donating huge sums to the arts. As if paying for a library is some sort of redemption. ‘They just wrecked America, you know, they’re like, fucking we don’t care. We’re paying people to tell doctors just to push this super addictive 1000 times stronger than heroin on anything that moves. You know, like, “oh, look, they just built new wing at Harvard. And oh, there’s a wing in the Museum of Contemporary Art. There’s such great people”.’

Philanthropy is very paternalistic, the building of reputation. Like libel suits, it’s a rich man’s sport, surely. And that’s before we even look at the tax breaks.
‘But on the macro version there’s lots of things that people can do, from sharing skills to helping with connections, setting up things for people. To create culture, you know, on different levels. By example, and by being really open with things. And a lot of my friends are like that too.’ He mentions The Black AngelsLevitation (formerly Austin Psych Fest), and its French event. ‘Bringing fans from all over the world having like 25,000 people show up yearly is pretty amazing. Instead of just being like, “Oh, we want to be this great. To help us sell a lot of records and fuck off and buy a McMansion or something” that kind of stuff is really important. We do a festival here in Berlin and it’s not necessarily to make a bazillion euros or something. It’s to provide a sense of community.’

BJM tour the UK in February 2023. How long has it been? Too damn long. Newcombe’s band ability to sell out a tour without advertising or trying too much is solid. The familiar approach of playing largely new material is to be expected; on the US tour BJM played 90% new work, from the forthcoming albums. Two hours each night to thousands of people. Somehow a BJM greatest hits tour seems wrong, especially now.

‘All the songs stand on their own. So people are like, what what’s actually happening this crazy good, you know? Because even if I was met with hostility, I’d just phase it with the programme and when a couple of times, people yelled or something, you know, like I was a little bit short with them, but I just said look in your life you know, the magic is what in what you don’t know, whether it’s your education or discovery. That’s where the magic is, right? It’s not what you know. It’s what you don’t know. And I know something that you don’t know. And not only am I here to entertain you, you need to shut up because I’m going to present something that’s going to enrich your life. Shut up, because you’re affecting my ability to share this thing that’s new.’

In the Granada Theatre in Dallas, Texas in April he paid tribute to the area, thanking it for support. One record shop alone he recalled, sold 90 BJM albums per week in the early days of the band, a statement warmly received. He does get hecklers though. Anton famously ended up in the Daily Mail in 2018 as the result of one especially salty exchange. But one simply is not rock n roll if never the recipient of faux outrage, moral panic and online petitions at least once. Audience members adopting the approach of taking on a man or woman with a microphone and strong opinions and is not wise, I suggest. The idea amuses him.

‘In very least there’s like, there’s about 12 of us, all around the stage besides the security. An army of people right there that are all part of the crew. So they’re not thinking about it, if they’re physical or something. It’s just like, a not well out well thought out scenario to be aggressive against entertainers. But we live in strange times. There’s always somebody, you know?’

Anton tells the story of one man who shouted “Anton screw you, you don’t deserve your band!”. Joel (Gion – percussion) strolled up to the microphone and came out with “on behalf of this band, go screw yourself”. The individual carried on yelling.

‘I said, “You know what?” And he was doing this like macho pose. And he goes “what”, you know, like the aggressive. You know, he’s a big guy. And I just said “chicken butt”. He just like sort of did this crab walk sideways. It was so funny because it was such a weird display.”

Another was a woman who objected to him sharing the news of the Supreme Court’s leaking of the overturn of Roe vs. Wade abortion legislation.
‘This woman says like screams “GOOD!” and I’m like what how could that possibly be a good thing? Do you honestly think I’m up here singing the devil’s music or something? And she got so bent out of shape. She grabbed her husband or whoever and left.’

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Despite these tales, Anton Newcombe the independent artist creating and maintaining his own economy is sensible, goddammit. He has his own studio and record label through which he releases his own work and other artists. I make a point of not mentioning the notorious film Dig! throughout our conversation: it’s been discussed to death for pushing twenty years now. But he brings it up briefly anyway by referring to ‘that documentary’, before calmly moving on. About time that was put to bed, but his history and reputation means the mention of his name even has visible effect. When I told human biological male friends I was going to be speaking with him, they got quite man-crush swoony over it. What does he think about hero worship so evident?

‘You know, yeah, I put my pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else.’

Is that a cowbell I hear in the distance?

‘When I got them on, I make gold records!’

I put to him the theory Fire Doesn’t Grow On Trees’ artwork is based on 1950s sci-horror movie Attack of the 50 Ft Woman, only with a domestic cat. Turns out I’m overthinking in the most spectacular way. The cover is a collage made by his young son. ‘I just thought it was cute’, he whispers into his phone so his lad in another room can’t hear; it’s going to be a surprise.

Finishing up with Anton and in the days afterwards, an unexpected thought occurs.  He talked about morality a lot,  the importance of family, responsibility and community. Over on twitter he’s a serial retweeter of good causes,  baiter of Elon Musk and he’s raising money for Oxfam offering concert tickets as prizes. He is running the risk of being the nice guy of contemporary psych rock. And do you know what? Something tells me he’d be ok with that. 

‘Fire Doesn’t Grow On Trees’ is released on 24 June on A Recordings.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre tour the UK in January and February 2023.

31 Jan Brighton Concorde 2

3 Feb  O2 Academy2 Birmingham

4 Feb O2 Ritz Manchester

5 Feb Barrowland Glasgow

6 Feb La Belle Angele Edinburgh

7 Feb Riverside Newcastle

10 The Limelight 2 Belfast

11 Feb Camp & Furnace Liverpool

12 Feb Rescue Rooms Nottingham

14 Feb Stylus Leeds

15 Feb O2 Forum Kentish Town London

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.