Out of Their Heads
Life isn't easy for Anton Newcombe, the 31-year-old cultish maestro behind the Brian Jonestown Massacre, possibly the most controversial band you've never heard of. Newcombe -- also known as Anton A. Newcombe and, inexplicably, Dr. Anton A. Newcombe -- is the only constant of the decade-old group. The Brian Jonestown Massacre finally got some attention last year with its eighth record, a collection of scrappy, '60s-like garage-punk symphonettes called Strung Out in Heaven, the band's first album for the New York indie label TVT. A real legend in his own mind, Newcombe has a penchant for slapping nonsensical slogans on liner notes, press kits and posters: "Q: Anton, did you sell your soul? A: Well, I tried to but the line was so long I said, 'Fuck it!'" Another quip reads: "Anyone who thinks I'm a fascist should be terrified that I've got a shitload of money now." He is well-versed in stirring up ire and supplication, and no one who's encountered him or his music feels ambivalent about either.
"He's got an inner intensity that comes through," says Greg Shaw, the owner of Los Angeles indie Bomp! Records, which released the Brian Jonestown Massacre's first six records in rapid succession. "That's his greatest strength and his greatest downfall, because he's not in control of it."
The group's infamous Viper Room showcase in late '97 is a good example. The band had just moved from San Francisco to L.A. and decided to lure a club full of music-industry people to one of their shows in a stab at getting signed to a major. (This was after years of living in the Bay Area and churning out demo tapes and under-the-radar indie records on the retro-friendly Bomp! in conjunction with Newcombe's Tangible label.) The showcase quickly devolved into an old-fashioned barroom brawl involving band and patrons alike. Finally, club bouncers pounced on members of the Massacre, ejecting them and making it clear that they should never, ever darken Johnny Depp's doorstep again -- and those words were punctuated with the bouncers' fists. So much for that major-label deal.
"I just got pissed," says Newcombe, "but I'm trying to get past that dysfunctionality. . . . My girlfriend says I'm an emotional basket case. I'm really kind of a sensitive person. That's why I'm blessed to have the arts -- so I don't have to go out on a rampage with my firearms."
Newcombe is sitting on the patio of his Laurel Canyon home, two boxlike, brick-colored buildings packed with religious iconography, ranging from Menorahs to bright illustrations of Hindu gods and a '70s-looking wood-and-lacquer photo of Robert Redford. The complex is perched at the end of a secluded dirt road and has no driveway, but that's fine because Newcombe has no car. The house sits directly across the street from the Houdini mansion, and visitors can peer across the pavement to the surreal minicaverns revealed by the mansion's renovators, which gape disturbingly like hundreds of open-ended questions.
What actually happened that night sounds farcical, and Newcombe explains it in such a serious way that he almost seems to be kidding. But he's not, which is typical of him and his band. It all began, he says, when band member Joel Gion's tambourine broke. Gion threw it at the crowd in pissed-off frustration; it hit a woman on the head and promptly knocked her out. Her boyfriend was not pleased. Then all hell broke loose.
"That was one of my goals in moving to L.A., just to be right in everyone's face. That night I had guns on me, too," says Newcombe. (A cheering thought for anyone in the crowd.) "Looking back on the videotape from that show, I was an asshole. I try to learn from my mistakes, and I don't want to be an asshole. I've just about terrified everybody in the music business." But Newcombe also says that phase of the band is over, and that after shaking it up at conferences and showcases across the country, he's sick and tired of being pegged the biggest "here comes trouble" band in recent memory.
"People are so focused on our dysfunctionality, the talk of drugs and emotional problems," Newcombe says. "Everybody wants to make it a big soap opera. They want to show up and find a riot going on. I just want people to be into the music. I want to move on from that type of thing."
One of the most seductive things about the Massacre is that fans never know what to expect from the band -- which is revolutionary in this age of media-savvy punk rockers and vile, prepackaged pop stars. There's a freak element to the band that works, partly because it's not as intentional as it looks. Gion, the tambourine player, takes center stage at shows, lording over the crowd, with his immense sideburns, like an imperialist ruler. Newcombe, the true leader, who can play every instrument (and often does on record), plays and sings on the sidelines.
To some, Newcombe -- who was raised in the privileged atmosphere of Southern California's Newport Beach and moved to San Francisco in 1989 -- is a sinister poseur who concocts press-release-perfect antics, like his band's well-publicized mock battle with the Portland band the Dandy Warhols. To his fans, he's one of the last undiscovered rock geniuses, an artist who merges the garage psychedelia of the '60s with a '90s DIY style and packs each song with enough overt-yet-smart rock references -- Small Faces, Donovan, Stones, Syd Barrett, Lennon/Ono, the Monkees, Bobby Fuller Four -- to make any older critic's head spin and heart swoon. It's also referential enough to make anyone wonder what the hell the band's thinking. One thing is for certain: The Brian Jonestown Massacre's music glosses over the rugged guts of outlaw rock 'n' roll with a sheen close enough to irony that makes it palatable for today's kids. Plus, its leader is unusual, obsessive, and complex enough to make him worth pondering for months and still never figure out. It's part of what makes the group so good.
"Anton's got many obsessions," says Shaw. "He's fascinated with things that are secret, things that are hidden, ancient mysticism and secret knowledge." Talking about his band today, Newcombe is the spitting image of the Laurel Canyon cowboy, circa 1969, in his white, Indian-style tunic; white jeans tucked into tall, caramel-colored canyon-scraper boots; focal-point sideburns; and thick poncho -- the latter in brazen defiance of the heat. He seems like a nice enough guy, although today he's not at his best: He's heartbroken over a recent rift with his girlfriend, Tara Subkoff, and tears up unexpectedly every now and then -- a disturbing sight when he's manhandling one of his guns. (He also wants to make sure that somewhere in the article he can announce his undying love for Subkoff -- an actress who appeared in the raunchy teen comedy American Pie and no doubt helped pave the way for Newcombe to get his song "Going to Hell" on the film's soundtrack.) Despite his mild-mannered appearance, he announced earlier that he'd feel far more comfortable doing an interview with his loaded gun stuck into his waistband, which he places there with an Elvis Presley-like big gesture, despite the interviewer's many protests.
"I like guns," Newcombe says. "I'm not into killing people. I just like them as machines. I just do. I'm a Sufi; I'm a lover/warrior, I really am. I'm just a lover of the truth. But I'm not a maniac about it and I don't use my music as a platform for that stuff."
Two minutes before, Newcombe was frantically running around his house, cleaning, drinking a Hansen's ginseng "beverage," then running to the stereo in his home studio to play one of his new songs before hanging up his crossbow guns by the door. He has a manic streak to him that's slightly disconcerting -- as if spying the bullets that read "U.S. Munitions" lying around on his Hammond organ weren't enough to make one nervous. When asked if Anton Newcombe is his real name, he runs into the house to grab his passport for proof. When asked a random and unimportant question about Laurel Canyon rock history, he quickly grabs for his portable phone. "I don't know, but Greg Shaw would," and he punches Shaw's number. The two talk for about 10 minutes; Newcombe never asks the question.
Newcombe is currently working on new songs, and he plays some nice ones that are lush with Byrdsian guitars and sweeping, Canyon-tinged melodies that he recorded using mostly old equipment for a stripped-down sound. (He's particularly proud of his '40s microphones: "They recorded full orchestras with just one of these!" he says. "Frank Sinatra used one just like this; Judy Garland sang 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' with one!") One song is a dreamy number flooded with the sounds of ornery creatures. "I started with pet sounds that were really soft and orchestral," he says, as a dog barks energetically -- almost angrily -- in the musical background. "And then I decided, 'No! This is not what people need right now.'"
Newcombe grew up in Newport Beach, the unlikely offspring of an old-money family. There, he formed a couple of teenage bands, including a locally popular group called Electric Kool Aid, which later included -- and quickly booted -- Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath. He had a difficult relationship with his family, though he talks about his mother's fascination with hippie music as a major influence. He won't say much about his father, only that he had some high-powered, stressful job that probably exacerbated what was later diagnosed as schizophrenia.
Newcombe moved to San Francisco on a whim -- flipping a coin to choose between Heidelberg, Germany, and Northern California -- and formed the Brian Jonestown Massacre when he landed. The group has included about 40 members since then, and he has composed an army of lo-fi tunes -- a bunch of interesting, sometimes arresting, occasionally beautiful basement-studio songs. Often, these are odes to Newcombe's obsessions, like the Dylanesque "Ballad of Jim Jones," the psychedelic space oddity of "(David Bowie I Love You) Since I Was Six," and the disjointed yet infectious "My Man Syd" (a reference to Pink Floyd's founding singer/guitarist Syd Barrett).
Shaw became intrigued by the group when he read a review slamming one of their demos in rockzine Ben Is Dead, which claimed they sounded like they took too much acid. Interested, he spent the next couple of years trying to track them down as they moved from one apartment (or friend's couch) to another. After years of begging Newcombe to let him release the demos, Shaw was finally given the green light, and he promptly dug into the task of splicing the demos -- in no particular order -- into albums.
Starting with Methodrone in 1995, they released six albums in two years, including the fantastic power-psychedelic blowouts Take It From the Man! and Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request and an incredibly strange acoustic venture titled Thank God for Mental Illness. All are worthy, but the easiest -- and safest -- introduction to the group for newcomers would be last year's TVT release Strung Out in Heaven, a '60s circus that pays homage to the ghosts of many dead rock stars. Last month, the band released a six-song EP called Bringing It All Back Home -- Again, a not-so-subtle reference to Dylan on a record that riffs off the Plastic Ono Band, the Stones, and Captain Beefheart.
Since TVT got hold of the band, Newcombe has had his share of good and bad news. Through Bomp!, Newcombe is manning his own psychedelic label with the unlikely name The Committee to Keep Music Evil, but he hasn't recorded anything but Brian Jonestown songs on it. (He says he's actively seeking demo submissions, though, and interested parties should write to him at P.O. Box 7112, Burbank, CA 91510.) Strung Out received limited but mostly positive attention. And in October, Bomp! will release a two-CD Brian Jonestown Massacre "best-of" called Straight Outta Burbank.
A darker twist came last year, when Newcombe's father killed himself on his son's birthday in mid-August. According to Shaw, the father jumped off a cliff, and Anton's sister met him at Hollywood's famous Troubadour right before he went on to tell him the news.
But the story doesn't end there. A few weeks ago -- almost a year to the day of his father's death -- the Brian Jonestown Massacre performed at the Troubadour once again. This time the show degenerated into a free-for-all that saw the entire band (save two members including vocalist Miranda Richards) quit before the performance, leaving Newcombe to fend for himself. A hostile crowd hurled insults ("We came to see the Brian Jonestown Massacre, not Mazzy Star") and rotten vegetables at the hapless trio. (There's been no official word as to the future of the band, although plans for a fall club tour are in the works.)
Newcombe is prone to obsessive enthusiasms. But in the age of Beck, it's easy to take the group as a joke when you hear the stories of intra-band brawls, mass defections and see photos of Newcombe posed on album covers wielding pistols. Is he sincere? "Part of him understands that to get a lot of press, you've got to give good copy," says Bomp!'s Shaw, who has been friends with Newcombe for years and says he's watched the musician become deeply obsessed with Mick Jagger, flying saucers, the Freemasons, and Charles Manson. "The Charles Manson thing -- he thought that it would be shocking, but he also heard something in Manson that appealed to his intensity." Shaw also says that Newcombe's fixation on the late Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones -- along with the Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana, the band's spiritual mascot -- is no joke. "There's the symbolic, psychic influence of Brian Jones: the 'let's get Eastern' influences and 'let's break the rules.' And then there's the conspiracy aspect [of Jones' drowning]. He believes Jagger tried to cover it up."
But Shaw also hints at something far murkier at work in Newcombe's psyche. He talks of psychic "breaks," and times when, in San Francisco, Newcombe disappeared for days only to be found wandering the streets stark naked. These stories add a strange, disturbingly real-life edge to his interest in the dark side of the '60s. "He's had a manic phase. He was saying that he's an avatar, Buddha, Jesus Christ -- that he was the head of the Freemasons. He thought that he had this information about the Freemasons and that there were assassins after him," says Shaw, not hiding his fatherly concern. "And Anton really has an obsession with Mick Jagger. He imagines that someday he'll meet Mick on his own terms, and they'll have a showdown. It's personal. It has nothing to do with music."
There's also something disturbing about the latest Brian Jonestown Massacre poster on Newcombe's wall. The words above a picture of Newcombe, wearing shades and a big hat, ring with grave finality, as if it were his epitaph: "'God knows I do the best I can so fuck everything.' Anton A. Newcombe (1967-1999)." It's depressing until you think of other dire predictions for the musician that never came true.
"We just want to be down here and sort of shakin' it in the record industry's face," says Newcombe, gleeful to be proving his detractors wrong. "Oh, we're so much trouble and all this shit, and here we are, still alive and playing and working on our ninth album."
Finally, there's this Antonism, which appears on the back of Take It From the Man!: "I gave you my body, I gave you my soul, fuck everything else, let's rock 'n' roll!"
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 Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.