The image of the reluctant rock star is sometimes more alluring than some throbbing Gibson jockey who does it for the babes, booze, and banknotes. When asked in a television interview if he ever wanted to be a rock star, Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe, whose band is playing Crescent Ballroom on June 1, replied, “No, and I still don’t. I really don’t.”
Whether he’s reluctant or not, whether he likes it or not, Newcombe has something of a legendary rock-star reputation on par with Ian Curtis or Kurt Cobain — perhaps not only in terms of attitude and drug use, but primarily in terms of influence.
In the past 30 years, few bands have enjoyed as much impact as the psychedelic whirlwind known as Brian Jonestown Massacre. This whole neo-psychedelia revival that we’re enjoying today has its roots in BJM as much as Elephant 6 and The Verve. The band is partially why Tame Impala gets radio play, why groups like Foxygen self-describe as “high-school kids obsessed with the Brian Jonestown Massacre.” Members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Spindrift, and The Warlocks all cut their teeth on BJM.
Yet, BJM somehow still have remained relatively underground, with a devoted cult following. The principal driving force behind it all is 48-year old multi-instrumentalist and singer Anton Newcombe. He is outspoken (to say the least), often spouts about the New World Order, and understands music in a way few can. His years of drug abuse gave him a reputation for fits of violence, but these days he’s mellowed out and sobered up.
“I wasn’t too much of a fan of Nirvana because I was my own Nirvana at the time,” Newcombe says over the phone with typical bravado. “I had already grown out of that kind of stuff, and I never really liked rock stars. Obviously he [Cobain] didn’t really like to play the rock-star life either, because he blew his brains out.”
When we call up Anton Newcombe, he’s in the lobby of a hotel in Austin preparing for Levitation, a festival BJM headlined alongside Slowdive, The Black Angels, and Brian Wilson. Newcombe is happy to discuss everything from his new muse, Tess Parks, to two upcoming albums coming out this year, and he even gave insight into his unique view on the state of the world (spoiler alert: It’s fucked).
For example, Newcombe says, “Leonardo DiCaprio talking about global warming or whatever is bullshit because we’re never going to get around to doing anything until they address the issue of the endless war.”
And that’s just the start of our trippy conversation.
In the past 30 years, BJM has seen numerous lineup changes, but now the group is Anton Newcombe (guitar/vocals), Joel Gion (tambourine/maracas), Ricky Rene Maymi (guitar), Collin Hegna (bass), Daniel Allaire (drums), Rob Campanella (keyboards), and Ryan Van Kreidt (guitar).
Brian Jonestown Massacre formed in San Francisco in 1990, heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones — becoming one of the few recent bands that have actually earned such monstrous comparisons. BJM’s first two albums, both released in 1995, Methodrone and Spacegirl, were deeply soled with shoegaze, but the band soon explored other avenues on their next three albums. Take It From The Man was psychedelic garage rock; Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request was tinged with sounds from the Far East; and Thank God For Mental Illness was a bluesy, acoustic folk album. All three records were released in 1996, which was no small testament to how varied and prolific Newcombe — who wrote the vast majority of the material — can be.
“I have a tendency to write 45 songs at a time. I mean, really at once,” Newcombe says. He’s often claimed he can play more than 80 instruments — everything except violin.
Newcombe says he’s now busy working on two albums — Third World Pyramid and Don’t Get Lost — that will come out later this year among sprinklings of singles. Demo versions of a few, such as the spacey “The Sun Ship,” have appeared on YouTube, sounding as drippingly delicious as ever. When asked about the intriguing title Third World Pyramid, Newcombe explains that it’s a four-layered metaphor covering everything from global domination to fiat currency to alien-based conspiracy theories.
“The foundation of the pyramid is below the sand. That’s the most interesting thing,” Newcombe says. “’Cause the masses of people don’t know or don’t care about the stuff that I’m talking about because they don’t ever see the stars, let alone the top of the pyramid. The foundations are below the dirt. But you know what I mean: The most blocks are below the sand.”
It’s all part of Newcombe’s esoteric sense of humor — after all, even his band name is a pun built upon rock stars and cults, two categories often indistinguishable.
One of those people that name-dropped Newcombe as an influence is Tess Parks, a Canadian singer-songwriter and photographer whose voice embodies the word “sultry.” She employs so-called “torch singing,” hers a mix of Grace Slick with Billie Holiday that is syrupy, while still able to cut through bone.
“I just kinda wrote her a quick little note saying, ‘Well, why don’t you just play music with me instead of just some group that sounds like me or something? Why don’t we just make a record?’” Newcombe says. “So we ended up doing that.”
That record became I Declare Nothing, released last summer on A Records, recorded in Newcombe’s studio in Berlin. Their writing process was lightning fast; Parks would write up a page of lyrics which Newcombe would then shred through.
“She’s okay with that, so that makes everything possible,” Newcombe recalls. “She doesn’t take it personally that I know what I’m doing. Which is really cool, it’s not an ego thing. It’s like it’s the ‘getting the thing done’ thing.”
Parks will likely make a number of appearances on these upcoming records — she’s already on a few demos such as “Throbbing Gristle” and “Groove is in the Heart.” She helped Newcombe rework “Fingertips,” one of BJM’s very first and criminally overlooked songs from Pol Pot’s Pleasure Playhouse, one of the band’s earliest releases from 1991 via hand-distributed, hand-dubbed cassettes.
Recently, Newcombe has explored recording for Hollywood, having recently scored the road film Moon Dogs, directed by Philip John. However, Newcombe doesn’t think a soundtrack is likely to be released. “I didn’t want a record that was 10 tracks that were all 15 seconds long,” he says.
But then there’s Musique De Film Imaginé, the soundtrack BJM released just last year (the band’s 14th studio full-length) that pays tribute to European film pioneers such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. It features guest appearances by French multi-instrumentalist SoKo and Italian actress, singer, and director Asia Argento. But, like the title implies, the music was written for a movie that doesn’t exist.
“The weird thing about it not existing is after I released it, the director, the guy who won Cannes this year for the best film, said I want that music in my movie, so it became a reality after the fact,” Newcombe says
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Who was the director?
“I don’t know. You’d have to look it up,” Newcombe says. “I don’t keep track of all this bullshit, but true story.”
It’s this flippant attitude sprinkled with abstruse political theories that makes Newcombe so inscrutable. Is he a reluctant rock star? Does it matter? As long as he keeps pumping out delicious albums, what’s important is that signature psychedelic sound.
Brian Jonestown Massacre is scheduled to play Crescent Ballroom on Wednesday, June 1.