Keeping Music Evil: Jesse Valencia Wrote a History of The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Anton Newcombe "interacting" with the crowd from circa 2006.
Anton Newcombe "interacting" with the crowd from circa 2006. Bev Davies
Music writers long have grappled with how to best document their subjects. Gay Talese opted for the singer’s periphery in penning the article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Michael Azerrad delved right into the punk canon for Our Band Could Be Your Life. In the case of Jesse Valencia, a musician, writer, actor, and former Phoenix New Times contributor, his book on The Brian Jonestown Massacre emanated from the source.

“My idea for a book came from [frontman] Anton [Newcombe] himself,” Valencia says over drinks at Shady’s. “We’d be nerding out on Anton’s blog about BJM stuff. And he would be like, ‘The movie [Dig!], it’s all bullshit.’ And I’d be like, ‘Well, why don’t you write a book about it?’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you write a book?’”

From this online exchange came 2019’s Keep Music Evil, an unauthorized oral history of Newcombe’s groundbreaking psych-rock outfit. Valencia writes in the book that he discovered BJM in 2008 after consuming four hits of acid and hearing My Bloody Underground. Given the transformative experience, BJM defines so much of Valencia’s creative pursuits and larger worldview.

“Getting into BJM really was a gateway,” he says. “While everyone else in Arizona at that time seemed to be into Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182, we were trying to do The Strokes thing. They got me into The White Stripes, which led me to all the ’60s country blues and stuff.”

To a larger extent, Keep Music Evil partially aims to right the historical record as it pertains specifically to the aforementioned Dig!, the now-infamous 2004 documentary that portrays BJM and the Dandy Warhols in a slightly unflattering light. In addition to addressing “minor editing issues” that skewed chronology, Valencia hoped to “dig deeper” and offer a nuanced perspective.

“If I can convey any measure of truth, then that’s what I’ll do,” he says. “I can contextualize Dig! rather than replace it. What I tell people is if Dig! is [The] Empire [Strikes Back], I’ve also given you the prequels and A New Hope plus Return of the Jedi plus the sequels.”

From those early fanboy dreams, it has been quite the journey to the final product. Valencia spent roughly 10 years working on the tome — the bulk of his 20s, he says — dating back to an initial version around 2010 he wanted to share with Newcombe.

“I drove up to Denver to hand him my first manuscript in person,” he says. “And it was like 50 pages and just so shitty because I had no writing experience.” In response, Valencia later enrolled in a masters-level writing program at NAU to develop his writing chops and finish the book.

Over the years, he says there have been several drafts, adding that he has “a whole crate of versions that I printed and went through and workshopped.” At one point, the book climbed to 600 pages.

It wasn’t just an instance of an eager admirer sharing every conceivable detail of a beloved band. Valencia became deeply entangled with the BJM universe, something he could have never expected.

“I would interview 30 people, and I’d have all this knowledge that no one has, and then I’d be,’ Well, the book is done,’” he says. “And I’d write it, and it would be, ‘Oh, no, here’s some new information.’ So I go talk to another 30 people, and then it would be another version of the book. The argument is that none of these people will be able to give you a straight answer. Because how Joel [Gion, percussionist] remembers things is different from how Jeff [Davies, guitarist] remembers things or how Matt [Hollywood, co-founder] or Anton remembers.”

But Valencia’s journey down the rabbit hole went even further still, and he found himself falling into what he calls an “Almost Famous situation” where he got too close to the subject.

“Joel [Gion] and his band were going to play in Flagstaff, and I was like, ‘Dude, I’m graduating in a couple weeks, let’s play a show,” he says. “We were able to open for him. And there was a threshold here, and I crossed into it. I was now in the world. Then I was backstage with the Dandy Warhols. I was going to parties with Miranda Lee Richards. We opened for Matt Hollywood.”

As he tells it, objectivity was never Valencia’s biggest concern or even interest. Instead, he sought to make use of his sizable connection to BJM and build something of value from that dynamic.

“Once you step over into the world of the thing that was your means of escape, it becomes your new normal, but you do lose the glow and the butterflies that come with fandom,” he says. “Some of them are not my friends, obviously, and treated me terribly. If I can’t convey a perfect, flawless history of BJM, I can give a pretty good one.”

click to enlarge Anton Newcombe on stage in 1997. - JENNIFER BRANDON
Anton Newcombe on stage in 1997.
Jennifer Brandon
Valencia also believes there’s a “hidden code in the book,” and he hoped to “inspire people to write or do music.” He’s applied some of those same lessons in his band, Gorky.

“I’d watch Anton record music at home, and I thought I’d learn what these people are telling me, and I’m going to apply it to what we’re doing. So I started actually making decent recordings with my group.” As a result, he even worked on a Gorky song with Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor.

Even the title is meant as a call to arms for artists and creators, a phrase “meant to invoke a spirit of defiance. If the establishment tells us that soulless, pre-programmed music made by skilled engineers and narcissists is what’s good, then what’s evil is the opposite ...doing it yourself.”

Yet Valencia’s interest with BJM isn’t entirely about celebrating the wonders of his friends and his scene. He recognizes the band for their larger artistic impact, an influence that remains as persistent as ever.

“I got to watch the psych scene grow around BJM and around Black Angels and Tame Impala in the last 10 years,” he says. “None of it would have happened without BJM. I remember Ricky [Maymi, BJM co-founder] showing me Tame Impala two years before you could buy their CD [in the U.S.]”

Valencia notes that the 20th anniversary of Dig! is approaching, which could generate new attention and interest in the band. According to Valencia, film director Ondi Timoner has toyed with the idea of releasing a new, expanded edition that presents a much broader take on BJM and Dandy Warhols.

Either way, Valencia’s happy to keep promoting the book. He says no one from the group’s reached out to say if they’ve read it or not, despite early interest by members. Regardless, Valencia has created something dynamic. It’s not just a story of heroes-turned-friends or preserving important cultural artifacts. The book’s got a much simpler message: strive ever onward, weirdos of the world.

“Look at where Anton started, and look where he ended up,” he says. “Gorky is almost 20 years old. We’ve [Gorky] been in Show Low this whole time, but we’re a big part of the scene, and it feels great. You should not quit your art for the same reason you should not commit suicide.”

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan