I'm spending the afternoon with Joel Gion of The Brian Jonestown Massacre in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. You couldn't ask for it any better: It's like interviewing the Velvet Underground at Warhol's Factory; Dylan in a Greenwich Village coffee shop; George Clinton on the proverbial Mother Ship.
I meet Gion at the Mad Dog in the Fog, a cozy pub in the lower Haight. We order beers and settle into a booth. Gion's history with BJM is well documented: The special features of Ondi Timoner's 2004 documentary DIG!, which chronicles the band's rivalry and strange kinship with the Dandy Warhols and features Gion on the cover, show him working at Amoeba Records after leaving BJM. Gion eventually reunited with the band in 2006, playing tambourine and adding vocals whenever Newcombe unites the group to tour, as he's doing right now in support of a brand-new album, Aufheben (named for a German word with various meanings, among them "preserve," "abolish," and "transcend").
"Anton and I would stand out here and play guitars for cigarette money," Gion says as we wander out of the bar and find ourselves outside X Generation, which used to be Reckless Records (a store where Gion worked in the early '90s). The area is overrun with overprivileged teenage burnouts and bums pandering for change. Not a true-blood busker in sight.
Gion points out another spot of interest: a rooftop where the band staged an impromptu show reminiscent of the Beatles' famous concert atop the Apple Records building. He wasn't in the band at that time but watched from a nearby window. The host of the show spent the night hidden in a closet, with a head full of psychedelics, in an effort to avoid her landlord who sought to shut the performance down.
"This whole street was filled with people," Gion says, waving his arm left to right to illustrate the breadth of the crowd, then pointing upwards. "I watched from over there. No one could get through, so the cops came and drove everybody out."
Those kinds of stunts are no stranger to The Brian Jonestown Massacre's revolutionary attitude and aesthetic. In a slightly less dramatic but no less public move, Newcombe used his Ustream channel, DEAD TV, to broadcast the live recording sessions for Aufheben. Newcombe recorded in Berlin, where he resides, splitting time between his own studio and the infamous former East German radio station, Studio East.
Gion is ecstatic about the prospects for the new record and getting out on the road. Not that he knows exactly what Newcombe has planned, aside from a few BJM classics, like "Straight Up and Down," best known as the opening theme of HBO's award-winning series Boardwalk Empire.
"Nobody really knows what's going to happen because we have a whole week to practice. 'I Want to Hold Your Other Hand' would be great to try out live, as well as some of the others. I might even jump on guitar," Gion muses, "Rob [Campanella] does his thing and that guitar is just sitting back there. So who knows?"
In another move that illustrates his open style, Newcombe made Aufheben available for preview in its entirety via Anton's YouTube page (sans announcement, of course, which lead to rampant speculation as to what exactly he was sharing — the new album or something else). Beginning with "Panic in Babylon," a psychedelic space jam that sounds off with an enormous horn, the record is another fascinating entry in a catalog that has explored psych rock, techno, shoegaze, and jangle pop.
The record sounds very much like its country of origin: The second song, "Viholliseni Maalla" ("In the Land of My Enemy") features Newcombe's friend and fellow Berliner Eliza Karmasalo on vocals.
The artist and photographer struggled at first to come up with words for the song. "After a few times jamming, one day we got into the mood and it just happened like breathing," Karmasalo says. "I wrote the lyrics in broken Finnish and sang with little fear." Her words paint a pastoral image of a journey into a strange land: "Pellavansiemen kädessäni / pelkää jänis silmässä / hän ymmärätää minua / valko salon metsään (Linseed into my hand / Rabbit fear inside my eye / He understands me / Enlightened forest).
The fifth song, "I Want to Hold Your Other Hand," is familiar territory for those acquainted with BJM's tendency toward historical revisionism. "It's got to be okay from here / As long as I have you near / We'll play around the years / Forget about all the tears," Newcombe sings over airy flutes, keyboards, and guitars.
"Face Down on the Moon" is an Eastern-esque sound-scape driven by sitars and flutes, echoing "Feelers" from Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request or "Salaam" from Give It Back!, only it explodes into free-form jazz. "The Clouds Are Lies" continues in this vein. On the album's final track, "Blue Order/New Monday," the horn is sounded again before segueing into a hazy mantra: "The way things are, and should be / You pushed us to it, so now you'll see."
Original member Matt Hollywood, who lives in New York, makes an appearance on the album, as do Will Carruthers (Spacemen 3, Spiritualized), Constantine Karlis (Dimmer), and Thibault Pesenti (Rockcandys). The live lineup features Anton on guitar/vocals, Joel on tambourine/vocals, Matt Hollywood on guitar/vocals, Ricky Maymi on guitar, Dan Allaire on drums, Collin Hegna on bass, Frankie "Teardrop" Emerson on guitar, and Rob Campanella on keys — a virtual rogue's gallery of past lineups and psychedelic standard-bearers.
And while the sound of Aufheben is very much a foreign one, it all comes back to the Haight, where the band's roots are strong. Gion and I have ducked into another bar for a couple more pints, and to our mutual disappointment, Aerosmith's "Dream On" is playing on the jukebox. Gion quickly remedies to that with The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," CCR's "Lookin' Out My Back Door," and The Who's "Baba O'Riley." Aufheben is a far-out excursion, but the band's core is still anchored somewhere in Frisco, among the ghosts of psychedelic boogies and transcendent rock 'n' roll melodies.
I board a flight for Phoenix the next morning and return to the Valley with a wicked cold. I settle into bed with my laptop and headphones and let the soothing sounds of "Blue Order/New Monday" ease me like hot tea and chicken soup. I start to drift off, and as I do, I recall a mantra I've heard Newcombe say: "All you need is for the song to make you daydream."