Popular in a 'different way'

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Popular in a 'different way'

Anton Newcombe comes with a reputation for chewing up and spitting out wannabe interviewers. Lucky for Stu Warren, he caught The Brian Jonestown Massacre front-man on a good day.

Suddenly, the name made perfect sense.

It had always been a clever portmanteau; distinctive and memorable. But, now, the melding of two obvious pop culture references into The Brian Jonestown Massacre had been cast in perfect relief against Anton Newcombe’s overriding objective when he formed the band way back when.

“One of my super-duper goals was to enter the pop lexicon, but in a different way,” he told The Dwarf from his Berlin home. “To be some kind of ‘Johnny Appleseed’ instead of some gyrating, twerking fool, because all that stuff, I knew it was just flash in the pan.”

Thanks largely to a huge second-hand record collection he acquired from a family friend as a youngster, Newcombe had thoroughly analysed the first flush of pop culture prior to forming the BJM in 1980s San Francisco.

“I had a real understanding of ‘60s pop culture and what stuck and what didn’t,” he said. “I knew how fleeting everything was... I wanted to be, like, a guy that, when I figured it out, I knew that it had to be a whole ecosystem.”

The ecosystem he refers to now boasts more than a dozen albums, seven EPs, countless live shows played to adoring fans worldwide and more infamous, head-turning soundbites than seems likely for such a friendly, accommodating interview subject.

You see, aside from the genre-bending music, Newcombe has become known for crazed stage antics and speaking his mind with apparent impunity – and ahead of the BJM’s looming Australian tour he’s in classic form.

“It was my goal, I definitely wanted to enter the popular lexicon for being known for doing a certain type of thing,” he says with an easy laugh. “Where I’m from is where Jackass is from. So everybody has that… it probably goes along with a middle-class nobility. You’ve got kids, a garage and you’re always fucking around with stuff and playing pranks and that kind of stuff. But I always hated those people even though I still have that smartarse thing of making fun of shit.

“I’m not worried about getting in trouble. It doesn’t come up like other people, like, I’m not worried about my career.

“I already did as much damage as I could possibly do, I think. Now I can only damage myself because I’m the record label and it’s been that way for a long time. I knew the industry was rigged against everybody. I already knew about that from the lessons of the ‘60s and from people I associated with.

“You can be as big as you possibly could be and if you don’t have the keys to the kingdom or you sell those away for any reason, you’re just jumping through hoops.”

And where Newcombe has kept the keys to his particular kingdom very close to his person, he rails against today’s generation of pop icons – and the promotional machine that forces them through those aforementioned hoops.

“Everybody’s looking for validation from someone else in the wrong way. They want to have Simon Cowell vote them down or vote them up. That’s not real because I know that contest is rigged. I have the proof because it’s a whole machine, it’s not what it appears to be. It’s sold as a talent contest but it’s a publishing company trying to market somebody and they’re making money because people call in.”

Comfortable with the concept of social media since the days of bulletin boards, Newcombe’s Twitter handle sports a loyal following and he clearly prefers an open dialogue with fans to judgement from any kind of show business pseudo-Svengali.

Such is his concern for the state of the mainstream scene, he recently tweeted an article warning that children as young as five-years-old can comprehend raunchy song lyrics; it was at once a reflection on the current promotion of chart music and a cautionary note from a man very-much in love with his young son, Wolfgang.

On taking my call – evening in Hobart and morning on Berlin’s east side – Newcombe had earlier savoured a precious moment watching his son wake to the new day. He said the German capital was ‘the best’ place to raise a family.

“It’s amazing to watch their faces, they look so much cuter. They’re beaming with energy. It’s amazing to watch their face when they wake up, they’re like a different person.

“There’s so many babies… it’ a baby explosion. Supposedly it’s the highest birth rate in the western world.”

Newcombe has looked to move beyond his drug-fuelled past into a more stable place, siting fatherhood as a big factor in pursuing a different approach to life.

It appears he’s now far more likely to be high on moments shared with Wolfgang than he is all manner of substances shared with friends – as may have been the case in bygone days.

“Because I have my baby now, I’m not letting that happen,” he said. “I don’t have a choice, I have to be responsible. I can’t do anything now about how people view my past actions but I don’t know if I regret everything…”

And while it seems unlikely he would encourage young Wolfgang to follow in every one of his footsteps, Newcombe said he doesn’t want to hide his child away from the world, either – even when it comes to those questionable aspects of today’s pop culture.

“On the one hand I don’t want my kid to be in this void, this shallow void,” he said.

“Because of Disney, they formulate all these ideas and all the cartoons are commercial and all the music is a commercial and then bam, ‘I’m gonna break the mould, watch me start spitting on people’ or whatever it is. ‘I’m going to be a drug addict, I’m going to go insane, I’m going to be half naked’, you know, seeing all this stuff…

“I don’t want to dictate how my children live that way, but I think my best chance will be to keep them busy someplace else, travelling.

“I think if I take my kid to Switzerland, all these different places, go to Iceland and check some stuff out then I think they’re going to not be so interested in what their friends are doing.”

As well as bringing the ‘same bunch of jokers’ that last toured Australia as the BJM in 2012, Newcombe has invited new friends and label-mates The KVB to play in support on the seven-date tour.

On asking for an insight into the British duo’s music, it doesn’t take long to realise it’s their work ethic that convinced Newcombe to sign them as much as the moody, synth-driven tunes.

The KVB are set to release their third album since the start of 2012, a rate the prolific Newcombe obviously respects – particularly in a day-and-age where SoundCloud and other online spaces mean not all ‘albums’ are created equal.

“It’s annoying. Back in the day when I made cassette tapes I didn’t go ‘here’s my fucking album’… then send it to Warner Bros. and say ‘here’s my album on cassette’,” he said.

“Now people are like, do whatever and say ‘this is my album’. If everyone has an album, nothing is an album. Basically it’s the sound their Facebook profile makes. There’s a difference.”

But far from online, his first listen to The KVB was a chance introduction by a friend in a touring band Newcombe happened to be travelling with at the time and it didn’t take him long to be won over.

“I heard 15, 20 seconds and said ‘I’ll put this out on my record label’.

“The reason I did was because of the sound, but also I was like, ‘oh, this is cool, these guys are from London and we’re in Berlin sitting in a touring van’.

“They’re already doing stuff for themselves, but the thing they maybe can’t do is press up a lot of vinyl and have someone else from another country say ‘this is real’.

“They’re really getting on a plane and going to Australia and these other clowns, that’s something they don’t have.

“Ok, I believe in this because you guys are getting your arse out and doing something, not saying petrol is too much… you guys are doing it.”

The BJM will also headline the annual Meredith Music Festival and as much as he’s looking forward to another Australian tour, the widely-travelled Newcombe does have some reservations about zigzagging his way back and forth across this sunburned country of ours.

“Australia is a particularly grumpy place to tour,” he admits, laughing again.

“I’ll give you an example, say we’re two days into the tour, you play at night and then you get back to your hotel and, say you’re a single guy, you did meet some cute girl who wants to talk to you, drink a Coopers or something…

“You have to get up extra early because we have 46 pieces of check-in shit so we go to the main desk at Virgin Blue and have those people go ‘what in the hell are you trying to do? This will be like $6000’.

“And were like ‘no, this is a round-the-world trip right here. See all these tickets? We’re going through Australia just like this!’

“Doing that every day, so everyone’s just like… (growls).”

So, if you’re passing through an airport this December and happen to notice a bunch of guys in denim jackets and dark glasses arguing with check-in operators as they count travel cases, it could well be The Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Keep your eyes peeled for the one most resembling a ring leader – there’s every chance he’ll be leading the verbal barrage and all the while waving a metaphorical middle finger at the world.

That’s Anton Newcombe, cementing his place in the pop lexicon in his own, ‘different way’.

Catch the Brian Jonestown Massacre live this December as they tour Australian with the KVB.

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