Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe on Beck, living in Germany and Bright Channel
Romo PR Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre
The Brian Jonestown Massacre (due tonight at the Bluebird Theater) has been through a lot of ups and downs since 1990. But singer and primary songwriter Anton Newcombe has steered the band through the release of more great albums per decade than most bands have across their entire career. For the uninitiated, the earlier albums of the BJM incorporate the psychedelic sounds of the 1960s, but with more modern aesthetics, so that they don't seem to be locked into any particular decade. Some would broad-brush the music as "postmodern," but there's nothing ironic or detached about the honest emotional expressions in the songwriting.
We recently had a lengthy chat with the charming and witty Newcombe about a variety of subjects, but mostly about the importance of maintaining artistic integrity in a cultural climate that tries to erode and undermine our collective ability to live authentically and compassionately.
Westword: Your new album, Aufheben -- was it something you largely recorded yourself, or was it more of a band effort?
Anton Newcombe: I have a recording studio in Berlin, our own studio, and our group, my bass player, has a professional studio. He did one of the Super Bowl ads in Portland, the one with Clint Eastwood that everybody hated -- "Halftime in America." He did that. We have a recording studio with harpsichords and mellotrons in L.A. with mature, productive people.
Is your bass player still Will Carruthers?
Well, see, it's not that interesting a story, but I chose not to call my group Beck. See, Beck plays with all kinds of people and makes a record. He retains his aesthetics, and it doesn't matter, right? He just makes records. Then a band shows up and plays live. I tend to play with people over a long period of time regardless of what that mythology is. It's been twenty years. But I'll record with anyone, and Will is a friend, and I do play music with him. He has toured with us, and he's a great person.
On the new record, you have a song called "Viholliseni Maalla." Is that Finnish for "Enemy of My Country"?
No, it's "Land of My Enemy." Very close, and it is Finnish. The problem with the Scandinavian languages is that you have to place words in the context of a sentence, so they become really vague, so if you just use two words, it could be "land of strangers" -- it could be anything.
In the context of your song, what was the significance of the title?
Don't you think it's kind of absurd -- like, you're in Colorado -- in Utah, it's against the law for you to catch the rain that comes off your roof and put it in a barrel of water. Utah owns the water rights. How can you own the fucking water? Now they own the land and the geological rights and every single thing about it. Nice trick. Do you know what I mean? If you own it all, me as a spiritual entity, I am in the land of my enemy. Philosophically, but maybe I'm reading too much into my own thoughts.
In a recent interview you did with The Quietus, you referred to your music as "dark sarcasm" instead of the kind of joke music that some people have made. Why do you feel that to be the case?
Well, because everybody does that. Beck is the perfect example of it; it never gets too deep or too serious about anything, particularly. It doesn't stop you from enjoying the song, taking no chances, never says anything offensive. You don't even know what that guy thinks. Neat trick for a public figure. You have no fucking idea what Beck's perspective is or what he thinks -- besides that you've heard he's a Scientologist or something.
That's a real interesting trick for a man that all he does is sing songs. He's not singing about anything that means anything. And you have no clue as to what his personality is other than he's sort of fun, and he's really good at what he does. He's got an imagination, maybe. That's a parlor trick. That's like when your mom wears dark sunglasses at night -- that kind of distance. But you can't blame him, because the world is really weird. Like TMZ: They can't wait to get into everybody's dirty stuff.
A guy named Jeff Suthers was in a band called Bright Channel. You championed him a bit, and you've done that for other artists over the years. What about a band inspires you to champion them?
What a great group. Great guy. I love him. Well, I know what it feels like to me, and I know that my taste isn't everybody's taste. But I also use an ecosystem mentality. There will never be an Anton Newcombe record store. There will never a club in Italy that waits every two years for me to make my way to Torino for me to play in staying open. It's a whole environment that needs to take place.
So it's in my own best interest to help create a musical environment through awareness of the things that I need to feel stimulated in any way that I can help. It takes very little effort, and it is its own reward. Art, music, and the business, and the radio, and Clear Channel -- all of it. The magazine Fader is a Levi's company. They didn't want to buy ads in Rolling Stone every month, so they made their own magazine. Everything is a part of this thing.
It's almost like it's the luck of the draw that the most powerful guy isn't going to get canned from his job in four years attaches on to you with his ego. Then he throws millions of dollars at it, making people, you know, say how great it is at the expense of everyone else. Because they do it like Coke does it. When you walk into a liquor store and you look at the shelf of pop and the Coke, two-liter bottles go halfway down the aisle and it starts to be Pepsi.
Then you get down way on the end, and they might have Vitamin Water or something, which is also Coke. Then they have something else. But they don't need to have one thousand two-liter bottles of Coke at the store on hand. That is specifically to deprive you, the consumer, of more choices and dollars that could be filtered in another direction.
That's how it works with the media. The Beatles are the most guilty of that. And I hate that, but I'm not some Charlie Manson guy who is going to wage some crazy, idealistic, psychotic battle against the machine, because it's the way that it is. But it's wrecked itself -- not file sharers, not hackers. Why bring a band to your club, say, if you're the Larimer Lounge, when you could just have a DJ?
Well, I'll tell you why you bring a band: Because they love music at the Larimer Lounge in Denver. So you're lucky, because those places aren't everywhere. They could tell you DJ AM is a great guy, man. We'll never know a guy that's better than that, and we're hoping that someone in the future learns how to press "play" on their iTunes, so we can feel the experience again that we all shared.
The titles of some of your songs reference pop culture in a way that subverts the original meaning and puts the words in a new context. What about that transformation of ideas appeals to you?
Let's get specific with one. Are you talking about "Blue Order New Monday"? I'll address that one and "I Want to Hold Your Other Hand." "I Want to Hold Your Other Hand," in theory, if you imagine a person, boy or girl who has two hands, and John Lennon has expressed his desire to hold one of them, there should, in theory, be one for me. So "I Want to Hold Your Other Hand."
Now "Blue Order New Monday" -- Bernard Sumner had a band for a hot second called Bad Lieutenant, and they lifted a full riff from "When Jokers Attack" on twelve-string. It's not a guitar lead like Jimi Hendrix. It was a melodic motif, and they stole it all the way and played it on twelve-string with the same tonality. Didn't mention anything. Total dishonesty when you're coming from that kind of money. We know he doesn't have any ideas worth merit anymore, so that's okay.
So you know what? I decided to get him back. I know how algorithms work on the supercomputers. I'm in a legitimate band, and I make real records. Now, for all time, you can't Google "blue order," right? You can't Google "New Order Blue Monday" without coming up with "Blue Order New Monday," too. You can't look for it on YouTube without having my option. And you can't do it on iTunes or Spotify or Last FM.
So he's fucked. This is worldwide. I do Le Monde, Der Spiegel. I play Tokyo or everywhere. Just because I'm not on David Letterman or something like that doesn't mean I'm not legit. I do quite well. It just means that they think I'll speak my mind. That's not the business they're in. I was told by NPR they can't play my music because it's been suggested that it triggers mental illness in children around the age of nine or ten. Isn't that great?
They actually told you that? That's crazy!
Yeah, they did. It's so funny. It's okay, I love that. It's not an insult. I don't know if you saw the Super Bowl or saw the Grammys. I'm in the music business, too, right? But that Roman thing with Nicki Minaj? For them to laud that in front of everybody at the Grammys, this thing about excellence in music and achievement? It's blasphemy. It goes beyond the scandal of giving six Grammys to Milli Vanilli for not even being involved with the record.
This is even worse. This woman is involved, and that's what she's selling. So I don't take offense that there's not a sweet patch for me to live and grow on this earth, because to me it's like a cesspit, just about. Hence the title of the record. "Aufheben" means "to abolish or destroy" but also "to pick up or preserve." So if you put it in the context of German history of the last century with National Socialism and the DDR, they literally had to destroy their culture twice to lift it up and destroy it.
I view Western civilization in much the same light. And I'm not an extremist. If you look at global warming, guess what? The status quo, Western civilization as you know it, has to change. I'm not saying I buy into all the methodology or the timetable or any of it. I'm just saying that's the reality. So I put in the album Carl Sagan's picture that was a communication to intelligent life when they sent the Voyager satellite to the edge of the solar system.
The plaque said, "This is humanity. This is our biometric information. This is our culture. This is our position in the solar system. And here is this gold disk that has a selection of greetings in every language that matters and a phonetic key. Here's some high points, Bach and Beatles, and all this other stuff."
I thought it would be funny if a German actually put a word on it, "Aufheben," and if they read it: "This must be destroyed to be preserved." And then they think, "Got it, we know your location and we'll be here in a minute."
I also think it's really funny that if intelligent life does find that, right, and then they get here and maybe we're already gone and they do some archaeology and they find my record, and they're like, "Oh, this is the guy." Or they pick up the Internet waves. They beam interwebs up to the space station. Those signals are going everywhere, so it'd be funny if they said, "That's the guy from the space ship."