Los Angeles native Anton Newcombe is one of the most talented — and enigmatic — figures in music history.
After moving to San Francisco, Newcombe rose to equal parts fame and notoriety in the 1990s as the frontman for psychedelic rock band The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who released a trio of critically-acclaimed albums — Take it from the Man!, Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request and Thank God for Mental Illness — in 1996 alone before signing with a major label and releasing Strung Out in Heaven in 1998.
In 2004, Newcombe and The Brian Jonestown Massacre were the subjects of DiG!, a documentary which focused on their relationship with the members of fellow San Francisco band The Dandy Warhols. The film won the Documentary Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Newcombe currently resides in Berlin, Germany with his wife and their son,Wolfgang. While the band’s lineup has changed over the years, Newcombe continues to perform with The Brian Jonestown Massacre and, in May of 2014, they will headline the Austin Psych Fest and release their 14th studio album, Revelation. More information can be found on the Brian Jonestown Massacre website.
[Top photo: Lior Keter]
I grew up in Newport Beach and my mother was very creative, always working on arts and crafts — photography and pottery and gardening, weaving and all kinds of things — along with an insane love of music. I think we were very close until I was about six. However, being creative was the one thing I could say I had a knack for at an early age. I just found a space for my imagination, developed a relationship with my own ideas and process as a way of finding refuge and comfort from the harshness and downright boring.
Throughout the early years of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, you were often labeled as eccentric. Do you feel that descriptions such as that were fair?
Sure, and I cultivated it. Treated it like a joke and, at the same time, was very serious about exploring ideas, be they mysticism or other things.
Did you consider yourself eccentric at the time?
A little, but I never really thought about it too much. I think some of it was perfectly natural, being that I grew up in the ’60s or ’70s really, but there were images of Paul McCartney dressed as a wizard for Magical Mystery Tour, etc. and people being freaky or living alternative lifestyles. It was never my goal to be an employee or part time anything.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about your distaste for DiG! upon its release. In the years since, has your opinion changed at all? Because despite the moments that may have been taken out of context to tell the story, it is still a fairly glowing tribute to your musical abilities.
No, it’s not changed at all, and I spoke about my feeling right after it won Sundance and that’s about it. I’m the type of person that, ten years on, I’m not going to be letting something drag on me… I’m like a rolling stone and it is obvious that the conclusions one is pretty forcefully led to believe are not correct. I’m doing better than ever…and no signs of slowing down.
I will say the opposite of your question is true… it’s the stuff they left out and didn’t tell that painted a compelling story that nobody got to see because of the lack of vision or balls of the people involved. You may or may not know that at first, the film was sold/optioned to VH-1/MTV networks to be a TV show like Jersey Shore or whatever. And it tested the highest of anything ever on the network, but they couldn’t show it. Then Cary Woods — who produced Kids for Harmony Korine and some other shit at Pyramid — he picked it up or tried to, but I went to the meeting and he said, “We’re going to make you fucking so famous, but I want to own all your music in the film.” And I said, “Go fuck yourself.” And also, I withheld signing off until the film actually won Sundance, if you can believe that. Working on a project with a madman for seven years of your life at god knows what expense and you forgot one little thing — haha — it gave me quite a bit of power in the end.
Except I wasn’t interested in fighting those people to change their movie, and the film that got shown to the public wasn’t the version that won Sundance either. Basically, I had already moved on with my life.
I wasn’t a junkie, no. And my group wasn’t broken up, no… It was just a film.
What’s your relationship like with Courtney Taylor-Taylor these days?
I’m about to interview him on your last question for Q Magazine, I think. We’re friends.
Your 14th studio album, Revelation, is set to be released on May 19th. In looking back over your discography, which of your albums are you most proud of? Or do they all share a special place in your heart?
I don’t really view things in terms of favourites, etc. Every now and then, I take stock of the songs and I go, “Wow, there’s a large body of work,” but mostly I try and look forward, try and create new and interesting things and when I do, it’s a real buzz for a few days… Then that fades, and I am on to the next thing.
How has the music industry changed since the early days of the Brian Jonestown Massacre?
Everybody has to be aware of how it has changed — except the 13-year-olds; this is all they’ve ever known. But I saw much of this before it was coming. I hated the music industry. I just wanted to play music, make records and be known for doing that — meaning I could tour Europe, etc. and pay my rent. It never crossed my mind that I would have to be as big as Bon Jovi or give up. And that’s the model that brought you Nirvana… the machine where this is important because 100,000,000 units have been shifted.
Now my focus is to find my place in the lexicon in the future, be it streaming or what have you. I’ve watched a zillion hot shit groups in my life, people that were being played every week on 120 Minutes by Matt Pinfield (who’s that?) and all the next big things and should-have-beens just go nowhere and fade away. But here I am, doing better than ever. And that is because I knew the industry was bullshit and I fought to ignore their lies, about how to do my thing and for control and ownership of my music even if I needed money at the time. I would say, “No, I’m not selling you the rights to my albums for $100,000. Let’s do some other deal.”
Turns out that was wise, even though everyone I know couldn’t wait to seal their fate for nothing.
Your song “Straight Up and Down” is perhaps now best known as the theme song of Boardwalk Empire. How did that come about? Did you get a call one day from someone at HBO saying, “Hi, we’d like to use one of your songs”?
Well, they had a music director, as television shows and movies do, and I also think for various reasons some people got together and asked if they could use the song and I said “Yes,” because I respect the entire team that brought that show together. It really had very little to do with me or anything I did or could suggest anyone else do looking to have the same kind of thing happen to them in their life, you know? My only advice is to have a good manager.
What is your songwriting process like?
Well, it happens a few ways. Sometimes I could be walking and it will hit fully formed, and I will be hearing and singing this song, listening to all the parts like it’s on the radio… And I’ll go, “What is this?” and it turns out it’s me. So I try and remember those the best I can.
Other times, I am in the studio and I press record with a sound — could be flute — and I play until something catches my ear, and I see how it can turn into a melodic phrase very quickly and create a song out of layers… I also do the same with drum tracks; I will play a beat first and build a song on top of that.
Has that process evolved over the years?
Not really, except that I also get very inspired around people, like if we are drinking and hanging out and playing guitar… I don’t do that anymore, so that doesn’t happen.
Do you feel respected as a musician and an artist?
To some degree, but it’s not something I think about too much or dwell on at all really… I mean, I’m not respected enough by Vox Amps to get them to build me two custom AC30s blonde with no vinyl covering.
You’ve been running your own record label, A Recordings Ltd., for a couple of years now. What has that experience been like, and how do you go about choosing artists to promote?
It’s good to help people move away from “Check out my album on Bandcamp” and into “Here’s my album on vinyl, CD, iTunes, Amazon, Soundcloud, Spotify and Bandcamp.” Which one seems more tangible to you?
It’s hard sometimes for people to take me seriously when I approach them and say, “Let me put your recording out.” They may not understand that I have the connections, and that we give the best deals you can get. I should know… I’m not very greedy and I know how much it costs to make records. I have a good team and we work on one project at a time and see how they go. I try and keep it small enough so we avoid the risk of going belly-up. At the same time, I would like to grow.
What’s do you enjoy most about being married and having a child? Has the experience changed you?
I don’t drink or party, so I have no idea what I would be doing with my time at this point in my life anyway… This seems natural and beautiful, spending time with them.