Some 40 musicians have passed through the ranks of Brian Jonestown Massacre over the years, but for all intents and purposes, they’re the vessel for the vision of one man: Anton Newcombe. Following the motto “keep music evil,” early albums like 1995′s Methodrone and 1996′s country-tinged Thank God for Mental Illness allowed Newcombe and his band to pioneer a malevolent and incendiary take on psychedelic rock, one that located a sinister undercurrent in the hippy dream and coaxed it to the surface.
Newcombe became a public figure of sorts with the release of the 2005 rockumentary film Dig!, which followed the burgeoning careers of Brian Jonestown Massacre and their friends-cum-rivals the Dandy Warhols, depicting the latter as careerists and the former as a freak show run by a egotistic dictator with a weak grip on sanity. “I’m not the sort of person who, 10 years on, is going to be moaning about how I was wronged and carry that with me,” says Newcombe, who has dismissed the film as misrepresentation. “I’m going to take anything positive from any situation. Maybe it helped me in France…people there like that tortured artist, rebel who doesn’t give up thing. But it’s neither here nor there to me.”
Now clean of drugs and alcohol, today the 46-year-old Newcombe lives in Berlin with his wife and son; runs a label, A Records; and owns his own studio, where he recently recorded the 14th Brian Jonestown Massacre album, Revelation. Songs like “What You Isn’t” and “Days, Weeks and Moths” strip away much of the outré experimentation of recent albums such as 2010′s Who Killed Sergeant Pepper, their blend of eastern raga, ’60s rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic folk sounding both classic and quintessentially BJM.
Louis Pattison spoke with Newcombe about Indian mysticism, kicking drugs, and his return to the silver screen — this time as soundtracker, not subject.
Revelation is the first Brian Jonestown Massacre album to be recorded at your own studio in Berlin. Was that a big change?
I’ve had several studios over the years. The first two I built inside houses. One I lived in with the entire band, and that was like my dream. But it didn’t work out — it turned into drugs, partying, all that stuff. Then I had one by myself, but it’s like you wake up in the morning and if you don’t feel like working you’re like, “Oh God, I’m such a shit, I have all this stuff and I can’t do anything…” For a long time I would work at other people’s studios. But I’m one of those people who presses record and goes, “Ooh, that sounds good… I could make something out of that sound…” It’s like sculpting. But that can take time. I’d be living in hotels getting drunk, recording in Björk’s studio and spending £1,000 or more a day. Burning through an unbelievable amount of money, just to kind of fuck around. My partners at my label were just like, “You have to get your own studio again.” So I found an auto garage and hired some guys to do soundproofing. Then we kitted the whole top out like a flat — bunk beds, a kitchen, a living room. So now I can put people on [the budget airline] EasyJet and say, “Come and make a record.”
Did this space help the new album come more easily? It feels quite relaxed.
I think all that stuff can be deceptive and that’s really good, because for me it was quite difficult to make — only in the sense that I had to battle a lot of my own fears.
In what way?
Well, because it’s not like I could just be drunk or stoned or something. Drugs and alcohol can be a social lubricant and can take the edge off something. For me, I can write 10 songs in a row that are infinitely fascinating to me, that I feel are solid, and then the next week I’ll wonder if I ever will write another one again. I’ve seen the history of so many artists, like the Stone Roses…after making a brilliant record, the second isn’t worth listening to. That’s a distinct possibility for anybody, no matter how good they are.
I did wonder if the title, Revelation, might have been a reference to approaching recording with a clear head for once?
Yeah, and expanding on that, the revelation is that I could — that it was OK. But it has multiple points of reference for me, because there’s the whole thing that…normally there’s like this silver cord of meaning running through recordings that I present to people. That’s part of the fun of it for me. This time I didn’t do that — it didn’t play out like an album in the way that Dark Side of the Moon does. It’s just a collection of songs. I had to ask myself if that was OK, to not have this narrative going through it.
Is there anything of the Christian revelation in there, devil and hellfire and all that stuff?
Not as much. I feel closest to śruti, that Indian understanding of revelation. Events and actions can be guided by a spirit, even if the spirit has no sound or commands. I try to be in tune with that more so than anything else. That’s something important to me. Even if there’s nothing else, it’s my look at the cosmos — my understanding of it.
Did you find getting clean easy?
From opium or for alcohol?
Yeah, I used alcohol to get out of the opium relationship. That opium addiction’s very difficult. Physically it was very, very difficult. It hurts. It took a long time too, and a lot of willpower and fortitude and focus. The alcohol was easy to quit because I was done drinking. It’s a matter of taking some pills for three days, to make sure I didn’t have a seizure, and then it was done. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d be very quick to die if I didn’t do this, and it was never my intention to drink myself to death. As much as I love being drunk 24 hours a day, it was in that ’60s cowboy way, or like Sinatra: “A party never stops, let’s all drink martinis forever.” It had very little to do with rock ‘n’ roll.
Was it a huge relief when you stopped? When you knew you’d stopped?
I wanted to be able to walk, you know what I mean? It got to the point where one time I was going to Iceland, I was going to pick up my guitars and I knew that I couldn’t make it out of my bedroom door to go to the cab. I just felt physically strained, lack of strength. So I’m just like, “That’s it.”
Is there truth in that William Blake line, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”?
I think that’s beautiful — what a guy he was on many levels — but I would never want to encourage people to say, “Oh yeah, using drugs, being on heroin you can write some good songs,” or something. You know, like Damon Albarn in that interview. Nobody can gain any wisdom from that situation, because in my situation, it kicked the fucking shit out of me. And I’m not talking about some football hooligan catching you at the train station. I’m talking about every single aspect. I was writing good songs when I was stone-cold sober, before I found myself in that position. I would never even hint to anybody that it was worth all of that grief and worry that I caused other people, and suffering that I went through. Some of the brightest people I know can’t get out of that hole. Like, some musicians I know in the UK, that you would know if I name-dropped them…the best they could do is be on methadone for the rest of their life, and that’s no way to live.
There’s an irony in moving to Berlin, thought of more broadly as a party capital, to get clean.
It doesn’t matter, if I moved to the Arctic, some Eskimos would have a rave, and it’d be on. It’s where you’re at mentally. I have vodka in my fridge here at the studio, but that’s not the issue.
It’s a headspace.
It is. I’m just done with it. I’m looking forward — I have a soundtrack that I have to do coming up…
This is Moon Dogs, right?
Yeah. I’m pretty nervous about this project. It’s a UK film by Philip John; he won a BAFTA for Downton Abbey. It’s a film about two Scottish brothers who grow up apart from each other — one of them stays wherever they’re from, the other goes out into the world and has these successes. They get back together and they decide to go out to the Shetlands or the Hebrides, where these pseudo-Vikings burn these Viking ships. It’s shot beautifully. I really want to work closely with the filmmakers, to get exactly what they’re looking for as much as possible, to articulate…
For someone who is a band-leader and known for imposing control, it must be an interesting thing to give up your ego in that kind of way?
It’s just weird. You know, I never really talk a lot about that — the process of how we got to have so many songs. I can visualise things very quickly when I’m inspired — it’s very manic, lightning-fast. I’ll go, “What is that song? Oh, it’s my own, I better figure out how to play it right now.” Like a Mozart thing or something. It’s difficult for people to collaborate with because they have no idea how that works. I don’t know how difficult it’s going to be, all I know is that this is something I’ve wanted to do. Ultimately I’d like to work on a film with a big budget, and bring in all kinds of people that I respect. The problem is that Hollywood isn’t like that anymore. It’s like, “Oh, we’ll just toss in Katy Perry’s ‘Roar,’ have a guy with a funny hat sing ‘Happy’ and that’s the soundtrack.” But how cool would it be to call up Thom from Radiohead and just go, “Hey man, you would be perfect in this film, I have a song right here, if you have any interest, here’s some money.” That would be great.