Ridiculously prolific cult rockers The Brian Jonestown Massacre play The Astor Theatre next Tuesday, December 10, with support from The KVB. That was as good an excuse as any for TRAVIS
JOHNSON to have chat with lead singer Anton Newcombe. Anton Newcombe, erstwhile focal point of Frisco psychedelic outfit, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, has a reputation for two things: he’s a crazily productive songwriter and musician (BJM have north of 20 albums and EPs under their belt since 1993) and he doesn’t suffer fools lightly. Since he’s sounding a bit frazzled it seems germane to ask if now is a good time. As it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s in the final stretches of writing yet another album.
“I’m working on this record and I’m about two songs short of saying, ‘Okay, that could be an album.’ you know?” he says, not pausing for a reply. “But I don’t know what those songs sound like, so it’s hard! If I was the type of person who said, ‘Okay, I should just make up a Jesus And Mary Chain sounding song and add some distortion right here, and rip off Paul McCartney And Wings over here or something, ABBA…’ then I’d have an idea and I’d be done in minutes, but I don’t really have an idea. The songs are all coming out one at a time and they’re kind of different – they’re in groups. Like, three of them will go together and then the next three will go together and then I can see how another three will go together, but none of them really fit together in a great way. It’s weird. This is real tough time for me, because I’m usually prolific. This has been a two month ordeal.”
Part of the problem, he feels, is a sudden shift in gears brought on by outside forces. Recently, he’s been dabbling in genres far afield from the Brian Jonestown sound, and retraining his brain to work in the band’s paradigm has thrown him a little. “The past year before this, I was writing stuff using my old keyboards, using these old Korgs and stuff, which is like what The Human League used in the early ‘80s. I was running free, writing all this weird hybrid music, but the thing is, is that none of it sounded like Brian Jonestown Massacre – and I wasn’t really concerned with that. I was just making music for the joy of it. I wasn’t trying to break into the DJ/house thing or whatever it is – I was just making music. So then they said I had to make a record if I wanted to tour Australia, if I wanted to tour Europe again coming into our springtime. So that kinda really screwed with my head a little because I’d rather just make up songs.”
It seems that market forces hold sway even over the staunchly independent Newcombe and company, an observation with which the man ruefully agrees. “I’m my own record company and everyone tells me that I could do anything I want to do, that I could do everything I want to do in life.” He barks laughter. “Oh my God! A little bit. It’s the imaginary consumer in my head – I want people to be happy. But I understand how the world is and how disparaging things can be for certain people. You can make a great record and watch somebody like Katy Perry just go, ‘Okay, here’s my next music video coming at 12 o’clock!’ and get 35 million people just to spin that thing, you know?
He sighs. “I’ll be lucky in a hundred years if that many people have ever heard my music.”
Newcombe clearly has an affinity for musical underdogs. When asked if he has any obscure artists he thinks people ought to check out, he instead encourages fans to spread a wide net. “I would rather just encourage people to look. I don’t use Spotify but I guess that’s made it easier for people to find likeminded artists and stuff, but I would encourage people to tread that path that’s less travelled, you know what I mean? I’ll scour through YouTube and it just requires that you have a head for it and an ear for it and pay attention. I’m really into international music too, but this other stuff; not international music like ‘here’s Kwaambi playing with Paul Simon’ or here’s the guy from Gorillaz bringing in whatever it is from Central Africa. I mean international stuff like Turkish rock from the ‘70s – some really good sounding records. I’d die to be able to play those songs. They’re not so far out from a Western perspective, that stuff.”