The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Posted: February 23rd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Feature story | Tags: , , | No Comments »

No Ropes Attached

Background note: A discussion with Anton Newcombe was always a memorable event, but he also holds the distinction of being my first, and thus far only, clothing-optional interview. This piece was first published around 2001, several years before the band earned greater infamy via the film Dig!

Since 1995, I’ve observed via post-show chats, interviews and friendly phone calls as Anton Newcombe first bartered his way out of obscurity, then nearly burned himself into oblivion. The last time I formally interviewed him, he was somewhere in between and, in keeping with his storied eccentricity, wearing nothing but a Cossack-style fur cap, sunglasses and Frye boots.

At that point Brian Jonestown Massacre had caught the ear and, more significantly, checkbook of TVT Records, with a rapid succession of ramshackle full-lengths brimming with lysergic pop and droning blues. The band’s other currency at the tail end of alternative rock’s heyday was a reputation for thrilling live performances. On any given night, a BJM performance could involve three-hour sets comprised of four songs, or dissolve into a instrument-hurling melee or Jim Morrison-style strip tease.

By early 1998, Newcombe and his “evil cohorts” were holed up in a rented Echo Park bungalow recording their TVT debut. The scene was like an NC-17-rated version of The Monkees. Vintage guitars and tapestries hung from the white walls. The fridge was stuffed with eggs, chorizo and little else. The kitchen sink was filled with the band’s all-white outfits, bleaching for an impending shoot with a female photographer. The sun-soaked California afternoon was spent drinking red wine and black whiskey, and passionately talking music and revolution while Bob Dylan and Simon And Garfunkel played over the stereo.

Then, night fell. A man named Angel made a delivery. The band refreshed themselves in a back bathroom and a long-delayed photo shoot for Alternative Press, the magazine I was editing and writing for at the time, ended with Newcombe posing alone, wearing a stoned grin and little else. As he adjusted his furry cap in a mirror and lit a cigar, he told me, “I just want you to know, that if we crash through to the marketplace, we’re not going to cheese out like Oasis. No way.”

The title of that big-label debut was either prophetic or bracingly honest: Strung Out In Heaven.

“TVT gave me a lot of fucking rope, and I basically tied it around everyone’s neck, and we jumped off a cliff,” Newcombe says today, explaining why it’s taken four years to release Bravery, Repetition And Noise (the title being Newcombe’s definition of rock and roll), the compelling follow-up to Strung Out. “It was weird being given thousands of dollars, because we don’t care about money; we just like playing music. Plus I was fucking around with heroin and shit. That was probably not the best idea.”

Today, Newcombe is clean, if not always sober, and freed, after much legal wrangling, from his mutually unsatisfying contract with TVT. Though his prolific musical output never waned (he reportedly has another disc of Pet Sounds-style pop in the can), his reinstated autonomy has allowed him to pick up the pace of his release schedule once again with Bomp! Records.

The most important release, however, was the one due upon his return to L.A. following the band’s latest U.S. tour. His longtime girlfriend, actress Tricia Vessey (catch her in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai), gave birth to the couple’s son, Hermann Oliver. Which begs the question, is the self-described “weird dude” and “lover-warrior” prepared to raise a child?

“When has anyone ever been ready for a kid?” he counters. “If you have a lot of love and patience and time to offer, it’ll end up good. If you don’t, and you’re resentful and you haven’t done the things in your life that you wanted to, it’s gonna end up bad. I’ve toured Japan; I think I can handle a kid.”

In a way, Newcombe has already raised a number of children. Performing in BJM has served as a rite of passage for countless musicians, some of which have gone on to sign major-label deals, including Miranda Lee Richards and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Peter Hayes.

“I made him play guitar for eight hours each day,” Newcombe recalls of the criminally shy Hayes, who toured with BJM in the mid to late ’90s. “Every day, I made him go to black neighborhoods and play country music on a corner while people walked past. It was just to get him used to singing and playing–whether people liked it or hated it–and just standing there and saying, ‘This is what I do. If you like it, fine. If you don’t, go home and watch TV.’”

Of his relationship with the other musicians who’ve passed through BJM, he says, “When you’re in my band, you’re like a sharecropper until I set you free–or you run for your life.”

And now that he’s emancipated himself in every way again, Newcombe looks to sign with another larger label so he can get his music out to more people and make a comfortable living for himself and his band–no ropes attached. After all, living with “five Charles Bukowskis,” as he calls them, in a rented RV loses its charm at a certain age.

“I’ll get drunk, fistfight, carry gear, sleep in the van and not shower or shave–when I’m young,” he allows. “That’s the beauty of youth. But when I’m an old man? I might be too tired or too fed up for this lifestyle. I might just want to hang out and talk to kids, and go, ‘You know what? You can [make music for a living], too. I did it, and I’m no genius.’”

He pauses as the image of “Anton Newcombe, sage old rock mentor” forms in one’s mind. Then he scribbles over it with a laugh, instructing his would-be protégés, “‘Now let’s go buy some crack–and don’t lip the pipe this time.’”


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