Gun Culture, New Order And Why Germans Have More Civil Liberties
It's fair to say that there aren't many bands to have emerged over the past two decades whose work spans so many styles and genres as THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE. Since emerging at the start of the nineties as an outfit informed by the then-current UK shoe-gazing scene, TBJM's stylistic tendrils have extended out to take in everything from Satanic Majesty-esque psychedelica, country-rock and folk through to blues, experimental sound collages and even electronic elements on recent work.
To a certain extent this dextrous magpie-like aesthetic is down to the guidance of bandleader Anton Newcombe, the one constant presence among TBJM for the last two decades; a period that's seen a veritable army of members pass through the ever-shifting line-up, some of them going on to form their own high-profile acts such as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Dilettantes. While TBJM have attracted high-profile fans and fairly consistent critical acclaim, in recent years it's often been the circus surrounding the band that the popular media have been preoccupied with, something not helped by the fact that many people might only be aware of Newcombe through his less-than-flattering depiction in Ondi Timoner's arguably biased documentary, Dig!, which cast him and TBJM as nemesis to the then-rising Dandy Warhols. In anyone's book though, the size and consistency of TBJM's sprawling back-catalogue is difficult to argue with, and this May sees Newcombe and the latest incarnation of TBJM touring Australia on the back of the band's 15th studio album, Aufheben, an achievement most bands only dream of making it to with a maintained sense of integrity and quality.
After grappling with the publicity company's slightly convoluted system of international dialling PIN numbers, I'm not even sure which country I'm about to reach Newcombe in. As it turns out, he's firmly ensconced at home in Berlin, his base of operations for the past several years, where he's been living with his wife. He soon proves to be one of the most engaging and chatty interview subjects I've had for a long time, something evidenced by the fact that our conversation, originally scheduled to 20 minutes, ends up running for an hour and a half.
“I really had to get out of the US because it wasn't good for me health-wise,” he offers when I enquire about the reasons behind the move. “Living in Europe, for a lot of reasons, is a much better lifestyle for me. One of the biggest cultural differences is that here in Europe people don't intrude as much into your life and personal business as they do in the US.” At this point I mention that several of my friends have left the US in the wake of things like the Bush administration and the erosion of individual privacy, and ask Newcombe whether that's also been a factor in his relocation. “I don't know if you've ever spent much time in California but there's just some really disgusting things about it, like gun culture,” he replies. “A lot of it is very facile, and a lot of people are completely led by the mass media. And in regard to the whole police state thing, here in Germany they can't really do that whole fascist police thing because they've already been there 70 years ago. I mean, obviously they still do things like monitoring terrorists but they just can't go too far down that path of cutting off civil liberties because they've already been there and the world knows it.
“That's also one of the reasons why I chose the title Aufheben [for the new album], because it has several meanings, including ‘abolish’, ‘destroy’ or ‘deserve’, and in this case I'm referring directly to the cultural rebuilding of Germany post-war,” he elaborates. “Also, Marx and Hegel referred to the term in their work... but I'm not a Commie,” he laughs. “Carl Sagan actually attached the term to the plate that was carried by the Voyager spacecraft, which also contained pictures of what humans look like and our relative position in the solar system. That's pretty dark if you think about it, that Sagan was pretty much saying that humanity needed to be destroyed for any race that found the plate.”
Given that the aforementioned Voyager plate actually provides the sleeve art for Aufheben, I'm curious to find out whether Newcombe's aiming for any deliberate apocalyptic conceptual themes, given the myriad esoteric theories surrounding 2012. “I did want to do something that ties into all of that and there are a couple of songs on the album that do mention those sorts of themes. I also kinda like the idea that if some alien race does actually find the Voyager plate and travel to Earth, they'll find my album and go, ‘Hey, this is the guy who sent that thing into space!’” he jokingly adds. “I've always been interested in the arcane and esoteric and that makes its way into the lyrics of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. I've always been that way, since being a child and watching things like [1970s paranormal TV program] The Mysterious World.”
At this point, I'm curious to find out whether TBJM is the sort of band that approaches a new album with a definite conceptual direction from the start, or whether the process slowly reveals itself during the construction. I also mention that I've always noticed a mantra-like, flowing and free-associative quality to a lot of TBJM's music. “Exactly,” Newcombe responds. “It's like that mantra-like thing you mention. I like to think of that as almost like that speaking in tongues thing. I like to visualise myself as giving that. It's a shamanistic state, but not pushy. I don't have a plan, I just look for inspiration. It's all just really a cage I'm building for the beast that is the body of work. I make records for people I don't know rather than for the friends that I do. I'm aiming more for the person far away overseas somewhere who I might never meet, who picks up the record and thinks, ‘What is this?’ I've gotten a lot of shit from people in the past saying things like, ‘He just wishes that he was living in the sixties’,” Newcombe says, sounding exasperated.
I contend that half the time the aforementioned comment is possibly a thinly-veiled comment on the fact that TBJM follow a path that's far closer to the sixties/seventies ideal of creating albums designed to be listened to all the way through, and also mention that I found some of the more familiar TBJM songs on this year's singles collection felt out of context when divorced from their original track listings. How does he feel about things like iTunes culture and the increased emphasis on individual tracks? “Splitting up tracks is really like making mixtapes always was and that's great and empowering. It's just part of today's culture,” Newcombe responds. “But I was sort of talked into the singles collection by the guy at my label. Personally, I was against it. I mean, usually when a singles collection comes out for a band it means that they've gone bad or aren't good anymore. I mean, we didn't have t-shirts for ten years that The Brian Jonestown Massacre was going for, so why would we have a singles collection?”
It's exactly at this point that Newcombe brings up the two obvious subjects that I wasn't going to be the one to mention first. “In many senses the singles collection is more a reaction to things like the Dig! movie. Have you seen it?” I reply that I have seen Dig! and didn't really rate it as a quality piece of music doco even before the ensuing controversy. “With Dig! using TBJM music on the soundtrack they went and made a commodity, a product of this thing that we created out of all the years of our hard work. And then because of Dig! people then had a certain idea of what the band was about. In many senses the singles collection is a reaction to things like Dig!, a chance to take back the songbook and the media focus on the band. In many senses, though, Dig! backfired just as much on The Dandys as it did us, because it kind of revealed just how commercial their whole model was,” he adds.
“In the entertainment and arts world most people have an agenda, and I don't have an agenda at this point,” emphasises Newcombe. “At this point, I could say the most upsetting and shocking thing in the middle of this interview and it wouldn't affect how thousands of people already feel about me in any way. I played music because I wanted to play music. When I was younger and I saw punk bands play I thought, ‘These guys are idiots’, but it was empowering because it made me realise that I could do it too. We live in such a strange time. It's easy to think that it's a pessimistic time but I feel optimistic. If I can be the model then I will. I think there needs to be an example, to show people that you can do this by persevering over setbacks and obstacles... and I just don't get that from people like [Lady] Gaga,” he continues.
At this point I enquire whether Newcombe's looking forward to TBJM's impending Australian shows, and whether he's commenced touring behind Aufheben yet. “I'm really looking forward to being in Australia, and I'm also looking forward to checking out Canberra because we haven't played there before,” he replies. “Before we go to Australia we're off to California to get together and jam for ten days, real workmanlike. We just spend time jamming and make it really tight; it's a democratic process. We do lots of different things. We listen to tapes, everyone gets involved and everyone has input. [With the live shows] a lot of stuff doesn't ever get played, but you can't please everyone. People want lots of different things from live shows. Some people want to hear certain songs, some people want to hear all new material, some people just want a great show. I just want us to be happy and play a good show.
“Can I just jump in and say at this point that I'd love to do a film soundtrack, although that won't happen in the US,” Newcombe continues. “I'd love do a soundtrack and get all of my friends in to contribute parts. It's interesting, though; I don't really go to the cinema much anymore because there's nothing really there that's for me.”
Curiously enough, just as I'm getting ready to conclude the interview and thank Newcombe for his time, it's a chance passing mention of New Order that results in one of the more unexpected and interesting conversational tangents. “It's interesting, because you know how [New Order frontman] Bernard Sumner formed that band Bad Lieutenant?” he asks. “Well, they stole a BJM guitar riff for their first single [Sink Or Swim]. They thought they could get away with it!” Unfortunately the slow deterioration of the connection quality over the preceding 90 minutes renders the title of the pilfered BJM track inaudible. “So that's exactly why I titled one of the tracks on the new album Blue Order New Monday. It's my revenge on them via Google. Because of the way the whole Google search algorithm works, if anyone searches for either of those terms from now on, they're forever tied to The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and therefore me.”
Anton Newcombe will be leading The Brian Jonestown Massacre into town on Friday May 18 for a show at ANU Bar supported by The Raveonettes. It’s kicking off at 7.30pm and tickets are $75.55 + bf through Ticketek.