Saturday, 2 August 2008

Meeting Anton Newcombe: "I might be the tactile expression of the hand that holds the sword"

An interview with Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre

26th February 2008

“I don’t feel the need to take out my personal aggressions on other people. I’m not persnickety, I’m not prone to hyperbole. I can do whatever the fuck I want, within reason, but I have to pay for my indiscretions, just like Prince Charles.” A grizzled but handsome man with striking greyish blue eyes holds his glass like a gauntlet, ice rattling violently side to side in his lunchtime vodka tonic.

Anton Newcombe is wearing a grey woollen jumper, the kind favoured by trawler fishermen, and on his sleeve is a patch of the Icelandic flag. His lank hair pokes out under two hats – a cable knit number more suitable for the North Sea, and under it a baseball cap. It’s a fiercely bright spring day outside the Columbia Hotel in West London, and the forty year old man behind cult psychedelic rock band The Brian Jonestown Massacre is being, well, pretty damn amiable. Contrary to what his hyperbole would suggest (yes, he is in fact rather prone to it), Newcombe is rather well known for taking out personal aggressions on other people, and I have to admit to a being a little nervous about this interview.

Newcombe has forged a lonely path on the outer fringes of rock music since 1990 with The Brian Jonestown Massacre, his own strung out creation, a freewheeling voyage to trip-out city that has seen over forty members pass through its ranks, including Peter Hayes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Bobby Hecksher of The Warlocks. The band remained relatively underground until Newcombe found infamy through the 2004 rockumentary DiG!, which chronicled BJM’s volatile relationship with fellow West Coast sixties revivalists and pals/arch-enemies The Dandy Warhols. While that band ultimately sold out and gained commercial success, BJM was thwarted by Newcombe’s inability to play by the rules, sabotaging opportunities through drink and drugs – the film portrays him as an unhinged nutcase with a chronic superiority complex and anger management issues (at one point he kicks an audience member in the head, leading to his arrest for assault).

Still, a movie is just that – a movie – and I wasn’t especially surprised to meet a man who, while being possessed of a conversational style not unlike a never-ending one-man word association game, is genuinely interested in and engaged with the world and the people in it. “Politics is applied policy, and my policy is to be civic minded,” he states, slurring his words only slightly. “My policy is to call it as I see it.” BJM’s new album, My Bloody Underground (songs include ‘Dropping Bombs On The White House’ and ‘Kicking Jesus’) seems to pretty political though? “Being able to read in this day and age, or not being brainwashed by fluoride and prozac, or being high on drugs and having a very high IQ is not political.”

Perhaps not, but Newcombe is certainly preoccupied with the state of the world as he sees it, deluging his Myspace friends with bulletins of cut’n’pasted news items, Youtube videos and conspiracy theories. “I can speak in a sentence with perfect syntax that actually makes sense and contains 23 words, and the President of the United States of America can’t. And my son can do 13 or 14 words in a row, so if that doesn’t disturb you you’ve been jacking off to, like, whatever you’re watching…Cash In The Attic or Jeremy Kyle or whatever.” This kind of polemical pronouncement juxtaposed with the absurdity of British daytime television is the hallmark of Newcombe’s inebriated rhetoric.

His politics certainly aren’t of the Chris Martin School of scribbling peace memos on the back of your hand or visiting farm co-operatives in Venezuela, though. Newcombe lives in a part-fantasy land where the trivial rubs up against the profound and he is the oracle of truth among us sheep-like non-believers. More than once during the interview he implies my stupidity when I raise an eyebrow at some of his more outlandish political views: “Hillary Clinton has been a CIA agent since 1968, and Obama is personally involved in this Kenyan thing that’s going on. And they’re rigging the caucuses.”

Well, that last one might have something to it. The most important thing for Newcombe, though, is to have the courage of your convictions. His existence is the true embodiment of ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’, and he sees life through the lens of a true outsider. He shows an almost Daily Mail-like disdain for the superficiality and impotence of modern life: “The problem with these kids is everybody’s just got their head up their ass, and they’re running around chasing their mortgage payment, mutual fund portfolio, whatever, and then they get beat up by a thirteen year old. Everybody needs to get the fuck off their cell phone for a minute and pay attention, and if you see that thing happening, fucking knock ‘em down and break their back, I mean, it just saves the police time and…”

So if we’re going to hell in a handcart then we can take the law into our own hands? That doesn’t seem very ‘civic minded’. “No, but I mean, I don’t know what the appropriate reaction is to watching two teenagers stab each to death on the streets of London…I’m willing to do whatever I have to do. I’m a centurion, not a Caesar. How’s that?,” he challenges. You’re part of the body politic? “Completely. I might be the trunk. I might be the tactile expression of the hand that holds the sword.” It’s a glimmer of his unique genius, a hilarious yet learned soundbite, one of a bunch of Newcombe’s contradictory, polemical nuggets. Just when you think he’s making sense the vodka kicks in and words pour out in a loose jumble. “The industrial revolution has become a hopeless burden,” he rants, “and as the economy has diversified its just like, beans on toast, 99p, what are we gonna do with you? That’s true right?” Um, right.

Discussing the new album, Newcombe is proud to continue his long-standing advocacy of free music. “My expression of my humanity is a full spectrum of ideas, concepts, impulses and repulsions, and the balance, the equilibrium, of all those things. I cook, I create art in different forms, and I really want other people to try and take a sniff of that. Whether it’s on just a primal level, just jamming along, it’s just noisy - or whatever you wanna make of it as an abstract art piece. And it has nothing to do with Amy Winehouse or selling donuts or bars of soap.” Adding that he’d be ‘pleased as punch’ if everyone downloaded it for free (it’s available on the band’s website), he expresses his concern over the increased policing of the internet. Once again, we enter the paranoid corners of his mind – ‘they’ are going to shut down the internet, “they’re gonna make it secular and specific within your own borders, a digital class-based system.”

By the end of the interview I start to doubt that I’ve gleaned have any idea of who Anton Newcombe really is. His wife, not much older than me, sits silently on the armchair next to him. I wonder what their conversations are like. There’s no doubt that he’s completely for real, that he believes every word that comes out of his mouth even when he contradicts himself within the same sentence. Facts, trivia and conspiracy race around under his two hats looking for an outlet. It seems odd that they find their release The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s essentially derivative (although undoubtedly ace) shoegazey psych-rock. Then again, as he’s so keen to emphasise, Newcombe is “not really interested in people’s stupid impressions of my expressions of what I think.”

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