Louder Than War Interview: Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre
2014 is shaping up to be another productive and exciting year for Anton Newcombe. He will be working on a soundtrack for a new film; his group, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, are preparing the follow-up to the inspiring, experimental 2012 album ‘Aufheben’; and finally he has a selection of releases coming out on his own record label.
Now based and living with his family in Berlin, Louder Than War managed to hook up with the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for an engaging Q ‘n’ A.
We ask him his thoughts on issues such as the recent passing of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, A.A., the internet and music today, his bands last (Aufheben) and next (Revelation) albums, and even his own personal battle with drink and drugs, his recovery and where he’s at today.
So rather than ‘rambling on’ in this feature (as Anton claims he does!) this, in fact, is an insightful, informed and totally honest interview – and as with his music, he means every word of it.
Big thanks for talking to Louder Than War Anton. How are things and how’s life treating you at the moment – where are you and what are you doing right now?
Anton: Things are going well. I live in Berlin with my family, I have my health and I’m doing what I love – making music and dreaming up new projects to work on in the studio and with my label.
I understand you’ve just signed up to soundtrack an upcoming film ‘Moon Dogs’ – can you tell us more?
I wish I knew more about the film. I’m pretty sure Phillip and Katy are Welsh and the writers are Scottish. The film is about two brothers from out in the islands, one who stayed and the other that moved on with their lives. It looks fantastic, but you know, they are still in the process of making this film over the next months and I’ve only just watched this beautiful teaser, the sort you would use to get grants or funding I think. It was amazing.”
So how do you decide what projects to actually get involved with? I guess you get many offers for an array of things, but what is it that inspires you to get involved on some projects and not others, what is it that has to be in it for you?
Sometimes I try to contact people because I’ve heard their song or their work and I do my best to talk them into doing a project. You know, record or release a record or something and that doesn’t always work so well because people have pre-conceived notions about me sometimes because of ‘DIG’, or my history, or what they think they know and that may not be the case. The thing I don’t do much of is listen to demos because I don’t have that skill. I only like what I like about art, not what I think other people would like. Some people have a gift for hearing something and going “everyone in Brooklyn will love this,” that Pitchfork thing … I’m an outsider.”
However, if this question was related to soundtrack work, this is something I’ve been interested in doing for decades, but realistically there was no way in hell I could have worked in a classic way with filmmakers as I was too much of a drunk and before that, out of my head on smack. These days if I speak to an artist or a filmmaker and we make plans for August in February, then in August I will still be in the same place with the same focus and things can happen.
When I first approached you about doing this interview for Louder Than War you told me that you “love Manchester,” could you tell us maybe what it is you like about the city?
Well it’s like the antiquated notion of when you hear some Londoner go on about what it was like living through the blitz and everyone pulling together … well, Manchester in a working class way was pulling through since the industrial revolution and not just to keep their collars white and carry on … and in spite of having no option, no outlook, you have all of these people forming groups and making great music and things right where they are from, not going some place else to get famous or noticed. Maybe this doesn’t make sense, but the London groups all come from art schools and the northern bands from dole queues maybe.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s last album, ‘Aufheben’, is wonderfully experimental and spiritual and its overall structure is amazing with stand out tunes such as I Wanna Hold Your Other Hand and the album’s opening number Panic in Babylon, but in terms of the band’s past releases, where does Aufheben sit for you?
I feel like we’re living in the age of the mixtape again, so people will pick and choose what tracks they relate to on a personal level. Knowing that I set out to try to make an album that I thought worked as an “album experience” for myself. I love the record, but I don’t spend much time reflecting about the hundreds of things I’ve been a part of musically. I just move on to the next thing. Right now my focus is on ‘Revelation’ our new album to be released in May.
Could you tell us what are some of the ideas behind Revelation and the album as a whole?
For Revelation, I set out to try to carry on as a songwriter, as I said, knowing that people cheerily pick songs into playlists via Spotify or whatever. At the same time, I want it to work as an LP on vinyl somehow. It’s taken me months to feel comfortable enough to let them go. I liked each track on its own, but I could not see how they all flowed together … but a few of my mates came by for a listen and put it into perspective … they said it was nonstop good songs and I should lighten up.
(Please note that on Aufheben, we experimented a little with mind altering substances and for me, that part of my life is over and I’m happy about this transition.)
Right now here in the UK there’s a new interest for the sound and style of the 90s. The 90s are the new 60s in terms of inspiration and it’s seen many of those groups from that era successfully getting back together again – it’s strange but also quite cool how ‘the kids’ are really into 90s groups and artists, as opposed to say punk where many of the young punks didn’t trust anyone over 21 … what do you think to that?
I think it’s all about the music, I think the groups were all idiots for cashing in and burning in the first place. The contracts did all of the bands in, if they researched music business history for a month say, less time than it took to make an album, they would have had options and actually would’ve made more money. I know of 20 of my peers even today that all signed a “contract with a publishing administer” for 20 percent of their money. Ha … he takes 20 percent for nothing … just for his name. In this day and age … OK back to the question … I am interested in the folk aspect of music. The folks together, their music, the songs and style that everyone young and old are feeding off of. To this end, it’s perfectly natural to forsake ageism for a night-out with some great music.
Now the reason I brought up the industry is that it took the greatest music scene on earth, the UK, to chew it up and spit it out. The artists played a part in that. If you love music, play music, record music don’t fucking break up the band when you could always just take a breather … because the 20 years on nostalgia trip is the only card Madison Avenue ever had and they use it every time.
(This is turning out to be the worst interview ever. Sorry, I tend to ramble off piste.)
Thoughts on the recent passing of talented actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Quite interesting how people’s attitudes change towards heroin and substances in general when it’s someone who’s loved and respected who overdoses. Whether that be an actor, ‘rock-star’ or sporting hero. One recent article on the actor even claimed ‘Addiction is not Selfish’! What’s your thoughts on the ‘famous’ and drugs, AA, rehab and people’s perceptions of it all in the 21st century?
I’m not a fan of AA and the twelve-step program, only the parts of it that work, and they claim they have a 95% failure rate. The only way to quit drugs and booze is to quit. You have to keep trying and do it. I know, I quit heroin in 2000 and it took many many tries. I used booze to do it, and that led to a serious drinking problem that almost killed me. It was never my intention to kill myself with drugs or booze … that’s the thing. I liked being buzzed, but if you do anything all of the time it becomes a filter … and I don’t want anything obscuring my true vision so I outgrew the need for anything.
Now back to AA and related treatment systems. My problem is that people, when they fall off the wagon tend to say “fuck it” I’ll get high, or just one week or whatever and it gets out of control because they screw with their support systems. People are speculating about Phillip Seymour Hoffman because he was a great talent … over 3,000 people also met their end the same way in America last year, the odd thing was his 23 years of meetings. It’s a hell of a drug and the main problem most people have is trying to reach that amazing high they fell for the first time. It’s so easy to overdose. You can always do a little more, but you can never do less once you go down. Add to that if you are alone, or with other people that don’t know what to do to help … you will die. You will die alone … they will find your body grey and blue.
I don’t think he wanted the mother of his children, or anyone to see him that way … on the bathroom floor. It should make anyone reading this think about it if they ever find themselves in a similar position.
Now let’s talk a little about how one find themselves in such position. It was never my intention to be a junkie, I liked LSD as a teen. I had always been in control of my imagination and thoughts and when I first tried it, I was blown away by being overwhelmed. However it wasn’t the type of thing I did a million times. Growing up I knew people that had heroin addicts in their families and a little knowledge about their tragic lives. I had friends becoming former friends for robbing houses. I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
Later on in the early 90s I had a very serious accident, broke my arm so bad I needed surgery, but the hospital kept me on a morphine Demerol drip for over a week waiting. That was it for me, never in my life had I ever had the chance to stop and think about nothing … just lay there. Very powerful stuff, the bones of my arm were sticking through my skin and I felt great. Now once your mind knows that you know you can create that affect on demand … it’s a very powerful thing, more powerful than will-power for many many people.
Fast forward, once you find yourself addicted to opiates there is a fear, you know you have to have enough to avoid being sick. You have to get more to get well, hurts like having the flu, like running a marathon and being kicked down a flight of stares. Also you can’t sleep, you want to get back to how you were before you ever started, and that would leave you ready to start again. You have to change forever.
Now in Hollywood, in America … they tend to prescribe codeine for your dentist visits in a way they just won’t in Germany. Give you Hydrocodine for fillings haha. For someone that has never used opiates that might as well be their first shot. Many actors and musicians all get into the hard stuff that way.
(I know I am just rambling, but it was good for me to take stock of my life, I was touched by his passing as I am an artist, I have children, a history of drug abuse and I am also 46 years old as was Phillip Seymour Hoffman.)
DEadTv is great, your posts, video’s and interviews are always very well received – over time you have really progressed in terms of the net and how an artist can really connect with their fans and friends. ‘Communication is key’ … or is it though? Now the internet has been with us for some time what’s your own relationship like with it these days?
When I found ‘Ustream’ I was like “this is great, there will be a million people doing fantastic things” but it never really panned out like that for me. I would love to be able to play whatever music I like and interview people but the copyright and their hangups over the fact they have commercials and make money from content, but copyright holders don’t (ie the publishing company that owns the oasis song you played on your show wants to shut you down) blah blah blah makes me sad. I feel like we have all of this technology and we should be enjoying this blossoming moment, an explosion of film and media, but it’s not like that really.
Think about how easy it would be to have a space with some gear that bands on tour stop in, chat and play a few songs. Like the sixties, every city had that. What the fuck happened? We are all just victims of mass marketing.”
2014 will be busy. I have five releases including my own on my label in May. We are planing to play a few quick shows in America at that time then jet back to Europe and tour from late May until mid July, I think (a mix of festivals and good sized halls). After that I come back to Berlin and work on this soundtrack :)
All words by Carl Stanley. More writing by Carl on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.