Very few musicians can lay claim to pioneering a record label that boasts well over 180 releases, but then again, few musicians are quite as prolific as Anton Newcombe is.
As the principal songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Newcombe’s work ethic is nothing if not prolific. With his unique brand of experimental psychedelic rock, his work has laid the groundwork for countless imitators.
Having started out in earnest in the early 90s, Newcombe and The Brian Jonestown Massacre found a wider audience in 2004, courtesy of director Ondi Timoner’s seminal rockumentary Dig, which chronicled the tension between Newcombe’s band of neo-psychedelic rockers and The Dandy Warhols. Despite the film’s success and continued popularity, both Newcombe and Dandy’s frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor have since come to dispute the film’s less than favourable portrayal of both bands.
Now residing in Berlin, Newcombe’s output remains as prolific as ever, producing for the likes of The Charlatans, Tess Parks and, most recently, French psychedelic outfit The Limiñanas, whilst continuing to work on his own material.
Following a comparatively quiet 2017, Paul Weedon caught up with Newcombe earlier this year to discuss his musical legacy, messing with the Gallagher brothers and setting the record straight on Dig once and for all.
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How’s it going, Anton? You guys seem to be touring pretty frequently at the moment.
Well, we spent a lot of time off last year. I’ve been producing a lot of people, as well as my own music, so I’ve been a busy boy. It’s been getting crazier. I’ve been getting to the point where I wish I was a thousand people, because it’s not a money thing. I really want to help make things happen for people. And it’s full time, you know? It’s next to impossible to talk somebody in to making a good deal for themselves. They just really don’t understand the business.
You went through it all. You got burned by the labels…
No. No, that’s not true. I knew exactly what the score was because… things like Creedence Clearwater Revival knew that they had like 20 number one hits and they never earned a penny and then John Fogarty got sued for sounding like him, so I knew that managers and labels immediately identified the principal songwriter because… if a guy comes in, like a manager, and gets 20% and then there’s five guys in the band, so he’s one sixth of an entity so he just figures out who writes the songs and goes, “I’ve got 20% of that hundred, screw the other guys.”
So I knew all that stuff. That’s why, on the early records, I used subterfuge and said, even though I wrote and recorded and played all the instruments, I said, “Here’s The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Here’s the band.” And I just hid behind it because I wasn’t interested in showing everybody what was up. And I didn’t get burned by it. I told every record company to go to hell… I kept saying from the beginning, “Buy me a studio and I’ll produce records for bands and myself and this will be amazing”. And they were like, “Focus.” But the minute I said, “I am the producer,” they gave me a million dollar cheque and I went and bought a studio.
You live and record in Berlin now, but you’re often back in America touring. Do you find it strange going back? It’s obviously a very different place now.
It is and it isn’t. The weird thing is the example that they’re setting for five year olds – this, like, absolute… If anybody thinks I’m crude or uncouth, I mean the discord between the polarized sides is just bananas – besides my Twitter account, I’m talking about the top down from the example that the President is setting. How do you explain that to a five year old?
It’s nuts that people would support that in their belief system… You really can’t describe it to a kid unless you’re teaching them about an AR-15 at the same time, which is nuts. It’s radio rental, as they say in London.
But the grass is always greener and all this stuff. When you’re far away you go, “Those people are idiots,” but on top of that, the people who are ignoring it and just going for money and just saying, “Well I’m busy just living my life.” Those people are guilty too… But when you get on the ground, you still meet some beautiful people.
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How does the process of recording work for you guys as a band. Do the guys ever fly out to join you in Berlin?
Nope. No. It never happens. It never did happen. If you open up one of my records it says that I play eighty instruments… I was lying. I just wasn’t interested in letting anybody know. So what happened is my manager, Ted Gardner, [was] like, “You guys are coming down… It’s basically you and Mazzy Star on different nights headlining the Vivid Festival in Sydney and we’re doing fifteen dates and all this stuff, but you need to record a new album. And it has to be done by the end of the month…”
So then I was like, okay, I’d better get to work. So I wrote the first song, I wrote the second song... I press record and then I’m knocking these things out… I complete them live and then it becomes shocking when you understand what happens… It’s crazier than the Beatles. There’s this energy... And it’s just happening and there’s no way that you can conceive of it in the recording studio. I mean, your ego can tell you that, “Oh, people are going to love this…”
And I’m not just talking about the people who are mad for it. People are mad for all kinds of junk. People are going to tell you that Noel Gallagher’s single, 'The Mexican', was worth listening to and it isn’t. You know what I mean? It’s not. It’s horrible. And that’s a guy who wrote a song that’s so good Mike Flowers couldn’t wreck it.
That it became even better in some way. And that’s amazing, right? But all the hyperbole isn’t. And they would have been truly massive if it weren’t for the hyperbole… What I’m trying to say is there are two different levels. There are people who have musical aptitude and hear it on a deep level and then there’s the world that we’re in where they can just have radio stations that are playing anything endlessly that’s disposable and everybody’s saying it’s the greatest thing – the television, the radio, everybody – they’re going to tell you that each successive song is the greatest thing as each one of those artists disappears from view and is never heard again…
But because you’re not tied to the label machine, you can put stuff out as little or as often as you like. You can just put out an EP and you’re not bound to a rigorous schedule.
Everybody fought me. They used to chuck out my flyers. We had to rent out Masonic Temples to play and all this stuff. Everybody was so threatened by me… I was causing a bidding war. The Dandy’s got signed opening up for me. And the Red House Painters… because Ivo Watts-Russell was there to sign me and he couldn’t believe it would take six minutes to tune a guitar because we were using alternative tunings, so he was like, “Fuck them. I’m signing the Red House Painters.” But everybody couldn’t believe that all I wanted to do was just play music.
But you fast-forward and the first thing that that guy does is when he puts a down payment on a house is he’s too tortured to play music anymore… Take my friends Slowdive. It took them 20 years to be able to be Slowdive again and then Spotify makes all the money from all the other shit just because Sony said to [Alan] McGee [of Creation Records] “We’ll give you 4.5 million for Oasis and told everybody else, like The Telescopes, ‘Tough shit. Nobody gets to ever hear your record again.’ We’ll keep Primal Scream.”
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I’d heard that they tried to sign you.
The fact is, Creation tried to sign us and I said no to [Creation co-founder] Joe Foster. They flew all the way to California and then they flew my guys over there and they didn’t even go to the meeting.
And you’ve no regrets?
You wouldn’t even be talking to me because I would have been dead as a doornail in one record! You know what I mean? And here I am… I just recorded Emmanuelle Seigner, who’s Polanski’s wife, with The Limiñanas and me as the band. I produced it and it’s going to be the craziest, sexiest 60s French record. It is insane. It is off the hook… The French songs are amazing. People that speak English are going to love it. The English songs rule. And I did The Limiñanas and people are receptive to it… There’s a good chance that I could do The Libertines coming up if Paul Weller will rent us the studio… Because I want that to happen. I want to get those guys out of their own malaise. I’ve got a solid plan, for Pete too.
Are they open to it?
Well, Pete was trying to get me to go to their villa or whatever or the coast and do his new record and I was like, “I’m not interested in what you wanna do.” To his manager, I was like, “Man, you already know what you know. The magic is what you don’t know. I’m gonna set you free.”
How does performing live with the band now compare to the 90s?
They’re different. It was like The Jesus and Mary Chain when we started out. There was nothing like us. There was nothing to compare it to and there was a riot at every show because it was really like The Rolling Stones when they started and the youth energy. Nobody had a release like that in that way. And so people would tip the tables, but they weren’t angry… It was just like, “Holy shit,” and they’d bang their head in to the wall, or something and they weren’t punkers. And it was just this explosion.
There was a lot of animosity coming at us because they were like, “You’re The Monkees, you’re just trying to be Oasis.” And it was, like, not even close.
And we would fight back and just go bananas. It was psychotic, you know. Like when we opened up for Oasis’ first show we played three fifteen minute long songs that were just… not boring, like psychotic. Like, Spaceman 3 and The Stooges and My Bloody Valentine and The Velvet Underground all at once, but somebody who’s really fucking high on life going mental. You know what I mean?
I love that.
And as amazing as those guys were, or whatever… They talk about it as that being when the first break-up was. They talk about the speed incident when Noel split and did a runner because they were too high to function? Well, Joel [Gion] whipped out a bag and he gave a tiny little… Because they asked him, “Can you get any sniffs?” and Joel’s like, “I got some.” And he gave him the tiniest little grain on the table and they’re like, [in an English accent] “Fuck off, mate!” Joel’s like, “You don’t wanna mess with this.”
And it was just like Withnail & I. And those guys didn’t sleep for days. It fucked their show and we just came on and tore it up and the next night they tried to recover in Sacramento and we showed up, because we were supposed to be doing that one too and they were just like, “Fuck you. Get outta here.” And I was just like, “Where do I put my gear?” I refused and I just walked up…
There were three bands on the bill in this big hall and I just walked up to the other band and said, “I’ll give you nine-hundred bucks and you can open up for me in San Francisco. It’s already sold out. We’re just gonna walk up on stage right out of the audience and grab your gear and we’ll knock out three songs.” And then we just played super fast, old school, before I broke my wrist. It was this crazy energy of That Girl Suicide in Sister Ray-style. Just mental. And phenomenal. And those guys were a wreck. And that was it. That’s when Noel did a runner.
He got to LA, but those guys were still up in LA and couldn’t even make it through that show in LA and that’s when he did the runner and went back to San Francisco. But that’s how high they were off the speed… And I wasn’t on anything. It wasn’t my thing. Because they did a whole gram of, like, pure crystal meth, or whatever, because they thought it was just cheap 5% coke from London.
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They tell an abridged version of that in the Supersonic documentary.
The full version is something else. Yeah, of course. But the cool part about it is the minute they were describing what happened, I was like, “Holy shit. I didn’t realise that it broke up the band.” Like, we broke up their band…
The place was just full of everybody from England. It was in a tiny place in San Francisco. Blur were playing with Pulp in a place where they have tennis matches indoors – Bill Graham Center – so the place that Oasis would want to be showing off was taken by Pulp and Blur, like the 10,500 seater, or whatever. So they were playing in a 350 seater, coming from Tokyo where it was mental and landing on a plane at the first show where they were like, “We’re taking over the fucking world!” And it’s just like this tiny room, if you were lucky…
Noel was screaming in my face, [impersonating Noel] “I know for a fact you never fucking practice. How dare you. We never even left the studio for two years.” And I was just like, “Fuck you man. You play the same exact equipment at Slash. If you fucking plug a Gibson guitar with a fucking Boss pedal in to a Marshall amp, you sound exactly like Guns N Roses. It’s not The Beatles. Suck my dick.”
And that’s what I said right to his face. “Fuck you. You’re not The Beatles.”
Did he have a comeback?
What could he say to that? I unbuttoned my pants and I had the mic on my pubes the whole time, doing an Iggy while we were playing Hyperventilation… We cut my friend’s video tape and Liam walks on stage and he’s kissing the mic. And then for months, we were watching that video and just laughing. And if I could have gotten his permission it would have been in Dig. I would have used that VHS cassette…
Now let me just explain one thing. I could take any track that Liam ever sang, his mystical quality - exactly like Tim Burgess - they sing atonal and I could write amazing fucking music. I could write totally different things. It wouldn’t matter what the key is, see. Like when I remixed The Charlatans, it doesn’t matter if it’s a country song. I’ll turn it in to a soul song in a different key and I don’t even change the vocals. I just call it as I hear it. He’s a mystical being. There’s no joke about that. And there’s no joke about the qualities that Noel has that are the real deal, but not all of it…
Like, I would love to get [Paul] Weller to do a record like 'Are You Experienced?' And kick Noel the fuck out of the way and say, “Let’s get real. You’re actually a legendary guitar player. Let’s invite twenty friends. Noel can sit on the floor – if he’s quiet.” You know? And produce it as is and do it like that. That would be great. Because I thought 'Wild Wood' was spectacular – especially live. And I’d like to see that, rather than everybody just going, “Well, you’ve earned this.”
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I know that Dig is a bit of a contentious topic. The reason I bring it up is because I did an interview with Ondi Timoner about Dig for Clash a few years back, which you responded to at the time. One of the things she said was that she, still, to this day, never quite understood what it was that you felt was wrong with the film.
Because it’s not true. We actually documented the mafia in action… William Morris agency asked me to be in a movie and entertain meeting with the filmmakers. It was about ten bands that they were pushing. They were going to try and do reality TV with ten bands, to break ten bands and they were going to use me for cred. And I said, “Fuck you, because all of those bands will break up.” And they said, “How do you know? Six of them already did.” And I said, “Because it’s obvious.” And then – it’s on film – I said, “Have you heard of The Dandy Warhols?” “No, I haven’t.”
I go, “I’m going to show you something, because this is a fucking idea. They’re going to do everything that the system wants. They’re going to go for the fucking brass ring and I’m not going to anything. I’m going to start a fucking revolution and show you how to do it.” And they proceeded to laugh in my face… They fucking lied. They lied and they couldn’t get permission to show anything... She thinks she’s so smart. I didn’t even sign the contract ‘til in the end I gave them a festival license and then she sold the thing for $900,000, which is nothing.
And they proceeded to try and tell me that Courtney [Taylor-Taylor] had already signed the contract, believing their own bullshit and forgetting that we’re best friends and I just called him up and said, “Did you sign it?” And he said, “No.” I said, “Check this out. I’m going to do this thing called Most Favoured Nations. Okay? You don’t have to know what I’m doing, but check this out.” He’s like, “What does that mean?” I go, “It means that whatever I get, you get. But if you get better then I get that too.” He’s like, “Done deal.” And I said, “Do whatever you gotta do, dude.”
And I just fucking proceeded to fucking reem them, like I was on Grindr, you know? And I’m not interested in her take on it, because it was an inside deal. They knew that it was going to win in the beginning because VH1 tried to sell it as a series chopped up and it tested the highest on the network of any reality TV they ever attempted to do, while they were trying to create Reality TV World in research. But they couldn’t show any of it, because they were sending fucking Swiss prostitutes with bags of cocaine to fucking try and sell my band.
And I’m like, “Fuck you. I don’t want to fuck you. And I don’t like coke. I want a goddamn recording studio. And look how fat my fucking lawyer is. I don’t need your fucking $1,500 dinner. Buy me a guitar. Pay my rent. Do something I can use.”
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The sticking point for a lot of people is the fact that there’s an implication towards the end that the Brian Jonestown Massacre were no longer a band and that The Dandy Warhols were successful.
But they’re not! They are not. And they don’t show any of the redeeming qualities that Courtney actually does possess… Like, he’s a fucking wonderful father and has that in him, like, in the way that a wonderful mother would be. He has that side in him, to be that caring to his son… You know, we made out good. I didn’t make out good from Dig. I made out good because I knew for a fact that the world would come to me if I just stood still… I have 180 titles on my label, okay? Catalogue numbers. Completely in the black. I don’t owe anybody anything.
I think that was the thing that pissed you off about my article too.
She even tried to fucking show up backstage like when we sold out the Wiltern Theatre, the same place that Sigur Ros or Radiohead play… She comes marching in with her brother backstage and I’m just like, “You better get the fuck out of here before I have you thrown out.” “What?” she’s, like, in shock and I’m like, “Fuck you. That’s all you get. And I don’t care…” And then came Russell Brand’s turn and I was like, you’re a fucking idiot. I hate you anyway. You’re fucking gross. That’s what it said about that.
I saw your comment at the time about that.
Well, when he does something generous to society or something, like he tried to do some outreach in the more lower income areas or to do community empowerment and all that, then that’s beautiful. But man, there’s a lot of other things. Just the point of him fucking marrying Katy Perry shows you where his head was at… Fine if you want it - if you want to be the illuminati sex kitten’s sex kitten then go for it, but he fell flat on his face in America.
Away from BJM, it sounds like there’s more on the horizon for you.
Well, next year in Vevay, Switzerland, they asked me back and they’ve given me the opportunity to do Musique de Film Imaginé with a symphonic pocket symphony and then my French promoter told me that they’re building a new Paris Symphonic hall and he’s said, “I will make that happen for you.” What I would like to see happen is that I just go ahead and hire five guys to film it and present that to ARTE…
I want to tell you something. There was one time when I was hanging out in a kitchen with The Strokes, the first time they came out to LA, ever. And out of all those guys, Albert Hammond Jr. is the most real person... And they have him in Berlin playing with the fucking Berlin Philharmonic on TV and I’m like, this music isn’t even appropriate for symphonic music... And I love him, so I’m not dissing him, but I just don’t understand the world. And it’s not my ego. I just want to see something happen... I want to see more people on the radio…
People have interviewed me so much, I’m good at asking questions… I would totally be a presenter under the right circumstances. If we set up my studio, to where I could cook, the couch and bands could come and jam in the studio for two songs and it was just content, I would do it in a second…
I reckon there’s a ready-made audience who would go and check that out.
Well, if they were told. So if you imagine one of these American late night chats, or if you imagine me being Jools Holland and I was a little bit sweary, it would be great. If I could get people to be a little bit loose and be cool to it, but not trying to be shocking or anything – just to be real… Like, if Jools hung up his guns and let me fill in as an experiment – and I didn’t try to jam with anybody.
I think people would want to see that.
But people forget that I’m such a fan of real music and international music, so the best way that you can show respect is inviting some of these Pakistani guys over – these Qawwali singers – and getting in to it with them and what it means to be a 25 th generation Qawwali singer…
I mean, do you appreciate the kind of stuff that people like Damon Albarn has done in that realm? He’s been a big champion of that kind of music.
It is in a way, but when I’m hanging out with him and Jeff Wootton, right? Jeff’s like, “No, man! You and I have got to make a blues record with these fucking drill dudes. We owe it to black people.” And I’m like, “Fuck you, man. I don’t owe anybody anything."
Firstly, I don’t even play the blues, specifically. My natural music is actually baroque. It’s like the song that comes from my spirit is closest to Bach. But then it has other things, like this Irish stuff comes out of me and it’s nothing that I learned from the radio. It’s natural. All of a sudden, I’m writing a 300 year-old song. And the psychedelic stuff came from 1967. It’s like, I’m not The Horrors. I wasn’t in a garage band one day and than I go in to the studio and a producer hands me a Talk Talk album and all of a sudden I’m Talk Talk.
Good albums though, right?
I’m not knocking it! You know what, look, it’s an ecosystem. I want people to be happy. This world is fucked… At the end of the day, I’m just trying to write love songs and trying to empower people and make French people sing in French. Cos I’m like, “You know what? You’re never going to be respected as the French Oasis when you go to England.” They’re going to laugh at you. You could be really good. And if you happen to sing an English song, they’re going to love it even more. And The Limiñanas just proved it ten times over.
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'Shadow People' by The Limiñanas is out now. The Brian Jonestown Massacre play Motion Bristol this Sunday.
Words: Paul Weedon
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