Nothing Can Stop Anton Newcombe’s Sound

Brian Jonestown Massacre legend in conversation...

Few contemporary musical figures can compete with the lore that surrounds cult idol, Anton Newcombe. Nothing short of polarizing, he’s a prime embodiment of the capricious tortured artist trope, contentious to a point of newsworthiness, and the paragon of fiercely independent rockstardom. Newcombe, of The Brian Jonestown Massacre fame, is an enigma in blacked-out sunglasses, crooning tales of love and resilience that sound like they wafted from the windows of a Haight-Ashbury hippie-den circa 1968 as much as they evoke the droned-out heaviness of The Syndrome club’s hallowed basement in the mid-90s. But despite his acerbic confrontations with controversy, his ingenuity hangs in the air like the smoke of a million joints. And we’re all getting high off it. 

The Brian Jonestown Massacre, a neo-psychedelic outfit masterminded by Newcombe at the nucleus and encircled by a buzzing and ever-changing fleet of musicians on stage, just released their 20th studio album. ‘The Future is Your Past’ is a tight 10-track record comprised of songs written amidst Newcombe’s marathon lockdown writing rampage – a 70-day period where he wrote and recorded a new track every day (the process of which was documented on his YouTube channel.) 

“I go into the process with no ideas. I don’t have any clue what I’m gonna do, and I’m just trying to impress this imaginary jury in my head. Maybe my peers that I grew up with, sitting around listening to bands and records when we were teenagers or whatever, or maybe somebody that I really respect in my life, like what would they think of this? I try and follow through and finish every idea and I work really, really quick,” he shares of his practice. 

Newcombe has written so much that it would be a mammoth tour de force to get it all out into the world, but he doesn’t seem too beaten up over knowing he’ll never be able to release it all. It’s not like he hasn’t tried – In BJM’s infancy, they once put out six 18-track albums in a single year, and through the 2000s, the records were similarly plentiful.

“[It] was cute because nobody else was doing it, but there was a subtext. Every label on the planet, every A&R person was trying to sign me, and I kept telling them, ‘do exactly what I say, or I swear to God, you’ll never be able to purchase the rights. I’ll put it in my will that my children can’t even sell it to you. This isn’t the sound of me making not-well-produced records, this is the sound of you losing money forever, I promise you,’” Newcombe reflects. 

As the 2010s rolled around, Newcombe slowed down on releasing all that was in his arsenal. He cites the analog revival cash grab as a source of his waning ability to put out records at the speed which he once did: gluts of old heads re-releasing their glory-day records, bottlenecking the already dwindling vinyl production industry to squeeze out a final dollar in their coda. It doesn’t go over my head, however, that BJM’s biggest hit ‘Anemone’ is both the band’s first and second most popular song because of its release on their 1996 album ‘Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request’, and subsequent re-release on 2004’s retrospective compilation ‘Tepid Peppermint Wonderland’. Contradiction is a common occurrence in discussions with Newcombe, but I take it as a symptom of his frazzled brilliance. Or; he’s doing a career-long bit to smite the collective psyche of the press. From our half-hour conversation, I got the impression that either could be true. 

There’s no denying that the times are a-changin’ in music, a fact which seems to unsettle Newcombe, who refers to a stratum of current popular musicians as “hip-hop, TikTok clown[s]” who make music about “imaginary people and their big night out at the two-for-one drinks.” Newcombe’s cynicism around the state of affairs in the music industry can begin to feel grating, but he’s notorious enough for successfully circumventing the powers that be to have earned a soapbox to stand on. He reminds me fervently that he’s able to pay for the tour bus he’s Zooming in from, bring the band around the world, and never work again, all because he said ‘no’ to the labels. 

“All my peers who signed one of those record deals don’t own their music, or they might have just negotiated it back after 20 years, but they make zero money off of Spotify because they sold that,” he says. “So maybe, if they were lucky, they got a down payment on a house in Islington or some crap. And they lost that in their first divorce. I knew the record business was rigged against every single person.” Artists forfeiting the rights to their catalogue in predatory record deals is an industry tale as old as time, and many big names have been in the press lately amidst their battles with their labels. John Fogerty, Taylor Swift, and Kesha, to name a few, have fought tooth and nail to reclaim the rights to their own music, spending millions and suffering immensely in the process. So maybe Newcombe is onto something. The 15 packed-out shows he played to swarms of devoted fans in the UK in early February is surely an indicator that sidestepping big-label representation was the right call for him. 

Even if Newcombe wasn’t wildly successful, he would probably still be grinding it out as a musician. His devotion to the art is unquestionable, describing the six days per week he spends in his studio as “spiritual” and “therapeutic”. The music he releases as The Brian Jonestown Massacre has always had a metaphysical slant to it, perhaps an outcome of his 1960s inspirations and their propensity for the psychedelic. To Newcombe, though, psychedelia is more than kaleidoscopic visuals, Granny Takes a Trip button-downs, or the jittery resonance of an effect pedal – it’s about expanding one’s mind. 

“If you viewed psychedelic as something like Eric Clapton and Cream, Eric got out his wah-wah pedal and he wore a woman’s flowery blouse and permed his hair. And then they’re like, (sings) ‘In some white room, when you’re drugged out.’ That’s not really psychedelic and that’s why he dropped it like a hammer,” Newcombe asserts. 

The psychedelic movement has always been heavily doused in the teachings of Eastern spirituality, which seems far more intriguing to him than any of the visual or aesthetic co-opts. Newcombe frequently employs Eastern instruments and sacred sentiments in his music, and when asked what album he thinks everyone should listen to, he waxed poetic about Alice Coltrane’s posthumously released 2021 record ‘Kirtan: Turiya Sings’, a collection of Hindu devotional chants for meditation. The album struck him so deeply, he bought two copies of it – one for himself, and the other for his 10-year-old son, Wolfgang.

“I was playing it for him and I said, boy, I hope someday you really see why I bought you this record,” he remarks. “Tender, sentimental dad” was not the identity I anticipated from Newcombe, but if there’s anything one can expect from him, it’s the unexpected. A lot has changed since his days of fist-fighting bandmates on stage and grandiose claims of genius, which were controversially chronicled in the 2004 rock doc Dig!. Newcombe has spoken out against the sensationalized documentary on numerous occasions and in nearly every interview he’s done. 

It’s hard to sell Newcombe’s portrayal in Dig! as purely a pointed choice in melodramatic editing when he’s on film with quips like “I don’t do anything wrong, that’s why I don’t say ‘I’m sorry’” and outbursts that end with broken sitars and his teeth plunged into his bandmate’s torso. But it’s not hard to believe that he’s put those pig-headed days of senseless turmoil behind him. Newcombe is strong in his convictions and easy to provoke, which, combined with record-label cajolery and drugs, created a Molotov cocktail destined for ignition. Off the drugs and past the tomfoolery, he has an unprecedented focus. 

One might assume that The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s monumental and endlessly flowing discography and seemingly endless touring schedule would be enough to keep him booked and busy, but that would underestimate the multihyphenate’s moxie. He’s working on a new record with his French band L’epee, he collaborated with One Dove and Massive Attack’s Dot Allison on an album for the 2021 TV show Annika, and he produces for other bands, ranging from Magic Castles to The Vacant Lots and beyond. And, he’s a father. You can’t put Newcombe in a box, and if you did, he’d claw his way out before giving you the smackdown of a lifetime.

As our conversation comes to a close, Newcombe ebbs into grievance one more time. He feels that most people don’t even hear music, which is why “MP3-laden, subwoofer, drinks-night jams” are homogenizing modern music into something far more rooted in algorithmic success than artistry. 

“I could write the greatest piece of music in the last 500 years and probably nobody would even see it,” Newcombe broods. He pauses for a moment. “You can’t take it personal, you have to just remember that you do what you do because you enjoy it. And going back to what I get out of writing, it’s secure. It’s my own reward, but the benefit is that other people get something out of it and it means something.”

And it always does mean something. You just have to look inside. You’ll see. 

‘The Future Is Your Past’ is out now.

Words: Bella Savignano
Photo Credit: Marie Monteiro

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