So, if you’re anything like the majority of the music world, you’ve seen DiG, and you’ve thereby formed the opinion that Anton Newcombe is at best an eccentric genius, and at worst a dangerous lunatic. The world at large’s image of Newcombe has been shaped by one (admittedly excellent) 107-minute documentary, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as any surprise that actually speaking to him reveals that there’s a lot more to The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s founder and driving force than the head-kicking, drug-snorting megalomaniac of celluloid fame.
Still, the man’s reputation precedes him, so it’s not without some trepidation that Time Off dials his number. First call: voicemail. Second call: a distinctly rough-sounding Newcombe picks up and explains that he just woke up. “I’ll just grab last night’s beer,” he says, “and we’ll talk.”
So far, so stereotyped. But as our conversation progresses, another side to Newcombe emerges. He’s certainly the loosest of loose units, but he’s also intimidatingly and fiercely intelligent – he has an opinion on just about everything, and his mind skips from topic to topic by virtue of intuitive leaps that can be downright bewildering. Perhaps more surprisingly, he’s also a painstakingly polite conversationalist.
Legendarily prolific, Newcombe has been uncharacteristically silent over the last couple of years. Why? Simple, he says: “I have a wife. I have a son. I just create music because I can. Not because I’m the goose that laid the golden egg or something.” He pauses for a moment, then adds, “Although I am working on five albums at the moment.”
In the early years of their career, The Brian Jonestown Massacre released material via a selection of US indie labels, but since 2001 they’ve been putting their work out on their own label, The Conspiracy To Keep Music Evil. “Oh yeah. I really don’t have any intentions of going for some big deal. I’ve never really known anyone to have a good experience with that. People like Nick Cave will stay with Mute, y’know, his whole career, but he’s also… projects like his are, like, a flagship for the label. I’m sure some of my records have sold as many copies as his.”
He also uploaded virtually all his back catalogue for free download several years back. Mention of this decision brings a dig at his old sparring partner, Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols: “Courtney Taylor… you know I’ve been friends with him for years, right?” Right. “OK, he’s like, ‘Anton, you’re a fucking idiot!’, and he’d tell all the other people, ‘He’s a fucking idiot, he put all of his music for free on the internet.’ Well, last year, or the year before, maybe – that was the first time Courtney ever made any money playing a concert, and it was playing with us. He walked away with ten grand in his pocket and it’s just because… I don’t think I was necessarily an idiot. Now like people Radiohead and everybody else you know they’re putting their records out for free and it just works.”
Newcombe has some interesting theories on the internet: “I’ve been using [the internet] since it’s been around. I just think that people who are intelligent can find ways to use [the internet] as a tool, and I think that threatens the people who really don’t understand. I do know they’re going to change all that.”
Er – how? “There’s going to be a private, ah, you know, a scientific government-style internet, there’s going to be a business level, there’s even gonna be a talk local level. Because there’s no way they can stop all the file trading unless they change the whole thing.”
Despite Newcombe’s fondness for cutting edge technology in distribution, his music often favours vintage sounds and instrumentation. Asking for his thoughts on this contrast brings a fascinating insight into his approach to music: “Well, I look at [music] as performance art, almost, or conceptual art. It’s almost like sculpture to me, and I work in a medium: sound. In my head I’ll have something that’s atonal, or Indian style, or acoustic guitar. On the first level, it’s just a sculpture. But it’s multimedia, so there’s the theatrical aspect, but there’s another aspect of it that’s just who I am. I really don’t care to like define it. I want people to look into it and see what they get out of it. That’s why it’s a magic form. I can be depressed, or ecstatic, or horny, or whatever, and create one of these… I call them immersive environments. That’s why everything is falling-apart sounding, because I don’t need to make it perfect-sounding. All I need to do is have that suspension of disbelief. Then I can daydream for a second, then pow! I’m onto the next idea. I get it. I can see that thing materialising out of nothingness, you know?” He pauses. “I don’t know if you’re following me?”
Um – well, to be honest… “I don’t believe in this fashion, in this style thing, you know what I mean? As I express myself, I don’t really care what people’s reactions is to it, so I just tell them to go to hell, you know? Basically because I’m not doing it for them. I can choose to work in these mediums or define what my ideas are to any degree, but I can’t choose who chooses to comment on it.”
How, then, does Newcombe approach live performance? “Well, I get nervous, I get drunk and I go play and see what happens. I very much like to play, but it’s always the same thing. If you throw a fucking bottle at me I’m gonna have you arrested or you’re gonna get your ass kicked. One way or another, you’re not getting away with that shit, because I don’t deserve it. And I definitely – we’ve already got it covered, man. So if people pull any shit in Australia – certainly, if I pull any shit, I expect to get deported. But any fucker that does anything – they’re getting it. Because I’m just not interested in any bullshit. I’m not flying for 16 hours for people to fuck off.
Having said that, I’m looking forward to some great shows.”
Indeed despite these, er, fighting words, Newcombe is at pains to emphasise how much he’s looking forward to his upcoming Australian tour. Perhaps he’s just on his best behaviour, but he seems both interested and well-informed. Earlier in our discussion, in one of his characteristic conversational left turns, he suddenly asks, “What do you think of the new Prime Minister down there in Australia?” Somewhat taken aback, Time Off ventures that in its opinion, Rudd is certainly a change for the better, although a cheese sandwich as Prime Minister would be an improvement over L’il Johnny Howard. Newcombe says, “I’m hoping that John Safran runs next time.”
Again kinda taken by surprise, Time Off asks if Newcombe knows Safran. “No,” he says, “but I’d like to meet him. I think he’s funny. I have for a while. I like TISM and all that junk. I like to laugh. My friends down under are funny people too and they like to laugh.”
He’s producing the new record by Sydney-based four-piece The Lovetones, who are also signed to their label (“I think I’m a good influence on them”), and he’s at pains to emphasise how much he’s looking forward to playing here: “I actually really am excited about coming. Although the first show is on my birthday, so that makes me kind of nervous because my birthday has been notorious for some very bad things happening. My mum bought me a bike, I took it up the street to show my friends, walked in the house and it was stolen. [Hurricane] Katrina hit on my birthday. And also my dad jumped off a cliff on my birthday. It always really sucks.”