The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Miss Fliss 02/02/2010

Perhaps only Mark E Smith could rival this man in the foreboding stakes. Anton Newcombe's reputation lends a picture of him being irascible and abrupt, and the stories of him treating interviewees from an askance stance and being downright insulting are many. Moreover, lest the world ever forget, the documentary on his band The Brian Jonestown Massacre features him being physically abusive to people too. But this was my second time in conversation with him, and his voice was so soft and low as to be described as gentle, and again he was forthcoming and generous with his time and answers. Like the aforementioned awkward Fall frontman, Anton's modes of thinking and behaving are not always in accordance with what may be referred to as societal norms. But, regardless of that which I've heard about or even encountered with Anton over time, the one thing that surmounts all this is that the man makes remarkable music, and is fascinating to talk to. So it was that when the interview arrangements were altered at the very last minute and I had 40 minutes to get some seven miles to the Columbia Hotel, I resurrected the spirit of Challenge Anneka - I had to get there. I was halfway through eating a Quorn burger when I got the news. But through a combination of running, buses, tubes, and the guidance of a Scottish stranger, I made it in time.

The interview offer was sold with the statement that Anton was now 'sober'. I wondered how much this could or would effect or openly change things. I decided to risk asking the questions that other journalists may not have been bold enough to broach and certainly ones which I have never seen approached in interviews over the years - rather than stick to the general or the usual, I dug for a personal perspective. Pleasantly, Anton was candid and discussed with me such topics as: sobriety, mental health, former members of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, married life, inspiration and discipline.

Congratulations on your marriage.

Anton: Thank you so much.

I heard it took place on a volcano?

A: No, no. In Iceland. But I don't have the energy to climb those cold mountains.

How is married life?

It's great. We get along, you know?

Has it changed anything at all?

No, I actually like co-habiting with the person I care about. I like to cook. We goof around and be silly. It cannot all be conspiracy theories [laughs].

How's Berlin [where Anton lives now]?

It's great. I'm happy there. I'm at a hermit type point in my life. It offers everything - a nice city, and people are really pleasant. I work on my records there.

A lot of artists go there.

They're very forward-thinking. I think, because of the history. It's probably one of the most forward-thinking cities - because you have to look forward, you can't dwell on stuff that's gone on. It's very cool.

It's quite austere looking - is it gloomy there?

They paint it all pastel. I live in the east. There's countryside. It's amazing. You can swim in the lakes. But I travel so much and go to so many different places, that as a home base right now it's nice. I mean, living in Manhattan, it's not my thing. Rat race.

I heard that your sober now. Have you got a new perspective on life?

[Shakes head profusely and stays silent for a minute] No. I don't really think about it that much. I started to get really sick from drinking as much as I drank and it wasn't my plan. I wasn't drinking to do some chicken-shit slow-motion suicide thing, you know? And, I've had my fun. So it's not like an Alcoholics Anonymous thing or programme type thing. It was quite easy to step away from drinking a litre of vodka a day to not drinking or being around it. That's just not what I want from my life now.

And drugs as well?

Well, I don't have any taboos on it; it's just, I suppose if I felt like doing something I would but I just don't feel like it. Which is okay. I've had my fun. And first and foremost, besides being… difficult [laughs] - in other people's opinions in many ways and whatever - “an abrasive personality” or whatever, and “wild”, whatever. I'm an artist. I'm interested in art first and foremost - not a party, a celebrity or anything else. So, it's never really… I don't know. I don't feel like I'm missing a party or anything…

But, mentally -

When I say I drank a lot - for years I drank over a litre of vodka a day, but very slowly. Like, old school. A mellow drunk. Just a buzz going the whole time. Which is pointless. I wasn't really a binge-drinker, you know, or getting out of control, or alcohol-related problems or whatever. I took some anti-biotics and it just… I couldn't walk. A reaction to it.

You can't mix the two.

You can, or you can't? I'm not a doctor, so…

No, you can't. You shouldn't.

Well, exactly. Right. If you're working towards health, you should work towards health.

I just wondered if it made you feel clearer in your head, more focussed…

No, I feel more cluttered in a way, I would think. Because, I consider a lot of different things. I have to put them into perspective. I have my self doubts. I have to remember…What I'm saying is, my mind races a lot, and I consider a lot of different things. Like, doing this new record. And you look where our music and culture is. And where does this fit? It's just like bars of soap, sold and marketed like anything else. People are just entertainers. People have their own thing to offer. And for instance, Black-Eyed Peas aren't singing when they're playing live, they're just going “Oh yeah!” and dancing. It's just entertainment, that's all.

I mean, what I wondered was - your last album you openly admitted was made on drugs and I'm thinking your new album was made without drugs?

Half and half. Half and half.

Was it a different approach?

The only thing where I ran into problems is… I don't have any writers' block or insecurities about it… [but] mixing became so tedious without being intoxicated. Because of the way I'm using a studio - I'm using the studio as an instrument, instead of just a band documenting a band and playing with echoes and the producing end of it. That requires a lot of technical things, upturning and editing. And I found that to be too tedious for me. So half of it was made on drugs. Then I had to go on tour. The way that I have drug use in the band - I'm not really into uppers or anything like that. So being stoned - I'm more interested in psychedelics. The way that has affected my opinions on life, the way I make opinions, or what I like and my attitudes, I think those are already firmly established in the way that I am as a person. So the drugs don't do anything except for sort of amplify.

Your music has always been consistent, and there's been this change - a more experimental approach…

I'm working on more than one thing at a time. So it's just the way I'm presenting the little bits. When I look back, I'm looking back at the albums as little groupings that have their own distinct feel - sometimes acoustic, sometimes… do you know what I'm saying?

It's just quite a crazy sound. Big beats and a dancier direction.

I decided to base this on certain rhythms. I wrote the rhythms first. I created templates. 'This is Your First and Your Last Warning' is Michael Jackson's 'Rock with You'. I had a professional Scandinavian drummer who had a number one hit in England in the 80s, one of the best drummers in the world. I just stacked up Youtubes, just 40million sellers, copying the beats, and the drummer played them all the way through. It was the guide track, he just played the drum track, and I played along and wrote the songs that way. And Anita Ward: 'Ring My Bell', and different things for each song. And I was driving in a cab, when we were on the way to the studio and the Turkish cab driver goes: “You like the music?” and I had Will from Spiritualized with me, and the guy's like: “D'you remember this one?” and puts on One Way: 'Cutie Pie' [starts singing it]. It's sort of crazy style Gap Band type style. It's an amazing song.

Sounds funky. Matt Hollywood's back in the band. How did that happen?

I never kicked him out of the band, I just said I'm not gonna play music with you anymore, but you can still be in the group. But our tensions came out. He really wanted to pursue, be the chance to be the writer. But because of my creativity, it was stifling to him to grow as an artist. And he's done that now [Matt had his own band, The Out Crowd]. And I asked him if he wanted to play music, or if he wanted to wait till he's 50. And people enjoyed how we worked together, the songs. We're real moody people, so he never got the chance to tour places like Australia. So it's good for our fan thing to be able to present that. And it gives me time to breathe and enjoy it too, just play music.

Will you be able to play songs that you haven't played live for a while, from that era? From 'Strung out in Heaven'…

Yeah, even before that. Through the whole… body of our work. It's nice, it's powerful. We've got hundreds of songs. 300 songs. It's nice. Joel and I like it.

In your Myspace you've got Dean Taylor in your top friends, is that a case of you being wry?

Isn't that great? [smiles] I wish that Dean would get his shit together. Him and Jeff are still - 20 years on - dope fiends. Very charming people, though. Dean will work as a chef and do that, but I can't have that in my life. It's not the drug that winners are known for using, relying upon. It's a very selfish thing. It's not social being a heroin addict. I can't have that - I'm a guest in these countries, I can't be responsible for bringing that around. It's not right, it's not even legal. But despite that, I still have respect for them.

Are you hoping Dean will get his act together so he can play with you?

[Firmly] I'll never. I can't have that in my life. He's a lifelong addict. I paid for his rehab, in 1997. I'm done. Those things are close if you have a history of it - being around it; it has a tendency to pull you back into it. I have to tell myself, if I'm around people with drugs, I have to tell myself that's not what I want from life if I'm around somebody. Else it seems like a bunch of fun, and it's not fun, if it wasn't fun for you. I wish him the best, but I don't see it happening. But he's a great person. He's not like a thief or a thug.

Are you in touch still?

Sometimes. I say “Hi”. But it's very reclusive. It's a very life-dominating thing.

Stand by for Part two of our exclusive interview with BJM frontman Anton Newcombe next week.