Anton Newcombe is probably still most famous for his star-making turn in Dig!, a music documentary that captured the evolution and growth of his band, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and its rivalry/friendship with fellow indie rockers the Dandy Warhols.
That’s kind of a sad thing, since most people’s takeaway from the film is not Newcombe’s otherworldly talents — during one clip he records an album’s worth of material in a single day, playing every instrument — but his volatile and mercurial behavior.
Yet it’s not like Newcombe’s outlandish antics were a put-on for the cameras, or that he was captured completely out of context. A dozen years after the release of Dig! and more than two decades after he formed his band in San Francisco, Newcombe still says what on his mind, and what’s on his mind isn’t always orthodox.
“In the future of this country, 1/3 of Americans will be operating drones dropping bombs on China, the other 1/3 will be watching, and the final 1/3 will be partying in Bermuda with supermodels, using an internal passport to get there,” Newcombe said in a phone interview with The Bay Bridged this month.
That response was to a query about possibly moving back to America from Berlin, where he has lived for the past several years. It’s a little unclear if he means yes or no, but it is Newcombe’s unique way of turning seemingly anodyne questions into lengthy and exploratory (and, yeah, maybe incoherent) answers.
Newcombe is often called a rock revivalist due to his penchant for mining late-’60s psychedelic songs, but that’s a pretty lacking designation, considering his broad catalog of work. He’s embraced shoegaze, folk, electronica, avant-garde, and a bunch of other musical genres over the course of the band’s lengthy career. He doesn’t so much borrow music as he repossesses it; injects it with his utterly exceptional DNA, and wholly makes it his.
Case in point: the most recent full-length album released by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Musique de Film Imaginé, was a near-wordless recording filled with eerie symphonic elements, grand electronica flourishes and dronish, repetitive industrial sounds. That’s not the product of someone who apes ideas from others.
“The whole revivalist tag was retroactive, after we first started making music,” said Newcombe. “I was born in 1967, I’m a child of the ’60s, so I can do whatever the fuck I want. My idea is to be as inclusive and psychedelic as possible with my music — to play and explore every instrument and genre. And I think you can see our influence in bands everywhere now.”
A gifted arranger with a peerless ear for harmony and melody, Newcombe is by any admission a musical savant, if not a certified genius. Staying focused long enough to talk about his music, however, is not his forte. During his 40-minute interview with The Bay Bridged, perhaps a quarter of the conversation was devoted to talk of his craft.
For example, when asked about playing at the Independent — where the band is set to perform two-sold out shows on May 27 and 28 — Newcombe strayed just a bit off topic. He lamented that the band should have been playing at the Warfield or another bigger venue, and then mentioned that Google had asked the group to play at their campus, a request he incredulously declined because of the implications of whom the multinational company really worked for.
“You know, I don’t have anything personally against playing for the government, if you get my drift, because that’s what they are, obviously,” said Newcombe. “It’s not your normal Chinese dude in a garage with a Russian guy, if you know what I mean. Everything is not exactly as it seems to be. I’m informed, I’m aware. It’s like Zuckerberg bought that place in San Francisco, his house, he built on the lot, right? You honestly think that was one house he bought? Fuck no, he built a tunnel to another house where his SUV security dude pulls into a garage and then he goes up the tunnel, the elevator whatever. Because if I was a mobster, I’d just lock up the street, park on the street and be like, ‘Fuck you, give me $50 billion, or I’ll shake down your baby or whatever it is.’”
Writing this article, I was almost a little hesitant to include quotes like that, since it just continues the narrative of Newcombe being batshit crazy, which in turns distracts so much from the band’s amazing musical output. That phenomenon was particularly heightened following the release of Dig!, when fans would confront Newcombe at shows in the hopes of antagonizing him into an onstage meltdown (the kind for which the band is now famous).
But Newcombe doesn’t delve into these lengthy conversational breakdowns to grab attention for the band or get noticed with some outlandish quotes. He seems completely earnest in his beliefs in a way that few people are, and generally just doesn’t give a fuck what people think about him.
“People have been giving me shit since the first day I was in preschool,” said Newcombe. “It’s not like they hate me. They just want to show that they’re not afraid of me, but they are.”
By not caring about the outside noise, Newcombe can spend his time focusing on music. He said he recently recorded 45 news songs, which he plans on releasing soon on two separate albums, tentatively titled Third World Pyramid and Don’t Get Lost. During the band’s current tour, their sets have lasted longer than three hours.
“It’s nice to be able to throw down song after song, because no one else can really do that,” said Newcombe. “It’s one thing to go, ‘Jerry