Most artists promoting a new album probably wouldn't take the time to instead speak about how the world seems to be teetering precariously on the brink of war, or talk about their somewhat unflattering portrayal in a cult documentary released 13 years ago. Thankfully the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe is not most artists.
Speaking to Anton from his Berlin home about the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s latest album, Third World Pyramid, just before the US election result, his train of thought is racing far beyond Hilary and Donald’s impending doom. During the hour-long interview he barely pauses, careering fitfully from one subject to the next, apart from to occasionally say an ever so slightly intimidating, ‘Do you see what I’m saying?”
He talks in hurried detail about why geopolitics, a hemmed in Russia, and an expansionist China are marching us towards conflict. To cope with these unstable times he’s reached a “very Zen realisation” of being more accepting in his own life. Third World Pyramid, a record partially inspired by the current climate, he shockingly reveals is not the band’s best record and will be eclipsed by the forthcoming release of an “indefinable” double album entitled Don't Get Lost. However if you’re a Q reviewer, don’t expect a copy in the post any time soon.
Still keen to set the record straight on Dig!, Anton stresses how the producers “fucked up” and had to re-edit the original Sundance Film Festival cut for a less libelous and more compelling narrative centred around his flammable persona. As to whether he has any regrets about the excess around that time he’s characteristically defiant, joking that if he’d continued down this needle and bottle strewn path he’d be living with a Ferragamo model in Connecticut right now.
Instead these days he’s busy in his Berlin studio creating a soundtrack for a new Philip Johns’ film, looking forward to working with Melody’s Echo Chamber, and completing a documentary shot on the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s last UK tour about one of his roadies. Thank God for sobriety.
DiS: On Twitter you’ve frequently used the hashtag #fuckwar. Do you truly believe a world war is going to happen?
Anton Newcombe: What I think is this has been a long time coming for several different reasons. I was talking to my friend from Israel about the things that have been going on even since 2000 and people just continuously block those things out - it’s like mass hypnosis has taken effect. He said, ‘it’s a survival mechanism’ and it made so much sense.
If you go back even farther to the seventies and eighties, Brzezinski talked about the grand chess game with Russia, this is during the Soviet time, and how they’d ultimately defeat them by squeezing them in. There was the whole thing where Papa Bush talked about the New World Order, basically making everything a federalist system like the EU and having business and trade supercede all the old conflicts and shortcomings.
Do you think it’s a worldwide conspiracy?
No, it’s not a conspiracy. Nato’s moved aggressively all the way up to the edge of Russia, China has captured the whole of the south China sea and claimed it as their own – it is not a conspiracy. The United States owes more money to China alone than it can ever possibly pay as a debt and the whole system is based on debt. International financial services are overextended to such an extent it can never be undone. Post 9/11, with the neo-con strategy, set into course a series of events [where] there is no reverse.
The more you look at the events with Russia the more you know it’s not a conspiracy...I understand Syria’s fake revolution was started in London by a Thinktank with people behind the scenes: they’re not hiding out in Alepo, they’re certainly not in Damascus, it’s people in London and it’s non-governmental organisations' people who’ve kicked this off. It’s ironic that this whole thing started from one person getting shot for not being able to protest.
We’re still fighting like crazy in Iraq decades on and Afghanistan, we’ve been there since the seventies. This is like misadventure on a grand scale and I’m not against war specifically but this is geopolitics. The thing is now Russia understands they’re fully surrounded and they have major commitments to China and their alignments with Iran and it’s at a serious point.
As a father how does this make you feel about your children’s future? The current situation makes it seem like we’re doomed.
Penny Rimbaud used to be part of the Crass organisation and commune. I had the observation where at one point he was so involved with Crass’ records and the commune, label, libraries, and publications during the Thatcher times educating people on how you can be your own government. Now he’s on Twitter and he’s being like this Zen guy non-stop and it lead me to a realisation in my own life.
If you understand psychologically a lot of times in life people hate things because they’re not able to interact with them and they love them because they are. It’s that simple, a certain type of love and a certain type of hate. It’s led me to a very Zen realisation because the bottom line is that I care very much so I have to refocus to that and I have to be accepting. In this life and these times it forces me to focus on my art.
The album is called Third World Pyramid. Is it in reference to the current social and political situation?
It’s multi-leveled because I'm abstract. On one level I thought it was quite interesting the peaks of regions and time periods, whether it’s mass America or the Egyptian or even the pyramids in Babylon, the Ziggurats - all of these places are in the third world now.
I thought that was interesting, but then there’s also the human pyramid. If you don’t understand, on the back of the dollar bill there’s a pyramid. Here we have this Christian nation yet all the iconography is this Roman shit and this Egyptian shit. None of it is Jesus on a cross. None of it is a picture of a church someplace or a fish, it’s something else they’re talking about and it’s another God.
In this pyramid with the eye it’s a representation of the human pyramid and each block could be a cell, like a station. Your civil servants could be in one block and all these different people going all the way up; society answering to the next group or club above them and all of them working together becomes the all seeing eye.
The interesting thing about it is the foundation of the pyramid sees nothing. The foundation of the pyramid is below the sand: doesn’t see the sky, never seen the stars, it’s never seen a cloud, it’s just holding up the pyramid.
The tone of the album has a sense of melancholic desperation, but then seems quite hopeful. What was your mindset when you were writing it?
Well, the interesting thing is I wrote in a full spectrum of human emotion. There’s another album coming out [Don't Get Lost] and it has this almost kraut-rocky, PiL Limited steel box, dubby, dystopian...it just changes style every single song and it covers so much ground you can’t imagine from track-to-track - it’s a double record.
I just split the songs into two different categories and this album [Third World Pyramid] I wanted to be more understandable, as far as a pre-conceived notion that many people have of what we probably are as far as vaguely influenced by the sixties, shamelessly wearing our hearts on our sleeves. It’s going to hark it back to that repeatedly.
The other record will be indefinable, like something I’ve discovered. Like a UFO I’ve discovered and I’ve walked inside and start pressing buttons to work out how to fly it. I knew I was going to take the heat about this record because I don’t think it’s the best album, specifically that wasn’t my goal.
It’s a rare thing to hear someone say about their own album.
I’m going to qualify that statement - the thing is I split the songs in half. I didn’t specifically go: “Well, I’m going to put these ten great songs together”. I made two albums that work cohesively in this bizarre way – one short record and one double record – but they’re two totally different albums.
When I started sharing these privately, to Simone from Primal Scream or something, I was like: “No, no, no you have to listen to the first album first and then listen to the second album and then you’re going to understand something strange”. What you’re going to understand is that I just made 45 songs at a time and that’s how quick my brain works in a week and that’s how diverse it is. This isn’t me being: “Here’s a record I want to become this album” or: “Oh, there was a band in the 80s called Jesus And The Mary Chain, let’s fucking buy a leather jacket and sound like this – can I borrow your distortion pedal?”
With such a prolific output how do you even decide what makes it onto the final album?
Some friends helped me. Either it’s absolutely clear to me in this way that there’s like an invisible chord that connects everything...As one song gives way to the next it becomes harmonious with the previous one and the one that’s about to come. You can manipulate the listener’s experience that way just by the arrangement of the songs and the pacing. Sometimes it’s an awareness on a level that cannot be studied or premeditated, but it’s harmonious in your own workings of your mind.
The opening track ‘Good Mourning’ is sung by your wife and is about your son. However, it’s very sombre.
She asked me to write a song and I wrote one for her. It just happens, like some people can do that [laughs]. Ultimately, in a large body of work, it’s ok to reflect a full spectrum of emotions.
Would you ever consider being overtly political in your lyrics?
Only if it was true to exactly what I was feeling with the comments. I wrote a song called ‘Take It From The Man’ a long time ago and it basically breaks down what I was thinking and what I was feeling about splitting, about knowing and my awareness of everything - just calling it like you see it in a classic motif or whatever.
There’s no reason because what I’m going to explain to you is you can’t want for other people what they don’t want for themselves. That’s precisely why I’m not at Oxford station passing out socialist literature. On many levels people have got it the way they want it.
I always think when you go to the ‘90s when you first started and artists had the time, space, and money to grow and live cheaply. Do you think as a band you could start out now in the same way you did back then?
We had to fight. We were already in an economically expensive environment in San Francisco - an environment now that’s the most expensive in America. We had to fight principles of collective socialism in the arts where you share a rehearsal space, you borrow a car, you borrow amps, you do whatever you have to do. Because we had to rent out Masonic Temples to play we would do our own promotion, so we had to step completely out of the system. That’s the only advice I’d have for anyone else to fully understand that.
At that time everyone was against us, you’d have other bands tearing down our flyers - we were such a threat to everyone. I could never understand that, obviously none of those people have bands any more. People are so competitive and you really can’t look at other things in that light; you need to foster an eco-system to support yourself whether it’s the record store or the venue. A lot of people don’t understand that, you have no competition as a band.
A lot of new bands starting out who admire Brian Jonestown sometimes take more interest in the rock n roll element, like the drugs...
They fucked up Dig. I don’t want to dwell on it, but they didn’t have an ending so they had to compile a story out of the footage. A few things get in there but they’re not backed-up, they’re not qualified - you don’t really hear me speak. My responses [in this interview] have been over 25 words, with syntax, and everything works right? You can understand what I’m trying to say and what I’m saying. There’s no example of that in the movie...it’s fucking scary listening to me from the very beginning, if you don’t share my viewpoint it’s fucking scary talking to me.
Anyway, the first thing that I say is: “We’re going to start a revolution and we’re going to teach you how to do it” and that was because I was navigating all the record companies in the world. Everybody was trying to go: “You’re the next Kurt Cobain and this is what we want from you”. I would say “no” and my band is going: “Fuck you! We’re starving to death, what are you doing? They’re buying us $6000 meals!”
I wanted to show people an example of how you could make your thing work and that alone would propel you to a greater level of success than the people who didn’t know how to market you and create something.
Do you think artists have greater control in the current landscape?
We’re fucked. It’s fucked because everybody is asleep. Here you had the opportunity with Al Gore talking about the internet and how great it would be and all this shit, this gift to humanity, and then you had Facebook completely usurp everybody and thinking that’s the way to market your stuff. Without paying Facebook your posts get suppressed.
Going backwards, what I wanted to do at the start of the movie, my only goal was to enter the popular lexicon. Basically be understood as this person who did this type of thing, for this reason. It’s really odd because Jimi Hendrix, when he entered the popular lexicon as being this free spirited electric guitar player one of kind, right? You can’t be Jimi Hendrix. There’s no clues that he left us of how to be him. Paul McCartney going on and on his whole life talking [Paul McCartney voice]: “Well, you know we had a lot of fun” There’s nothing that guy's ever said that can help you ever be him.
So, you’re saying you can’t be imitated?
There’s something really amazing about full reality, that if I leave enough clues and you try and emulate me what you ultimately become is you. Johnny Rotten did the same thing in this really odd way. The only thing when you copy Sid Vicious is you could become a derelict, but when you copy Johnny Rotten you couldn’t be Johnny Rotten but the thing was you became yourself.
The point I was trying to make is I never wanted permission from anybody or validation to do anything. My mom is a psychologist so she was like: “You’re going to fucking end up in a mental hospital or prison, because you are so belligerent." I had a job as a plumber’s apprentice when I was 16 or 17 and they were like: “Anton, we love you, we want to buy you your own truck, you’ll have a really good future with us”...and I was like: “Fuck that”. Could you imagine? Me being a plumber to some rich white people in Newport beach?
Do you ever feel like you’re imprisoned by your characterisation in Dig? You tweeted reviews of Third World Pyramid saying ‘They think they know me’.
No, that’s what they tried to say about this record...anybody who tries to critique me like a Q writer when they reviewed the recording. First of all, they didn’t even comment that I covered the ‘Assignment Song’ by Jane & Lorraine and that also Nina Simone did it; it’s a fucking epic song that nobody knows about, just attempting to do a 10 minute song like that is amazing. Now, what did I see in it that Nina Simone saw in it? I’m obviously not an idiot because then she wasn’t an idiot. I knew when they didn’t comment on that they didn’t listen to it.
I know they’re going to eat their words, because the next record isn’t like any of that shit - I hope they don’t bother to review it. The ironic thing in passing any mentions of the last song [‘The Sun Ship’] is it got to fucking number five in the UK.
I wasn’t fairly portrayed [in Dig!] and there were a lot of things that happened. The movie people saw entitled ‘Dig’ wasn’t the movie that won Sundance. The movie that won Sundance had all the spy camera footage of me dealing with all the record deals, the lawyers and those guys threatening – they’re basically the mafia. A lot of the people talking, the A&R people, are basically hookers with cocaine that they sent to try and talk us into it; the drug parties and all the shit that went down. None of those people signed off and I had it signed off. What they got is something less than that, they had to go back to the drawing board when it won and they sold the rights and they had to edit another movie.
It was always clear in my mind that that wasn’t the story, I was never a failure, I’ve always been friends with the Dandy Warhols and all this other shit.
Do you ever watch Dig!?
Never, I never watched it. I watched one version of the movie.
Now you’re sober do you have any regrets about your drug use at that time, especially as you’re creatively so prolific now?
I was always prolific. I did six records in 18 months in 1995 – six 18-song records – I’ve always written every day under every circumstance. I only got into smack the last two years of the decade, so we were actually filming before then. I mean I only got like, “This is a problem”. It’s a problem to start with. After that I started drinking to get rid of the smack and that took while to get rid of.
If I have hundreds of songs it really doesn’t matter either way. What can I say? I used to have a Ferragamo model as a girlfriend and I pretty much lost her as I was doing smack. Like, what, would I have her and live in Connecticut? It’s really hard to quantify. It took me until the mid-2000s to leave America for good and it never occurred to me to do that. If I had done that in the nineties in my late teens or twenties if I possible could have figured that out, would I even have a group?
You wrote the soundtrack for the film Moon Dogs released in the summer. Have you got any plans to work on other soundtracks?
I know this is going to be stupid and people always tell me to focus, but I’ve come up with two really good concepts for movies and two of my friends who are screenwriters have both said they’d help me do that in a second and Phillip Johns [Moon Dogs’ Director] said, “I’m in any time”. But then Phillip Johns has come up with another movie and presented the concept to me, which would be pretty cool; another Scottish film that would be pretty badass with Dean Cavanar writing it. I said I would do that.
Some people in Los Angeles sent me a synopsis about some fucking DMT duality thing. I want to record with Melody’s Echo Chamber, I want to do some work with some Belgium artists and I’ve been working with a Danish woman. There’s so much stuff I want to do, I’m recording a band from Germany right now.
I read you were going to make a film about a roadie on your last UK tour. Did that happen?
Yeah, I’m just worried my filmmaker friend didn’t do it the way I wanted it to be done. The problem is I couldn’t be the guy filming because the whole premise of the film is I’ve known the guy in the film for 26 years, but I don’t know anything about him and he’s really interesting guy...
We did film it and it looks spectacular I’m just worried we didn’t get enough of him in a very odd way. I want to make the whole thing in French subtitles, so it has to be a little bit weird enough to make absolutely no sense - it can’t be campy or weird. The concept is bananas because we’re playing to like 4,000 people in this old place and you’re only seeing it from behind. It’s all shot in this Anton Corbin black and white, ultra gloss, HD like crazy.
You’re often referred to as interview gold. Do you enjoy interviews?
I just try to listen to what’s being said and I answer honestly and I never worry about it too much. It turns out very consistently over the years. I’ve always had an interesting take on society and the motivations of people and where it’s going. An authority on all the stuff. I’ve always been counter culture...I have no opinion on what other people think about me or the way I behave [laughs].
Third World Pyramid is out now via A Recordings. Don’t Get Lost is released on 24 February 2017.