By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Even the band's name weaves together two familiar and sinister threads from our collective memory: the early burnout of talented youth and the suicidal lure of charismatic cult leaders. Yet reading the Brian Jonestown Massacre as madness without method misses the point.
"I'm into the suspension of disbelief," says Newcombe tellingly, during a conversation about the band's aesthetic process. "It's kind of like conceptual art; all the songs exist in several forms. It's really about the live music, as weird as that seems. Live, the music is different, when it's done right. We're actually starting to get into the process of recording live, which is going to be cool, because people will be able to hear the power of the songs in that format.
"For example, I listen to a lot of Asian and Arabic music. I have no idea what they're saying, but it doesn't stop me from enjoying it. I know what it means to me. It makes me feel a certain way, and I like it. I relate that to theater, whether a certain sort of music is capable of transporting me out of my head. Or to someplace else in my head, so that I'm not just somebody sitting there staring at the speakers; I'm actually interacting with it. Theater, or movies, can do that: You forget you're watching a play or a movie; you get taken up in the performance. That's what I'm looking for in the music. If I played in a certain kind of genre, and it came with all the signs...like if I had a DJ and a goatee, and if you went along with it and bought the T-shirt and followed the band, you'd know that this thing I was doing was somehow related to Limp Bizkit. But what interests me, like with folk music, is when people define what the music means for themselves.
"People say that rock's sort of caved in on itself, that there's nothing new you can do. That isn't true. There are whole areas in all genres where you can spread out, but you have to keep your imagination open. Bob Dylan's magic certainly wasn't in writing music, per se. He had a great ear for music, but his magic was in taking all those old songs and putting really great words to them. But all that music already existed. Obviously you can't write a new three-chord song, because the Cure and the Cult and a few other bands have already written them all. What you can do is make a new thing live--the idea of animus, taking a lump of clay and making it into a man. That's noble. Like that Harry Smith stuff for Folkways, all those old folk recordings [Anthology of American Folk Music]? It's incredible. It sounds horrible, but it's beautiful, amazing shit. It's certainly more noble than taking this cleanly manufactured thing and making it sound 'new' because it's got all these blips and beeps in it."
French dramatist Antonin Artaud, who spent 15 of his 52 years in mental institutions, devised the concept of the "Theatre of Cruelty" in the early 20th century, a style of performance arranged so as to demand audience interaction, even participation, in order to become complete. That idea, with very little tweaking, might easily apply to the Brian Jonestown Massacre's aesthetic.
"Artaud is fucking awesome, man. He's not your average person. One of the great things he ever said, this had to do with a period when he was institutionalized for nine straight years. He said that never once, during that period, did he feel suicidal when he was locked up alone. But every morning he had to talk to a psychiatrist for an hour, and that was when he felt like cutting his throat or hanging himself. And according to Artaud, he only felt suicidal because he knew he couldn't kill the doctor and get away with it.
"I used to have this great movie, this documentary that some Swedish filmmakers did about the Manson family; it was filmed during the trial in 1969 and 1970. And a friend was watching it with me, and he said, 'I can't believe you're watching this; you're a sicko. That guy totally wrecked the '60s.' He got pissed at me. That's the prevailing view. In a lot of ways, Manson was the Bin Laden of his era; he was just as prominent in people's minds; he caused just as much fear. But the real question, one of the most intelligent questions ever asked about that whole event, wasn't, 'What made Manson so evil?' but rather, 'What did the parents of those kids do to their children to make them look for a person like that?' you know? A lifelong loser.
"Or here's another example: I was in conversation with someone the other day about John Walker, the young American Taliban, and the guy was saying, 'He should fry, he was there [fighting for the Taliban], and he just happened to get picked out, he should be put to death.' And I was trying to say, well, you know, it's not inconceivable that you might be traveling and you find yourself living in a country that goes to war, and all of a sudden, you're there in the middle of it. It's not necessarily that you went there specifically to hunt down Americans and kill them. But who knows, man? We may not ever know what was in the guy's head. The weird thing is, it's unpopular even to argue the merits of his case. That's the prevailing attitude. It's almost like the government can't let him off the hook to any degree for fear that people will go burn shit down.