By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Further: We would speak of madhouses and of the apprehension of joy. We would speak of unfinished songs and horrible noise. We would speak of the suspension of disbelief. But mostly, we would speak of beautiful music and how it gets that way.
We would speak of these things because today we are speaking with Anton Alfred Newcombe, who for more than a decade has been the figure at the center of the Brian Jonestown Massacre.
The BJM, a remarkable collective for whom the phrase "eclectic tastes" might have been coined, has undergone a chaotic series of label hassles, roster changes, lineup replacements and temporary guests since its beginning in San Francisco in 1990.
"I end up playing with a lot of different people, depending on what we're doing," says Newcombe. "[Currently] there's three guitar players, the bass player and the drummer, and the rest of the roster changes around. Mostly it has to do with the necessary orchestration and who's available. And also with who can put up with each other the longest."
Over a series of self-financed records, singles and EPs that began coming in a torrent in 1995--ending most recently with the lovely Bravery Repetition and Noise in 2001--the BJM has mapped a unique zone bordered by sheer noise, pop, psychedelia, folk, country-rock, early jazz and diverse other elements.
As you might expect, particularly from the frequent changes in personnel, the band's sound mutates constantly, moving in different directions from album to album. Nonetheless, somewhere in the distant past, someone--we're positing here--took the group's San Francisco roots, its titular Brian Jones reference and the sound of albums like Take it From the Man! and Thank God for Mental Illness (both 1996) and started throwing the word "psychedelic" around, to the point where it's now impossible to read press on the BJM without frequently encountering that adjective, despite the fact that it's woefully unsuited to the music.
"Part of that is my problem," Newcombe concedes (the third 1996 release from BJM was, after all, titled Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request). "But we've been lucky because we haven't been pegged specifically as a 'retro band.' We don't play rhythm and blues at all, so no one's able to say, 'Oh, you're a '60s band because you play neo-black music,' or country-rock or whatever. Really, I think it's a limitation on the part of journalists. It says more about their own inability to describe the music than it does about anything else."
There's neither coyness nor embellishment to Newcombe's comments. As with artists like Captain Beefheart, or bands such as the Birthday Party and the Residents, the elements of various genres as absorbed by the Brian Jonestown Massacre emerge vastly transformed--recognizable, but lovingly mutated. The music glances back while moving forward. Or sideways, or some-ways; at any rate, the BJM members are neither vigorous traditionalists nor total anarchists, at least when it comes to the music.
Like Aldous Huxley, Newcombe pushes for a broader interpretation of that troublesome P-word.
"'Psychedelic,' to me, just means 'mind-expanding.' I just look at it the same way. A lot of bands and people in the '60s were able to take all those influences and transcend genres. The Beatles are a great example; they played country-rock, folk, neo-classical, trippy stuff; all these different genres came into play. But it was one band; that was just their style.
"But it's a good question, you know, 'When will we arrive on our own?' I don't know. I think it might not be until retrospect. To me, it's all folk music, it's centered, it owes a lot to tradition. But it interacts with the tradition. I mean, I'm not just playing 'Kum Ba Ya' or 'Tom Dooley.'"
Case in point: The stellar EP Bringing it All Back Home Again (released in 1999) is the BJM's most country-tinged recording: largely acoustic, sparsely instrumented and comfortably performed. As its title indicates, the sound is comparable in places to Dylan's mid-1960s transition. Along one trajectory, then, we're in familiar historical and musical territory.
The closing track, however ("Arkansas Revisited"), is a reworking of a tune originally penned by Charles Manson. It's a beautiful song--at least as interpreted here--but that beauty's dark association is immediate and unavoidable. Take that as metaphor, perhaps, for the BJM's most consistent "sound," if we have to peg one: a tiny core of unease, an ominous center warmly enveloped by a harmonious racket.
Lady Caroline Lamb famously characterized the Romantic poet George Gordon Byron as "mad, bad and dangerous to know"; such is the image the BJM and Newcombe himself have frequently been known to court. A widely reprinted promo shot of Newcombe (which greets the viewer at BJM's Bomp Records Web site, http://bomp.com/bomp/ BJM.html) depicts him as every inch the madman, gripping a revolver, a guitar and a cigarette; he glares into the camera from what seems to be the ass-end of a four-day bout with sleep deprivation and Benzedrine. The band's infamous September 1996 appearance at the Viper Room (to which it had reportedly invited every industry suit in L.A.) literally ended in a riot, during which the Viper's bouncers forcibly ejected the BJM from its own gig.
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.
"Those are the real questions. The reason all this stuff is interesting to me is because those people we call mad geniuses or madmen, the reason we call them those things is because often their only alternative is to close themselves off, shut down and go about their business like everybody else, and surrender. The problem isn't with the madmen; the problem is that society doesn't give them another alternative.
"You can be average, or you can be insane," he concludes. "Those seem to be our choices. You can have it all the way your way, if you're willing to do it. But you'll be alone."