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Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman on white whale vinyl, psychedelics, fiery new LP

Anton Newcombe revisits his neo-psychedelia band’s history, shares a look into his personal record collection and discusses BJM’s 19th album "Fire Doesn’t Grow On Trees."

By Alan Brostoff 

Anton Newcombe's nine-year old son created the cover artwork for the new album, Fire Doesn’t Grow On Trees,

Anton Newcombe's nine-year old son created the cover artwork for the new album, Fire Doesn’t Grow On Trees,

The Brain Jonestown Massacre have created one of the best albums of the year with Fire Doesn’t Grow On Trees (shown above) on the group's own label, A Recordings. The neo-psychedelia collective have been touring America to support the new record —  the 19th album since being founded in San Francisco in 1990. Frontman and band leader Anton Newcombe was nice enough to zoom with us from the road to talk about it.

  

Anton Newcombe pictured on the cover sleeve of Brian Jonestown Massacre's 10-inch white vinyl offering, "Hold That Thought." 

Anton Newcombe pictured on the cover sleeve of Brian Jonestown Massacre's 10-inch white vinyl offering, "Hold That Thought." 

GOLDMINE: I saw your show in Chicago, what an amazing performance from the band. 

ANTON NEWCOMBE: Thank you very much, I really appreciate that. A really receptive crowd and I think we played very well. You never know about the energy levels; it’s really hard to do this every day, but we are getting along well together. 

Goldmine: One of the things that impressed me was that you shared with the crowd that you were going to be playing new songs and this was not just a “Best of” tour. 

Anton: When I was younger, I knew a lot of bands that had record deals and it seemed to me that they we just trying to use that to get women, and their notoriety paid for their house. And then there is a whole class of people who really love playing music till the day they die. There is much more business in the music business than there is music. For me the music is important. I love all music. I was just listening to some Howlin’ Wolf. It would be a crime against humanity if this was just for teenagers.

Goldmine: I would challenge anybody that thinks older people can’t rock out to go see The Brian Jonestown Massacre. 

Anton: Thank you.

Goldmine: Where did the name Brian Jonestown Massacre come from? 

Anton: When we started out we were young and we wanted a name that had a certain amount of affinity for psychedelics. So, I named the group Blur and thought it was appropriate for the whole thing. Then I opened up a New Music Express or Melody Maker and there was a new band that already had the name and they had a good lawyer. I felt like I had to come up with a name that nobody would have ever thought of. There are multiple levels to that. The main thing is that every since I was young I really liked the idea that somebody driving their role in the group does not have to be the singer, it could be a tambourine player or a guitar player. That’s why I like Brian Jones. He brought the love to the music. It did not matter if he was playing cello, sitar, marimba or guitar. Then you had this shocking cultural event (Jonestown Massacre), even though people don’t really remember it that way. It was scarier than Manson, and all that stuff that happened. All these families sold their houses, then the moms were gone and you had those guys just adopting children. I remember when that happened and it loomed very large in San Francisco, so I like the idea of making something that couldn’t be commercial. I always said that my band was some kind of exotic fruit that’s really yummy on the inside but has spikes on the outside. It's a type of survival strategy.

Goldmine: If someone might not be familiar with your extensive catalog, and you had to recommend one of your albums, what would you recommend for their first point of entry? 

Anton: Well, you know that’s tough. We have quite a bit of material out that is quite different. One year we almost put out six albums. Our music is pretty eclectic in nature so that is why I made the compilation records, because I just figured all the people will just grab it. It’s really hard for me to say because early on I would write something that I though people were going to go crazy about and it never materialized but then I whip out a song I did 30 years ago or play one that was unreleased and they all just go together, it all makes sense. I had no way of knowing that I would create a song that would pay for whatever I want to do in my life ("Straight Up and Down"). You have no way of judging that stuff, so it’s really hard for me to tell somebody else what would resonate with them. It’s a real tough call for me because I’m so opinionated to be basic. I know that other people don’t hear music the same way, and they have other tastes. So, I don’t think I can answer your question.

Goldmine: You have a new album, Fire Doesn’t Grow On Trees. Where did the name come from? 

Anton: It’s kind of a spiritual thing. You can have some artistic fire, some kind of spiritual fire and something about you has this kind of energy. You know how people say, “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” well, fire doesn’t grow on trees either. Also, my son picks abstract things to say all the time and he ended up naming a bunch of songs for me. He even did the cover for the album. He says bizarre stuff all the time and that’s really cool.

Goldmine: Love the song title “Wait a minute, two minutes and 30 seconds to be exact.” What a great name for a song that comes in at 2:30. 

Anton: It would have been really funny if it had not. One day, in the winter, we made up like 70 songs on my iPhone or this little voice recorder. I also have this little notepad so I can write down ideas for songs or I write down song titles that must become a song. We were in the habit of making work in progress for every day. It’s kind of the way I record. It’s not really a mix, it’s like a different version of what it might end up as.

Goldmine: Do you find it harder to tour when the new album has not come out yet? Or is it easier because the fans don’t really know what they might hear? 

Anton: Well, we’re fortunate because we have a fair amount of people who come to our show because they want to see this 1990 show where they want to see me throw my drink up in the air, do some stupid things, holler and see if I get pissed off. People are there for different reasons. Some come because we have a legacy, a history. I personally don’t think there’s a right way to do it. I do think there are wrong ways to do it. It’s too easy to rest on your laurels. It’s too easy to say this is the album we did in 1990 and you heard on 120 minutes and now we are going to play it from start to finish. I’m interested to live in the live environment, and I can’t do that.

Goldmine: Tell me about your record collection: 

Anton: My nine-year old son has a record collection. My record collection is also good and interesting. Even when I’m buying them for my son, it doesn’t matter if it’s Tammy Wynette or some jazz. When you find something you like, it’s just right. I just paid $80 for a Steve Young album. It’s so good and really excellent. Nice things happen when you have a record collection. For instance, I‘m really good friends with the Haden kids, (bassist) Charlie Haden (1937–2014) had kids and I knew Charlie from when he sort of helped my out back in 2000, when I got a little out of hand with doing downers and I had to stop. I went to this support group and Charlie was really supportive. So anyway, I had this Alice Coltrane record that I have had since I was a teenager. I have listened to it umpteenth times. I just opened it up and went to Petra (Haden) and said “I never realized it was your dad playing bass on this record.” I have had this for 45 years. This is why I so love music.

Goldmine: Is there a record you are looking for to add to your collection? 

Anton: I would like to get that Emitt Rhodes record The Merry-Go-Round because I love that song "Live" so much. It’s kind of amazing, his age when he made all of that stuff up. He’s a pretty great songwriter. I am in a unique position as I travel around the world, I get to visit a lot of record stores.

Goldmine: Any record stores in particular that you really enjoy visiting? 

Anton: Well, God, there are so many record stores I don’t know what to tell you. I really just want to encourage people to go to them. They are usually the focal point of the community in some weird way. A lot of stores might have coffee, candy, or some vintage clothing or whatever, but they are generally a good community space in the way that libraries used to be, or even church. I guess I don’t wanna single out any one store.

Goldmine: You now call Germany your home. How is the music scene different in Germany from the United States? 

Anton: It is weird, but Germany has such a big market. Techno is insanely big, but I’m not really that interested in the disposable culture that moves so quickly. There are lots of festivals and they invite bands to play. Berlin has a live music scene, and we have bands come to my best friend's bar. We have people who come from all over to play. We offer a community service. If I was in New York or London it would take a certain type of space and transportation logistics and it costs so much more. I think that’s why all that garage music came out of California, all those garages.

Goldmine: What’s next for Brian Jonestown Massacre? 

Anton: We will try our best to complete the tour and then over the summer we are playing one show a month. We will be flying all over the world. We always take December off, no matter what, and then after that we'll be the U.K. and probably South America and Australia. Who knows, maybe I’m pushing it. 

  

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