Delivering killer blows

The Brian Jonestown Massacre's frontman Anton Newcombe shuns mainstream and makes a point of telling it like it is

''I was thinking about something,'' Anton Newcombe announces, preparing to wander off on another tangent. ''Think about how obscene and absurd it is that they use rock music to advertise and sell cars. When I buy an automobile, I'd want it to be safe, dependable and long-lasting. Every rock musician that I admire and idolise, like Jimi Hendrix, was unsafe, irresponsible and burned out,'' he says chuckling.

''Basically, rock'n'roll is supposed to represent something that is the opposite of all the qualities that you look for in an automobile,'' he continues, ''but at some point it became suitable. I'm more interested in the opposite perspective. I don't particularly want to sell soap and I'm not concerned with moving units or that other stuff, reaching the lowest common denominator.''

Newcombe, the frontman and driving force behind US psych-rock band the Brian Jonestown Massacre, is one of the more amiable and forthcoming interview subjects you are likely to encounter, eager to chat until his slowly draining phone battery renders his voice a digital mush. Unsurprisingly though, given his restless musical tendencies, the man does have a habit of only vaguely addressing questions presented to him before veering off into his own pre-occupations. Today, mainstream American television seems to be vexing him.

''I'm banned from American television, basically,'' he says. ''I was invited to play David Letterman and Conan O'Brien like five times and then there was always word, 'No, you can't do it.' There'll be trouble no matter what. I speak my mind.''

Not that these missed opportunities are of much concern to Newcombe.

''There's nothing on TV I want to watch anyway,'' he says. ''I don't really look at mainstream media or accolades as being representative of anything. I heard that Tame Impala has got a lot of recognition in Australia. See, that's a good situation, getting some credit where credit is due, but in America it's just not that situation. If Nicki Minaj is performing for 25 minutes on the Grammys, it's a symptom of a completely diseased culture.''


Though Newcombe is now based in Berlin, Fly's interview finds him in the band's studio in Los Angeles, where the group has assembled from up and down the US East Coast - and guitarist Ricky Maymi from his adopted home of Perth. Even founding member, bassist and songwriter Matt Hollywood - who quit the Brian Jonestown Massacre after an infamous onstage scuffle that saw a sitar bear most of the brunt - is back in the fold.

It was this incarnation of the band that recorded the recently released 12th LP Aufheben. The album is a wide-ranging beast, focusing less on guitar-driven tunes and more on groove-orientated, warped instrumental workouts with tinges of exotica and kraut rock.

''Lazy journalists will just pick the Take it from the Man record and go 'These guys are prostrating themselves at the temple of the Rolling Stones,' '' he says, sighing.

''I never really view this strictly as a retro project, I always thought of it as a combination of things.

''Our music doesn't owe as much to black music as the Rolling Stones does, at all,'' Newcombe says. ''It's not primarily a blues-based thing: none of the composition is. It owes more to some other kind of sensibility that weaves in and out of that.''

In fact, Newcombe says he sees his band as more of a ''folk-music situation'', citing Bob Dylan's musical bowerbird-like tendencies as an example.

''He took all of these influences from black, white, country to blues and put them together in this mix-match as his own,'' he says. ''Even when he was electric, his eclecticism, his tastes, his personal take on everything, it's very much a folk perspective - not just folk with an acoustic guitar, it's 'of the people'. Like an expression of the everyman. I think we do the same thing for psychedelic music. I approached it very much like a folk thing. I saw other people of limited means playing music and said 'I can do this, too'.''

Newcombe says he didn't want to be a rock star or any of the roles that come with that title.

''I was more interested in learning how to play, playing music with my friends, booking our own shows, making our own records and creating some sort of scene. It was much more akin to some sort of counter-culture bohemian folk thing, that happened to be electrified.''

When Newcombe talks about working on Aufheben and the group's other albums, it appears his methods are as free-form as his conversational style. As he describes it, the whole recording process seems to be done on the fly.

''I tend to write whatever I feel like just to make music,'' he says. ''Then I get inspired, that leads to some sort of manic work ethic and you just get into a big cloud and create a whole bunch of stuff. Then you have to try and figure out what would be suitable for some sort of a record.

''I want the music to reflect some sort of full-spectrum human emotion, rather than to go in and say 'I'm anticipating there to be full-scale civil unrest in this next summer of 2012, so here, I'm going to make this edgy record','' he says.

Newcombe says he doesn't actually have any goals when he enters the studio.

''Every single time that I start a project, to be honest, I don't go in with ideas so I have to confront that. You have to question yourself, you're like 'f---' - pardon my language, it's just a manner of speaking - but literally sit there and go 'f---, have I run out of ideas? Can I still do this?' ''

It is surprising to hear Newcombe, one of today's more prolific musicians and a man with a seemingly endless supply of creative energy, questioning his abilities.

''No, I have self-doubts like almost anybody,'' he says. ''Probably more so.''

The Brian Jonestown Massacre

WITH: The Ravonettes

WHEN: Tomorrow, 8pm

WHERE: ANU Bar, Acton

TICKETS: $75.55 + bf from Ticketek

Peter Krbavac is a Canberra music writer, musician and radio presenter with 2XX.