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Out of Their Heads 

What is the Brian Jonestown Massacre doing in L.A.? Same thing they were in San Francisco -- causing trouble.

Wednesday, Aug 25 1999
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Life isn't easy for Anton Newcombe, the cultish, 31-year-old maestro behind the Brian Jonestown Massacre, possibly the most controversial band to come out of San Francisco in the '90s. Newcombe -- also known as Anton A. Newcombe and, inexplicably, Dr. Anton A. Newcombe -- is the only constant of the decade-old group, which finally got some attention last year with its eighth record, a collection of scrappy, '60s-like garage-punk symphonettes called Strung Out in Heaven, the band's first album for the New York indie label TVT.

A real legend in his own mind, Newcombe has a penchant for slapping nonsensical slogans on liner notes, press kits, and posters: "Q: Anton, did you sell your soul? A: Well, I tried to but the line was so long I said, 'Fuck it!'" Another quip reads: "Anyone who thinks I'm a fascist should be terrified that I've got a shitload of money now."

"He's got an inner intensity that comes through," says Greg Shaw, the owner of Los Angeles indie Bomp! Records, which released the Brian Jonestown Massacre's first six albums in rapid succession. "That's his greatest strength and his greatest downfall, because he's not in control of it."

The band's showcase at Los Angeles' Viper Room in late '97 is a good example. The Brian Jonestown Massacre had just moved from San Francisco to L.A. and decided to lure a club full of music industry people to one of their shows in a stab at getting signed to a major -- they'd spent years living in the Bay Area, churning out demo tapes and under-the-radar indie records on the retro-friendly Bomp! in conjunction with Newcombe's Tangible label. But the showcase quickly devolved into an old-fashioned barroom brawl involving band and patrons alike. Finally, club bouncers pounced on members of the Massacre, ejecting them and making it clear that they should never, ever darken Johnny Depp's doorstep again -- and those words were punctuated with the bouncers' fists. So much for that major label deal.

"I just got pissed," says Newcombe. "But I'm trying to get past that dysfunctionality. My girlfriend says I'm an emotional basket case. I'm really kind of a sensitive person. That's why I'm blessed to have the arts -- so I don't have to go out on a rampage with my firearms."

Newcombe is sitting on the patio of his home in Laurel Canyon, two boxlike, brick-colored buildings packed with religious iconography, ranging from menorahs to bright illustrations of Hindu gods and a '70s-looking wood-and-lacquer photo of Robert Redford. The house sits directly across the street from the Houdini mansion, and visitors can peer into the surreal minicaverns revealed by the mansion's renovators, which gape disturbingly like hundreds of open-ended questions.

What actually happened that night sounds farcical, and Newcombe explains it in such a serious way that he almost seems to be kidding. But he's not, which is typical of him and his band. It all began, he says, when band member Joel Gion's tambourine broke. Gion threw it at the crowd in pissed-off frustration; it hit a woman on the head and promptly knocked her out. Her boyfriend was not pleased. Then all hell broke loose.

"That was one of my goals in moving to L.A., just to be right in everyone's face. That night I had guns on me, too," says Newcombe. "Looking back on the videotape from that show, I was an asshole. I try to learn from my mistakes, and I don't want to be an asshole. I've just about terrified everybody in the music business." But Newcombe also says that phase of the group is over, and that after shaking it up at conferences and showcases across the country, he's sick and tired of his band being pegged the biggest "here comes trouble" band in recent memory.

"People are so focused on our dysfunctionality, the talk of drugs and emotional problems," Newcombe says. "Everybody wants to make it a big soap opera. They want to show up and find a riot going on. I just want people to be into the music. I want to move on from that type of thing."

To some, Newcombe -- who was raised in privilege in Newport Beach and moved to San Francisco in 1989 -- is a sinister poseur who concocts press-release-perfect antics, like the Massacre's well-publicized mock battle with the Portland band the Dandy Warhols. To his fans, he's one of the last undiscovered rock geniuses, an artist who merges the garage psychedelia of the '60s with a '90s DIY style and packs each song with enough overt-yet-smart rock references -- Small Faces, Donovan, Stones, Syd Barrett, Lennon/Ono, the Monkees, Bobby Fuller Four -- to make any older critic's head spin and heart swoon, and make anyone wonder what the hell the band's thinking.

"Anton's got many obsessions," says Shaw. "He's fascinated with things that are secret, things that are hidden, ancient mysticism and secret knowledge."

Talking about his band today, Newcombe is the spitting image of the Laurel Canyon cowboy, circa 1969, in his white, Indian-style tunic; white jeans tucked into tall, caramel-colored canyon-scraper boots; focal-point sideburns; and thick poncho -- the latter in brazen defiance of the heat. Despite his mild-mannered appearance, he announced earlier that he'd feel far more comfortable doing an interview with his loaded gun stuck into his waistband, which he places there with an ostentatious, Elvis Presley-like gesture, despite the interviewer's many protests.

"I like guns," Newcombe says. "I'm not into killing people. I just like them as machines. I just do. I'm a Sufi; I'm a lover-warrior, I really am. I'm just a lover of the truth. But I'm not a maniac about it and I don't use my music as a platform for that stuff."

Newcombe has a manic streak to him that's slightly disconcerting -- as if spying the bullets that read "U.S. Munitions" lying around on his Hammond organ weren't enough to make one nervous. When asked a random and unimportant question about Laurel Canyon rock history, he quickly grabs for his portable phone. "I don't know, but Greg Shaw would," and he punches Shaw's number. The two talk for about 10 minutes; Newcombe never asks the question.

Newcombe is currently working on new songs, and he plays some that are lush with Byrdsian guitars and sweeping, Canyon-tinged melodies that he recorded using mostly old equipment for a stripped-down sound. One song is a dreamy number flooded with the sounds of ornery creatures. "I started with pet sounds that were really soft and orchestral," he says, as a dog barks energetically -- almost angrily -- in the musical background. "And then I decided, 'No! This is not what people need right now.'"

Newcombe moved to San Francisco on a whim -- flipping a coin to choose between Heidelberg, Germany, and Northern California -- and formed the Brian Jonestown Massacre when he landed. The group has included about 40 members since then, and he has composed an army of lo-fi tunes -- a bunch of interesting, sometimes arresting, occasionally beautiful basement-studio songs. Often, these are odes to Newcombe's obsessions, like the Dylan-esque "Ballad of Jim Jones," the psychedelic space oddity of "[David Bowie I Love You] Since I Was Six," and the disjointed yet infectious "My Man Syd" (a reference to Pink Floyd's founding singer/guitarist, Syd Barrett).

Bomp!'s Shaw became intrigued by the group after reading a review slamming one of its demos in the fanzine Ben Is Dead, which claimed the band sounded like members took too much acid. Interested, he spent the next couple of years trying to track them down as they moved from one apartment (or friend's couch) to another. After years of begging Newcombe to let him release the demos, Shaw was finally given the green light, and he promptly dug into the task of splicing the recordings -- in no particular order -- into albums.

Starting with Methodrone in 1995, Bomp! released six Massacre albums in two years, including the fantastic power-psychedelic blowouts Take It From the Man!, Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request, and an incredibly strange acoustic venture titled Thank God for Mental Illness. All are worthy, but the easiest -- and safest -- introduction to the group for newcomers would be last year's TVT release, Strung Out in Heaven, a '60s circus that pays homage to the ghosts of many dead rock stars. This month, the band released a six-song EP called Bringing It All Back Home -- again, a not-so-subtle reference to Dylan on a record that riffs off the Plastic Ono Band, the Stones, and Captain Beefheart.

Although the band has built up a bad reputation for live shows (the Viper Room isn't the only place where they've fought and lost), it's been relatively sedate of late. Through Bomp!, Newcombe is manning his own psychedelic label -- with the unlikely name the Committee to Keep Music Evil -- but hasn't recorded anything but Brian Jonestown songs on it. (He says he's actively seeking demo submissions, though, and interested parties should write to him at PO Box 7112, Burbank, CA 91510.) Strung Out received limited but mostly positive attention. But last year, Newcombe's father killed himself on his son's birthday in mid-August. According to Shaw, the father jumped off a cliff, and Anton's sister met him at the Troubadour right before he went on to tell him the news. It's an anniversary he's not looking forward to.

Shaw suggests that there's something far murkier at work in Newcombe's psyche than a checkered past and a '60s obsession. He talks of psychic "breaks," and times when, in San Francisco, Newcombe disappeared for days only to be found wandering the streets stark naked. These stories add a strange, disturbingly real-life edge to Newcombe's interest in the dark side of the '60s. "He's had a manic phase. He was saying that he's an avatar, Buddha, Jesus Christ -- that he was the head of the Freemasons. He thought that he had this information about the Freemasons and that there were assassins after him," says Shaw, not hiding his fatherly concern. "And Anton really has an obsession with Mick Jagger. He imagines that someday he'll meet Mick on his own terms, and they'll have a showdown. It's personal. It has nothing to do with music."

"We just want to be down here and sort of shakin' it in the record industry's face," says Newcombe, gleeful to be proving his detractors wrong. "Oh, we're so much trouble and all this shit, and here we are, still alive and playing and working on our ninth album."

About The Author

Sara Scribner

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