Out of Their Heads

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

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.

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