Brian Jonestown Massacre Is High on God
Brian Jonestown Massacre's ruler, Anton Newcombe, moved to East Berlin in 2007. In what used to be Nazi territory, he took over an auto-body shop and made it into a music studio. The building is cement and built to withstand armored attack, and within its folds, Newcombe has the shrewd autonomy to make whatever music his ornery heart desires. Sixties psychedelics steeped in opioid spaghetti drone is the template he usually starts growing his sounds from. For Aufheben, Brian Jonestown's 17th release, Newcombe throbs with a Sufi-fluted, Eastern bent. Songs are concentric and wafted, but Newcombe, who spoke from his bunker in Berlin, is more concerned about albums as a whole, and God.
What made you move to Berlin?
A couple reasons. First of all, as an adult, I demand a certain amount of human dignity. I have no illusions. I don't bother with crap. There are some great things about the States, and I love the US dearly. But you know, it's a big world and I've seen it. I love Berlin because it leaves me alone. People here don't intrude into your life. If you're at a warehouse party, people don't come up to you and talk about meaningless crap or say, "Hi! I'm so-and-so, I work at Microsoft, and I went to the Space Needle today!" At the same time, you can approach anybody and ask them for directions or whatever. I don't speak German fluently, so I'm immune to advertising, and bullshit culture, and chitter-chatter on the trains. I split my time between here and Iceland, where the culture is opposite, like a village. There, you see everybody every day and know everybody's news. Berlin is a great place to have a studio. The art here is one of those points on the map. I've been fortunate in that I've done well enough to choose what I want to do. And I didn't have to rob a bank or invent Facebook.
You didn't invent Facebook?
[Laughs] I'm deceptively successful. I'm more successful than almost all my peers. I brought the Black Lips to Bomp Records. I'm a co-owner of Bomp. We put out the Black Lips. People like what they do, but they're juvenile. They were hanging out with Jay Reatard, who killed himself, and everybody loved him. Seeing Black Lips piss and shit on a handicapped seat and make a video of it is not cool. I'll kick their ass for that. We're only as strong as the weak among us.
What's changed for you in the course of 17 releases?
People go into making albums with ideas they get somewhere else. Madonna goes into a Belgian disco, hears the music, and says, "This is my sound. This can be my album. How much does it cost?" Or Radiohead's like, "We've got this great concept for a record that's heavy, that's not 'Creep.' We're expanding. It's called OK Computer." Except that isn't their concept, that's Paul America. They just opened Tank Magazine and had bucketloads of money and said, "How much for this?" But God bless 'em, 'cause I love Amnesiac, and they have tons of strong points. But I go into the studio without an idea. My goal at the end of the day is to make an album; I don't make singles. It's like Legos. I'll go into recording with a set of Legos that sound like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. But I got tired of that, so I tore up the directions. I also have a spaceship set and a pirate set. And I'll make an album that's made up of all the different sets. I'll go in the studio and sit until I have inspiration. I'll play spy music with whoever's around.
Which Lego set is the spy music? The spaceship or the pirate?
I'll try to make something spark, and then it all comes at once. It's like I'm in a sailboat with the sails fully up but no wind.
A sailboat made of Legos.
But I'm a mature sailor. I know the wind is gonna come if I set up the situation right. Ideas will come. I'm not going to give up. A younger person wouldn't know that. They'd freak out. But not me. I'll enjoy my time and go with it. I'll grab some imaginary pattern in my head, maybe a drone, or a thought from some sort of shamanistic future. I don't know if you know anything about end of the world apocalypse. It's in every culture, but there's supposed to be multiple prophets.
What do the prophets have to do with your songwriting?
Prophets are vehicles. Ezekiel and Moses were taken up into heaven. I like being a vehicle; I like to write from inside different characters and perspectives. I'll think, "I'm going to lay down this line, and it's the opening of a seal. I'm going to write this music, and I'm going to tell it how it is." Or it could be singing about love, and I might not have a woman in mind—I'll be singing to God. Like the Sufi poets, Hafiz and Kabir. Talking about being drunk and on drugs, but really it's being high on God. I'll thumb through a copy of The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall. It's interesting reading. I'd like to beat Harry Potter fans to death with it. Or think about Leonard Nimoy or some stargazer wondering if aliens built the coral structures.
Your new album is titled with a German word, Aufheben, which has conflicting meanings.
It means to abolish, destroy, pick up, lift up, to preserve. It also means don't litter, and to transcend. Germans had to totally destroy their culture, right? Abolish it, pick it up, and then transcend to preserve it. It's a loaded word, for sure. If you take the diagram for the album cover, [which] Carl Sagan came up with for the Voyager Program, they put the diagram on a gold plate on the probes in 1976 that were shot out into space, saying, "We're humanity. Here's our position in the solar system." It was binary information about the spacecraft and how to work this record player onboard. It had all the languages with a greeting: "Hello, we're Earth. We're so happy you found this." I thought it would be funny if a German scientist put the word "aufheben" on that disc, saying all this needs to be destroyed to be saved. [Laughs]
How do you abolish and preserve something simultaneously?
If you have a legacy of national socialism and the Der Stasi communist state, but you want to retain your German and all that ideology and history that's wrapped up in there, you have to destroy a part of your culture to preserve it. You have to tear it apart to lift it up.
How much remnant collective guilt exists in Germany because of the Holocaust?
Germans right now are responsible, for the most part. Humanity had a duty to stand up against the Holocaust. So many people didn't say anything. When they knew someone who might have known a Jew, or a fag, or a Jehovah's Witness who disappeared on a train. It's sickness in humanity that's not specific to Germans. It was a mechanization that was insane. In the village square where the children were beaten to death, there were people watching through the window, going about their business.
Which leads us right into cults. You're interested in cults. Are there cults in Berlin?
Cults are against the law here. Scientology is against the law here. It's not a religion.
Tom Cruise is Adolf Hitler.
I've read everything that Tom Cruise has read. It's all been hacked. I know what OT Level 7 is. It's dark ritualistic shit. We could get into Xenu and all that, but lets not bag on the Scientologists. You gotta pay a tax to have a religion here. The thing with cults is like anything, people will take what they want out of it. Bruce Springsteen is going to tell you "Born in the USA" is about how everything's gone to the shitter, but everyone else thinks it's about waving the flag. But that's like a cult, too. I remember people being into that, with Ronald Reagan. But that's just shit-cranking. It's the biggest cult of all—Fox TV and a waving flag that morphs into an eagle that turns into an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that costs a trillion dollars over its lifetime of operation, not counting service upgrades. And we committed to buy 2,554 of them. That's interesting, considering we owe China 14 trillion dollars. And the Saudis. Where's the money coming from to buy these things? Is China really going to loan us the money so we can blow them up and not have to pay them back? [Laughs]
You make solid points. When it all goes to the shithouse I'm coming to find your safe house in Berlin.
Okay. I live in a concrete building with a concrete roof. It's East Berlin. They designed this stuff to survive blasts. This was the front line of the Iron Curtain versus the West. They expected combat. But I'm not concerned about it. I created a soundtrack for people who are concerned about it, and the Mayans, the Evil Axis, and when it all gets down to dirty business with radiation or bird flu. But I'm going to listen to good music until that day. I'm going to go to work on Monday and not come back until September. I'm going to be playing music, making music, listening to music, all the time, going to clubs to hear music. I don't go to bars to hang out with dudes. I have a wife; I have a family. I'll be in France, Tokyo, Israel. I have a TV show on Dead TV. I do it all the time. It's Dead.is. I've had Black Angels on there playing live. I do Skype double interviews. I play music nonstop that's nuts. I'll see you in Seattle, though. Be safe. Earthquakes are coming.