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Interview: The Brian Jonestown Massacre Talk Flying Nun and Artistic Liberation

Interview: The Brian Jonestown Massacre Talk Flying Nun and Artistic Liberation

Fluffy / Wednesday 6th June, 2018 1:00PM

US psychedelic rock figureheads The Brian Jonestown Massacre are as prolific as they are unashamedly individual. The project of iconoclastic multi-instrumentalist Anton Newcombe, his band have shared eighteen mind-melting full length offerings since debuting in 1995, and are regular visitors to Aotearoa, last touring here in 2015. In celebration of their latest studio offering Something Else and to gear up for next week's shows in Auckland and Wellington, kaleidoscopic reporter Fluffy chatted with Newcombe who is currently in a midst of a tour of the US about his love of Flying Nun, fates aligning, and the music biz...

What’s been some of the highlights of your current US tour so far?

Well, before I left I was recording a bunch of records for different people for different things, two of my own plus another one with Tess [Parks]. When you make enough songs, you get attached to some of them but you don’t know, if you’ve been playing for thirty years, how anybody else feels. People support their sports team forever that never wins and they’re perfectly happy, it takes all types right? But there’s this thing that happens sometimes, when you play something and you gotta take it out of a rockstar context, or the commercial thing where they’re telling you that this is the best thing. Or Oasis is telling you it's the best thing or Noel Gallagher is telling you his new single ‘The Mexican’ is a good decent song and it’s not.

Hehe, yep.

You’re just there on the level with strangers and it clicks, like they’re watching John Coltrane or Miles Davis and the band just went into the studio one day. “Well I didn’t think it was anything special,” and here it is seventy years later, they’re talking about it. So I’m kind of having one of those moments right now. Which is really exciting. We just play and it’s electric y’know? You just notice everybody in the place going “what the fuck is happening right this second?!” It's more electric then the Stone Roses ever, and I watched The Smiths play and I know how it feels. I saw that stuff happen, it’s not just some band that rehearses their stuff ad infinitum. They go to every festival, they drag it on, their roadies soundcheck, it sounds the same as the band, and they’re professionals and its great and people love it. That’s not what I’m doing. It lives and dies every single day and it's real. I couldn’t contemplate that, I’m not Jay-Z, I didn’t hire forty five producers to fix Beyonce and then pay off the whole world to make the song a hit or something. I wrote a song and all of a sudden everybody’s going “this is nuts!”

Is some of that material from Something Else?

Yeah, it is. The interesting thing about is on the single that’s out right now, one of the songs is from the second album and one is from the first. But they’re all good! Like the A-side, they all come off like this weird Flying Nun shit almost.

Are you a big fan of Flying Nun?

[Disbelieving silence] Of course! I love it, I love that stuff. It never gets old for me. All the good stuff, I love all the good stuff. It was all created for the right reasons, out of necessity.

That’s pretty crucial, huh?

Well yeah. It’s just doing it and having fun, because what else are you going to do in Dunedin?

Speaking of which, you’re returning to New Zealand in June. You sound like you’re an old hand at being around these ways?

I like it. It’s a beautiful country and there’s a lot of really cool people. It can get weird, if you’re playing and you start walking down some street in Christchurch or something and people are out on the weekend and it’s just the normals you’re like “Oh, this is weird.” Like if it’s some club playing hip hop or something and just people getting drunk or whatever. But besides that, all the other people are so wonderful, it’s just an amazing culture that came to be.

You guys come here fairly regularly. Your last visit was a couple of years ago, hey?

Exactly. That was great, that was really okay. We know some people and we just came down and rehearsed for a week in a quad downstairs because we knew this guy who used to work with my manager back in the day. My manager invented Lollapalooza and this kiwi guy was like his right hand man helping him do stuff so they go way back. So we have a lot of friends down there.

Being that you tour quite extensively, is there one show that sticks out in your mind as your favourite you’ve ever played?

Haha! Well... once again, it’s all about when things click. There’s been so many really good shows that have just been really crazy and so amazing, captured on film or whatever. Recently a really good one is… y’know how you can headline a festival but you’re not playing last in line? If they give you the best spot on the biggest stage at the key’re pretty much.. We did Field Day in London so it was about thirty five thousand people just watching us. People like Air, that band from France were in a tent with eight hundred people at the same time. That morning I woke up and I was like “just let this be okay, let it just go down.” Because you just don’t know what’s gonna happen, and we followed Thurston Moore’s band and I just walked up on stage and we just killed it, right as I walked up onstage it just started pissing down rain but they've got it down in the UK. It took two seconds and everybody had a jacket on, it was just like “What’s going on?”. The stage had this dome and we’re playing and it’s pissing down with rain and it stops. We’re getting better and better and we’re playing the best of our lives and all of a sudden behind us there’s a double rainbow and everybody’s just like “whoa!” and we’re killing it. That was a good day.

Sounds like it!

I didn’t even know until someone showed me a picture. I had no idea, it was just like “whoa! We’re getting drenched. Oh no, it’s stopped. It’s a rainbow and it sounds amazing!” So that was cool.

When the stars align and it’s all meant to be aye?

Yeah, just simple things are cool. Like Anthony Bourdain came to my studio in Berlin recently and I cooked dinner for fourteen people and wrote and produced a song simultaneously and it’s gonna be on CNN on June 10th. All around the world people are gonna be watching me do my thing. It’s not like a money thing, there is no record company, I'm the record company. He loves what he does and he loves my music. So that was a good day.

You must be pretty good at multitasking if you can cook a dinner and write and produce a song?

Yeah, you’d think that. I have the natural musical abilities and I’ve been playing since I was 11 right and I produce and all that. But you think about every single woman thirty years ago, what’d they do? They took care of everything that needed to be done that day and fed everybody at the same time. So it’s not that amazing really. It’s just like perspective.

Good point.

I cooked lamb and it was Icelandic lamb and Icelandic lamb is better than Kiwi lamb and that’s a fact. But New Zealand lamb is second best.

I’ll pass that one on the the authorities.

[laughs] The New Zealand Lamb Board.

Putting out two albums in one year, that’s pretty prolific of you. But it’s not the first time you guys have done that, right?

No, the record is six in one year, sort of. It wasn’t in a chronological year but they all came up pretty rapid fire. That was basically because I was arguing with all the record labels and I just kept saying “I’m gonna show you what the sound of money disappearing is because Im gonna write a will that says these albums go to my kids and you can never have em. Until you do as I say, I’m gonna keep releasing records.”

Did they play ball?

Well, what happened in reality and in the movie was I was told they would buy me a studio and I would make music forever and produce people and it’d be win-win. They’re like “we want you to focus and be the next Kurt Cobain of your generation or John Lennon.” But I was like “that’s not what I want.” I said “I'm the producer” and they gave me a million dollar cheque, so I bought the studio and handed the record over. But it took awhile for me to figure out the rhetorical authority because nobody did that. Even hip hop guys only learned how to be the slave of whoever signs them, then they get a prodigy who gets their own record label who brings in their featured artists and it becomes endlessly a percentage game. Even if they come up on the new kid and say “I’m gonna give you a 50-50 deal”, they’re still only making four or five percent on the majors. So they’re not doing the math.

What I do, is I pay my distributors five percent, which is nothing. The most that Michael Jackson ever got was twenty five percent at the height of his powers. So that just shows you what the deal is.

Was it just sort of a trial and error of negotiating with the powers that be that you got to this point?

Well I knew about music history and I was into computers and I knew that I could look up any contract. I always had the philosophy, I’m self-taught in all these things, in music and everything. I always knew that the guy who invented sitar didn’t take sitar lessons. So that’s been my philosophy on all things in life, y’know? I could looks up any word in a contract, a clause, a paragraph, a sentence, it doesn’t matter, and create my own contract. What people never consider is some guy comes up to you and says “you’re great, we’re gonna make you famous, here’s a contract but we need to act on this.” You’re like “I’m tired, I gotta go to bed, give it to me, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” You look it up and you go to Google, flip it around and hand it right back to him, “this is what I want!” Where is this rule that you gotta sign their contract? Everywhere else in business, they trade contracts. It’s only in the world of suckers who sign contracts who go “well, I gotta go to my lawyer and see what this contract says,” and the lawyer goes “it says if you make six records you get two hundred and forty thousand dollars but it means I get twenty thousand dollars right now. This is a good contract, you should sign it.”

See what I’m saying, it’s not good for you, it’s good for him. The conversation of what you need, what’s best, what’s right, what’s the smart thing to do never comes up. That’s the difference between the way REM did their record deal and my dealings with people. REM got ninety million dollars and they made it, they didn't make ninety million worth of great music but they made a lot of people happy. Some of the songs are good I guess. 

Do you find people are usually receptive when you speak to them about things in your own best interests?

When I try to empower people with the facts of the stuff, it’s very difficult. Because they’re gonna take the bullshit, like in all other dealings, all this slick talking BS, that’s these people’s jobs. It’s their jobs to talk you into the worst deal. In business, if it’s me and my mates and I fuck you over all the way, you wanna kick my butt. But in business it’s just par for the course, like I got the best deal for my company. Artists don’t understand that. They don’t understand that it’s par for the course for a corporation to lie non-stop.

So in this way, not having a label is probably very artistically freeing for you, right?

But I have a label. I have one hundred and eighty cataloged numbers, I have over eighty releases, bands, I do all kinds of stuff. I have a label with the same distribution as Black Angels or anybody else it’s just I am the label. Why are you gonna sign me? Im not giving you free money, I just deal with the distributor. I don’t need a boss to say “okay, I wanna make you another record.” My records make money so I don’t need an advance from a record company, I make money. It’s all about cash flow, so I don’t speak to anybody about anything.

Do you think more musicians should take it upon themselves to organise more details of getting their music to consumers?

Well of course they should, but a lot of people do this practicality game where they think they’re gonna become Oasis after they graduate, and become an architect in their part time and they wanna cover their bases. Fuck that, you gotta decide what you wanna do. The other thing with regional stuff, It’s like Shayne Carter getting support outside of New Zealand. The guys been a genius forever but Warner’s not gonna do jack shit for him in Norway or Universal or whoever. It happens to all my friends in every country.

I just wanna empower people because the main thing is that you wanna be making music, but people got confused that music has no value and then make it for everyone. Like “oh yeah it’s Bandcamp, this is my album” which is basically just the sound that your new Facebook profile makes. You should be going for every single format possible, including encouraging people to make videos for you on Youtube or whatever you can think of doing. That’s your only chance, is to do everything.

So when your mom asks “what the hell are you doing with your life?” You say “Im doing a lot of shit, me and my friends are making a video in the forest after we come down off mushrooms.” Or whatever, just to pull her chain like “as soon as I come down off this hit of acid I took, I plan to go out and make a video.” “What?!”

Do you mess with streaming platforms like Spotify?

My first point of contention is that they made it so streams are whatever, video spins count as a sale. No excuse me! A sale of something that is exchanged for something tangible. Hard work for hard work. Your art represents hard work or your intelligence or whatever you got, your training for something else that represents value. No value for no value. The only value is coming from you clocking me and putting me in the supercomputer and selling me more garbage. That doesn't cut it. So Rihanna being considered a platinum artist and selling four hundred physical copies of an album and getting paid six million from Samsung to leak the record on Androids a week early, and a billion people hit it out of curiosity, is bullshit. That’s brainwashing, that’s illuminati crap and they can go fuck themselves. I employ people and they get health insurance, Spotify doesn't do that unless you work for Spotify and you’re getting sixty thousand pounds a year to pull tricks on people. But otherwise, they don't even make money. They don't even turn a profit, they went public on a market and investors keep plowing money into it. All they’re doing is caging people, so fuck them. But I’m into real tangible things.

Such as records?

It could be records and playing concerts and stuff. I’m not into the other, disposable, temporary, urban, DJ today, "Heres’ the newest song, aww this is the greatest thing in the world, who’s Elvis by the way?" Then the next week it’s somebody else y’know?

I have one more question for you, because you’re so prolific, how do you avoid burning out artistically?

I love cooking and I love playing with Legos with my kid because I loved them when I was a kid. I love plants, like gardening and I love playing music and I do it six days a week.

You can catch Brian Jonestown Massacre live on Saturday 16th June at The Powerstation in Auckland and on Sunday 17th of June at San Fran in Wellington.


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Sat 16th Jun
The Powerstation, Auckland
Sun 17th Jun
San Fran, Wellington

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