The founder of San Francisco’s notorious band The Brian Jonestown Massacre on sneaking into punk-rock clubs at age 11, finding a sound, and finding his way to Berlin.
Ah, Berlin. One of the most visceral pleasures I’ve had over the years has been crawling every quadrant of this great, open city, with friends, boozed-up surveyors charting mental mischief maps. Berlin is a city which even now, three decades after the wall fell, seems to delight in its openness. And we have taken advantage of that over the years—on bike, on foot, taxi, kayak in the western lakes, S-Bahn to the northern forests, U-Bahn through the dark middle. The city that used to be trussed up like a turkey is unbound and beckoning for any number of deep drinking nights. And that’s what it was on my final evening in this city this time, with this episode’s guest, musician Anton Newcombe, frontman of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who lives now in Berlin, which keeps perfect pace with his open, productive mind.
After recording this episode in January, but still early on in the pandemic, Anton came down with COVID-19. As he texted me yesterday, he recommends avoiding it if you can. But since his recovery, he has been a beast in the studio, eating well and waking early and putting out prolific works in progress. You’ll hear in this conversation the kind of mind that just instinctually makes buckets of lemonade in a very lemon-filled year.
There are things that I miss [about the US], but they don’t exist.
Nathan Thornburgh: Cheers, man. Thanks for being here.
Anton Newcombe: How much do they pay you to drink this shit?
Thornburgh: [laughs] This episode brought to you by Faxe.
Newcombe: Wow. Reminds me of… American beer.
Thornburgh: Yeah. I could see you were searching for a devastating insult. And you found it.
Newcombe: Well, not insulting, but it just reminds me of a malt liquor almost. It reminds me of Colt 45, it has the same exact taste.
Thornburgh: You’re from California, but not from San Francisco originally?
Newcombe: No, I’m not. I’m from Newport Beach, California.
Thornburgh: You have come a long way, baby.
Newcombe: Yeah, exactly. This little lemon fell far away from the tree, but that’s okay. There are things that I miss, but they don’t exist. So what can you say?
Thornburgh: We were talking about the ghosts of San Francisco, how the town just seems to be somewhere else and you can only remember what used to be.
Newcombe: I really feel it. I know very few people that still live there. Joel from my band and some people come out of the woodwork, and there was an Exodus for a while to the East Bay, and I know people there too.
Thornburgh: Well, the economy chased them over there too.
Newcombe: Yeah. Everywhere. Right. Everywhere I move becomes this amazingly popular place including here. It’s crazy.
Thornburgh: You mean this whole time it was you.
Newcombe: Yeah. It doesn’t matter where I go. It’s crazy. Portland, Oregon, you name it.
Thornburgh: I’m putting your ass in Bucharest and see if you can…
Newcombe: It’s like I’ve picked all these dodgy places to live, whether it’s Echo Park in Los Angeles or something and all of a sudden, next thing you know there’s a yoga studio.
Thornburgh: This is the truth man. And then the times I’ve congratulated myself on having found a place that I feel is a nice balance of interest and costs… All of a sudden I look around and realize I’m not the only asshole with that idea.
When I moved to Prenzlauerberg there were no ATMs. They didn’t accept any cards of any kind anywhere on the East Side of Berlin.
Newcombe: When I moved to Prenzlauerberg there were no ATMs. They didn’t accept any cards of any kind anywhere on the East Side [of Berlin] and little things like that. And then you fast-forward to a couple of years ago and there were Patagonia pop-up stores and Tesla pop-up stores. This is ridiculous. They have this thing, sneakers and things. It’s like a Swedish firm. And it used to be this club that had a basement cave grotto thing and then the top floor, and it was called White Trash a Go Go, and it was a crap American-style restaurant. Chinese interior. It was just mad, right? But one day the landlord just said, “Okay, the rent is 27,000 Euro a month.” And the guy was like, “What are you talking about?” “Okay, get out.” And I was like, “Who’s going to pay 27,000?” All of a sudden it’s like Nike Exclusives. And then I’m thinking, “How the hell are they going to clear that off sneakers and then make a profit?” And then I started to see 120 people lined up as they launch each Weezy, Jeezy, whatever it is. I realized that it was all subsidized by the actual clothing companies.
It’s the same thing with nightclubs. It’s everything. They’re not making money off a two-euro Ladies’ Night. It’s an Absolute Vodka event or whatever.
Thornburgh: That’s the thing. Like you said, they’re showrooms, they’re loss-leaders, and then how are you going to fight against that?
Newcombe: Well they can’t lose, and it’s the same thing in the record industry that when you hear about things that bucked the trend, this has been quite a while, but it’s like The White Stripes Seven Nation Army selling a million copies on vinyl, it’s just ridiculous. But when you have the right distribution behind you they can contact every store and say, keep one hundred copies because if you don’t sell them, you can have them.
Live music was only in bars, and you had to be 21 to drink. So that was the end of live music and that was the end of the youth culture.
Thornburgh: So you started out going to clubs in Newport Beach?
Newcombe: Well, let me tell you the story. There used to be a place called the Cuckoo’s Nest in Placentia, down the street from my mom’s place and it was original punk rock, New Wave whatever happens kind of place, as crazy as Los Angeles or New York or anything. Of course CBGBs was a little bit before that obviously, you had Max’s Kansas City, and all that stuff was petering out, through the Velvet Underground with no Lou Reed, until the Dolls and the Ramones and everything else.
But in the later 70s it was there for international acts. So I could just walk there in the middle of the night with my friends when I was 11 or whatever, and we figured out this trick that was pretty amazing, because you can’t go see bands generally in California since the Sunset Strip riots happened, in 1966.
Thornburgh: They closed it to kids?
Newcombe: What happened was, there used to be coffee houses that had Go Go bands. The venues were actually coffee houses as much as the Whiskey a Go Go, and there were age limits. And eventually there was a plan from the city council, because so many people were hanging out, that they were going to make a 10 p.m. curfew. And at that point there were riots. All the kids started protesting right on Sunset Strip. California changed the laws. So you had to be 21. Live music was only in a bar, and you had to be 21 to drink. So that was the end of live music and that was the end of the youth culture.
Thornburgh: That’s so crazy.
Newcombe: Besides school dance, county fair. Seriously.
Thornburgh: How do I not know about it? Because that very directly affected my teen years.
Newcombe: But all of Southern California was like that, you know? Surf bands, The Safaris, everybody. All these different cities had their own coffee houses and clubs.
Thornburgh: How’d you get around it as an 11-year-old?
Newcombe: I learned a trick. The punk rockers would stage dive, right? And so the bouncers would grab these guys and they would kick open the back door with a dude in the headlock to throw him out. So we would stand on either side of the door, against the wall. And inevitably, first song or the fast stuff comes on, the door kicks open. Some guy gets thrown out with the bouncer pushing him, and we’d just run in, and if you could get up the stage to jump off into the audience, or around into where everybody was and you were inside, we could just do that endlessly.
Thornburgh: You’re like a fucking woodland creature, looking for your any gaps.
Newcombe: So quick, you know what I mean? Like water gushing into the Titanic or something.
Thornburgh: And then once you’re in the middle, who’s going to catch you out?
Newcombe: There’s no way they’re going to catch you.
Punk rock opened the door for a lot of other stuff.
Thornburgh: It sounds like the punk rock clubs [were] your cultural escape.
Newcombe: That was the music thing, because a lot of things aren’t really punk rock. Punk rock opened the door for a lot of stuff. I saw Magazine play, and PiL, and all these things very early. They’re not really punk rock, but they wouldn’t have happened without it. Johnny Rotten’s a perfect example. When you’re young, and you try to become Johnny Rotten, you become yourself. But if you try and be like Sid Vicious, you become like this glue-sniffing derelict. There’s like two totally different weird things about it. You can’t be like Johnny Rotten, because he’s just him.
It’s the product of giving yourself permission to be yourself. And some people are beautiful that way. They excel. Like what they have to offer is amazing because you can kid yourself and say, I’m just being myself by pretending I’m into The Jesus and Mary Chain, like 30 years later, wearing black sunglasses and a leather jacket, whatever it is you’re doing. But some people, a fair amount of people, whatever they’re doing, when they have no idea and they’re trying to come up with something, the first thing they reach for isn’t something else that they know. They reach into the fire of the unknown. You just use things. You got to understand a big part of everything else is copying other things. Like everything, it doesn’t matter what you see, people are feeding off of other things.
Thornburgh: I think I understand what you’re saying. It’s like you are making conscious decisions to use whatever those influences are to find out who you actually are.
Newcombe: Well, most people hang very heavily on other things and they’re good at it. Most of the masters are very good at synthesizing combinations of other things that are beautiful.
Thornburgh: Where do you fall on that? Are you good at it?
Newcombe: Well, I’m interested in different things. I’m less interested in blues music, so it doesn’t pigeonhole me that way. And I’m just interested in a blender of things, but it’s all sort of presented in this playable way of just the same equipment that The Beach Boys were using or something in the early 60s. So it doesn’t matter what I’m playing, it has nothing to do with them. It’s just possibilities, in the way that The Beach Boys were doing this Chuck Berry [sound], right? It’s squeaky clean, right? These 50s harmonies. And then all of a sudden, wow, they’re doing Pet Sounds and doing this mind-expanding thing, whatever the hell it is. I’m interested in those possibilities more. I would love to be able to rip that off, but I can’t, I don’t got it in me.
There’s the weight of the whole wannabe, when that’s true. Like you want to be something so much. Like this is what you want to do. But my thing started out because when the parents would be in LA, that’s an excuse for a party. So you were either talking somebody into having a party and then blowing out as crazy as it could possibly be. So we used to have this technique that I figured out, which was you get three pretty girls and you sit them down on little parking curb right next to the front of the liquor store and you wait for the construction guy to come pull up after work to get his beer. And you say, “Excuse me Mr, I’m trying to get laid, will you help me get some beer?”
Thornburgh: Who among us could deny that young man?
Newcombe: And it would work, it would work. I would get kegs, I would get whatever, all the time. So because people just, they really got a kick out of it.
I never thought I could play music from watching a clip of The Beatles or anybody else on TV.
Newcombe: Then the next thing would be like, “Oh, let’s have a band.” And it was all about making up bands, and you would just do that for parties. But it was next to impossible to get gigs for a long time.
Thornburgh: But that’s where you leave many people behind. It’s just seeing that party as a canvas, not just for getting laid, but for entertainment, for having some sounds and music, ideas popping in your head.
Newcombe: We were totally outlaws. All of our friends, our friends’ brothers, everybody was an outlaw. But that also made us the coolest people at the same time. So in the weirdest way there was a healthy subculture in Southern California.
Newcombe: And it was crazy. You would see bands. And there would be a party and the band would be in the garage, a party is in the living room, and in the backyard, in community centers and it was just nonstop crazy. And that stuff is inspirational. I tell people this all the time. I never thought I could play music from watching a clip of The Beatles or anybody else on TV, watching Hee-Haw with my great-grandma or The Lawrence Welk show. None of that shit ever showed me that I could play music, or do that, in the way that if you grew up, with somebody like your grandma and all your cousins playing and had a history of it. You want to sing? Go ahead and sing along. You want to strum on the guitar? Please do. It’s a different situation. But once you see all these idiots, you’re like, I can do this.