It’s been 25 years since a group of Californians began banging their instruments together under the name The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and the name has since become synonymous with 90s psychedelia. For lead singer Anton Newcombe, 46, one thing hasn’t changed since his early days of shoegazing and garage rock, and it’s a common interest he still shares with today’s 20-somethings – a yearning to take to the roads and the skies and escape his usual surroundings.
“I’ve never been a tourist-type person, but I do have wanderlust, where I can’t get nailed down to anywhere,” says Newcombe. “I don’t know what I’m capable of doing and I never knew that I could live in Manhattan. The same goes for moving to Europe.” Through a convenient mingling of interests, his day job gives him the luxury of seeing the world’s sights whilst touring, as well as the means to move to Berlin, where he’s been living with his family since 2007.
Where he and the average 20-something traveler differ is in motive, because for Newcombe, leaving home has little do with day tripping. “As much as I hate moving, I really don’t know where it is that I’m supposed to be,” he says, with the only certainty being that California isn’t the place. “The writing was on the wall my whole life. [America] was continuously moving further away from where I wanted it to be: bohemian and alternative, open-minded, with a fair and just society… or at least balanced!” he laughs.
Newcombe compares California to Bondi Beach, which has slowly but surely become a bit more Miami. “It’s a glitchy thing that happened to southern California and it’s almost suffocating. The ‘live and let live’ thing isn’t even possible,” he says. “I have no problem with people making money, and I’ve sure burned through my fair share, but coming from Newport Beach, I’ve watched phenomenons like the Kardashians wreck my hometown.”
The cultural impact of the celebrity has seeped deep into the music industry – something Newcombe is cynical of. Particularly in Australia, more and more musicians are hitting out against radio networks, the biggest of which seem to neglect local artists in favour of the “sex pests” and contest winners that rule the charts. “They say [local] musicians are just grumbling 30-year-olds, but they also know there’s no interest in the 12-year-old from America – they just tell you there’s interest by saying they won a fake contest,” he says. “What Simon Cowell did to market people who otherwise wouldn’t get marketed was make a TV show, put them on TV for a month, and that’s the commercial.”
To Newcombe, the music industry isn’t all doom and gloom for newer artists who, thanks to the internet, have new ways of distributing music. Unfortunately, just as Bandcamp can be an artist’s boon but Spotify their bane, every piece of good news seems to carry a caveat. “I’m a MacGyver guy about music and I think you should use anything you can. The larger issue is copyright control,” he says, “as if years of artistry is something that comes from a phone plan and has no intrinsic value.
His recommendation for budding musicians? “Until [the music streaming issue] is resolved, I’m all for using every single medium,” says Newcombe. “Whether Soundcloud or a blog or YouTube, if you can make music in a convenient format, I think that’s brilliant.”
Just as he sought to escape the new culture in California, Newcombe has his own method of resisting its impact on music and ensuring his work stays his own: starting his own label, A Records – a decision that wasn’t so much creative as it was ideological. “I’ve always been working to various degrees to have my own label and have my own imprint, and that has everything to do with understanding how the machine works,” he says. “Michael Jackson got one of the best deals ever, where he got 25 per cent of the sales, and that shows you right there why you want to have your own label.”
Perhaps the biggest problem posed by celebrity culture isn’t that it takes attention or money away from low-profile musicians, but the fact that the attention is on anything but what’s most important: the music. “You have to be open-minded and I flip through everything, like YouTube. I don’t need to be told that something’s good,” says Newcombe, encouraging a broader take than the music that’s spoon-fed by Simon Cowell. “I always knew that I just wanted to make music. I wasn’t interested in being the next Nirvana. I was just trying to make a little pocket of madness that people could get into.”
First published on Pagesdigital. Image via Brian Jonestown Massacre.