“Imagination and inspiration…”: An Interview with Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre

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How do you, as a listener, react to an artist’s or a band’s newest release when it’s been dubbed a “departure” or described as “heading in a new direction” from their previous work? Do these descriptors influence how you listen to the music, how you interpret what you hear?

How do you, as an artist or a band, react to the way your newest release is packaged and marketed to the listener, especially when you have minimal control over the reviews and press releases that precede the sales? Does it matter to you the influence these words may have on the way your audience listens to and interprets your music?

In an implicit way, Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre raises these questions as he discusses Musique de film imaginé, BJM’s newest album, set for release today (April 27, 2015). SEM‘s review of the album will appear tomorrow.

For Newcombe, the project has in part been about pursuing his goal of creating soundtracks, but with total freedom – a desire he doesn’t perceive the Hollywood film industry accommodating too readily.

But in other ways, this is an argument for listeners to push aside the “marketing schemes” of the music industry and to draw their own conclusions about what they hear in Musique de film imaginé.

SEM: Thanks for talking to us today, Anton. When did you become interested in French New Wave cinema, and what were some of the first films you remember seeing and what impressed you about them?

AN: I guess the answer is from the moment I started looking externally for anything thought provoking. I really liked Ray Bradbury when I was younger and got a kick out of Godard’s treatment of Fahrenheit 451. But this project isn’t about French cinema.

I’m interested in the movement and the people it influenced. I’m very interested in the idea of a need for a reaction to Hollywood and a return to the simplicity of making movies for the hell of it.

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SEM: How did the theories of French New Wave cinema influence the project?

AN: I’m influenced by the ideas that people like Godard and Truffaut had: “We don’t need scripts reviewed, rewritten, and approved. We can just make a film about nothing or this or that. We don’t have to copy Hollywood or need it’s permission. We don’t have to cater to an imaginary demographic dictated and rubber-stamped by outside forces beyond our control.”

SEM: How did Asia Argento [Italian actress, singer, and director] and SoKo [French chanteuse and multi-instrumentalist] become involved in the project?

AN: For Asia, I heard a remix she did with Tim Burgess [of The Charlatans] and invited her to Berlin to record with me, and she came. The track ended up on her album, but in the back of my mind, I wanted to see it presented in the proper context.

Over the course of our friendship, we’ve talked about perhaps making a film together, with her as the director and creative force, and I would focus on the music. We’d perhaps bounce a few conceptual ideas around, but we need to find funding. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that we could pull this off. It’s just FUCKING MONEY.

For SoKo, the story goes like this: my wife suggested that I ask her, so I hit her up via Twitter and asked her.

SEM: SoKo sings on “Philadelphie Story.” Two questions. Why did you think she was the right vocalist for the track?

AN: She was the right person to ask because she said, “Yes.” She told me she had never sung in French before. I said, “Your culture needs you.” I think she absolutely nailed it.

 

SEM: For those of us who don’t speak French, what’s “Philadelphie Story” about?

AN: It’s based in ancient Greece and the esoteric. The lyrics have to do with a journey through the underworld and resurrection.

SEM: “La Sacre du Printemps” features Asia’s and your vocals. Tell us about that track.

AN: There are Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Tchaikovsky’s Rites of Spring. One of them hints at ancient pagan esoteric rituals still practiced in secret, in public all over the world in great opera houses and concert halls at exactly 3pm. (I’ve been.)

 

SEM: Traditionally, many people who purchased soundtracks did so to remember the film that they saw in the theater. Did you write the songs with specific scenes, moods, action, etc. in mind?

AN: No, it’s more or less for you to imagine the film. In the 1980s, there was a French film, Betty Blue [it’s original title was 37°2 le matin], and I remember many people having the soundtrack because it evoked a mood. I wanted this album to evoke a mood.

Anyway, this project is more or less a C.V. for Asia and me to make a movie. She’s directed three or more, and I’ve recorded so much music, there’s no question we have the imagination. The problem is that the industry has no imagination.

SEM: But the converse of the previous question could also be true. Did you want the listener to “make a movie” in his/her head while listening to the album?

AN: Yes, I’m an artist, and I want the listener or viewer to make what they like of the situation they find themselves in, to interact with the stimuli provided. If I were different, I’d work in advertising and lead people to conclusions like, “Buy Coca Cola” or whatever.

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SEM: In my opinion, Musique de film imaginé works very well as a BJM album and not as an Anton Newcombe solo work. I say this because the name of your band refers to death of a man and era known for their unadulterated and relentless creativity. What’s the link, for you, between the music and cinema of the 1960s?

AN: First of all, thank you. But I’m from the 1960s; I was born in 1967, so make what you want of that.

Secondly, the label partners tried to get me to list this as my solo work, and I said, “No.” I think once this is performed with a pocket orchestra mixed with electric traditional band elements (think of Morricone and the groovy stuff) people will have a deeper understanding of the project. However, it’s not necessary because I feel this album works on its own, minus film, band, or explanation. I put it on, and it seems very real.

SEM: For the project, did you have to rethink the process by which you create music? But, having asked that, I know that one of your chief calling cards is never to settle on a particular style – which makes all your albums different and exciting.

AN: It’s one of my goals to work creating soundtracks, but I want total freedom. My lament is that there is no film industry to accommodate this desire – hence this project. It was very easy for me to create this body of work in a few days. Imagination and inspiration…

SEM: How much of the album was performed by live musicians – and how much was created electronically?

AN: I did most of the work. I have Mellotrons, and they were and are common in soundtrack work of the era. We wrote sheet music, and I had a few people help me but don’t let that throw you. I put an infinite amount of brainpower into this – way more than Pharrell using Beat Detective on a Marvin Gaye song and going, “Right, Robin, that’s a hit.” And way more [brainpower] than Beyoncé and her endless conga line of writers, producers, and guest performers. There’s nothing wrong with all of that…but this is something else.

 

SEM: Why the paucity of beats on most of the songs?

AN: I wanted this album to have the feeling of an old lady sitting in an empty house with a clock ticking…slowly…reflecting about some crazy-ass shit inferno of a hell many years ago…alone.

SEM: In “Les Trois Clothes,” why did you feature 20 seconds of – I think – solo triangle?

AN: It could be 3 o’clock, I dunno. Many times when I visualize an album, I’ll write a few slamming ideas and fill in the blanks. In this case, it was all about the pace and reflection…

SEM: Tell us about the song, “L’Enfer.”

AN: In French, “L’Enfer” just means Hell – the Inferno. It’s about that all-consuming rage, fear, and anger that you find in a situation beyond your control, like a bad breakup fight, where you are screaming: “I invested this in us, and you threw that away.” And you are mad at yourself and them and it and everything.

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SEM: In general, how do the song titles relate to the songs themselves?

AN: All connections are by chance. My engineer, Fabien Lessure, is French, and I just spit out song titles and he translated them. I put very little thought into it except for how they related to scenes in this film.

SEM: Tell us about the cover art. It’s truly beautiful.

AN: Nonni from Dead Skeletons provided a very old postcard from Iceland. We work together on many projects, as you know. There’s something about rocks that can crush a person standing on them, meeting the sky, where you can pass freely and fly with ease, which also destroys the rocks through weather and time…the rocks that sit on magma and fire that consume everything…

SEM: Would you ever take this album on tour and perhaps perform it in its entirety?

AN: I’d like to perform it at, say, the Barbican Centre, with a pocket orchestra. I feel like there’s nothing shocking for the listener aged 13 to 90. Anyone could enjoy this. People in their 70s would be reminded of older references, and symphonically, I think it’s quite pleasing. We’ve written out all of the sheet music, so it could happen.

I could see us performing the entire thing for 40 minutes, with an intermission, and then perhaps another set of our traditional song-type things.

It would be nice to bring it to a formal environment.

SEM: What’s next for you and BJM?

AN: Well, I have a plan for a double single-EP thing to come out in the fall. It’s more of a classic BJM recording. But it’s best to keep the world guessing.

Edited by Katie Gleason

Images by Katy Lane