Low DownDirty Shamans

Brian Jonestown Massacre

Like his band the infamous Brian Jonestown Massacre, the even more infamous Anton Newcombe is one deeply misunderstood phenomenon, a seriously unique, uh, thing whose new album, Who Killed Sgt. Pepper, will only further push to more troubling extremes. Yet the crankily opinionated (wickedly witty, in fact) Newcombe –– best known for his role in the documentary Dig!, which focused on the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s falling out with the Dandy Warhols –– has good reasons for proclaiming that he’s got the most important band on the planet.

Who Killed Sgt. Pepper is a thoroughly mind-melting mélange of the oddest juxtapositions of arcane world musics and semi-blatant grabbings from presumably cheesy pop-rock/R&B-funk from the past, along with the trademarked gnarly punk rock-garage slams the band has been the mastering since their birth in 1994. But: That’s a real surface way of describing such a mysteriously moving sound, for all this pop detritus has been frapee’d in the Farberware of Newcombe’s complex mind, and what’s strewing out is an extraordinarily evocative and ambiguously gorgeous mess.

That “ambiguous” part right above is important, because rock bands just don’t deal in the in-between nebularities of sound & word, generally preferring to konk you on the head with their populist anthems and fist-pumping calls for action! But Newcombe’s done with all that. Now, he says, without a trace of pretension, is the time for making Art.

“First and foremost,” says Newcombe, “it’s still psychedelic music, and to me psychedelic doesn’t mean blotter art, it means mind-expanding, so there was a lot going on in my sort of silliness when I was setting out to do this. The first goal was trying to make movie music, like Giorgio Moroder back in Midnight Express, but something more shamanistic and dark or something, and really weird. I wanted to see how quickly I could scare the shit out of myself.”

Who Killed Sgt. Pepper is a beautifully baffling thing that sounds different every time you listen to it. Newcombe was curious about what he could do with the mythology of the BeatlesSgt. Pepper, which he calls “a suffocating sort of iconoclasm.” While you might hear a slight referential thing here and there –– “Ring My Bell,” “Rock With You” and “I Feel Love” wisp like ghosts through these tracks –– for the most part those hat-tips are turned completely inside-out. The only place where the cues sound obvious is in “This Is the One Thing We Did Not Want To Have Happen,” where it’s Joy Division getting evicerated. That, says Newcombe, was a deliberately cruel trick.

“Sometimes I create questions for people,” he says. “I have a beef with bands like Interpol or the Strokes: These people approach their art –– or their commercialism –– going, Wow, Wire! Pink Flag! It’s a great record, I think I’ll live it! I’m gonna be it! And then you got the media pushing that, to where you’ve got Interpol just whizzing as Joy Division Lite.

“So my joke was, [laughs] well, who’s Joy Division? I’ll rip it off Interpol. I set up a booby trap. Today, everybody’s best ideas become everybody else’s ideas.”

These days BJM is a communelike circle of like-minded weirdos that finds its home split somewhere between Iceland and Berlin, the latter city where Newcombe has gotten clean of his old vices and basically started afresh. It’s a better life there, apparently.

“It just seemed like a good time for me to sort of make the jump,” he says. “Politically and culturally, the writing is on the wall. In Europe, you don’t hear these people shouting each other down about socialism, whatever they’re saying about Obama and all that crap. It’s like you know a certain segment of the population is gonna stand up for rights, education and all that stuff, and then you’re gonna have public debate about militarism and etc.”

He gets homesick for California from time to time, however…sort of.

“But that rat race? I just can’t see it. There’s no reason for it. It’s like a series of bubbles. You’ve got your bubble little house, your bubble invitation to go to your bubble party to be with your bubble friends, and you got to this club or this restaurant and you stay in your car and you go to your job and your gym and your golf course, your street, your area of the beach… So that’s…a living worth living? It’s a joke.”

Whereas in olden times Newcombe might’ve dealt with his varied frustrations by getting well and truly slammed, he lives by choice now as a clean machine tapping the magic serums of his own inspired head. But then, he thinks whether he’s “clean” or not is his own damn business, as it is anyone’s who might like to puff the pipe, for example.

“The government has no business dealing in that, in fact their business is law enforcement,” he says, then snarls and laughs. “And their business is getting that stuff on the side. It’s just nuts that someone could get busted for dealing weed and not get busted for stealing banks!”