Anton Newcombe: “I’m just invisible. Nobody bothers me”

The Berliner at the head of psych-rock outfit Brian Jonestown Massacre on life and work in the pandemic.

Anton Newcombe.
Anton Newcombe.Photo:Thomas Girard

Berlin- “Nothing is right, nothing is good, nothing here is right.” Reading the translation of Brian Jonestown Massacre's 2014 song “Vad Hände Med Dem?” – written in Swedish – I can think only of corona. The frenetic snare fills, kazoo-like horns and oceans of sound of the song first hooked me to the BJM psych sound. A juxtaposition of sad and happy, as songwriter and frontman Anton Newcombe might put it. With the band on repeat on my pandemic playlist, I had the good fortune to talk to the Berlin-based American musician.

How are you doing in the pandemic?

I caught corona quite early. I have an eight-year-old son, Wolfgang. I think he got it at school. It was almost last Easter when they were going to do the lockdown. We were already in isolation. They called him back to school one more day to pick up his books. A few days later he got sick and we got sick after taking care of him.

Did you have it bad?

Each one of the symptoms was only about eight or nine hours. But I started to get pneumonia so I ended up in Charité.

What are you working on?

A soundtrack for a British-Scandinavian crime show called Annika. This Norwegian cop that moves to Scotland. I’m doing all the music with Dot Allison who sang for Massive Attack.

You’ve done quite a few soundtracks.

The whole thing is like a CV for me. I think orchestrally. I write mad symphonic music. I’d like to play music for as long as I live and not just: “He’s 70 years old, here he is doing his rock music thing.”

The Stones are still doing it.

I can’t figure out why. They don’t really sound anything like the versions of those songs from the studio. It’s just a spectacle. Then when Ennio Morricone directed a symphony – whoah, you could see why he was still doing those shows. Then there’s people in the middle – like Heino.

Has the corona situation seeped into your songwriting?

No, because I’m a mature person. I don’t need to cause life tragedy or mess up my life or be depressed and write depressing songs. I’m interested in the juxtaposition of things in art. Where the intensity of whatever you’re tapping into – you sort of filter that through your lens and then other people make what they will of it. I like juxtaposing happy lyrics and sad music or vice versa.

What’s going on with Brian Jonestown Massacre?

In the fall, everything was so grim I started to have almost a writer’s block but eventually that lifted. I was writing a song a day and recording it with my friends as our own little support bubble here at the studio. I came up with like 60 songs.

How did you end up living in Berlin?

There’s a lot of things about America that bug me. I was living in New York around 2008 and I was drunk and at a bar and that song “New York, New York” came on. “If you can make it here you can make it anywhere”… and I was like, “you’re right! It never even occurred to me. I can do whatever I want. Screw New York City!” I left everything and just went directly to a hotel in Iceland. I was travelling back and forth between New York and Iceland. I was visiting my friend Olli who has this bar in Berlin, 8MM, and I said, “Oli, we should get an apartment together here, because I’m never around. And it would be cool to have a home base here. We’ll be the coolest people.” We got a penthouse. 

Berlin welcomed you with open arms…

It’s just so weird. I’m just invisible. Nobody bothers me. I could be living in the middle of a forest. I like it like that.

What are you looking forward to once it’s normal again?

I want to travel around Germany, some of the smaller towns that I’ve been to on tour. I want to impress on my child that the world is bigger than the schoolyard. A lot of city kids have bad attitudes. The best thing is for them to see a bunch of types of people and different places.

Are you in Berlin for the long term?

I wanted to get a farm up in Mecklenburg. I really like it up north. Boy, though, everyone has the same idea of having a farm two hours outside of the city. It’s really gotten bananas.