Lessons from Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Matty Kerr is co-creator with John Brancaccio of The Working Experience. He is also a filmmaker and published author. Listen to the full episode on iTunes and Spotify and visit our website: theworkingexperience.com for videos, merchandise and more. You can also find us on Facebook, Linked In, Instagram, and Twitter.

Anton Newcombe the founded the Brian Jonestown Massacre in the 1990s in San Francisco and remains the nucleus and creative force of the band. They were the subject of the 2004 documentary film Dig! which won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Anton plays over 80 instruments and is one of the most prolific producers of music in the industry. And he is a fascinating person to have a conversation with, though it can be hard to keep up at times.

“Really great art should, should somehow. I mean, I’m not talking about how you present it, but really great art. It should be reflect a full spectrum of human emotion and observation of some kind, some, some type, even in the depth of a, a singular piece, it should have some kind of depth that covers, uh, this really wild thing.”

“One thing that was really helpful for me early on was I was interested in teaching myself about recording and writing. And so on the one hand I kind of have a musical background in the sense that I’ve loved music my whole life. So I knew how everything that I loved about how music sounded in my head. So for instance, I know that Booker T and the MGs really rip on the organ and a groove or something. So I knew how to approach the organ before I ever played it. Because to me that when a song was like that, that that’s one really good way to go about doing it. So the whole point then became just writing music, you know, and, and completing the idea. So at early on is if I came up with a country song or a disco song, I would just complete it for the sake of writing.

“It had nothing to do with me wanting to be in a disco band or a country band. It was just like the, the concept of, of, of following through as a learning process, you know? And, and then once you, once you’ve done that thousands and thousands of times, they say it takes 10 years or whatever, you also have all that extra ammo for a while. You know, meaning like, I could excel at being a folk artist beyond like the my peers in San Francisco or anything else because I could just unload on anybody at a party endlessly without ever leaving the key of A, because I just sat there so many times writing songs using the same three chords or whatever they were and, and doing, you could just baffle people because there’s no way they could, they could come up with that. So I think even in writing, just if you’re just skip what you’re trying to do and you just do stuff, you know what I mean? It’s so helpful. Nobody has to know about all your little processes.

You see what I’m saying? You could be trying to write, you could be, your goal could be writing the next Dune or whatever it is, right? Yeah. You could be, it could be anything, but if you forget about that and you’re just writing weird stuff, you know, you could write a fake autobiography of some twisted fuck, you know what I mean? You could, you just get really weird. You could just, and it’s, it is kind of limitless, you know? Cause you can, with writing, you can sort of riff off of just somebody you met in a bar in Ohio or wherever you’re at, you know, just some weird character and create a whole story.

“I set out to build my own culture, which in, in a weird way you have to do anyway. So it wasn’t like some spontaneous, uh, germination of something because it was based on a lot of things. Like people always say like, oh Anton, do you wish you were from the sixties? Oh, I was born in 1967. So I am from the sixties.

“I became hell bent on creating my own places to play or doing all that kind of stuff and to help get people into it, like trying to find ways around this established sort of thing. So there’s that thing. And one of the big motivators for me to play music was I figured out quickly that from people playing punk, rock music and all this other stuff, the people weren’t too bright. So that there’s that situation in music that could be an empowering thing. It doesn’t have to be an arrogant thing, but for me, it was really inspirational to, to have that realization because I’d only seen like video clips of the Beatles or whoever playing, you know what I mean, reruns or whoever on TV playing music doesn’t matter. There’s nothing that Jimi Hendricks or Paul McCartney has ever done, that leads you to believe you could be there because you can’t see. They’re unique, one of a kind, just like Art Garfunkle, he’s a one of a kind singer, you can’t sing like him now.

The concept behind it (the band) was to try and teach other people. The important thing that I had wanted to do to impress on people was that you could do this better. So that was really important because music and culture their ecosystem. So you need all that kind of stuff. A lot of people don’t really get why it’s in their best interest to help people, because it really is like on a lot of different levels. Unfortunately I’ve seen more people screw each other over it and screw themselves in my life. Everybody always thinks they don’t understand business. Everybody’s on the internet and still to this day, nobody reads contracts and every single clause in a music contract or entertainment contractor, any kind of contract, they’re all online, you can look up every word. But I knew all that stuff before even people were online. See, I knew how it all worked, the whole record business and all that BS and the percentages and everything. So I wanted nothing to do with any of it.

“So I was like, man, if I could go play anywhere and have people show up, then I would be happy if it paid for itself. So I don’t need anything else. I kind of just knew that saying no, just flat out saying no to all of it when everybody in the world says yes then that was gonna make me more successful in a certain way.”

The Take Away:

· If you can’t fit into the culture that exists, build your own culture, your own ecosystem.

· Helping other people helps you. This is what separates creative endeavors from financial ones. If you build your own culture, teach other people to do the same.

· Find your unique voice. Learn from others, but carve out your own identity. Even if it is not popular, it is the only way that you will be fulfilled as an artist.

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Matty Kerr

Matty Kerr

Co-creator and cohost of The Working Experience Podcast. We explore what people do for work, how they do it and how they feel about it. Twice a week!