The Brian Jonestown Massacre - Biography
What do you get when you have a megalomaniac, psychedelia-fixated frontman who won't let his band die? In Anton Newcombe’s case, you get The Brian Jonestown Massacre; a band sometimes derided as derivative and at others praised for restoring a sense of danger and fun to independent rock. The band has not only built a fan base from the ground up, but has built a small army of collaborators and former band members that have gone on to spawn bands of their own.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, (often abbreviated as The BJM), were named in tribute to the late Rolling Stones guitarist. Combining his name with the famous mass suicide of a ‘70's cult provided an ironic and provocative twist. The band coalesced after Newport Beach native Anton Newcombe moved to San Francisco in 1989 and met percussionist Joel Gion and guitarists Dean Taylor and Jeff Davies. The group became a reality in 1990, but didn't release any material until 1993 when they debuted with a batch of singles on the Tangible/Bomp! labels. These included “Evergreen”/”She Made Me” (1993), “Convertible” (1993), “Acid” (1994) and “Hide and Seek” (1995). These early efforts showed a band that, while not terribly technical, had an obvious enthusiasm for ‘60's figures like Syd Barrett/Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Donovan, and 13th Floor Elevators. They updated their ‘60's fixation by mixing in elements from more contemporary neo-psychedelic space rock bands such as Spacemen 3 and Irish proto-shoegazers, My Bloody Valentine.
After gigging up and down the Pacific Coast in 1995, BJM recorded their first album, Spacegirl & Other Favorites, releasing it only on vinyl in a limited run of 500 copies through their own Committee To Keep Music Evil label. This release and word-of-mouth, brought them to the attention of Greg Shaw, the owner of independent label Bomp! Records. Bomp! specialized in releasing albums by punk, power pop, garage rock and new wave bands, but always had a particular slant towards those with a psychedelic feel. The BJM fit the bill perfectly. The line-up of Newcombe, Maymi, Hollywood, Jeffrey Davies on guitar, drummers Brian Glaze and Graham Bonnar and vocalists Elise Dye and Paola Simmonds recorded the band's debut full-length for Bomp!, 1995's Methodrone. The album was heavily indebted to early ‘90's shoegaze scene that which was defined by its use of dreamy, droning sounds made with lots of guitar effects and distortion.
Methadrone was followed by a period of intense activity for the band as they released three albums during the course of 1996. The first was Their Satanic Majesties' Second Request (Tangible/Bomp!), an obvious tribute to the Rolling Stones' psychedelic release, Their Satanic Majesties' Request. The album was a departure from the sound of Methodrone. The band adopted an open-ended sixties-influenced psychedelic sound that would characterize most of their releases in years to come. Newcombe is listed as writing all of the songs on the album, save two ,which were written and sung by Hollywood. It's also listed that Newcombe played most of the junk-shop assortment of instruments on the album, though the other members of the band are all listed in the credits. Of particular note is the heavy use of Mellotron on the album, an electro-mechanical keyboard that was an early forerunner of sampling. It was used by many psychedelic and early progressive rock groups in the ‘60's.
The follow-up was Take it from the Man! (Bomp!). The record's ‘60's garage rock and blues-derived sound borrowed liberally from that of early Rolling Stones. The group clearly identified their influences on the album, by featuring a Union Jack on the cover with graphics highly reminiscent of albums from the mid-‘60's.
The third album of 1996 was Thank God for Mental Illness (Bomp!), an album reportedly recorded in just one day at the residence the band was sharing in San Francisco. Thank God for Mental Illness retained much of the bluesy feel of Take it from the Man!, and once again borrowed heavily from early Stones. While the BJM were frequently accused of being a merely revisionist throwback, they were still writing quality, original songs that had a harder, more nihilistic edge than many of their obvious ‘60's influences. While it may have seemed like flower power all over again, song titles like “Sound Of Confusion” and “Talk Minus Action Equals Shit” made it clear that the BJM’s concerns went beyond peace & love.
It’s worth noting that the BJM line-up is in an almost constant state of flux, with founder Anton Newcombe the only constant. With the addition of future Black Rebel Motorcycle Club guitarist Peter Hayes and future solo artist Miranda Lee Richards on vocals and guitar, the band released their next album Give It Back! (Bomp!) in 1997. The group continued with their ‘60's-soaked rave-ups, and even made a goofy stab at aping the duets of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. The album was also notable for the inclusion of the track “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth,” a reference to their mostly friendly rivalry with Portland-based neo-psychedelic pop band The Dandy Warhols. The Dandys saw the song as an attack fuelled by jealousy over the success The Dandys were enjoying, though the BJM maintained it was meant as a joke, pointing out that they even borrowed elements of The Dandys’ sound because of their fondness for them. The relationship and rivalry between the two bands was chronicled in the critically acclaimed 2004 documentary DiG! (directed by Ondi Timoner). After the film was released, sales and interest increased for The Brian Jonestown Massacre even though it hardly painted them (and especially leader Anton Newcombe) in an entirely favorable light.
By 1997, the BJM were popular enough that major record companies began to show an interest in them. After talks with several labels, the band decided to sign a multi-album deal with large independent label TVT. Their first record under the new deal was 1998's Strung Out In Heaven. They delivered an album that was more focused and mature than their earlier albums, toning down the raunch and experimentalism of previous albums. It earned widespread critical praise but failed to generate the type of sales the label had thought the band was capable of. Both the label and the band agreed to end their relationship with each other after touring for the album was completed.
The BJM returned with the stripped-down country-folk feel of their next EP, Bringing It All Back Home Again (1999 Tangible). The EP had the feel of mid-60's Bob Dylan and the countrified blues shuffles of the late ‘60's Rolling Stones combined with a rural, lonesome sound. The EP also marked the end of long-time bassist/guitarist/singer/songwriter Matt Hollywood's tenure with the band, as Hollywood quit after an onstage argument with Newcombe. The group didn't release another album until 2001, coming back with Bravery, Repetition and Noise (Bomp!). The album showed the band absorbing more influences, most notably using the feel and atmospherics that some of the post-punk and gothic bands favored in the 1980's. The group continued refining their sound for their next album And This Is Our Music (2003 TeePee), a 17 song juggernaut that introduced new instruments like drum machines and synthesizers into the the BJM arsenal and further expanded their sound.
To capitalize on the attention the BJM were receiving on the heels of the release of DiG!, the band collected tracks from all of their projects (excluding Strung Out In Heaven, due to legal restrictions) and released the compilation album Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A Retrospective on TeePee in 2004. The compilation was a double album and was an excellent entry into the band's recorded history. Anton Newcombe and the band seemed to have taken a step back during this time, and returned in 2005 with an EP, We Are the Radio, written by Newcombe in collaboration with co-vocalist Sarabeth Tuceck. The EP was a hovering collection of cosmic folk-rock with an electronic sheen that didn't have the shocks of raunchiness or fuzzed-out guitar that most of their other efforts had.
After more line-up shifts and an almost four year absence from the music scene, Newcombe and the BJM came roaring back in 2008 with the album My Bloody Underground on Newcombe's own label, A Records. The group returned to a sound that recalled some of their earliest influences, in this case My Bloody Valentine and the Velvet Underground, hence the title, however Newcombe has denied this and maintains that “bloody” was used in place of the word “fucking.” The record was mostly ignored by critics but was embraced as a return to form by their loyal fan base.