The Brian Jonestown Massacre are an American underground psychedelic band who formed in 1988. Here we talk with the bandleader and founder Anton Newcombe, and band members Ricky Maymi and Jeff Levitz.
Interview by Gregg Foreman
(In the beginning) I was trying to sing in punk bands and stuff and I never thought it was going to go anywhere. That’s why I switched to folk music and guitars. I still never thought that our music would be popular. I always saw it as an outsider, as making an experimental kind of art. So, just for fun, I was spending the better part of a year after touring for my last record just writing stuff for imaginary soundtracks and experimenting using all my old Korgs, Moogs, Mellotrons and old HR 16 drum machines and just goofing around, making up weird recordings every day. Then my label partners told me,” If you want to tour next year, you’ve got to get it together and make an album.” And none of that stuff I was writing was BJM style so I had to sit there and think, what the fuck am I going to do, you know? And then the pressures on. I’ve been in that situation before but for awhile there I was a drunk. Now I don’t do anything and many times when looking back over the years I see how I sort of cultivated manic energy, mania, into an insane level and just went with it but now I’ve got a baby and I’ve gotten sick before doing that so I don’t even have the luxury of going with that shit anymore.
How does this process differ than say, if you go back to the very first thing you’ve ever done as BJM to now, what has changed in the process of writing and recording?
In the beginning its a dream you have that you’re going to make records. I really wanted to have songs too, so you’re trying to figure out how to make that happen. And then, later, when you’ve made 15 records it’s a different feeling because you’re not dreaming about trying to make your first record or getting your name out there. Now you’re trying to block distractions more. Because you’ve learned about that. And the road also narrows because you have your fears which when you started out you didn’t really have, you just had your dreams.
That’s something that Ricky (Maymi) mentioned that he admired about you is that you were always just like, why deal with these record people?
I knew that I just wanted to make records and I was explaining this in an interview yesterday, that I don’t know what the fuck I thought as a teenager when I wanted to get into all of this stuff. You know, I just wanted to be making records. I didn’t want to be Led Zeppelin or The Beatles. I didn’t give a shit about any of that stuff. I had an idea of how the whole machine worked anyways and I was just like fuck all that stuff. I wanted to learn how to record and engineer because I had already been in the studio before with these teenage bands I was in and just saw the engineers butcher our sounds you know and they never listened to Cocteau Twins and here we are paying all them this money…
Ricky was also saying that there was some studio in San Francisco where you recorded, like a compound or something?
Yeah, Not Human. Those guys hooked us up with this manager Wally George and they tried to put this 50% of everything I ever made contract over my head and I just looked at these two guys and I said, fuck you and they threw a book at me but when they saw our group they were like, “What the hell is this? This is amazing! I know that if I help these guys record and pay money to get them a producer this is going to blow everybody away.” So, they paid for us to record with this hot shit producer at this studio but I was basically producing the record with this guy because I was telling him what to do. One day we saw Graham Bonnar (from the U.K. band Swervedriver) walking down the street in Haight Ashbury and we jumped out of the back of the truck and Travis told him to come into the studio with us and we bought him a Gretsch drum set with this rich guy’s money. In the process of recording that album Ricky (Maymi), Matt (Hollywood) and Travis (Threlkel) all quit right in the middle of it. So those tracks never got finished but he gave me his other recording studio under the pretext of finishing those tracks but what I proceeded to do instead of finishing those songs was that I just started writing new songs every night so it was like the 1001 nights. Every day he would come in and he would ask, “Did you finish that track?” and I would say, “No, but check this new song out!” And e’d be like, “Oh, that’s interesting” and every day he would take a mix of it home to work on and so I got hundreds of songs that way with him.
At what point did all of those songs come together for your first record?
Well, I was sending out demos of all of these songs, just making these compilations and stuff and I sent some of them to this magazine Ben is Dead which used to be in LA and then Greg Shaw (of Bomp! Records) read a review of our tape that said something like, “This band looks like they’ve eaten some bad acid and their tape was melted in the sun..” this shit and they liked it. So they took those compilation cassettes and they made Spacegirl & Other Favorites (Brian Jonestown Massacre’s first album).
When I Was Yesterday – Brian Jonestown Massacre
Interview with Ricky Maymi of Brian Jonestown Massacre:
As one of the founding members of the BJM, can you tell us how the band came about?
I was in San Francisco, I was 18, it was around 1990 and I was playing music with my friend Travis Threlkel who was also one of the founding members of BJM. At the same time, I was also playing with this kid named Arrow who passed away in 2002 but who was this brilliant singer songwriter and I was just fascinated at how brilliant he was. He was a couple years older than me and he said to me, “Gee, I’m stoked that you want to play with me and everything, but I just wish you were a little bit better.” (Laughs) Then he said, “I think you should meet this guy I know named Anton because I think his songs are kind of more what you want to do anyway.” Then he said, ” I tried playing with him before but it didn’t work out.” Anton has always been pretty well known for his personality and sense of vision. He’s just always been really clear on what it is he’s setting out to do you know. So, Arrow hooked me up with Anton and Anton and I met for coffee on Haight street. We played a game of chess and we were talking about music. Then, I told Anton about Travis and how he wanted to start a band and that he didn’t care about the people being super good musicians, he actually wanted to have people who were at a kind of beginners level so that they could just get their heads around what he wanted to do because that’s all they needed to know. So then Anton played me some of his stuff and I liked it and thought it was pretty good but I was also playing in a band with Jeffery Davies at the time called The Tulips and we were gigging pretty regularly and that was taking a lot of my focus. A few days later Travis came over to my house and he played me a demo that he and Anton had made and it was so fucking cool and instantly I was like, “I’m coming over there and I’m playing with you guys.” And in all of those early demos, it was just all Anton free-styling over an Alesis drum machine when everyone was convinced that it was some drummer with a groovy feel. Anton was literally writing a song or two or four a day, every day, for weeks and before we even started to play shows we were just conceptualizing this band in a sort of young, silly, acid way. (Laughs) We were just taking acid a lot then and coming up with these dumb ideas, making up these dumb imaginary band names and Brian Jonestown Massacre stuck. But we did invent different band names and we would play out as these different bands under our different names. We would open up for ourselves and come out as as Electric Kool Aid which was more 60s style rock. Then we’d change our clothes and come out and play as BJM which was more shoegaze-y. All of that early music ended up coming out on Give it Back, like the song Whoever You Are was originally an Electric Kool Aid song. So we had two kind of ideas going there for awhile and different ones stuck at different times but it all became Brian Jonestown Massacre in the end.
Whoever You Are – Brian Jonestown Massacre
Photo by Angie Gray
Over the years, you’ve had a lot of different members. I feel like at one point every musician in LA was in one of your line ups.
You think? More then Beck?
I think about the same and also The Lilys had quite a few. I was in The Lilys for about 2 minutes in Philly. Do you/did you have a favorite line up though?
We had problems with drummers the whole time which really effected our sound. There was a couple of days where we rehearsed with this guy Irwin who is actually Jeff Levits brother and he is just a kick ass drummer but has no interest in the music business but there were a couple of days when we were playing with him in LA with Jeff Davies, Dean on the guitar and Matt on bass and that was phenomenal.
I saw some great shows of yours in Philly too it might have been 96-97. And, I don’t know if you remember this but the first time I met you, I came up to you and I was like, “Hey man, how do you get off drugs?” And you said, “Umm, you just stop taking ’em.” Then you looked at me and asked, “You call those sideburns?” and you pulled out a photo copy of an older passport photo where you had the biggest sideburns I’ve ever seen (Anton laughs) and said, “These are sideburns my friend.”
Yeah, those were crazy my passport photo was insane you know but they hassled me so much about that stuff, I finally just tossed it. I literally tossed my passport away and got a new one. I was like I can’t deal with the wrath of this passport.
The lineup I saw you with was interesting because it was a bunch of guitar players and there was a bunch of people doing different stuff and I just remember thinking wow this band is really great. We didn’t have anything like that on the East Coast at the time.
That was the whole reason for starting the group in the beginning was that there was no band to join that was doing anything that I wanted to do. I remember living through the 80s and thinking I’m being fucking robbed. My whole teenage years are being robbed by all this crap on MTV and how much of what I wanted to do was a reaction to all the Bon Jovi’s and Twisted Sister and “You might as well jump”.
Oh yeah, I remember. But there was 120 Minutes and it’s like I was telling Sonic Boom (Peter Kember of Spacemen 3), we didn’t have access to Spacemen 3 records until Recurring came out (1991) but on 120 Minutes there’s a video for Big City and they’d play Jesus and Mary Chain and all that stuff I grew up with. It’s interesting that you and Spacemen 3 both ended up on Bomp records.
The reason that I ended up on Bomp is because I sent them a tape and I thought anybody who is going to put this band out (Spacemen 3), singing about drugs, that already broke up is gonna be open minded enough to deal with me. Greg Shaw and I still wanted to be business partners and everything so he went to New York with me when I signed to TVT and those guys said, “I’ll give you $125,000 for all of your previous albums released on Bomp and I was like No way, fuck that. So that was my one dipping in the toe with those New York/Hollywood guys .
Most of the recording and writing is always done by you?
Yeah, when I get an idea, I try to complete the idea. First I conceptualize it so I can visualize it as visual art just as a learning process for myself.
There’s footage I remember seeing of you playing the drums to what became Open Heart Surgery, writing it. How did you know where the fills were going to be for instance, do you just hear the whole song in your head?
Yeah, at that time. I’ve gotten a lot worse.
On my last album Aufheben, there were a couple of songs I did that on but yeah, I can play the drums to a whole song in my head with no click and I know how it’s going to be with the guitars.
And you play the fills in your mind…
Yeah, yeah. I play through the whole song, like I’m playing to a song in my head.
Some of the first BJM songs I heard were Caress and Who (from the BJM album Take It from the Man!) what was the recording situation like on those two songs?
I might have written those songs getting drunk up in Portland at Zia’s (Zia McCabe of The Dandy Warhols) house with everybody after a show. I used to really love writing songs in front of people with acoustic guitars or whatever just to show off with my mates, it used to make me really happy to be clever. But first of all, we recorded that album Take it from the Man twice. First with this producer. He wanted to get on board and so he recorded the record and he chopped it all up to make it like so perfect then he wanted like 3 points (3% of the royalties) and we just laughed in his face. Then he got so pissed and he said he was going to destroy the recording. I was like, “Fuck you dude. Then I’m gonna kick your ass the minute I see you on the street.” He did end up destroying it but I let him off the hook as far as the violence. Then, Larry Thrasher from Psychic TV was interested and told us how Genesis (P-Orridge) had seen our band and somehow conversation started and Larry wanted to produce us so he borrowed this studio from Counting Crows or something for us to record in. Then it became this situation where we showed up the day of recording, Me, Dean Taylor (Guitar), Matt Hollywood (Bass), Brian Glaze (Drums), Jeff Davies wasn’t in the band at the time because he was a junkie and my girlfriend Dawn was playing guitar. So we were there to record about seventeen songs and when we got there, there were about sixteen microphones set up for the drums and so I asked him, “What the hell is this?” and he said, “Well, these are for the drums… and I was like, “We don’t need sixteen mics for the drums. Take all of these away. I’m gonna use three mics for the drums and we’re gonna record it live, all at once.We’re just gonna put all the guitar amps down the hallway, the drums will be in here, and we’ll put on headphones and we’ll just play our set. We record everything the same way, so that’s what we did and and then at the end he whipped out all of these effects when mixing at his studio and I just asked him, “What are all of these for?” and he said,” You can’t have it sound the same on every song” and I’m like “Bullshit, that’s the charm of this, we just try and get a certain sound.
You know whats weird though is that I was recording Take It from the Man in the day time and then recording Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request in the nighttime. I was doing them simultaneously. I would go and stay at this one studio and then take the train out to the other one so instead of being homeless I was going between these two studios and crashing on the couches and doing two, 18 song records at the same time.
Who? – Brian Jonestown Massacre
So we would just spread these demos around and kind of get people interested in our thing which was primarily Anton’s songwriting but we brought what we could to it, especially Travis. He really gave it a certain angle that the band has definitely not had since. I know it sounds cliché but it’s all so hazy. Different versions of the songs were recorded and sometimes I’d be doing drums and sometimes Anton would be doing drums. Sometimes I’d be doing the bass sometimes he’d be doing the bass. So sometimes I’ll be listening back to the songs and I don’t even know who is playing what. It might be me. It might not be me.
So how come you decided to go and do other things?
Why did we split? It was just a natural progression at the time with the age we were, where we were in our lives, the way things were progressing. At the time the band was everything, it was such a big part of our lives. I didn’t have the understanding of Anton’s vision then which I later came to understand. We’d be taken out to lunch by A&R guys and looking back on it, I really admire the way Anton handled that shit. I love the hell out of him for that. (laughs)
Yeah, well he’s real.
Yeah, you were never wondering about the sincerity of what he had to say. He’s never disingenuous with you, he’s real.
Exactly. So how did you get back into the BJM after all that time had passed?
I was playing with the band Small Stone and was spending more time in Los Angeles. Small Stone had run its course and Anton and I reconnected in LA and it came up that he had a world tour booked. This was the first BJM world tour and he needed a guitarist for the band. After my playing in Small Stone and Spectrum and touring he felt confident that I had what it took to do what he needed in that period for that world tour.
When was this?
It was in 2003, exactly ten years after I’d left BJM in August 1993 I came back in August 2003. And I’ve basically been there ever since.
You have been spending a lot of time working and promoting the underground music scene from China with bands like Carsick cars. What drew you to that and what proceeded to make you want to tell the world about this virtually unheard of Chinese underground music?
It just kind of came up naturally. I have a Chinese friend who lives in Melbourne, Australia named Julian Woo and I was staying at his house in 2012 between legs of our BJM tour. He had just gotten back from China and he came back with these two suitcases full of c.d.s from all of these Chinese bands and he was just like, “You have to hear all of this stuff right now.”
Shane from Dimmer was there also and we were just absorbing all of this music that Julian brought and it was just so full of energy, so alive, like stuff I hadn’t heard since I was 21 and listening to bands on Creation Records. Even though a lot of these bands were influenced by Sonic Youth and Jesus and Mary Chain, their interpretation just came out in a totally fresh and un-ironic way. I got in touch with some of the bands and put out some of their albums on Aquarius records in San Francisco and its just kind of taken off from there.
Jeff Levitz from BJM:
How did you start playing with Brian Jonestown Massacre and what era was it?
Well it was a bit hazy as Rick was saying earlier but I think I just started playing with them by becoming really good friends and just hanging out. We met through being in bands that at the time weren’t necessarily appreciated in either Los Angeles or San Francisco and BJM became our favorite local SF band.
You started playing on the E.P. Bringing It All Back Home-Again?
Yeah. I remember recording that album very clearly but we had already been hanging out before then. I played on: Bringing it all Back Home- Again, Zero and Bravery, Repetition and Noise.
So fast forwarding a little bit, when did you start playing with The Warlocks and how did the transition from BJM to The Warlocks come about?
Bobby (Hecksher lead singer in The Warlocks) was trying to do The Warlocks and there weren’t any permanent members then except for JC Rees and Theresa Saso and Anton and I were both in The Warlocks at the same time with Anton playing drums. He’s a really good drummer. There was an interesting time where it overlapped and I was in both BJM and The Warlocks at the same time. We played some really great shows together and I would pretty much open up for myself, leave my amp on stage and then play with the other band. We did some shows together at The Troubador but one of the most memorable shows was this one in San Francisco at The Great American Music Hall which shows some of the differences between the two bands. I had two dressing rooms, one for BJM and one for The Warlocks. The dressing room for BJM had a soft glow, candles lit and was very serene and meditative. Our guitars were tuned and stacked in a row and not many people were in there so it was a nice place to hang out. The Warlocks dressing room on the other hand was completely chaotic, everybody was just going apeshit crazy. People were setting off fire extinguishers so there was white powder everywhere plus spilled beer on the floor and trash everywhere. It was just noisy and crazy. That was the same show and I was in both bands. (laughs)
Standing Between The Lovers of Hell – The Warlocks
I’m trying to set up an interview right now with Courtney Taylor because Q (magazine) asked me to write 400 words for an article and I was like, why don’t I just ask Courtney a couple of questions about (the movie) Dig! now that it’s been ten years and that seemed interesting to me as anything else and I had a reason to do it.
So how do you feel about that whole thing ten years later?
Ten years later nothing is going to effect me about it. I’m not going to carry the negative part with me.
It did turn on a whole bunch of people to your music though and that’s the most important thing as far as I’m concerned.
It also gives it an insidious element. It’s just like a cockroach now. Well also then everyone was against me, the whole industry. That’s what didn’t get showcased properly with the film is that everybody was like, “Anton focus on the industry and you’ll be the next Nirvana” and the weird thing about it is they tried to make me the scapegoat in that narrative but then the thing that really shows is that I outlived that model. Most of my peers, they all caved. See everybody that I can think of who got a record deal failed.
Which is why you still remain relevant. At Austin Psych Fest there’s a lot of new bands, bands who you probably inspired. What would your advice be to some of these younger bands?
When I hear new bands, I want to encourage people to just fucking hang in there for as long as you enjoy it and just keep making records.
Vad Hände Med Dem – The Brian Jonestown Massacre
The new album Revelation is available now on A records.