Hi, Anton. Where are you?
In Berlin. I've been living in Europe since 2007. I like it here. If I lived in Brooklyn or Camden, I'd be interacting with more people. Here, I've just got my studio and my thoughts. I don't speak German, which is really interesting.
How do you ask the way to the swimming pool?
I Google it – we live in the age of the smartphone. Unfortunately, I failed German at high school. I was much better at Spanish. It's not an easy language. I have a 16-month-old son, Wolfgang, and I'm dreading having to deal with the logistics of school and all the forms. It's a very bureaucratic society.
What will you do if Wolfgang gets into a fight at kindergarten?
They're really cool about conflict resolution here. The last thing they want is aggressive Germans.
Are you enjoying being a parent?
Very much so. It's important to stay in the moment, you know?
What were you like as a child?
I was such a delightful kid, but also such a rotten kid, depending on what time it was. I don't necessarily want Wolfgang to be a non-conformist or a bohemian, just to be himself.
If he displays the sort of the delinquent behaviour your mum accused you of in Dig! (1), how will you react?
I think communication is key to a lot of that stuff. My mom kind of disconnected from me emotionally when I was around six, because of her own head trip. She was never there – she worked nights.
What did you get up to?
We'd have house parties. We'd steal all the alcohol and invite hundreds of kids and have punk bands play – just crazy stuff non-stop. It'd be like that every weekend.
The makers of Dig! wanted an indie Spinal Tap, didn't they? And they got it.
Well, we always had that goofy side. I never wanted to play with people who were too good musicians. I taught my friends to play and it was a problem. Some of the most charming people I played with had serious drug problems, and I'd end up involved with them. There's the tragicomic aspect right there.
Your serious musical side has been overshadowed by the extracurricular antics, hasn't it?
It's like the Monkees: nobody took them seriously as a 60s group even though they had the best songwriters working for them at that time. They had better songs than the Hollies. Phenomenal songs. Part of me wanted to wrap everything up like an exotic fruit with spines all over it. But then you open it up and it's this nice thing.
Was the Brian Jonestown Massacre name meant to be simultaneous homage and sacrilege?
Well, there was the interesting correlation between the way people treated rock stars and the whole cult nature of the thing. Like the way [cult leader] Jim Jones (2) conducted himself with his Aviator shades in front of his congregation. Actually, my first choice for a name was Blur. Then I flipped open the NME and there was this band Blur with their debut single. Fuck! Everyone was on the one-word band name trip at the time (3). I thought, this is ridiculous, I'm going to come up with something nobody else would think of.
You've got songs called My Bloody Underground, Blue Order/New Monday and Who Killed Sgt Pepper? Do you have conflicted feelings towards rock history?
I love My Bloody Valentine, I really do, but I wasn't thinking about them when I came up with those. But [New Order's] Bernard Sumner had a group called Bad Lieutenant and they put out a single that ripped off one of my songs, When Jokers Attack. It was based on a very unique 12-string riff. And I was like, "OK, this is fucking retarded. I'm going to scramble the name of your fucking band so that when people Google your name mine is going to come up, too, for all eternity."
Couldn't you have served a writ?
I'm more like, "Fuck those guys." I think it's funny. So does Peter Hook. I talk to him about it on Twitter. It's just retarded that they would do that. But then there is a tradition of English groups completely lifting other people's shit, whether it's Led Zeppelin or whoever. I like to think of my heroes as innovators. They didn't need to do that to me.
Courtney Taylor of Dandy Warhols called you "the craziest and most talented musician I ever met". Are you a fan of rock's far-out types like Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson and Skip Spence?
Yeah. If you look at Roky Erickson first, You're Gonna Miss Me (4) is psychotic in energy. When I DJ I always play that song. It was a shame what happened to Syd but some of that stuff I really, really love. I just wish he could have been as childlike as it seemed he was going to be, as his personality was hinting at, if mental illness didn't take him out like that, with the aid of psychedelics. Skip Spence on Oar (5)… he was great, too. All those guys were amazing.
You called your 1996 album Thank God For Mental Illness. Were you debunking people's perception of the mentally ill cult rocker?
No, it was about me. Because people – my mom, whoever – always said, "You're insane." So it was a jab at that whole thing. I was like, "I'm insane? OK, well thank God for mental illness." It was a personal statement.
Did it affect you your dad being the way he was? (6)
He always treated me like a Catholic saint, regardless of how old I was. He'd be praising me and asking my forgiveness. Very strange, right? It'd be like, "I love you so much – please forgive me." I can remember going, "You're just not making any sense."
Forgiveness for what?
Things not working out whatever demons he had. I didn't see [his suicide] coming, though. He was living with his aunt, taking care of her. He expressed to me that he was very stressed about that; her Alzheimer's was freaking him out. I was saying, "Please don't worry." But ultimately, fuck him. Because suicide is a selfish act. I know mental illness factors into it but not everybody with mental illness kills themselves. Obviously he was a sick bastard because he left a note saying: "Don't tell Anton."
Are you off drink and drugs now?
I had an accident. I fell out of a loft and broke my arm really badly to where the bones were sticking through my skin. I was in hospital for two weeks on morphine and Demerol and what that does to your brain is, it sets you up, because there's nothing in the world that's quite like that. So eventually I tried opiates, whether hydrocodone or whatever it was that led to the opiate addiction, which ended up being heroin. I quit all that stuff around 1999-2000. The way I quit, I was using a men's group in California., and it was all people in the movies – you would know everybody's name. Then I went to a care facility. I started drinking to segue out of that and that took me a little while to quit that because I felt progressively worse. That stopped about four years ago.
What's it like being sober and clean?
It's perfectly fine. When you're done drinking, it really is a case of, booze is killing you. It's not hard to quit. Whether you smoke pot all day or whatever you do, you acclimate to a new environment. And it becomes your consciousness, the way you see things. So you're not going to miss that part of it. You feel relieved.
Did you labour under the illusion that sobriety and domesticity were the enemies of good art?
Really, if you're drunk the whole time, that's the enemy. The first drug I was into was psychedelics because I had control issues. That was the first experience that shook my foundations and showed me there was so much more. Then, when I left home and moved to San Francisco when I started the group, I barely drank or did anything. All the drugs came later. Quitting dope was painful. That hurt so bad. It hurt for months.
How did you do it?
You just have to sit on a bed and do it, no matter what.
Have you been checked out by a doctor to see what the effects of sustained narcotic and alcohol abuse have been?
When I first went to rehab they gave me a health check and I was OK. I never did drugs with people; I had money and would do it privately in my house or studio. I never shared needles, is what I'm saying. Thank God. I was sensible about that stuff. With alcohol it got so bad that it was killing me. I was due to fly to Iceland once and I picked up my two guitars to go and I was like, "No way." I just climbed back into bed and that was it. So it was time. I went to California to get some medicine so that I didn't have a seizure, which one can do when one is trying to detoxify from alcohol. Then I climbed in our tour bus and went on tour for two months. Now in my studio there's alcohol for people if they want it and that's fine. I don't look for it.
You've had so many band members through your ranks: 40 at last count. How many still send you Christmas cards?
Right now I'm playing with Joel Gion [percussion] who played with us in the early 90s, and Matt Hollywood [guitar/vocals] who I started the band with. Matt and I once had a serious fight that involved a hammer and a knife. He was not a very nice boy that day. Luckily I'm quite agile. But I never wanted a four-guys thing, like John, Paul, George and Ringo. I just wanted to play music from the side of the stage. I always had a tambourine player or whoever out front. Being a frontperson was never important to me. I'm more interested in doing a jazz thing.
There's a song on your new album Revelation called Duck and Cover. Is it a response to the east-west standoff in Ukraine?
I've been tracking a lot of this stuff for quite a long time. I had some manic episodes and had to see a doctor.
Because of apocalypse dread, you mean?
A little bit. The shit with North Korea (7) and China (8)… there's been a couple of times when I've gotten into this freaked-out mode.
Talking of two opposing forces colliding: when did you last speak to Courtney Taylor?
Not too long ago: we keep in touch. The funniest time I spoke to him recently was when Theresa May came onstage to Bohemian Like You (9), which I thought was hilarious.
On Dig! you're hailed as the next in line after Lennon, McCartney and Dylan. What is your position in the pantheon?
I don't really think about it. But I'm interested in entering the lexicon. That's my only real goal. Because I never liked rock stars. Rock stars are the kind of people who rape your 13-year-old sister backstage. I want to encourage people to make music and art and turn the wheel round that way. I want to be productive.
So you're totemic rather than iconic?
I'm a Svengali.
(1) The infamous 2005 documentary tracking Newcombe's band the Brian Jonestown Massacre and their by turns violent and hilarious rivalry with the Dandy Warhols.
(2) Founder and leader of the People's Temple, notorious for the cult murder/suicide in November 1978 of 909 of its members in Jonestown, Guyana.
(3) Blur, Ride, Curve, Revolver, Slowdive, Moose, Lush, Cranes …
(4) A track by Erickson's band the 13th Floor Elevators.
(5) "Genius and madness coexist brilliantly on Oar's deceptively still waters," wrote Rolling Stone of the Moby Grape founder's 1969 solo album.
(6) His father was an alcoholic schizophrenic who committed suicide a year after Dig! was released.
(7) The 2013 North Korea crisis involving escalating tensions over Kim Jong-un's dramatic rhetoric and threats to use nukes.
(8) The 2013 China-Japan crisis over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
(9) The home secretary used the Dandy Warhols track as her exit music following her speech at the 2011 Tory party conference.