Music: Casualties of Rock

Surviving The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Greg Q

Join the Brian Jonestown Massacre — as many former local musicians have (including Daniel Allaire, far left) — at your own risk.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre, a California Rock & Roll institution since 1991, has really become something of a finishing school for students of psychedelic music, a university of swirling guitar sorcery for aspiring Acid Rock warriors and home to scores of the flower-power era's lost children.

Take, for example, Australian native Matthew Tow (aka the Aussie), the featured collaborator on the Brian Jonestown Massacre's latest full-length offering, ...And This is Our Music. An aspiring songwriter in his own right and a longtime Jonestown fan, The Aussie originally contacted BJM's founder and headmaster Anton Newcombe via e-mail, sending him demos and pieces of his own Psychedelia-influenced Pop through the post. This correspondence lead to an invitation for the Aussie to come to America last summer and have a go touring in the band. BJM has been home to numerous side musicians and talented aural craftsman over the years, from current members of popular underground favorites like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Warlocks to untold numbers of nomadic, California-based musicians.

But it can be a trying experience maintaining your balance in one of Rock & Roll's classically clichéd, drug-addled underground slacker bands whose stunning heights of talent have been matched only by the depths of the group's collective (and thus Newcombe's personal) lows. The Aussie lasted exactly one tour, recorded a few tracks for Jonestown's new album, then high-tailed it back to the land down under when the wretchedness of life in a tour van and the twisted back-country elements of American culture that surround the Indie Rock circuit caught up with him.

"I don't think the Aussie was freaked out by playing in Jonestown so much as he was freaked out by America ... well, maybe more like America's reaction to a Jonestown tour," confesses BJM drummer and Cincinnati native Daniel Allaire. Moving to Los Angeles to join Brian Jonestown Massacre in January of 2002, Allaire is already considered a veteran member through his two-year stint. He's one of a few Cincinnatians that have traveled through the Los Angeles music scene, and consequently through the ranks of BJM, in search of a place in the pantheon of Rock.

All but Allaire have moved on.

Most of the conflicts surrounding this critically acclaimed but perpetually underachieving band, seem to center around one source. From the occasional violent outbursts between performers and audience members at live shows, to the obsessive hiring and firing of supporting musicians, the drug abuse, the major label advances pissed away on vintage gear and home recordings that satisfied no one, founder Anton Newcombe has always orchestrated things on the brink of instability. But consequently, this is also the source of inspiration for the vibrant, brilliantly crafted songwriting, which draws comparisons to everything from The Byrds and Strawberry Alarm Clock to The Kinks and Echo & the Bunnymen.

Anton Alfred Newcombe founded the Brian Jonestown Massacre in San Francisco over a decade ago. For Newcombe, it was a way to harness his inner demons, characterized by a chemical imbalance that often perpetuates violence and extreme behavior, into a creative outlet. A chance for him to shuck the responsibility of landing a "real" job, of playing in someone else's band, and strike out on his own with the intent to change the face of the stagnant Pop music scene. Twelve years and nine albums later, Newcombe has managed to accomplish some of these goals, and along the way land frustratingly close to others. He's come close to achieving elusive mainstream success — 1997's TVT Records release, Strung Out in Heaven, was the group's first and only major label experiment, curtailed by a business relationship that soured when Newcombe became disillusioned with the label's monetary motivations and lack of artistic support. But it's been a fascinating, sometimes sickening ride through the underbelly of Pop music for Newcombe and the merry band of travelers that have populated the Brian Jonestown Massacre over the years. The current lineup includes Newcombe and Frankie Teardrop on guitar and vocals, Allaire on drums, Rob Campanella on organ and Dave Never on bass.

Not discouraged by the ups and downs of a derailed commercial career, the Brian Jonestown Massacre return this month with their most ambitious, undefinable and experimental recording to date. ...And This is Our Music, the band's first release on Tee Pee Records after eight albums on Southern California's Bomp Records, transcends the one-vibe, Psychedelic Rock tag.

Recorded over the course of two years, Our Music is an album of stark contrasts, a declaration of codependence by a group of misfits that defies predictability. The album is a patchwork quilt of essays from Southern California's drug culture scene, viewed through the eyes of an over-stimulated scholar of Psychedelic Garage Rock history, from the unconventional '80s Pop hook of The Aussie's main contribution, "Starcleaner," to the shoe-gazing dissonance of "A New Low in Getting High," to the orchestral interludes and even the tribal drumming breakdown (which pans in and out near the end of the album like flashbacks from an experimental chemical trip).

With the new album and support from the new label, Newcombe and company hope to break out of an unfair pigeonhole, to redefine the band's potential and breech a broader market in the unselfish hopes of "keeping music evil" for everyone. The fall release of Our Music will be supported by an extensive U.S. tour followed by the group's longest stint overseas playing Europe. That is, if Newcombe can keep it together long enough to not turn every show into an all-out brawl that finds the band chased out of town on slashed tour van tires, as has been known to happen in the past. Only time, and a fortunate chemical balance, will tell.

BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE plays the Southgate House on Friday with High Strung and The Heartless Bastards.

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