Fame, on any level, can come with a steep price. Anton Newcombe isn’t famous. Not very famous, at least. Still, a lot more people have heard of him and his band, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, now than a year ago, before the movie DIG! came out. Since then, his record sales have taken off, his live shows have routinely sold out, and he’s even been invited to play Lollapalooza alongside the Pixies and Weezer. There’s just one drawback: Most people think Anton Newcombe is a creep.
DIG! is a bit like This Is Spinal Tap, only more painful to watch, since it’s real. The documentary, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize last year and recently came out on DVD, captures seven years of the love/hate relationship between L.A.-based neo-psychedelic band the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Portland, Ore.’s the Dandy Warhols. The two groups, each led by a charismatic frontman (Newcombe and Courtney Taylor, respectively), start off as friends. But when the Dandys land a major-label record deal and begin to taste success, Newcombe turns their friendship into a bitter rivalry.
In the film, Newcombe is hailed as a musical genius — the more talented artist and the one perhaps more deserving of fame. But he’s also painted as a sad and troubled jerk who sabotages his career with onstage fistfights, a raging ego, and a grim spiral into heroin addiction. ”You know The Man With the Golden Arm?” asks Newcombe, referring to the harrowing 1955 film in which Frank Sinatra plays a junkie musician. ”That was me.”
Newcombe knows how he comes across in DIG!, and he understands why people don’t like that guy. But, while acknowledging addiction and bad behavior, he also contends the Anton Newcombe on screen is fiction, edited to look like a cartoon bogeyman. He insists that the truth isn’t so convenient. ”The reality is, I’m a dynamic person,” he says. ”I’m not some object to put into a box.”
Newcombe isn’t just aware of people’s negative perception of him; he’s able to have fun with it. For instance, he suggests via e-mail that an interview take place at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s swanky Polo Lounge, joking ”It’s been a while since I’ve had a proper barroom brawl.” Once he gets there, though, he decides the setting is too stuffy and opts instead for a liquid lunch of vodka-grapefruits in one of the hotel’s gardens.
Thin and handsome in an unkempt rock-star way — his hair is stringy with long, graying sideburns — he’s dressed entirely in denim: jeans, a Western-style shirt, and jacket. With Newcombe, 37, are two friends whom he introduces as his ”minders,” ostensibly there to prevent him from embarrassing himself: Rob Campanella, organist for the BJM, and a musician from Cleveland who’s recording at Campanella’s Los Angeles studio.
In person, Newcombe comes off as likable, well-read, and courteous. At least at first. He’s thankful for being given the chance to tell his side of the story. And it doesn’t take him long to prove his intelligence, with references to obscure Islamic sects, Philip K. Dick, and alpha-wave simulators. Still, you can’t help feeling like he’s trying too hard, as when he announces, ”I can speak in a sentence without non sequiturs that is, like, 75 words long and makes perfect sense and have old ladies from the Oxford dictionary go, ‘Right on.”’
Newcombe says he first saw DIG! when the director, a first-time filmmaker named Ondi Timoner, asked him for permission to use his music in the film. When he watched it, he immediately felt sick. ”I was scared,” he says, drawing on an unfiltered Camel. ”I told my lawyer, ‘People are going to attack me and wreck my livelihood.’ I already have to fight off people that come to my shows to give me a hard time because they hear I’m going to lose my s—.”