Brian Jonestown Massacre mainstay and longtime partner in musical crime with BJM’s visionary leader Anton Newcombe, Joel Gion still lives in the city where his famous band was born, San Francisco (the band now records in Berlin, where Newcombe lives). In between musical projects, Gion is working on his writing, telling tales and sharing his memories. Crispin Kott caught up with him recently for PKM.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre emerged out of San Francisco’s Lower Haight in the mid-’90s, a loose collective following the exploratory guidance of Anton Newcombe, the sole continuous member since the very start. While they’ve thrown shadows of everything from hazy psychedelia, shoegaze, folk, the Rolling Stones circa 1966-67, the Velvet Underground, and electronic excursions, these are always just hint at what is a much larger sound that is wholly the BJM’s own.
If you’re not hip to their immense and prolific canon you may at least remember them from Dig!, the 2004 documentary by Ondi Timoner that made them infamous.
Released in March 2019, The Brian Jonestown Massacre is the 18th LP by the group, a densely mesmerizing chapter in a journey that due to sordidly hyperbolic tales of excess and extreme behavior, few might have imagined lasting so long.
Joel Gion is perhaps best known as the tambourine player in Brian Jonestown Massacre. After the group’s wide-eyed genius Anton Newcombe, he is the most recognizable member of the BJM, so much so that audience queries as to his whereabouts may have at least partly inspired his return to the band in the early aughts after a three-year absence.
Nowadays Gion is writing personal non-fiction on crowdfunding-for-creators site Patreon, and the reason this should interest you is that the guy is a gifted rock & roll raconteur with a surprisingly lucid memory of what was often a calamitous and confusing period of his life.
“The movie [Dig!] came out and everybody started screaming, ‘Where’s the tambourine guy?’” said Gion, recalling the story of his rejoining the group in 2004. “I met them in the middle of the tour in Dublin, flew in by myself, and was super jet-lagged. It was that night and I hadn’t been on stage in a while, so I got to drinking. I got pretty toasted and fell off the stage. I was walking backwards with my tambourine, and I tripped over a monitor and I fell off the stage, still holding my tambourine. One of the security guys caught me, and I just remember stopping, and I’m like a bullet. He’s holding me there and my head is a foot off the ground and I’m still holding my tambourine. And then he just kind of shoved me back up. That was my first show back, and I almost broke my neck.”
“Vacuum Boots” from Take it from the Man!
During the BJM’s turbulent ascent in the ‘90s, Gion was always up for a bit of mischief, one of the few things the subjects of Timoner’s fabled documentary felt came out right. The film showcases the sometimes troubled relationship between the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, two of the best – and best-named, groups to come out of the ‘90s alt-rock bonanza. Though their collective opinions may have softened over the years, it’s fair to say that while the film raised the profile of both bands upon release, neither of the bands featured in Dig! were pleased with what they saw on cinema screens.
“I was shocked and let down when I saw the end result,” wrote Newcombe in a January 30, 2004 statement on the BJM’s official website. “Several years of our hard work was reduced at best to a series of punch-ups and mishaps taken out of context, and at worst bold-faced lies and misrepresentation of fact.”
Newcombe went on to note that while the coverage of the Dandy Warhols continued through 2003, but the BJM were only seen through 1997.
“This leads the viewer to believe that I fell off the earth in a drugged-out downward spiral of insanity,” wrote Newcombe. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. I quit heroin over 5 years ago, thank God, and have been more productive than ever making albums and touring all over the world.”
Today, Gion acknowledges the film gave the Brian Jonestown Massacre a wider audience than they’d had before, but still sees Dig! as a carefully crafted piece of semi-fiction.
“Before Dig! we were playing Cafe Du Nord, and after Dig! we were playing the Fox, and selling it out,” he said. “That’s just the facts. It got the word out. They were playing the movie on Virgin Airlines. The movie got the band out there to everybody. David Bowie, Mick Jagger, everybody watched it. It was a must see that year.”
But the film is a small piece of a much larger puzzle. Dig! is a powerful film in many ways, and from a strictly musical point of view it reveals the BJM of the mid-‘90s to be an electrifying, if sometimes erratic, live band. There are also crucial scenes of Newcombe fulfilling the promise of his grand vision, meticulously assembling and recording songs piece-by-piece to build something beautiful. Yet for many, the lasting impression is that the BJM fucked up.
“They amassed so much footage that they could have played anybody any way they wanted,” Gion said. “They had multiple takes of the whole spectrum of personalities on everybody. And the other thing they did is they became friends with us, and we were all friends. (Timoner’s) assurance was that her mission was to spread the revolution: ’I’m here to help you guys get the word out, because this is real and I’m very impressed and I want to do whatever I can to be a part of this.’ What happened in the editing room is it turned into, ‘Well, how am I going to make back all the money I spent. How am I going to impress people so I can make another movie? Me, me, me, I’m the music scholar now.’ It had nothing to do with us, and that trust that was given was all broken.”
Gion said he understood the dynamic from the beginning and played to the cameras, personifying an enthusiasm for what the Brian Jonestown Massacre was about, along with a general joie de vivre.
“I’m the only guy that’s happy with the way it turned out,” he said. “I grew up on the Beatles movies and stuff, the Maysles’ brothers documentary where they’re on the train running around, ‘Can I have a cigarette?’ Every time I saw the camera I went into that mode, because that’s what I grew up on. Back then the camera to me meant forever. Whenever the camera was on, that was forever. It’s not like now when everybody is just filming everything.”
The band’s stance has softened somewhat over the years, with a recent 15th anniversary 35mm screening and Q&A with Timoner at the Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg generating social media support through official BJM channels. But Gion said he still hopes to put together a book to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Dig!, one which would tell the tale of those years from the inside.
“And it would still be personal non-fiction, memoir-ish, but at the same time I could go and interview the other people to see what they thought about it, and what bothers them about what everything turned into in the end,” he said. “And maybe I can give them a voice through my narrative as well. The 20th anniversary is in four years…I’m shooting to have that book out, like in Pulp Fiction, ‘Well, please allow me to retort!’ I kind of want to have that ready.”
That’s Dig! out of the way, because for better or worse, the film looms large in the legend of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The feats of drug-addled derring-do unfurling on celluloid can do a disservice to the band’s music, which as channeled through Newcombe’s inveterate exploration, is always fascinating, and nearly as often brilliant. To try to pigeonhole the BJM is futile, because by the time you think you’ve got them figured out, Newcombe has released another record you can’t quite pin down.
I was fortunate enough to interview Gion in San Francisco recently. He is a great interview, in part because it doesn’t feel like an interview at all, more like a couple of pals relating over beers. That candidly conversational sense comes through in his writing on Patreon.
I’m the only guy that’s happy with the way it turned out. I grew up on the Beatles movies and stuff, the Maysles’ brothers documentary where they’re on the train running around, ‘Can I have a cigarette?’
Gion grew up in suburban San Jose, but from an early age was spellbound by San Francisco, a city of light and possibility just fifty miles due northwest.
“It was just so chaotic in a way where everything that I could imagine or not imagine was just happening all around me,” Gion said. “I was just fascinated with this place. We made a couple of trips when I was a kid. Riding the cable cars and going through Chinatown, and all the sensations that assault you in these types of environments were just mind-blowing. As a little kid in San Jose, you know, we had a more modest version of the Brady Bunch neighborhood. It was the late ‘70s, so it was hard rock, KISS, terrycloth sweatbands, Tower Records.”
Gion’s first concert was KISS, who played the Cow Palace in November 1979. “I was nine, and that wasn’t really even on my radar,” he said. “My brother was a year-and-a-half older than me, so he was just getting into trying to feather his hair and all that stuff. He was into it. I mean, he had to be. You didn’t have a choice: You were a social outcast if you lived in suburbia and you weren’t going to take on the KISS Army flag.”
Gion and his brother took on the KISS Army flag at the Cow Palace with their uncle, who was squeezing every last possible drop out of the ‘70s.
“My uncle, my cool uncle, he had a Firebird and everything,” Gion said. “He was like 24 at the time and married, and he didn’t have kids yet, so he was trying to keep his youth going. My mom and all her brothers and sisters, all their youth was starting to get broken down to the realities of their decision-making. He was looking for things to do, and taking his little nephews to KISS was a perfect excuse for him to get to go see KISS, you know? The whole display of it all, with the blood and the rockets, and they came out of the stage doing the power fist. It was like they came down from space and all this jive. It was definitely a trip.”
Gion’s teenage years were spent in thrall to British bands, which often meant traveling from San Jose to Berkeley.
“When the Smiths hit, that was the end of it,” he said. “I was an Anglophile. All the bands that were on that level would play the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. We’d go there and wait in line all day with all the other nerds, and everybody just had a crazy look…Smoking cloves and seeing the Smiths or the Cure, Siouxsie, Jesus & Mary Chain. I was 15, 16 years old in this great amphitheater.”
Having grown up in suburbia with frequent tastes of what a metropolis had to offer, Gion couldn’t wait any longer to begin his new life in the big city.
“I was so in love with San Francisco that I turned eighteen two weeks before I was going to graduate high school and I quit and moved here,” he said. “‘You keep it, baby, because that’s nothing to do with being in a band! I don’t need it!’”
Gion and a friend settled in North Beach on the edge of Chinatown, a neighborhood renowned as being both the nexus of the Beat Generation and the Californian birthplace of topless dancing.
You didn’t have a choice: You were a social outcast if you lived in suburbia and you weren’t going to take on the KISS Army flag.
“It was my dream to move here, but I wasn’t really interested in working at all,” he said. “I just figured shit would…I don’t know how it works. I’d been living with my parents, and they’d provide everything, I didn’t work at the drive-thru or anything. So I just came here, and it was cool, and I was just hanging out. And I didn’t have my rent the first month, and I don’t know what I was thinking, just somehow cosmically, people just live and things work, and they keep progressing through life, and I don’t know how they do that or how that works, but you know, that’s what everybody’s doing, so I’ll just hang out and wait to see how that works. How it worked is my landlord showed up and and said, ‘I’m gonna kick your ass outta here if you don’t have my rent.’ So I was like, ‘Shit.’”
Gion’s roommate got him his first job without even an interview, at the legendary Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater. He received an orientation from Jim Mitchell – who later shot and killed his brother Artie – and then lasted ten minutes before bailing.
“(Mitchell) is talking to me and he’s giving me the rundown, and you know he’s white shirt and bow tie and super, like, I don’t want to say gangster, but stocky, no B.S., within the stereotypical realm of what you would imagine that to be,” Gion said. “And I was like this (arms crossed) the whole time, my chest is out to there, and I’ve got my arms out and I’m pushing the biceps out, but inside I’m like, ‘Holy shit, I’ve never even been in a strip club and now I’ve got to start copping people if they’ve got their hands on their penises, hosing semen off the seats and I’ve got to stop them doing it!’ Someone is getting drunk in the bathroom, I’ve got to be like, ‘Hey, get out of here!’ and grab them.”
Mitchell sent Gion into the main room to soak up the atmosphere and get a sense of how to handle the other part of his job: Introducing the dancers.
“When my friend announced the girl, I just thought, ‘There’s no way on earth I can do this…Now, the sssultryyyy Sabrinaaaaaa!’” he said. “And I snuck back up to the doors, saw he was yelling at some other people, and I just ran for the door, tippy-toe high-stepped across the carpet, pushed the door open and ran down the street.”
Gion bounced around semi-employed after that. By then he was living in the Lower Haight and that’s where got his “kid in a candy store dream job” at Reckless Records, the San Francisco outpost of the famed London shop.
“I used to trade records in there all the time,” Gion said. “You could turn a record into a pizza, so I’d bring my records in there from time to time and sell them. And this one guy I kind of got a rapport with, and they ended up needing somebody and I applied and got it. And I made them look really bad, because that was right before I discovered speed and ecstasy. I wasn’t like Mr. Jacked-Up-at-Work. I was more like I just got home five minutes before my shift.”
I was so in love with San Francisco that I turned eighteen two weeks before I was going to graduate high school and I quit and moved here.
Gion lasted at Reckless Records for a year, finally overstaying his welcome after visiting the Dandy Warhols in Portland with Anton Newcombe.
“Me and Anton made our first trip up there,” Gion said. “We played a party, and Anton wrote a couple songs that ended up on Take it From the Man! up there. And then we did an all-nighter, drove back from Portland straight to Haight Street, where I had to work at 11. I’d called out sick from a pay phone around the corner to go to Portland. (Anton) gets me back and he goes, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be at work?’ I said, ‘I was supposed to be there 45 minutes ago, but I don’t want to go.’”
From the album Take it from the Man!:
Gion eventually showed up for his shift. It didn’t go well. He lost his job.
From there, with no fixed address, life for Gion became even more bohemian.
“I did a bunch of couch-surfing, but by then we were kind of getting into on-the-road mode, where we were crashing in studios or practice spaces,” Gion said. “I didn’t need a place anymore. And it was kind of good to get my ass kicked onto the street, because then I had to survive. I had to figure it out. And how I was able to do that was to be Anton’s sidekick, because he was already doing that. It was more like people wanting to do things for him, because they could see what he had.”
Somehow, in spite of an almost total lack of gainful employment, Gion only slept on the streets for a single night.
“I woke up on some church steps on Sunday morning,” he said. “Everybody was going to church and I was on the stoop, super hungover on a whiskey bender. I used to hairspray my hair all out like Robert Smith-y kind of thing. And I woke up on the concrete, and the ‘do, this side of my head was an 8-inch flat wall with little stones. Half-Flock of Seagulls.”
Though the period doesn’t echo through the halls of rock & roll history as loudly the late ‘60s, the early ‘90s music scene in a San Francisco that was still relatively inexpensive was crackling with energy and inspiration.
“We had a big local scene, I would say twenty-five bands,” Gion said. “And it was either garage or shoegaze, or you know, Brit-Pop. We had our own Suede, we had our own Verve, we had our own My Bloody Valentine. And if you played like My Bloody Valentine, but you dressed like Blur, then somehow you were original. That was the thinking at the time.”
Even early on, the Brian Jonestown Massacre were a scene unto themselves, tapping into the full span of rock & roll (and beyond) history to find their own vibe rather than merely suckling at the teat of the current darlings from the pages of Melody Maker. They were already a force to be reckoned with when Gion had his first gig with them in 1994 in a basement at a house party.
“(Anton) tried somebody out on maracas once before, and he went up and just did this Bez impersonation,” Gion said. “And that didn’t work. So he asked me to do it. I had come home from work the day before the concert, and somebody had left the TV on and the Monterey Pop Festival was playing. I sat down and I watched it. And Hendrix did his whole guitar on fire thing. And I was kind of nervous, I still wasn’t sure if that was cool. So I thought, ‘Well, what if I light (the maracas) on fire?’”
The atmosphere turned out to be perfect for his plan.
“All those crappy amps down in that basement kept blowing the power box and the power would go out,” he said. “But nobody would quit playing, and suddenly it would be the drums and maracas playing, this breakbeat/down-groove thing. And then somebody would flip the switch and all these guitars, four reverb super-drive machines all at the same time, and this kept going back and forth, and this went on for a while. And then finally I got the lighter fluid and lit them up and got the flaming maracas, and it’s pitch black, and all they can see is my face. The universe just handed me this totally great dramatic moment.”
At the time, the Lower Haight was similar to what the Upper Haight was to young musicians three decades earlier. Gion finds that bygone era fertile ground for reminiscing in his writing, with some tales redolent of the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, albeit with significantly more drugs.
“We were young, and you’d stay up late with your friends to find out whatever it was,” he said. “It came down to playing guitars in somebody’s living room, or there’s house parties all the time. You would just come across houses, and the doors would open and there’s a hundred people in there going nuts, and you’d say, ‘Oh, cool,’ and walk in. That would happen everywhere. There was always something to do. That time back then seems like so much more went on compared to now. You’d get so much more done in a day as far as making memories goes.”
Gion finds that his memories are fairly composed, in spite of his then-growing fondness for methamphetamines.
“I really was working hard at being a speed freak’s speed freak, trying to bring some dignity to the club,” he said. “When I started doing methamphetamine, then I’d be up for three days straight doing that shit. So even if I can’t remember a day, I’ve still got two other ones I could draw from. And it sharpens you up. I can remember whole nights in great detail. What’s great is how much more you can find when you start flexing that muscle. People say, ‘How did you remember all that?’ and I say, well, I didn’t until I started writing. And the more I make myself remember, the more I remember.”
While Gion has spent most of his adult life in San Francisco, Newcombe moved to Berlin years ago, where he owns and operates a recording studio in which much of the music released by the Brian Jonestown Massacre over the past decade has been created. The evolution of the BJM as its members have grown older means they’re inevitably a different band than they were before.
“We were a gang,” said Gion of the group’s early days. “When you’re hanging out with the same group of people, you can’t help but be influenced by who you spend all your time with. (Anton) chose tastemakers to surround himself with, and that was their job. That was just as much my job as tambourine was ‘Oh my god, check this fucking song out! What is up with that bass?’ The difference is he’s in Berlin and has the internet now. He can find everything cool for himself now. But still, you can’t take away the fact that the band got to where it got through being informed in a way that it was informed to take the direction that it took to get to where it got to be where we are now. You can reset the clock now to zero and go, but still, you have to remember to save up for that watch.”
Newcombe founded the Brian Jonestown Massacre in the early ‘90s, and the group’s lineup has rarely remained static. Guitarist Ricky Maymi was on the scene back then, and though he was out of the band from 1993-2003, he’s been a mainstay ever since. Gion was in the BJM from roughly 1994-1999, and after a brief return in 2001 has been back in the fold since 2004. And while Dig! portrayed Newcombe as a tormented malcontent, Gion said that while the spark remains, Newcombe is in a whole different place geographically and metaphorically today.
And if you played like My Bloody Valentine, but you dressed like Blur, then somehow you were original. That was the thinking at the time.
“He’s one of my most favorite people in the world,” Gion said. “I’m really happy we’ve gotten to where we are now. With anybody it’s going to be ebbs and flows, and just the fact that I’ve known him and played with him for 25 years, and I love him, it’s a lot more than a lot of people get. It’s wonderful. He’s been (in Berlin) for a while now, and he’s totally where he should be. He’s still got the creative fire and humor, and I love it.”
Gion is also in a good place, in part because he’s taking it relatively easy compared to the younger version of himself in Dig!
“I’ve slowed down,” he said. “I don’t snort drugs anymore. On tour I start the day with beers for breakfast because I like to have fun, and goddamnit I’m going to live. But I’ve mellowed out if anybody has. It’s a young man’s game, and I don’t want to be one of these silver-haired guys in a hotel room dead of a heart attack with a big pile next to me.”
Outside of the BJM, Gion has recently released a pair of solo albums, Apple Bonkers (2014) and Joel Gion (2017) but isn’t in a hurry to make another. With the Brian Jonestown Massacre off the road until next year, Gion decided to focus his creative energies on writing rather than recording, in part because it taps into something he enjoyed long before he ditched school and moved to San Francisco.
“In high school my report card turned into a free jazz sax solo, the letters up and down,” he said. “I always liked writing., but I forgot that I did. When I write, I don’t have to coordinate anything or ask anybody to show up. It’s just me. No other personal agendas getting involved, nobody trying to steer me a certain way. It’s frustrating and it’s hard. You have to solve the puzzle, and it’s frustrating, but it’s so satisfying when you solve it. I sort of feel like I found a zone that I’m going to stay in for a while.”
Gion’s plans for a book around the 20th anniversary of Dig! are separate from what he’s doing on Patreon, which is in a sense exercising a muscle he’d long since forgotten about but suddenly realizes is exactly what he needs to move forward. It also puts him in direct contact with any fans willing to cough up a little dough to tell him what they really think of him.
“You’ve got to pay five bucks, so you’re only there because you want to be there, but I swear to God, the FBI made the comment field just to try and take down musicians,” he said. “You look at the comments and it’s like, ‘Brilliant!’ ‘I love it!’ ‘Joel, you’re amazing!’ ‘Dickhead!’ And that’s the one you’re thinking about. The other ones are like, ‘Oh, they’re being nice. That’s cool.’ But ‘Dickhead!’ affects you way harder. It drives me nuts that people can just chime in. They came to hate me. ‘Come into my house and call me a dickhead!’”