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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012

The Brian Jonestown Massacre Does Berlin

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With its established arts industry, buzzing nightlife and cosmopolitan character, Berlin has built a reputation as a magnet for artists of all nationalities, a creative mecca that's long lured inspired expats of every stripe, including numerous musicians from the Jazz Age to the techno boom. In light of that illustrious tradition, it makes sense that the city can now count Anton Newcombe, the mercurial, talented and sometimes troubled leader and sole constant member of the prolific neo-psychedelic outfit the Brian Jonestown Massacre, among its residents.

"It's really such a smart culture and kind of cool for me because it leaves me alone, but everything's still here at the same time," says Newcombe, speaking from his studio in the German capital. "The nature of the culture is just not really intrusive, so it's nice to be able to focus."

That impression of being a stranger in a strange land is one he shares with perhaps the city's most famous transplant, David Bowie, whose "Berlin Trilogy" of Low, "Heroes" and Lodger still stands as some of his best work. "I think Bowie commented on it before," Newcombe explains, "but it's really cool to be alone with your thoughts and the effect it has on your art. I think it was really good for him too, to just step outside and not really understand anything that's going on."

Of course, the area also has its own homegrown musical legacy, one noted, in part, for its connection to the wider German krautrock (or "kosmische musik") scenes that popped up around the country in the '60s and '70s. The influence of experimental but rocking bands like Can, Faust and Neu! has been a staple of Newcombe's musical arsenal almost from the start, and though he's quick to point out that his love of the era didn't motivate his move, his love of the genre is apparent.

"I always liked that type of music and have been influenced by it since the very beginning," he says. "The thing I identify with is that it sought to let go, of our culture, of our parents' culture. It asked, 'What are we supposed to do with that?'"

You can pick out heady strains of krautrock percolating through the new Aufheben, the 13th studio album from the group that debuted with 1993's Spacegirl & Other Favorites, but it's merely one element in a sprightly concoction of upbeat pop, British Invasion beat music, jazzy psych and, as usual, whatever other influences happened to strike Newcombe's eclectic fancy. In fact, the most Teutonic thing about the album is its title, one of those charming German words that lacks an appropriate English analogue and seems to signify multiple things at once. Popularized by the German philosopher Hegel, the term describes what happens when opposing forces or ideas clash, and can simultaneously mean both "to abolish" and "to preserve."

"I was fascinated with the word when I became familiar with it—the concept of destroying something to save it. I thought it was so loaded," he says. "It just made sense to me and where I see society going. I saw a certain amount of synchronicity with the way I view a lot of the world."

In contrast to the joyous sound of Aufheben, that view of the world is a rather dark one, with talk of disasters, both natural and man-made, coloring Newcombe's descriptions of the record.

"Well, I don't want to pigeonhole it and say that I was feeling the apocalypse, but I think in the lead-up to this album, there was a lot of tension bubbling up to the surface, and I like to stand up to that feeling artistically," he says. "I knew the 2012 thing was coming around, and I knew that people were thinking about it, so I just kind of wanted to dabble in how I felt about that."

But even if the end is nigh, Newcombe hasn't lost his sense of humor. "It's an optimistic apocalypse, though," he says. "It's not like I'm marketing it to survivalists or something."

The Brian Jonestown Massacre plays the Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, Aug. 17. Doors open at 7 p.m.