From Iceland — Almost Infamous

Almost Infamous

Published June 16, 2006

Almost Infamous

“I guess Frank, the guitarist, got too drunk and he passed out onstage and he landed on me. I thought he was pushing me, so I may have decided to start choking him. He laughed it off, but I think he’s still mad, you know. Kind of a bad way to start the tour,” Joel Geon, tambourine player and rock icon, tells me a couple hours before I split off from the tour. An original member of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, he is hiding out in the Singapore Sling dressing room tonight, before the sold-out show at the Oxford Zodiac, nursing a bottle of Champagne.

If you don’t know The Brian Jonestown Massacre, you haven’t been hanging out with that many Icelandic musicians. Due in part to the fact that they give all their music away for free online, but also to the fact that Anton Newcombe visits Iceland regularly, because Anton is a devotee of DIY recording techniques, and because he has a manic lifestyle that fits well with the Icelandic weekend, the band has had a devoted following here for years.

Europe and a good deal of hipster America discovered BJM last year, with the documentary DIG, based on the antics of Anton Newcombe, Joel Geon and his friends. The movie presents a grossly exploitative, condescendingly psychoanalytical portrayal of how rock is all about self-destruction and wanting to be loved and how money must be a corrupting force. European rock fans and American college students have fallen in love with the ham-handed film, and with the victims of it, BJM, allowing a string of successful tours. On this sold-out tour, BJM have invited Singapore Sling, and they have invited us to document whatever happens.

The first thing to witness is that getting famous by starring in a documentary is not the most pleasant way to gain fame. There are now thousands of random assholes who know a great deal about Joel Geon, particularly, how to get on his nerves. My first night with the tour, at Stoke-on-Trent, a couple of young soccer fans show up, make their way to a balcony and spend an hour heckling Joel in the hopes it will spark a fight like those seen in DIG. They manage to interrupt the show repeatedly. First, they chant “Joel, Fuck Off” so loudly – with skills they developed shouting at the previously Icelandic-owned Stoke football team – that they demand an initial response from Anton. He says, “You’re going to listen to these fucking Albanians?”

But when the chants go on long enough, Joel has his incident, the strangling onstage, which does look kind of bad at the time.

The taxi driver who takes me to the Sugarmill in Stoke-on-Trent, has trouble finding the club. As it happens, though, it lies in the shadow of a number of strip clubs, and a disco that the driver knows very well. “If you get a woman into that club, Liquid, she will do anything to you,” he tells me, before pulling alongside a group of teenagers to ask them directions to the Sugarmill, which is blocks away.

This is a disco kind of town?

“This is the home of Robbie Williams,” he tells me.

The Sugarmill, the hard rock club in town, is a good deal smaller venue than the discos where you get girls to do anything, and it is aimed at an older clientele. A bar next to the Sugarmill has no namesake, but it has the following warning: No Food No Kids, This Isn’t a Fucking Youth Hostel. Inside, oddball 30-somethings nurse beers and prepare for tonight’s show.

Henrik Björnsson, frontman and founder of Singapore Sling, and I hide out at the bar while he waits for his sound check, and he fills me in on the tour so far, which has mostly been a disappointment. The Brian Jonestown Massacre have been incredible, but Singapore Sling, who get 50 British pounds per gig (or eight pounds per member) are listed as “Guests” and have not attracted attention. In fact, even BJM have had difficulty getting people to listen, as the focus has been more on their personalities and the movie, DIG – this is the first tour that Joel Geon has joined, and he has been drawing a lot of attention.

And then there is Manchester. If Icelandic musicians look up to Anton Newcombe now, their envy for Ian Curtis of Joy Division, and of the Manchester scene in general, is timeless. In fact, the first time I saw Anton Newcombe was when he joined Singapore Sling onstage at an Ian Curtis tribute show. So the fact that Manchester suffered a power outage just as they arrived, forcing the gig to be cancelled, feels like bad voodoo.

As we sit in the bar next to the club, I begin to wonder the odds that we may get involved in a scuffle. Henrik and I have been mocking a sign that says “Piercings: Lip 20 quid, Nipple 20, Cheek 20, each; Ear 15, depending on which part. Done by Rach.”

Then, suddenly, Anton Newcombe is sitting next to us, pointing out the sign. And just as suddenly, the people who were eyeing us are now approaching us with surprisingly expensive digital cameras.

My first conversation with Anton Newcombe occurs after a fat 40-year-old bald man with a jean jacket, a yellow ascot, and a gland problem producing fish-like eye bulge approaches Anton to say, “I just wanted to thank you. You’ve had a profound effect on my life.” (I watch this bald, bizarre man during the BJM show as he sells packets of hash and then flees the show about six songs in to deal more drugs.)

Anton shrugs the guy off, after first posing for a photo, and then tells me, “I’m just a normal guy. I mean, I drink, and everything.” Then he gets up and goes to drink and introduce himself to other lifelong fans.

The act seems brave and generous. Anton has set himself up as king of the misfits, a profitable enough position, but to mingle with the misfits is something not exactly required of a rock star. He does. He mingles, he lets them snap away, and though he seems to get a little miserable as the meet-and-greet goes on, you can’t help thinking he’s the fans’ rock star.

Henrik may not quite be the same. First off, of course, Henrik and Singapore Sling don’t have the money to be in a bar long. Instead of meeting and greeting, Sling and I, at their invite, plunder backstage at the Sugarmill for sustenance: none of us have eaten in a day, and we try to calculate how many beers we’ll need to drink to make up the calorie count. Quickly, the cases of beer set aside for both Sling and BJM disappear – in just over 45 minutes backstage, by my count, we have done in 60 beers, leaving not very much for the headlining act.

Onstage, Singapore Sling sound good. They play their overpowering, harder-edged take on the 60s Wall of Sound that BJM launched ten years ago. Having followed Singapore Sling for years, this is the best show I’ve seen… to the worst audience. There is generally applause, and the club fills up as the show goes on, but it doesn’t get too appreciative. BJM themselves, standing next to me on the balcony and realising how good the sound is, spend some time leaning over the edge flipping off the crowd.

“There’s so many sad people here. We’re talking fat girls in body stockings and halter tops. People who have no idea. Retards,” Henrik will tell me after the show, utterly disgusted with Stoke.

Despite playing to a sold-out audience, and despite being the headlining act, Brian Jonestown Massacre have a worse time of it. First, there is the sound. The club doesn’t have a good system, and all you really hear is basslines – something more beneficial to Sling’s style than BJM. Second, the only draw for the BJM show has been the rumour that BJM might fight, or that there might be drugs around. Despite having seen a number of people greet Anton before the show, I see very few audience members singing along to the contagious pop the BJM put out, and then, after an hour and a half, the audience spends an outrageous amount of energy screaming for a fight.

Still, BJM play 28 songs, or about three hours, without missing a note. When they’re done, they storm backstage, lift up Einar, guitarist from Sling who has passed out next to the locked back stage area, and carry us all in for a party.

The first words from Anton, after playing his guts out while stalling a meltdown between band members, is, curiously, aimed at me. “Well Mr. Big Shot American journalist who moved to Iceland to start a paper, I just have one question for you: if you’re here, who’s watching over your Icelandic girlfriend?”

When I don’t respond, he changes the subject to the strangling. From there he moves to discussing the power of Singapore Sling’s single My Life is Killing My Rock n Roll, which he decides to sing for everyone in a range of styles, from Buddy Holly to Elvis to a disco version. After a couple hours, I realise I’m watching a full-on attack of mania. Henrik is slouched next to me, laughing but cringing, Einar is taking photos, and the various other people in the room are trying to steer clear of Anton, who has been talking and singing continuously, stopping only briefly to throw fruit at the wall.

Two and a half hours after the show, and after we’ve been asked to leave for the fifth time, Anton is singing his new favourite improvised song for the 25th time: “Oooohh, I will jump from roof to roof, until I meet my destiny, dancing, farting, jumping, fighting, stealing the beer while the hunter sleeps.” He is a rock icon. He is generous to his fans. He has been generous to Singapore Sling, and to a visiting journalist, giving huge amounts of alcohol and conversation, but when he goes to sing the song a 26th time, we finally build up the courage to flee.

There is one rule for the hotel we’re staying at in downtown Stoke, and it is posted everywhere in the place: “Check Out is 10, No Exceptions.” At 10:30, I sit outside the room I’ve shared with most of the band, reading over the notes from the night before, waiting for the hotel owner to come up screaming. Siggi, Sling’s tambourine shaker, is the first to wake and he comes to get me and we skim over the Sunday papers, and then set out to find food. There is no chance of anyone checking out for the next few hours.

This is good behaviour for a rock band. The only kind of behaviour, we realise, as we try to sneak by the hotel owner. He is happy to realise we’ll be there until noon, and he asks Siggi to sign the guest book, as he wants it in case the band turn out to be famous. “Last night, we had three keyboardists. They told us it seemed like they were really going to make it,” he tells us.

We wander around Stoke, eventually finding a decent pub that serves the standard English breakfast, and settle in to wait for the band. A few hours later, we find out that the band is completely out of money. The 50 pounds doesn’t work for much, and the system of drinking instead of eating doesn’t work well with a tour schedule.

Bjössi, the new drummer who, by day, works at the children’s show LazyTown, explains over a frown that because they’re so broke, he will have to drive from Oxford to London after tonight’s gig so that they can sleep at friends’ apartments. Of course, we still have to drive to Oxford – three hours away. And nobody in the band is in good enough shape that they can walk without squinting.

When I mention that I am developing a stunning headache, Siggi nods and says, “Usually, after four days of touring, the headache fades away. Or you just don’t notice it anymore.”

At about 1:30, when the band is going over the night’s plans for playing then getting out to London, Henrik shows up and borrows 25 pounds: he is going to get a tattoo.

Again I am at the bar next to the club, this time the Hobgoblin, next to Oxford’s Zodiac Theatre, famous for providing Radiohead and Supergrass with a venue as they were developing. I am speaking with James, an outstandingly geeky-looking Brian Jonestown Massacre fan who I thought might give an intellectual perspective on BJM and on Anton.

“I saw them opening for a band last year, and I just thought they were so honest that I had to see them again. I would say that DIG is an enjoyable film, but I think anybody with perspective can see that it has been edited towards certain aims,” he tells me, living up to my expectations. “The songs (BJM play) aren’t mass-produced kinds of thing, like he doesn’t care if you like them.”

“Perfect,” I tell James. “Which college are you with?”

“I’m not with one. I’m staying with a friend at Gilford.”

“Ah. And, uh, do you know where a person… or maybe eight people, could find a place to stay for the night?”

The drive has taken a lot out of us. We have gotten lost in Oxford, as will happen when one travels without a map or any real advice beyond bizarrely complex Mapquest directions. And Bjössi and the rest of Sling have me begging people for a place to stay – it turns out, I went to school here for a few months, though I made few friends.

I am just talking to another fan when Anton Newcombe walks in.

Again, he acts surprised and bashful when the long line of fans comes up for photos. While there is no denying that he is doing the rock star’s duty, it begins to feel less genuine: night after night, Anton drifts over to the bar where his fans congregate, and then he plays “the normal guy who drinks” before the show.

The Grapevine’s London photographer is not particularly amused. Visiting to take photos of Singapore Sling on tour, he complains that “this buddy in a hunting cap keeps on getting in the shots.” Anton, who just wants a drink, keeps on gravitating toward our photographer.

We adjourn to the club with Singapore Sling, where I tell them the bad news – I have no idea where they will stay if they decide they can’t drive to London.

That night, Sling sound incredible – with Hákon, guitarist and the singularly most exhausted member of the band, going into a complete fit onstage. Granted a half hour, the band this time play before a full club and a responsive audience.

Then, immediately after the show, the band is despondent and exhausted. Completely out of beer, out of money, and with no motivation to drive to London, they also refuse to believe that they sounded remotely tolerable – the sound onstage, before it went through the club’s PA, sounded atrocious. They are splitting up to get to London, and, embarrassed as they are about it, they have to give up on granting me coverage, unless I want to sleep in the van, which will be parked in South London.

Two more hours of band conversation about how to get to their final gig begin, as Anton takes the stage in front of a devoted following.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre, playing to a sympathetic audience, sounds a good deal worse than when they play to a roomful of chavs. Part of it may be that Joel is afraid of repercussions for the strangling, but most of it seems to be Anton – he plays to convert an audience, but these people adore whatever he does. He plays the catchy single Servo twice, he makes small, slightly edgy, overall retarded small talk: “I’m so happy to be here – I wish I could express it better. I tell you what I mean. I’d strip you all naked and you’d all have burns on your asses. I’d fuck you so you couldn’t walk. You’d all be in wheelchairs,” he says, shirtless.

“I’d like that,” says what looks like a Master’s English literature student, and people move away from her.

The crowd is full of Anton devotees. Absolute worshippers who don’t mind that the guitar sounds bad, or that Anton has mixed his vocals low and is repeating songs, or that Anton announces, “I wouldn’t advise talking to me, ‘cause I am very high.”

From all I can tell, Anton could be eating biscuits onstage and getting the same adoration. A 50-year-old woman nudges into me at one point. “Who is this band? I’ve never heard of them,” she says.

“I don’t know. Just came to see the opening act.”

She ignores what I say, sure I’m bullshitting, and says, “Do you know where Anton got that hat?”

“At a store?”

“He was given it by Will Sargeant,” she says, nodding and smiling as though I should be extremely impressed.

I nod. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Will Sargeant is a very famous singer from Liverpool.”

“Then I guess you have heard of this band,” I say.

“Everybody here has.”

And then Anton begins to explain that there is a long break because “we just play music. We’re honest, so we play what we want to play,” he says, just as he said last night before being harassed by football fans. Tonight, though, he is cheered.

Playing a perfect concert to a perfect audience, Singapore Sling sell four CDs, and, by my surveys, have about 20 BJM fans who will now see Sling “if they come to town again.”

I say my goodbyes to the band, wishing them luck with London. They ask me to meet them there, and tell me that will be the highlight of the tour. They make sure I have a set of phone numbers. When I call the next day, all the phones are off.

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