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A Quietus Interview

Keeping It Together: The New Pornographers Interviewed
Will Parkhouse , May 10th, 2010 09:34

Will Parkhouse discusses definitive records and revenge plots with Carl 'AC' Newman, lead singer with The New Pornographers

Carl 'AC' Newman has just been painting. When he told us this, we pictured The New Pornographers' chief singer, songwriter and all-round mastermind thoughtfully committing some colourful abstract daubings to canvas. It turns out he's actually been redecorating his Brooklyn apartment ready for subletting, because he's heading to the hills.

The hills in question are Woodstock's Catskill Mountains and his fresh start sounds enviously idyllic – his new neighbour, Newman tells us, is folk musician and Dylan collaborator Happy Traum, and he's already crossed paths with John Sebastian from The Lovin' Spoonful.

"There's this weird small-town vibe crossed with all this rock history," he says. "It's amazing to be in this very peaceful place. It just makes you feel happier." Sounds like the band's next record could feature unprecedented levels of tree-huggery. In the meantime, though, there's the new, fifth, album to pick over.

It's called Together – and we can't help thinking that togetherness and apartness is important in the case of The New Pornographers. By scattering themselves – the band's other songwriter and male vocalist Dan Bejar (also of Destroyer) and singer Neko Case, whose career as a solo artist is a whole other thing, both live elsewhere – they might, conversely, have stumbled upon the perfect formula for keeping an multi-vocal indie-pop semi-supergroup together. Get us the Nobel Committee on the phone!

Carl, I read an interview you did just after Challengers came out – this might have been a flippant comment, so forgive me if it was – in which you said: "The next record is going to be the definitive New Pornographers album. I have decided."

AC Newman: Oh really? [Dryly] Yeah, I think I say that in every interview.

I was going to say: has it turned out that way?

ACN: Sure, yes. [Joking] We've made the definitive one.

There's a real punchiness to it – even the ballads sound like they're trying to smash through a wall. There's less of the still moments of Challengers. Were you drinking a lot of coffee when you recorded it?

ACN: Not as much as I was drinking when we first started playing. With Challengers, we got about as quiet as I wanted to get and then I thought, now we can go back and do things a little bit more...rock. I think that jitteryness has always been there – even when our songs are slower, I think we're still a garage band.

Would you say that energy was there when you were writing the songs, or did that come in the studio?

ACN: Songs really form in the studio, definitely. When we bring in a big rock riff, it's self explanatory. The first song on the record, I knew it was going start with that riff and that was going to be the basis to the whole song.

I've had that riff in my head all day...

ACN: We're trying to be infectious.

What about the cover art – it's a picture of these weird anti-gravity forces pulling six people apart. What's that about?

ACN: Really? I wouldn't say it's pulling us apart. Part of it looks like these people are just floating away, but it also looks like they might be jumping to their death. I like the idea that they don't know where they're going, or what's going to happen. I thought it was an interesting image for a record called Together. That's what I think about the band – a bunch of people leaping and we don't know where we're heading. Figure it out as we go along, we've always done that.

Will you read the reviews, or is that not something you do?

ACN: I don't really do it any more… I used to for years, I used to read them all. Then I realised it served no purpose. I always equate it to being a heroin addict: after a while you need the good reviews just to feel normal.

What inspires you to write? Do you sit down at a desk, treat it as a 9-to-5 job?

ACN: Sometimes I do, sometimes it's just spontaneous brain activity. Sometimes when I'm going through the day, I'll have an idea for a song and try to record a really quick demo and then forget about it – I'm constantly doing that. After a while, I'll go back and listen to them all and it's interesting, because it'll sound like somebody else's song. You have no recollection of it. That's very helpful, because it gives me an objectivity.

Sometimes those songs are almost done. Sometimes they're just fragments of songs that I build. It's a long process, I'm not one of those people who wrote a song one night in a hotel room in two hours and then never touched again. I've always's always taken a lot longer.

How does it work with Dan's songs? Does he just bring them to you in the studio and you pick what you like or is that not really your decision?

ACN: He'll just say: "Here's the three songs I wrote for the record." And I'll go: "Awesome." And that's what we use. There've only been a couple of songs that he's brought to the band that we didn't use. I think it was on Electric Version, our second album, he brought a song called 'Painter in Your Pocket'...

I was listening to that today, actually – it's a Destroyer song.

ACN: Yeah. [He sings a bit.] I remember he played that for us and I thought, it just sounds like Destroyer, what would we do with this? It wasn't that I didn't like it, I just thought it didn't sound like a New Pornographers song. So he put it on Rubies and I think that was a better move. That's happened twice, but for the most part, yeah, Dan brings the songs. I trust him – he's my friend, but he's also one of my favourite songwriters as well. Whatever he feels like doing, I say, do it.

You seem to be in quite a unique position for a band. Most of your members have other creative outlets and you're not all sitting on a tourbus getting sick of each other. When you get together to record is it a bit like having a reunion?

ACN: That's true, it is, and even more so when we go on tour. Dan's a pretty good friend of mine, but we don't live in the same city any more. It's always good to see him, same with Neko. It's an odd situation, in a lot of ways, we're a very well-to-do part-time band, but I think we all like it like that. None of us wants to be on the road 10 months of the year.

Neko's last record was pretty successful. Do you ever worry you won't be able to hold onto her much longer?

ACN: I've felt that way for years. We've never really known exactly what was going to happen. Of course, she's insanely busy – I think she's currently singing back-up in the Jakob Dylan band – but yeah, Neko's really into it. Because we're not a real high-pressure band, I think that keeps us together. For the last six or seven years, people have been saying: "Aren't you worried Neko's going to leave the band because she's getting so popular?" Well, she keeps getting more popular and she still stays in the band, so I don't know.

And you guys are doing all right, as well, aren't you, really?

ACN: Well, you know, yeah. I think the two bands have a good symbiotic relationship, you know? One helps the other. Some people have come to Neko Case through the Pornographers and some have come to the Pornographers through Neko Case. Some like one more than the other, some like them equally. Overall, it definitely helps everybody out.

I really love a lot of your songs, but most of the time, I don't really know what they're about. Am I not listening properly, or would you agree they're a bit cryptic?

ACN: Well, some of them… They're always cryptic, because that's the kind of lyricism I like. Like Arthur Lee, from Love, or Black Francis from those old Pixies records. I think even when I'm trying to make a lot of sense, people don't understand me. I don't think I'll ever be like a Springsteen-style confessional songwriter. I just work in a different genre.

It's been, like, 10 years since Mass Romantic came out, now...

ACN: Mmm, it's been nine actually.

Nearly 10. Was it August 2000? Hey, maybe you should do an anniversary re-release or something.

ACN: [Laughs] I don't think we have...We'd have to record new songs and pretend they were old. I thought of doing that,'s too much effort. It's a lot of effort to put into a practical joke on the world.

Yeah. You'd have to fake the carbon-dating and stuff. Looking back on the 10 years, have things turned out the way you hoped? Has the music industry treated you kindly? Do you feel lucky?

ACN: You know, I really do, because we never expected anything. We didn't sell half a million records, but 10 years later, this is my career, and I never expected that. A lot of the time, when you're a musician, you're just happy not to have a day job, it feels like a triumph. People always say, "Oh, do you feel happy? You haven't sold as many records as other bands." Well, we've done pretty good. If I went back in time 10 years and somebody told me this is where you live, this is who you're married too, this is what you've done, I'd say, wow, I'm a success. When you're living life, you don't always feel that way, but you have to remind yourself. Like Joe Walsh said: life's been good to me so far.

I thought it was the honourable thing to do to ask the guy who introduced me to your music if he had any questions for you, and his first reaction was: "Blimey, they don't really do myth, they're well-adjusted Canucks".

ACN: Myth? What does that mean?

I presume he means you don't have a rock'n'roll back story that you can sell journalists...

ACN: Yep, it's true.

Do you think that's hindered or helped you? Is it a cruel thing to say?

ACN: No, I don't think it is. We've never been like that and I always thought if we do have a strength, it's that we get onstage and we're just ourselves – we joke around the same way we do when we're on the tourbus. I'd like some 18-year-old to see us up onstage and think: "They're just normal people like me and they can be in a band, so I can be in a band too." You know? When somebody's up onstage and they seem like too much of a rock god, it makes people think that playing music is beyond them. That's how I felt when I was growing up, like I couldn't cross that huge line from being an audience member to being a person onstage.

Was there something that helped you cross the line?

ACN: I just held my breath and jumped. I do remember it was immediately addictive. The first show I ever played was really good. I just so happened we had a lot of support, I think we probably bought about 200 friends, family and acquaintances along. Afterwards, I remember being on such a high, I thought, I want to continue doing this, this is awesome.

I had to miss one of your London shows about three years ago, because my girlfriend made me attend this AGM for the block of flats we live in. I ended up watching this really angry woman shouting at someone for an hour. What do you recommend I do to settle the score? Because she kind of owes me.

ACN: You didn't dump her immediately?

No, in fact I'm getting married to her.

ACN: Is it going to be like a "revenge is best served cold" thing? Maybe wait 10 more years. Wait 10 years and then divorce her. Then you'd be even, I think.

Okay, good. Thanks for your advice.

ACN: Yeah, that's very good advice.

Together is out on 3 May on Matador.