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New Pornographers - Carl Newman interview

Posted by John / October 10, 2005

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When I interviewed Carl Newman late this summer for a magazine piece, the conversation started out with a short exchange about junk food. We very possibly could have conducted an entire discussion just about ice cream and poutine, but I did need some answers to less-trivial questions. Perhaps because the interview came pretty early in the media cycle for their new album, Twin Cinema, Newman (the New Pornographers' main songwriter, who also records as solo artist A.C. Newman) was especially candid, and talked at length about songwriting and pop music.

Because I'm lazy, I didn't transcribe a lot of the junk food stuff, nor our final words about their appearance on Letterman (which, he said, was one of the most nerve-wracking performances they've ever done). But there's still lots to read.

It sounds like you're doing dishes right now. That's hardly rock-star-like.

I’m a musician that wakes up at 9 in the morning and does the dishes – put that in your story.

How often do you cook?

I don't.

No, actually, I'll tell you this: I live in the west end of Vancouver -- it's the area by Stanley Park, where the beaches are. It's where the fireworks are, the B.C. day August first fireworks. They go on for days, and it basically just shuts the area down. Yesterday I decided I was going to go to the store, but the streets were crazy, and I thought "I'm not dealing with this." So I decided to go home and order takeout, and I called my favourite restaurant and they said "We can't get down there because of the fireworks. It would take us like an hour." I was basically held captive.

The thing is, I didn’t have any food. I went down to the 7-11 and bought some Ben and Jerry's. I’m kind of feeling hungover, even though I didn’t drink.

You probably should have had a poutine.

The personal costs of eating poutine would be too high for me.

I'm trying to think of a clever segue from junk food to your music.

Um ... what I wouldn't give for us to be junk food for the masses.

OK, so: how does pop music relate to junk food?

From my end I think there are total similarities. Sometimes music seems like crack or something, you know. I think that's where pop music comes in. Sometimes you don’t feel like sitting down and spending time with the music and getting to know it and appreciating it like it was some piece of modern art. Sometimes you want music to be that direct link straight to your brain. You hear Daydream Believer by the Monkees, you know, and it just goes straight to the cerebral cortex. I like those songs where you’re like "I want to listen to this 10 times in a row." You can’t get enough of it. It is kind of like junk food. Sitting there with a bag of cookies, eating them one after the other.

I kind of feel that way -- that 10 times in a row way -- about Hollaback Girl.

It is a great song. That's pretty much Pharrell Williams. He's the Neptunes guy. I'm pretty sure he produced that song. You could have had me say something over top of that song and it would have been a hit, you know. And it's no Milkshake, which I think is another Neptunes production. They produce a ton of hits. I think he might have done that Crazy In Love Beyoncé song.

Have you ever considered writing a song for somebody else? Beyoncé or Mariah Carey or something?

I wouldn't know how to do that. People think I write songs for Neko. I don't. I just sit and write a bunch of songs. And then when I'm sifting through them I'm like, "Hmm, what are people gonna sing?" And I'll decide "I'll give her this one." It's kind of arbitrary. It's totally after the fact. Sometimes it's like a lightbulb that goes on. I'll be sitting with a song for a month or two and I'll go "You know, this would be really great." It's less Neko, more like "I need a girl to sing it."

The whole idea of aiming something for somebody’s voice, I think when you do that you’re kind of being close-minded. Are you trying to write something that’s in their style? I don’t quite get it.

It's shocking to hear this from someone who gets songwriting props all over the place.

Sometimes I think that people that do that might have a larger grasp on songwriting than I do. I think I'm good at it, but I don't think I approach it in the same way as other people do. Sometimes when I read about how songwriters work, I ... for me a lot of the time the song doesn't seem finished until it's recorded. I'll take it into the studio and change it around and mess with it. At the end of it I realize I come up with songs that might be good, but I don't see the process as something that might be normal.

Most of the time I’m just trying to ... I think I'm also trying to write songs that are a little different, like slightly different than what I used to write. Or I shouldn't say different than what I used to write. When I'm trying to write a song, I'm trying to write something not like anything I've heard before, even though I'm still staying in the pop song genre. And I think because I'm working in the pop song genre, there's a lot of things that come to me naturally as pop songs. I'll take the ideas in my head and try to twist them. There'll be some part I really like but I'll try to present it in some way that’s more interesting. I could write straight-ahead pop songs in my sleep.

When you think about it, it’s pretty easy. It's like math. I kind of envy those pop-punk bands, with guitar, bass and drums and they just buzz through the songs. It's like, man, I don't know why bands like that can't put out an album every month. It's easy enough.

Sometimes I think we really straddle the line between being too mainstream and being an indie band. We're dangerously close to being Fountains of Wayne, but we never quite get there. Nothing against Fountains of Wayne.

I think in France they have the actual metre, upon which every metre-long unit of measurement is actually based. It’s the benchmark. Is there a benchmark pop song? One that is quintessentially pop?

What is the quintessential pop song? I'm not talking about the best pop song, necessarily, but I've always thought Happy Together by the Turtles is such a quintessential pop song because of the way the chorus explodes. I never get sick of that song. It's one of those overplayed oldies that you thnk you'd want to change the station, but every time that chorus hits it's like you're in a 50 mile an hour wind.

So is Twin Cinema more or less pop than your previous stuff?

I think it's definitely less (pop). I think there's songs on it that just don't quite count as supercharged power pop. Some of them are pretty much mellow. One song, Falling Through Your Clothes, I just don't see it as really being a total pop song. I remember when we first delivered this record and most people really liked it. But there were a few people who said "I dunno, it’s kind of weird." And I thought "That's good, thank you. Thank you for acknowledging that we made a slightly odd record."

But we still get the pop (label). And it makes me wonder – do the Shins have to deal with it? Because the Shins seem far more happy and summery and light than us. I would hate to think it's just been dumped on us for some reason.

Twin Cinema also strikes me as being a more difficult record than your other stuff.

I definitely think it is (difficult) and I hope people think it is. It's one of those records that whenever I can sense that somebody's just started listening to it and they're not into it as much as the other records, I feel pretty confident. I feel like, "Yeah, you’re just getting used to it because you didn’t expect it."

I know I have no perspective and you can't really trust the artist, because it seems like artists are always talking about some shitty record like it's the best thing they've done. But I really like this one the best. When I think of how I felt at the end of Mass Romantic and Electric Version, I didn't feel entirely great about them. But this one I feel pretty good about. And I think what I like about it is that the oddness of the record is closer to what I wanted to do. Even though people love us for being so pop, I think somewhere in the back of my head, I thought that part of us that is too pop is sort of a weakness. When we finished Mass Romantic, I remember thinking the most obvious thing that somebody would say about the record was that it's just 40 minutes straight and won't let up. But it turns out that's what most people like about it, because there aren't that many records like that out there.

How does your solo record fit into everything?

That one was interesting because I was trying to do a few things I'd never really done before. I kind of liked it, but I felt like I was going out into uncharted territory. There’s stuff on that record that I think is really some of the best stuff I've ever done. The song Come Crash I really like a lot. That brings up another thing. Sometimes for me, it's like the songs, the arrangement and the execution, if it's arranged really well and pulled off very well, it makes me like it. That's one of those songs where I listen to it and think there’s very little I would change about it.

My whole solo album kind of grew out of the fact that, when I was working on Electric Version, I would listen to demos that I was working on trying to figure out what was going on the record. And I would come across something and I’d think, "This is really good but I don't see it being on the record" and I'd make a note of it. After a while that was kind of like a page of stuff, and I wrote A.C. Newman at the top.

The song Twin Cinema is the oldest song on Twin Cinema. It could have gone on my solo album, but I thought "No, no, that's for the New Pornographers."

Talk to me about Bleeding Heart Show. I find it a really interesting song, and with the burst of hey-las at the end it’s as though you’ve written a double coda, almost.

The hey-las of course are just taken from My Boyfriend's Back by the Chiffons, so it's kind of a nod to nonsense syllables throughout rock history. That song's kind of a Frankenstein's monster. I wanted to have a song that was kind of an epic that started out really slow and unfolded and kind of built and built. Where people think the "ooh-ooh-ooh" part might be the chorus or crescendo of the song, but it goes to another level and goes to this long coda. That's the kind of stuff I love doing.

Speaking of nonsense syllables, there's also still your trademark voice-as-instrument technique all over this record.

Yeah. These days I'm even mishearing my own lyrics. I think the last two records I can see there's more of a narrative logic, even if people can’t figure it out, whereas before I was like "Whatever words sound good here, those are the ones I'm going to sing." And also, I'm of the mind that everything that comes out of your head means something. The gibberish that you say comes from your head – it's not spontaneous brain activity. You're thinking about something. In that way I kind of trust all of my lyrics to be honest, even if I don’t know what they mean.

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