Features | Interviews

A.C. Newman

By Peter Hepburn | 4 July 2004

Few artists can brag the credentials of Carl Newman. Leader of the now-legendary Zumpano, Canadian supergroup the New Pornographers, and newly started solo artist (under the name A.C. Newman), Newman has, very simply, produced some of the most consistently brilliant pop music of the last decade. His choices for arrangements, his unbelievable sense for melody and vocal harmonies, not to mention his seemingly innate skill for producing hooks have made him a staff favorite here at CMG.
Needless to say I was nervous at the prospect of calling up Carl at his Vancouver home as he prepared for his upcoming tour in support of the new album. What do you ask a man who, for all intents and purposes, seems to be something of a mad pop genius? Luckily he also happens to be a red-headed Canadian, and one of the most friendly musicians I’ve had the good fortune of interviewing in some time. The more interesting elements of our 45-minute conversation are distilled here.


Peter Hepburn (CMG): First off, I like the new album a lot. Congratulations on the New York Times article as well.
Carl Newman (CN): Yeah, that was strange. I didn’t expect my face to be so big. I think they did that cause it was a David Bailey photo. Do you know who David Bailey Is?

CMG: No. [I felt like a fool for having to admit this and I now do know who he is. He does seem to be quite cool, but then again, I’m a music critic and what do I know about photography. Check out his site at http://www.davidbaileyphotography.com]
CN: I didn’t know till everyone started telling me how famous he was. Apparently the New York Times were really excited because it was the first time they’d ever been able to get him to do a photo shoot for them. So I have a feeling that’s why it was a full page. They thought “I don’t care who it’s a picture of. We’ve got a David Bailey photo, let’s make it, like, a full page.” That’s my theory. My other theory is that they just really love me.

CMG: The latter may be the better way to look at it. Okay, well let’s start kinda at the beginning here. Who would you count as your most important musical influences?
CN: That’s a tough one. I never really know. I feel like I’m just influenced by everything along the way. Like, when I was a little kid I really loved KISS and Cheap Trick. I dunno, some of that’s probably seeped in. It’s not conscious, I never try to do anything like that, but I think it must have stuck with me. Or like Queen, or whatever, any pop music I listened to when I was growing up. When I seriously started to try to write songs my main influences were, like, Burt Bacharach, Jim Webb, and Brian Wilson. Those were the guys I kinda looked at their music and went “what the hell are they doing here?” I was just fascinated by the structures and the harmonics. Now, I’m just influenced by modern songwriters. I think Robert Pollard’s great and I like Belle & Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel.

CMG: Do you have a favorite Kink’s record?
CN: I’m gonna guess Village Green Preservation Society. I dunno, I like Arthur too, and Something Else is a great album, too.

CMG: What have you been listening to lately?
CN: Shit, what have I been listening to lately? I can never remember that. What was I listening to over the weekend when I was drunk and putting on records? Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, I always love that one. The Hidden Cameras, I’ve been listening to that a little bit. Wait, I know the answer to this. All Night Radio’s Spirit Stereo Frequency, I really like that record a lot.

CMG: Didn’t they just break up?
CN: Yeah, and that sucks, cause they were supposed to tour with me. Outrageous Cherry I listened to, ummm, Rogue Wave. They’re actually touring with me instead of All Night Radio.

CMG: Do you think that your different projects have, intentionally or otherwise, reflected different influences?
CN: Zumpano was quite a long time ago. We recorded our last record over eight years ago. That was definitely influenced by more classic, '60s songwriting. New Pornographers I wanted to be a little more rock, more driving, a little simpler, but I can’t really leave my influences behind. I’m really into melody and harmony and I can’t really shake that, no matter what I do, that seeps in. There’s also the fact that I never really know what I’m doing when I start making a record. I just start making it and see what happens. Sometimes the style of the record is dictated by whatever instruments are lying around. If there’s a pump organ sitting there then I put a lot of pump organ on it. Some of it’s planned but a lot of it’s just screwing around and seeing what happens. That’s basically what the solo record was. All I knew is that I wanted it to be more minimal.

CMG: I’m curious now that we’re starting to see a lot more recognition of your work with Zumpano and the New Pornographers have become quite popular, what your reaction is to your status as one of the leading pop songwriters today.
CN: I don’t know. I still find it hard to believe that people find me one of the big songwriters. I want people to think I’m good.

CMG: Well, you pack that many hooks into The Electric Version and people are bound to come to that conclusion.
CN: I guess so. For me the hooks, just being a fan of pop music, or a student of pop music, I just love the hooks. I guess that’s why I try to pack a lot of them in. I know people talked about that, how the New Pornographers records were totally crammed with massive amounts of hooks and how on the solo record I sorta basically pulled back. That was a conscious effort on my part. Sometimes your biggest strength can also be a weakness. Sometimes I would listen to New Pornographers albums and they would bug me because they were so dense. I listened to the Spoon record Kill the Moonlight, and I really love that record. It’s such a minimal record, but it’s just done so amazingly well. I think a record like that was an influence on me, but I don’t think my record sounds anything like that.

CMG: What do you think of some of Spoon’s earlier, louder, denser work? Something like A Series of Sneaks?
CN: I actually don’t have any of their earlier stuff. I’m weird that way. I’m not as much of a record collector as I used to be. I don’t buy anything unless it really floors me. You would think I’d like Kill The Moonlight and then go seeking out all the other Spoon records but I don’t really do that. I have got my whole life to discover them. Maybe when I’m like 55 I’ll pick up A Series of Sneaks.

CMG: I was curious what you thought of the latest Shins record.
CN: They’re one band that I definitely had to run out and buy their album. I really loved Oh, Inverted World. They’re a great, great band. That James Mercer has got a pretty crazy sense of melody.

CMG: I heard a lot of similarities between Zumpano’s Goin’ Through Changes and the Shin’s Chutes Too Narrow. I was wondering if you heard those same parallels.
CN: People always bring that up with me. I don’t really think it does. It comes from a similar place, but I don’t think they’d ever heard us or anything. There’re some vague similarities in our voices because we both sing kinda…high. One thing nobody picks out in reviews but I think is kinda obvious in places is the Echo & the Bunnymen influence. There’s one song on the new Shins record that sounds like it could be off Ocean Rain. [Here at CMG we believe he’s referring to “Mine’s Not a High Horse,” and, now that he mentions it, it’s a rather good point.]

CMG: How do you write and develop your songs, which tend to be so full of complex melodies and harmonies and jammed with hooks?
CN: Sometimes I don’t know how. A lot of the time I just try to find a good chord progression and melody to base the whole song off. Sometimes I just need something that’s just a springboard. I’ll just say “this part’s great. Now I gotta figure out where it’s gonna go.” Sometimes I’ll have two parts that have been sitting separate for months and months and then I put them together and they seem perfect.

CMG: And the lyrics?
CN: The lyrics? I don’t know where the hell the lyrics come from. It starts from sound a lot of the time. The music and melody are there first and I have an idea of what the vocals should sound like. Just some vowels or consonants, and I have to fit the words around that casue I really want the words and the melody to fit together. I don’t want cram words in there that don’t quite fit, which sometimes people do and that can be cool, but that’s not really what I wanna do.

CMG: I’ve always loved “Letter from an Occupant” (like everyone else out there) and I was curious if you’re tired of being so tied to that one song. Do you feel a need to top it?
CN: Not really. What could I do? I don’t want to write another song that sounds like it. I think the only way I could top it is to write a song that’s very, very different from it. I could write a song that is catchier. I’m sure I have it in me. The whole thing about people loving that song seems so strange to me, because it was finished so many years ago. It was finished two years before Mass Romantic came out. It was one of the first songs we did and we had these four songs we finished and we were giving them out to people, and people liked them, but there wasn’t any more reaction than that. I sent the tape to my friend Nils who is a publicist at Matador and he was really into it, but that about the end of it. And I sent a tape to Jonathon Pondman at SubPop and I never heard from him. I thought it was strange, cause I thought it was good, and I couldn’t figure out why nobody seemed that interested in it. It comes out two years later and everyone goes kinda apeshit. For me, I was wondering, “why aren’t people loving this song the minute it comes into existence?”

CMG: What were the other three songs on that tape?
CN: “Execution Day,” “Mystery Hours,” and “Breakin’ the Law.”

CMG: Do you think your writing and arranging process has changed over time? Perhaps become more intuitive?
CN: I think it definitely has. Maybe it just comes from learning. After you’ve been doing something long enough it takes a little less effort. Over the years I’ve just learned how to write better songs.

CMG: In the New York Times article you go so far as to call the skill on par with an idiot savant. Do you stand by this remark?
CN: Yeah, not that I’m retarded or anything. I don’t think that it takes an enormous amount of intelligence to write a song. It’s not rocket science. A lot of the time it feels like I don’t even know what I’m doing, so it’s shocking when people write about me as being this great songwriter. I don’t sit and home and think “I’m great.” I sit at home and sometimes I wonder if I’m gonna be capable of writing any more songs. Somehow I do.

CMG: Do you leave a lot of songs half-developed?
CN: Yeah. Many, many, many songs are half-developed. There’s a lot of stuff that’s unfinished and ends up going unused. Sometimes I’ll write a song that’ll have a part in it that’s years and years old. It’s kind of good to have that back catalog of unfinished songs just in case I ever get stumped. It’s a good place to start from.

CMG: How collaborative is the New Pornographers?
CN: It’s not really that collaborative actually. I don’t know what people think goes on in the making of a New Pornographers record. A huge amount of it is me and John [Collins] in the studio. People talk about how it’s this great collaboration between all these people, where really that’s never been the case. Dan [Bejar] was around more on the making of Mass Romantic. On this one, doing Electric Version Kurt [Dahle] was around a little more but Dan was off doing other things. I don’t know how normal bands make their records, but I think it’s quite possible there is less collaboration in the New Pornographers than in your average band.

CMG: Did doing the solo record give you a greater degree of freedom or restrict you because you weren’t working with musicians of the caliber of Dan Bejar, Todd Fancey, or Neko Case.
CN: I still brought in really great people to play on it. I brought in the ringers. It was interesting because I got to build my own rhythm sections for the most part because for about half the songs I just kinda used a drum machine to approximate what I wanted the drums to sound like. That was interesting. I got to play my own bass lines, which I’d never done before on a record. That’s the part I really liked about doing The Slow Wonder.

CMG: How did you come up with the attack cello on “The Town Halo”?
CN: Initially that part started out as something I played on guitar, and I thought it was just gonna be the bass note of the piano playing that. Shane [Nelken] who was playing keyboards had one of those expensive piano samplers and it had a cello setting on it. One day he was just playing that line with the cello setting and I thought “shit, that would sound really great.” It reminded me of The Move, or even ELO, which was basically the same thing. I know Roy Wood learned how to play cello, and he used some amazing rock cello on some of the Move songs. So I brought in a real cello player and had her play that part. It was very interesting to create a song that really rocks but it’s just basically drums, cello, and piano. Most people wouldn’t think you could make the most rocking song on the record with just those three instruments.

CMG: Why did you decide to do the solo record now?
CN: I had a bunch of songs left over. I didn’t see them being good New Pornographers songs. Sometimes there’s a song that I don’t want to sound like the New Pornographers. “Most of us Prizefighters” I was gonna make a New Pornographers song for the first record, but I decided it’d be better for my solo album.

CMG: Are you proud to be so closely associated with the New Pornographers or would you prefer that not to be mentioned in every article and review written of the Slow Wonder LP?
CN: No, I’m proud to be associated with the New Pornographers cause it’s my band. When it comes down to it I’m more liable to play up the connection. I don’t feel the need to start from scratch. If people like the New Pornographers I’d hope they’d at least check out my record.

CMG: Do you anticipate more solo albums? What’s in store from the New Pornographers?
CN: It’s hard to say as far as solo records. In the next six months I have to figure out and finish the next New Pornographers record and then I’ll start thinking about a new A.C. Newman record.

CMG: Do you enjoy touring?
CN: Oh yeah, I love touring. I’d like to do more of it, it’s just that Neko doesn’t wanna do it cause she’s kinda hung up on doing her own thing.

CMG: So to record the new album you received a grant. Explain how that system works.
CN: Yeah, basically a grant. It’s technically called a loan. It’s from this foundation called FACTOR that is partly government funded and they give out grants and loans to bands to record and promote your record, go on tour. I got what’s called an independent loan so I got 18,000 dollars to record my record, but the only way I have to pay them back is to give them 50 cents from every album sold. Basically all my Canadian sales are pure profit for me. [Yeah, everything really is better in Canada. To learn more about FACTOR check their website at http://www.factor.ca]

CMG: So I know you’re going with “Miracle Drug” as the single for the new record. Was that your first choice?
CN: Not really. I have no objectivity. “Drink to Me, Babe, Then” is my favorite.

CMG: On the new record there’s a great ballad in “The Cloud Prayer” which is not something listeners hear a lot of in your work, especially with the New Pornographers. Is this a trend you want to carry on to the next New Pornographers album?
CN: Yeah, there won’t necessarily be ballads, but I want to do songs that are a lot more mellow. I don’t know what it’s gonna be like, but I want the record to have more extremes to it. It might be even more of a studio record than the last two. I like the combination of full on rock band and studio trickery.

CMG: What do you think of Todd Fancey’s new album?
CN: I think it’s really good. I’ve seen a few reviews where our records are reviewed together, which sort of bugs me. It kinda sucks when two friends have to have their records compared to each other, but it’s good if it gets some attention for Todd’s record. It was over a year ago that he recorded that. The music he makes on the solo record is the kind of music he loves. He’s such a fan of '70s soft rock.

CMG: One last question, then, that I try and ask everyone I get a chance to interview. If you had to give up sex or music for the rest of your life, which would it be?
CN: Music. I’ve played music for long enough. Maybe I’m just saying that cause I really love my girlfriend.

CMG: Thanks a lot for talking to me. Good luck with the tour.
CN: Take it easy.