Adventures in Solitude: An Interview With A.C. Newman
Somehow Newman fits American literature, modern Swiss sculpture, and classic international cinema into a conversation about his latest work.
"I decided about a year or two ago that I wasn't going to pay any attention to what gets written about my records because I realized it doesn't really make any difference."
That's A.C. Newman -- Carl when his isn't the name on the album cover -- speaking days before Get Guilty, his second solo record, is released, all but guaranteeing an onslaught of press from the same core of rock journalists that helped make his current band the New Pornographers part of a new wave of indie-rock superstars in the earlier part of the decade. The primary songwriting force in a band that otherwise includes such acclaimed musicians as Destroyer's Dan Bejar and alt-country critic's darling Neko Case, Newman's hard-edged, classically crafted pop melodies provide the firm sonic foundation for the band's impressively diverse set of players. Not at all unfair to cite him as being the current decade's answer to Robert Pollard in the '90s, Paul Westerberg in the '80s and even Alex Chilton in the '70s, Newman's indie-celebrity serves as a vindication for a man who had spent years weathering Canada's indie-rock underground in bands like Superconductor and Zumpano before his eventual breakthrough.
And like most pop songwriting geniuses, A.C. Newman appears to be overflowing with songs, enough so that his downtime between New Pornographers records is spent on the occasional solo outing. Far from being an assortment of leftovers, though, Get Guilty is a record that, somewhat unlike his shambolic 2004 solo disc The Slow Wonder, fits perfectly along the evolutionary continuum that his songwriting has followed from the earlier, more raucous New Pornographers albums through to the added depth and texture of Twin Cinema (2005) and Challengers (2007). Without going quite so far as to call Get Guilty a career best, it may have to settle for being simply another A.C. Newman masterpiece, a collection of twelve songs that fall somewhere between excellent and transcendent. It took all of my restraint to keep the interview from turning into non-stop gushing on my part.
Instead, we discussed such rather more pertinent topics as the challenge of making records on one's own, the elusiveness of writing hit songs, the double-edged sword of critical adulation and the role of the Internet in independent music. All complete with digressions into American literature, modern Swiss sculpture, classic French and Japanese cinema, and 1980s pop music. Trust me, it all fits together.
Having been part of one band or another for so many years now, even as the principal songwriter much of the time, is there still something about making a record that is just your own that feels different, or even awkward, in any way?
It is a little awkward. Some things it's really nice to have complete control of, but sometimes you wish you had the band member to just step in because I can't say I know everything about every side of arranging. That's why doing these solo albums has been good for me, because when you're in a band for a few years you kind get sick of being in a band and you wish you could do something on your own. Then you do something on your own and it reminds you that you like having a band.
How do you decide at this point what goes on a New Pornographers record and what goes on a solo record? Were the songs on Get Guilty always going to be solo A.C. Newman tracks?
I don't really think of it that far ahead. There was only one song that I started on Get Guilty where I thought, "This has gotta be a New Pornographers song." I just started working on songs; some of them could've been slightly reinvented and become New Pornographers songs. Right now I'm working on writing and demoing the next New Pornographers record and I feel like this is the first New Pornographers record where I'm actually trying to write a New Pornographers record, where before I never really did that. Especially on the last two records I just decided that I don't care how people define us. That was all out the window. I thought, "We're just gonna do whatever the hell we want." And now I'm thinking I wanna write a New Pornographers record. I don't know what that'll sound like. We'll see.
I find the songs on Get Guilty, just as compared to The Slow Wonder and the earlier New Pornographers albums, to be rather more textured and a bit slower and more nuanced than the older stuff. When Challengers came out there seemed to be a lot of comments to this effect and I read where even you described it as "the quiet record". I'm thinking of songs like "Adventures in Solitude" from that record, or "There are Maybe Ten or Twelve" and "Young Atlantis" on this new one. Can you speak at all about this shift in the songwriting and where it's coming from?
I think at some point when you've written a lot of fast songs that you don't wanna write so many fast songs and you wanna try something different. Something like "There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve" is kind of a slower ballad but it's also really bombastic. In the last few years I started writing songs in 3/4 time, which I'd never really done that much before. My songs were pretty much always in 4/4. On Challengers there was "Go Places" and then on this one I just put all the 3/4 songs all in a row -- "Changeling (Get Guilty)", "Elemental" and "Young Atlantis" -- it's like the 3/4 suite in the middle of the record. Things just get stuck in your head; even to the point where I've had to stop myself from writing in 3/4, knowing you can only have so many ¾ songs on the record. Neko in the past, I think, has been the other way. Neko would only write in 3/4 and was always trying to make herself write in another time signature.
Your albums all seem to come out on a very consistent time frame, with a Pornos album every two years and then the occasional solo work. Are you one of these songwriters who is just always writing? How long would you say it takes a record to come together?
I wouldn't say I'm prolific but I'm always trying to approach [writing] with a work ethic. Not that I'm always working really hard, but it's always in the back of my head. I don't think there's a day in my life where I'm not thinking somehow about writing. Depending on how I do it [a record usually comes together] in about six to eight months. Sometimes I just go in and start demoing from scratch, I just go into the studio and just work slowly over that period. Sometimes it's the band rehearsing for a month or two and then we'll go into the studio. Right now I'm just trying to do demos on my own, which is part of the process, but it's more solitary. And cheaper. Instead of traveling somewhere to practice or going into a studio I'm just sitting in my practice space with my computer and GarageBand, hacking out songs.
You're often cited for having very unconventional lyrical subject matter. So I'm wondering what inspires your lyrics? Can you grab some examples from song on Get Guilty and tell me where you came from?
For me it's always a tricky balance of wanting lyrics that sound good -- just the sound of the words -- and then I know what I want the vocals to sound like but then I have to take that and try and create some kind of vague story, or some kind of motif, or a theme that runs through them. And that's always a tricky balance. A lot of them are kind of cryptic relationship songs or something from my past that I'm writing about or some fictionalized version of the past but always written in so cryptic a way that nobody can tell what I'm writing about. Often I just have an image of a place that I connect the song with and I can't say why. "The Palace at 4AM", for whatever reason, I just connected it with being outside of this bar called The Waldorf in Vancouver, and I don't know why. It's just the song connected with that place. What's weird about that song -- I've been realizing as time goes on -- the lyrics of that song just kind of unfolded and instead of putting the name The Waldorf in the song, I renamed it The Palace and it became "The Palace at 4AM" and then I realized after I'd written the song that it was a story by Donald Barthelme and I thought "what a weird coincidence". And then I was talking to somebody the other day and they said that "The Palace at 4AM" is also a sculpture by
Alberto Giacometti and it's actually at the Museum of Modern Art and I thought "Shit, is that where Donald Barthelme got it from?" I just thought that it's weird when you come up with this phrase that becomes this song title and then it has this history that you had no idea about. And then I worry that everyone's gonna think I'm so pretentious, I named a song after a Giacometti sculpture and I can't defend myself and say, "No, it was just random." I just put some words together and it just happened to be same as this classic work of art.
I'm allowed to say this because I'm also Canadian, but it's also a very Canadian kind of thing to do. I think we have certainly more literate lyricists on average, perhaps.
Well, I'm thinking of people like John Sampson from the Weakerthans, or Christine Fellows. Maybe it's just the Canadian music that I listen to.
Isn't Christine Fellows John Sampson's wife?
So maybe I'm just examining this one very small aspect of Canadian music.
The Winnipeg scene? The Sampson family?
Yeah, it's very cold out there, so maybe there's nothing to do but read books and write songs about them.
Don't forget Dan Bejar. I dunno if that's a Canadian thing. Actually you could say the same about Carey [Mercer] from Frog Eyes, too. I don't think I'm one of them. I always feel like I'm just fighting to keep up with them. Especially somebody like Dan. Ever since the Pornographers started, like in 1999 when [Destroyer's] Thief came out I thought to myself, "This record is so good." We were working on Mass Romantic and I thought, "God, I gotta make sure our record at least keeps up with this record." It's always good to have somebody around you who you think is much better than you. Makes you try harder.
Is it true that "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer" was inspired by [Jean-Pierre Melville's] Le Samourai?
It was kind of a mixture of that movie and [Seijun Suzuki's] Tokyo Drifter, and the phrase just popped into my head. Often I start with the music and then I fit the words over the music, but that was one song where I had the music and I had that phrase "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer" and I just thought, "That looks good." There have only been a few songs that have been like that, where a line will just pop up that I think is really good and I just have to work it into a song. Like the line "Sing Me Spanish Techno" [from Twin Cinema) was the same way. I thought, "I gotta figure out where to put this." It's good to approach the songs from different directions. That's the thing I find myself trying to do more and more these days, like think about how I usually work and just change it up. Like, if you usually start with the music, try writing where you start with the words, or try writing on different instruments or try to consciously write something with a different feel, like "I want this song to be kind of a reggae song" or "I want this to sound like classical music."
You write these great and amazingly catchy pop songs, so is there ever a temptation to try for something very deliberately commercial? Like maybe throwing your own "Stacy's Mom" [Fountains of Wayne's 2003 hit] on an album and seeing what happens with it?
I've never really tried that because I just wouldn't know how to do it. For one thing, "Stacy's Mom" isn't an obvious sounding hit, you know? That was kind of a freak novelty hit. Luckily for me, these days there have been hit songs like "Float On" by Modest Mouse. Like, that doesn't sound like a hit. So, should I try to write a song that sounds like "Float On" or should I try to write a song that sounds like "New Slang" by the Shins? There are so many songs these days that qualify as hits that don't sound like hits, like most of the White Stripes hits. So, I just think to myself, I'll just do what I do and see what happens. I mean, I'm sure there are things I could do to become more commercial, but at the same time I think if I tried to become more commercial, I could just hurt myself, because I would alienate my fanbase. Not that I wouldn't like to sell a million or two records, I have no problem with that, but I just don't know how to do it so I don't really worry about it.
The New Pornographers were one of the initial bands to really get significant attention from Internet critics, most notably Pitchfork, and also the music blogs. After that, you saw these outlets really breaking artists like Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Wolf Parade, and a bunch of others by generating this buzz. At what point did you notice any kind of surge of attention as a result of this new attention, if at all?
You know, I didn't know it was happening. I remember, like, at the end of 2000 and early 2001 when Mass Romantic came out and our publicist said, "I got you an interview with this website." I thought websites were the lowest form of media, like saying you got an interview with a website was like saying you've got an interview with a guy whose got a photocopied zine that he prints in his grandma's basement. So, when I first did this interview with Pitchfork, I had no idea that Pitchfork was going to be this big force. The guy we did the interview with was like 17, which -- and he was a nice guy and I still see him around -- but, you know, the fact that you're getting interviewed by a 17-year-old from a website was another thing that made me think, "Ah, who cares?" but we were nice to him. I remember when he came backstage when we played Brownies in New York and he was underage, so we said, "Just stay back here until we start playing and no one will kick you out" and I think that he was really happy that we were nice and let him camp backstage until he could sneak out and watch the show. Maybe that's why Pitchfork was nice to us through the years.
The critics have mostly been very kind to you, as far as I can tell, and anything you release still generates a lot of buzz, especially online.
They really have been kind to us. I can't complain. But the problem is, I can't read those things objectively. I'll read a nice review and just look for any kind of slight. I'll go, "What did he mean by that? What do you mean really, really great but not quite as good as the last one? You asshole." But again, I try not to pay too much attention to it, and it's my problem more than anyone else's.
Has knowing that whatever you put out now is going to be heavily scrutinized by these outlets created any pressure that maybe you didn't feel before when working on something?
It does create some pressure, but there's nothing I can do about that. When you're a musician and it becomes what you do for a living obviously that's a kind of pressure but it's a good kind of pressure. Like I can't really complain about it, like, "Oh, I feel so much pressure from the label to sell more records." I shouldn't say pressure from them, but you know, all of a sudden your band has become like this business and you want it to keep going, where if your band does well and lots of people are being paid, there is a certain kind of pressure there, but it's a good kind of pressure.
But on the other hand, is it easier to make a record in this environment -- knowing you have a much better shot at getting it heard and passed around via this new kind of word of mouth?
That's the thing that is kind of amazing when I think about it and at the same time maddening as I think to myself if I'm going to make a record that is amazing, like the next Pet Sounds or OK Computer, like if I have it in me to make that record, I know I have all the people around me working to get that record heard. It's nice to know because a lot of people don't have that. Of course you could argue that, with the Internet, that if you make a good record it will get heard, but its just nice to know that I've got a good label behind me, I've got lots of great people to work with, and there's this kind of culture of the Internet that will write about it. It's a strange thing, I used to think that getting reviewed in Rolling Stone or Spin would be amazing and when that happened I was like, "Holy shit, we've arrived!" and now, as things change through the years, it's not whether or not you'll get reviewed, it's "I wonder what they're gonna say in their review." That's still very surreal when I think of things like that. Knowing that your record is going to get some attention, it's just what are people going to say. "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about," as Oscar Wilde would say.
One of the main differences between you and the New Pornographers and a lot of these other bands that are experiencing this kind of attention on their first or second records is that you have been around much longer.
Well, it makes things stranger, because you only have a few years to be the new kid on the block, and then all of a sudden you feel like you've got to do some extra song and dance to get noticed. I feel like, do I have to go into rehab or something, what do I have to do here? I live a normal life, there's no crazy angle. I just make records. And I hope you like my records. And I was around eight years ago, and I'm still here.
So, has the Internet really changed things that much for musicians?
It's hard to say. I do this for a living now, so maybe the Internet is responsible for that. Maybe I owe the Internet a lot. That's more a question of how people react to music than it is of how to make music. I know having things like GarageBand make life a lot easier, technology has made it easier to be a person sitting at home making good demos.
At what point were you able to just do this for a living?
It was pretty early on. My last day job -- I'd been saving money. I was just taking time off work to go on New Pornographers tours and any money I made from that I'd just try to sock away. So it was like four or five days before 9/11 that I finally quit my job in a rage and then -- I had a certain amount of money, I think I had like ten or twelve thousand dollars saved up and I thought, "Okay, I can live off this for a while." I didn't know where things were going to go from there. For years I was thinking that the New Pornographers are doing fairly well, but I just didn't trust it as anything that would continue and in 2004 I was thinking, "What's my backup plan?" Thinking this is going to end at any second. I thought indie rock fans were fickle. I mean, I still feel that way, like every record I've ever put out, I've thought when it comes out, "Is anyone going to buy this?" It's scary. It was a little easier when you're a musician who doesn't make any money at it, and you can just put out records and you don't care whether or not anybody buys it. Of course, you want it to do well, but your life is the same regardless. Now if I put out a record and it completely stiffs, it's the equivalent of getting fired. But it's been good so far. I still got the New Pornographers, even if this one stiffs.
I also hear you are doing a cover of a-ha's "Take On Me" for an upcoming Starbucks compilation. I've always been a somewhat apologetic fan of '80s pop, so I'm really excited to hear that.
Well, it's a great song! I kinda Starbucksified it, did it more starkly acoustic. It actually kinda works. I listened to the original a few times and just started working on my own, which is a little slower. And then when I went back and listened to the original again I thought the original was a little too goofy and I thought this song needs a little more gravity to it. Nah, I shouldn't say that. It was just fun to do cause it was a song I always liked. And that's an example of when -- you know how when you talk about being an artist where people pay attention to what you do? I did a solo show a couple months ago and I mentioned that I was recording that song on stage and then like three days later that was like a little article in Pitchfork. And I just thought, "Is that a really slow news day?" How does me saying that possibly qualify as any kind of news that anybody could possibly care about? But there you go.