Creativity, Codes, and Conditions: An Interview With A.C. Newman of the New Pornographers
With Dan Bejar busy with Destroyer, celebrated power-pop stylists the New Pornographers get inspirations from horn honks and alarm codes on their latest riled-up set.
Don't be fooled by his cheery disposition.
A.C. Newman is preparing to enter the arena again, this time to support the seventh full-length album by The New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works Records). Newman has mixed feelings about this plunge back into activity. "Right now, there's excitement mixed with dread. Starting mid-April, there will be six weeks when I'm gonna have to fight to see my family for a few days in there. It might be the longest stretch I've ever done in my life. It's weird."
But even as he expresses concern about the upcoming touring cycle, Newman continues to project a philosophical, jovial air. In fact, he sounds much like his songs: optimistic, intelligent, quick with unexpected insights. When Newman becomes enthusiastic about a topic -- which occurs with great frequency -- he spits out words in a caffeinated stream of consciousness that mirrors his current schedule. "I've been busy. We've been rehearsing in Vancouver and then we had a day off. Then we went to Austin and I had like three of four days off. Then we went Toronto and I just got home last night."
Newman has been both curator and captain of The New Pornographers for over 15 years. Since bursting out the gate with the exuberant, hyper-melodic Mass Romantic, the (mostly) Canadian collective summited the indie rock Kilimanjaro, filling theaters and making writers swoon on the way up. Newman plays the shepherd, his stabilizing presence focusing the group. He also navigates the shifting commitments of its membership -- including those of at least one bona fide alt-legend in Neko Case.
On the bouncy "This is the World of the Theater" Newman's longtime foil Case sings, "too late to burn all your civilian clothes". It's tempting to imagine the lyric refers to swapping home life for late night TV appearances and interviews.
Does Newman see himself ever getting off the promotional carousel? "I guess that's the question," he posits. "You can't help but ask yourself, how long can I do this for? Do I just keep making music 'til the end of my life? Do I make a choice to not do it anymore or does somebody make the choice for me?" He laughs a bit before continuing. "At some point, does somebody put their hands up and go, you gotta stop doing this, man."
Whiteout Conditions is a taut, energetic record, perhaps closest in spirit to the band's early output. Still, tracks like the playful, Eno-esque "Juke" and "We've Been Here Before", with its silvery-psych-sheen place the Pornographers in new territory, sometimes invoking the driving minimalism of Krautrock acts.
"We wanted the album to be faster," Newman explains. "We wanted it to really move along, but also have a lighter feel. 'Avalanche Alley' is 180 bpm. If somebody was playing loud electric guitars over it, it would feel like a punk song. So we thought, let's have the acoustic be the loudest thing in the mix, so the song would be really fast, but also very light. Doing that made us think of Krautrock."
Newman's openness to experimentation extends to songwriting as well as sonics. For Whiteout Conditions inspiration arrived in locations both domestic and foreign. "The genesis of 'Colosseums' was basically the alarm code in my house. The sound of me pushing in the numbers is like doot doot doot doot doot. I did that over and over again. I'd be in bed thinking, that alarm code is kind of infectious."
While strolling in Ontario, the urban environment impinged on Newman's process, providing some unusual raw material. "A truck drove by and it did that honk-honk -- you know that sort of honk-honk? -- in the middle of the song I was singing, I thought, that would be a cool effect. Not necessarily a horn honking, but something with that rhythm every couple bars." Once again, exuberance and irreverence are the constants in Newman's approach. "It's all sort of accidental and goes back to being inspired by things like the sound of your alarm code," he jokes.
It's not all care-free creative playtime. Newman's melodies are decisive: no half choices or implied notes allowed. Despite the frequent flirtations with avant-garde textures, his writing remains grounded in classic pop tradition. As a younger man, he wrote primarily on acoustic, but now Newman often composes sans instrument. He admits that his method requires pruning: "Most of my writing is having an idea and singing into my voice notes. You don't finish songs that way, but you can start them. I'm sort of a harsh judge. I'm always listening, thinking, is this good enough for me to show to people?"
Among the first to hear are his far-flung bandmates, including his niece: keyboardist/vocalist Kathryn Calder. Despite the distance between Victoria, BC and Newman's home in Woodstock, NY, Calder plays an important studio role. "Kathryn's husband Colin Stewart produced the first couple Black Mountain and Dan Mangan records. They've got a world-class studio in their house on the island. I can call up Kathryn, ask her to do some vocals, and get them back a few hours later." Pragmatism factors in as well, he admits: "That seems so much easier than flying her here."
For a Canadian expatriate like Newman, distance can mean more than miles. Though originally from British Columbia, the longtime New York resident no longer feels entirely at home in his birth country. "At the CBC building in Vancouver, I felt the same way I do when I'm in a French or Spanish station. I'm looking at posters of show hosts and I don't know who they are. I realized for the first time that my own country seems like a foreign country."
Missing from Whiteout Conditions are any Dan Bejar songs. It's the first album by The New Pornographers without his contributions. "Dan was busy doing Destroyer. I told him we wanted to make a record very much like the one we made and he was like, god I don't know if I have any songs like that. He said, hey, if I had one 'War on the East Coast' or a 'Myriad Harbor' I'd give it to you, but I don't think I have one."
The live set for their upcoming tour dates will reflect the current lineup. "The only Dan song we do without Dan is 'Testament to Youth in Reverse' because that song took on a life of its own and became such a Pornographers song."
Newman is predictably breezy about Bejar's absence. "I've been telling everybody if you wanna imagine what this record would sound like with Dan on it, just add three Dan songs and you've got an alternate reality New Pornographers album." So it goes being the leader of a group with so many moving parts and distinct talents.
Newman confirms that he is the sole lyricist this time out, no small feat considering the dense, literate songs on the album. So does he really consider himself a "second-rate Socrates" as he sings on "Second Sleep"? As usual for the singer, Newman's answer is both reflective and whimsical. "I was thinking of arty lyrics in general. People say some amazing, deep, moving things in songs, you know? But sometimes, it's just another version of things people have been saying for thousands of years. Which is not such a bad thing."
Ari Rosenschein is a Seattle-based writer whose work appears in Observer, Relix, PopMatters, The Big Takeover, From Sac, and elsewhere. He is Development Communications Manager at KEXP radio and is currently working towards his MFA in creative nonfiction at Antioch Los Angeles. A lifelong musician, Ari has released albums as a solo artist and as a member of The Royal Oui.