A Pretty Good Girlfriend & Even Better Sales: An Interview with Carl Newman (The New Pornographers)

Matt Gonzales

No, the girlfriend isn't Neko, so we had to come up with this other story.

Rock 'n' roll is to relationships what Homer Simpson said alcohol was to life: The cause of and the solution to all of its problems. Rock 'n' roll makes you want to have sex with girls, provides the soundtrack for the sex you eventually have, and eases the pain when the girl goes and has sex with someone else. So it made at least marginal sense that when I called up bad-assed rock 'n' roller Carl Newman of the New Pornographers, we started out talking about girls.

Newman was just finishing up some emails when I got ahold of him, and I asked him if he was writing answers to interview questions. He said that he actually preferred the talking interviews to the typing ones, because he doesn't type so well. That's when I told him that certain supercilious, self-mythologizing artists (Bill Callahan of Smog) avoid talking interviews at all costs for reasons unrevealed, although you suspect they prefer the control afforded them by interviews of the email/fax variety. That's when Newman said, "Well, it seems to work out for him. He does pretty well with the ladies."

"Oh?" I replied, intrigued. Bill Callahan a chick magnet?

"Isn't his girlfriend Joanna Newsom?" he asked.

"He did praise her in one of his emailed responses," I replied.

"Well, you've got to talk up your girlfriend," reasoned Newman. "I have a pretty good girlfriend myself."

"Is your girlfriend Neko?" I asked. Shit, man, I don't know.

"No," he said. "That would make a good story," he continued, tentatively. "But ... no. God, no."

Girlfriend or not, Case -- every indie rock writer's favorite reason to use the word chanteuse -- is also the reason why the collective eye of the indie rock press turned Newman and the New Pornographers' way a few years ago. Outside of the group's native Canada, hardly anyone had a clue who any of its members were when their debut album Mass Romantic was released in 2001.

"Neko was our foot in the door. Her solo stuff wasn't really anything like what we were doing, but we thought Neko was a good singer, and that's why we wanted her in the band."

After a firestorm of praise rolled in for Mass Romantic (and particularly for the Neko-sung Newman track "Letter from an Occupant"), the New Pornographers were on the lips of rock writers and power-pop fans everywhere. And if the word supergroup didn't precede it, it often soon followed.

"I'm really tired of that supergroup label, and I wish people would stop using it," Newman said. "None of us were known at all outside of Canada -- I just don't think it's accurate. And then I have to deal with writers asking how I balance the New Pornographers with Zumpano, and I have to tell them that Zumpano has been broken up for six years. People often don't do very good research when they do these things."

Newman disbanded Zumpano before starting the New Pornographers. But quasi-New Pornographer member Dan Bejar, who writes a handful of songs for every album, continues to spend the majority of his time recording and performing with his other band, Destroyer. Like most people, I discovered both Zumpano and Destroyer only after listening to the New Pornographers, and was stricken by how consistently good they both are. I told Newman that it was depressing to think that if the New Pornographers had never formed, I never would have discovered either band.

"It's true. And you know, I think there are a lot of bands out there like that," he said. "Really good bands that you just never hear. I'm guilty too. I pretty much listen to whatever the scenesters listen to. Lately I've been into the new Sufjan Stevens album, the Fiery Furnaces, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah -- at any given moment you can look at whatever the scenesters are into, and you'll know what I'm into."

You can also count Newman among those who appreciates the unapologetically obscure and strongly affected folk-pop of Destroyer. While Bejar's nasal tenor, post-graduate-poetry-student lyrics and theatrical vocal delivery merges gracefully with the New Pornographers' synth-and-guitar driven power-pop, the work of Destroyer has had a tough time finding a listening audience beyond the boys-with-plastic-rimmed-glasses crowd.

"I think what Dan does with Destroyer is amazing," Newman said. "People say his voice is alienating. Isn't Bob Dylan's voice alienating? Isn't Neil Young's voice alienating? Dan has actually been a big influence on me personally in terms of lyric-writing."

But unlike Bejar, who seems to be hellbent on avoiding mainstream success (his album Thief was an album-length harangue against the crass politics of the music industry), Newman isn't unwilling to cash in on his songs. Asked if he would sell a New Pornographers song to a corporation who wanted to use it in a TV commercial, Newman said he'd be game.

"I would do it," he said. "I feel like once I've made a song and it's out there, there isn't really anything anyone can do to take it away from me. I guess if NAMBLA adopted it as their official theme song, that might be a little offensive. But in most cases, yeah, I would do it."

So don't be surprised if soon you hear "Use It", the infectious first single from the recently released Twin Cinema, in a Volkswagen commercial -- although you'd be well-advised to first check out the video for it on the band's website. Directed by New Pornographer member and filmmaker Blaine Thurier, and featuring David Cross, it'll be the funniest music video you see all year -- and you won't ever hear the song the same again afterwards. I'm tempted to say sneeringly that you won't see the video on MTV or other alleged purveyors of music television, but "Use It" actually might be the song that gets the New Pornographers the mainstream success everyone who loves them insists they deserve. At least I think so, and I told Newman that.

"Stranger things have happened," he said. "I mean, look at the Shins. They sort of had a hit. Modest Mouse -- I never in a million years would have thought that Modest Mouse would have a hit, but they did. I don't think it's out of the question."

Now you can argue with us, but you can't argue with numbers. Twin Cinema is selling better -- far better -- than the previous two New Pornographers records.

"We moved 22,000 copies of Twin Cinema in the first week," Newman said. "We only sold 5,000 copies of Electric Version in the first week. When we heard those numbers from Matador, we were all like [shifts into a raised-eyebrow, "holy shit" whisper] 'Whoa, that's really, really good.'"

With the approval of both the press and the buying public on their side, Newman is starting to suspect that the New Pornographers might even deserve the success.

"As a musician, it's really hard to have perspective. There are a lot of bad bands and artists out there who really think that they're really good. But there was a time when I was listening to "To Wild Homes" (a Bejar-penned tune from Mass Romantic), and I thought to myself, 'Man, this is good. Really good.' And I felt like that was legitimate, because it wasn't my song."

"But on that first album, we didn't really have any expectations," he continued. "We had no delusions of greatness. So it was nice when it did so unexpectedly well. And that's what's great about it, because it's depressing as a musician to be working really hard on an album, and have all these expectations, and then nobody cares. It's incredibly depressing. So it was nice to come at it the other way around, where we had no expectations whatsoever."


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.