Catching Up With... The New Pornographers

Music Features The New Pornographers
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Ask New Pornographers frontman and principal songwriter A.C. Newman what he did last summer, and he paints a rather enviable picture of how he spent his days—hanging out with friends at his Woodstock, N.Y. guest cottage, basking in the sunlight, playing with his dogs and barbecuing. But this was no vacation; this was the time and place to record Together, the band's fifth studio album (out now via Matador). In January, days after the band announced Together's release, Paste caught up with Newman to discuss how the album came to form, the band's development over the past decade and his complete lack of rock 'n' roll cred.

Paste: Can you tell me what to expect of the new album?
Newman: Well, you know, I think it's definitely more of a rock record than Challengers. I think with Challengers I wanted the band to be as quiet as the New Pornographers could ever go. So then with this record, I revolted slightly—not that we sound like Queens of the Stone Age, but there's one song that sort of sounds like Queens of the Stone Age.

Paste: Interesting. So would you say that it picks up the pace of the older albums, being a little more frenetic?
Newman: Um, yeah. I don't think we'll ever be as spazzy as we were on Mass Romantic, but I mean, yeah, I think it definitely does. We'll see if people listen to it and think it sounds more like Electric Version—like, if they had to compare to any of our records, that's the one they throw around. Although Dan Bejar wrote me something where he said he thought it sounded like Mass Romantic crossed with Challengers, and I'm like, “Well, I guess that might be true as well.” Although, any combination of our albums might be true.

Paste: It's not like you guys don't have a distinct sound or anything.
Newman: I think it's Electric Version crossed with Twin Cinema, myself. (Pause) I don't think that, actually.

Paste: (Laughs) Just pick any two New Pornographers albums and you'll be correct, I'm guessing.
Newman: Yes, that's my official stance. Pick any two New Pornographers albums and smush them together. That's our new album.

Paste: Sounds good. I wish you could have seen me doing it, but I was doing air quotes as I said that. Then I realized, “Oh, he can't see me.”
Newman: Oh. I do that too.

Paste: You mean, do air quotes when nobody's actually seeing you do them, or just do air quotes?
Newman: I just wrote LOL in the air.

Paste: (Laughs) Nice. Well, you did say as you were promoting Get Guilty [Newman's 2009 solo album] that you had already started doing demos for Together. Can you tell me about the first ideas that sprung up for the new album?
Newman: Well, there was one song that I was going to do on Get Guilty, but I just thought it was such a New Pornographers song. It's called “Up in the Dark.” The first germ of an idea was that I wanted a song that started like “New Day Rising” by Hüsker Dü. You know, just that—pbt pbt—that big snare beat, to the extent that I even wanted to start the album like that for a while, just as a tribute to “New Day Rising,” and one of my favorite albums. We ended up putting it somewhere, like track 7 or 8, but that was the first song. I remember thinking this was a real New Pornographers song, and I put it aside and thought, “This is good. I got one. One down, all right.”

Paste: How did everything else fall into place? Can you tell me more about the recording session?
Newman: It was pretty cool. Of course we did a lot of stuff in Vancouver, and we did some stuff in Brooklyn, like the last one. But I just moved to Woodstock in the spring of last year, and we just happened to have a little guest cottage. Me being a person who doesn't like to leave my home that much, that was a really hard sell on the band. I was like, “Wouldn't you guys like to hang out in Woodstock in the summer and record in my guest cottage?” So we did a lot of recording in the guest cottage, which I think worked out for everyone very nicely, because we were barbecuing. We have a porch with a barbecue, so we'd sit out on the porch every day and barbecue. It was cool, a nice way to record. A lot of the time when you're recording in the city and you go take a break for an hour, you just go out onto the street, into some restaurant and eat, then you go into the dungeon. It was nice to be able to take a break and just go lie down in the yard, in the sun for a while, with the dog. And then you're like, “Enough lying in the sun and playing with dogs, let's go back in and work.” Somehow it made the work a lot more bearable.

Paste: You had also said before that you wanted to record power trios with Kurt [Dahle, drummer] and John [Collins, bassist]. Did that end up happening?
Newman: Yeah. Actually, Todd [Fancey, guitarist] was in there as well. We were more like a power quartet. That is usually, you really want to get this good skeletal arrangement of the song. Sometimes if you have seven or eight people in the studio doing that track, it can become cacophonous.

Paste: If you had to pick a couple of artists who ended up inspiring the sounds of [Together], who would they be?
Newman: That's a tough one. The ones that are jumping into my mind are just, like sometimes when you work on an album, you have an idea in your head and you're thinking, “I want this to sound like this song.” So I downloaded a lot of random music while we were making it. I remember Soul Mining by The The was one, not that it sounds anything like that. Declaration by The Alarm, that was another one. Some Tenpole Tudor. But do we sound like The The, Tenpole Tudor and The Alarm? I really hope not. There must have been—I mean, for us there's always so many influences. It's hard for me to pin them down.

There's one song on our record—I think it may even be one of the singles, if you can have a single on an indie rock record. It's called “Your Hands (Together).” We were working on it and initially I couldn't figure out where to go with it, 'cause I didn't want it to sound like that kind of New Pornographers shuffle, which we tend to do a lot. So at first I thought, “Let's try to do it like 'Waterloo' by ABBA.” And I thought, “Eh, that's okay, let's do more work.” And then I wanted it—I said, “Let's try it in style of 'Christine' from Siouxie and the Banshees.” And that didn't quite work either. And then I thought, “Let's do it in the style of 'Warpigs' by Black Sabbath.” And then, that's when it started coming together. And then I thought, “Okay, how about it we do it sort of like 'Warpigs” and then we throw in a little bit of 'Waterloo' and 'Christine'?” And then I thought, “Yes, it's perfect now.” But yeah, I don't think anyone would listen to it and go, “They're just doing that in the style of those three random songs.” But to me, that's what I think to do, just take weird little influences and hope nobody calls me out on them.

Paste: Well, I mean, if you have one influence, it's pretty easy to pick out. Two, maybe. I think three is a pretty safe number.
Newman: Also if they're obscure enough, nobody cares. If one of your songs sounds like a Beatles song, you have to backpedal and go, “No, we can't sound like the Beatles. That's too overdone.” But if songs start sounding like, I don't know, Can or Neu!, that's when you start going, “Yes, we're going in the right direction.” Because even if somebody calls on you for sounding like Neu!, they're still going to think you're cool.

Paste: (Laughs) Yes, exactly. You gotta keep up your indie credibility somehow, right?
Newman: Yeah. That's what's keeps me awake at night, just keeping up my indie cred. You know, I'm thinking about taking a breakdown of some kind.

Paste: Taking a breakdown?
Newman: A kind of Wilco, a kind of Jeff Tweedy-style breakdown, but I can't do it. I haven't got it in me.

Paste: (Laughs) You're not indie rock enough. Or just not rock enough.
Newman: I know, exactly. My burden, I guess.

Paste: I'm not too sure how you sleep at night either, if you do. You must be tired.
Newman: I don't sleep very well, actually. I don't know why that is. I must be haunted by something, but I can't figure out what.

Paste: Well as a musician, do you have ideas popping up all the time?
Newman: I don't know. I mean, I think I have lots of ideas but they're never fully formed. Trying to bring them to completion takes a massive amount of work, but there's always like 20 unfinished songs lying around. Sometimes a song just needs one really good idea. Some of the greatest songs even written are just some really simple idea. Like “Loser” by Beck. There's not much to it, but it's genius. I'm always hoping to get one of those.

Paste: Speaking of ideas, since Challengers was centered around your then-recent move to New York and finding true love, what is Together about? Is it about settling down? What are some of the central ideas that come up on the album?
Newman: I don't know. It's funny, because you'd think that Together would be more of a falling in love record. It's a little less autobiographical, I think. I definitely think Challengers was the most personal record that we had done, and I think I wanted to do that just because we had never done it before—you know, all part of trying to do things differently. This one takes a lot less from life. There's one song, one of the main Neko [Case] songs, it's called “My Shepherd.” It's basically this fictional story about this really self-destructive relationship, which has nothing to do with my own life. It was actually inspired by this movie Crazy Love. Have you ever seen that movie?

Paste: I haven't seen that. I've been wanting to, though.
Newman: About the guy that threw acid at his girlfriend's face and then she forgave him years later and married him, even though she was blind? I was watching that movie, and it made me want to write a really dysfunctional torch song—you know, that kind of Dusty Springfield-style torch song, but with kind of upsetting lyrics. But I don't think there's any overreaching theme that goes through the whole record. Oh, but we're getting [novelist] Rick Moody to write a little promo, a little essay for it. I'm hoping he's got some great ideas on the record. He told me he had some ideas of what the theme of the album is, and I thought, “That's good. I'm going to steal that from you. Whatever you say the theme of the album is, that's what I'm going with. That's my story.” ... It's my new thing. I'm trying to get brilliant novelists to do my thinking for me, to make my life a little easier.

Paste: Yeah, not even so much as a musician, but as a self-promoter. It's tough.
Newman: Exactly, yes. I need help with the interview. … In a few months I'm going to break, I think.

Paste: Exactly. Well, I was curious about how Annie Clark, and Zach [Condon, of Beirut] and the Dap King horns ended up getting involved. I know “supergroup” isn't exactly a term that you like, but especially if you add people that you've toured with [Will Sheff of Okkervil River] and other people of your “scene,” it's the first that comes to mind. Why did you decide to add more players to the mix of Together?
Newman: We were about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way done with the new record. Of course we were working at New York at the time, and everybody lives in New York. It's really convenient that way. There was one song where we thought it needs a really great guitar solo, and I thought, “But I don't know what it should be.” And so, the producer we're working with [Phil Palazzolo] said, “Well, I just did some recording with Annie Clark. She would be awesome.” And then he just called her up and she said, “Yeah, I can come in tomorrow.” So she showed up, and I'd never met her before, and she was nice and did this amazing solo, and then left a few hours later. I haven't seen her since. But I guess technically I know her now. That's how that happened.

Zach from Beirut, I'd met him a few times over the years, and his manager, or the person that runs his label, is a good friend of mine. So I just called up Ben [Goldberg, of Ba Da Bing] and said, “Hey Ben, can Zach play trumpet on this song?” We had already had the Dap-Kings horns come in, but there was one song left and we really needed a good trumpet on it. I thought, “I'll talk to Zach. He plays trumpet, and he's famous, so it's a lethal one-two punch.” And Will from Okkervil, his contribution was even more last-minute. We were actually mixing a song, at the tail end of it, and there was one part where I just thought that we needed another back-up vocal part. I was about to do it, and Will just randomly dropped in to say hello. I said, “Hey Will, want to sing this part?” and he said, “Yeah, sure.” And I swear, from him just dropping in and him leaving, having done the vocal, it couldn't have taken more than 45 minutes. So that was real convenient, and actually, Ted Leo did some percussion on a song, but it was a song that we dropped off the album.

Paste: Oh, no.
Newman: We should have given him the percussion credit anyway. ... At that point I was just trying to throw in as many indie rock celebrities as possible into the mix. I even thought of just calling up Ben Gibbard and going, “Hey Ben, can we just say you're on the record?” … I gotta admit, sometimes I think we're definitely blessed to be in that circle. It's nice to know that you can get Annie Clark to play a guitar solo on your record—and she's really awesome, you know? When she was playing, I was thinking that this is almost too easy. When you're trying to figure out a great guitar solo, all you have to do is call her up and she'll show up and do it. I definitely feel lucky that way, and you know, that on top of just everybody in the group, you know. We've got a singer who had a No. 3 record last year [Case].

Paste: Yeah, you've already got quite a line-up as is.
Newman: It all seems kind of absurd sometimes. You know, because sometimes things in life just happen, and everything just kind of becomes normal after a while, but sometimes I just look back and think, “How did we ever get here?” I remember us all being completely broke and completely obscure, and how somehow this became a career. I never would have thought of music would get past hobby, but somehow it did. It never ceases to amaze me.

Paste: Mass Romantic came out in 2000, at the brink of a new decade. In what ways have you developed as a musician over the past ten years?
Newman: I think I've definitely just developed a lot more confidence. I used to work very slowly, and I think I've learned to just trust my instincts a lot more. Sometimes I'll go into the studio with just an idea of how the song should go. I don't have the lyrics written, I don't have the melody written, I just think, “It's going to have this chord, it's gotta have this feel.” Years ago I never would have done that. I would have been too embarrassed to just start recording a song that wasn't finished. I would feel like you'd have to bring in a fully-formed song to the band, but these days I've learned how to work a little more organically. You also figure out your strengths and weaknesses. You try to do the things you're good at and stay away from the things you're not very good at, like Celtic music and funk, stuff like that.

Paste: At what point did you start going into the studio with just ideas?
Newman: Twin Cinema was definitely the record where I flare up. I just went into John Collins' studio one day and I didn't really have a good idea of where anything was going to go. I remember the first song I tried playing, I worked on it for a couple of hours, and John just listened to it and said, “I don't know, man. That sounds too goofy.” And I thought, “Yeah, you're right,” so I ditched it—and then I started working on Twin Cinema. But I always think it's funny that I sat down thinking, “Let's make this record,” but my first idea was just really bad, but we just tossed it and then the next one was “The Bones of an Idol” or something.

But that's not to say a lot of it was like that. These days, I mean starting with that record, the process has been more half-and-half. I go in with John and Kurt, and we work it out, and we learn the song and try, like what I said, a power trio. Or, if Todd's there, then we're a power quartet. But there's also songs where I start it with a click track, and we build from there. For me, that works really well because I like having every option open. Sometimes a song works best when the band is playing it. Sometimes the song works best if you approach it from a completely different angle. Like I said, I think through the years it's just been about developing the confidence, through that. That's what I've learned in the 2000s.

Paste: What do you think the next decade has in store for music, and how do you think that will affect the band?
Newman: I don't know if it's going to be something new or just going to be some retread of something from the past. I see bands like Animal Collective really leading the way, and if Animal Collective become a really big influence—which I think they probably will—then I think there's going to be a lot of cool, interesting music coming up. I love—as much as the people think the Internet is killing music, because it's giving it away for free—hat it's also making music available to everybody. Even if somebody's taking it for free, I'm glad that there's some 14-year-old who lives in the rural Midwest somewhere, if he's got a computer, he can listen to all the music he wants, and that that kid might make the greatest album on earth when he is 20 years old. I think those kinds of things are making music better. It's easier to find music, when it used to be so hard. I remember there were records that took me years to find, because where are you going to find them?

Paste: What records were taking you forever to find?
Newman: I remember there was a point where—you know that band, Badfinger? ... They had classic songs that you heard on the radio, like “Day After Day” and “Baby Blue.” But those records, like No Dice and Straight Up, were so impossible to find because they were completely out of print, and if you ever found them, it was $50 and I didn't have $50. I remember Straight Up by Badfinger was my dream album, like, “Man, when I get some money, I'm going to buy a copy of Straight Up by Badfinger.” ... And it wasn't because it was some kind of fetish thing, like, “I gotta have the first edition of it.” I just wanted to hear the songs, and there was nowhere else to hear them. I mean, I'm glad we're past that. Of course, there was something exciting about that too, because you had to work so hard to find music.

Paste: True.
Newman: I remember going on record hunting trips to Seattle and it would be so exciting when I find some Australian import 7-inch, you know, by The Stems or something. But I love that all you gotta do now is go on the Internet and find it.

Paste: Yeah, music is definitely so much more accessible now.
Newman: Yeah, and I think for obviously if you see the amount of records that indie bands are selling, I don't think the business is hurting that much. If Vampire Weekend can sell [124,000] copies within their first week, and Spoon can sell 53,000 copies in their first week—I mean, indie rock's not suffering. There's dozens of other success stories like that. I even count us as a minor one, you know. I mean, it's not that impressive because a lot of indie rock bands have hit the Top 10 recently, but I think our last record sold 20,000 [copies] within the first week and we got to No. 34 on the charts. And I just thought, “Holy shit, we made the Top 40.” Sure, we still lost sales the second week—immediately, like every band does—but for a brief moment we were in the Top 40, and that's insane to me. But it's all relative, because why weren't you 20, or 14, or 10?

Paste: I remember looking through older interviews, where you were talking about when you guys were finishing up Mass Romantic, and maybe after that too. You were wondering whether you really had that sort of niche audience, though that was when the term “indie” was starting to rise. Did you ever imagine back then what “indie” would become, and that you guys would reach the level of success that you guys have today?
Newman: No, I never did. I remember in around 1998, when we were first starting to play together, I remember we would take smoke breaks from practicing, and then I remember somebody playing Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister or Boy with the Arab Strap, and thinking, “God, these guys are so good, and we fucking suck.” I remember thinking it was so demoralizing and I was like, “Why do we even try?” And so eight years later, when we found ourselves on tour with Belle and Sebastian, we realized these guys were our peers. Maybe we weren't as good as Belle and Sebastian, but that felt very good. It felt like we had come full circle. A lot of things have changed.

Paste: What's in store for you next? Have you started recording demos for another solo record yet?
Newman: I don't know if I'm ever going to do another solo album.

Paste: Oh, really?
Newman: I mean, maybe. Who knows? Maybe I say that because I just did one recently.

Paste: It really wasn't that long ago.
Newman: No, it wasn't. But I mean, I am thinking about the next New Pornographers record, even though I know we've got some time still. I do have an idea of where I want to go with it—but that's the problem. For me, when I finish a record, I always want to keep on working. I don't know if that's a common thing with any other kinds of work, but when I'm working on this record, I'm thinking, “God, what I wouldn't give to have this record be done.” I always think of the time when the record's mixed, and I was like, “That's going to be incredible, when this record is done and I don't have to work anymore.” But the minute that it's done, I just start thinking, “What am I going to do next?”

Paste: So was there ever a point over the past ten years where you'd just take a break, even from writing?
Newman: I did between Twin Cinema and Challengers. I had done three records in three years by that point, with Electric Version in 2003, and then The Slow Wonder the next year and Twin Cinema the next year. And after that, I had just moved to New York and I was in a new relationship. So I just thought, “I'm just going to be a happy-go-lucky guy for a while.” But regardless, I always remind myself that I'm very lucky to be in this position and that I shouldn't take it for granted. I shouldn't take for granted that people will always want to hear my music or buy it. So I feel like I can't sit on my ass, like I always have to try really hard. Ted Leo, he really takes that to the extreme.

Paste: (Laughs) I don't think he ever stops working.
Newman: He just finished his record just a little bit before we did. And I was talking to him, and I think he has like, half an album written already, or he's got demos for another half of an album. I thought, “That's ridiculous.” He just finished a record a couple of months ago. I was talking to him about that, and I think he feels the same way I do. This is what we do for a living—we might as well do it while we can do it. Maybe I might feel differently if say, I was 22 and I had a record that just sold 4 million copies. I would think, “I'm not doing anything until I'm 25. What do I care?” But I don't feel that way. I'm just a guy trying to make it into this world.

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