In this week's paper, we ran an interview with the New Pornographers' redheaded frontman, Carl Newman. Now, in anticipation for tonight's concert at the Pageant with the Dodos, we offer outtakes from the conversation -- everything from Dan Bejar's genius to whether Newman feels he's becoming the new Jeff Lynne.
Christian Schaeffer: Do you get to cherry-pick from Dan Bejar's songbook, or does he bring his own New Pornographers songs to the band? A.C. Newman: That's what he does now. At the beginning, I cherry-picked. When we started the band, I went through an hour-long demo tape of his songs. I found songs that I really loved and said, "I want these for the band." To a certain degree it was like that for Electric Version too, in that he gave me an hour-long demo tape and I found a song I really liked. But then after that, he would just bring songs it. But then for some songs like "Breakin' the Law" and "Streets of Fire" were songs on a Destroyer [another Bejar band] record called We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge, which is essentially an album of four-track demos. And so we went in and said, "This song's awesome; we should redo this." Because it was good as a four-track demo but we thought it would be great to do full-band versions of them. But on the last two records he basically just brought in the songs.
Being a fan of his other band, he seems to have hit that sweet spot of knowing what's gonna work with the New Pornographers. There have been a couple of songs that he presented as New Pornographers songs, but I just didn't know what to do with them. One in particular was "Painter in Your Pocket" from [Destroyer's] Rubies. That was submitted for Twin Cinema, and I listened to it and I thought it sounded so Destroyer-like that there was nothing we could do with this song that wouldn't make it sound exactly like Destroyer. Thinking back it was a right move, because "Painter in Your Pocket" seems like such an essential part of Rubies.
Yeah, it's sort of a hinge of that record. That then there was another song called "Mad Foxes" that ended up being on Your Blues that, I think, was submitted for Electric Version, and again, I just thought, "I don't know what to do with this. It's such a Destroyer song."
I also heard the version that the band did without Dan of "Hey Snow White" [on the Dark was the Night compilation]. And to me, that's such a Destroyer song. That was the first Destroyer record I really got into was This Night, so it was nice to hear you guys do it and see that there wasn't that much division. It's just a song I've always liked. And it's from one of his most maligned record, too.
That was my first favorite of his. In hindsight it's kind of his shaggiest record, especially if you're looking for the pop stuff, but even still something about it is really magnetic and awesome. There's no middle ground with Dan, you know? People seem to love his records or hate them. And then he followed up This Night with Your Blues, which was such a strange move.
That was divisive. That's the one I can't totally get down with. Everything else I love. I think that's one of his best. It's got some of his greatest songs on it, like "From Oakland to Warsaw" and "It's Gonna Take an Airplane." A bunch of them. New Pornographers, "The Laws Have Changed" With Kathryn now singing more lead vocals on the records, you're now writing for three voices with this band. When you're writing these songs, do you base it off the vocalist's persona or their vocal range? How do you approach writing for the two ladies? I've never really written for anybody. In fact, the song "My Shepherd" on Together, it's the first time I ever actively tried to write a song for Neko. It's sort of a torch song, and I wanted to tap that vein. I wrote that for Neko, but other than that I just write songs, and then I try to figure out who would work the best for it. From the beginning I've always wanted to sound like a group of people. I never wanted it to be "Here's a Neko song, here's a Dan song, here's a Carl song." I always wanted it to be different people singing.
So I always liked having two people singing the verse, and then somebody else sings the chorus, and then they all come together on the bridge. And then a different person is a solitary voice on the outro. I've always wanted to do that kind of thing. That kind of method I just wing; I make it up as I go along. In the middle bridge section of the song "Unguided" on Challengers, there's a part where it breaks down and it's just Kathryn singing. I always thought that was such a great thing because she's not really anywhere else on the record, but then in this little bridge section it breaks down and she has this very key line in the song, and then it continues again.
So it's less like writing like Stephin Merritt does, where he can write for three or four voices or personas and more like a conductor trying to figure out what voices sound best in a song? Sometimes that is it. What voice seems to really work the best? You hear stories about the Cars, when they made a record Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr would both sing a lead vocal, and they would just pick the one that sounded the best. Sometimes we do that. There have been other songs where I sang it just because I was the only one left. The song "Electric Version," I wanted Neko to be the lead singer on that, but then we had a computer malfunction the last day Neko was in town. Neko had to leave, so I said, "I guess Neko's not singing that song." So I sang it. There's no method to that.
That's been the case when I've seen you play without Neko or Dan. You still sing those songs without the quote-unquote lead singer. Some songs more than others. Like "Jackie Dressed in Cobras" and "Testament to Youth in Verse" are songs I feel good about playing even when Dan's not there. But then there are songs like "Myriad Harbour," where I think, "We just can't do this without Dan." It just absolutely doesn't work without the arch-Bejar singing style.
With having the full band for this tour, what does that bring to the shows? I think it's gonna be awesome. We just did this European tour and we rehearsed in Woodstock for about a week. But we also have our friend Ben who's joining us playing cello and saxophone, so I think it's gonna be great. I feel like it's gonna be as good as we've ever been.
Speaking of the cellos, the rock & roll cello is all over this record, and you covered [Electric Light Orchestra's] "Don't Bring Me Down" last time in St. Louis. Is this just your way to cement your status as our generation's Jeff Lynne? I think I'm more of a Roy Wood than a Jeff Lynne. I love that stuff. I can't deny the influence of that music, because it's just music that I love. When I'm driving in the car and I'm going through the iPod - there's a lot of music that I love, but when I get to "Living Thing" my ELO, that's what I really love. It involves no effort on my part. It just goes straight to my pleasure synapses.
Challengers got tagged a lot as a break-up album. Do you find that Together, even in its title, is a response to the last record? The thing is, the last record wasn't a break-up record at all. Were people talking about it as in "a band is breaking up" record?
No, as in a romantic break-up record. No, it's really not. All the songs that are about relationships are about getting together, oddly enough. Ironically, songs like "Unguided" and "Challengers" and "Go Places" were all about meeting my wife. They might be very opaque and cryptic, but they were basically love songs. But on this record, ironically, which is called Together, has a song like "My Shepherd," and "My Shepherd" is a very dysfunctional song. People think it's a love song, but yet it's basically about a relationship that should be finished but yet goes on.
Your songs are sort of opaque in the sense that I couldn't pin down a straight love song that you've written. I don't know. I think "Challengers" is a pretty straight love song.
It's a straight love song that makes you fight for it, and that's what I heard a lot of on Challengers, with "My Rights Versus Yours" and songs like that. "We're in love, but this is not an easy walk in the park." A song like "My Shepherd" can kinda sucker-punch you if you listen closely enough. And when I'm writing songs, I always want that push-and-pull. If a song sounds happy, some part of in me wants to make the lyric kind of sad. And if a song sounds kind of mournful, something in me wants to make the lyric more hopeful. I don't know why that is. It probably doesn't help my commercial prospects.