Interview with Carl Newman
When I first got wind of The New Pornographers I was living in Western Canada and picked up a copy of Exclaim!, a Canadian music rag, which proclaimed them a Northerly supergroup. The band does house an impressive cast that includes Dan Bejar a/k/a Destroyer, Neko Case a/k/a Neko Case, and members of Superconductor, The Evaporators, Zumpano, and Limblifter, but the Pornographers collective has more or less surpassed all previous (and concurrent) outside projects.
Their debut, Mass Romantic, was a ramshackle pop touchstone, but since The New Pornographers released the gem five years ago and the ecstatic strains of "Letter From An Occupant" drifted from Vancouver to my unsuspecting ears, the then sextet (and now septet) has somehow gotten better. There was much to like about 2003’s Electric Version, and the group’s newest full-length, Twin Cinema, is somehow both more expansive and exceedingly airtight, with zero holes in the craftsmanship, instrumental drifts, or baroque chamber hooks. For those who haven’t heard them, think of a Fiery Furnaces, Wings, Cardinal, Kinks mash-up.
At the center of the drive to pop perfection is Carl Newman, who also showcased his solo skills as A.C. Newman on 2004’s excellent The Slow Wonder. These days Newman’s in love, splitting time between Vancouver and San Francisco to be near his girlfriend, Amy. I caught up with him via telephone at her place, and when he discovered that I’d attended school in Buffalo, her childhood stomping grounds, she shouted out the names of Western New York burrito shops and steakhouses, and we all riffed on Buffalo’s manic sports subculture.
We rambled a lot, actually. The discussion moved between old-school Vancouver trio Good Horsey and noise-solitaire Pork Queen (a/k/a Trackshun Industries’ Justice Schanfarber, now an organic farmer on Cortez Island), Michel Houellebecq, Damn Yankees (“the last great super group"), the non-universality of Boxing Day, Ying Yang Twins, and NHL hockey ("Don’t fuck with [the Vancouver Canucks’] Todd Bertuzzi") and its absence ("It’s one less pointless thing to worry about. For the last few years I was paying too much to hockey and ultimately it didn’t pay off…"). We also discussed how he decides which songs become New Pornographers tracks and which work as solo material ("With "On The Table," I thought, arguably, I could put this on a Pornographers record, but it was on my solo record. What can you do?"), the newest Pornographer (Newman’s cousin Kathryn Calder) and the band’s recent triumphant Celebrate Brooklyn show (12,000 in attendance).
In the end, though, things grew most interesting when I ran out of questions. Which is sorta where this picks up.
Fanzine: You know, I’ve never heard the story behind the name "The New Pornographers." Why’d you choose it?
CN: Kinda random. A bunch of different things. I know it partly cane from the movie The Pornographers. I just like the word "pornographer." And then the "new." I always thought it was funny that there was The Seekers and The New Seekers as well. And The New Seekers were like the young hip version; they had long hair and they were groovier. Then I found out years later, somebody told me, that there was a book written by Jimmy Swaggert called Music: The New Pornography, and I thought, "Whoa, that works perfectly." I’ve never seen this book, ever, so I’m not even sure it exists, but it’s a good story for me to tell. Periodically I say, "Yeah, I got it from that book." That’s a total lie.
Fanzine: Well, it all comes back.
CN: [Laughs] Yeah, it all comes back. I’ll answer to God in the end.
Fanzine: So do you think you’ll do another solo record?
Carl Newman: The question is what am I going to do first a solo album or the next Pornographers record. I think it’ll be another Pornographers record. Or maybe I can work on them simultaneously. Maybe I’ll do like the Bright Eyes thing. Two records put out simultaneously, but two different artists…
Fanzine: And with different mixes, as well, a la Shania Twain…
Carl Newman: I’ll do a calypso mix.
Fanzine: There’s more spaciousness on Twin Cinema.
CN: I’ve always loved bands that use space well. In the last few years two of my favorite bands have been Spoon and Clinic, and they’re both bands, who I think use space very well. Which is something we’ve never really done that much.
Fanzine: And there’s already a San Francisco reference on it: The ‘16th and Valencia’ reference in the title track. Is this the beginning of a San Francisco suite?
Carl Newman: No, I just decided to throw it in there. It has the right sound. Periodically, I’ve liked to throw geography in songs. I think it’s a Canadian thing. I remember in college taking Canadian literature and they said that a lot of Canadian literature has to do with geography. If you listen to Neil Young or Gordon Lightfoot or Ian and Sylvia there’s kind of a geography thing that runs through Canada because we’re all so separated by our geography. It has a romantic notion: This beautiful thing that keeps us apart.
Fanzine: I saw somewhere that you were reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces when you wrote "Sing Me Spanish Techno." I know of its importance to George Lucas in making Star Wars, but haven’t read it.
CN: It’s basically a book about how most of the legends throughout history or the classic stories are just part of the same archetype, you know, and just went through the levels of the different stages of the hero’s journey, and how this hero’s journey is basically a metaphor for everybody’s journey through life, you know? Our lives are just reflected through all these myths. I thought that was interesting; especially "These Are The Fatals," which was the one that was really heavy on the half-baked mythology.
Fanzine: And the song’s named after something your girlfriend said to you?
CN: No, I was asking her if she remembered any Spanish and all she remembers are the words to Spanish techno songs. So I said, okay, "Sing me some Spanish techno…" And then I got dollar signs in my eyes.
Fanzine: Reading a lyric sheet for The Slow Wonder, I realized I misunderstood half your lyrics, which are really super literate. Where do you get your themes?
CN: They come from everywhere. Sometimes I’ll just be reading something and see some turn of phrase that I just really like and I’ll use that as a base. Sometimes I’m just surfing around in my head, just trying to think. Sometimes the whole creative process seems like you’re trying to open up your head: "Okay, brain, I’m opening up the floodgates, so just let all the shit come out and I’ll sort through it." If I feel like I’m having writers’ block, I’ll just open up a random novel and just start flipping through it, and not actually even reading it or following the narrative, just kind of like flipping through it and looking for any kind of turn of phrase, or any group of words that I like the sound of, and I’ll just write them down and fill a few pages full of this stuff. And use those as ideas to springboard from. I have a theory that even when you start writing things that way, it’s really difficult to write something that’s not honest. Everything says something about you and what you choose — what words you look at and what jumps out at you — that says something about who you are, and how you choose to define those words says something about who you are. I’m always confident in the fact that no matter what I write, there’s some part of me in there, this part of me that I don’t quite understand. It might seem like gibberish until two years later and then I’ll go, "oh, I know what was on my mind when I wrote that song."
Fanzine: I have a friend who wrote a novel and somebody tried to adapt it and did a shitty job, but he liked seeing what they chose to do with his work because it gave a good reading of their psychology, or whatever. I mean, what they decided to emphasize and how they opted to frame it.
CN: Yeah. Somebody was telling me Philip K. Dick is considered one of the great writers in France because the guy that translates his books into French is a really amazing writer. There’s a lot of stuff in translation. There are so many writers you might think of as your favorite writers and you don’t even know what their books are really like. Like a Japanese writer or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Fanzine: The Russians!
CN: Right, you’re just reading a translation. Especially someone like Jorge Luis Borges. Man, the work is mind-boggling in English. I don’t even know how they translated it. I’m sure it reads completely differently in the native language.
Fanzine: When you mentioned picking out words from novels it somehow reminded me of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"… rewriting the same novel word-for-word, but having it end up somehow different.
CN: Exactly. Even though I’m not sure I completely understand the book, I’ve always been fascinated by that book Ficciones. It says so much about the way we read. I’m not even going to begin to talk about that because it’ll be incoherent. I always loved that story — I forget what it’s called — about how Judas is the true savior. He had to betray Christ. It was an important part in Christ saving humanity, but he doesn’t go to Heaven like Christ, he goes to Hell. He’s the true martyr, the damned one. I always thought that was brilliant.
Fanzine: And he’d review books that didn’t exist.
CN: He’s one of those people that… I’d buy the collected works of Borges and not even read it. I’d just be like, "File it away. I don’t want to do that right now." But I know I gotta have that in my collection.
Fanzine: What are you reading these days?
CN: Italo Calvino has a little of that Borges thing going on. [Pauses] God, I haven’t read a book in quite a while. Actually, I been reading Fast Food Nation, not exactly an amazing piece of work. I found an old copy of this F. Scott Fitzgerald book of short stories called Babylon Revisited. I bought that on a whim. I went through a bit H.P. Lovecraft phase for a couple months way back when. It eventually became a little mind-numbing, so many stories opening with the narrator going, "I must get this down quickly before I am ripped of my senses," or whatever.
Fanzine: There are Lovecraft devotees who don’t even read the stories, they just fixate on the correspondence, which I guess is fairly amazing and interesting and weird.
CN: [Laughs] I’ll have to make sure to put that as my interest if I ever have to fill it out: "H. P. Lovecraft, the correspondence, not the fiction."
Fanzine: Have you ever thought about writing a rock opera?
CN: You know what’s funny, I tried to do it years ago, and actually put out the album. My first band Superconductor put out a double concept album called Bastard Song and oddly enough, even though I hadn’t read Hero With A Thousand Faces, I think I was dimly aware of the basic repetitive themes that happen in the classic stories, so I was basically trying to do that. It had this character, The Bastard, the wanderer, who had no idea that he was actually destined to be this great person, but he was actually this king or some… I don’t know, some bullshit. I didn’t put a lot of thought into it, but it was kinda fun. Maybe it’s still available in bargain bins. I mean, I like the idea of a rock opera concept album, but to put all that effort into and make a good one pay off, there are other things you could do with your life.
Fanzine: New York Times Magazine did a feature on you a ways back. Was it weird to open it up and see a page-sized photo of your face?
CN: It was. It was a little frightening. It’s kind of like if you’re walking along and you suddenly see yourself in a mirror, and it’s just like "what the hell?" I think I closed it immediately. I was like, "Okay, Carl, it’s not a big deal, it’s just your face really huge." Opened it up again and thought, "Uh, well, okay, it’s not that bad." That kind of stuff.
Fanzine: Was that the moment your relatives thought, "Wow, Carl’s made it…"
CN: Yeah, that kind of stuff… Obviously it’s great, but it doesn’t catapult your career into the stratosphere. It obviously helps. But it makes other people think that you’re really popular, which is good. Yeah, you want your mom to be proud of you and she can show it off and go, "Look how well my son’s doing" and maybe people I went to high school with will open it up and go, "holy shit, he’s doing well for himself." Not that I’m not doing well for myself. It’s a force on that level. It’s good. Everybody likes to have features done on them in the New York Times Magazine. It’s flattering.
Fanzine: I notice people always mention your red hair. Actually, I did an Internet search the other day to see how often people describe you and also mention your hair.
Fanzine: My old friend had red hair and always had to field "carrot top" comments.
CN: I always knew being a redhead I’d have to be twice as good as everybody else to make it in this business. It just pushed me harder.
Fanzine: Are you recognized on the streets of San Francisco?
CN: I don’t know. If I am, nobody comes up to me. When A.C. Newman played here last time I actually said from the stage, "hey, you know, if you see me on the street just come up and talk to me, don’t be afraid." And so somebody actually did that at a club, at Cafe Du Nord, and I was actually happy. Thank you. Thanks for coming up to talk to me. I’ve actually read things on the Internet where somebody will write about how they saw me but couldn’t come up to talk to me, which seems ridiculous. I don’t have that many friends. There have even been points where I’ve been in a club and some guy will come up and talk to me and say, "hey, I really like your record" and I’m just sitting there by myself and I’m like, "Oh yeah, cool," and I just start talking to him and I can tell the person will just feel kinda uncomfortable. And I’m like, "What? Sorry. If you don’t want to talk to me, I’ll leave you alone."
Fanzine: Have the San Francisco burritos lived up to the hype?
CN: Well, I’m kinda sick of the standard San Francisco burrito. There’s a place called El Farolito on Mission and 24 that has the super quesadilla suiza, which I really love. It’s basically the quesadilla equivalent of the burrito, just a super big quesadilla. That’s really good. I recommend that highly.
Fanzine: Speaking of recommendations, people like to know this stuff: What’re you listening to these days?
CN: What am I listening to? Let me see. The Double, the new band on Matador. That’s the last thing I listened to. I like the new Outrageous Cherry record a lot. That’s really cool. We were listening to some ’70s a.m. radio in the van. I’ve been really obsessed with that song "Sky High" by Jizgsaw. You know? That’s ’70’s hit?
Fanzine: How’s it go?
CN: [Sings] "You, You’ve Blown It All Sky High / Our Love Had Wings To Fly."
Fanzine: Yeah, I do know that song…