“I really like these formal introductions,” A.C. Newman says over the phone from his home in Woodstock, New York. “It really alleviates the awkward starts to interviews. I feel like people always ask if they are catching me at a bad time, and I’m afraid to admit I forgot I had an interview scheduled.”
Newman, leader and primary songwriter of The New Pornographers, is undoubtedly doing more interviews than usual these days, with the release of his band’s sixth LP, Brill Bruisers, imminent. Known as much for Newman’s punchy, pop masterpieces as for being the other gig for music heavyweights Neko Case and Dan Bejar, the Pornographers have somehow improved with Brill Bruisers, a notable feat considering they don’t have a bad album in their catalog. Bruisers isn’t a concept album, but it is an album of new focus, with a distinct sound that plays into the band’s strengths.
“For me, when I’m writing songs, I’m trying to write something that was never there before,” Newman says, “So it makes sense that you would go in odd and new directions, because you are trying to write something that didn’t exist before.”
Rounded out by Kathryn Calder, Blaine Thurier, Todd Fancey, Kurt Dahle, and John Collins, who produces the records with Newman, the band continues to offer this set of eclectic musicians a stable career — one that Newman does not take for granted — and has developed a system that has kept all members happy and returning for more than a decade now.
I’ve been listening to The New Pornographers for 10 or 11 years now. I feel I sort of bounced around out of order through the albums and then the solo albums.
There are a lot of people to bounce around to.
Yeah, it opened up a world into Dan Bejar and Neko Case’s music. It was sort of like a gateway drug into a lot of very different things.
Yeah, I think everybody’s different paths have been very complementary.
Among the people who introduced me to the music, there was the prevailing feeling that The New Pornographers wasn’t going to be a band that lasted, that it was more this collective of people who formed this supergroup of sorts, but it has lasted. Is it surprising to you that you have been able to keep everyone together making albums?
Well, I think what has kept us together is that it has always been so part-time. If we were one of those bands touring eight months out of the year, I don’t think we would have made it. But, that hasn’t been the case. It’s always been the situation where if I was really sick of touring, I could say, “I don’t want to do this for a while.” Or, “I’m going to go make a solo album.” And everyone can go off and do their own thing. I really think that is why we are still here.
And, it is the economics of it. Like, I guess people want us to be here. I feel like from the very beginning, if Mass Romantic had come out and nobody liked it and nobody bought it, I don’t think we ever would have made another one. I think that would have been the end of it, and that would have been the last Pornographers record. I wouldn’t have been sad, because I wouldn’t have known there were any other options, that there was this alternate history where I get a career out of it.
The quality of music has allowed this to happen, too. If you keep making good albums, you’ll likely make more albums, because people will generally like it if it is good.
I think about that. Because, nobody wants to be totally high of themselves, but I also think it isn’t healthy to be totally down on yourself. But there are times when I look at my life and think, “Logically, I must be pretty good at this.” I’ve gotten a lot from this in my life, and I know that some of it is luck and being in the right place at the right time, but maybe I’m okay at this music thing.
With the last couple Pornographers albums and the most recent solo album of yours, I found them to be more slow to reveal themselves. Whether that is due to complexity or maturity, I can’t put my finger on the reason. But, I think that made it easier for some people to disregard them or not pay as much attention to them as they had previous efforts, because they weren’t as immediate. But if you did spend the time with them, they do grow on you. Have you noticed that within your own songwriting, that maybe something has changed?
I think when people talk about the immediacy of songs, a lot of it is just the tempo. Our first three records were full of songs that were driving, and I think that appeals to people on an immediate level. It’s funny, I was listening to Challengers the other day, because I was trying to figure out what we were gonna play on this tour, and I was shocked by how much I liked it. I was thinking, “Why was there a backlash against that album?” And, I think the main thing was that we slowed down and didn’t give people exactly what they wanted. And I think there is that element, that the songs weren’t really immediate, but I don’t think I was trying to be immediate. Nobody over the course of the four albums I had made before had ever told me that I wasn’t immediate. So, I wrote those songs and thought, “Well, these are immediate, aren’t they?” Like, I felt like I was doing the same thing.
I also have to remind myself that some of my favorite records ever made were absolutely not immediate records. Like, Corky’s Debt to His Father by Mayo Thompson was deemed unreleasable back in 1969 or 1970, yet it is one of my favorite records. Or, The Yard Went on Forever by Richard Harris, which is a weirder example, but it is a record I absolutely love, but I understand why some people hate it. I’ve always carried those influences around with me.
A more mainstream example is Pinkerton from Weezer, which had a major backlash on its release and took years to pick up steam, and now it is considered a classic.
That’s so curious to me, because what are the big songs from that, “El Scorcho” and what’s the other one, “Pink Triangle”?
Those were the immediate ones. The rest of them were the ones that grew on you, like “Across the Sea”, which was a more emotional song.
It’s nice to see when records like that get their due. Because now, in a way, Pinkerton has risen higher than the first record. Not in sales, but at least in esteem.
Definitely. So, with your new album, Brill Bruisers, I’m not sure of the direct influences, but especially with the keyboards, I would kind of call it a “Tomorrowland sound.” Like, it sounds futuristic, but what they thought the future would sound like in the past.
Yeah, definitely. I think we were sort of fascinated by that ’80s vision of the future, which was sort of a mutated ’70s version of the future. Like, I know we’ve always had ELO as an influence, but on this album, it’s very much 1980 ELO, which is an era that a lot of people would not necessarily say is their best.
On this record, there was a conscious … it’s hard to talk about and not sound negative, but there was a conscious effort for artificiality. Like, sometimes we would use a string sound and think it was cool that it was fake sounding. And, we used iPhone apps on it and iPad apps on it. And, I think over the last year, I threw around semi-facetiously that we were influenced by Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and I think there is actually that element in it. There is that element of falseness. I like that Sigue Sigue Sputnik rocked in such a false way. There was something so contrived about it.
It is a weird thing to think about influences, though, because I don’t think our record is contrived. It is a different aesthetic, but there definitely was the idea going into it to make our most cohesive record. I felt like we never tried to make a cohesive record.
That’s a cool aspect of it. The other records had cohesiveness in that they sound like The New Pornographers, that kind of bombastic power pop. On this one, that is still there, but it adds a unilateral element to it. It’s hard to sound fresh after so many albums, and this one manages to do that.
There are a few things we’ve never really done before that we do on this record, and one of the things was on each song, to try to keep it smoother. Like, there are left turns on the record, but we wanted the songs to be even-keeled. Like, when “Champions of Red Wine” starts, we want it to go all the way to the end, three and a half minutes, and never really veer from the idea. Which is something many bands do, but we never really have.
It seems like you would throw a bridge that would make things a little off-kilter because you don’t want to be boring or you want to challenge people or something. Maybe? I honestly don’t know what the frame of mind is when songs get written.
I don’t know what the logic is at all. Sometimes with Dan’s songs, I’d listen and think, “What the hell was he thinking when he wrote this?” “To Wild Homes”, that song is like schizophrenic.
I love that song, though.
I love it, too. The song I think of is “The Bleeding Heart Show”, which is the song I’m most proud of, but I listen to it and think, “What was I thinking when I wrote this?” It’s just five parts thrown together.
It was like a power pop “Paranoid Android”.
“To Wild Homes” … Is that the only song that you, Dan, and Neko all have sort of lead vocals all going together? By the end, you all have distinctive parts going.
I never really thought of that. It might be the only one where you can sense the three distinct presences there.
Yeah, I always thought that made it kind of a special song, because you had the three primary vocalists all interacting.
I feel like since then, I think we’ve been hesitant to get in Dan’s way. But I don’t think we felt that when we recorded the first album. I remember on this record, we were working on the song “Born with the Sound” … There was a point when we were laying down vocals, and I remember John saying, “I don’t think Dan likes us singing along on his songs. Let’s not sing on this one.” So, I went, “Okay, fair enough. It sounds good with just Dan.” And right when we are at the tail-end of mixing, Dan says, “Why is it just me? Why are there no other vocals?” And I was so mad! I was like, “I wanted to put down vocals, but John told me we shouldn’t put down vocals on your songs.” And that’s why Amber Webber from Black Mountain and Lightning Dust is all over that song. Neko and Kathryn had all just gone home.
I was reading an interview with Dan from April, talking about the making of the album, and he was saying that when he writes a song that doesn’t sound like a song that he would write, he knows it is a New Pornographers song. Which makes sense because it is like a place for his oddballs that won’t really fit in his own personal catalog.
Yeah, totally. Destroyer has gone in a very specific direction. Especially in the last several years. I can see why a song like “War on the East Coast” would end up as a New Pornographers song.
I get a kick out of when you’re on Twitter, and I assume that you’re pretending Dan is there, or maybe he really is there, but you tweet about your interactions with Dan and let Twitter ask him questions.
Sometimes he is there, and I’m just fucking with him because I’m just telling him as I do it. There was a time we were laying down tracks, and I opened up Twitter and just let anybody ask him a question, and he really did answer.
How has it been, both between you and Dan and between you and Neko, to see their own careers take these very distinct shapes from when you started until now? Your career between The New Pornographers and your solo work, I would link them together. Definitely more so than I would link Neko’s solo career with The New Pornographers or Dan’s Destroyer work with The New Pornographers.
That makes sense because 80% of The New Pornographers songs are by me, and 100% of the A.C. Newman songs are by me.
How has it been to see them blossom as artists and musicians over this time?
I remember on the Kaputt tour when Dan was playing Webster Hall in New York, and he sold it out, this 1,400 person capacity place. And I was watching Destroyer play, and they’re sounding great, and my old friend Dave Carswell was playing guitar, who is partners with John Collins at JCDC, so they’ve produced a lot of records over the years from New Pornographers to Destroyer to Tegan and Sara. And the drummer was Pete Bourne, who played drums for me on The Slow Wonder tour. And I was looking at them all, and I just felt so proud. Like, look at all my friends. All my friends from Vancouver are here, and they’re playing to this sold-out crowd in New York City. It felt sort of like validation, like I knew all these people are awesome, and now it’s good to see it come to something.
The whole Neko thing is that to a crazy degree. Because it’s weird to see this person you’ve been friends with for 18 years now become essentially this iconic figure. Where people are afraid of her. Where people nearly worship her. And I can only look at it and shrug and think, “God, you guys don’t really know Neko.” She’s just become this otherworldly figure.
Just on an artistic level, it’s been amazing to watch people grow. People that I thought were always really good way back just become better.
I’d imagine it’s also somewhat gratifying that they choose to still make New Pornographers albums when they are in a position where they don’t have to. Like, they choose to keep working with you.
Yeah, definitely. There’s a an element of it that’s just daunting, like keeping up with the Joneses. It’s not like I’m trying to keep up with The National; I’m just try to keep up with people in my own band. And I’ve always thought like that. I think a lot of bands where there are multiple songwriters involved benefit from that. Like, George Harrison became a great songwriter because he was working with Lennon and McCartney. Not that I am comparing our band to the Beatles, but just that you do get better when you work with great people.