“It’s my favorite part of being a musician, making records,” Carl Newman says. “There’s the satisfaction of ’we made this.’ It feels like the purest form of satisfaction, more so than, ’I’m happy because people are cheering for me.’”
Newman has made more than a few great ones over the years — first as frontman for the obscure Vancouver pop-rock act Zumpano, then, far more famously, as the ringleader of the New Pornographers and as a solo artist under the name A.C. Newman. His discography is pretty massive at this point, and it grows one larger next week with the release of Brill Bruisers, the first New Pornographers album in four years. Although Newman called to discuss some of the highlights of his discography, in typical musician fashion, he was perhaps most excited to talk about his latest. He sees the uptempo collection as kind of a career reset and a return to the approach of the band’s debut Mass Romantic, particularly that album’s tendency to jump from one vocalist to another within the same song.
“This record was sort of a get-back record, but also adding a lot of elements I’ve always wanted to add, like adding the arpeggiators, adding the vocoder,” Newman says. “I think it’s basically making a record that’s vaguely like Mass Romantic, but with everything we’ve learned in the last dozen years.”
He’s been on such a songwriting tear that the New Pornos ended up with enough extra tracks to potentially release an EP in the near future, though those songs aren’t quite finished yet. In the meantime, let’s focus on the ones Newman has already released. Read on for Newman’s thoughts on everything from breakthrough single “Letter To An Occupant” to the instant-classic “Moves” video to singing backup for Feist on Letterman.
Zumpano – “The Party Rages On” (1994)
I’m not sure how I feel. Like, I like those songs, but I feel like as a band, we were so spazzy. Sometimes I think I’d like to go back and rerecord a lot of those songs. I think I could re-imagine a few of those songs and make them into something bigger and better than what they were. And everybody in that band was really great and talented, but I felt like we never quite got there. Listening to the recorded version kind of bugs me because I’ll think, “Ugh, the drums don’t sound big enough, I don’t like the guitar tones.” If I sat down and played that on an acoustic guitar, I’d probably like it. That song was inspired by the Casino Royale soundtrack. There was a little piece of soundtrack music in the Casino Royale movie that I thought, “I like the vibe of that. I’m going to write a song like that.”
The New Pornographers – “Letter From An Occupant” (2000)
Coming out of Zumpano going into “Letter From An Occupant,” it was a pretty boneheaded song. In Zumpano I put together complex chord changes and time signature changes. “Letter From An Occupant” is such a simple song. Most of it’s in A, there’s an F-sharp minor, and the chorus goes to D and E. The Bridge is B and A. The chord structure is very simple. And to me, that was very new. It was just a lot more simple and dry. Neko had just started making music, and I thought I’d found this buried treasure, this diamond in the rough. I thought, “My friend Neko’s an amazing singer, I’ve got to have her sing in my band.” And it just went from there. I remember playing it for Neko a long time ago, and being a little embarrassed. I think it’s that embarrassed feeling anybody feels when they put themselves out there. Like, I said, “Hey Neko, here’s a song I wrote. It’s probably really shitty, but I want you to sing it.” And I remember that nervous feeling, like Neko was gonna say “I hate your song. And I don’t wanna play in a band with you.”
But it’s not what happened. She didn’t say it that way. And I remember when we finished “Letter From An Occupant,” it was part of our first demo, which was basically the same versions that went on the record. It was “Letter From An Occupant,” “Mystery Hours,” “Execution Day,” and “Breaking The Law.” And I remember giving that demo tape to people and being shocked that people weren’t all over it. I thought, “This is really good.” And I felt like the general reaction from people was either silence or just shrugging. I mean, some people liked it, but basically, those songs sat for two years, unreleased. Because we were waiting just to record the rest of the record. And so it really felt validating when they came out and it became a popular record. And I would always bring that up when I was talking to bands who were having a shitty time of things and feeling they can’t get noticed. I would like to say, “Yeah, sometimes you’re awesome and people don’t notice you. It’s the weirdest thing. But eventually you get noticed.” If that record hadn’t taken off, who knows? I might’ve quit music. Like, I really don’t know.
The New Pornographers – “The Laws Have Changed” (2003)
Oddly enough, “The Laws Have Changed” is sort of an inversion of “Letter From An Occupant.” Not all of it, but I think I used it as a sort of model. But it’s a total inversion, ’cause I don’t think it sounds like “Letter From An Occupant.” But it was interesting to be on album two and thinking, wow, I didn’t think we’d get here. Like, what are we gonna sound on album two? It was such uncharted territory. And I feel like “Laws Have Changed” was one of the Neko songs. Even just from one record, I felt like, well, Mass Romantic had “Mass Romantic” and “Letter From An Occupant.” And I thought, “Well, we’ve gotta have another Neko song. What’s it gonna be?” And that was “Laws Have Changed.” I don’t remember much else about it I remember it came together very quickly. It felt like when we started practicing it, it fell in. And we thought, “Yeah, this is sounding the way it should sound.”
A.C. Newman – “On The Table” (2004)
I don’t know what “On The Table” was about. God, it’s been too long. You know, I like “On The Table,” it’s one of those songs where I listen to it and I think it could have been a Pornographers song. Like, it just so happened that I wrote that song while I was making that record. And I listen to it and I think there are other songs on my solo record which seemed far more uniquely “solo album.” Like “Drink To Me, Babe, Then,” or “The Cloud Prayer,” or “Come Crash,” or any number of songs. Most of the songs on that record. I mean, I think that might be why some people really like “On The Table,” because it’s sort of straight down the middle, me doing what I do well. I like the bassline on that; it’s got a cool walking bassline. My favorite part of that song is the sort of yelpy party in the chorus. Whatever it is. [singing] “Now the plain blondes are playing along with you!” I don’t know, I kind of like that sort of stuff. But I don’t remember it. I don’t even remember writing it now. It’s just there. I remember it got used in The O.C. and I was really happy, because I made some money.
The New Pornographers – “The Bleeding Heart Show” (2005)
You know, “Bleeding Heart Show,” that’s one of my favorite songs we’ve ever done. It might be one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. But I especially love when you combine just the song itself with the way it was arranged and recorded, it’s one of my favorites. But that whole ending, the whole “hey-la hey-la hey-la” ending, was something that was sitting around for years. It was just a part waiting for a song. And I think if you go back to even preMass Romantic, it was part of a song which just didn’t get there. And so I just scrapped it. But I think I always knew, like, this is a really great hook, it just needs a good song attached to it. And so I was very happy when that song came together. And, I mean, it was a few pieces. I think you can tell from listening to it. It doesn’t sound like a song that a guy just sat down and wrote in 15 minutes on his acoustic guitar. I think I wanted to do something a little bit like Wings. A little bit closer to like, “Band On The Run” or “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” Just in terms of structure. I like the idea of a great pop song that just sort of unfolds. And doesn’t have an ABAB structure, it has like an ABCDE. Or maybe in this instance, it’s AABCD.
So I remember a lot of the first section I wrote as a separate song, and then the whole middle section was sort of almost spontaneously created. And then it was like, some of my favorite parts of that song were just written just to link into the hey-las. Or like that whole [singing] “oooowoowoooooooooo,” that was just a little piece of music I had and I thought, oh, I’ll put that in there! And then when I got to the end of that, I thought, how am I gonna go into the hey-las from here, and then I just winged that. And then that ended up just becoming the most effective part of the song. Coming out of that oowoo-woo hook into this big buildup, which has always been incredibly effective throughout the years, because there’s about 15 seconds where the band’s just sort of building, and everybody knows, “Yeah, the hey-la part’s comin’.” So yeah, I’ve always liked that one. I think I might put it as our popular song. Maybe I’m wrong. And it feels like we always end with it. Because it just seems like the natural ender. But recently I was also talking to Dan about it, and Dan was trying to tell us that when we toured Twin Cinema, we weren’t treating “Bleeding Heart Show” like it was one of the big songs. Dan said he remembered us playing it as a midset song, and that we might have even been on the verge of cutting it. And now that seems crazy to me, cause I thought … well, I guess we didn’t know. Like, when your record comes out, you don’t know what the big songs are. And I guess “Bleeding Heart Show” is sort of a weird song. ’Cause it takes a while to ramp up. It starts out quiet, it’s not boppy from beginning to end, it’s just a slow release.
The New Pornographers – “Challengers” (2007)
That song was a very late addition to the album Challengers. Which is ironic, because the album ended up being called Challengers, but we were on the last day of recording, and we’d gone through all the songs, so I remember sitting there in the studio and going, “Well, I’ve got a couple of new songs. So let’s just try doing them right now.” It was like me and Kurt [Dahle] and John [Collins] and Todd [Fancey], and I think we just said “let’s knock out these new songs,” and those two songs were “Challengers” and “My Rights Versus Yours,” which became very key songs on the record. And I remember very early on thinking, “Challengers” has to be a total ballad. And in the end, I think there were no drums on “Challengers.” I think it’s just like a shaker and a few other things. And of course, that’s song’s very dear to my heart, ’cause it’s basically about the first night I was hanging out with my wife, and I thought, “Well, it looks like I’m in love with this girl.” So I had to put it into a song. I guess it’s not that obvious. I mean, there are lines in it which I think are pretty straight ahead, but maybe in the larger context, people don’t notice them. Lines like “You live with someone / I live with somebody too / Leave it there for safekeeping.” Which is pretty much a very literal retelling, in that nothing happened between us, we were just hanging out with each other in a very innocent way. But both noticing that we really liked each other and that maybe our lives were changing. That’s just the rest of the song.
Feist – “1, 2, 3, 4″ on Letterman (2007)
That was kind of fun. ’Cause, you know, it’s just a great group of people. Some of them I knew already, like we already knew Kori [Gardner] from Mates Of State. And I knew, I think Kevin [Drew] and Brendan [Canning] from Broken Social Scene were there. It was an amazing group of people. That’s the first time we met Nicole Atkins, and we hung out with Nicole a lot and kept in touch with her, and that’s why she ended up singing on Get Guilty. Because I was struck by how great she was, if you watch the footage of that, you can tell, Nicole Atkins and Kori are the two women just full-on belting. It was a really cool group of people, and looking back, it’s interesting how big so many people became. Like that was right before Grizzly Bear exploded, and it was right before the National exploded. So when you look at that group of people, it’s like, wow, this is a pretty impressive group of singers. It was a lot of fun, and it was right after the Pornographers had played, so I was just so happy and relaxed to be just in the background choir, I thought, “Oh, this is great, I don’t have to sing lead, I don’t have to play an instrument. This is fun!” But I forgot to mention, my wife was in the choir too, if you watch the footage, she’s standing right next to Aaron [Dessner] from the National. And she was terrified. She’s not really a singer and she’d never been on TV, so that was very scary for her. So I think she was annoyed by how nonchalant I was, ’cause I was like, oh, I know it must be scary, but I just did a far more terrifying version of this two weeks ago. So this is fun for me. And that is my favorite version of that song. The choir sounds great — not because of me.
A.C. Newman – “There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve” (2009)
I really like that song. Like, there are some songs that I really like just because I didn’t do anything super fancy on them, I just thought this is just a nice little song. And that one was very much a breakup song. It was about a breakup that had happened years and years before but that stayed with me. You know, I think there are breakups where you get dumped and you’re incredibly sad, but then you go on with your life and you stop thinking about it, but it was a breakup where I did the dumping. And because of that, it felt like there was a sadness and guilt that I carried with me for a long time. And so that song was sort of like a slightly fictionalized short story retelling of that breakup. And I’m not sure that she would ever listen to it and figure it out, but it was very much an “I’m sorry” song. I don’t know if it comes across. But yeah, that’s some of my favorite lyrics. There’s something I just really like about “There are maybe ten or twelve things I could teach you/ After that, I think you’re on your own.” It’s sort of a funny line, but it’s also very true and sad.
A.C. Newman – “Take On Me” (2009)
It was a Starbucks record. They wanted people to record a love song, so I recorded two songs. I recorded “Take On Me” and I recorded “Love Goes On!” by the GoBetweens. And I was actually shocked at how much I liked the cover of “Take On Me.” There’s something about singing another person’s song that gives you the ability to do it with a real confidence. You know, ’cause it’s somebody else’s song. So I felt like I laid into “Take On Me” more than I would even lay into my own songs. It was mostly live. I remember Phil Palazzolo, who recorded it, setting up the mics with gates on them, which is apparently how Bowie did his vocals for “Heroes,” where when my vocals got louder, a microphone would turn on, and when they got louder than that, another microphone would turn on. But when I was singing softly, it was only through one microphone. But yeah, I mean, it was by no means a landmark moment in my life, recording my “Take On Me” cover. In fact, the only striking thing about it is, songs like that that I record, because they’re not my own records, I consider them tossoffs to a certain degree, and I was shocked at how much I liked it. I thought, “Good!” I’ve covered that GoBetweens song in concert too, which is one of my favorite songs. Talk about great lyrics — that song has them.
The New Pornographers – “Moves” (2011)
I was so happy. When [Tom Scharpling] showed me that video, I was just so happy. ’Cause I felt like, when I saw that, I thought, “Tom, you have basically immortalized my song. Like, thank you for this.” I can’t believe I have this amazing video to show my son, you know, when he gets older. Or I can go, “Look at this. Can you believe who’s in this video? Isn’t that crazy?” That was always my favorite song from that record, which is why I put it song number one. But at the beginning, I don’t think anybody thought of that as the main song. So it was like the third video we made. And I think Tom had just finished making the Ted Leo “Bottled In Cork” video. I think it was my wife who suggested it, she said, “You should get Tom, that Ted Leo video is amazing.” And then Tom, he just knocked it out of the park.
A.C. Newman – “I’m Not Talking” (2012)
That was based exactly on a YouTube video that I found of the Italian singer Adriano Celentano. I think it’s a song called “Bellissima,” where he’s sitting there, lip-syncing the song in an empty TV studio, and this man in his 50s is just sitting there in the chair next to him, just staring at him. It’s like, you can tell it must be from a TV show, but the man in the chair is just sitting there looking at him, like a little bit too close, and I was just fascinated it by it. I watched it over and over again and thought, I don’t know, something fascinates me. And there were big pictures of him. Like in the distances you could see big pictures of Adriano Celentano. So I think when the idea for a video came up, I think that was my suggestion, I said, “I really like this video. Can we do something like that?” I liked the idea of making this sort of quiet uncomfortable video that has a sort of cableaccess vibe. I don’t know, a friend of mine thought that it reminded them a little bit of something from Tim And Eric, and I took that as a great compliment. We were going for a little bit of uncomfortable. It was also sort of freeing that like, okay, I know this is not going to become a viral sensation, so let’s just do what we want. Let’s just do something that we think is funny and cool, even if only 5,000 people in the world think so.
A.C. Newman – “Be Not So Fearful” (Bill Fay cover for The Walking Dead) (2014)
Yeah, that was fun. I felt a little uneasy about doing that, because it’s been covered by a lot of people. But I absolutely love that song. So it was just nice to sing, because it’s such a beautiful, heartbreaking song. It’s one of the few songs, there aren’t that many songs I’ve heard in my life that make me want to start crying. But “Be Not So Fearful” is one of those. It’s just a really, really moving song. And, on top of that, it was fun to have a song in a show that’s such a major part of pop culture. That’s the part I love about licensing music sometimes, is that you just sneak into pop culture in an interesting way. I like the idea of my son, maybe when he’s like 15, bingewatching The Walking Dead and at some point getting to that scene, so I can go, “Hey look! It’s your dad! It’s your dad singing in The Walking Dead! You know, like, I guess the hope being that he will think that’s cool. And to me, that’s the most important thing. More than any money I made from it or anything, I want my son to think I’m cool because I’m in The Walking Dead. Even though right now he’s two and a half and has absolutely no conception of that show.
The New Pornographers – “War On The East Coast” (2014)
I’ve always thought how Dan really is and how he seems to be in his music are two different people. And I think when I listen to Dan’s songs, I imagine some figure more like Richard Ashcroft, you know? I feel like he could be the sort of swaggering guy with a lot of attitude, but he would never present himself that way. So I went to Dan and said, “Hey, how about if we do a video where you’re like Richard Ashcroft in ’Bitter Sweet Symphony?’” And he said no, and I already my backup plan, and I said, “OK, how about this. I’ll be the singer, and you just have to stand next to me.” You know, because so many videos have the guy who just stands next to the singer. And that was it, it just took that and gave it to Thom Glunt, the director, and he just ran with it and made a great video. It’s great when you make that leap of faith, when you give somebody just the vaguest direction and they run with it and they make something really great. I was really happy with the way that came out. And I’m still shocked that Dan agreed to it. That’s the weirdest thing. To me, I like that that video actually comes off as a serious video. But anybody that knows us I think watches us and thinks, “This is completely absurd.” Like, “Why is Dan in the video? He would never do this. Why is Carl in the video? He hates doing this. And why is Carl lipsyncing as Dan?” There’s just a few things that if you know us, it seems a little weird and off, and that’s what I think is great about it. But ultimately, I like that it’s played pretty straight.