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The New Pornographers’ Carl Newman: “Whether People Love You or Hate You, It’s All Phantoms”

Carl Newman (aka A.C.) should be on the tourism board for Woodstock, N.Y. “I feel like small-town America has become synonymous with Walmart, strip malls, and McDonald’s,” he says one August morning, calling from his house in the renowned hippie town. “But Woodstock’s still got a lot of what drew people here in the first place. Next to Bethlehem, I think it might be the [world's] most famous small town. I’ve got a two-and-a-half year old, and I think it’s going to be a great place to raise him.”

His burgeoning career as a Cool Dad aside, Newman is known more for his “supergroup,” The New Pornographers. Along with (his mostly Canadian) compatriots Neko Case, Dan Bejar, Kathryn Calder, John Collins, Kurt Dahle, Todd Fancey, and Blaine Thurier, Newman has crafted six albums filled with some of the most over-the-top fun in modern indie rock. The band’s latest, Brill Bruisers, is no different. It’s out this week on Matador, so we caught up with Newman to discuss it, as well as his management style, the amusement he finds in toying with trolls, and which member of The New Pornographers is actually the funniest.

 

Flavorwire: Both you and Neko Case made heavy personal albums [2012’s Shut Down the Streets for Newman, 2013’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight… for Case] before you went into Brill Bruisers, and I’m wondering if there was any sense of, “Phew, I got that out of the way, and now I’m going to make a more fun record.”

Carl Newman: For me, that was definitely it. I felt like Shut Down the Streets was a record I had to get out of my system. I had to write songs about these things [the birth of his son and death of his mother], so it was good to come out the other side and say, “Now I can just make this fun record.” For the first time in years I really wanted to make a record like Brill Bruisers. It would have felt dishonest to make this record a few years ago because I felt like it would have been a lie. Not that anyone would care about that, because a lot of music is a lie. It’s so funny because we’re not really known for being like an “honest and authentic” band. But for me, on a personal level, all our records are very honest expressions of where we were when we made each one. Anyway, I feel really good about it. I find myself itching to make the next record, which is a good thing.

FW: You’re already thinking of ideas for the next album?

CN: Yeah, I’ve got a good chunk of stuff written. I think I’ve got enough to start. I’m never finished with the writing when we start an album. I don’t even want to finish the writing because I know it’s not finished. Even if I think it’s finished, I will rework it once we start recording. If someone said, “Start recording an album tomorrow,” I think I could do it and I would be happy. But I still have to wait for this one to come out, still have to tour it. We’ll see how much I can convince John to do some bus recording.

FW: Is there any trick to writing an upbeat, happy song about anxiety and self-doubt?

CN: I don’t know. It’s just where I gravitate. I think that’s just the kind of music that I love. I think I’ve just always loved like the big pop song. I always start with the music, the melody, and the harmony. Then when I’m writing lyrics, I can’t bring myself to write really dumb, upbeat lyrics. I just don’t have it in me. So when I start writing things, they always come out a little warped. A little darker. A little opaque, or however you want to say it. I’m trying to think of all the words people have used to describe us over the years. “Opaque” usually is one of them.

FW: “Champions of Red Wine” hits you with this bubbly, friendly take on musical futurism. You’ve referenced ELO a bit in the past, so I’m wondering how much of this was conscious.

CN: With “Champions of Red Wine,” it is something that just happened, but I think a lot of this record was like, “We don’t know what we’re looking for, but we’ll know when we find it.” So when we found it on “Champions of Red Wine,” we really liked the balance of the retro-futurism of the sound with the icy detachment of Neko’s vocals. When all those pieces came into place, we thought, “This is how it should sound,” which is a great feeling to get to in a song because it feels like most of the work is done.

FW: So I take it that song came early and then some of the record followed in that same vibe?

CN: I’d definitely say that was the case. “Marching Orders” and “Champions of Red Wine” were early songs where we use a lot of arpeggiators and big spacey sounds. And “Hi-Rise” was another early one. Those songs laid the groundwork. “Brill Bruisers” was a very early song, too, but that one wasn’t so much about the spaciness — that was more about the big rock.

FW: As the first big thing people heard from this record, “Brill Bruisers” smacked the listener to the ground… in a good way. Did you guys have any inspiration in mind — like, “That’s a bombastic rock song, I wanna do something like that”?

CN: Not really. When we started demoing “Brill Bruisers,” it didn’t even have a name yet. I think we just called it “Rock You,” because we thought it had the same vibe as “We Will Rock You.” But that was not on purpose. That was just one of those things where we played it and thought, “That’s cool. We’ve never had that vibe in a song before. Cool. This is gonna be good.” The whole arrangement of “Brill Bruisers” was just driven by the song itself — the way the chords move. I guess I did that. I guess I can take credit for that!

FW: As much as this is a band of strong individual musicians, you step into the leader role — at least to the outside eye. Do you have a “management style” or tactic along those lines?

CN: It’s a tricky balance. Just knowing when you’re right and when you’re wrong. Trying to be very objective. Trying not to be that person who always thinks they’re right, ‘cause everybody hates that person.

I will say, I have a pretty fierce opinion about harmony. A lot of music doesn’t really come naturally to me, but I’ve got a pretty good knack for the whole melody and harmony part of it. So that’s where I’m very fierce. In terms of guitar parts, I’m like, “Somebody else do that. You’re better at playing guitar, you do that.”

FW: Do you ever listen back to any New Pornographers records and hear an argument that you lost and think, “They were right!” or “I was right!”?

CN: Yeah, I definitely hear that. I don’t know which is worse: when you’re listening back and regretting one of your own choices, or when you’re regretting somebody else’s choice. But, ideally it’s nice when enough distance comes between you and the record, where you can just listen to it for what it is. I was listening to [2007’s] Challengers for the first time in a long time a few weeks ago, and it was nice to listen to a record and not remember what comes next — to not even remember how songs go and be a listener to my own record. It was a little fascinating.

FW: And what did you find?

CN: I found that I liked it more than I remembered. I think Challengers was the first record where people backlashed against us. And well, obviously I took it personally. But I think I believed the criticism, which can be a bad thing. So it was interesting to listen to my own record years later and think, “Those critics were full of shit! This record’s great! What’s wrong with them?” It was empowering. It was like, “I’m taking back my album!”

FW: I say this as a critic: critics *can be* full of shit.

CN: The writer who reviewed Together for Pitchfork wrote on Twitter recently that his lukewarm review was one of his greatest professional regrets. And I thought, “How often does that happen?” How often does that happen that somebody who wrote a lukewarm review of your record actually apologizes and says, “I think I was wrong”? That is a rare and precious flower, that one.

Going into this record, I’m so desperate to not take any of it seriously. Whether people love you or hate you, it’s all phantoms. None of it’s real.

FW: I feel like the Internet, especially social media, exacerbates the “is this good or is this bad?” line of thought.

CN: That’s very true. I gotta admit, sometimes I just engage with trolls because I think it’s funny. My wife was just telling me, “Don’t do that. Please don’t engage them,” and I thought, “But it amuses me!” It amuses me to just sit at home and engage them, to toy with them like a cat toying with a mouse.

FW: Yours is a band that seems to appreciate humor, in videos, interviews, social media, stage banter, etc. So, who’s actually the funniest member of The New Pornographers? (And you can say yourself, obviously.)

CN: I would never say myself. I don’t know who’s the funniest, but not a lot of people know that Dan Bejar is actually a really funny guy. I think people think he’s a weird, intense guy, but he’s actually a very funny guy.

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