New Pornographers' A.C. Newman on Making the Band's Best Album and Wikipedia Lies
A.C. Newman, foreground, and the rest of the New Pornographers. More photos and videos below.
Photo by Chris Buck
Not many veteran bands make their best album more than a decade down the line. But the New Pornographers, who'll appear Saturday, October 11, at the Gothic Theatre, have beaten the odds with the driving, melodic, pop-tastic Brill Bruisers despite an extremely high degree of difficulty. After all, the band's members, including singer-songwriter Neko Case and Destroyer's Dan Bejar, aren't exactly wanting for other things to do.
How'd they do it? Frontman A.C. Newman, who also has an active solo career (and just penned the soundtrack to the Daniel Radcliffe rom-com What If), explains in a wide-ranging conversation that goes into detail about a slew of specific tunes, new and old, as well as the challenges of getting what's become a supergroup together and his memorable Funny or Die clip, on view below. And that's not to mention his hilarious beef with Wikipedia, which thinks it knows the New Pornographers better than he does....
Michael Roberts: I think Brill Bruisers is the best New Pornographers album yet. Have you been hearing that a lot?
A.C. Newman: I have, and I'm very glad about that, because I feel like I've been pushing that line from the beginning. I feel like this is the first record where I went out there and said openly, "I think this is our best record" -- or "All I can say is, I think it's our best record." And for me, it's because I feel like it's the closest we've ever come to sounding like I want us to sound.
I think that's how it is with so many people who make records. You have a vision in your head, and what you make is rarely that album. It doesn't mean you've made something that's inferior. You just made something that's different, because different influences come into play. But with this record, I feel like we had an idea of the record we wanted to make, and I think it sounds very much like that record.
I think if I look objectively back at our career, I think I would say the best album is between Brill Bruisers and Twin Cinema. For me, that's the battle for our two best records.
You mentioned looking back objectively. Does it take some time to get some perspective? Was there a time when you were sure each record you made was the best record, but now, looking back, you think, "Maybe that one was actually number three"?
I don't know. For me, it's not about what's the best record. It's me beating myself up and being a really harsh self-critic. When a few years pass, it's nice to be able to listen to your record as objectively as you can. Because we're going out on this tour, I've been listening to songs I haven't listened to in years -- songs I wrote that I can't even remember how they go. I couldn't tell you anything about them, and I have to listen to them and go, "Oh! This one!" It gives me a new appreciation for us, because I realize, "I think I would like us! I think I would like us if I wasn't in this band."
Can you give me an example of a song you hadn't heard in a long time where you thought, "Hey, I'd forgotten about this one, and it's really pretty good"? And a song you listened back to and thought, "I don't know if that really hit the mark"?
I was listening to the song "The New Face of Zero and One" from Electric Version, which were planning on playing on this tour, and we haven't played it in ten years. And I thought, "Wow, this is great. I like this song." On the same record, I'm not a big fan of "Miss Teen Wordpower," which is the last song on Electric Version.
It's interesting to listen to those old records, because there are some songs we play constantly. Like there are "The Law of Change" and "Testament to Youth in Verse" from Electric Version that we always play. So I know those songs inside and out. But other songs on that record, like "The New Face of Zero and One" and "Loose Translation," I barely recollect.
Yet the fact that you haven't played them for a while doesn't mean they weren't up to snuff -- just that they got lost in the shuffle somehow.
Yeah. Like when Twin Cinema came out, we had three albums and we couldn't play all of our songs anymore. So songs had to get dropped. And for whatever reason, "The New Face of Zero and One" did, not because we didn't like it but because we had to cut something.
So in a sense what you're saying is that when it comes to New Pornographers songs, Darwin was wrong -- it's not actually survival of the fittest?
Maybe it's survival of the easiest. Or survival the songs that get the most clapping? Survival of the most popular?
The lyrics on your new songs have a lot of alcohol references. There's "Champions of Red Wine," of course, but also "Fantasy Fools," where you talk about a bedspread stained with wine, and "You Tell Me Where," you talk about "old friends from last call." So was the magic ingredient in making the album so good liquor?
It wasn't. I think it has been in the past. But I think some of those references...especially in "Fantasy Fools" and "Champions of Red Wine," the references to alcohol is that alcohol is something that sort of drags you down.
So these are not necessarily endorsements.
Yeah. Like the person sitting on their bed with all their plans to change their life, and they're all stained with wine. Which means they're drunk -- and that means they're probably not going to change their life.
So what would you say the secret ingredient was? John Collins being back in the producer's chair? Was that a factor?
That's a big part of it, definitely. I'd say if there was any secret ingredient, that was it. But I don't know: I always feel that a lot of making music is just about your musical taste. I think we have pretty good musical taste, so when we're in the studio and we're just experimenting, we'll stop and go, "That's it." When we hear something we like, we go, "Yes! That's it."
So not just good taste but good instincts -- the ability to realize, "We need to stop and change directions, because this is a good one to go in."
Definitely. I'm a big fan of the saying, "Kill your darlings." Sometimes I think the best thing you can do is realize, "I'm attached to this idea, but I should let go of it. Because this idea is becoming more important in the song." And sometimes it involves letting go of a song completely. Sometimes you have a song you really like, but you work on it for a while and think, "This is a great song, but we haven't found the arrangement that makes it work. So let's drop it."
Are there times when you drop it and then pick it back up again for the next album, or maybe years later?
Yeah, that happens all the time. On Twin Cinema, there are a couple of songs, "Falling Through Your Clothes" and "These are the Fables," and both of those songs are based on outtakes from Electric Version that I just rewrote. They were songs that didn't work on Electric Version, so I took them apart and looked at what worked and what didn't work. And I kept what worked and threw out what didn't, and then made new songs around them.
Or on the song "The Bleeding Heart Show," that whole "hey-la, hey-la" ending? That was something I had for years but I could never find the right song for it. I thought, "This is a really great hook, but it's only going to work if it's in a song where it can totally shine." And it took years to find that.
Your mention of great hooks makes me think of the Brill Building video you did for Funny or Die. The Brill Building is known not only for people who came up with great hooks, but for those people doing it on a deadline. They came in, sat down in their office and came up with great hooks while they were on the clock. Is that something you share with those songwriters? Because it seems on the new album, and on all your albums, that great hooks are just falling off you.
I might have a large supply of hooks, but it takes a lot of work to make them into songs. That's the hard part. I don't think I'd be very good at sitting down with someone at a piano and say, "Let's finish a song today." Me, I'm tinkering around on songs for a long time.
So it would be very difficult for you to write on a schedule -- to say, I'm not going to stop working today until I come up with at least one song?
That is pretty difficult. I'm usually happy if I get a germ of an idea. For me, that's enough. I'll go into the studio with John and start demoing a song with only half the words written, and sometimes I feel I don't even have all the music. Sometimes I'll just leave spaces. Sometimes I'll go, "I'll leave twelve bars here. I don't know what it needs, but it needs something here." I'll just try and map out songs. It's pretty open-ended, and I think if there's anything unique about our pop music, it might be that. We're based on a classic style of pop music, but our approach is not at all a classic approach to pop music.
I'm not the guy who was lonely one night and wrote a lonely song while he was sitting in his hotel room. Some people can tell you the date they wrote a song. I couldn't tell you. You could take any song from our catalog, and I couldn't tell you when I wrote it.
Maybe that's because there are actually multiple dates. Like, "I wrote that in 2005...and 2007....and 2012."
Or some songs, I have an idea, I play them into my phone or my iPad and I don't remember doing it. I'll come back and listen to it and go, "Wow, that's good." And then I'll turn that into a song.
Photo by Chris Buck
With so many different careers going among band members, is it difficult logistically to get everyone together? And do you think it's important to do that, as opposed to e-mailing parts to each other?
We've never done the e-mailing-track thing. It's true: When we make a record, I don't think we're ever in the same room together. But we all work together. We did a lot of work in my home studio in Woodstock, and Todd Fancey would come, and we'd record guitars for a week. Or Kathryn (Calder) would come, and we'd record vocals and keyboards for a week. So even though it's long distance, it still involves us getting together. It's still personal. It's just that we're not all there at the same time.
There wasn't a single time when you were making the new album that you were all in the same room at the same time?
No. I think the most that was ever in the same room was five.
So does that mean your tour is an opportunity to get everyone out there and enjoy playing these songs in each other's company?
Yeah, touring is pretty much the only time when we're all together in the same room. Kathryn was doing vocals on something Neko (Case) was working on in Brooklyn, and they realized it was the first time they'd ever recorded vocals at the same time.
Yeah. We're not all standing around one microphone together. Although sometimes we are.
One more quick topic: What was behind your "fuck you" to Wikipedia? What were the issues on the New Pornographers page that frustrated you so much?
I was just messing with Wikipedia. They said I'd played in a metal band, which is completely wrong. And they also had my age listed as 146. So I went into my page and started fixing the mistakes. But I also started inserting new mistakes.
Actually, I wasn't inserting new mistakes. I was just wording things differently. But I thought it was funny that I would fix a mistake and they'd change it back to it being wrong again. Like they had my wife's last name wrong. They had her old last name in there, and I thought, "I'll change it to Newman, because her name is Newman now." And then a few minutes later, Wikipedia would change it back.
You're apparently not the best source on your own history?
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.
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