A relaxed Carl Newman answers a midday call from the Straight, but it’s not as if the man who captains the New Pornographers from his Brooklyn home isn’t busy.
He’s just received the mastered copy of his newest solo record under the name A. C. Newman—the first since 2004’s splendid The Slow Wonder—and writing work has already begun on the next New Pornies album, which the vocalist-guitarist suspects will end up “a little more rock” than the band’s previous records. “But I never really know what’s gonna come out of the other end,” he cautions. “I only ever have the faintest idea.”
As listeners and fans, we can assume that whatever comes out of the other end will probably fall somewhere between very, very good and, more likely, great. Prior to the release of the aptly titled Challengers last August, Newman told Pitchfork, “I can feel the backlash coming”—and the album did indeed receive a handful of ornate semi-slams (including one, ha-ha, from Pitchfork).
A year down the line, however, Challengers is starting to sound like the band’s best record, vindicating those who called it a “grower”.
“I look back at Challengers, and I think it’s the only album we could have made,” says Newman. “And as much as some people might have been annoyed with us for getting mellow, all those mellow songs are my favourites on it.”
It’s certainly the warmest of the New Pornographers’ four full-lengths, particularly thanks to Dan Bejar’s loose-limbed and funny “Myriad Harbour” and the relative candour of Newman’s sideways love songs “Go Places” and “Unguided”, the first of which is given a statuesque Neko Case vocal while the other poetically records its author’s infatuation with his adopted city.
In the placid title track, meanwhile, Newman tackles an emotionally complex tale with grace and humanity enough to match his customary technical brilliance.
Compared with the raging postmodern maelstrom of hooks and smarts that characterized the previous three records, Challengers is adult, daring, and imbued with some weight.
In + out
New Pornographers mastermind Carl Newman sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.
On Vancouver’s music scene “The funny thing is, right up to these days, even though there’s a lot of good music coming out of Vancouver, nobody really talks about Vancouver as a place that spawns good music, you know? Like the minute Arcade Fire showed up in Montreal, everybody went, ”˜Holy shit, Montreal’s the greatest place for music.’ And when Broken Social Scene showed up in Toronto, everybody went, ”˜Toronto’s the most amazing place for music.’ But there’s never really been that response for Vancouver.”
On the blog comments about his wedding: “Let’s see, it was a comment section, so I imagine our problem was that we were ”˜a bunch of fags’.”
On being reviewed by legendary critics: “It’s cool because I’ve always been this music geek, and for that reason I know the names of the music critics, you know? And so, yeah, I’m flattered. I know Greil Marcus is a big fan of ours, and I’m sure that would mean nothing to most people in bands. But I think, ”˜Wow, Greil Marcus! He wrote Lipstick Traces!’ ”
On recent rock fantasies come true: “When we played New York last October, Gord Gano came up and we did a Violent Femmes song with him, which was just as good [as playing with Ray Davies of the Kinks], because they’re both very iconic musicians in my head. In fact, as much as I love the Kinks, I don’t think anything they did ever hit me as hard as the first Violent Femmes album. It’s one of the best rock ’n’ roll albums ever made.”
As was noted at the time of its release, Challengers reflected changes in the New Pornies camp, principally Newman’s move to the Big Apple and subsequent marriage, an event that—if one needs reminding of the Vancouver-born band’s impact on the Zeitgeist—was covered by the New York Times.
“That was pretty cool,” Newman says. “The weirder part of that was when it started getting covered in music blogs. That just seemed a little strange, when you just have random assholes giving their opinions on what we should have done with our wedding reception. That’s when you start thinking, ”˜Life is getting weird.’ ”
Almost as weird is Vancouver’s emergence as one of rock music’s capital cities, thanks to the efforts of Newman and Black Mountain, among others.
Back in the ’90s, the ginger-topped musician was already top of his class with Zumpano and, before that, Superconductor, but he still had to angle for opening slots at the Starfish Room, along with everyone else, in a town that had little to no international presence. My, how things have changed.
“It’s very true,” he says, “and it’s good to know that happened, because 10 years ago all the people I was friends with were all probably thinking, ”˜God, when are we going to get lives? Why are we still playing music? All of our music-playing friends from when we were, like, 22 have gone and got psychology degrees or something, and careers, and we’re still these losers playing music.’ It’s nice that the years pass and we feel somehow we’re sort of validated.”¦It makes you feel like there’s some element of justice in the world, however faint.”
Not unpredictably, the Vancouver native is delighted to be returning home this weekend for the two days of the New Pornographers’ Stanley Park Singing Exhibition. This is no small deal. As Newman notes, “There’s never been an event where the New Pornographers, Destroyer, and Neko Case all played together.”
Further to that, attendees will be treated to the entire Pornies crew, rather than one of its Case-less or Bejar-less touring variations. This is along with, of course, a stellar lineup of handpicked supporting talent, which includes Black Mountain.
“Initially, the talk was we should do another show,” Newman explains. “But we didn’t want to do another regular show, because rock concerts can get really boring, I think. When you tour a lot and do lots of shows, it’s easy to get jaded. You just kinda go, ”˜Oh shit, do we have to go to Europe?’ But I feel good about this show. It’s gonna be cool.”
And how about that oddly archaic name for the mini-festival? New Pornographers trivia collectors, take note.
“Years ago, backstage, [drummer] Kurt [Dahle] and I started doing our wordless a cappella duo. It was called the Stanley Park Singing Company, where we started out doing wordless Peter and Gordon covers. We had an acoustic guitar and we would gurgle. So basically it just popped into my head when I realized we were playing Malkin Bowl. I thought what a completely stupid name ”˜The Stanley Park Singing Exhibition’ was, and it’s always great when you can make your stupidest stupid ideas reality.”
So wouldn’t this be the perfect opportunity to debut his a cappella gurgling outfit?
“That’s a real inside joke that maybe eight or 10 people on earth would know,” argues Newman.
The New Pornographers play the Stanley Park Singing Exhibition on Monday (September 1).