John Peel once said of Wedding Present singer David Gedge that "The boy Gedge has written some of the best love songs of the 'rock ‘n’ roll' era. You may dispute this, but I’m right and you’re wrong!”
Peel's right about Gedge, but the same could be said of the New Pornographers' Carl Newman, who over six albums with the band and three more solo albums has produced one sharp catalog filled with twisty and cascading power-pop classics and more than his share of unique turns of phrase. He's got lots of help in that department, with bandmates like Neko Case and Destroyer's Dan Bejar.
The latest New Pornographers album, "Brill Bruisers," is earning some of the most rapturous reviews of their career. Pitchfork raved that the band "resemble(s) not so much a supergroup as a gang, wielding hooks like shivs, guitar riffs like machine guns, and synths like laser beams. The opening title track isn’t just a blown-out bubblegum pop song made from a box full of Bazooka Joes—it’s a swarming, instantly thrusting you into a dizzying flurry of “bo-ba-ba-bo” harmonies coming at you from all sides." (This NPR concert last week recorded on the first floor of the Brill Building will pull you right in.)
If you follow Newman on Twitter, you know he's funny, self-effacing, a big reader and crazy fast to make connections. We had this conversation last month, over gin-and-tonics in the garden of an East Village bar, probably the right beverage and location for two 40-something guys to talk indie-rock magic, the difference between speed and groove, and how there's money in new wave.
Let me be geeky and ask about the nitty-gritty of how you craft a melody.
That's the easy part. I think that's the only thing — melody is the only thing that kind of comes easy to me. I don't think I have natural ability as a musician. I'm not that good on the guitar or any other instrument. But I know how to use it and I pick it out. I think that comes from just loving melody so much. I'm like “Yes.” I can tell what moves me.
So there's this big chorus in "Brill Bruisers." And the sea was all lighters/It was all lighters/It's how we know now to never go back. And you have to make decisions as you're writing and singing this: You go high on the first "lighters," you elide the second "lighters" into the next line. There's a nifty high-low on "know" and "now," that pregnant pause before you snap off "back." How much trial and error is involved in creating a chorus like that?
That came together really quickly. For me it's all in arrangement -- that really perplexes me -- and lyrics. Because I have a melody and then I'm like “What are the words I'm gonna fit around?” I can't just write open prose. It all has to have a very specific function. On "Mass Romantic," I was more content to write nonsequitur lyrics. If the words sounded cool, that was good. And there'still an element of that, but I feel like I want to keep a theme. Even if it doesn't have a strict narrative, I want imagery that runs through it. So that whole idea of (sings) "the sea was all lighters," which to me seemed like a massive rock concert. A sea of people. I think there's just a vague sense of like the mythology of rock and roll or being lost at sea. To me that was the whole thing, all coming around to I really love singing "The sea was all lighters, it was all lighters." I think that was probably the idea I had sitting around. “I want to write a song titled 'In a Sea of Lighters.'”
Do people still hold lighters, or is it all cell phones?
I think because I'm such a music fan, I just love the idea of the myth of rock. There's something not false -- but sort of. You know, no rock star is truly themselves. It's all a myth. From Bob Dylan to Jack White. It might become real, but I've always been fascinated with that and I know Dan Bejar has always dabbled in that from the get-go. I think I probably followed his lead from the beginning. I think I loved that he did that and I felt “Yeah, I'm gonna do that too. I should dabble in a lot of rock iconography.”
So a song like "Brill Bruisers," or, to go back in time, "Bleeding Heart Show" or "Letter from an Occupant" -- these songs which feel like three or four songs in one. Are the songs born that way, or do the twists and turns get cut and pasted on during the recording process?
I think Dan's songs are sort of born that way. My songs evolve over the course of the record a lot more. A song like "Brill Bruisers," when I started playing the demo, I didn't even have any lyrics. I was like, “I've got a song and it goes like this” [hums melody]. And I just recorded that. But when we did that -- sometimes you just have to play a song into a microphone and then it becomes alive, and then we had the structure. Sometimes it's just inspiring. Even when you don't have any lyrics yet and you're like “This song's great” -- it inspires me to write the lyrics. And it gives you an idea of where you want the song to go. It's different from when you're sitting there.
For me, songs really evolve. These days so much of it is about the arrangement to me. I feel like I write a certain kind of song, and there's no point in trying to write a different kind of song because you might as well play to your strengths. Maybe I'm old enough and wise enough to go, “It's OK that you're not Animal Collective. You shouldn't be Animal Collective. There's already an Animal Collective.”
So it makes it so I just write my songs and figure out something cool we can do with it. And there are songs like "Champions of Red Wine," which I think is my favorite song on the record. When we first started recording it, I remember thinking 'This song is fucking boring.' Because it felt like it didn't have what I thought it needed. I felt like it didn't have the vibe. It just felt like it was words and chords and a drum beat and a bass line.
How many different versions do you tend to go through before something explodes with that life? With "Champions of Red Wine," you handed it off to Neko Case to sing -- is that kind of experimentation common within a song, trying to make it work?
Sometimes it's quick, like "Brill Bruisers" came together pretty quick. It was just a matter of once I wrote the lyrics. After that, it was like “We just gotta make sure it sounds big.” It felt like the game was “This song is great. It's just got to sound great. We've got to make sure we don't drop the ball."
"Champions of Red Wine" took some time. "Backstairs" was a song that I sort of wrote as we went along, which happens from record to record. You get inspired and you start working on something.
These big harmonies, six-part in some places -- how do you all work those out, especially when you're often not in the studio as a full band?
It's pretty organic. "Champions of Red Wine"—what is now the lead vocal was at one point a harmony vocal. Neko sang the “We're coming over” but the rest of it was just meant to be a harmony, and I was singing what I thought was the lead. But then at some point we were just listening to the Neko vocals and realized that my lead vocal was absolutely unnecessary; this should be the lead. That was a song where I didn't picture it being a big Neko song, but it just became one. I think that made it unique and that's what we liked about it. This is a great Neko song and it sounds so much like a Neko song; maybe because it was meant as a harmony gives it a certain icier, detached quality because she didn't know she was the lead singer. I'm just a big fan of whatever works. You try not to be too weird about it.
The album title feels like a non-cryptic title. Bruising pop songs that could've been written in the Brill Building. Is it as simple as that, or is that just an irresistible hook for every review?
It was a shortening of Brilliant Bruisers, which is something I say a couple times in the song. And I think for a while it was called "Brilliant Bruisers," and then we shortened it to "Brill Bruisers." And I was like “that works” and it worked so well, because it's sort of a nod to how much I respect those classic songwriters. It seemed like an all-encompassing, conceptual title. Very fitting.
It sounds like you knew the kind of record you wanted to make this time, that after the last two eclectic albums, this one was going to have a very focused energy from start to finish.
It was something like this: I wanted to make a record that wasn't too far removed from what we've done in the past, and just sort of do what I thought was supercharged and a lot of the keyboard stuff. I love all the keyboard stuff, but I felt like bands usually make a choice these days. It's either they say “We're a rock band” or “We're a keyboard band,” and I thought “Can't we have keyboards but still retain the heart of it, that we're a rock band?” And that was the balance for me. Let's have all these weird keyboards flying everywhere but the heart of it is like [makes rock guitar noises]. And it wasn't as difficult as you'd think.
It's probably my sad, sorry '80s, but I hear Alphaville in the keyboards. The first two Alphaville records.
It's possible. Sigue Sigue Sputnik was a template. I listened to "Love Missile F1-11" and just liked the way it moved. The one that really jumps out to me is on the song "Born with a Sound." John and I one night were arguing for about 30 minutes over which keyboard sound to use. John was fighting for the keyboard sound from "New Life" by Depeche Mode.
I heard that Vince Clarke sound as well on "Another Drug Deal of the Heart." Yaz and the Magnetic Fields, or something.
That one always reminded me of The Buggles.
Where did the phrase of "champions of red wine" come from?
I don't know. I feel like I've written different versions of this song already, and it's all a variation on "The Days of Wine and Roses." The movie, that is.
Not the Dream Syndicate album.
Although I love them. And then it's basically about this song—the song is about this couple that like keep breaking up and getting back together because they get drunk. So they have this really dysfunctional relationship.
Never happened to any of us. So back to the realization you wanted to come out supercharged this time -- is it a reaction to the last two New Pornographers albums, or also to the solo album in between, which was very personal and understated.
It just seemed like the right thing to do. When I made my solo album, I wanted to make a very conscious kind of record. I wanted that to be sort of low-key and personal. There was stuff I kind of had to get out of my system. I had to record a song like "Shut Down the Streets," but I knew it couldn't be on a Pornographers record. So I felt like once that record was done, it was like “OK, now I can make a big rock record.” I feel like even if people don't think I'm a professional songwriter or anything, when I look back at all of our records, I think it's a pretty honest expression of where I'm at. "Challengers" was sort of a response to falling in love. And also sort of other sad things that were going on that I never wanted to go into, and I felt like I sort of culminated with making "Shut Down the Streets." Not that everything is sunshine and roses all the time.
When "Challengers" and "Together" came out, you were also very open about your fear of putting out the same album again, or feeling pushed by fans into being the band with a certain kind of song. It felt like an unusual amount of self-awareness almost, your own worst critic.
For the first three records, I was always concerned about repeating myself. Like when we put out "Electric Version," I was like “It's just more of the same.” A lot of the songs people love are more of the same. So I was very aware. I don't want to be the "more of the same" band. But after spending years not doing that, I felt like I could make a record like this and not feel like we were repeating ourselves.
The band was scattered again while making this. Does it matter if a band is together in a studio, or working on different pieces, sharing them, and then coming together when necessary?
At the heart of it, it's a rock band. It's me and John and Kurt and Todd Fancey and then there's like Blaine and Kathryn playing the keyboard. But it feels like that doesn't need to be there, when you're recording the song. Especially on this record, it seems like something that sort of circles around. This record, it wasn't easy, but it did come together fairly well. Sometimes a song feels like a house of cards where if you don't get the mix right, it won't stack up. This one, I felt like we could mix a song 10 different ways and it'd be alright. The performance is there.
Was it easier when you were all in the same place?
It was never much different. If you have too much time you just waste it. When we all lived in the same town, somebody would blow off recording because they had something else to do. Just like “No, I'm gonna go out for dinner.” So I think now we're a little bit more focused. There's less screwing around. Now if I go to Vancouver for a week and somebody blows off practice, I'm gonna get really pissed off because I just flew in here. "I left my family and you guys are paying for my hotel room and you paid for my flight here. We can't screw around." It's always been the same. Everything that's happened in our lives, it hasn't really changed that much. Like Neko's popularity or Dan's popularity really has no bearing.
I think because of that reason, even when it becomes my career, I’m always a little bemused by it. Because it all seems a little absurd, and even though I know I’ve technically earned it, it all still seems like a windfall. And it’s a little scary for that reason, because if you start thinking that your life wasn’t earned, it was a windfall, you start thinking that someone can take this away from me at any given moment.
I was lucky enough to be in the room when you played South by Southwest on "Mass Romantic," and Ray Davies joins you on stage for "Starstruck." That must have been one of the first dawnings that this was real and could really happen. Or was that too early?
All of that stuff, it was awesome, but I think it also messed with my head because there was a point… The record came out in October 2000, and then some people said some nice things, and then in mid-December it got the New York Times “Ten Best Records You Didn’t Hear.” And it got a great review in Rolling Stone, a great review in Spin, and then we went to South by Southwest and we were a buzz band and we played with Ray Davies. So it all seemed sort of like, “Holy shit! This is crazy! This is insane.” I could barely believe it was happening.
Then I remember the next month being home in Vancouver and I still had my job, and there was a bus strike, and I didn’t have a car. And I remember like one day, at the end of it, it was like a month after the Ray Davies thing, I didn’t have any way to get home from work and it was raining. So I decided to walk like two miles home in the rain, and I felt so sad. And I just thought, “What do I have to do to catch a break?”
But I think that happens a lot in bands. There’s like a delay. You’re a buzz band but it takes a year before you really start making money. So that was strange. But then it was like, it was six or seven months after that that I quit my job, but I haven’t had a job since.
It worked out. But there was a point approaching "Electric Version" where I was getting pretty low on funds, thinking, “Am I gonna make it? Am I gonna make it to the release of this record?” But then your priorities start changing. It’s less about making the rent. You’re like, “Maybe I can do something else here. Maybe I’ll buy a car, maybe I’ll get a house.”
That’s a crazy thing. Around the time "Mass Romantic" came out, I thought, “I’d like to have the money to buy a nice car.”
You went into one of the great record stores in New York the other day, Other Music, and didn't see any of your albums. You started tweeting your fears of being an uncool old guy.
Yeah, it did seem sort of funny to me, I don’t know why. It just seemed funny that there was no trace, no trace I ever made a record in Other Music.
So do you start to think: I’m a guy in a rock band in my 40s now. Are the kids in their 20s who go to shows gonna like this? Or am I gonna be faced with a crowd of a bunch of people who look like I do, with babysitters, who'd really like to just sit down and for the show to be over a little earlier?
I actually think it’s cool. When you think about it, if you can retain an audience of people who are the same age as you, or even ten years younger than you, you’ve got a bunch of people from a different era who are people that care a lot more about music, who still don’t think it’s an insult that someone asks them to buy their record, you know?
And of course you want people to like you, but I mean, what can I do? If they don’t, they don’t. And the way I look at it is like, hey, I might be 20 years older than that guy in that band, but how come my record’s better than his? Isn’t it more sad that you’re in your 20s and your music is so weak?
Does it feel to you that the critical landscape in some ways has changed? That there was a time when critics gave more weight to writing about the cool indie band, but that now that's cycled the other way?
You know, I can’t really worry about it. On this record, I feel like so far so good. It does seem like music has changed. Like as much as I think our record is great, I think it’s a total anachronism in the modern world of music because really a lot of what is considered hugely cool, popular indie rock these days sounds like '90s R&B. Like it doesn’t even sound like indie rock.
And a lot of the more popular indie-rock vocalists have sort of a vaguely “American Idol” vibe to the vocals. Like there’s a sort of Mariah Carey… and I can’t even say there’s anything wrong with it, I think it’s interesting. But it’s not really for me. I think it’s fascinating that that’s become the style, but I listen to a lot of music and I think this is very interesting that this is what people want to hear.
It's not me putting it down. It’s just like, wow, indie rock’s gone in a weird direction. And it’s not our direction. Or like a band like Haim, who are obviously very good, and I can see the appeal, and I’m like, “This is awesome.” But is it indie-rock? A band like Vampire Weekend bridges that gap really well. I think that’s what makes them one of the classic bands right now. They really inhabit the modern world of music without seeming to have compromised in any way. Like all the classic bands, they’re sort of art school projects. There’s a lot of performance art in classic rock, going back to the Who or the Talking Heads.
Was there something you were listening to while making this record that might surprise people?
You know "Shine a Little Love" by ELO? “You shine a little love on my life, ah ah ah.” It’s got sort of a Bee Gees vibe. We were listening to that when we were making the record, because there was a point where John and I were obsessed with tempos. And it’s a very interesting thing. If you work up the tempo of a song, it's an aural illusion. You think that song is fast, where it’s like, no, it’s actually 15 BPM slower.
“Brill Bruisers,” in terms of BPM, it’s far and away the slowest song on the record. Like it’s almost a dirge. Because it’s like [pounds on the table]. It's a propulsive rock song, but if you just measure the BPM, it’s like, no, this is a slow song.
And when we were trying to figure out the tempos of the songs, I remember we were listening to “Shine a Little Love,” and we were going, “How fast is ‘Shine a Little Love?’” And we went, “It’s 10 BPMs slower.” And we were like, “Oh. OK. We’re OK then.” There was a Roxy Music song that we used as a comparison a lot. It was either “Re-Make/Re-Model” or “Editions of You.” We were looking at the song and going, “Does it move? Could Bryan Ferry shuffle off to Buffalo as he listens to this song?”
That's another thing about this record. We thought about things like that a lot. Like, what’s a good tempo? I think we were concerned just about the way the songs moved. That was fascinating, our days we spent obsessing over tempo.
When we were sequencing the album, there was a point where the label was talking about flipping the two Neko songs, like putting “Marching Orders” second, and putting “Champions of Red Wine” at song six, because they thought “Marching Orders” was a more upbeat song. But then I said, No, it’s slow. It’s much slower. So sometimes people mistake speed for groove.
That’s good advice for all of us in our lives. Don’t mistake speed for groove.
As you put set lists together, and have six albums and 15 years to draw from, and a new album you're excited about but also some older fans who got a sitter and want to relive 2002 when they were cool -- how do you balance all those needs?
There are a lot of songs that I think, “We have to play that ’cause it’s a cool, popular song that people wanna hear.” But there’s a lot of songs that I feel like, “That had its time.” Like we played that when that record came out, but now we have too many songs -- and this record where I feel good about every song on this record. Which means we’re only going to be doing like two, three, four tops songs from any given record.
So it’s not that difficult. If I go through "Twin Cinema," I go, “OK, we’ll play ‘Twin Cinema,’ we’ll play ‘Use It,’ we’ll play ‘The Bleeding Heart Show,’ ‘Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,’ ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno,’” and that’s it. Pretty much. And then "Electric Version" it’s like, “The Electric Version,” “The Laws Have Changed,” “Testament to Youth in Verse,” maybe one or two others, just as a long list. "Mass Romantic" we’ll do “Mass Romantic,” “The Slow Descent,” “Jackie." And even that we don’t really do that much anymore. I feel like I can go through every record and go, “These are the five songs we pick from,” and we’ll probably just do three or four of these, maybe.
Peter Buck, in the middle of R.E.M.'s run, talked about wanting to make one of those top-20 albums, the kind of undeniable album that people have to include in the canon.
Well, they have. They did it back in 1983 actually.
Seriously, on the first try, right? After having done this for as long as you’ve done this, do you think about that kind of lasting power, and the canon, and wanting one on that list?
Obviously I’d like to do that, and I’m always shooting for it. But I can’t worry about it too much, because I feel like I was always a really shy, self-conscious person. At the age of 22, when I decided I would make that leap from concertgoer and cross the line and get on stage, that seemed like a triumph just to have the guts to do that. Which I guess is my way of saying I never thought of myself as a classic artist.
We made our first record with no delusions that we were ever gonna become popular. So I’m just happy to be here. And I think I’ve written some songs that are really great and I feel really good about the record that’s been made. I’m not a rock star, but I’ve got more than I ever imagined I would have. Like, I’m married with a kid and we have a house in Woodstock.
I feel like I just want to work. I don’t think of myself as some artist. I did a soundtrack for my friend’s movie, ’cause I was like, yeah, this is cool, I want to work. And I’ve written a theme for an NBC sitcom, and I’ve written songs for commercials. I just want to work. I feel like I’m in a lucky position that if somebody’s asking me to do that, I just do it. And it all seems fun to me. I’m not really expecting anybody to think of anything I ever made as "Astral Weeks." Not that I want it to be that good, but… I don’t know. I think I have my place.
I guess if I’m talking about one of my records being in a canon of some kind, it would be like in a collection with Blondie's "Parallel Lines," and the first Cars record. Or something along those lines. Just like a great rock and roll album. Not a "Pet Sounds" or a "Sgt. Pepper" or whatever you want throw in there. Or a "God Bless the Red Krayola." I’m not reaching that high. I’m not reaching for "God Bless the Red Krayola" or anything. I’m not reaching for "Corky’s Debt to His Father."
Although, that reminds me of something. I remember talking to Dan years ago, and I think I was a little bummed because "Twin Cinema" was our biggest-selling record. And "Challengers" actually sold a ton, but it didn’t sell quite as much as "Twin Cinema." So even though… and it all doesn’t matter. I guess at some point, when you’ve been going up, you don’t want to flat-line or go down slightly. You want to just keep going up.
But Dan was saying, Carl, think of all our favorite records. Like, think of all the records that we think are the greatest records. Some of them were not even considered good enough to be released. Like "Corky’s Debt to His Father." And I thought about that, like, “You’re so right.” You can’t start measuring the quality of your music by how many records you sold. And it should be obvious, everybody should know that.
So I try to always remember that. But part of realizing that, the other side of it is that it makes me a little more… what’s the word for it? Machiavellian about it. I think, “Who cares what people think about my records? Am I still getting paid?” I feel like, listen, I’m trying my best on these records, and at the point when I’m done, the work that I’ve put into that record, it’s all very honest and pure. And at the point when it’s done and I’ve put it out there, I just want to get paid. Because I put it out there and sold it. I don’t want to whore myself, but… I think that’s a reaction to not being a sensitive artist whose feelings are hurt. You’re just like, my work is done. The work should be its own reward. But obviously there’s more to it.
You talked about commercials. I remember writing a story in the early '90s about alternative bands showing up in commercials, right as that was starting to happen, and everyone was very defensive and not very eager to talk about it.
And now nobody could care less.
And now nobody could care less. Should people care?
I feel like the next wave of that were people making bullshit excuses. Then people started going, well, with bands not getting much radio play anymore, this is one of the few ways we can get heard. And it’s like, just fucking say you did it for the money. Just say, somebody offered me a hundred grand and I couldn’t turn it down. Because to me, that is the truth of it. When we’ve gotten those big things, it’s like, yeah, what kind of idiot would turn it down?
I saw a great little piece with the Black Keys where they were talking about they turned down some big commercial early in their career. And how their parents, who are working class, said, “Are you crazy?” How stupid are you? If we were working at our jobs, and someone said, “You can have a hundred thousand dollars,” we wouldn’t have turned it down because of some weird idea of street cred. And you realize, sure, there is a political thing involved. And it’s about your ideals.
But another part of it is it’s just child’s play. It’s like most of the people that have the fiercest opinions about those things are either people who aren’t getting offered it, or they’re so wealthy they don’t have to worry about it. Like Radiohead could say, “No, I’m not taking your three hundred thousand dollars. Because we’re massively wealthy.” And it will make us look bad. Whereas me—like for a lot of people—that would make a big change in my life.
I’ve always thought I don’t want to be the person who looks back on his life and is at some point really poor and going, “Why did I turn down that hundred thousand dollars?” I mean, not that anyone’s ever offered me a hundred thousand dollars. But I feel like when those things come in, yeah, I should take this. It’s ridiculous not to take it. I just feel like I should take the work when it’s offered to me.
Did the University of Phoenix one ever make you cringe later on?
No, that one was cool. What happened to them?
They’ve sure stuck kids with a lot of student loan debt.
Like a scam? When I signed off on that I didn’t actually know what it was. I actually thought… because it wasn’t that much money at the top. They re-licensed it a few times, but the initial one wasn’t much money. So I thought it was just a regional commercial for the actual University of Phoenix in Arizona. And so I thought, "yeah, why not?" And then I realized, oh. Because people started telling me, “Hey, I saw your song!” And then I realized, oh, OK, it’s an online university. And then people started asking me about it, and I think Pitchfork asked a leading question about it being a scam university. And I said, “To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a scam university, I don’t know.”
And then the University of Phoenix read that and they were sort of choked that I was speaking freely and going, “You know what, I don’t know.” I basically said what I said to you. Like, I thought it was this, but it’s an online university and maybe it’s a scam, but I don’t really know. I think they even sent me some literature. Like, let’s send you some literature so you know more about the University of Phoenix.
But I don’t feel like I convinced anybody to go there. I would understand if somebody had hired me as a spokesmodel and I was out there going, hey kids, give all your money. But as it is, if it wasn’t our song it would be another song, and I don’t think that commercial captured the imagination of anybody.
It’s a tough one. There’s a few people I wouldn’t license to. Like I don’t think I would license to Wal-Mart. But I also don’t know. Can I honestly say, if Wal-Mart said to me, “We’ll give you half a million dollars if we can use one of your songs,” if I wouldn’t go, “OK, I’ll take this. I hate you but this would make a massive difference in my kid’s life.” If I could put my kid through private school and university based on this one thing, does that even out with letting a really, really shitty company use my song? I don’t know. It’s hard to say. But it’s not the easiest question.
I’d like to think I would say no. But it would be very hard.
My song “Miracle Drug” got used in a Target commercial a few years ago. And it’s fairly noticeable, and I thought, my wife and I always shop at Target. Maybe it’s just because we’ve become an upstate married couple and when we need stuff we go to Target. And I think, well, if I shop there, logically I shouldn’t have a big problem with letting them use the song.
And it’s the same thing with like a car commercial. Everybody drives cars. I don’t even think about car companies that much, so sure. Yeah, whoever, Honda, Hyundai, yeah, you can use my song. I’m just a regular Joe. A regular Joe thrown into extraordinary circumstances.