Carl Newman is a founding member and a main songwriter and vocalist of the indie supergroup The New Pornographers. He also writes and performs as the solo artist A.C. Newman.
Carl talks about the overlooked inspiration of songs you might hear in a grocery store and making the kind of music you love, whether it comes from obsessing over Pavement or Burt Bacharach.
You can catch The New Pornographers on a US tour this April. Their newest album is called Together.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest, Carl Newman, is the front man and founder of the band The New Pornographers. For more than ten years now they've been one of the most popular bands in indie rock – out of Vancouver, British Columbia, they are a supergroup of sorts. The group features many leading lights of that music scene. Carl, welcome to The Sound of Young America.
CARL NEWMAN: Thanks for having me.
JESSE THORN: It's great to have you on the show. I was reading that you worked on a train steel gang?
CARL NEWMAN: Yeah, yeah. Back when I was 19, I think. It was my summer job.
JESSE THORN: What even is a train steel gang? All I can think of is Cool Hand Luke.
Click here for a full transcript of this interview.
CARL NEWMAN: It's kind of like that, except we weren't chained together. We actually volunteered our services for money. It's like a long train that travels around with machinery and changes the tracks; so, you have machinery that tears the tracks up, and machinery that puts new tracks on. You need a lot of people just to be laborers. I was a really low-end laborer.
JESSE THORN: Tell me a little bit about why you founded The New Pornographers in 1997 or 1998, after you had been a member of a number of moderately successful bands?
CARL NEWMAN: Moderately is being very kind, thank you. I got to a point where I was really frustrated by my last serious band and I wanted to do something that was more for the love. I wanted to do something that I felt I had a lot more control over. A band where I thought, if this fails, it's going to be my fault. I didn't want to have any regrets. I passed the point where I thought I was going to make a living playing music, so I thought, just make a record that you want to make. I just thought, let's make music for the love of making music. Somehow that bizarre take worked.
JESSE THORN: How did it feel when you were making the first album? Did you feel the whole time like you were making something that was just going to be a goof? Something that you were working on with your buddies? Or was there a point where you realized that you had something?
CARL NEWMAN: Everybody, when working on a record in the back of their mind, dreams that people will love it. You're taking your music seriously and you're trying to make something good, but I never really thought anything was going to happen with it, even when we finished it. But there were points, especially listening to Dan's songs; I remember being in the studio when we were working on a song called To Wild Homes, and it was playing back and I thought to myself, I might have even said it out loud, is it just me, or is this awesome? I felt like there were points where what we were doing was really really good.
JESSE THORN: When you decided that you wanted to have a band for which you were the responsible party, so to speak, what did you want out of that band? What were the things that you thought, man, when I get my own band, it's going to be like this?
CARL NEWMAN: I really don't know. I remember thinking that I wanted us to be a sort of party band. I remember thinking that there seemed to be a line; there were bands that were amazing, and then there bands that were fun. You know what I mean? There were bands that were really fun and you'd go to see them and dance, but you don't even want to listen to their records, they're just a fun party band. And I thought, what if we were that fun party band but our music was also really interesting? I think on a fundamental level that's what we were shooting for at the beginning.
JESSE THORN: That's a bit of the first song from The New Pornographers' first album, Mass Romantic, released in 2000, with Neko Case on vocals.
It's The Sound of Young America. My guest is the leader of The New Pornographers, Carl Newman.
What kind of music did you really enjoy listening to as a kid? In that period of time where you start to really be aware of popular music when you're 10, 11, 12, 13.
CARL NEWMAN: I was really into KISS. That was one of the first bands I became obsessed with. I really liked Cheap Trick, and then when I was around 12 or 13 I really got into The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. My older brother had Hot Rocks and I thought that was the greatest album ever released. When I was younger I remember Changes from Bowie, I was really into that. I remember loving that album when I was eight or nine years old. And Talking Heads' 77.
I remember my brother got that when I was a little kid, and when the Talking Heads became really popular, about seven years later, I remember talking to my friends in junior high school and going, man, you should hear Talking Heads' 77, and they didn't get it. They thought, no way man. Speaking in Tongues is the record. Even at that young age I was already the guy going, no man, I love their early stuff.
JESSE THORN: Did you become a new wave guy when you were a teenager and new wave was au courant?
CARL NEWMAN: I don't think anybody else thought of me as a new wave guy, but I thought of myself as one. I had poofy kind of poodle hair. When I was a teenager I realized that the styles of the time didn't really have anything to do with anything, and that the coolest thing you could do was just follow your own drummer. I think when it was 1992 and I was starting my band Zumpano and our biggest influence was Burt Bacharach, I wasn't trying to be cheesy, it was just that I'd become obsessed with the Dionne Warwick greatest hits. I started discovering these classic song writers like Bacharach and Jimmy Webb and Brian Wilson, and I thought, why not? Why not chase something you love? Why do you have to sound like Sonic Youth or Pavement? There's already a dozen, or I should say, there's already a thousand other bands doing that. Why don't I just try to follow my own thing?
Of course, nobody wanted to hear it, but I think it's important to follow your own thing, and finally when the Pornographers came along and I was still doing my own thing I felt validated. It was worth it.
JESSE THORN: I want to talk to you a little bit about your interest in these traditional songwriters like Jimmy Webb. How did you find an interest in that music as something other than what is playing in the grocery store?
CARL NEWMAN: I think when you're a huge music fan, you're always looking for the newest thing, but at some point you realize that there's a lot of buried treasures out there. You find yourself at the thrift store or the Value Village just flipping through old records, and you'll go, wow, look at an Art Garfunkle record from 1971, let's check it out. Sometimes you find amazing things on there. And doesn't everybody have that weirdo friend who has really obscure musical tastes? The guy who's going, 'Man, you haven't heard any Jimmy Webb? Oh, man. I gotta play this for you!' I had a few friends like that.
JESSE THORN: It's funny because it's both really obscure musical taste, and just exactly the opposite of really obscure musical taste, because you couldn't find more successful records than some of Jimmy Webb or Burt Bacharach's greatest songs.
CARL NEWMAN: I know, like Always Something There To Remind Me or By The Time I Get To Phoenix. When you dissect some of that music, you notice that it's not at all simple, it's not at all cheesy - - some of the lyrics are cheesy, but it's really sophisticated music, and I was inspired by it.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest is Carl Newman from the band The New Pornographers. This song is Bones of an Idol from their 2005 album Twin Cinema.
Tell me a little bit about your process of writing that song and where it came from?
CARL NEWMAN: This is going to sound almost incomprehensible, but when we were making Twin Cinema we were using midi drums, just to map out the song, and when you would turn on the computer again, the midi settings would be wrong, so instead of drums playing it would be a piano. So where the snare might have been it would be an F note on the piano. We would turn on and the drum part would be this weird discordant piano part.
One morning I thought, that discordant piano part is kind of cool. Then I started playing along with it, I started playing whatever it was, a G and an E. I thought, maybe we can do something with this, and I began writing Bones of an Idol, but then I got rid of the discordant piano, I thought, we can’t use that, it sounds stupid. When I took that away I realized that I had the beginnings of The Bones of an Idol.
JESSE THORN: You're speaking to me right now from Woodstock, New York, which is far from a lot of things.
CARL NEWMAN: Not that far from New York, though.
JESSE THORN: It's still kind of far.
CARL NEWMAN: It's only two and a half hours.
JESSE THORN: That's kind of far to me.
CARL NEWMAN: Yeah, but Vancouver is way farther from New York.
JESSE THORN: That's a good point. Why did you choose to live there rather than - - I know you previously lived in Brooklyn and you lived in Vancouver for quite a long time.
CARL NEWMAN: I think we had this half-baked idea of finding a little summer home, or a little weekend home that wouldn't cost very much because we knew a few people that had that. So we thought, let's go up and look, a friend of ours lived here, and then we ended up finding this place on the first day of looking that we really loved, and it just happened to be in Woodstock, even though we were looking in all the surrounding areas as well. It was more than we wanted to pay, but we just fell in love with it. Sometimes you just go to a place and you get this feeling of, this is our place.
JESSE THORN: Do you feel comfortable in that kind of quiet and solitude that you get when you live somewhere rural?
CARL NEWMAN: So far I like it. Some people go crazy when they get too much solitude, but so far I'm liking it. I think whenever I've been stressed out in my life I've thought, I just want to go and live somewhere rural. I just want to live a quiet life where nobody hassles me. I've tried to build this little quiet place where nobody hassles me, and so far, so good.
JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest is Carl Newman, the front man and founder of the indie rock band The New Pornographers; let's hear a little bit of Valkyrie and the Roller Disco from their new album Together.
I want to ask you briefly about the videos that you've made for the band. You've made quite a number of silly and funny videos. The latest of which for Moves, which we heard earlier, was directed by a good friend of this show Tom Scharpling. It is essentially a mock biopic of The New Pornographers, in which each member of the band is played by a different comedian, about half of whom have been guests on this show. And the idea of being a rock star is lampooned. I wonder why you've often gravitated towards making videos that make a mockery of, I don't mean that in a negative way, the idea of the world of rock and roll; rather than something that's grandiose and reinforces the majesty and mystery of rock and roll bands.
CARL NEWMAN: Well, I think it's because we just don't - - I mean, a funny thing to say, but we just don't buy ourselves as rock stars. Obviously we're not; we're a fairly popular indie rock band, which is very different from being a rock star like Radiohead or Lady Gaga. For that reason we've never really wanted to be in our own videos, and we've never wanted to be the band trying to look cool in a video, because it's just laughable. So, thinking that it was laughable, I think we would always just gravitate towards, let's just do something funny.
JESSE THORN: Do you ever want to have that part of being a great pop song writer which I think many people would say that you are; I won't ask you to say that of yourself, but do you ever want to have that part of being great pop songwriter where you host the Sonny and Cher show, or you make a Lady Gaga video, or you just do something that's like really full or you put on a KISS stage show or you just do something that has that - - or you have a television show like The Monkees, where even if it's funny or not funny it's just a grand pop thing.
CARL NEWMAN: Have I ever wanted to do that?
JESSE THORN: Yeah, has that ever been appealing to you?
CARL NEWMAN: Yeah, I think so. But I don't think it's really my place, you know? I don't think I would be a good host of a variety show. I would love to work with somebody. I would love to be involved with something like that and help write the songs or help write it. I think something like The New Pornographers was me realizing, okay, I'm never going to be in a band like Coldplay. I don't think I'm ever going to be able to carry a band where like, hey, it's Carl Newman and three other guys I don't remember, where I'm the total star of the show and I'm the guy, the only person that anyone remembers. I think I knew when I started New Pornographers that I would work best as part of an ensemble. Even though I'm the guy in the center and I sing a lot of it I still am playing off a lot of other people.
JESSE THORN: Well Carl, I really appreciate you taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.
CARL NEWMAN: No problem, nice talking to you.
JESSE THORN: Carl Newman is the leader of the band The New Pornographers. There most recent CD is called Together, and they're headed out on tour in April. Their tour takes them to San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and the Coachella festival in Southern California among other destinations. You can find more information online at www.thenewpornographers.com.