This was a fun one. Carl “A.C.” Newman is a legend of indie rock in my eyes, and you’ll rarely find a band as consistently great as his main squeeze, The New Pornographers. This chat is another one of the best that I wrote this year – even now, I’m really happy with it. I love the album Carl was promoting, as well. It’s called Together and you could do far worse if it’s your first New Pornos album.
– DJY, October 2014
Carl Newman is on the line from Woodstock. No, he hasn’t created some kind of awesome time machine – the man, his wife and, their dog all live in the small town of Woodstock in the state of New York. “Y’know the story, right?” asks Carl, as he delves into the heritage of his home.
“All the people that were gonna put on the concert were originally from Woodstock, but they couldn’t find a place here to do it. So they had to go to Bethel, which is about thirty miles away – but they still called the thing Woodstock.” Living in such an important area to rock history must mean that the Newman family always has a story to tell whenever someone asks where they live – and Carl is inclined to agree. “The funny thing is,” he says, “is we’ve accidentally met quite a few people of note just by living here.”
“For instance, one of my favourite stories is that my next door neighbour is this old folk singer called Happy Traum. A lot of people know him because he did some duets with Dylan, and knew him from the Greenwich Village days. He invited my wife and I over to thanksgiving dinner, and we were sitting with John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful. Even better, we went to his 4th of July celebration and Donald Fagen was there! We didn’t talk to him, though – we were afraid of him!”
It’s more than evident that Newman is a very lucky guy. Not only is his home life truly rock & roll, but his day job keeps moving from strength to strength. The New Pornographers, the band which Newman leads, have just released their fifth album, Together, another uplifting exercise in full-voiced indie rock. Though its title may seem somewhat plain, Newman is quick to insist there’s a lot more to it than one might think.
“The word showed up a few times in the songs we were writing,” he explains. “It made me think of when we first began, in 1998. One of the first cover songs we ever learned was a song called Together, by a band called The Illusions. It made me think that the word “together” was a throwback to our beginnings – in a sense, calling our record Together was like our way of calling it Get Back.
“On another level,” he continues, “I also like the idea of appropriating a really generic word. So often when you’re trying to name a song or an album, you’re always trying to think of something really clever – like, “let’s think of something someone’s never heard before!” I always liked it when bands took a really generic word and made it their own – like calling your band Kiss or Love. You make it your own just by being who you are.”
Before going in to work on Together, Newman also got into the studio as a solo artist to contribute to the benefit album Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox. Knox, a New Zealand musician, suffered a stroke last year and has undergone severe treatment. To raise funds to assist Knox and his family in these troubled times, a slew of indie rock royalty – Newman, John Darnielle, Jeff Mangum, the late Jay Reatard et al. – each contributed a version of one of Knox’s songs to a double album, with all proceeds going to Knox’s treatment.
“That was an honour,” says Newman when asked of his contribution. “He really truly is one of my favourite songwriters. People talk about how I’m influenced by Brian Wilson and Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach – and I love all those people, but when I sit down and write a song, I think I’m closer to Chris Knox. I just love the way that he just sits down and plays his guitar really hard. There’s nothing incredibly fancy about it. He just plays urgently and writes these amazing songs. I’m just a massive fan. I don’t know how he’s doing these days, but I really hope he’s doing well.”
Newman, along with the rest of the Pornographers, will get his chance to visit Knox’s native country this November when the band brings the tour in support of Together to Australasia. Although the band are looking forward to returning to Australia, Carl feels obligated to bring the best show he possibly can to the land of the long white cloud – particularly after the band’s last visit in support of 2007’s Challengers.
“The Auckland show we played last time was the drunkest I have ever been on stage,” admits Newman. “There were a couple of songs we should have been able to play in our sleep, like Mass Romantic from our first record [2000’s Mass Romantic ], and Chump Change from our second record [2003’s Electric Version ]… I think I played a verse twice or something, and the whole band was just looking at me, thinking “Holy shit!” When I walked off stage, my wife was there – she came with us on the last tour – and she’s usually the most supportive person in the world. That night, she just looked angry at me, just saying “that was terrible!” I felt so bad, man, I went and apologised to everyone in the band and promised them it would never happen again – and it hasn’t!”
So, if any Kiwis are reading, hear this promise from Carl: “I owe one to Auckland. I’m hoping they come back and let me prove that I can put on a better show!”