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AC Newman from The New Pornographers

AC Newman from The New Pornographers

Monday 8th November, 2010 10:13AM

It's sometimes baffling hearing a song like 'Letter from an Occupant' or 'Sing Me Spanish Techno' and wondering why Vancouver band the New Pornographers aren't much bigger than they are. Their smart, quirky pop sensibilities have resulted in five excellent albums – from 2000's debut Mass Romantic to this year's Together. They are no strangers to our shores, given their previous tour (plus solo tour this year by Neko Case) and the primary songwriter AC Newman's love of New Zealand indie music. They're returning soon again for their extremely fun live show, and their infectious pop songs will no doubt thrill as much as last time.

What got you into music in the first place?

I don't know, I was always a massive music fan. I think I was such a big music fan that eventually I wanted to start a band. It was a little hard at the beginning: I felt that the line between audience and band member was too big. I was afraid to cross it. The minute I played my first show, I loved it, I was hooked. My first show was really fun and great I and I thought this is what I want to do. I just kept going. I was stubborn about it.

Did you ever imagine the New Pornographers would become this main driving force for your musical output?

No, I never thought that we would get the attention that we ended up getting. We were very lucky that way.

Did you initially see it as a 'main project' or have grand ambitions for it?

I'm sure everybody has grand ambitions, everybody that makes a record. Everybody who makes a record would like to dream that it was really popular. But I didn't have any delusions. I really was shocked when people liked our record. It really took me off-guard. I felt very grateful. It was amazing, those were the greatest months of being in a band, when we first started getting attention. I couldn't believe, I thought 'holy shit, it's finally happened, finally we've become one of those bands'.

How did you assemble the cast?

It was a little bit like The Wizard of Oz. I would just tell people. Initially it was me, and Blaine [Thurier] and Dan [Bejar]. I knew Neko, and this was around the time that Neko had done her first record The Virginian and I was 'do you want to come sing in our band?' And then we thought, 'now we need to find a bass player and find a drummer.' So we looked around, and we slowly assembled our band.

As the main songwriter, is it intimidating working with such a talented band?

Yeah, but I think that's what made it better. When we were working on our first record Mass Romantic, Dan had just made the Destroyer album Thief and Neko had written her Furnace Room Lullaby album, I remember thinking these records were so amazing. When you're working with people who are so talented, it pushes you to try and be better.

You appear to be very democratic in assigning enough roles to the band-members and giving equal room to shine, is that a difficult skill to maintain in song-writing?

Yeah it can be tricky. That's how it has always been. It is a tricky game, it's the one we've been playing for a few years now.

It's not too hard to hold in the selfish impulses to put yourself out front?

Not really. I don't think I'm super selfish in that way. I'm much more selfish in that I look at the album as a whole. I want the records to be something I can present to people and say 'look at this thing that I made'. That's more important to me than saying 'listen to my voice'. Or 'look at me'. I just want to make this thing and have the record be the ultimate important thing.

Mass Romantic took three years to make, was it a hard process to do?

It took a while to make that record because nobody in the band took it seriously. Nobody thought we were going to make any money out of this. I remember John [Collins] who produced it - he was doing it for free. He was doing it because he was in the band. It was a little pet project. Whenever a paying gig came up, it would get put on the backburner. That's why it took so long to make.

One of the joys of the album is how unrestrained and naïve it sounds, which seems to contradict the long gestation.

Yeah it's true. You have to work hard to make it sound so spontaneous.

Do you write with more freedom now?

I don't know. It [Mass Romantic] might sound unrestrained in the way it's played, in that it's very fast. I try to approach song-writing in a way that's unrestrained. I like to think anything goes. We could play any kind of song that we feel like playing, and nobody can tell us exactly what our music should sound like. Sometimes that finds us being very rock and sometimes that finds us being very mellow. I think that has been the change over the years. After we made Mass Romantic and Electric Version we'd been pigeonholed. I didn't want to be the band that was known for making really upbeat music. The band could do whatever it wanted to do.

Do think that's perhaps why Challengers, critically people struggled to accept it because of this stereotype of an upbeat band?

Yeah it's true, and for that reason, Challengers was either people's favourite record or least favourite record. There weren't a lot of people in the middle with that record. I'm glad we got that reaction. I'd rather have people get angry at us because we're changing, than have people get angry at us for staying the same.

That album increases your palette in terms of instrumentation and moods – are you proud of that record in hindsight?

I definitely am, especially when we start touring and I listen to the records again and I re-learn them. I felt proud of that record. And some people think that record was too mellow. If I could go back and change anything on that record, I would have made it more mellow.

Are you aware of raised expectations with the band – I see that Together made it into the top 20 of the American charts?

That was very nice. I know we have raised expectations with the band, but I try to ignore them. I don't know who our audience is. If I tried to make a record that aiming at that audience, I'm not sure I could do that. All I can do is trust my instincts and do what I've always done and that is make the record that I want to make.

Together has an even bigger cast of well-known artists [e.g. Zach Condon, Will Sheff, St Vincent, the Dap-Kings] – was this a harder album to control?

I guess so, but it's always been hard to control. People always ask 'isn't it harder now that Neko is so popular to get her to play with you?' The truth is, it was harder ten years to get her to play with us, because she was making less money. She had to tour more ten years ago to make a living. Now she doesn't have tour so much because she makes so much money when she tours. In that sense we have a better chance of getting Neko to play with us.

I remember seeing you guys play last time and you were joking with the audience that you knew more about New Zealand music than the audience – how was it playing with Martin Phillips?

It was amazing. I'm a huge fan of the Chills. I remember having the [1987 debut] album Brave Words a long time ago, and I loved that, 'Dan Destiny and the Silver Dawn' and all those songs.

Do you have a wishlist of New Zealand artists you'd like to play with this time around?

I really like the Ruby Suns. A lot of the classic New Zealand stuff I love – I love the Bats, I love the Clean, and the Verlaines. Of course it's sad that he had a stroke, but Chris Knox and the Tall Dwarfs one of my all-time favourites. Chris Knox is really, in all honesty, one of my top ten songwriters of all-time.

You're obviously on the Chris Knox benefit album...

That was honour. That was an honour to be on it. I've always been a fan of his. I've always loved the way he makes music just for the love of making music. He's not at all concerned about becoming a pop-star. He just makes the music he wants to make. He makes as much of it as he wants to make. I've always admired him. I hope he's doing well. I don't know much about his state of health, but I hope he's doing well.

That feeling of making music for the love of making music seems to come across when you guys play...

I like music to be fun. I've always wanted to make smart music that was fun. Smart, interesting music that you can go see.

Brannavan Gnanalingam


The New Pornographers 2010 NZ Tour...

Saturday 20th November, Kings Arms Tavern - Auckland
Sunday 21st November, San Francisco Bath House - Wellington

Click HERE for tickets.