"Pop songs, in a way, are like McDonald’s," muses Carl "A.C." Newman on a wintry day in his Brooklyn apartment. Despite that view he’s continually trying to create songs that are "a little off," as he puts it. To borrow some baseball slang, so far, Mr. Newman’s career has had plenty of moon-shots, and at the ripe rock age of 40, he’s not swinging at too many easy pop-song meatballs. "I’m known for those types of frenetic songs where they’re asymmetrically structured, but I’m very pleased with myself when I write a simple song," the songwriter adds.
A.C. Newman has carved out an enviable niche for himself in the indie and pop communities where he can play his ballads of recent years without too many reprimands. Here, the frontman of the maximalist indie-pop group New Pornographers talks about films (Le Samouraï and Tokyo Drifter), the writings of Donald Barthelme, the possibility of a New Pornographers album in the winter of 2010, and, most important, Get Guilty, the slow-burning sequel to his solo debut, 2004’s The Slow Wonder.
It’s been almost five years since The Slow Wonder. Why did you choose to release its follow-up now? Was it merely a matter of finding some time in between New Pornographers albums?
I don’t know. There wasn’t a real logic [to the decision]; I just decided I wanted to do it. I didn’t think, “Oh, the time is right for another solo album.” I never planned to make a second one; I never planned to make the first one. I just want to keep working. I made the first one because essentially 2004 was a year off for the New Pornographers. We only played two shows that year so I thought, “I got to do something with my time.” That’s pretty much the only reason why I did a solo album. This time, I don’t know, I felt the urge. It was almost like cleansing the palate before moving onto the next New Pornographers’ record.
It works out, because Neko Case is putting out her solo album [Middle Cyclone] this year as well. It’s nice to hear all these different projects in between the New Pornos stuff. And then there’s Dan Bejar chugging out all these albums regardless of time constraints.
Yeah, obviously it’s very different for my solo album versus Neko’s, because I think that’s her main career whereas my solo album is kind of a side project. I don’t think I’m going to spend years touring. If this record is anything like the last one, I’ll do a big tour for it and maybe a few festivals here and there, and then off to the New Pornographers’ record again.
You’ll probably release another New Pornographers album next year or so?
I had this crazy idea that I would try and get another New Pornographers record out in October 2009, but that’s madness. I’d have to finish it by June. So, no. I’d like to get it out by January or February of 2010.
You’ve sprinkled in literary and filmic influences with both the New Pornographers and on these two solo albums, but with Get Guilty they seem more pronounced. In particular, what drew you to the “flash-fiction” writings of Donald Barthelme, as expressed through the song, “The Palace At 4 A.M.”?
In the last year or year and a half of my life I’ve really started getting into reading in the same way that I really got into music. Like you read about some band that you like and you go, “Oh that band likes this band, and their producer produced this band.” Donald Barthelme was always one of those writers that I always knew, so I thought I should check him out. He’s awesome.
His work certainly mirrors our era of blogs and fast news flashes, since many of his pieces run no longer than 2,000 words. The difference is, it doesn’t lack in substance or narrative weight. What do you find attractive about his writing?
I like the absurdity of it. His stories sit on the fence between making sense and completely not making sense. A lot of the writers that I really like have that quality. You can’t quite figure out what they’re getting at but you like the language they use and you can figure out the vibe behind the story, but you can’t really say exactly what it’s about. I don’t really read from the point of view of someone with an English literature degree. I don’t really analyze things too much. A lot of the time I just love the language. I think that’s because I’m forced in my job to write lyrics, that’s the thing that really strikes me. Sometimes when I read a book and it’s a real page-turner and you devour it in a couple days but at the end of it you feel like you just ate at McDonald’s. That was good at the time but after that it’s sort of pointless.
Do you labor over that with your songs? How do you avoid that McDonald’s scenario?
That’s tricky. Pop songs, in a way, are like McDonald’s. That’s always been the biggest influence on me. The songs the played on the radio had a big impact. I can’t help that. It’s been burned into my consciousness, so I’m always trying to do something that’s a little off. I can’t help the kind of songs I write but lyrically I can do whatever I want.
You mentioned earlier that you are “forced” into writing lyrics out of being a pop musician. Does that process come fairly easy for you?
Sometimes it comes easy. Other times it doesn’t. For me, the song is more important than the lyrics so even if I have lyrics that I think are really great, I’ll change them because I don’t think they suit the song. Sometimes I’ll have lyrics that I’m not that crazy about but they fit so perfectly into the song so they have to stay. I don’t care that it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t care if it ruins the narrative.
Going back to outside influences, I was excited to hear the fantastic 1967 film Le Samouraï, was the muse piece for "Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer." What’s your relationship with that film and its director, Jean-Pierre Melville?
When I was writing the lyrics for that I just kind of gave up and make it all similes. That’s what all that song is — it’s just a list of things. There’s a vague idea behind it, but I thought I would play around and just remove all narrative. Why not? I’m allowed to take poetic license. I talk about it being about Le Samouraï kind of facetiously but I think I watched that movie not long before I watched the movie Tokyo Drifter  by Seijun Suzuki. He also also directed Branded to Kill  and Gate of Flesh .
One of the last scenes in Tokyo Drifter is one of these really weird and stylized gunfights. It’s supposed to be this club, but it’s very obvious it’s a huge sound stage because there are all these props in it. They have this weird, choreographed gun fight. It’s funny because it’s so ridiculous. I watched that and I watched Le Samouraï. I think I just wrote down the phrase "like a hitman, like a dancer" and thought, “I got to make that into a song.” I just liked the way the words looked. Sometimes you can just look at a phrase and know it has some sort of portent.
When I toured years ago with Guided by Voices, I remember Bob [Robert Pollard] making a long list of song titles and just write from that. He would have like 30 song titles and he would write 30 songs from those very quickly. I was completely fascinated by that. Sometimes I try that method without writing 30 songs in a row.
It’s interesting that you mention that moment in Tokyo Drifter where the audience realizes they’re watching a film with a set and props. In the movie it probably wasn’t exactly intentional, but with your pop songs I see them as being tiny meta experiments in some cases. How do you see it?
Yeah, like those songs that reveal themselves as being songs? I’ve always been a fan of that. I think Dan Bejar does a lot of that kind of stuff also. There are even massive hits that do that to a certain degree. “Your Song” by Elton John or “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon. It’s like what Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” No matter what you put in a song, it’s a song. That’s the most fundamental thing. It might be telling you a story but it’s telling you a song that’s filtered through a song. Of course there’s the argument, “Who the hell wants to hear that in a song?” People want to hear about their lives, spoken back to them.
Well, Get Guilty certainly argues for and against that view. A dreamlike song like “Thunderbolts,” where the protagonists are a bunch of punk kids that happened to be gods throwing bolts of thunder down on people won’t find itself onto the radio anytime soon but it’s still interesting. Where did the idea for that have its genesis?
I think the germ of it might have been that I live on the fifth floor in my New York apartment building. It basically looks right across to the roof of another building. I think one day I envisioned kids throwing stuff off of that and then it morphed in my head to teenagers throwing thunderbolts like kids would throw bowling balls off overpasses. I guess you could give it some ham-fisted metaphor about being young and never thinking you’re going to die.
It’s just a fun image before any listener meaning is placed over it.
Sometimes I just get fixated on some things. Maybe it’s some kind of psychological illness. I don’t know if it will make any sense. Like the song “Submarines of Stockholm” may appear as an almost nonsensical song, but it was basically written about when the New Pornographers were on tour last year and I was sleeping on the bus. While I slept that bus had pulled into Stockholm and it was parked on a wharf. I woke up in the morning and looked out the window and it looked like we were floating in the water. I couldn’t see any land around us and I didn’t know where the hell we were. It was just one of those weird little moments that stuck with me. For some reason your mind takes random snapshots of things that have no real significance. By no means is that song a universal feeling. It’s taken completely from inside my head. What can you do? Again, it’s poetic license.
It’s amazing how the mind can push you in so many directions. On that note, the album artwork could be seen as a number of things. It’s bright but also shadowy in tone. Who made the cover and with what medium?
It was my friend Caleb Beyers. That cover you can’t really tell what it is, but he’s an artist and he made this model of an airplane out of paper. Inside the airplane he put all these miniature cutouts of people. Then he took a photo of this giant paper airplane with the sun shining through it. That’s basically the cover. We screwed around with the colors. When he showed it to me I just thought it was really cool. People think it’s a painting, and I like that they think that. When you tell them it’s actually a photo they’re impressed.
“Young Atlantis” is an interesting song instrumentally. Very moody and filled with reverb. Do you remember anything interesting about the recording of that?
I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s almost this Vince Guaraldi-like piano part in it. It ended up being really loud in the mix. I did that at the last second. When we were in the mixing studio there was a piano there and while we were mixing it I just start plucking away. Now it seems like such an essential part of the song, but it wasn’t pretty much done in my head before I even added that. That’s one of those songs where I was trying to get a mood. Like “Thunderbolts,” the random image for “Young Atlantis” was the block that I live on in Brooklyn completely submerged in water. Because of that, I wanted it to sound sort of reverbed-out. Nothing makes things sound like they’re underwater better than reverb. Maybe some [throw in some] tremolo [laughs].
How did the recordings at Brooklyn’s Seaside Lounge with Phil Palazzo go? How long did it take?
I did it in chunks. I would book a week in the studio and then do something else for three weeks. We toured with Okkervil River during that time. We basically put it to bed in July or August of 2008. I did most of the mixing in July I think. I went into the studio with no real idea of what I was going to do. For the first week I started maybe five or six songs and then stop to listen to what I had. Then I’d go back and work on those and start two or three more.
With so many people using ProTools you can do it in that piece-meal fashion now. It’s rare that a band will lock themselves in a studio for a couple weeks or a month and bang out an album.
It’s true, but I’d like to change up the way I record somewhat. The next New Pornographers record is something I’m working on now, and I’m thinking for this record I really want to have really good power trio demos with Kurt [Dahle] and John [Collins] and then add the rest of the band and record the songs fairly quickly. That’s something we’ve never really done before. We’ve always done things in a very piecemeal way. It seems to be the nature of our band so I thought it would be interesting to approach the studio differently. You never know, though. You think you’re going to make a record one way and then you end up doing it a completely different way.
Did the guest musicians on Get Guilty — Jon Wurster of Superchunk, Mates of State, and Nicole Atkins — fall into place from your friendships with them?
Yeah, Jon Wurster played with us because Kurt [Dahle]’s girlfriend just had a baby. John was our fill-in drummer. That was amazing because we were thinking, “Who could do it?” We couldn’t think of anybody that could fill in for Kurt. He’s such a distinctive drummer and presence in the band. One of the only people that could have pulled it off was John Wurster. He lives in Brooklyn now, so it seemed like the natural guy to ask. Nicole [Atkins] I met when we were backup singers for Feist on David Letterman. There was like 15 or 20 people in this indie-rock notables choir. My wife and I hung out with Nicole all that day. I didn’t really know much about her. I didn’t hear her music until afterward. Jason [Hammel] from Mates of State I’ve known for 15 years. He and Kori [Gardner] live nearby too.
Going back to what you said about drumming being a big part of your songcraft with the New Pornographers, are there any pop songs that you really love the drums part?
One song would be “Dreaming” by Blondie. The drum part works even though [Clem Burke] is totally over-drumming. The whole song is almost like a drum solo. There have been many songs, especially from the first few Pornographers records I would say, “Do kind of a Clem Burke thing." Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick is another amazing drummer. It’s something that I’m fascinated by because I don’t know how they do it. Like on Get Guilty, I have some syncopated percussion stuff. It’s very simple where I can overdub but I’m still blown away by the drummer that can make all his or her limbs do different things at the same time.
On Get Guilty and Challengers your songs have shifted toward more elegant ballads. Do you think that just comes with maturity?
Just being a songwriter, you want to do different things. For me the songs that impress me the most are where I’ve done something that I haven’t done before. When I think of the favorite songs of my fans they’re never my favorites. I know why people really like them a lot. For me a pop song seems kind of easy. For instance, one of the the New Pornographers songs is “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” I can see why people like it, but for me it’s an easy pop song. It’s like having no objectivity. It’s like on the last New Pornographers’ record, all the quiet songs I feel the most proud about. I’m known for those types of frenetic songs where they’re asymmetrically structured and they have five different parts and you can’t tell what’s the chorus or bridge.
When I write a very simple song, I’m very pleased with my self. The song “Challengers,” I was really happy with its simple narrative. Neko sounds great singing it. Or even on this new record, the song “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve” is just a nice little ditty. I like the songs where I have an emotional connection to them. Those are usually quieter ones. Like I said earlier, on upbeat songs the music becomes more important than the lyrics. On quiet songs, the message has to take over somehow. I don’t know why that is. I do feel there’s that line in my writing recently. Depending on what kind of song it is, the lyrics move in a particular direction.