A Pretty Good Girlfriend & Even Better Sales: An Interview with Carl Newman (The New Pornographers)

Rock ‘n’ roll is to relationships what Homer Simpson said alcohol was to life: The cause of and the solution to all of its problems. Rock ‘n’ roll makes you want to have sex with girls, provides the soundtrack for the sex you eventually have, and eases the pain when the girl goes and has sex with someone else. So it made at least marginal sense that when I called up bad-assed rock ‘n’ roller Carl Newman of the New Pornographers, we started out talking about girls.

Newman was just finishing up some emails when I got ahold of him, and I asked him if he was writing answers to interview questions. He said that he actually preferred the talking interviews to the typing ones, because he doesn’t type so well. That’s when I told him that certain supercilious, self-mythologizing artists (Bill Callahan of Smog) avoid talking interviews at all costs for reasons unrevealed, although you suspect they prefer the control afforded them by interviews of the email/fax variety. That’s when Newman said, “Well, it seems to work out for him. He does pretty well with the ladies.”

“Oh?” I replied, intrigued. Bill Callahan a chick magnet?

“Isn’t his girlfriend Joanna Newsom?” he asked.

“He did praise her in one of his emailed responses,” I replied.

“Well, you’ve got to talk up your girlfriend,” reasoned Newman. “I have a pretty good girlfriend myself.”

“Is your girlfriend Neko?” I asked. Shit, man, I don’t know.

“No,” he said. “That would make a good story,” he continued, tentatively. “But … no. God, no.”

Girlfriend or not, Case — every indie rock writer’s favorite reason to use the word chanteuse — is also the reason why the collective eye of the indie rock press turned Newman and the New Pornographers’ way a few years ago. Outside of the group’s native Canada, hardly anyone had a clue who any of its members were when their debut album Mass Romantic was released in 2001.

“Neko was our foot in the door. Her solo stuff wasn’t really anything like what we were doing, but we thought Neko was a good singer, and that’s why we wanted her in the band.”

After a firestorm of praise rolled in for Mass Romantic (and particularly for the Neko-sung Newman track “Letter from an Occupant”), the New Pornographers were on the lips of rock writers and power-pop fans everywhere. And if the word supergroup didn’t precede it, it often soon followed.

“I’m really tired of that supergroup label, and I wish people would stop using it,” Newman said. “None of us were known at all outside of Canada — I just don’t think it’s accurate. And then I have to deal with writers asking how I balance the New Pornographers with Zumpano, and I have to tell them that Zumpano has been broken up for six years. People often don’t do very good research when they do these things.”

Newman disbanded Zumpano before starting the New Pornographers. But quasi-New Pornographer member Dan Bejar, who writes a handful of songs for every album, continues to spend the majority of his time recording and performing with his other band, Destroyer. Like most people, I discovered both Zumpano and Destroyer only after listening to the New Pornographers, and was stricken by how consistently good they both are. I told Newman that it was depressing to think that if the New Pornographers had never formed, I never would have discovered either band.

“It’s true. And you know, I think there are a lot of bands out there like that,” he said. “Really good bands that you just never hear. I’m guilty too. I pretty much listen to whatever the scenesters listen to. Lately I’ve been into the new Sufjan Stevens album, the Fiery Furnaces, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — at any given moment you can look at whatever the scenesters are into, and you’ll know what I’m into.”

You can also count Newman among those who appreciates the unapologetically obscure and strongly affected folk-pop of Destroyer. While Bejar’s nasal tenor, post-graduate-poetry-student lyrics and theatrical vocal delivery merges gracefully with the New Pornographers’ synth-and-guitar driven power-pop, the work of Destroyer has had a tough time finding a listening audience beyond the boys-with-plastic-rimmed-glasses crowd.

“I think what Dan does with Destroyer is amazing,” Newman said. “People say his voice is alienating. Isn’t Bob Dylan’s voice alienating? Isn’t Neil Young’s voice alienating? Dan has actually been a big influence on me personally in terms of lyric-writing.”

But unlike Bejar, who seems to be hellbent on avoiding mainstream success (his album Thief was an album-length harangue against the crass politics of the music industry), Newman isn’t unwilling to cash in on his songs. Asked if he would sell a New Pornographers song to a corporation who wanted to use it in a TV commercial, Newman said he’d be game.

“I would do it,” he said. “I feel like once I’ve made a song and it’s out there, there isn’t really anything anyone can do to take it away from me. I guess if NAMBLA adopted it as their official theme song, that might be a little offensive. But in most cases, yeah, I would do it.”

So don’t be surprised if soon you hear “Use It”, the infectious first single from the recently released Twin Cinema, in a Volkswagen commercial — although you’d be well-advised to first check out the video for it on the band’s website. Directed by New Pornographer member and filmmaker Blaine Thurier, and featuring David Cross, it’ll be the funniest music video you see all year — and you won’t ever hear the song the same again afterwards. I’m tempted to say sneeringly that you won’t see the video on MTV or other alleged purveyors of music television, but “Use It” actually might be the song that gets the New Pornographers the mainstream success everyone who loves them insists they deserve. At least I think so, and I told Newman that.

“Stranger things have happened,” he said. “I mean, look at the Shins. They sort of had a hit. Modest Mouse — I never in a million years would have thought that Modest Mouse would have a hit, but they did. I don’t think it’s out of the question.”

Now you can argue with us, but you can’t argue with numbers. Twin Cinema is selling better — far better — than the previous two New Pornographers records.

“We moved 22,000 copies of Twin Cinema in the first week,” Newman said. “We only sold 5,000 copies of Electric Version in the first week. When we heard those numbers from Matador, we were all like [shifts into a raised-eyebrow, “holy shit” whisper] ‘Whoa, that’s really, really good.'”

With the approval of both the press and the buying public on their side, Newman is starting to suspect that the New Pornographers might even deserve the success.

“As a musician, it’s really hard to have perspective. There are a lot of bad bands and artists out there who really think that they’re really good. But there was a time when I was listening to “To Wild Homes” (a Bejar-penned tune from Mass Romantic), and I thought to myself, ‘Man, this is good. Really good.’ And I felt like that was legitimate, because it wasn’t my song.”

“But on that first album, we didn’t really have any expectations,” he continued. “We had no delusions of greatness. So it was nice when it did so unexpectedly well. And that’s what’s great about it, because it’s depressing as a musician to be working really hard on an album, and have all these expectations, and then nobody cares. It’s incredibly depressing. So it was nice to come at it the other way around, where we had no expectations whatsoever.”