№ 3

New­man sticks to the format

The front man of the New Pornog­ra­phers makes his solo debut and, not sur­pris­ingly, it sounds like the indie super­group in miniature

—The Globe and Mail

Carl New­man still seems puz­zled by the never-ending duties of the next indie-rock sensation.

After sit­ting for five phone inter­views in his West End apart­ment, the Van­cou­ver singer-songwriter arrived for his first face-to-face meet­ing a lit­tle dazed and a lit­tle unkempt, dressed in shades of green: army pants, T-shirt flop­ping out. He’d for­got­ten a pho­tog­ra­pher would be waiting.

I feel like such an idiot when I’m get­ting my pic­ture taken,” New­man says, look­ing out toward Eng­lish Bay, cyclists and in-line skaters buzzing by. “Every­one must be think­ing to them­selves, ‘Who do you think you are? A model or something?’”

For those in the know, how­ever, New­man is, indeed, some­one to watch.

As the founder and front­man of the indie super­group the New Pornog­ra­phers, his catchy, clev­erly crafted songs brought some­thing upbeat and uncom­pli­cated to the alter­na­tive scene.

It was pure pop con­cen­trate. Neat hooks and ooh-ooh har­monies car­ried us from the Go-Go’s to Elvis Costello, while, visu­ally, Newman’s look mir­rored the music: clean-cut, col­lared shirt, all neat and tidy.

Now, in the mid­dle of pro­mot­ing his first solo album, The Slow Won­der (The Blue Cur­tain), New­man him­self is the cen­tre of atten­tion. Back home after the first leg of a 26-city North Amer­i­can tour, he’s being smoth­ered in praise: reviews in Rolling Stone and Bill­board, a pro­file in The New York Times Mag­a­zine.

Still, if this is Canada’s next, great pop export, he seems slightly out of sync.

It’s amaz­ing when I study my own psy­chol­ogy,” he observes over a club­house sand­wich and water at a hotel restau­rant near his home.

In the last few years I’ve just got­ten so much of what I want. But then when you get there you just start look­ing for the next thing.… I’ve been doing okay, I’ve made a decent liv­ing for the last cou­ple years. At the same time, you’ve got to think it’s kind of short-lived. Who knows.”

Suc­cess is some­thing New­man, 36, pon­ders openly. Some­times, he appears ambiva­lent, detached, lost in a kind of nasal-voiced spaci­ness. He’ll roman­ti­cize what a nor­mal life might look like, then he’ll seem elated by the recognition.

Clearly, he’s fond of the details.

He’s up to date on album sales. He runs his own label. And he reads every­thing writ­ten about him. Yet his deliv­ery is so unas­sum­ing, it’s hard to believe he’s been plan­ning ahead.

Just ask where he got the idea for a solo album. Ini­tially, he sug­gests it came out of the blue. Then, he explains. “I wanted to be busy,” he says, refer­ring to last autumn after the Pornog­ra­phers’ sum­mer tour ended.

I wanted to approach music with more of a work ethic than I ever had in the past.… Either I could get a job doing some­thing else or I could try and con­tinue mak­ing music and make that my job.”

Newman’s last day job — at a local guitar-maker — was jet­ti­soned nearly three years ago after the Pornog­ra­phers’ first disc, Mass Roman­tic, brought them heaps of attention.

There was a Juno, rave reviews and a now leg­endary appear­ance with Ray Davies of the Kinks at the South by South­west Fes­ti­val in Austin, Tex.

The group’s sec­ond disc, Elec­tric Ver­sion, which came out last year, has sold nearly 80,000 units in North America.

Newman’s debut, not sur­pris­ingly, feels like the Pornog­ra­phers in minia­ture: bright, fas­tid­i­ous pop, played straight by tight, four-to-eight-piece groups. That the disc’s 11 songs clock in at 33 min­utes isn’t a coin­ci­dence. In Newman’s world, grav­ity pulls in three-minute intervals.

Years ago I sud­denly real­ized I didn’t feel the need to push any bound­aries,” he says. “Some­times I think it’s like work­ing in haikus or some­thing. I know I’m work­ing within a for­mat. Maybe it’s just because I’m lim­ited by my own abil­i­ties, but it’s also a for­mat that I really like.”

That for­mat might stretch from the Bea­t­les to the Clash, from Love to Cheap Trick. While he admits he didn’t become a “music geek” until his mid-teens, he seems to carry reams of his­tory in his head.

On tour recently, a mem­ber of his band brought along the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

I real­ized how amaz­ing that record is. I’ve always known that, but I hadn’t lis­tened to it in a while. It just floors me. But it’s such a cliché to say you like the [Bea­t­les’] White Album or Pet Sounds.… It’s like being a Chris­t­ian and say­ing, ‘You know who’s great? Jesus.’ Noth­ing needs to be said.”

But if Newman’s music some­times sounds won­der­fully famil­iar, his off­beat lyrics often send you away to think.

Take Slow Won­der’s sin­gle, “Mir­a­cle Drug”, a story, seem­ingly, about a failed writer: “He was tied to the bed with a mir­a­cle drug in one hand, / In the other, a great lost novel, that I under­stand, was returned with a stamp / That said, ‘Thank you for your inter­est, young man.’ ”

Bub­blegum it isn’t. And within the obscure scenes, there is often a real sense of melan­choly, some­thing peo­ple often passed over with the Pornographers.

On one level, “Drink to Me, Babe, Then,” for instance, is a sim­ple breakup song; on another, it’s sophis­ti­cated, social commentary.

Come to me, please, all these years fall through, / Through the cracks and now this per­fect view, / On the upside, both sides win. / On the down­side, we buy, we pull through / Through the pour­ing choices rich kids choose / On a land­slide you ride in / Drink to me, babe, then.”

New­man admits there’s part of him here, “a sad, closed-off part,” and he thinks his next project might even exam­ine this “solemn, mel­lower side.”

I’ve done the boppy records that peo­ple love, but I might change it up.”

With Slow Won­der, chang­ing it up actu­ally meant chang­ing his name: the disc is listed under A. C. Newman.

I like the way it sounds,” he says of his ini­tials. “A. C. New­man seems more excit­ing some­how. It’s a pseu­do­nym, and it’s not.“
Recently, peo­ple have even started call­ing him by his new stage name.

That makes me feel uncom­fort­able,” he says. “It makes me feel like an idiot. A. C.? Who goes by their initials?”

Per­haps, he should get used to it. The first leg of his tour, which kicked off in Edmon­ton and trav­elled to Cal­gary and Saska­toon, included a per­for­mance on McEn­roe, the for­mer ten­nis star’s new talk show.

Some­times it’s sur­real when I think about the things that I’ve done,” he says, refer­ring to his pre­vi­ous TV per­for­mance, on David Letterman’s show last year with the New Pornog­ra­phers. “It’s some­thing I just shrug at these days.”