№ 4

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


Carl New­man, in the ear­ly days, liv­ing in Vancouver’s West End, meets a writer for lunch at the Sylvia Hotel.

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.”