From realising The Monkees weren't a joke to giving up on R.E.M. after they signed to a major, Carl Newman has always been unashamedly obsessive about the bands he loves. He talks Alex Wisgard through the songs that defined him.
There’s a sense of giddy excitement to the way Carl Newman talks about music. Maybe it’s because halfway through our conversation he realises he’ll be late for band practice if he goes on too long about The Monkees. Then again, show me the person who doesn’t want to rhapsodise about “Daydream Believer” for ten minutes and I’ll show you someone who lacks a soul.
Regardless, The New Pornographers are at this moment in time rehearsing in the legendary barn of late Band drummer Levon Helm, former home of his infamous Midnight Rambles. Helm passed away in 2012, but his mischievous spirit seems to literally be haunting the band in rehearsal.The previous day, a can of La Croix fell from an amp and landed, practically upright, at a 45-degree angle. Members of the band documented the happening on Twitter, with Newman noting that during a run-through of “My Rights Versus Yours”, the can even spun around.
When I ask Newman about it, he’s still in a state of shock, though with rehearsals a mere hour away, he’s yet to see whether Helm has been up to any more of his tricks overnight. “It’s so crazy,” he tells me. “We were just showing it to Amy Helm and she was like “I know I’m not superstitious, but that’s my Dad’. Levon’s widow Sandy said the same thing, ‘Were they playing the drums? Oh yeah, that was definitely Lee’. I gotta say, I’m so weirded out by it. An empty can? And the floor is vibrating, right next to an amp, three feet from a drumkit? And it doesn’t fall over, it just rotates?”
Spooky circumstances notwithstanding, these rehearsals are serving to prepare the band for touring their eighth album. In The Morse Code Of Break Lights is another stunning collection of elliptically majestic pop, which Neko Case once described in song as “long-legged mazes and English geometry”.
The record continues the existential Trump-era dread of its predecessor but dials back its electronics in favour of disorienting strings arrangements which, Newman insists, were composed to confuse. If Whiteout Conditions sounded like the never-ending digital rush of the current administration’s early years, In The Morse Code Of Break Lights is the sound of people logging off, looking around and noticing the horrors that surround them. But, y’know, with really catchy choruses.
But we’re not here to talk about the current geopolitical shitshow. We’re here to talk about Carl Newman’s life through pop music. He arranged his nine songs in relatively autobiographical order, and if you listen to his picks you can understand how his unique style of writing pop songs came into being. At their best, The New Pornographers deploy Bacharach’s structural twists and Jimmy Webb’s sunshine melodies, played with the community spirit of early Belle and Sebastian and doused liberally with Pixies fizz. And the frontman is all too happy to think about the trail of records which got him where he is today.
“There might be songs I like more in the world,” Newman explains. “But I was trying to think of songs that somehow affected where I went with music, or just in life.” His more obscure selections also serve as something of a final turn of the key to unlocking the mysteries of his song-writing brain, which Newman tells me is a pretty common phenomenon.
“Matt LeMay, a friend of mine who used to write for Pitchfork, discovered the band Game Theory a few years ago and he was telling me "Oh man, you took so much from Game Theory!" and I said "Oh yeah, I definitely did!" It’s kind of fun to hear some music and go ‘Ohhhh, this is what inspired that band!' It doesn’t make us not as good, it just makes you realise that what you’re doing is a continuation.”
“When I was a kid, The Monkees was showing in TV re-runs, and of course like most kids watching The Monkees, I didn’t know it wasn’t a new show; I just thought it was a cool show that was on all the time.
“There was something about "Daydream Believer" that filled me with so much joy. It was one of the first songs I’d encountered that had a twinge of sadness there. I can’t think of another song I heard as a kid that was like ‘Hey, sometimes things are bad, but it’s gonna be OK kid.’ I love the line “How much, baby, do we really need?” I still hear that line and it makes me want to cry. And it has that classic soft / loud dynamic - the nice verse that opens up like the clouds parting and the sun comes shining through - “Cheer up sleeeeepy Jeeeeean.”
“It’s one of those songs that’s always there when I’m trying to write pop music, that’s one of the songs I look at. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song that’s exactly like “Daydream Believer”, but it’s always stuck with me. I loved that song so much as a little kid and I never stopped loving it.
“I never had a Monkees record. I knew their songs from the TV show because it was on so much, that’s where you knew the songs from. I knew a guy in high school and one day he showed up and he had a Monkees t-shirt on when everybody was into new wave. I remember thinking “Dave Kutnikof’s wearing a Monkees t-shirt!?” I was 15 or 16 and I wanted to be cool, listening to Echo And The Bunnymen and The Smiths. It’s like it put the seed in my head that ‘Maybe The Monkees are actually good, they’re not a joke!’
“I went and started looking for their records in used record stores and thrift stores and I did come to genuinely like them. I remember buying More Of The Monkees in high school. One morning before school I was listening to the song "Sometime in the Morning" and it made me feel like “Daydream Believer” made me feel when I was a kid. I thought “What a beautiful song this is” and I realised I legitimately loved this band. And I still do! I have both Monkees box sets – they have a tonne of songs which I consider just as good as anything that was coming out at the time.
“They asked me to submit for one of the most recent Monkees albums, and told me it was going to get used, but it didn’t, so I don’t know if it even got recorded. I think I took the wrong approach to it – I thought I would try and write something that was more of an updated take on The Monkees, but when I heard the record, I realised everyone just tried to go for a total throwback. When I heard that, I was just like ‘Fuck! I would have totally gone fully ‘60s if I’d known!’
“It really bummed me out. To have that dangled in front of me and have it pulled away actually really upset me for quite a while, because it was like [laughs] ‘I got rejected by The Monkees!’”
“I was maybe in my early 20’s when I heard this. I’d always thought of Tusk as the flop album, everybody knew Rumours, but I knew the next album came out and it wasn’t as popular. When I was a kid I didn’t know any of the songs so I assumed it wasn’t very good, and then I hear it and realise ‘This fucking rules.’
“The Lindsey Buckingham songs from Tusk were definitely a big touchstone influence on The New Pornographers and we used to cover “Walk A Thin Line” at the first five or ten shows we ever did. When we didn’t have enough songs to fill up a show and that was one of the covers we did. It definitely had a big influence.
“I met a guy recently who told me he loved my first solo album. He said ‘It’s like if Tusk got rid of every song but the Lindsey Buckingham ones” and I thought ‘that was the kindest thing you could possibly say. I don’t believe it, I don’t think it’s true, but thank you, you knew exactly what to say to me to make me happy.’
“I don’t think they got enough credit for being an interesting band. What year was it, 1979? It was as interesting as anything else that was happening! It was as interesting as what Talking Heads were doing, it was as interesting as what The Clash were doing, at least to me. The Lindsey Buckingham stuff was strange and minimal and off-kilter, but highly melodic. I can’t say enough nice things about it.”
"When I first heard Belle and Sebastian I absolutely loved them and it was absolutely what I wanted to hear. It was right around the time that my band Zumpano was ending. We were on the verge of breaking up, I heard that song and I thought, ‘These people in Scotland have done it. They’re doing what I was shooting for the last few years’ and they did it so effortlessly.
“A song like that made me re-approach how I wrote songs. I thought ‘This song is so simple structurally, it doesn’t have a lot of chords but it’s built around this amazing melody.’ I was always trying to put in a lot of chord changes to make songs interesting, but “The State I Am In” made me pull back and simplify.
“When we started playing together as The New Pornographers, Belle and Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel were the two bands I was looking to. We were all really into it and listening to it and I thought ‘This is the stuff to chase. Let’s not try and sound like them, but let’s try to be as good as that.’
“Years later, in 2006, we found ourselves touring with Belle and Sebastian for a few weeks. It felt so validating that it was this band that we listened to when we first started practicing and we were there with them as peers. They’re our friends now and that means a lot to me.”
“I didn’t know them when I got into Doolittle, but that album really changed me. Doolittle was the first record I got into and “Debaser” was the first song I heard by them and it blew my hair back.
“Then I went back and listened to Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa and around the same time, maybe because they were also on 4AD, I discovered Throwing Muses and there was - not exaggerating - a six-month period where I listened to nothing but Pixies and Throwing Muses. In 1989 I abandoned all other music and that was all I wanted to listen to - ‘If it isn’t on 4AD, I don’t have any time for it.’
“The Pixies was the first music I felt like I could listen to and pull it apart and understand it. Listening to R.E.M.’s Murmur, it was like ‘What is this hazy magic? I don’t get it’, but you could listen to Pixies and hear the parts, you could hear what each instrument was doing and it made me think ‘OK, I think I could do this. Maybe I can’t be as good, but I understand what’s going on here so I could have a band, and the bass could do that. It could just be bass in the verse, it could get super loud in the chorus and the guitar part could just be me going RNNNG RURRRR RNNNNG'.
“You could listen to it and you go ‘Oh, they’re not that good’, but it’s all these cool little parts that anybody could learn if they put their head to it. You could learn to be the lead guitar player in the Pixies from zero to good enough in the space of about two weeks. They were the band that made me want to be in a band, and it was about a year after that when I started playing in bands, so I owe a lot to the Pixies. There’s something in their attack that I think I’ll always admire.
“I loved all the stuff in Our Band Could Be Your Life - Hüsker Dü, The Minutemen, Sonic Youth and The Leaving Trains are another really underrated band on SST. I loved all that stuff and it’s not like I didn’t know there was punk, but the Pixies showed up and fucking nailed it. I didn’t realise that you could fuse punk with that level of songcraft, and they were the first punk band that played bubblegum music. It was so sing-songy and completely infections and yet it involved a lot of screaming and a guy yelling “Motherfucker.”
“I didn’t know music could go in that direction and it still impresses me. They were such a lightning strike of a band – I’d put them in the top 10 greatest bands of all time just for what they did. For influence, they’re up there with Bob Marley And The Wailers and The Beatles.”
“I was obsessed with R.E.M. in high school. I had pictures of them all over my locker and I was preaching, always trying to get other kids to listen to them. They were still sort of underground, so the jock guys would always go ‘We don’t wanna listen to your weirdo music’ and I would try to explain to them ‘No, it’s not weird! It’s not that much different from Dire Straits if you think about it!’
“Listening to Murmur made me a music obsessive. It turned me into someone who was obsessively seeking out music and I think that made me pick up a guitar. I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 18, but Murmur and Reckoning were what made me think about music as a life pursuit. Everybody loves music, but I seriously loved music – it’s different from being ten years old and loving The Cars or Blondie. It felt like ‘This is me, this is my persona, who I am as a person is wrapped around my love of music’ and I think it started there. And if you’re talking about Murmur, I thought I’d just cut to the chase and go straight to song one.
“Right around the time they got huge was when I was like, ‘No, I’m out!’ I was there until Green I think, and even that record I wasn’t too sure about a lot of. And then the record that had “Losing My Religion”, it just kind of lost me. Now I think I can appreciate it more, but sometimes you just want a band to be a certain thing and they changed.
“And I understand, we’ve done the same thing. I know there are people that want us to always sound like Mass Romantic and Twin Cinema and sometimes we do, but for the most part I feel we did that already. So now I’m trying to figure out other things to do and I know R.E.M. were the same thing. There was no reason for them to make Murmur and Reckoning again, they already did it.
“I’ve been a terribly fairweather fan. I’m the guy who was obsessed with Sonic Youth but then abandoned them in 1992. I’m so fairweather that I was mad that Loveless by My Bloody Valentine didn’t sound like Isn’t Anything. I was the person going ‘Fuck this, this is just ambient music now! What happened to "Feed Me With Your Kiss" and "You Made Me Realise"? I’m out!’”
“This was during my high school music obsessive time. Me and my friend Warren would always go to Vancouver on the weekend and go to all the record stores. Warren bought the “Never Understand” twelve-inch, we took it home and we probably listened to it about ten times in a row. All that week at school it was all I could think of. I was sitting there at school, just singing it to myself, writing ‘Never Understand Jesus And Mary Chain’ on my binder.
“I kept thinking that weekend ‘The first chance I get, I’m getting on that fucking bus to Vancouver and I’m buying the “Never Understand” twelve-inch.’ I don’t think there’s ever been a record that I felt I needed as much as that. Maybe it just hit my teen ears with everything I wanted to hear, it was completely noisy and strange and catchy. There wasn’t too much to it lyrically except “You’ll never understand me, you’ll never understand me”, which is enough for a kid just to hear some cool Scottish guy say.
“I never tried to copy their style, but I did try and dress like… who’s the guy that became Primal Scream? Bobby Gillespie? When he was in The Jesus And Mary Chain, he would wear tight white pants, a black turtleneck and sunglasses and I think I tried doing that. Oh, and he also had a cool white jacket! The drummer looked cool, so I thought maybe I should do that.
“And they’re another band that I abandoned quickly! I loved Psychocandy, it was my favourite album of that year and then the new singles started coming out, and the next record, and I went, ‘Nope, I’m jumping ship, I don’t like them anymore, this is just watered down, they did it all on Psychocandy and this band is unnecessary now.’ It’s similar to the way that after The Smiths, I didn’t want to hear Morrissey solo - I mean, that’s still true, especially now.
“When I try to think about how people listen to our music, I try to remember how I listened to music. And you have to remember that sometimes, if I feel like our album isn’t as well-liked as previous records, I’ll think that people are abandoning us. I’m thinking, ‘Oh we’re going to lose all our fans’ and then I realise that’s not how it works.
“A lot of my favourite bands have put out albums that I didn’t think was their best work, but it doesn’t matter to me. If the next Belle and Sebastian album comes out and I listen to it and go ‘Oh, I don’t know about this one”, it doesn’t mean I don’t still absolutely love and worship those guys. It just means there are some songs I like more than others, which is how it is with any band. So, I try to remember that.”
“My first band Superconductor was signed to Boner Records in San Francisco, which was home to The Melvins and Steel Pole Bath Tub and through them I found myself in the San Francisco scene of the early ‘90s. Thinking Fellers were part of that scene and I worshipped them. They were this incredible, strange and beautiful band that really inspired me at the moment when I’d just started to make music
“It was very melodic, but it was very strange and abrasive. It was like Pixies fused with The Residents. It’s hard to describe, it was arguably difficult music, but it didn’t strike me as being difficult. It struck me as being very strange and brilliant.
“I still think they’re a band that should get their due. Through the years I’ve seen Animal Collective and The National namecheck them. They’re beginning to get their due, but at the time they could barely get arrested, even though I thought they were just... the top.”
“When I first started playing in bands it was the time of grunge. Our band was very screechy and grungy - maybe there was a bit of the Pixies in there, but minus the melody - and I got The Best of Dionne Warwick and I became obsessed with it.
“There were a few songs that I loved, like ‘Always Something There To Remind Me’ and I bought the CD thinking ‘Oh yeah, she had some great songs’. And then I put it on and I was shocked at how many of the songs I loved. After a while, I listened to it and thought ‘This music is crazy, so sophisticated and weird.’
“Then I decided I wanted to start this other band, Zumpano, and I wanted to write songs in that band like “Are You There (With Another Girl)”, even though I absolutely couldn’t, even though I was reaching for something that was so beyond my abilities. But I wanted to start moving in that direction and it was trying to do something like that which eventually moved me into something like The New Pornographers, where I find myself writing songs that are vaguely indebted to that kind of songcraft.
“It’s so infectious and so beautifully written and executed. That’s what made me think ‘I want to be a real songwriter’. Pixies or R.E.M. made me think I wanted to play music, but those songs made me want to learn the craft of song-writing. That, combined with Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson, The Zombies and The Kinks all together, made me want to learn how to write songs like these people.”
“It’s not even my favourite Jimmy Webb song and it’s not even my favourite 5th Dimension song, but there’s something about that vibe that made me think I wanted to do this. I still feel like when I’m working on The New Pornographers - especially when we have a bunch of voices singing together - I find myself thinking ‘I want that soaring “ba ba ba”.’ That kind of stuff just fills me with joy.
“There’s something about a bunch of people singing together in joy that makes me feel the way I guess some people feel about church music. It’s just joyous; it just makes me happy, and I think that’s something I try to bring into The New Pornographers, even if it’s lyrically dark sometimes, I want to communicate that feeling of the joy of people playing music together.
“Something about “Pattern People” and 5th Dimension makes me feel that way. I like the way the song is played. I don’t think it’s a genius piece of song-writing - I think it’s a good song - but there’s something about the way it’s arranged and played and sung that I think ‘Yes, I love the feel of this music’”.