A.C. Newman Knows There’s Money in New Wave

Published October 19, 2012

ABOVE: CARL NEWMAN. PHOTO COURTESY OF NOAH KALINA.

Fans of the New Pornographers and A.C. Newman’s solo work won’t be disappointed with Shut Down the Streets, the Canadian musician’s third solo album. Since releasing Get Guilty in 2009, Newman has welcomed his first child and dealt with the death of a parent—and this bittersweet mélange of felicity and grief seeps through his new album. It is, as Newman confirms, his most personal record, but the 10 tracks are still as catchy as ever. Even songs that are clearly mournful, such as the first track, “They Should Have Shut Down the Streets,” and first single, “I’m Not Talking,” are peppered with tambourine, harmonies—the sort of hooks that make you unconsciously sway on the subway with your headphones on.

Here, Interview and Newman discuss Twitter, Newman’s not-so-country life, the merits of the flute, and what would happen if every artist decided to circumvent the music label structure. 

EMMA BROWN: I’ve read that lyrically, Shut Down the Streets your most personal album. Is this true?

CARL NEWMAN: Yeah, definitely. It wasn’t that I necessarily set out to do that, but when it came down to it, it just seemed like the only natural thing to do, because there had been heavy things happening in life, both sad and happy. It just came out. Whereas at other times I just was concerned with making what I thought were cool pop songs, I thought this should be a lot more personal, it should have a lot more of a narrative to it.

BROWN: Are more nervous about performing the album live?

NEWMAN: I thought about that when I was making it, but now that I’ve played the songs a few times it actually makes it a lot easier, strangely enough. I think it’s because when the songs are a lot closer to you, they’re just easier to remember. I don’t have to worry so much about forgetting lyrics because it’s like, “Okay, I know what this song is about.”

BROWN: Do you think that in five years the songs might be more difficult for you to play as you might not be in the same place emotionally anymore?

NEWMAN: I had to get out of that place before I could actually write them, actually. I’m sure it’ll be weirder five years from now, but any songs that were sad, I couldn’t write them when I was in the middle of it. Some time had to pass.

BROWN: I know you live in upstate New York. Do you still have the beehives and are you still making maple syrup?

NEWMAN: No, we kind of gave up on both of those things. Well, maple syrup just takes too much time. We have a seven-month-old son now, and the idea of sitting out for six hours with a pot of maple sap over a fire just seems ridiculous to me. Now I understand why maple syrup is so expensive. It was nice to have as much maple syrup as we wanted, and we’ve still got some left. The other side of it, the bees—the bees just didn’t work out at all, and for similar reasons. We just didn’t have the time to do it. We’re pretty bad at being country folk, I guess. We live out here, but no bees and no maple syrup.

BROWN: No goats?

NEWMAN: No. Although I think when our son gets to be a few years old, I think he’ll like the idea of tapping the trees and collecting [sap] and boiling it and making maple syrup. And as soon as he realizes how mind-numbing it is, we’ll stop doing it.

BROWN: I was Twitter-stalking you, and a while ago you tweeted, “The new model of the music industry seems suspiciously similar to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.” Can you elaborate?

NEWMAN: Oh, God, I didn’t really think too much about that when I was writing it. I was just thinking of, as we move away from major labels and people are trying to do it for themselves, if we move too far into a music industry where it’s just every man for himself… We just lose this whole infrastructure if we start trying to cut everybody out. I didn’t put it that eloquently, but what can you do on Twitter? You’ve only got 140 characters. Sometimes I see people try to elaborate on Twitter, and they send eight consecutive tweets and they never make any sense.

BROWN: Do you think that the label structure is important?

NEWMAN: It’s different for different people. There are some things people take for granted, like people who don’t want any government but they still want roads. I think there is a similar thing in the music industry, where things like labels and record stores, they serve a purpose. You can bypass them, but if you bypass them to the extent that they are all gone, I don’t think that’s good. But that’s not to say—there’s nothing wrong with being the ultra-DIY person. I think I was thinking about it because that Amanda Palmer thing was in the news, you know?

BROWN: No, I’m afraid I don’t.

NEWMAN: Where she was asking people to play… I can’t believe you didn’t hear about this!

BROWN: I feel very behind.

NEWMAN: She was touring around and she was asking her string section to play for free in every town. She had said, “I can’t pay you anything except beers and hugs!” and people were up in arms, because she had just gotten $1.2 million from Kickstarter. So people were angry: “You got $1.2 million from Kickstarter and you’re doing all these sold-out shows and you can’t afford to pay any of those people?” She was one of those people that left her label behind, she was trying to do it all on her own, and she was trying to crowdsource. For a while there, a lot of people were writing about it, and there was a question of, “What’s the best way to be a musician in this day and age? Is she the future? Is she what everybody should be doing? Or is she abusing the system?” I guess that was the question. I don’t have any opinion on it, any fierce opinion.

BROWN: Do you think that, because of things like Twitter, there is too much pressure on young musicians now? Musicians are expected to tweet, but with some people you just want to confiscate their keyboard: “It’s not a good idea for you to put your thoughts out into the world like that.”

NEWMAN: Well, it’s kind of awesome, in that Twitter—it does expose people for what they are. In the past, if a rock star was a total asshole, they just had handlers that kept them protected from the public. But now, these people who have a million followers, they can say anything and then a million people are going, “God, did he just say that? That’s so offensive.” So it can work against them. Of course, it can also work for them. If a musician is a very funny or thoughtful person, Twitter is a really great thing. These days I try and be careful with what I say on Twitter. It’s not a good idea to drink a bottle of wine and go on Twitter, I’ll tell you that.

BROWN: Because journalists will ask you to elaborate?

NEWMAN: Yeah. Although that Ayn Rand thing wasn’t me drunk. That doesn’t sound like a drunken thing to write.

BROWN: Do remember the first song you ever learned how to play?

NEWMAN: I believe it was “Gloria,” the Van Morrison song. My friend Marcel taught me my first three chords—I think it was A, D, and E—and he said, “Okay, now you can play ‘Gloria.'” I think the second song I learned was “Superman.” R.E.M. covered it on Lifes Rich Pageant, because that song only had—I think it’s E, A, and D as well. [Then] I bought a Beatles easy-guitar songbook. When you go through every Beatles song, you basically learn every chord you need to know. And that’s when I stopped learning to play. That’s when my development got arrested.

BROWN: You never had formal lessons?

NEWMAN: No, no. I didn’t pick up a guitar ’til I was 18.

BROWN: Oh, wow. Did you play something else before that?

NEWMAN: No, no. Nobody in my family played an instrument. I was the first one to pick one up. I’ve never been a virtuoso.

BROWN: Do you think that there’s any one instrument that is supremely undervalued?

NEWMAN: [laughs] I think the flute is supremely undervalued. I know a lot of people put down the flute; a lot of people hate the flute. But I’m really into it, and I’m touring with a flutist, Chris Miller. He plays the clarinet and saxophone as well. I just wanted it on my record.  Wherever there was an instrumental melodic section and I was like, “What should I play this on?” I came back to flute. And when Chris came in and was doing session work for me, there would be point where I would get him to play the same line on flute, clarinet, baritone sax, soprano sax, tenor sax—I was just trying to find that right combination of sounds. And when I would go through all of those, I would invariable always come back to the flute—the flute or the clarinet. I don’t know why that is, it’s just a sound I like.

BROWN: I like your song, “There’s Money in New Wave.” Can you tell me a little bit about it.

NEWMAN: That song, I realized since I wrote it, is sort of a cliché for a new parent to write. It’s about me in the future trying to talk to my son when he’s a teenager and feeling like I don’t really have that much to tell him. I wanted [it] to be a touching song, but I guess there’s obviously an element of humor where I picture myself as the clumsy dad who just doesn’t know how to communicate with his son. I guess that’s the gist of it, just this idea that, “I might not always know how to tell you, but I hope you remember that I love you, kid.” That kind of sentiment.

BROWN: Do you find yourself sort of alarmed at having clichéd parent feelings, or were you expecting it?

NEWMAN: I wasn’t expecting it, and I’m not necessarily alarmed. But it is strange to have them. I was just talking about them with somebody yesterday, how like any sad song about father and son, like “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin—all of a sudden that seems like the saddest song in the world to me. I wanted to weep at the idea of this father and son who grow estranged from each other and never have time for each other. And that definitely comes from having a kid. You just can’t help but feel a connection.

BROWN: “On the Table,” a song from your first album The Slow Wonder (2004), was on one of the soundtracks of The OC. Did that sort of mainstream exposure change anything for you?

NEWMAN: No. I was hoping it would, because The OC thing changed everything for Death Cab for Cutie. I’ve been waiting for someone to give us that big break that changes everything. Like The Shins and Garden State, it was like all of sudden somebody turned on a switch: The Shins, you are huge now. I feel like we’ve had a slow, steady crawl. People are always hearing about us in the weirdest ways. I’ve done a lot of licensing through the years, in addition to The OC, and I feel like people are always finding out [about us] in really strange places: “I heard your song in Ugly Betty or How I Met Your Mother.”

AC NEWMAN IS CURRENTLY ON HIS NORTH AMERICAN TOUR AND IS PLAYING AT THE BOWERY BALLROOM TONIGHT, OCTOBER 22. SHUT DOWN THE STREETS IS OUT NOW; FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT NEWMAN’S WEBSITE.