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PORNO AND CRACK: HOW TO KEEP YOUR FAMILY TOGETHER




WHAT WOULD CARL DO? It’s worth asking.


Carl Newman, as he’s known to his friends, and A.C. Newman, as he’s known to people who have been buying the music of his band, The New Pornographers, for a couple of decades, does not appear in the personal growth/self-help/life coach section of any store.


This is a pity, especially for those who recently came through Easter, Passover, Eid Mubarak or Mother’s Day gatherings that were fraught or delicate or just plain tricky to manoeuvre through, and already are dreading Christmas or Thanksgiving or State Of Origin parties.


It may be that beyond the pleasures of the new album, Continue As A Guest, The New Pornographers have a lot to teach us about interpersonal relationships: how to manage them, how to survive them, how to write supremely enjoyable pop songs from the fruits of them. And wouldn’t we all benefit from that?


They are after all a band that is ostensibly Canadian, with American contributors, though some of the Canadians now live in the USA, and nobody lives next door to anybody else. A band centred around singer/songwriter Newman, that for most of its 25 years has contained within it two singer/songwriters with successful careers of their own in Neko Case and Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer, who recently exited, but still has a cowriting credit on the new record. A band that has old friends (bass player, John Collins) and a relative (Newman’s niece, keyboardist Kathryn Calder) alongside a relative newcomer who has only 10 years duty (drummer Joe Seiders).


“I think when I was putting this band together I had songs and I wanted to figure out a way to make them cool and new, or different and original, so I thought I would just collect people together that I thought were good at what they do,” Newman says. “In a way it felt kind of like a computer program: I will assemble all these people who I think are good at what they do and then up with the songs through this program and hopefully it will come out. And that would be a way of arranging it. A lot of the arranging would then be done for me, filtered through these different people.”



That’s crazy, it will never work!


“It seems kind of ridiculous to think of it now, but I remember thinking that we would just be kind of faceless. I just wanted to be a method of putting out songs,” says Newman. “But then I accidentally asked people with too much magnetism. I asked people like Neko [Case] and Dan Bejar [aka …] And so this band that I thought of as kind of faceless all of a sudden it turns out we were kind of likeable. It turns out we were a bunch of people with personalities and that kind of came through.”


Don’t you hate that: best laid plans of anonymity ruined by talent and appeal?


“Exactly. It’s very annoying.”


Maybe just as annoyingly, it’s kept working. Which is where we came in. Faced by our own are disparate family gatherings we could ask W.W.C.D.?


“Everybody has their own thing,” he says sagely. “When you take a group of people and this is their only thing, I think you can get weird. Like if you are five people in a band and you will write songs, you might all be fighting to get your songs in the band. But in this case, Neko had her thing and Neko was never trying to write songs for the band because she was writing songs for herself; Dan Bejar, I was basically bugging him to write songs. I was the one taking songs from him, so it wasn’t like he was fighting to get songs in the band. I would see him play live and say I want that song. That song you did, Jackie, I want that one.”


Is the answer separation not combination then? Help us out Guru, how can we make our families work as well as The New Pornographers?


“What works in your favour you know is there are probably a lot of people who have done enough cooking and they are happy to have somebody else do it. But if this was the only meal of the year, if there was only one meal in your life and everybody was coming together that day for the one meal, yeah, it might get ugly. You might have too many cooks. But luckily I think everyone’s going to be happy that you’re doing it.


“Neko has always said that through the years. She is so stressed out making her records and she loves to showing up and saying ‘tell me what to do, I’ll do whatever you want’.”



It’s a very attractive way to create, or define, a benign dictatorship.


“It is, it is a pretty benign dictatorship,” he accepts. “Like I’ve realised through the years that a band kinda has to be that to a certain degree. It’s very hard to bring a bunch of people together and have them be completely equal because the fact is not everybody should be equal. The fact that I write these songs, that gives me some power. I’ve realised that you kinda have to take charge even if you don’t want to be the later. Even if you want everything to be spread out and just a Greek style democracy, that doesn’t work really well. Somebody has to be the leader.”


It’s worth remembering at this point that Greek style democracy did not give everybody a vote: women and drummers, for a start, weren’t getting a share of that representative action.


“I read a really great interview with [Wilco’s] Jeff Tweedy and he was saying how he has regrets from Wilco in the past, in that he didn’t want to be the leader and sometimes when you do want to be the leader bad things can happen because nobody took charge. So our band is a kind of benign dictatorship, and luckily I haven’t turned it into a weird cult. Yet,” Newman says. “I think I’m a pretty decent person about things. But at the heart of it, it’s true that if there was a fundamental disagreement on the song yeah, I’m gonna take in everybody’s opinion and try to be very fair, and try and weigh my opinion versus theirs, but in the end, you whatever I say is probably what’s going to go. Even if it’s me giving in. Even if it’s me, going you’re right, we’ll do it your way.”


That’s fine until you start making bad calls. Generally speaking though, Newman has not made bad calls.


“I really think that is the game. The toughest thing through the year is knowing when to listen to yourself. Through your career you will make the wrong call, and when you listen to somebody else instead of yourself and you realise it was wrong, that is the worst feeling. When you realise that you let somebody else make a bad call for you, that’s terrible. I kind of prefer just screwing it up myself. Then I can own it.”



History tells us – at least with art, if not necessarily great social movements or wars – that mistakes and bad calls can lead to good, or at least interesting art.


“I have to remember that yeah, it’s okay to be strange and wrong. I thought about that when we were making this record because I was doing a lot of the engineering myself, and I don’t consider myself an engineer: I was just taking my way through it. But at the heart of it I would just listen to it and think, that sounds good. I don’t know what I did but I like the way it sounds so I’m going to trust my instinct and run with it.”


As they used to say in the ancient days of computers, garbage in/garbage out, quality in/quality out. One of the decisions that a benign dictator has to make is who are the best, or who has the best ideas, to pull in. You want the best complementary people. So if you’re going to bring in a Neko Case or a Dan Bejar there is no point if you’re not going to hear what they want to do and give them space to be who they are.


“It’s great to have that kind of relationship with somebody. When I think of myself and John Collins and Dan Bejar in the studio together, we would have these heated arguments that somehow never got angry. When you’re friends and you’ve known each other for a long time, you can just start arguing and saying ‘are you on fucking crack? What are you talking about?’ and have friendly heated arguments.


“It takes a while to get there. You don’t have that many friends that you can have really friendly heated arguments with, when nothing gets personal.”


Oh sure, as we say in my family all the time, it’s all fun and games saying “are you on crack?”, until somebody answers yes.


“Yes, exactly. It hasn’t happened …,” Newman pauses to consider this definite answer. “Ah, who knows? Maybe they are still stewing about it. Maybe they are like, ‘I can’t believe Carl made that crack about crack when he knew I was on crack’.”



Continue As A Guest is out now.


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