A.C. Newman of The New Pornographers looks back on his history with SXSW

Canadian indie rock legends, The New Pornographers, were back in Austin for SXSW recently and we were lucky enough to get some time with vocalist and guitarist, Carl ‘A.C.’ Newman. No strangers to the chaos of SXSW, Newman reflects on his previous visits to the city with the band and the development of their music right through to 2017’s Whiteout Conditions, due for release this April.

Welcome back to SXSW. We were just saying how this is the annual reunion for the music industry in many ways, and the international music industry. How many times have you been down here now?

I don’t know. Probably six or seven. If you can believe this, one year I just came for what the hell.

You’re having a bit of FOMO.

I was actually going through a breakup and I thought, “Why don’t I just come here for a week?” and stayed at a friend’s house. It’s hard to do the whole SXSW when you have nothing to do except hang out, but we had some amazing times here. On our first record, we came here in 2001.

Different festival back then, I imagine.

don’t know if it was. It feels the same to me. It feels very similar. A few venues have changed. We got to play a song with Ray Davies, which was pretty crazy.

That’s really amazing. I saw him at my first SXSW as well.

That was sort of mind-blowing because the first SXSW happened four months after our record came out, approximately. It happened right at the point when we were just beginning to get attention, so that whole period just felt like total going from zero to hero. It was like, six months ago, we couldn’t get arrested. We were completely unknown. Then all of a sudden, we were here in SXSW and playing this packed showcase, and Ray Davies is singing a song with us and we’re getting rave reviews from  Rolling Stone and Spin or whatever and Pitchfork. It just seemed like, “Shit, it just felt like everything’s changed.” I was sort of in a daze.

Was this an indication at the time, coming to SXSW and having those things happen, it was sort of the tangible realisation of things articulating in that way?

Yeah, because I think I’d been here a couple times before, and I thought I knew SXSW very well. I told all the other band members, “Don’t expect to be discovered down here. Don’t expect there to be a tonne of people at your showcase. There’s a million bands here. Just have fun.” Then we came, and it turned out that we were one of the buzz bands. Because every year, you want to be one of the buzz bands. There’s probably about 50 every year. That was a cool time. I think we’ve only come here maybe a couple times since then.

How does it compare 15 or so years later?

Feels the same.

Just got a few more albums under your belt now.

Yeah. People talk about how it’s changed. In some ways, it’s got worse, but in some ways it’s gotten better. The vibe of it, I think. I feel like more music is covered now than it used to be. Can’t walk around. Anything that’s really good, you can’t get into. You make a list of all the bands you want to see and then you show up and go, “Oh, five hour lineup. Okay, I guess I’m not doing this.” Ultimately, you just find a place where there’s free drinks.

The one thing I remember, the first time you come here, you’re really psyched that you can get free beer everywhere. Then after a while, you’re just like, “No, I want better stuff. I don’t want shitty beer. I want well [made] drinks.”

I don’t mind paying five bucks for a beer. Sometimes you have to line up for an hour for a free drink and you go, “You know what, my hour is worth $10. I will pay that just to not line up for an hour.”

It’s all about just doing some research and going, “Okay, this thing I’m going to, will there be free well drinks?” Then go, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

Do I get to go to the green room? Same way I feel about every festival. What’s the backstage like? That’s how I measure the good festivals. If it’s got a good backstage, it’s a great festival.

What’s the best backstage?

Coachella. Definitely Coachella. Sasquatch has a really good vibe. It’s in Washington state.

Yeah, beautiful location.

There’s a few others; Lollapalooza is a very cool one.

I remember I got a massage backstage during Tame Impala, and it was quite magical.

Oh, awesome.

So we’re here to talk about your new record, which I’ve heard, but most people have not. I absolutely loved it. No surprise there. I’m not just saying this, but I think it’s your best since Twin Cinema. I absolutely love it. I was surprised because it’s a bit different Dan’s not involved, and a few other things…

Yeah. First off, nothing on the record, it wasn’t anything weird.

No, it didn’t feel weird. Not as a listener anyway.

No, he was doing Destroyer, and I was basically telling him the kind of record I wanted to make. I think I described it to him as bubblegum kraut rock. I was saying how I wanted it to have a very sort of repulsive thing. Then he was saying that all the songs he was writing were really mellow. I think his words were, “Hey, if I had a “Myriad Harbour” or a “War on the East Coast” to give you, I’d give it to you.” He was doing Destroyer. I thought, “That’s a drag.” But then I thought I’ll just look at it as sort of an opportunity to try and make as concise and cohesive record as possible.

Dan obviously had a great part of all those records, but it was also something that sort of made the records a little bit more disjointed. Because you’re trying to sequence a record and go, “How am I going to fit his songs in with mine?” When you’re making albums, you’re always thinking, “Okay, where is this going to fit?” You’re trying to make it cohesive, but you’ve got these three curveballs in there. They’re like, “Okay, where we going to put them?”

The one thing I had to remind myself, this record wouldn’t be that much different if he was on it. It would just be this album plus three more dance songs. Like I’ve said before, if you want to make that album, you could probably just take this album and insert three songs from the next Destroyer record, and there you’ve got it. Then you have your dream Pornographers record.

That is something I was going to say. It felt more cohesive than any record I’ve heard from you, maybe since even your debut.

I think it was a real attempt; if something didn’t have the vibe, I’d start playing a song, and if it didn’t sound like it had the vibe…even if I liked it, even if it there was something I thought was great about the melody, I thought, “No, it doesn’t belong.” There was actually even a dance song that we started for this record, and ultimately we just thought it didn’t quite belong.

Then I thought it’d be weird if it’s only one song by him. We just ended up not using it. It’s cool. We were just in Vancouver, and it’s cool to hang out with him. It’s just been the nature of our band. From the beginning, we’ve never known it was going to happen. He might be on the next record. I don’t know. It’s been like that for 15 years now.

Not quite a revolving door, but certainly a transient guest space.

A month after Mass Romantic came out, Dan moved to Spain. I remember thinking, “Well, I guess he’s out of the band.” Then he came back and it’s like, “Oh, I guess you’re back in.” Back then, he never toured with us. Then of course, half the time we don’t play with Neko, because Neko’s busy and Kathryn and our new member Simi take over female vocals. It’s just been the nature of the band. Some people might look at it as a total weakness. I think it’s also a strength.

Who’s going to show up?

That’s why sometimes I feel like if Dan was ever going to play another show with us, I wouldn’t announce it. It would just be a present for the people that came.

Or even to the point where it’s like, it’s so normal that it’s just, “Yeah, he’s always here. What are you talking about?” How has the collaboration between the group changed over the years? Does it still feel like it did in the early days when you sit down and work?

A lot of it’s always been me and John Collins, who’s done a lot of production and engineering stuff.

Did he for this record as well?

Yeah, and for all the records. There’s only two records where I wouldn’t call him the producer. Me and him co-produced this new one. There’s always been that sort of back and forth between us. It’s always been a lot of me and him just in the studio just sort of messing around and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. A cool thing about this record was Kathryn has a home studio, because her husband is a producer. He produced the first couple Black Mountain records.

He’s done a bunch of other stuff, but I think those first two Black Mountains are the things that gave him his name. She’s got this full studio there. On this record, I would just call her up. I’d send her something and say, “Hey, just do something. Do some cool vocals here.” A day or two later, she’d send me something back and I’d think, “Oh, this is cool.”

I realised we could do stuff long-distance. I don’t have to be in the room. I don’t have to fly to her when she’s doing vocals and she doesn’t have to fly to me. I can tell her what to do. I can send her a guide track and just send it as an MP3, and she can do a take. If I don’t like it, I’ll just call her up and say, “Could you do it again?” Then a few hours later, I’ll get another one sent to me, and I’ll go, “Yeah, that’s it.” That was a cool part of it. That makes it a lot easier.

This record was interesting because I’ve never been much of an engineer or anything, but I got my home studio up and running, and been using Digital Performer. This is the first record where I said, “I’m co-producer.” I always did things that were sort of producer, but I thought, no, you’re the engineer and the producer. This is the first time where I thought, “Man.” There was a lot of things on this record where I think, “I full-on produced that.” That was fun for me.

Also, on this record, for me something that’s different was we wanted it to be really driving and we wanted to use drones. We wanted to have things just drone through the whole song, and when you’re doing that, you can’t have many chord changes, so a lot of the songs are just built around three or four chords.

To me, that was interesting to see where you can move within those chords. A song like “This is the World of the Theatre” has five sections, but it’s only essentially three or four chords. Yeah, that song is basically based on one chord progression that’s two chords and another chord progression that’s three chords. This was fun, just to try and do something that just starts and goes all the way to the end, very few left turns.

You’re hitting the road and on tour with Waxahatchee?

 

Yeah, yeah. Should be cool. I feel totally lucky we got them, because trying to find an opening band, it’s a weird thing because it has to be that weird middle area. Sometimes if we pick a band that’s completely obscure, all the promoters and the booking agents and everything are going like, “Nah, we want you to bring a band along that’s sort of a draw. We don’t need to bring a complete unknown band.”

Sometimes you go to a band you like and you realise, “Oh, they’re too popular.” You go through all the bands you love and it’s like they’re too popular to play with us. Waxahatchee was just in that sort of sweet spot where I was kind of shocked we got them. It was like, “Wow, that’s cool.”

Any plans to come back to Australia? I think the last time I saw you down there was 2010. I don’t know if you’ve been back since.

I’d like to. To a certain degree, it’s not up to us. I’m not footing the bill for it. I’d love to do it. I think we’ve done it three times and the second time, my wife came with us, which was cool. She was so jealous the first time we went to Australia.

At one of those animal preserves, I think it was outside of Adelaide, I sent her a photo of me with a koala, and she was just mad at me. She was so jealous, she couldn’t even be happy. So she was like, “Next time you go to Australia I’m going with you.” Then she finally got her picture with a koala, and we had it framed in our house, and that was the happiest moment of her life.