A New Pornographer in Town

Photo: Brian Hineline/Retna

It’s two o’clock on a humid Friday afternoon, and Carl Newman—better known as A.C. Newman, ultraredheaded lead singer of power- pop outfit the New Pornographers—is sitting in Ozzie’s, the sprawling Park Slope coffee shop. He’s sipping an iced latte and reading The Onion, and he doesn’t seem at all unnerved by the fact that by this time tomorrow, he’ll be married.

This isn’t some City Hall affair, either. The celebration, as Newman calmly notes, “is kind of ambitious.” His fiancée will walk down the aisle of the Brooklyn Heights First Unitarian Church to the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason.” Then the two-part reception, at library-bar Union Hall, begins: His bandmate Neko Case will “play quietly” (“she’s doing it for an extreme pay cut”) before the wedding band, indie duo the Mates of State, start the party in earnest. (Newman’s main task today: picking up their drums and amp.) “It’s all very happy—we got our first choices for everything,” he says, though, strangely, he doesn’t quite seem convinced.

By all accounts, Newman should be the happiest guy in Brooklyn, or at least the happiest Canadian transplant. He’s the front man of what’s most often referred to as a “supergroup,” a collective that since 1997 has been making some of the most purely enjoyable pop-rock music around—and that has always seemed like one big happy family. New Pornographers songs, which are usually Newman creations, intricately weave the reckless, get-up-and-dance verve of rock with carefully layered, lushly harmonized vocals—they’re how the Mamas and the Papas, with a shot of Prozac and in a considerably better studio, might sound 40 years later. Newman himself has a slightly raspy voice that seems delicate one moment, eager the next; along with indie pinup Case and the wry, playfully sinister Dan Bejar (of Destroyer), he’s one of the band’s three main vocalists, all of whom are bona fide stars with acclaimed side solo careers.

Moreover, this Tuesday, the band is releasing Challengers, their fourth album, and amid all the usual hypermelodic, head-bopping sounds, there’s one noticeable change from past Pornographers CDs: a few gorgeous outright love songs. Which brings us back to that wedding. After two years of a somewhat on-the-run courtship, Newman’s marrying Christy Simpson, a project manager at his band’s label, Matador.

“I have this mantra before every show: ‘No one’s going to be there, and everybody hates us!’”

The two met when both were at the tail end of other relationships. “We were very proper about it,” Newman quickly points out. “We didn’t do anything at all together until we were both single; we just kept it a long-distance crush.” The rest, as he says, was simple. “We just started, like, hanging out. Realized we really liked each other. And I ended up here in New York.”

Sounds great. So why isn’t Newman grinning from ear to ear? “One song on our first record says, ‘Visualize success, but don’t believe your eyes,’” he says, “and I always thought that was such a portentous line. But it’s very true—you do your best, but prepare for the worst.”

Newman insists he’s not pessimistic (“maybe it’s just realistic”), but as he sits sipping coffee, with a vaguely wary look in his clear blue eyes, he’s certainly a paradox: The guy who seems happy-go-lucky onstage, who founded an acclaimed band, got the girl, moved to his dream city (“I’m such a fanboy of New York, I think I’m beginning to annoy my family”), and still doesn’t quite believe it’s all for keeps. He cops to constantly comparing the Pornographers with other bands and feeling “bummed out” when his own sounds different. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, that Spoon album is awesome…’” he says. “You know, you sound like yourself. What can you do.”

Starting out, Newman certainly wasn’t visualizing success, at least not on any grand scale: When he formed the New Pornographers in Vancouver, he says, “I didn’t really have any plans for world domination; I just wanted to have an interesting band with friends.” It was three and a half years before they finished a record, at which point, Newman says, “people were teasing us: ‘Hey, where are the New Pornographers? When are they actually going to do something?’ So yeah, we got our revenge on those people.”

But now, he adds, “I’m always convinced it’s going to disappear before my eyes. Blaine [Thurier, the keyboardist] and I have this mantra before every show, our preshow cheer: ‘No one’s going to be there, and everybody hates us!’” He gives a short laugh. “It’s gotta fall apart eventually!”

Lately, Newman isn’t the only one anticipating the New Pornographers’ demise. Over the past few years, Case has performed with the band less and less frequently and Bejar barely at all, inviting speculation that they’re slowly exiting the group (they’ll both tour for this record). But according to Newman, this is merely business as usual. “We started off as a kind of part-time band, and it’s still kind of…part-time. We’ll never be one of those bands that play 200 shows a year.” And though he’s been in Brooklyn a year, he insists it hasn’t affected the band dynamic (most members live around Vancouver). “There are bands that hate, or just tolerate, each other. But it’s nice—a lot of my bandmates are coming to my wedding, and I don’t see them that much, so it’s cool.”

The New Pornographers, with A.C. Newman in the V-neck sweater.Photo: Marina Chavez/Courtesy of Matador Records

Newman says he immediately felt more at home here than he ever did in Vancouver. He’s particularly excited about joining the local music scene—much more so, it seems, than he was about belonging to the Great Canadian Band Invasion. Though he calls groups like Arcade Fire a source of “patriotic pride,” he looks forward to hanging out more with the Hold Steady, whom he calls “lovable, well-read, thirtysomething semi-alcoholics.” Their singer, Craig Finn, recently described the New Pornographers in a way Newman appreciated. “He was talking about our song ‘Sing Me Spanish Techno,’” Newman says, referring to the raucous, semi-nonsensical hit from their last album. “He liked it because, he said, ‘It’s a song where you don’t know what he’s singing about, but you know you feel the exact same way.’”

But if there is a song that sums up Newman’s mood these days, it might be one of those new love songs, the spare “Go Places.” It’s about Newman’s love, yes, but it’s sung by Case. “No one needs to hear another guy sing about a girl,” he says. “I just thought her voice would give it a little more power than my weak-ass voice.” Newman was initially hesitant even to include his new wife’s name in “Go Places,” but he’s clearly pleased he decided to do so, even puffing up a bit. “Actually, our producer had to commend me at one point. He said, ‘That’s pretty gutsy. That’s a gutsy song.’ ”

And what does “Go Places” say? “It’s a kind of ‘I’m ready’” song, says Newman. “I’m happy right now, but I’m ready for whatever sadness the world throws at us.” Though maybe, just maybe, his two new loves (New York among them), will keep that sadness at bay. “Every time I see some young, geeky red-haired guy, I want to single him out in the crowd and go, ‘You too can have this life!’” Newman says. “It’s not that difficult.”

A New Pornographer in Town